Monday, July 25, 2011

Friends With Benefits: Thrusting New Life into a Dead Genre, Over and Over

Friends with Benefits
Directed By: Will Gluck
Written By: Keith Merryman, David Newman, and Will Gluck, from a story by Keith Marryman, Harley Peyton, and David Newman
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Richard Jenkins, Woody Harrelson, Nolan Gould, Jenna Ellfman, Andy Samberg, and Emma Stone.
Director of Photography: Michael Grady, Editor: Tia Nolan, Production Designer: Marcia Hinds
Rated: R for all the perks that come with having benefits

            Friends with Benefits is a new romantic comedy that tries to be the Scream of the genre—a self-aware film that wants to both poke fun at, as well as indulge in the tropes of the genre. One of the best moments comes with the film’s stars—the attractive and fun Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis—watch a cheesy romantic comedy starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones. They point out everything the film fails at—the terrible music, the masking of Los Angeles to look like New York, and the hordes of clich├ęd lines—but Ms. Kunis can’t help but mouth every word. Everyone wants that storybook ending in the end.

            And thus the film, directed by Easy A helmer Will Gluck, attempts to have its cake and eat it too. It starts with a simple enough twist of a premise about two emotionally damaged people who try to remove any emotion from what happens in the bedroom, and then balloons exactly as you would expect. This is of course the same premise of No Strings Attached, which came out earlier this year. But Mr. Gluck, Mr. Timberlake, and Ms. Kunis have more genuine fun with the premise, and while the script seems rushed and in need of some polishing, it’s a frankly enjoyable romantic comedy, a rarity these days.

Another Earth: Up in the Sky, A Mirror of Our Own Lives

Another Earth
Directed By: Mike Cahill
Written By: Mike Cahill and Brit Marling
Starring: Brit Marling and William Mapother
Director of Photography: Mike Cahill, Editor: Mike Cahill, Production Designer: Darsi Monaco, Original Music: Fall on Your Sword
Rated: PG-13 for some heavy dramatic stuff, including a moment of violence.

            Since man starred up at the stars, and Pink Floyd wrote in a lyric, we’ve been asking the question, “Is there anybody out there?” It’s a simple question about whether we are alone, but there is often an asterisk that people forget to add when they ask it. It’s not just “Are we alone,” it’s also “Is there someone out there who understands my own loneliness?”

            Another Earth is a small drama with a science fiction twist that tries to incorporate that question, along with many others. This Sundance smash combines an intimate drama, not unlike many that emerge from Salt Lake City, and a science fiction allegory that is less imaginable or plausible than it is pumping for philosophical inquiry. The film asks a simple question: What would you do if you knew there was another you out there? Directed by Mike Cahill, who co-wrote the script with the film’s star Brit Marling, Another Earth gently pokes at these questions with some profound implications, while delivering a more-or-less standard drama about coming to terms with oneself.

Announcing "The Wire" Marathon: 60 Hours Through the Hell of Baltimore

            Ask any television nut what their favorite show of all time is, and one name will almost certainly appear: The Wire. David Simon’s five season epic about crime in Baltimore is a sprawling drama that has been described as Shakespearean in nature, and the closest thing to television nirvana. And I have never seen it.

            But that is about to change. Starting this week, I plan on embarking through sixty episodes, none of which I have seen or know much about. I find this interesting to write about, because a lot of people who have now written about the show have done it retrospectively, knowing what events are to come. Somehow, despite our spoiler-filled culture, have managed to avoid any of the plot points, and could not tell you a single thing. So as a write about each episode, it will be taking each one at face value, with only the knowledge of what happened before.

            The purpose? Many. One is to explore the differences between television and film, and what makes The Wire great television as opposed to a single episode. Another is to explore what the auteur of the television series is, and especially how a series that had 15 directors over its time bring unique visual approaches or try and follow a certain through line as set by Mr. Simon. And of course, the big question will be to ask what makes The Wire special, and considered the Citizen Kane of the small screen.

