Thursday, October 24, 2013


CREEPSHOW (George A. Romero, 1982)

In sports it’s said that you play the game because having the best team on paper doesn’t guarantee wins.  Adapting the truism for movies, you watch a film because there’s no certainty the end product will be artistically successful no matter how good the assembled talent is.  CREEPSHOW boasts the director of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD and a screenplay by one of the most popular contemporary horror writers.  George A. Romero and Stephen King’s key roles seemingly assure spooky fun, but the anthology film turns out to be a mediocre effort short on scares and laughs.

CREEPSHOW plays up its 1950s horror comic book inspiration by occasionally setting action within printed frames, including captions, and utilizing page turn and panel wipe transitions.  In the prologue an angry father throws away his son’s horror comic, an action which he suffers for in the epilogue. The film’s five scary and comedic tales ostensibly come from the pages of this disreputable book.

In “Father’s Day” a family awaits the annual arrival of a relative who always visits her dad’s grave on the holiday when she murdered him.  “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” features the titular hillbilly (King) discovering that he shouldn’t have touched the meteor that landed on his property.  In “Something To Tide You Over” a vengeful husband (Leslie Nielsen) buries his wife (Gaylen Ross) and her lover (Ted Danson) up to their heads on the shore.  Unleashing the terrifying contents of a hidden box from an 1834 Arctic expedition has benefits and drawbacks for two college professors (Hal Holbrook and Fritz Weaver) in “The Crate”.  A ruthless businessman (E.G. Marshall) tries to eradicate the roaches invading his futuristic, supposedly germ-free penthouse in “They’re Creeping Up On You!”

Inevitably some segments will be better than others in omnibus films, but CREEPSHOW stacks the worst entries at the beginning. “Father’s Day” is essentially a long set-up for a gory punchline.  “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” has a couple amusing touches, like the character’s belief that the local college has a Department of Meteors to purchase his find and a suitably sick conclusion, yet King’s hammy performance obstructs any semblance of terror in the scenario.  Although “Something To Tide You Over” marks a shift toward striking the right balance between fear and dark humor, especially with shots that convey the drowning sensation, it’s padded with unmenacing scenes.

It’s not until “The Crate” that CREEPSHOW finally begins to deliver on the promise of its primary creative forces.  One professor’s fantasies of killing his vulgar wife (Adrienne Barbeau) lack comedic or horrific surprise, but there is a satisfyingly grisly death when a graduate student gets a chunk bitten out of his neck by the hideous monster.  Romero also sustains tension from the simple act of slowly trying to lock a crate.  The segment dallies in the beginning but works overall as a thematic exploration of the darkness that lurks in the hearts of men.  

CREEPSHOW largely avoids the broader social concerns in Romero’s other films until “They’re Creeping Up On You!”  The story is built around a cutthroat executive whose wealth allows him to be literally sealed off from society, which isn’t exactly subtle but makes the point effectively nonetheless.  More than the other entries, it taps into consistent creepiness by virtue of those nasty bugs, especially in the punctuating gross-out images.  

Although the humor in CREEPSHOW often falls flat, the film’s light touch with horror offsets some of the narrative tedium and predictability.  Two good stories out of five produces the kind of success rate acceptable for baseball batting averages, not movies.  A Romero and King collaboration had potential, but CREEPSHOW is about as frightening as a Halloween sound effects record.

Grade: C

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


CARRIE (Kimberly Peirce, 2013)

Remaking a film recognized as a genre classic is a tall order for any filmmaker. Although director Kimberly Peirce doesn’t take the shot-for-shot approach for her adaptation of CARRIE, her version is remarkably loyal to Brian De Palma’s 1976 film. Consider it a kind of cinematic karaoke, in which the basic track and lyrics are provided but room for individual interpretation remains.  De Palma got first crack at the Stephen King novel and made his CARRIE in the key of Alfred Hitchcock.  Peirce bases her cover on De Palma’s composition.  While the similarities are hard to deny, the variations construct a conversation between the works a la Liz Phair’s EXILE IN GUYVILLE responding to The Rolling Stones’ EXILE ON MAIN STREET

A new opening scene with Margaret White (Julianne Moore) giving birth to Carrie and choosing to spare her life marks one of the biggest differences.  The child’s origin is referenced later in the original CARRIE but not depicted within it.  This key departure makes plain the theme regarding fear and confusion about female sexuality.  It also suggests the possibility of the story being viewed from the mother’s perspective, although ultimately that is an avenue not taken.  Moore’s Margaret doesn’t get significantly more screen time than Piper Laurie did in the role, but the character’s arc is more empathetic in Moore’s portrayal even as it’s clear that this is a woman whose beliefs have caused her great anguish. 

The plot foundation is virtually the same between the two films.  Loathed by her high school classmates, Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz) becomes a larger object of derision when she reveals her ignorance regarding the changes to her body during adolescence. Rather than comforting her daughter after the traumatic episode in the locker room, Margaret doubles down on a message of religiously rooted guilt and bolts Carrie into a closet to contemplate her inherent sin.  Carrie rejects her mother’s warped philosophy as a source of strength.   She prefers to hone the telekinetic power within her.

Most of the other girls despise Carrie even more now that they are being reprimanded for viciously teasing her and threatened with suspension, including from the prom, if they don’t follow gym teacher Ms. Desjardin’s (Judy Greer) punishment regimen.  Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) regrets her behavior toward Carrie and decides to give up her time at the dance because of it.  She persuades her boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie instead. Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) refuses to do penance for her treatment of Carrie and, along with boyfriend Billy Nolan (Alex Russell), plots to give the shy girl a prom no one will ever forget. 

CARRIE’s examination of teenage cruelty gets updated with a humiliating smartphone video that circulates among the student body, but for all of the potential to illustrate how technology can make an ostracized kid more vulnerable to peer abuse, Peirce’s film doesn’t convey the violation and torment associated with being perceived school-wide as a laughingstock.  Aside from the shower scene, which clashes with the rest of the character’s conception, Moretz’s Carrie seems wise and in control from the get-go. She’s not a meek girl discovering her development but a mostly self-assured young woman who learns to channel her strength, which is a major departure compared to Sissy Spacek’s performance in De Palma’s film.  While Peirce and Moretz are welcome to this put this spin on Carrie, it undermines the protagonist’s trajectory. 

Peirce and screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa are indebted to Lawrence D. Cohen’s screenplay but make justifiable minor tweaks.  The film benefits from giving Sue a slightly larger role.  Clarifying her motivation and having Tommy defend Carrie in an English class rather than the reverse adds poignancy to the inevitable tragedy.  Ms. Desjardin gets a fairer shake this time around than her analogue did.  Unfortunately the indistinct extreme Christian fundamentalism remains as much of a caricature in the new CARRIE as it was previously.  Taken on its own terms Peirce’s CARRIE holds its own as a coming-of-age drama even as some of the changes weaken the payoffs.

