Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best DVD/Blu-Ray and Streaming of the Week (12/31/13)

My final professional piece of the year, a round-up of a spotty week for DVD releases but one with at least one gem in the fine DTV movie Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear (full review forthcoming). Check out my picks at Film.com.

Him: Why Joaquin Phoenix Is America’s Greatest Contemporary Actor

I fell in love with Spike Jonze's newest movie, Her, not only for its nuanced and empathetic view of how technology has rewritten, maybe even corrupted, human sociability and our capacity to handle anything outside predictable, programmed parameters, but also for the showcase it provides to Joaquin Phoenix, who knocks it out of the park as well as he did with last year's The Master. (I'm still mixed on that film, but not on Phoenix's performance.) The foregrounded relevance of Her got me thinking about how Phoenix has for some time now been the actor who has best conveyed shifting cultural attitudes over the last decade or so, so I wrote a piece about his more culturally immediate performances, and how this Gen Xer so skillfully reflects millennial life.

You can read my full article at Film.com.

The 10 Best Criterions of 2013

I felt routinely disappointed this year by Criterion's offerings when they were announced each month, yet when I took stock of all I got this year, I found it to be, as usual, a great year for the label. I'm especially intrigued by their enthusiastic turn to more box sets, something reflected in my top 10 picks. If Criterion keeps churning out boxes like that monolithic Zatoichi set, I can only fathom what next year has in store for us.

Check out my picks (as well as brief words on my 10 favorite non-Criterion home video releases) at Film.com.

Best DVD/Blu-Ray Streaming of the Week (12/17/13)

Title says it all. Check out my picks at Film.com.

All the Light in the Sky (Joe Swanberg, 2013)

Swanberg’s prolificacy has allowed those who follow at least a portion of his rapidly-multiplying filmography to effectively see him gain more and more understanding of his craft with each project, and in terms of visual acumen, it’s hard to believe this is the same man who made the captivating but aesthetically enervating Hannah Takes the Stairs. If Swanberg does not cede to his rarely broached sustainability topic to add illusory depth to the movie, he nevertheless folds the idea of a more naturally sustainable lifestyle into his lush cinematography, which lovingly depicts Marie’s beachside home without the critique of, say, Sofia Coppola, and cuts elegantly from Dan helping out with handiwork to a scene of him and Marie walking on the sand.

Highly recommended. Read my full review at Spectrum Culture.

Martin Scorsese, Ranked

I had originally planned to do a long-form essay of some kind about Martin Scorsese for Film.com, but as the year-end deluge of deadlines (to say nothing of personal time-consumers such as an impending departure from my day job and a move back to Atlanta) sapped so much energy that I restructured the overview as a ranked list. As such, I hope I managed to use each blurb to discuss each film on its own merits, rather than in competition with the others. While I clearly prefer some of the master's movies to a few lesser efforts, I'm routinely struck by Scorsese's range, and I tried to use this piece to call attention to just how diverse a filmmaker he is, and how he has delivered surprises every single decade of his professional life.

You can read my full article at Film.com.

White Reindeer (Zach Clark, 2013)

I saw White Reindeer earlier in the year, and it was in my top 10 until the very last week before I had to submit polls to various publications. It trades in all the usual holiday irony expected of a Christmas-set black comedy, but I was taken aback by the sincerity that routinely bubbled up from its superficial snark, its deep reservoirs of character that emerged from even the most facile types. It's exactly what I want from indie filmmaking, not merely cheek but an adventurousness that would never be allowed in a bigger production.

Read my full review of this great film at Spectrum Culture.

Year-End Polls

I always enjoy lists; as tedious and nakedly clickbait-y as they can be, I often use the more idiosyncratic lists out there to direct my attention to movies not previously on my radar. This year, I managed to get year-end polls up at both Indiewire and the Village Voice(!). To view my picks, either check out my Voice ballot here, or go to my profile page at Indiewire and scroll through my poll responses to see me actually write blurbs to go with my picks (sorry for the hassle; IW really needs to add a view all for individual critics' responses).

