Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement: Love Has Only One Boundary - Michigan

The Five-Year Engagement
Directed By: Nicholas Stoller
Written By: Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Christ Pratt, Alison Brie, Mimi Kennedy, David Paymer, Jacki Weaver, Kevin Hart, Rhys Ifans, Dakota Johnston, Mindy Kailing, Randall Park, Chris Parnell, and Brian Posehn.
Director of Photography: Javier Aguirresarobe, Editor: , Production Designer: , Original Music:

            The opening sequence of The Five-Year Engagement, a romantic comedy with surprising warmth and maturity, sets the stage for our couple destined to be. Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) are driving to her sister’s home when Tom starts talking about some receipts he forgot and must run back to the restaurant he works at. Violet looks at him strangely, as Tom becomes more and more panicked about what seems like a miniscule problem. Finally, he stops the car and slaps an engagement ring on the dashboard. Violet is more than excited, despite Tom’s despondence over failing to create a surprise. But Violet loves him too much, and Violet insists on going trough with the charade, even though the outcome is inevitable. And it is still romantic, and still funny, and still made my heart swell.

            Despite its labeling as the latest bro-comedy from the Judd Apatow machine, Nicholas Stoller’s The Five Year Engagement breaks and bends the mold to really explore what exactly relationships and commitment really mean. Written by Stoller and star Jason Segel (last seen collaborating on The Muppets), it’s the most ambitious of the brand of romantic comedy from Apatow’s brand, and the duo knock it out of the park. The film isn’t just for laughs, or to teach one sided a lesson. This is a film about two people who we know are right from the start learning to accept that challenge, and not let “life” get in the way. And by filling their narrative with some of the most comedic talents one could ever ask for, Stoller and Segel have stapled themselves as a worthy successor to Woody Allen with this gem of a film.

Screening Log: ChinaTurkey Edition

One note before today’s screening log. I’ve never considered attending Ebertfest, a five day festival of overlooked films and panels put together by legendary film critic Roger Ebert, but I really wish I had. One thing I would recommend are the panels streaming online, especially one featuring film critics from around the world, and a debate on the future of streaming and on-demand media. Both are highly worth your time. Onto the screening log!

-The Gang’s All Here, 1943. Directed by Busbey Berekly. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-Irma Vep, 1996. Directed by Olivier Assyayass. Online Steaming via Netflix Instant.
-Dry Summer, 1964. Directed by Metin Erksan. 35mm projection at Film Society of Lincoln Summer.
-Hazal, 1981. Directed by Ali Ozgenturk. 35mm projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Post Mortem: Living Among the Dead

Post Mortem
Written Directed By: Pablo Larraín
Starring: Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers, Amparo Noguera, and Jaime Vadell
Director of Photography: Sergio Armstrong, Editor: Andrea Chingnoli, Production Designer: Polin Garbizu, Original Music: Joan Cristobal Meza

            The first few sequences of Post Mortem from Chilean director Pablo Larraín immediately invite us into a cryptic world that controls us from the opening shot. We follow Mario, a middle-aged, very quiet and very repressed man, as he stands inside his home. Looking out his window, he spies on his neighbor, a beautiful woman with a boisterous and revealing posture. He follows her to a burlesque show, and then down into the lair underneath the stage to where she lays, where he overhears some dialogue that suggests she may also be a prostitute. He asks if he can drive her home, which she accepts. Why does he do this? Larraín’s camera remains almost still, with composed and exacting shots that keep us focused without revealing any sort of inner detail.

            In many ways, I wished that the rest of Post Mortem would then fill in those details, which ends up being a very puzzling film that mixes the psychological and political. I missed Larraín’s first film, Tony Manero, which followed a killer who dressed up as the Travolta character from Saturday Night Fever. And Post Mortem has a lot to say about Chilean psychology and history, though perhaps it is more aimed at audiences who know more about the uprising that led to Pinochet’s violent and brutal dictatorship. But for audiences (like myself) who go in blind, Larraín certainly has a very unique voice that makes Post Mortem still an interesting look into this confusing and devastating world.