Grade: C+

Monday, October 14, 2013

Captain Phillips

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (Paul Greengrass, 2013)

Based on the true story of a container ship hijacked by Somali pirates in April 2009, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS follows Tom Hanks as the title character as he strives to protect his crew and stay alive through the ordeal.  Vermont-based Richard Phillips picks up the Maersk Alabama in a port in Oman and is en route to Kenya when he spots two boats he suspects are being driven by pirates.  Although he is able to outrun them on the first attempt, another skiff returns the next day with four men who succeed in taking control of the cargo ship.

Their leader is Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a reed of a man who makes a living ransoming ships and their crews for a local warlord.  He promises that no harm will come to the men on the ship as long as everyone follows his orders.  They just want to get paid.  The captain does what he can to stall Muse and his team, but despite the best efforts of Phillips and his crew, the standoff ends with him in the lifeboat with the four pirates as their hostage.  From there the race is on whether the U.S. Navy can intercept them and safely extract Phillips before the pirates reach Somalia’s coast.

Even with the foreknowledge that the hero is delivered from danger, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS plays out as an expert action thriller.  Director Paul Greengrass’ filmography includes the process movies BLOODY SUNDAY and UNITED 93, which use documentary techniques to reveal how real-life events unfolded, and two installments in the BOURNE series.  In CAPTAIN PHILLIPS he combines his skills for authentically recreating historical episodes and investing plot with the awe and breathless excitement of Hollywood suspense and action spectacles.  Regardless of news accounts and Phillips’ book, these endeavors seem barely believable, yet Greengrass stages the hijacking and rescue as convincing evidence of military and technological might..

In his best performance in nearly a decade Hanks disappears into the role of a man thrust into an extraordinary survival situation.  He plays Phillips as always being strategic yet not inhumanly clever considering the circumstances confronting him.  Hanks showcases the character’s tactical flexibility as an extension of the attention to detail his job demands of him.  In this situation he applies emotional aptitude with mechanical calculations.  Hanks seals a terrific performance with a devastating final scene.  His post-stress breakdown highlights his technical ability as an actor, but more impressively, his loss of control conveys the raw feeling triggered in this experience.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS screenwriter Billy Ray isn’t shy about drawing an equivalency between the American and Somalian captains to reflect on the world economy.  By no means is the film an apologia for hijacking ships, but it asks viewers to consider the financial ecosystem that brings Phillips and Muse together.  The pirate’s decisions are not justified, yet Muse is acting in accordance with the opportunities he has.  Both men are offered jobs and accept them.  One has the advantage of not needing to employ illegal and immoral means to scrape by, but with a shrinking globe, the two become more likely to cross paths.  

Grade: A

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka kara)


“Was ist das Leben ohne Liebesglanz?”, a quotation from Friedrich Schiller’s WALLENSTEIN’S TOD, is scribbled on a clubhouse wall in the foreground of a late scene in FROM UP ON POPPY HILL (KOKURIKO-ZAKA KARA).  The passage translates as “What is life without the light of love?”  Although the rhetorical question goes uninterpreted on-screen, the sentiment within it informs every moment of the animated romantic drama.  

Each morning outside her family’s hilltop boarding house Umi Matsuzaki (Masami Nagasawa) raises signal flags in memory of her father, a captain whose supply ship sank during the Korean War.  The high school junior’s messages aren’t intended for any of the boats in the harbor, but someone passing by on a tugboat notices and publishes a poem about Umi’s daily ritual in the school newspaper.  Needing to devote time outside of classes to maintaining the home for her siblings and lodgers, especially with her mother studying abroad, Umi isn’t used to having attention directed her way.  

To her surprise she begins bonding with classmate Shun Kazama (Jun’ichi Okada), who helps run the school paper.  At first she’s unimpressed with the stunt he pulls to draw attention to the pending demolition of the Latin Quarter clubhouse, but his respect for the past impresses her.  In 1963 Japan they stand in opposition to a cultural movement that seeks to move forward by ignoring history and, in some instances, tearing it down in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics.  Umi and Shun spearhead a plan to rally their fellow students to clean up the clubhouse and reveal the dusty, creaky building as a beautiful place worth preserving.

Love is eternal in FROM UP ON POPPY HILL.  It is represented not only in the attraction two people feel when together but also through a gesture intended for someone who has passed.  Love is progress that honors history and nature rather than spreading destruction in the name of advancement.  Dealing with themes familiar in the work of his father Hayao Miyazaki, who co-writes with Keiko Niwa, director Goro Miyazaki guides a sweet and delicate coming of age tale for the main characters and their country after World War II.  

The sweep of vintage melodrama is well-suited for the volatile feelings stirred up in teenage romance and a time of national transition, yet for all of the strong emotions elicited in FROM UP ON POPPY HILL, it adopts a determinedly practical mindset about confronting the plot’s obstacles.  Rather than minimizing the stakes, this logical approach enhances the potential tragedy in personal and cultural changes.

FROM UP ON POPPY HILL’s gorgeous animation is devoted to bringing out the subtlety in interactions instead of imagining elaborate setpieces.  Slight variations in expressions carry and expand the emotional current in a manner more associated with live-action films.  Miyazaki’s ability to coax such understated performances out of the drawings and voice acting stands as the film’s major achievement.  

Grade: A

(FROM UP ON POPPY HILL is now available in a Blu-ray and DVD combo pack that includes the original Japanese-language track and an English-language dub.)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Spectacular Now

THE SPECTACULAR NOW (James Ponsoldt, 2013)

The Ryan Adams song “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is to Be High)” sums up THE SPECTACULAR NOW’s Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), although he’d probably deny that he feels all that down about anything.  Sure, he’s upset when his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) breaks up with him, but their relationship remains on generally friendly terms, keeping him confident of their eventual reconciliation.  Why wouldn’t she come back to him?  He’s the life of the party, and together they are the fun, beautiful couple to be admired at their Georgia high school.  As for being high, Sutter drinks a lot, but it isn’t something he views as a problem.  It’s what teenagers do.

After a particularly intense night of imbibing Sutter wakes up on the front lawn of fellow senior Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) with no idea where his car is.  She gives him a ride, he helps out with her newspaper deliveries, and they make plans to meet for lunch one day at school.  Initially Sutter shrugs off their socializing as a favor he’s doing for a nice girl who is tutoring him in geometry.  The unassuming Aimee has never had a boyfriend and focuses her energies on academics and helping her mom pay the bills, but as they spend time together, they form a close bond despite their differences in personalities and priorities.

Sutter is a figure familiar to anyone who is or ever been in high school.  He’s in his element there and, like Simon Pegg’s character at the start of THE WORLD’S END, wants to stay forever partying with his friends.  Teller’s finely shaded portrayal shows that there’s more to Sutter than the gregarious and unserious guy that most people see. Acting with swagger, Sutter can appear like a player and a goof, but Teller also hints at the wounded spirit he’s hiding.  His commitment to being a failure becomes all the more tragic when the genuine self he bares to Aimee proves that he can be better than he’s permitting himself to be.