            So look for episode by episode analysis coming soon. I’m not going to stick to any particular schedule, but it will most likely be a few episodes a week. So here goes nothing.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II: Boy Who Lived Comes to an End

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II
Directed By: David Yates
Written By: Steve Kloves
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Evanna Lynch, Helena Bonham Carter, John Hurt, Kelly MacDonald, Jason Issacs, Helen McCory, Tom Helton, Ciaran Hinds, Matthew Lewis, Bonnie Wright, Jim Broadbent, David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, and Robbie Coltrane.
Director of Photography: Eduardo Serra, Editor: Mark Day, Production Designer: Stuart Craig, Original Music: Alexandre Desplat
Rated: PG-13 for violent battle scenes and favorite characters tragically dying.

            I had two recent conversations about the upcoming end of the extravagantly epic 10-year Harry Potter film series with two very different people. One, a friend who was a diehard fan, was concerned over the final film, as she had rarely considered any of the films particularly well adapted, often leaving out crucial character details or stories. The other, my father, has watched almost each of the films, but every time he believes that he must have missed one of the movies. He hadn’t, but that is what separated J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter from our other gigantic mega-titan film series, The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R. Tolkien’s epic found a way to bring in new fans, while still pleasing almost each and every one of the diehard hobbits. With Harry Potter, Warner Bros. has constantly gone back and forth on what the series should be, including hiring three different directors before settling on David Yates, who did the last four films.

            And so, we’ve come to the end of it all as the posters on buses and billboards have constantly reminded us, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II is the final hurrah for this seven book, eight film series. Having Pottered-out after finishing the last novel back in 2007, I went in cautiously into this last film, knowing that the final three hundred or so pages that was left to cover was wall-to-wall action, as all the character development had been covered in Part I. That one, controversial for fans for having more relation to Tarkovsky than Ms. Rowling, was my personal favorite, as the characters came to terms with adulthood and the fear of the unknown in a unique and moving matter. But Part II is spectacle with a capital S, and for the most part, it’s a major step toward fan service and making sure everything goes out with a bang.

Breaking Bad: Death of a Chemist, Birth of a Monster

Breaking Bad
Created By: Vince Gilligan
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, and Dean Norris
Writers: Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Geogre Mastras, Sam Catlin, John Shiban, Moira Walley-Beckett, J. Roberts, Gennifer Hutchison, and Thomas Schnauz.
Directors: Andrew Bernstein, Michelle Maxwell MacLaren, Vince Gilligan, Colin Bucksey, Bryan Cranston, Johan Renck, Terry McDonough, and Michael Slovis

I don’t write about it often, but I try and keep up with a number of shows. There are television shows that accomplish a lot in their serialized hours, and much of the best that the moving image has to offer is now seen in the comfort of our homes. Mad Men has revitalized the cultural legacy of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit era. Parks and Recreation has found a constant source for satire in small town government with its amazing ensemble of comedians. And many of the best shows are complete and now on DVD, including the politically charged Battlestar Galatica, the depressingly hilarious Party Down, and the short-lived sci-fi western Firefly (I have yet to sit down with David Simon’s expansive crime drama The Wire, but plan to…eventually).

All of these shows are reimagining the television as a writer’s medium for delivering smart comedies and dramas that speak to our age. However, none are doing it as well, and with such audacity, as Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, which is now returning to AMC for its fourth season. Breaking Bad has a smaller scope than many of the other shows that have been canonized by television gurus, but its intimacy with its characters has allowed it to transcend its premise and deliver some of the most intense, though-provoking, and morally challenging television ever produced.

The Yellow Sea: Border Feud

The Yellow Sea
Written and Directed By: Na Hong-Jin
Starring: Kim Yun-Seok, Ha Jung-Woo

Na Hong-Jin’s The Yellow Sea was chosen as the closing film of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, which wrapped up this week in New York City.

            Na Hong-Jin’s The Chaser, which was released in 2008 in South Korea, came onto the scene like a lightning bolt. Korean film was starting to get international attention for filmmakers like Park Chan-Wook and Bong Joon-Ho, but receipts were middling at home, as well as critical attention. But Mr. Na changed it all with his deceivingly simple cat and mouse game between a former detective and a serial killer. It failed to break any boundaries in terms of reinventing the genre, but with its quick pace and uniquely reserved tone, it became a smash hit at home and received a deserving cult following in the United States.