The Worst Films of 2013

I must confess I no longer get the immature thrill out of lambasting films that I once did, nor are worst-of lists worth the inevitable hassle of angry commenters that reward pithiness in kind. But still, an assignment is an assignment, and Lord knows I despise the 10 films I listed enough to rant about them at length to anyone unfortunate enough to listen. By writing this, however, I got them out of my system so that I might devote more time to talking about the films I loved. My full piece is up at Film.com.

Blu-Ray Review: The Big Gundown

Major props to Grindhouse Releasing, who have put out a few Blu-Rays but truly come into their own with their handling of The Big Gundown. A gorgeous restoration results in the finest looking Blu-Ray for a Western since Once Upon a Time in the West hit shelves, and a solid batch of extras only sweetens the pot. I can't wait to see where they go from here, but in the meantime, check out my review of their great release at Slant.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)

[The following is a belated Blind Spots entry.]

The precision of Raymond Chandler’s prose is rendered almost sleepily in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, trading the laconic for the lethargic. “Rip van Winkle” is what the filmmaker termed his version of Chandler’s most iconic creation in reference to how Elliot Gould’s Marlowe is a 1953 detective carrying on according to his period as he roams the radically different America of 1973, yet the sobriquet could equally apply to how punch-drunk, confused and tired Gould plays the part. Chandler’s books may have been mysteries, but like the best of pulp fiction they were intensely focused. The Long Goodbye, on the other hand, ambles along in confusion, puncturing Marlowe’s hard-boiled competence as both the narrative and even the cinematography seem unable to focus on anything, much less the task at hand.

Friday, December 27, 2013

My Top 50 First-Time Watches of 2013

This was the year I was fortunate enough to see a notable rise in my freelance bookings, and thus my writing mainly focused on new releases (I will try and include some blog-exclusive material in the coming year, but I admit it's a low priority compared to my deadline gigs). Even with my attentions turned to new material, however, I still made a number of thrilling discoveries this year, from the Westerns I binged on to write a piece related to marathons of directors like John Ford and Roberto Rossellini. All in all, I saw many new-to-me films I adored, but these 50 are the cream of the crop. Several have already settled in among my favorite movies.

1. The Age of the Medici (Roberto Rossellini, 1973)

A stand-in for the many Rossellini films I watched for the first time this year, all of which were rewarding and a hefty amount of which I would call some of the best films I've ever seen. The best, though, was this three-part work for Italian television, which conjured the Renaissance in material terms that made the strongest depiction of the ineffable inspiration that drove the single greatest artistic movement in history. Rossellini's period Italy is free of the grimmer realities of peasantry, but the case he makes for the Renaissance as a once-in-a-millennium meeting point of art, science, religion and, most important of all, monetary funding is his finest offering of making tangible the intricate, nuanced realities (and the myths that grow from them) that make up history. And the subtle manner in which he turns every shot into an echo of Renaissance painting and sculpture thoroughly debases the notion that his TV work represented an abandonment of formal properties.

2. Duelle (Jacques Rivette, 1976)

Mythology and verité converge in Jacques Rivette, in which female archetypes are drawn equally from paganism and pulp and are then collapsed through cross-pollination that sands away binary distinctions into something more abstract and complex. Noir provides the foundation for the film, but its gray areas are ones of identity, not morality, a fitting shift for a filmmaker so attuned to performance as a theatrical affect and a natural state of human interaction.

3. Je Vous Salue, Sarajevo (Jean-Luc Godard, 1993)

Godard, armed with a single photograph, summarizes a specific war, war in general, the inadequacy of art to effect positive social impact and why the artist must continue on anyway. And he does it all in just over two minutes. Late Godard is cryptic and cerebral, but never so concisely ordered as this gorgeous, far-reaching thesis.

4. French Cancan (Jean Renoir, 1955)

Jean Renoir does not make the sets of French Cancan pop so much as he folds his people into their two-dimensional space, making moving Belle Epoque paintings that avoid the still life of tableaux vivants for exuberantly mobile flatness. Color and motion have rarely been rendered more vividly, and for all the ebullience of the film, it hones in on a complex vision of art in all its maddening and affirming glory.

5. Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)

Beau Travail is a work of total poetry, narratively simplifying its source Melville text (turning the ambiguous motive of Billy Budd's harassing officer into an all but openly stated case of violent sexual repression) but aesthetically abstracting its content. The images by now are legion: sweating bodies of Legionnaires training in the desert, a man dying of thirst as he lays in a salt field that looks like a patch of snow amid the sand, and, of course, the oneiric coda of the film, in which a man at last admits his urges in the second before he pulls the trigger against his head, a self-confession in the form of interpretive dance that may be Denis Lavant's finest on-screen moment to date. How has this film not been snapped up by one of the specialty DVD labels for a high-quality release?

6. Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984)

Not technically Cassavetes' final feature, this is nevertheless his true send-off, and what a swan song it is. After getting past the surface-level understanding of the director—"naturalism" and "improv" (the latter of which is not even accurate—I've become more attuned to his genuinely adventurous, well-considered direction, which is on full display here. Look at how he cuts across Rowlands' divorce deposition diagonally, honing in on the daughter as she shatters her mother's world by calmly stating she wants to live with her father, or the detached, empathetic humor of shots of characters caving under the pressure of their connection (or lack thereof) to loved ones. Its last act, which culminates in a sly role reversal of siblings, is downright operatic, yet it still feels so lived-in and raw as to be tangible.

7. Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932)

More sharply lensed than most of the early-'30s American films, Love Me Tonight is also one of the most effortlessly charming, so infectiously giddy that even its social context of withering, hollow aristocracy is second to its good vibes. Solos do not last long in this film, as a romantic song begun by one yearning soul soon attracts others who take up its verses, until a kind of message relay is made as that song is carried far and wide. Its use of early sound is every bit as impressive as Fritz Lang's in M, complex and ambitious from the composition that arises from street noise that opens the film. As a Pre-Code musical starring Maurice Chevalier, Lubitsch comparisons are inevitable, but this just may top even that director's early musical work.

8. Ulzana’s Raid (Robert Aldrich, 1972)

About as close to a fitting adaptation of Blood Meridian as we're ever likely to get, and it was released a full decade before Cormac McCarthy put out his magnum opus. The film envisions all-out war between white and red, a war of attrition in which neither side will show mercy in order to obtain or defend what they feel is rightfully theirs. Racism and desire collide, leaving only total annihilation in their wake. Labeled as a Vietnam allegory, the film is outside any one conflict, instead an unbearably real vision of war as a concept, an event of total devastation for all who fight it, and those who happen to be within firing distance.

9. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)

Has the Lubitsch touch ever been so self-evident as it is here, a film so good-natured, and gently wry that even a suicide attempt comes off as liltingly comic instead of grotesque? Minuscule ironies abound, especially when the lovers reveal themselves to each other, their illumination occurring in a room where they have just turned out all the lights. I love, love, love Jimmy Stewart and struggle to think of a better performance than the one he gives here, which is just huffy enough to let him have fun while also playing it straight.

10. Percevel le Gallois (Éric Rohmer, 1978)

Rohmer's simple (but never simplistic) direction is set totally aside for this surreal realization of Arthurian language, though in truth it is merely the logical reflection of Rohmer's faithfulness to his chosen texts. Perceval resembles a medieval tapestry, colorful but basic, limited in movement but vast in the epics it conjures with its images. The finale, which honors the incomplete nature of Chrétien de Troyes' story, adds a vicious, ironic punch by cutting away from the Passion Play just as the dead Jesus descends into Hell before resurrection to show Perceval himself heading into an unknown future. It is a caustic comment on blind, self-denying devotion from the New Wave's most devout member, and all the more scathing for its maker's religiosity.