While Aimee is good for Sutter, he may a bad influence on her.  Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s screenplay, adapted from Tim Tharp’s novel, manages the tricky balancing act of creating a relationship that encourages a rooting interest and an awareness that it may be causing more harm than providing benefits.  Woodley is marvelous at conveying Aimee’s intellect and shyness while always feeling in control of the risks she takes.  Although Aimee is better adjusted than Sutter, she is also limited by the perceptions of herself she carries around in her head.  Woodley seems effortless in discovering who Aimee realizes she can be while not giving up her interests and dreams to keep the first boy to flatter her.

Director James Ponsoldt lets key scenes between Sutter and Aimee play out in wide shots and long-ish takes that do wonders for showcasing the chemistry developing between them.  The conversation leading to their first kiss and their sex scene advance with tenderness and humor, heightening the real connection of two kids on the verge of adulthood enjoying these moments in time and fumbling toward the future.  Their path is funny and painful and ever so believable.  With its sharp insights into teenage insecurities and relationships, THE SPECTACULAR NOW reveals itself as an instant coming of age classic.  

Grade: A

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Kick-Ass 2

KICK-ASS 2 (Jeff Wadlow, 2013)

In KICK-ASS 2 a member of the supervillain’s posse slaughters a bunch of New York City policemen with increasingly violent methods for comedic effect.  Granted, the perpetrator is on the side of all that is bad, but the scene is undoubtedly meant to be funny.  Clearly we’re well past the time of post-9/11 sensitivity when The Strokes pulled a song from their debut album because of a third-person observation in the chorus about the NYC cops not being very smart.  That’s not to say that the men and women in blue get a lifetime pass for how they’re presented in art, but in this particular context, the glee with which they’re murdered and the positive audience identification with the killer is troublesome, to say the least.

KICK-ASS 2 doesn’t put forth mixed messages so much as it extols vigilanteism and revenge and then, after the climactic battle, tries to paper over the ugly sentiments with lip service about proper conduct.  Lest there be any uncertainty about where the film stands in its conflicting statements, the pretense of responsibility is ripped away in the final scene.  KICK-ASS 2 warns to do as it says, not as it does.  Then it distributes firearms, body armor, and a costume with an encouraging slap on the back.  

The sequel picks up with high school senior Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) having hung up his superhero uniform, but he can’t resist playing the hero again when he sees ordinary citizens following in the trail he blazed as Kick-Ass.  He begins getting back into crime-fighting shape under the rigorous training of freshman Mindy Macready (Chloë Grace Moretz), otherwise known as Hit-Girl, with the intention of them becoming a dynamic duo.  Plans for their alliance come to an end when her guardian, Detective Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut), insists that she devote her after school activities to traditional socializing rather than meting out street justice.

While Mindy struggles to fit into the in crowd, Dave finds a group of like-minded civilians who want to join forces to clean up the Big Apple.  Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), a former mob enforcer turned born-again Christian with little tolerance for foul language, leads their so-called community service efforts.  Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) still seethes over Kick-Ass blasting his criminal father with a bazooka, so when he notices that Kick-Ass has resurfaced, he dons his mother’s fetish gear and dubs himself with an Oedipal, family publication-unfriendly name to refashion himself as the first supervillain with an accompanying crew of brutes.

Like its deluded, self-professed champions of public safety, KICK-ASS 2 fancies itself as something more admirable than it is.  How unsurprising for a film that stages a rape scene that uses framing and editing to empathize with the attacker even though the moment is ultimately played for laughs at his expense.  Rather than initiating a subversive conversation on superheroes and those who wish they could become them, KICK-ASS 2 indulges the worst power fantasies while also getting off on sociopathic behavior.

Grade: D+

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Upstream Color

UPSTREAM COLOR (Shane Carruth, 2013)

Fundamentally UPSTREAM COLOR relates to the indescribable attraction that brings two people together and the wounds and common ground in their history, but storywise it’s a whole lot more complicated and bizarre than that. A man referred to as The Thief (Thiago Martins) harvests a worm that he puts in a capsule and forcibly gives to Kris (Amy Seimetz). He uses the worm to control her mind and takes her for all she’s worth. After he’s done with her, a man called The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) comes along to remove the worm and implant it in a pig.  A post-procedure Kris discovers her life in ruins but eventually finds and is drawn to Jeff (Shane Carruth), who may have endured a similar situation.

Although the surrealist and naturalistic influences place UPSTREAM COLOR at the intersection of David Lynch and Terrence Malick, Carruth’s weird poetry of sound and images belongs to his distinct vision. The plot particulars are often indirect and opaque, yet the film is never less than mesmerizing or comprehensible because of its impeccable sculpture. By crosscutting sonic tones and matching visuals, Carruth points out the connections surrounding and linking us regardless of if they are perceived or not. Whether the chains come in the form of looped paper, crocheted yarn, human relationships, or the natural cycle, UPSTREAM COLOR functions like a microscope through which these bonds are acknowledged and examined.

Cracking the narrative code was a great source of gratification in PRIMER, Carruth’s previous brain-busting film, but to get twisted up in what UPSTREAM COLOR means is to miss its deeper pleasures. Here the complexity and strangeness work toward conjuring the ineffable to elicit emotional responses. For such an abstract film, it offers a tactile viewing experience. It’s about texture rather than text, and the sound design, ambient score, and cinematography enhance the senses to lead to an instinctual understanding of UPSTREAM COLOR’s essence.

This description likely makes UPSTREAM COLOR sound like a cold, intellectual, and impenetrable exercise, which couldn’t be farther from the experience of it. This film is felt more than comprehended. The odd and disorienting science fiction surfaces allow for the emotional undercurrents to break through more easily. Seimetz’s remarkable physical performance contains the pain and anger that come with injury, the wariness of trusting anew, and the ecstasy of love. An entire inner life is made familiar through her.

With UPSTREAM COLOR Carruth employs a novel and thrilling strategy for studying the inexplicable bonds that pull and hold people together, the shared joys and concerns that transform us as individuals and couples, and the past hurts that need to be absorbed into our identities rather than removed or disregarded.

Grade: A

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Frances Ha

FRANCES HA (Noah Baumbach, 2012)

A judgmental person would probably tell directionless 27-year-old Frances (Greta Gerwig) that she ought to get her act together, but she manages to get by even though she still hasn’t carved out much of a career or love life like her peers.  She seems generally happy--or at least puts on a brave face--about her apprenticeship at a New York City dance company and holds out hope that her break might be upcoming.  Any disappointment is easier to take knowing she has the support of her longtime best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner).  

The two pals in FRANCES HA are still on good terms when Sophie tells Frances she doesn’t want to renew the lease for their Brooklyn apartment because she can get into her dream place in Manhattan.  Frances can’t afford to move there, but she’s pleased Sophie has found what she wants.  Still, the change in living arrangements gradually causes Frances to examine what her life is, although reflection tends to come when a particular matter is most urgent, never earlier.