Lockout: Against the Obvious Title

Directed By: James Mather and Stephen St. Leger
Written By: James Mather, Stephen St. Leger, and Luc Besson, from an original idea by Besson.
Starring Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Peter Stormare, Joseph Gilgun, Lennie James, and Vincent Regan.
Director of Photography: James Mather, Editors: Camille Delamarre and Eamonn Power, Production Design: Romek Delmata, Original Music: Alexandre Azaria

            During the penultimate scene of Lockout, a high concept B-movie action flick, a character monologues to our hero, the grimy renegade Snow (Guy Pearce). “You’re all relics of a dead time!” he posits. This character (going nameless for spoiler sake) seems to simply be delivering plain dialogue that the screenplay requires in order to make him out to be the villain. Or it could be a meta-commentary on the whole feel of Lockout, which borrows heavily from the B-movies of the 1980s.

            The problem is, however, Lockout isn’t sure whether to fully embrace its own absurdity, and meanders between the two worlds. Produced by Luc Besson (The Fifth Element), Lockout may have fared better if it had been called Space Jail, as a number of other film critics have declared. Lockout certainly is a film destined for late night TV marathon status; it’s about a jail full of dangerous criminals, but the jail is in space! What else do you need to know? And while Lockout isn’t sure what it really wants to be, it manages to be a distractingly good time.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Screening Log: Action Scene Aesthetics Edition

            Sorry for missing last week’s screening log folks, but as you know, things can get quite crazy. My one note of interest is that I refuse to write anything on Girls because pretty much every other person on the Internet has done so. I will say that I thought the first two episodes episode are fantastic, and everything you need to know about the show’s relation to its characters is said in that first shot, and that during Hannah’s AIDS monologue all we can see is her face. This is a girl who is clearly unaware of her surroundings, not a prophet.
-Police Story, 1985. Directed by Jackie Chan. 35mm projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-Bird, 1988. Directed by Clint Eastwood. 35mm projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-Frenzy, 1972. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. 35mm projection at IFC Center.
-Mouchette, 1967. Directed by Robert Bresson. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-Numéro Zéro, 1971. Directed by Jean Estuche. 35mm projection at private screening.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Between the Pitches: Why Film Critics Love Baseball

            Last night, I attended my first baseball game of the season, which was an excellent night as the Minnesota Twins tore through the New York Yankees for a 7-3 win (as a MN native living in New York, it’s fun to see your team take down a massively overpaid one). The weather was perfect, I had great seats, and the game was well fought by both sides.

            And then I got thinking. Many of my friends hate watching baseball (many of them hate sports in general, but let’s ignore those for now). They prefer football, basketball, and hockey, claiming baseball is slow, boring, and uneventful. Then I was thinking how many film critics I know are also huge baseball fans: Noel Murray (Atlanta Braves), Matt Singer (New York Mets), Louis Godfrey (San Francisco Giants), and Richard Brody (another Mets fan—Richard told me he went to the second game ever at Shea Stadium) to name a few. These guys are also film critics who appreciate what some call “slow cinema.” I’m thinking films out of the Romanian New Wave, or the works of Bela Tarr, or Jeanne Dielman. And to name some of their favorite releases, we’ve loved films like Poetry, The Tree of Life, Meek’s Cutoff, and We Can’t Go Home Again. And this made me realize that many of the pleasures of watching these films are the same to why I love baseball.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cabin in the Woods: Bumps In the Night

Cabin in the Woods
Directed By: Drew Goddard
Written By: Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon
Starring: Fran Kranz, Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Brian White, and Amy Acker
Director of Photography: Peter Deming, Editor: Lisa Lassek, Production Designer: Martin Whist, Original Music: David Julyan
I’m going to spoil everything in this movie. Most of it, which people have made a big deal about, really shouldn’t be considered “spoilers.” I read a couple of the reviews that called this film a mind-blowing masterpiece, and then refused to tell you anything about it, which kind of seems like a pointless act of film criticism. Apparently, many of the critics who don’t like this film have spoiled it (and of course these are the critics who are “wrong,” though people like Rex Reed aren’t exactly helping). I find this all quite amusing, because this is what separates film reviews from film criticism. I try and do both (albeit very poorly), because I have the feeling many of the people who read this stuff anyways are those who have seen the films already. Anyways, on with the show.

            The title of Cabin in the Woods is the first sign that the latest work from the universe of all things fanboy Joss Whedon is very aware of the story it’s telling. Five teenagers—the jock, the sex bomb, the nerd, the stoner, and the virgin—head up to, well, a cabin in the middle of nowhere, with a plan of enjoying all that comes without parental or societal supervision. Of course, the forest is a place where transgression leads to death by way of the supernatural, and in this one it is “Redneck Pain-Worshiping Zombies” (“if only it could be Merman, just once” a character explains—more on that later). Needless to say, Whedon, along with director and co-writer Drew Goddard, have set out to make a deconstruction of the horror genre, not too far from the Scream franchise.