            Now comes his more explosive epic, The Yellow Sea. The film is bigger in every way, no doubt in thanks to the fact the bill was footed by 20th Century Fox, hoping for a big score in the film’s home country. But this border hopping and complex tale loses many of the elements that made The Chaser a hit. Mr. Na still shows his substance as a visual stylist, but ultimately The Yellow Sea is too grandiose that it lacks a personal touch.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tabloid: You'd Hardly Beleive It, Cause She Doesn't Either

Written and Directed By: Errol Morris
Featuring: Joyce McKinney
Director of Photography: Robert Chappell, Editor: Grant Surmi, Original Music: John Kusiak
Rated: R for many nasty things you’ll be dying to hear about.

            It comes as no surprise early in the latest Errol Morris film Tabloid that its main subject, Joyce McKinney, used to be a beauty pageant. While now in her 50s and lacking some of the beauty of her youth, Ms. McKinney still has the spirit, charisma, and energy that defined her younger era. And just by watching her, you get the sense that Ms. McKinney cannot do anything but perform (as she did recently at a screening of the film where she rallied against it). She loves her stories, telling it her way, and wrapping you up in what she sees as a love story, and Mr. Morris sees as darkly comic horror.

            And thus we have Tabloid, a wildly outrageous and highly comical flick from the master documentarian. Mr. Morris’ last two films took on bold and dark subjects; The Fog of War put former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara front and center to defend his actions in Vietnam, and Standard Operating Procedure challenged the way we perceive the atrocities of war, particularly the photos from Abu Ghraib. The calm severity that dominated the tone of those previous features has dissipated from Mr. Morris’ palette, as he sweeps into the black hole that is the highly absurd story of Joyce McKinney—one that may lack the psychological or political depth of his best work, but is his most frothy and entertaining docs yet.

Project Nim: The Monkey Who Taught Us to Be Human

Project Nim
Directed By: James Marsh
Director of Photography: Michael Simmons, Editor: Jinx Godfrey, Production Designer: Markus Kirschner, Original Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Rated: PG-13 for foul language (not spoken by Nim)
            James Marsh’s Project Nim is about the lines between human and ape, and the strange way they blend together. And as much as it is about one very special chimpanzee and his closeness to humanity, it is also about humanity’s own closeness to a devolved state.

            The film is an interesting and often moving follow-up to Mr. Marsh’s Man on Wire (he also directed the middle section of The Red Riding Trilogy), the awe-inspiring documentary about the man who danced his way across the Twin Towers. Project Nim is a more straight forward documentary; It has a somber tone and a more typical subject. But Mr. Marsh’s focus throughout the film—not really on the experiment, but on the humans surrounding it—is what turns the film into something else. Mr. Marsh sheds less light on the experience of chimpanzees than on the experience of humans.

Best of the Year So Far: Big Splashes in the CInematic Pool

2011 has already set itself apart from last year with a number of truly unqualified gems of the cinematic order. The medium continues to develop new voices that speak to us in fresh and original ways, and a number of masters have been able to find new takes to stretch the imagination as well. Here are ten favorites, presented in alphabetical order, so far (click on the title to read the full review):

The Arbor (United Kingdom): Clio Barnard’s strange experiment in documentary filmmaking follows the sad story of playwright Andrea Dunbar and the children who begot her sins. But more fascinating is Ms. Barnard’s unique style that only brings the voice in, allowing her to run wild with the visuals, truly accentuating the story in powerful ways.

Bridesmaids (United States): While suffering from some of the minor issues that all Judd Apatow films seem to carry, Bridesmaids is certainly the funniest movie of the year so far, with Kristin Wiig giving it all in a raunchy gross-out comedy with truly realized characters and a unique perspective on female friendship.

Certified Copy (France and Italy): Abbas Kiarostami’s first feature outside his native Iran asks a simple question: Why do we value the original, when the copy can be just as good? And thus Juliette Binoche and William Shimmel play a game across one afternoon that tests this premise, leading us in an insightful drama where the emotional stakes are equaled by the philosophical stakes.