Co-written by Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach, FRANCES HA provides a sharp, fleet, and very funny look at female friendship and the acceptance of adult responsibilities.  Gerwig and Sumner are hilarious communicating in the kind of shorthand that develops between those exceptionally close and expressing the comfort between Frances and Sophie.  Whether it’s their conversational give-and-take or play-fighting, here are two friends who are utterly enchanted that they accept and understand one another on such a deep level.  Films tend to portray friendships, particularly female ones, in terms of competition or utility, but FRANCES HA depicts one that is formed out of equally supportive individuals.  Like any relationship, theirs will experience the occasional turbulence, but it’s easy to believe these two will still be tight decades down the line.  The joy and empathy between Frances and Sophie spill off the screen.      
Frances often makes bad but not fatal choices.  She’s perpetually gawky, yet Gerwig’s endearing performance conveys the character’s ease with herself and her mistakes, whether she’s putting her feet in her mouth at a dinner party or falling over them on the sidewalk.  Gerwig’s brilliant stroke is shaping the protagonist’s natural strangeness into something that is uniquely Frances.  She doesn’t exhibit false or manufactured quirkiness but captures the kind of weirdness that’s different for but specific to everyone. Behind her owl-like glasses as Sophie, Sumner makes for an excellent acidic complement to the sweet Frances.

Although each character in FRANCES HA comes from some level of economic privilege, money is something constantly at the forefront of Frances’ mind.  She isn’t completely broke but is highly conscious of what’s in (or absent from) her bank account. Baumbach uses the locations and space to remind of her financial reality, as being aware of one’s surroundings can be as indicative of status as checking one’s balance.

Sam Levy’s black-and-white cinematography and Jennifer Lame’s fragmented editing proudly display FRANCES HA’s French New Wave influences.  Stylistically Baumbach isn’t doing anything new, yet this character study packed with urbane wit feels foreign and thrilling in comparison to current trends in film comedy.  With a major assist from Gerwig, Baumbach’s droll examination of aimless adulthood also produces the director's most inviting film since 1995’s KICKING AND SCREAMING.   

Grade: A

Friday, April 19, 2013

Ebertfest 2013: Day 2

As I lingered under the Virginia Theatre’s marquee avoiding the cold rain before the first film of the day, I was approached by a man with a DSLR camera and asked if I would provide some thoughts for a documentary about Roger Ebert's Film Festival.  I hesitated because I sort of feel like I’ve said all I have to say about the festival and its namesake.  (Only three days of coverage remaining to churn out!)  I blogged a little about Ebert after learning of his passing, and I’ve been covering the festival for more years than it seems possible.  What words do I have left to string together on the subjects?  Eventually I agreed to go on camera and answer a few questions.  Badly, probably.  Editors, work your magic to spin gold from those rambling soundbites.

I’ll admit that it’s easy to lack something to say on this particular day.   I started writing this early Friday as developments in Boston competed for my attention.  Wild reports were beginning to surface about what sounded like a city turned upside down as the hunt for the marathon bombers continued.  And yes, it sounded like something out of an action movie, although more and more that comparison seems increasingly lazy.

The thing is, the film festival environment is largely a haven from all this sort of news.  Sure, I attempt to keep up with Twitter between movies, but that amounts to rapid scrolling through my feed.  Otherwise the theater--and it’s just one location at Ebertfest--is a virtual bubble, as is the community of people around it.  It’s not as though one can’t keep up with what’s going on in the larger world but that it’s nice to be in a self-contained space for a little while.  Isn’t that part of the appeal of the movies, to inhabit a mental landscape where the outside world disappears for a couple hours, even if what is on the screen relates strongly to reality.?

Thursday’s four films--three features and a short--kept the real world close at hand. The festival director’s daughter co-directed the short TO MUSIC, which included Ebertfest regular Paul Cox in a small role.  The theme of becoming absorbed in art, not as a way of shutting out but enhancing life, seems ever so applicable with what surrounds the festival this year.

I’ve not shared Ebert’s enthusiasm for Cox’s films, and when it became apparent that VINCENT: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF VINCENT VAN GOGH would be John Hurt reading the artist’s letters to his brother over experimental imagery, recreated period scenes, and footage of Van Gogh’s drawings and paintings, part of me despaired prematurely.  99 minutes of this?!  While some of the nature b-roll wasn’t evocative of anything in particular, tracking the artist’s development and interior life in such a manner turned out to be instructive.  Off the top of my head, I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like this mixture of biography and art history. Cox invites a new way of seeing Van Gogh’s work, whether through juxtaposition of the items and places that inspired what he put onto canvases or noting the gradual stylistic shifts.
Kevin B. Lee, In the Family's Patrick Wang and Trevor St. John, and Michael Barker
It’s impossible to watch Patrick Wang’s IN THE FAMILY and not be reminded of the consequences, sometimes unintended, that legislative and legal decisions have on common people, yet the film’s achievement is demonstrating in heartbreaking detail how the political is personal.  This could very easily have been a TV movie-of-the-week issues drama that backslaps viewers who share the “correct” point of view about gay rights as they pertain to marriage, visitation, and parenting.  Instead Wang is more interested in studying how good people behave when backed into corners they don’t expect to find themselves in.  Forget for a moment what the government or the law says is just.  What is the humane thing to do?

This was my second time seeing IN THE FAMILY, and I was struck again by how empathetic it is to all parties. In telling the story the way that he does Wang reveals a clear perspective on how such family struggles should be handled, but it never feels like he’s pushing an agenda.  The tension exists on an interpersonal level but lacks nastiness.  Blame is accepted on both sides.  It’s simply scared people reacting to protect what they feel needs preserving.

As writer, director, and star Wang gives the story and performances room to breathe. For the most part it’s a successful approach that deepens the connections even while a lot of the family history is inferred and implied.  Some scenes stretch out beyond their usefulness, but the length and deliberate unfolding of the plot are integral to the payoff in an extended deposition scene in the final act.
Bernie's Richard Linklater and Michael Barker with Jack Black by phone
Richard Linklater’s BERNIE capped the day with some much-needed laughs after the seriousness pervading all of the Ebertfest films to this point.   That’s an odd thing to say about a dark comedy about the real-life murder of an old woman but there it is.  Since I think I have tapped whatever words I had available for this write-up, I’ll point you to my review of BERNIE and try to refill for tomorrow.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Ebertfest 2013: Opening Night

Ultimately Opening Night at the fifteenth annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival was not markedly different from any of the twelve others I’ve attended.  Although he can no longer be there to prevail over the proceedings, in a sense the start of this year’s fest was the fulfillment of everything he worked toward with it.  The community that has sprung up around Ebertfest and his relationships with writers and filmmakers near and far took center stage.