Best of the rest:

11. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
12. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)
13. Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944)
14. The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925)
15.Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985)
16. Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 1955)
17. (tie) Zabriskie Point/The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970/1975)
18. The Girl Can’t Help It (Frank Tashlin, 1956)
19. The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford, 1953)
20. From the Journals of Jean Seberg (Mark Rappaport, 1995)
21. Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1975)
22. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
23. Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1950)
24. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)
25. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
26. Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)
27. Throw Down (Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, 2004)
28. I Am Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964)
29. By the Bluest of Seas (Boris Barnet, 1936)
30. Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971)
31. Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondō, 1995)
32. Charulata (Satyajit Ray, 1964)
33. Touki Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973)
34. Halloween II (Rob Zombie, 2009)
35. My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Aleksei German, 1986)
36. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988)
37. Yeelen (Souleymane Cissé, 1987)
38. All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)
39. The Patsy (Jerry Lewis, 1964)
40. The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975)
41. The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968)
42. Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2001)
43. The Color of Pomegranates (Sergei Parajanov, 1968)
44. Still Life (Jia Zhangke, 2006)
45. Zelig (Woody Allen, 1983)
46. The Thomas Crown Affair (John McTiernan, 1999)
47. 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)
48. Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut, 1960)
49. Nightjohn (Charles Burnett, 1996)
50. Track of the Cat (William A. Wellman, 1954)

Friday, December 20, 2013

Blu-Ray Review: Assault on Precinct 13 (Shout! Factory)

For a film that holds so few surprises, in which everything has been chosen for its economy, not its mystery, Assault on Precinct 13 nevertheless impresses itself on me even more with each new viewing. Contrary to Shout! revelatory work with neglected Carpenter masterworks like They Live and Prince of Darkness, Assault is on a disc that is only a marginal improvement over Anchor Bay's now-OOP disc, so those who have that are likely fine with what they've got. For everyone else, though, this is an essential purchase.

Read my review at Slant.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

DVD Review: Computer Chess (Kino)

I belatedly caught up with Computer Chess when I received a DVD copy to review, and oh what an utter delight of a picture, what reassurance that American independent cinema can still stretch beyond the now-horrid confines of "Sundance" (there were a surprising, delightful number of movies that accomplished that this year, or maybe I'm finally getting a hold of the right screeners). This film is a new high for the great Andrew Bujalski, a work that starts with programmatic logic befitting its topic before slowly collapsing, its surreal dips a match for how the programmers' own sense of their narrow world is thrown off by the unpredictability of life. Perfectly cast and boasting the year's best script, Computer Chess should be seen by anyone who feels that indies have become as hidebound as blockbusters.

Read my full review at Slant.

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

Oh, I'm starting to hate Paolo Sorrentino. After his decent but Scorsese-cribbing Il Divo, I never got to his This Must Be the Place, and after this ostensible magnum opus, I'm in no rush. A florid blend of Fellini, Antonioni and other Italian masters that replicates their gloss but none of their rich inner life, The Great Beauty instead comes off as the artiste's rant against the ills of society, almost none of which have to do with the pitfalls of Berlusconi's Italy and instead go after real power targets like pretentious performance artists, wannabe Marxists and vain nuns (oh, and did I mention practically every target is a woman?). Sure, Toni Servillo's director stand-in comes in for some criticism of his own, but that is delivered so lightly, with such affection, such an apology for the light rap of the knuckles, that to conflate it with the hostility spared for the film's low-hanging fruit is disingenuous.

My full review is up at Movie Mezzanine.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Breakfast with Curtis (Laura Colella, 2013)

Breakfast with Curtis starts out with a man threatening a child and the child's father threatening the man, yet the movie proves otherwise free of conflict, a light, warm observation befitting its summertime bliss. Perhaps its parade of types is easy to take because I've known all of them: the burnout hippie for whom YouTube is a means of making the world listen to his babble; the benign yuppies; the shy millennials who, all in all, wouldn't mind just staying indoors at a computer over dealing with people. Just short enough to not overstay its welcome, this is a pleasant divertissement in the midst of Serious Movie season.

My review is up at Spectrum Culture.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Faust (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2013)

By turns intoxicating and repellent, Faust is definitely a Sokurov film, but its adaptation of the Faust legend is so perverse I cannot help but find it fascinating. Never mind infinite knowledge: this Faust just wants a reason to live in his shit-stained, death-filled world, and to find something pleasant in Sokurov's world is worth all the omniscience in the universe. It's so strange (and I'm so half-used to Sokurov) that I have my doubts, but I have a feeling that future visits will prove even more rewarding than the first one.

Read my full review at Spectrum Culture.