            Ah yes, the latest movie about movies! Deconstruction is essentially a genre on itself these days, and it seems you can’t make a normal movie without someone believing it is actually about the making of cinema (see: Inception, a lot of film noir, all musicals, etc.). But Cabin in the Woods is specifically about the way we watch and enjoy horror cinema. Its premise—not only about these kids, but also those who control their destiny—is certainly clever, and at times quite ingenious. But Whedon and Goddard perhaps try and stretch their metaphor, a bit too much, trying to cram as much universe building and extra explanations as possible. Cabin is a ton of fun when it’s playing with the horror clichés we know, but it’s also a nightmare when it tries to explain those.

Keyhole: Home Sweet Home of Dangers

Directed By: Guy Maddin
Written By: George Toles and Guy Maddin
Starring: Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini, Udo Kier, Brooke Palsson, and David Wontner
Director of Photography: Benjamin Kasulke, Editor: John Gurdebeke, Production Designer: Ricardo Alms, Original Music: Jason Staczek

            The world of Guy Maddin, a director who defies pigeonholing in every frame, has never been one to create a world even close to logic. His films exist in a bizarre universe that pulls together his personal memories, the silent and B-movies he grew up with, and subtext often sublimating to the foreground, which often discards the primal text in doing so. What are we left with? It’s often hard to describe what exactly he’s doing (you can watch a number of his shorts on YouTube), but if the word “auteur” still has meaning in film, Maddin is certainly exemplary of it.

            His latest film, Keyhole, may, somehow, be the strangest yet, or at least the one that made me feel the most uncomfortable. Gone is the sense of wonder and nostalgia that pieced together films like The Saddest Music in the World and My Winnipeg. Keyhole, whatever it exactly is, seems driven by paranoia and fear, both of the outside world and the repressive sexual anxiety from inside. It’s probably also the most opaque of Maddin’s work, which is saying a lot, given the director’s tendency to avoid any idea of a clear narrative. And perhaps Keyhole doesn’t work on every level, but it’s still a unique piece of art that is clearly something out of the ordinary.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Killer Improvement: Five Ways Dexter Can Learn from Justified

Over at Indiewire TV, I look at the third season of the FX Drama Justified, and list five ways the show has done everything right where Dexter has become a pain. You read, and I get paid. Everyone wins. Check it out here.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Damsels in Distress: Tap Therapy

Damsels in Distress
Written and Directed By: Whit Stillman
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Adam Brody, Ryan Metcalf, Jeremaine Crawford, Zach Woods, Hugo Becker, and Aubrey Plaza
Director of Photography: Doug Emmett, Editor: Andrew Hafitz, Production Designer: Elizabeth J. Jones, Original Music: Mark Suozzo

            The bright colors and giddy atmosphere of Damsels in Distress seems to be a perfect remedy for the frat boy dorms that plague the campus of Seven Oaks University. Although Damsels is the latest film from Whit Stillman, it’s hard not to think he was simply shooting this adorable comedy across campus while Animal House filmed on frat row. They seem to come from the same universe, and Damsels feels dated in that way, but it’s perfectly appropriate for this sun-soaked narrative of the bizarre and totally delightful.

            Stillman, for those who know him, has been absent on screen since 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, another period piece of a period not so far away. Damsels isn’t a period piece, but with its syncopated dialogue, 1950s soundtrack, and song and dance numbers (oh yes, there is tap) Stillman creates a film that is very much in its own universe. Or at least everything is seen through the rosy eyes of the narrative’s protagonists (“The Damsels” as the opening credits refers to them). The film begins with Greta Gerwig, making her move from micro-budget mumblecore darling to full-fledged actress, as Violet, the queen bee leader of a gaggle of girls at the prestigious university. Violet, along with Heather (Carrie MacLemore, a one-liner machine) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke, confident through every line), hope to make the world a better place by running a Suicide Prevention Center, though everyone refers to it as the Suicide Center.

Screening Log: Chaos Reign Through Minimalism Edition

         Couple of notes before this week’s screening log. Over at Indiewire’s new blog dedicated to film criticism, I’m participating in Matt Singer’s weekly critic survey. Last week, I waxed on the problems of choosing my most egregious blind spot. Also, some of you may remember my commentary on Grantland’s “Smacketology” tournament regarding The Wire. Following his controversial comments against bloggers this week, Simon did a longer interview with Alan Sepinwall, where he elucidated some of his statements, and the showrunner included a link to my piece as one of the better responses to the Grantland nonsense. Peter Labuza is now David Simon approved folks!