Far-Flung Correspondent Grace Wang’s short film I REMEMBER opened the event. A brief video tribute to Ebert edited by Michael Mirasol, another FFC, featured various thumbs-up from the movies and the critic’s analogue from Roland Emmerich’s GODZILLA.  Four University of Illinois chorus members led a sing-along to “Those Were the Days” with lyrics Ebert customized for this night.  An Ebert-selected clip from CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT added cheerful and wistful notes reminding what the festival has given all who have been to it. One of the great films was projected in a beautiful 35mm print.   Matt Zoller Seitz, a critic and contributor to Ebert’s website ,led the post-film discussion with Chicago cinematographer Haskell Wexler, to whom this year’s festival is dedicated.  The theater itself showed off its latest renovations and restorations, improvements that were driven in part by the festival making its home at the Virginia.  And there guiding it all was his wife Chaz showing remarkable composure while occasionally going off script from the comments she said she would stick to while performing her duties as host.  It was not a somber night but rather a warm reminder of how one film critic had direct or indirect influences on all who were present.
In recent years fewer films have been shown from 35mm sources at Ebertfest.  If there’s only one this go-round, the organizers made it count.  Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN looked spectacular on the Virginia Theatre’s enormous screen. With its use of available light DAYS OF HEAVEN boasts one of the great achievements in cinematography.  I’ve seen the film two other times, once on DVD on a 27” TV and once from 35mm, but this viewing was something of a revelation in major and minor ways.  I’d never noticed the migrant workers in the distance throwing hammers in the upper lefthand corner of the frame while front and center are Richard Gere and Brooke Adams laying in the wheat field.  Linda Manz’s flat narration had been an obstacle of sorts for me in previous viewings, but this time I marveled at how it brings a unique tone and point of view to what could have been a familiar love triangle.

More significantly, during my third viewing of DAYS OF HEAVEN Malick’s impressionist style and signatures announce themselves in a way that unites his body of work.  His elliptical storytelling, thematic exploration of spiritual communion and separation, and use of dance and dance-like movement is all here in this 1978 film, albeit not as refined as he’s pushed them in THE TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER.  Clearly story is not his primary interest.  Here’s it’s about the emotional rather than the narrative experience, yet it’s fascinating to discover how sharply written this film is in advancing major chunks of plot through a choice sentence or two and revealing its essence.  Gere asks Adams who’s going to know about what they’re up to, and she responds that nobody will.  Of course, DAYS OF HEAVEN implies that while mankind may be ignorant, God is observing and can choose to keep such sinners out of or banish them from His house.
During the post-film discussion Wexler, who’s credited with additional photography, mentioned how they reproduced the locust swarm, an effect that boggled my mind while watching the film.  They shot the scene in reverse while someone in a helicopter dropped coffee beans.  Beat that, CGI.

All in all, it was a terrific way to begin the fifteenth Ebertfest.  We’ll see how this festival goes for me, though, because I suffered an injury that hopefully won’t have me hobbling around too much.  Going down the stairs I felt a muscle in my calf pop. Leaving the theater was a bit of a painful challenge, but with rest, ice, elevation, and ibuprofen, I’m hoping to stay out of urgent care and not have my festival experience affected.  The year Ebert slipped and hurt his arm during Ebertfest didn’t slow him down, so surely I can soldier through whatever this is.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Ebertfest 2013: Pre-festival thoughts

For the thirteenth consecutive year here I am in Champaign and Urbana, Illinois to attend Roger Ebert’s Film Festival.  To state the blatantly obvious, this one isn’t going to be like the others.  Ebert’s passing less than two weeks before opening night will make a significant difference in this year’s event compared to previous editions.  How could it not?  Yet from what I’ve seen of and read about the celebrations of his life, I expect this fifteenth festival to be a fitting tribute to Ebert.  Watching and discussing films for five days in his hometown seems like a good way to honor and remember the beloved film critic.

While Ebert is closely associated with Chicago, this festival is best served by being downstate.  It had to be a thrill for Ebert to launch his own film festival in the place where he grew up and to bring movies and filmmakers where they otherwise would have likely never appeared.  Screens are not abundant in this area for mainstream fare, let alone art and foreign-language films.  No multiplex currently operates within the Champaign-Urbana city limits.  The multiplex in Champaign recently closed for renovations and is expected to reopen soon, but for now locals will have to go to the one nearby in Savoy.  According to the movie theater app on my phone, a drive-in is the only other location within fifty miles of here showing Hollywood’s latest offerings (in season, of course).
Specialty films do have a home in Champaign at the single-screen Art Theater, just a stone’s throw from Ebertfest’s headquarters at the Virginia Theatre.  If memory serves, this was one of Ebert’s old stomping grounds.  (I seem to recall him mentioning seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s WEEKEND at this theater, but don’t hold me to that.)  The Art Theater is now run as a co-op and appears to be going better than ever.  The programming is more eclectic than what would be expected of a theater shouldering the burden of being the only place exhibiting smaller films.  It’s not just booking the latest studio dependent titles (ie., Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Feature releases), as the immersive fishing documentary LEVIATHAN is enjoying a week’s run.  I don’t have hard evidence to draw a direct line from Ebertfest to the continuing operation of and diverse programming at the Art Theater, but surely some of the credit for its success is because the festival has nurtured the area’s cinephile community.  Plenty of people like me come from out of town to Ebertfest, but it remains, first and foremost, a local event.
Having arrived a day early for Ebertfest and with nothing to do Tuesday night, I ventured to The Art Theater to see a documentary about bees called MORE THAN HONEY.  I figured I ought to check out the theater if it is a part of Ebert’s moviegoing history.  (If my memory is incorrect, at least I got to see one of a dying breed of old local cinemas.)  To my astonishment, the line was out the door to buy a ticket.  I’d estimate a crowd of one hundred attended the film, which is no small feat, and almost everyone stuck around for the post-film Q&A with area beekeepers and bee experts.
Although the MORE THAN HONEY screening was not associated with Ebert or his festival, I’d like to believe that the impressive turnout is indicative of part of the legacy he leaves Champaign-Urbana, as though he were like a Johnny Appleseed for the movies.  Ebertfest this year will surely bear that out.  This year’s passes and tickets have sold out.  One report suggests that the festival will go on in the years to come and can still be programmed, in a sense, by Ebert.  If movies can outlive their creators and move and inspire for decades onward, it only seems right that this film festival, rooted in appreciation and community rather than competition, be able to do the same.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

R.I.P. Roger Ebert

Like so many others of my generation and younger who write about film, Roger Ebert inspired me to do it too, so I can’t help but feel kind of stunned at news today of his passing.  Growing up I followed his TV show with Gene Siskel through its name alterations (SNEAK PREVIEWS to AT THE MOVIES to SISKEL & EBERT), channel changes (PBS to syndication), and fluctuating airtimes (middle of the afternoon to dead of night).  I was curious about movies, and these guys had a lot of enthusiasm for them.  Good grief, I even copied the format of their show with the one I’ve been co-producing since 1997.

With his annual MOVIE HOME COMPANION compilations and online reviews, Ebert’s writing was more accessible, which is why he played a greater role than his co-host in shaping my ideas of how to watch, think, and write about films.  Ebert’s work was also accessible in the sense that he was welcoming in how he conversed with his audience about what he thought was worthwhile.  He was a cultural educator who didn’t speak above or down to his readers and viewers.  With his seal of approval, whether a thumbs up or four stars, he encouraged moviegoers to stray outside their cinematic comfort zones.  Following his tastes often led to rich discoveries, and not all of those rewards had to do specifically with movies.