Blu-Ray Review: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Criterion)

[Originally published at Cinespect]

“Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” unfurls with an aesthetic concision that belies its increasingly erratic narrative. Tautly edited but patiently held takes establish a man (Gian Maria Volonté) looking up into a woman’s apartment, and the woman (Florinda Bolkan), staring back. Tracking shots briskly follow the man into the building and up the stairs to her room, where a playful rapport turns with one obscured action and a moan of surprise and pain into murder. Rather than slip out undetected, the man proceeds to deliberately leave his mark all over the crime scene, roughly smudging his fingers on glasses, hooking a loose thread of his tie under the victim’s fingernail, even tracking through blood to leave shoeprints.

Elio Petri’s camera takes all of this in with an impartial inquisitiveness shot through with a slight thrill of transgression, though one senses that the former tone is a reflection of the central character’s subjective response as much as the latter. As much as the man’s cryptic actions, this has a puzzling effect, one that only gets more confounding when it is revealed that he is, in fact, not merely a police officer but the chief of Rome’s homicide division. For the remainder of the film, Volonté’s unnamed chief does everything he can to lead his subordinates back to him, only for each glaring clue to be rationalized, every near-confession ignored as cops look everywhere but right in front of them. To spice things up further, he begins to present personal and political enemies as possible scapegoats, especially student anarchists that the police have been eager to suppress for some time.

Petri’s political statement—concerning the lawlessness of those appointed to keep the law in Italy—is forthright, but the oddity of the narrative, and the grim satire it produces, tangles the explicit commentary in a series of comic digressions. As in the later “American Psycho,” “Investigation” routinely has its protagonist confess to his crimes, only for people to assume he’s joking. When forensic investigators turn up his fingerprints at the crime scene, they simply attribute this to the chief’s carelessness, and they do not even chastise him for that. Flashbacks reveal the sadomasochistic bond between the cop and his doomed mistress predicated on the policeman’s power, which sexually excites the woman and in turn helps drive the man to übermensch delusions. But are they really delusions if a man can glibly confess to murder and still get away with it?

Volonté plays the chief’s toying villainy worthy of Iago, all rage flecked by a self-awareness that is all the more terrifying for making the character not insane but super-sane, logical on a level above that of those around him. A faint smile tugs at even his most impassioned and fiery countenances, giving away that, for all his efforts to be caught, the fact that he constantly evades arrest brings him immense pleasure. Yet Volonté also helps to foreground an occasional sense of acute terror that replaces the satirical approach to police brutality with its more direct implications. The flashbacks are charged with an eroticism that dies when the chief actually acquiesces to the woman’s desire that he “interrogate” her, the speed with which he assumes total control of her physical and mental state is frightening. Similarly, a single cut separates the defiant, chanting face of an incarcerated student radical and that same young man, shivering and sweating on his knees in an interrogation room, so obviously ready to confess to anything that the several minutes spent torturing him just a bit more for the camera are unbearable.

“Investigation” proved to be eerily prophetic: The discovery of a suspicious bomb providing a convenient excuse to target left-wing groups was an event that occurred in real life just before the film ended production. But the film’s vision of a police force that exploits democracy to shore up totalitarian authority extends well beyond contemporary Italian politics into an enduringly relevant critique of unwatched watchmen. Ennio Morricone’s score, with its tinkling but discordant piano, sounds like a music box going out of tune, a fitting accompaniment to Volonté’s chief first tinkering with, then being driven mad by the limits of his self-contained world. That world is gutted yet superficially maintained by the finale’s grim punchline, in which the same system that beats confessions from every usual suspect suddenly rallies valiantly—and violently—to prevent a respectable member from indicting himself. Apparently the only crime a lawman can commit is to admit that he committed a crime.

As a critic says in a feature-length documentary included in Criterion’s superlative package, time has effectively forgotten Elio Petri, something this disc seeks to single-handedly rectify. And what a job it does: Apart from the aforementioned 80-minute doc on Petri’s career, Criterion’s release comes with an overview of the film by scholar Camilla Zamboni, an old interview with Petri for French television, an hour-long documentary on Gian Maria Volonté, and an interview with Ennio Morricone about his collaborations with the director. Each of these features digs deep not only into this single film and its sizable contemporary impact but into the careers of all the major players, with emphasis on the rich history they had together. The net effect raises enthusiasm for this superb feature even further, but, more importantly, it encourages the viewer to seek out more of the director’s work and to rediscover a popular political artist whose name no longer registers immediate recognition.