-The Long Day Closes, 1992. Directed by Terrence Davies. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-Girlfriends, 1978. Directed by Claudia Weill. 16mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-Meshes of the Afternoon, 1943. Directed by Maya Deren. 35mm projection at Museum of Modern Art.
-Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975. Directed by Chantal Akerman. 35mm projection at Museum of Modern Art.
-About Elly, 2009. Directed by Asghar Farhadi. DVD projection at Film Society at Lincoln Center.
-Ruggles of Red Cap, 1935. Directed by Leo McCarey. 35mm projection at Film Forum. 

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Interlude: RIP Criticism of Film Criticism

Because the Museum of the Modern Art pushed back its screening of Jeanne Dielman from Wednesday to Thursday, I decided to attend a panel called “Film Criticism Today” by the New School (who last brought us Tarkovsky Interrupts(!), and it was also free). Here were the five most interesting things said:

--Phillip Lopate’s first piece ever as a film critic was covering the first New York Film Festival for the Columbia Daily Spectator, which is where I got my start too.
--According to Paul Brunick, Peter Wollen is unreadable. Huh.
--Apparently when Vincent Canby was writing for the Times, he kept a little film called Chan is Missing in theaters much longer than it would’ve been, since he was a fan.
--The moderator, Noah Isenberg, thinks it’s horrible that film critics or scholars may use IMDB to find info. Lopate responded, “There are so many other horrors.”
--Glenn Kenny (who was not on the panel) joked afterwards that he never had interest in becoming a critic, but Premiere scooted him into the job, and thus ruined his entire life.

I think there was also a debate on film criticism, and points were made about the Internet and what not. Video essays came up, which were praised by Dennis Lim (who started Moving Image Source) for bring the discussion of form back into criticism, and then sort of given the “that’s nice” treatment by everyone else. No podcast talk (despite having a podcaster on the panel), a little talk of critical advocacy (no mention of #teammargaret), and Twitter dismissed casually. That's all folks.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Screening Log: Pabst! Blue! Ribbon! Edition

            I promise a big screening log next week (it’s a great week for movies in NYC), especially given that this week is my smallest list yet. Part of this, as you’ll see, was that I visited Austin and spent more time at the bar than the multiplex, though I did visit the famous Alamo Drafthouse. I was nervous about a waiter running through the film, but it turned out to be no less annoying as any general than your usual crowd at a movie theater, actually less (though it was a bit annoying to rummage through my wallet for a 5-dollar bill while the movie played). However, I drank a Pabst Blue Ribbon during Blue Velvet—how do you beat that?

-Blue Velvet, 1986. Directed by David Lynch. 35mm projection at the Alamo Drafthouse (6th Street).
-Kuroneko, 1968. Directed by Kaneto Shindô. 35mm projection at Anthology Film Archives. 

The Deep Blue Sea: A Romance Untamed

The Deep Blue Sea
Directed By: Terrence Davies
Written By: Terrence Davies, adapted from the play by Terrence Rattigan
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, and Ann Mitchell
Director of Photography: Florian Hoffmeister, Editor: David Charap, Production Designer: James Merifield

            With the cinema of Terrence Davies, sometimes all it takes is one shot. The British director can say it all with one marvelous stroke of cinematic precision. In his latest feature, The Deep Blue Sea, it comes quite early. During the film’s abstract, almost wordless prologue, we see at one point the camera swirl around lovers Hester and Freddie, naked in bed, their bodies so perfectly aligned, they look like two puzzle pieces coming together. Halfway through the shot, Davies slowly cross-dissolves to the exact same shot, except we are back in the present, and Hester is alone. At this point, we don’t know what has happened to Freddie, but we can feel the tremendous sadness behind the eyes of Hester. She exalts a loss, which we learn is not one of physical proportions, but actually metaphysical; A love that simply cannot be kindled, with no hope of coming back.

            And in his first narrative film in over a decade, Davies captures the sublime, devastating tragedy of love in this adaptation of the play by Terrence Rafferty set in 1950s London. Davies has often been an autobiographical filmmaker—his first two features, Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, play more like memory totems (as does his 2008 essay film, Of Time and the City). You get the sense that there is still some of Davies’s past creeping into The Deep Blue Sea through the background visuals, but most of the film is dedicated to these characters, which Davies inhabits with beauty, and devastating emotions in this day long narrative.