In less than two weeks I’ll be making my thirteenth consecutive trip to Champaign and Urbana, Illinois to attend Roger Ebert’s Film Festival.  When I started going in 2001, the attractions were the opportunity to watch movies all day for a few days in an enormous old theater, sit in on Ebert’s introductions and post-film discussions, and see (and possibly meet) the filmmakers.  The movies and guests are still a big part of the draw, but I’ve also returned year after year because of the community around the festival.  At Ebertfest I’ve become friends with people from around the country and the world.  Coming back to this event every April can feel as much like a family reunion as a film festival.  That warm vibe around Ebertfest seems by design and strikes me as being as representative of who Ebert was as anything in his writing was.

I didn’t know Ebert, although I did meet him on a few occasions.  It’s virtually impossible to have attended Ebertfest and not have encountered the namesake at least once, whether at the Virginia Theatre, the Illini Union, or elsewhere around town.  It was no secret that Ebert was fond of Steak ‘n Shake and had established it as a traditional meeting spot for festival guests.  (In 2003 I saw him at the burger chain late at night with Bertrand Tavernier, Paul Cox, and others.)  After the last screening in 2011 I met up with some other Ebertfest attendees at the Steak ‘n Shake on Neil St. Eventually Ebert and his wife Chaz showed up and joined us.  Ebert surely loved being able to program his own festival--what critic wouldn’t?--but in this setting you could also see that he was thrilled to be able to bring people together through a shared love of movies.  As a longtime fan, I’m glad I had the chance at that moment to thank him for the inspiration he has been to me as a writer and for the event I’ve looked forward to every April.

There’s much about Ebert as a writer to admire and aspire to, but if I could emulate him in any way, it’s in the enthusiasm, generosity, and fearlessness he demonstrated. His work ethic never failed to impress, especially when he had health problems. When he was able to host Ebertfest, there was no one who seemed more excited to be there than him.  He used his platform as the best-known film critic of his time to encourage and champion writers as well as the films he felt deserved more attention.  He set a remarkable example of how to face illness.  I feel like I should find some grand way to tie all this together, but really, all that I can say is that I’ll miss him.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

2013 Pop Culture Journal: Week 4

January 22-28, 2013

15. HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS (Tommy Wirkola, 2013) (2K DCP) (3D) (Arena Grand) (January 25)

There are indications within HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS that this was supposed to be a comedy rather than whatever it turned out to be.  Will Ferrell and Adam McKay are credited as producers, which doesn’t mean anything in and of itself other than funny movies being their business.  Then there are the comedic touches hinting at a more irreverent film than the fantasy-action hybrid that dominates.  Drawings of missing children are attached to milk bottles.  When a young beauty is accused of being a witch before the assembled villagers, some of the shouted comments recall Monty Python.  Hansel has diabetes from his youthful captivity and has to give himself a shot on a regular basis.  These elements suggest this might have been developed as an elaborate goof along the lines of CASA DE MI PADRE.  Except apparently it isn’t.

Grade: D/30

16. MOVIE 43 (Various directors, 2013) (2K DCP) (Gateway Film Center) (January 25)

It’s common practice for folks to harp on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE for the lameness of its sketches, but after seeing MOVIE 43, a loosely linked collection of gross-out one-upmanship short films, I think everyone ought to cut them a break.  The worst of what SNL writers come up with in a week is exponentially better than everything in MOVIE 43, which took years to make.  

The ads have touted the galaxy of stars appearing in it, which is true enough and meaningless in the grand scheme of things.  Maybe they were doing favors for friends who needed a break.  Maybe they wanted to make something silly in their free time, except someone decided their horsing around ought to be released to the public.  Maybe a marketer designed it as a test to see if a movie could be sold on the basis of a poster with as many little heads in boxes as possible.

The jokes are supposed to be daring, but this is outrageousness in scare quotes.  Kate Winslet is horrified to discover that blind date Hugh Jackman has a scrotum on his neck that no one else seems to notice!  Anna Faris wants Chris Pratt to poop on her!  Chloë Grace Moretz is having her first period, and the boys and man in the house don’t know what to do!  African-American basketball players don’t realize that they’ll crush their white counterparts on the court!  Stephen Merchant and Halle Berry’s blind date becomes a series of escalating offensive challenges!  Imagine if an iPod was a life-size naked woman with a cooling fan put in an orifice where it might cause damage to its aroused male owners!

The one short with potential features Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts as parents who are giving their son the full public school experience despite educating him at home. They subject the teen to all the bullying he’s otherwise missing out on, which is worth a couple laughs with Watts as a mean girl.  This short is also the only one with any discomfiting content, as mom and dad don’t want to deny their boy a dating life.  It doesn’t all work, but at least it’s shooting for something subversive that the others aren’t.

The through line finds Dennis Quaid as an aspiring filmmaker holding studio executive Greg Kinnear hostage as he pitches his ludicrous ideas and forces him to bankroll it. MOVIE 43 looks extraordinarily cheap and doesn’t have the energy to stick to its barely developed concept by the end.  No explanation is provided for the generic title.  .

Grade: F/16

17. PARKER (Taylor Hackford, 2013) (35mm) (AMC Dublin Village) (January 26)

I’ve probably disliked more Jason Statham movies than I’ve liked, but if he’s the lead, I’ll give the film a shot.  (The same goes for Dwayne Johnson/The Rock.)  Based on a character from a series of books Donald Westlake wrote under the name Richard Stark, PARKER is a more respectable entry in Statham’s filmography than the actioners that could pass for (or are) direct-to-video fodder.  The career criminal Parker could be his James Bond, the defining character he returns to every couple years and eventually passes on to someone else.  PARKER’s box office performance probably scuttles any ideas of sequels, which is unfortunate even though I don’t think this film is good enough.

The heist at the Ohio State Fair gets PARKER off to a good start, and that’s not just me feeling local pride because this part was shot in Columbus.  (Alas, the butter cow didn’t make it into the film.)  From there it’s a decent mix of hard-nosed guys roughing each other up and Parker plotting, plus an inordinate amount of time given to Jennifer Lopez’s real estate agent and her troubles.  Lopez plays her as being too nice for the conniving she gets involved in.  She could have stood to flash her OUT OF SIGHT toughness.

PARKER ends up being to Statham what JACK REACHER is to Tom Cruise: an average, book series-adapted programmer with an above-average cast and ultimately unsatisfying arc.  In other words, it’s a perfect movie to run endlessly on cable TV.


18. KILLER JOE (William Friedkin, 2011) (HD stream) (January 27)

I first saw KILLER JOE at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival and was not entirely sure what to make of it.  I found it somewhat off-putting in its excessiveness and funny in a really bleak way.  Mixing uneasiness and humor can be a volatile combination, especially in a film so eager to rub the viewer’s nose in it all, and I couldn’t tell if I was supposed to be laughing at parts when I was repulsed by others.   

On second viewing I felt like I had a better grip on the tone William Friedkin is striving to maintain.  It is primarily a comedy, just an exceedingly dark one.  I also realized I’d made one major misinterpretation.  I mistook the age of Juno Temple’s character, who’s given to the contract killer as a retainer in case her father and brother can’t pay.  At one point she says she claims to be a twelve-year-old.  She means that’s her mindset in a specific moment, not her actual age, but I thought she was speaking literally.  KILLER JOE goes pretty far in trying to shock, but even it has limits.