As for the movie itself, a 4K restoration results in a breathtakingly detailed image, be it in the dulled textures of Rome’s omnipresent history, or in the surreal splashes of vividly chromatic equipment in the seemingly limitless police headquarters, with bright blue databanks and orange-tinted office glass. Catch glimpses of the film formatted for analog TV in some of the extras to get the best idea of how crisp the film is now, though a healthy level of grain preserves the original image information. Similarly, the uncompressed mono soundtrack ensures that the dialogue and Morricone’s infectious score are always strongly replicated. All in all, this is one of Criterion’s finest offerings of the year, and a semi-annual reminder of what they do best: rediscover forgotten gems, then put them forward with such a strong case one wonders how these movies ever left the cultural consciousness at all.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Charlie Chaplin's Features, Ranked

I've ranked Chaplin's features before on this blog, but I tweaked that list order and some of my thoughts for a revised piece for Film.com. Check them out.

The Best Charlie Chaplin Short Films

Oh, Chaplin. The director I once thought was too simple compared to Keaton and too maudlin in otherwise great comedies has since emerged as one of my three of four favorite filmmakers, having finally understood his consummate genius in regards to every level of film production. Unlike most silent stars, his features bear that out better than his shorts (itself a suggestion of his higher, more textured artistic capacity), but those shorts nonetheless made him a global superstar and, what's more, show him constantly tinkering with ideas that would serve him well when he moved to more ambitious projects. The 10 films I listed for this piece are all works of an unending evolution, an artist who knew how to please a crowd even while pushing himself as a performer, writer and director, and they are as entertaining as works of riotous comedy as they are glimpses into a master's working process.

Check out my picks at Film.com.

DVDs/Streaming Picks 12/03/13

Last week's picks for new DVD and streaming releases for Film.com. I especially recommend the two Criterions, obviously. Read my post here.

Criminally Underrated: Paul W.S. Anderson

I could (and, hopefully someday, will) go longer and more in-depth on Paul W.S. Anderson given the time and inclination, but for now this is a brief overview of one of the handful of interesting genre filmmakers working in America today, certainly one of the few who makes films designed for multiplexes and makes them worth watching in any way, shape or form. There's no denying his scripts are stiff, but I could watch his establishing shots and his fluid action all day, to say nothing of his gift in putting forward Milla Jovovich as, with Jason Statham, the only credible modern action star in English-language film.

Read more of my thoughts on Anderson and Spectrum Culture.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Best DVDs/Streaming of the Week 11/19/13

I've started trading off weekly capsules on the week's best home video and streaming options at Film.com. My first was late last month and covers stuff like a reissued Ozu and the charming and surprisingly rich Violet & Daisy. Dig deep into those wallets people.

Read the rest of my picks here.

The Internet in Movies

After seeing the howling bad The Fifth Estate, I got to wondering about how Hollywood repeatedly and utterly fails to comprehend the Internet, even in otherwise great films on the subject like The Social Network (which works only because it hides Aaron Sorkin's complete confusion over the Internet under slabs of classical Hollywood drama that makes Facebook a MacGuffin and an allegory). So I collected some of my favorite recent examples (sorry, Hackers) and speculated about why no one can seem to get this topic right. Read my brief thoughts over at Film.com.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Capital (Costa-Gavras, 2013)

Oof, Costa-Gavras, how the mighty have fallen. Capital could have been any one of the recent Hollywood spate of disgustingly sympathetic portrayals of financial fat-cats, and its stabs a satire—from characters' confusion over the hedge fund schemes they themselves concoct to a coda that gives the equivalent of a "boys will be boys" justification with a sly wink—is so obviously rendered as to be neither funny nor piercing. Perhaps the issue is that for all the protagonist executive's jet-setting and skirt-chasing, we get little sense of his unchecked depravity, which only makes me more eager to see Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Final Warner Archive Picks

Sadly discontinued (I enjoyed this feature, not to mention free access to Warner's streaming service), here are the last few weeks of my picks of great films on Warner Archive Instant. I still highly recommend the service for cinephiles.