So KILLER JOE played better to me this time, and the performances of the four main actors look all the stronger for it.  The film’s view of society is pretty jaded, but this is a fairly accomplished, if nasty, piece of work.  (Review)

Grade: B/66



I’m trying to stretch myself as a viewer, so I went back to the Wexner Center for another round with experimental cinema.  Chalk it up to physical weariness--I worked out for an hour before the program--or the struggles I can have with non-narrative works, but I had to fight off the desire to fall asleep.  The ideas of both films play better to me in memory than they did during the experience of watching them.  Maybe that just means I was tired, or maybe it’s indicative of me only being able to appreciate this type of cinema to a point.  Time will tell.
10s. SIDE/WALK/SHUTTLE (Ernie Gehr, 1992) (35mm) (Wexner Center for the Arts) (January 24)

In theory SIDE/WALK/SHUTTLE should be a good gateway film for me.  The strong horizontal and vertical lines that make up downtown San Francisco are displayed like an architectural Mondrian, and the shifting perspectives of these buildings and streets grants unique views of the urban landscape.  The camera rides up and down on an elevator to provide different, sometimes disorienting ways of seeing the space.  Ernie Gehr doesn’t need any CGI to make INCEPTION’s folding city.  At least for me on this night, though, a little of it went a long way   

11s. BARN RUSHES (Larry Gottheim, 1971) (16mm at 18fps) (Wexner Center for the Arts) (January 24)

A little going a long way applies tenfold (or more) to BARN RUSHES.  This study of light presents virtually identical tracking shots of a barn at different times of the day and year. While there is an aesthetically pleasing element to seeing how the object transforms according to the quality of the light, the repetition wore on me.  


12. Frank Ocean CHANNEL ORANGE (2012)

Noel Murray wrote about how his reaction to this good album didn’t match the extraordinary reception and wondered if the hype ultimately is doing a disservice to the artist and record.  In reading what he considers the albums shortcomings, I found he was pointing out why I never embraced CHANNEL ORANGE with the enthusiasm that the music press did.  Listening to it again, I appreciate it more than I did last summer, but it still sounds like a rough draft.  If the album’s highs were plucked out and sprinkled throughout a playlist, I’d be tempted to agree that it’s the contemporary R&B classic that many believe it to be.  On its own I find plenty to like and enough to be frustrated by in its incompletion or doodling.

Key tracks: “Sweet Life”, “Pyramids”, “Lost”, and “Bad Religion”

Live Music

2. BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY (Wexner Center for the Arts Performance Space - Columbus, Ohio) (January 25)

I know what kind of music Will Oldham plays and some of the various names he releases his work under, but I’m not well acquainted with his artistic output.  Watching OLD JOY is probably the most time I’ve spent with anything he’s done.  I had no intention of going to this concert, but a preview article about this show in the next-to-last issue of THE OTHER PAPER, a Columbus alternative weekly, convinced me that I really ought to check it out.  That was the right decision.

Accompanied by Cheyenne Marie Mize and Emmett Kelly, Oldham’s somber folk songs cast a spell over the room.  His occasional stage patter lightened the mood, even when he favored saying darkly humorous things about the end of the world.  The best live music can catch you in the moment and transport you.  This performance did that for me in a major way.  It’s a greater achievement because I was coming into the concert unfamiliar with anything that would be played.  Guess I have some digging to do into the music of Oldham and his collaborators.

Live Sports

2. NHL: Dallas Stars at Columbus Blue Jackets (Nationwide Arena - Columbus, Ohio) (January 28)

What a difference a week makes.  The previous Monday the arena was sold out and rocking.  In my regular seat this night, I had the entire row to myself.  (My seat is about as low in my preferred section as it’s possible to get in a package, so it’s not like it’s out of the way.)  Attendance was over 10,000, so the crowd wasn’t nonexistent, just spread out and more subdued.  For good reason.  The Blue Jackets came out really flat early yet somehow managed to pull out a regulation win.

You always want your team to come out on top--no complaints there for this game--but live sporting events are more fun when the whole place is into it.  I’ll give credit to game operations for working hard to keep folks engaged, especially when the play on the ice is less than stellar.  Having been to two games this season, it seems like they’re emphasizing the sport more during breaks and being more judicious in peppering the audience with ads and silly time-fillers.  In other words, it seems like there’s a bit less pandering to the casual fans.  If there’s one thing that can be tiresome at games these days, it’s the scoreboards and sound systems practically screaming, “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” when there’s the briefest lull in the action.  If the Blue Jackets are dialing it back a little in favor of game-focused content, that’s terrific.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

2013 Pop Culture Journal: Week 3

January 15-21, 2013

10. MAMA (Director, 2013) (35mm) (Arena Grand) (January 18)

In short time Jessica Chastain has become one of the best working actresses.  It’s surprising to check her filmography and find little there prior to her breakout 2011. Granted, she amassed several projects that all happened to see the light of day in the same year, but her emergence felt like it occurred overnight even if it didn’t.  While she won’t be winning any awards for MAMA, she’s very good in this contemporary fairy tale by way of a horror movie.  This kind of film can often feel like it comes off the assembly line, but MAMA displays some thoughtfulness and visual flair to set it apart. (Review)

Grade: B-/63

11. BROKEN CITY (Allen Hughes, 2013) (35mm) (Arena Grand) (January 18)

Forget it Mark Wahlberg, it’s the Big Apple.  Allen Hughes tries to make New York City’s version of CHINATOWN.  He has the look and feel down, but the intricate twists and turns in Brian Tucker’s screenplay lack much in the way of surprises.  

The more interesting elements tend to be in the margins.  The girlfriend of Wahlberg’s character is an aspiring actress, and they attend the premiere of her independent film. What we see of it are pretty terrible--intentionally so--and hysterically funny.  This section provides a more incisive and witty look below the surface of official public statements than the political scenes.  I also liked Alona Tal as Wahlberg’s administrative assistant.  Her give-and-take with the boss snaps.      

Grade: C/47

12. THE LAST STAND (Kim Jee-woon, 2013) (2K DCP) (Rave Polaris) (January 19)

I elected to keep these observations out of my review, but this seems like the right space for them.  Can THE LAST STAND be read as a conservative fantasy?  The hero is jaded about life in the big city and gives it up for peace and quiet in quintessential small town America.  The feds are either corrupt or unsuccessful at their job.  It falls upon the local officials to get the job done properly.  The good guys even require a citizen’s private arsenal to fight back.  The hero and villain chase and duel with American-made cars.  Or maybe it’s just the form and this is all reading more into it than is intended? (Review)

Grade: B-/60

13. BEVERLY HILLS COP (Martin Brest, 1984) (HD stream) (January 20)

A by-the-numbers crime story drags down this would-be comedy.  As the fast-talking and ingratiating prankster policeman, Eddie Murphy shows why he’s a star even though his films are, by and large, not very good.  He’s very appealing in BEVERLY HILLS COP as he orders room service for the officers staking him out and stuffs bananas in their tailpipes to shake them, but Murphy’s personality isn’t enough to carry a film more devoted to the boilerplate TV procedural plot.  There’s literally zero mystery in the investigation.  The tepid fish-out-of-water humor fails to mine the comedy in a streetwise Detroit detective visiting swanky California.  And hey, there’s Jonathan Banks as a bad guy!  There’s nothing remarkable about what he does here, but for anyone who’s seen him on BREAKING BAD, it goes to show the talent that often goes unnoticed in disposable parts like this one.