Week of 10/18

Week of 10/25

Week of 11/01

Week of 11/08

Ben Watson — Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation

Despite my love for free jazz, I've long struggled with some of the guitarists to circle around that movement, most especially Derek Bailey, whose brand of playing makes even the loose tag of "jazz" insufficient and limiting. I'd hoped this book would help sell me on him a bit more, and while Watson at times makes Bailey sound so fascinating, so worthy of repeated listening, the author often resorts to Marxist caterwauling about the superiority of nonmaterial music over commercial product (and you oughta see some of the people he argues are mainstream sell-outs). It picks up toward the end when Bailey's own period of comfortable, rewarding musicianship seems to make the biographer happy and content as well, but this was a sadly frustrating read that only deepens the sense that Bailey is for "superior minds," with all the tedium that entails.

Read my full review at Spectrum Culture.

10 Great Silent Horror Films

Ignore the headline chosen for the piece proper: I wouldn't classify these as truly the 10 scariest movies of the silent era; I still have much to see and I also tried to prevent any one director from getting too much in. Instead, this is more of a sampler, from German expressionism (natch) to an abstract Japanese short that is one of the most discombobulating things I've ever seen. I know it's December now and this ran back in, of course, October, but these films are worth watching anytime.

Read my full piece at Film.com.

Blu-Ray Review: Violet & Daisy (Cinedigm)

[Originally published at Cinespect]

The first 10 minutes of “Violet & Daisy” are among the most unbearable of the cinematic year, a gender-flipping riff on “The Boondock Saints” that proves definitively that even a goof on that film cannot be anything more than tedious and self-consciously hip. Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) are hitwomen first seen heading to an assignment wearing nun habits and carrying pizza boxes that hide their pistols, a too-precious image by half that miscalculates the novelty of seeing young women play ultraviolent parts. Punctuating a lifeless shootout with the sort of sub-Tarantinian banter that was old hat by 2000, “Violet & Daisy” threatens to collapse in on itself before the story can even start.

Everything changes, however, when Violet and Daisy head out to a new assignment and find their target eager for death. Michael is played by James Gandolfini, whose lumbering nature instantly slows down the bubbly, dark-chic tone of the film. He greets his killers cordially, encourages them to finish the job, and even makes them cookies when they hesitate to kill him. He does not even try to defend himself when he comes home to find them waiting for him asleep in his bed, a sort of reverse Goldilocks scenario in which the bear unsettles through his welcoming acceptance. The actor dissipates the noxiously cute tone that pervades the film’s opening, turning what promised to be an ironically chipper slaughter picture into a melancholic chamber piece that ducks wan genre tropes for true character study.

Gandolfini’s role is the sort it’s now all too easy to read too much into, a character who spends the entire film assembling his own eulogy. Yet it’s a far greater testament to the late actor’s skills that this was just another job for him, and the wealth of emotion with which he imbues the part proof of his preternatural ability to suggest an entire lifetime in a glance. Gandolfini was a huge man, but the heaviest things on him were always his eyelids, as if in a feat of reverse physics they were what propped up the rest of him. He gives even the smallest glance gulfs of pain, though he always ducks inchoate self-pity for a clarity so rare it’s no wonder the young women sent to kill him are too fascinated by it to carry out their job. Nevertheless, Gandolfini also helps ground the film in a more natural, effective humor, even when getting into macabre conversations in which he tries to help his would-be assassins kill him. A sample: Michael tries to save Violet the trouble of a trip to buy bullets by telling the girls, “I’ve got a pretty good steak knife…” and he even manages to make his silly follow-up, “Just tryin’ to help,” sound earnest and believable.

As a rising tide lifts all ships, so too does Gandolfini bring out the best in his co-stars. This is not Ronan’s first time playing a young professional whose innocence makes her capacity for violence all the more disturbing, but she never allows Daisy to be Hanna lite. Hanging around with Michael as Violet fetches bullets allows Ronan to bring out the childlike qualities of the child she plays, the bubbliness that grated so badly in the opening scene at last given a proper outlet to add cheer to Michael’s life without suffocating the film. As for Bledel, she has not shined like this since “Gilmore Girls,” overcoming the inevitable stiffness of her delivery with a slight huff that successfully masks her sometimes awkward cadence as professional impatience. And if Violet is the more dangerous and uncompromising of the two, she has the moments of greater vulnerability, especially as implied details of her treatment at the hands of rival, male assassins make her sudden, paralytic fear around them all the more horrifying.

Geoffrey Fletcher’s script keeps a surprising number of twists at the ready, and all of them succeed not only in throwing the viewer for a loop but also in deepening the increasingly inescapable quagmire in which the characters find themselves. Betrayals of others’ trust and one’s own convictions threaten to tear already loose bonds even as Michael helps bring the two killers closer, and the film itself ultimately becomes a light treatise on everything from female friendship to the morality of dishonesty to the question of whether a death on one’s own terms is preferable to a life without resolution. A flurry of gunfire punctuates both of the film’s stabs at action, but it’s a single gunshot that truly communicates loss, and those who cannot make it past the film’s rocky start to get to the beautiful work within are missing out.

“Violet & Daisy” wears its virtues on its sleeves, and as such Cinedigm’s Blu-ray goes to no great lengths to defend the film from its generally hostile reception, with only a slideshow of posters and the theatrical trailer included as extras. Still, it faithfully preserves the balance that Fletcher and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul strike between bright color palettes and the somber, duller tones that creep into the frame with Gandolfini’s introduction, and the audio track is subtly mixed to favor dialogue over gunshots. It’s a modest package for a modest but rewarding film, a spare release that keeps all focus on the actors, which is where it belongs.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Toad Road (Jason Banker, 2013)

I hate to kick an independent trying to get their start, but I also cannot abide the laziness with which so many treat horror as a cynical means to a quick paycheck. Toad Road has aspirations to a commentary on drug dependency but its improvisational style requires too much of its nonprofessional cast, who struggle to articulate anything even resembling humanity as the film lurches toward a final act that plays at psychological terror but instead looks like a high-schooler dicking around with iMovie effects. To even call it a film is about as charitable as one can be about it.

Read the rest of my review at Spectrum Culture.

How I Live Now (Kevin Macdonald, 2013)

I've somewhat cooled on this already tepid response in the month since I reviewed it, but I nonetheless feel there are aspects of How I Live Now to admire, mainly in the first act when the kids act naturally against a looming threat of war. After the bombs go off, though, I'm not so sure, and the atrocity exhibition of the final act is particularly gross, especially when it ends with an affirmation of a creepily reactionary family unit of teens. Still Ronan is great, as ever, and there are enough moments to make it worth at least one viewing.

My full review is at Spectrum Culture.

The Cobweb (Vincente Minnelli, 1955)

Vincente Minnelli stages a madhouse drama around the psychological impact of poorly chosen drapes. In other words, this is about as Minnelli as it gets. Naturally, it's wonderful. Read my review at Spectrum Culture.

Paradise (Diablo Cody, 2013)

I've previously been a defender of Diablo Cody's but her directorial debut is everything her detractors have accused her of being: simplistic, condescending, so caught up in her cute dialogue that character is left out in the cold. Its insultingly reductive view of religion can make even a staunch atheist blanch with embarrassment and sympathy, and any film that must rest on the shoulders of Julianne Hough is doomed from the start. A heinous picture.

Read more at Spectrum Culture.

Blu-Ray Review: Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project (Criterion)

Been super busy for a month now, about to be even more so as I take on end-of-year assignments and get set to move to Atlanta. Will be updating this blog with links over the next week or so to try and make sure I've got everything here. For now I'll put up my latest piece, a review of the films in Criterion's new, essential World Cinema Project box set, a collection of six films from various corners of the globe that are as distinct stylistically as geographically yet are linked by their ability to subtly break out of Western film language to illuminate some aspect of their historical, mythological and social lives. It is one of the best releases the label have put out in years, and I hope but the first of its kind.

Read my full review at Film.com.