Grade: C/46

14. ZERO DARK THIRTY (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012) (35mm) (Arena Grand) (January 21)

Just as riveted seeing it a second time. And what I said about Chastain in MAMA?  That goes double or triple for her here. (Review)

Grade: A/90


9s. REJECTED (Don Hertzfeldt, 2000) (YouTube) (January 16)

“My anus is bleeding!”  Proof that I don’t always need humor to be sophisticated.  I laughed myself silly when I saw this in THE ANIMATION SHOW and did so again when showing it to some students the day after taping a show in which we reviewed IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY.

Grade: A/90


1. GONE GIRL (Gillian Flynn, 2012)

Through a conventional mystery Gillian Flynn dissects a troubled marriage and explores what we think we know about the people we see, be it in everyday life or in the media. She alternates chapters of the husband’s thoughts when his wife goes missing on their anniversary and her diary entries.  It’s an ingenious way of studying how individuals construct the selves they reveal to others and the assumptions society makes based on available information, especially in sensational news stories.  GONE GIRL can be very cynical about how men and women relate to one another and how people use others for their own purposes, but it’s a fascinating and often thrilling read.

While reading the novel, I felt like it could be best translated as a short order TV series, maybe two or three seasons.  After I finished GONE GIRL, it was announced that David Fincher may direct the film adaptation.  He’s a sensible choice.  Reportedly Reese Witherspoon may play the lead female role.  This should be a whale of a part.  The only thing of note she’s done in recent years is HOW DO YOU KNOW, so it would be nice to have her return with something worthy of her talent.  


10. Van Halen THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS (2004)

Other than excluding “Ice Cream Man”, this 2-CD greatest hits set includes pretty much all the album-oriented rock radio staples by one of the biggest rock bands of the 1970s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s.  A collection like this would be hard to mess up, yet the sequencing has to be among the worst of any band’s best-of compilation.  The listener can fix this in the MP3 era, but if you pop this into a car CD player, as I did this week, the order is maddening.  

The first disk begins with “Eruption”, inexplicably separated from their cover of “You Really Got Me”, and three mediocre-to-bad new songs.  From then the set lurches between eras, alternating between songs with David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar as lead singer.  The only consecutive Roth-era songs are tracks 13 and 14 on the second CD, and they’re promptly followed by three live cuts with Hagar plowing through Diamond Dave classics.  Clearly the sequencing is a middle finger from the band to Roth, but they’re also insulting fans and making themselves look bad.  If anything, the stark contrast makes the Hagar-era songs pale in comparison to when Roth was the front man.

I used to prefer the so-called Van Hagar lineup, probably because those songs were more melody-inclined, but put me down now as recognizing that the group was far superior when Roth was in the band.  His goofball persona used to be what put me off, but listening now I can hear how he’s a better fit, especially at selling the double entendre-laden lyrics.  Hagar sounds too earnest in comparison.

Key tracks: “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”, “And the Cradle Will Rock...”, “Unchained”, “Panama”, I’ll Wait”, and “Runnin’ with the Devil”

11. The Walkmen HEAVEN (2012)

At this point when Spoon puts out yet another great album, it’s taken for granted.  Quietly The Walkmen are in the process of doing the same thing.  I’m slowly trying to put together a favorite albums of 2012 list, so I popped their latest in and was reminded (and kind of stunned) how great it is.  Maybe I should have gone down to campus this week to see them in concert again.  (I caught them in Cincinnati opening for The New Pornographers in 2011 and was suitably impressed.)

Key tracks: “We Can’t Be Beat”, “Love is Luck”, “The Witch”, and “The Love You Love”



Also file under Unfortunately Named Television Series.  I’m clearly not the target audience for a program about a Las Vegas showgirl reassessing her life while instructing ballerinas in small town California.  I’ve never watched anything on ABC Family or an episode of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s GILMORE GIRLS. Nevertheless, I don’t know if there’s another current show that leaves me feeling as good after an episode as this one.  Delightful repartee, appealing characters, and inventive dance numbers make it the complete drama-comedy package.

I don’t dance and possess little understanding of the art, but over the years I’ve noticed that I really enjoy dance films.  THE RED SHOES is an all-time favorite. I also like the Japanese original and American remake SHALL WE DANCE?, THE COMPANY, STEP UP 2: THE STREETS,.and CENTER STAGE, among others.  There’s just something about communicating feeling through motion that moves me immensely.  For example, Jeanine Mason gets a beautiful single shot solo in the third episode of the first season’s second half that is unspeakably light and charming, which says everything about the idealized character she plays.  Julia Goldani Telles caps that BUNHEADS episode with an emotional piece expressing her character’s fear.  For a series so reliant on fast-flung words, the dance scenes can be the most revealing and powerful.   

I can’t write about BUNHEADS and not mention Sutton Foster, who I first saw in ANYTHING GOES on Broadway in 2011.  She has the old-fashioned entertainer qualities that surely would have made her a film superstar in the screwball era.  Her comic timing is aces, and she looks effortless in her dancing. 

Live sports

1. Detroit Red Wings at Columbus Blue Jackets (Nationwide Arena - Columbus, Ohio) (January 21)

During the NHL lockout I was ambivalent about the season being saved.  The Columbus Blue Jackets were likely in for another bad season, and I was busy enough with other things that its absence in the fall didn’t stand out.  I was a little disappointed to miss out on attending the All-Star skills competition, but once the lockout reached deep enough into the original schedule, it was all for the better.  What fun would All-Star game activities be they were being performed as a duty in a compromised season?

Nevertheless, when the lockout ended and a revised 48-game schedule was released, I found myself ramped up for hockey’s return.  I even bought a ticket for opening night. Deals were plentiful because the CBJ had a week to sell tickets for the first game and needed to make overtures to fans angry about the lockout.  As a quarter season package owner, I was offered lower bowl seats for $25 through February.  Ticketmaster fees were even waived for the first week.  They got me.

Opening night in Columbus, the team’s second game, was a lot of fun.  The place was sold out, no doubt due to the ticket bargains and the opponent, the hated Red Wings. The mammoth new scoreboard is a beauty and was utilized better in terms of showing replays and keeping the “fan experience” stuff (kiss cam, movie clips to prod enthusiasm) to a minimum.  The crowd was as energetic as I’d experienced it in some time, perhaps since the first (and only) year the Blue Jackets made the playoffs.  The team played hard and almost pulled out a win.  Losing 4-3 in a shootout was not the preferred outcome, but it was an entertaining game that suggests maybe this team will be a fun one to watch.  Realistically, that’s what I’d like.