Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Blue Jasmine (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen


Coming up with a story for a movie every year for nearly forty-five years is enough to tax even the most gifted idea man, so it's no wonder Woody Allen has borrowed some from time to time. If anything, he's proven himself to be quite gifted at adaptation. Stardust Memories was a pleasantly sardonic recreation of Fellini's 8 1/2, and Match Point was a pointedly severe vision of George Stevens' brilliant 1951 melodrama A Place in the Sun. That he's able to borrow so heavily without ever betraying his trademark style - or without crediting anyone else on his screenplay - is another testament to just how brilliant a screenwriter and filmmaker Woody is. Blue Jasmine has pretty heavy illusions to the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire in both theme and structure, but Woody is able to take the baroque Williams and translate it in that lovably simplistic Woody way. The result is his best film since 1999's Sweet and Lowdown.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Act of Killing (****)

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer


Every once in a while, it's nice to get a reminder how lucky we are to be part of Western democracies, where we're governed by institutions that allow for freedom of speech and the freedom to choose our beliefs and political affiliations. As The Act of Killing shows, there are many places that are not nearly as lucky. The film takes a sharp look at Indonesia and its stringent history for exterminating "communists". In the 1960's, Indonesia's path toward overcoming dictatorship was paved with vicious mass killings acted out by hired "gangsters". Those suspected of being communists were taken in, interrogated and almost always killed - killed in viciously creative ways, with all of the gangsters relishing the chance to act out scenes they saw in Hollywood movies. But specific people are targeted, ethnic Chinese living in the country are extorted, forced to pay officers or else they will be taken and killed by the gangsters as well.

Only God Forgives (*)

Written and Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn


Nicolas Winding Refn's follow-up to 2011's Drive is stuffed with more violence, more neon, more flying limbs and more ruckus. Every year at the Cannes Film Festival, there's a big name film that's served up on a platter and sacrificed ruthlessly by some of the harshest, most severe movie snobs in the world. The premiere of Only God Forgives at the prestigious festival was met with boos, a bunch of walkouts, and a smattering of reviews meant to make Refn go hiding in a cave. It's a ritual that seems gratuitous, and the strongest venom is almost always saved for big name filmmakers (remember how they tore apart Fernando Merielles for Blindness?), but even with all that, the films that they pick on are almost always as bad as they're claimed to be. Only God Forgives may be one of the most correctly heckled films in the history of the festival.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Hunt (****)

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg


I'm not sure any group of people are better at making uncomfortable films than the Danish. Led by Lars von Trier, their films generally explore topics that most people would rather just believe don't exist. In the 1990's, Thomas Vinterberg and von Trier worked together to create the Dogme Manifesto, a cinematic declaration to make purely unfiltered movies without all of the frills that draw the film business away from reality. The first and best film from this movement was The Celebration, written and directed by Vinterberg. The Dogme group didn't last long, and its fair to wonder if it was more gimmick then substance, but these Danish filmmakers continued to tell these stories, albeit with greater means, making audiences squirm as they explore darker and darker material. The Hunt is a continuation of that tradition, and it's probably Vinterberg's best film since Celebration.

Fruitvale Station (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Ryan Coogler

Fruitvale Station is the kind of movie made if you want to be outraged in a post-George Zimmerman world. With the controversial "not guilty" verdict coming down just a day after Fruitvale's premiere, the cynic inside of me felt like The Weinstein Company may have been the only liberal-agenda'd organization happy with the controversial jury decision (obviously, I'm being facetious). There's no way the filmmakers or the Weinsteins could have known that history would be so fated and play such a sorrowful note of timing, but this is the world that we live in and this is the vacuum in which Fruitvale will likely be viewed. It's not totally fair, but it's something that is so apparent in any theater screening this film that it almost has to be a talking point as you head out of the theater. If this were a piece of fiction, it would have felt eerily prescient. But its base in fact only leaves us with a rather bleak reality filled with a pattern of racially-charged violence.

I guess I should warn now that this review contains what may be seen as major spoilers. It's hard to discuss the film otherwise. It was a big news story in 2008, so I assume most people already know the story (I was actually totally ignorant of it and found out - you guessed it - by reading a review), but if you don't know the details and don't want to know, I'd turn away now. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Pacific Rim (**)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro


Pacific Rim is about as good as I'd figured it would be (not very) and as dumb as I'd hoped it would be (epically). It's completely aware of what it has to do as a movie, totally knowledgable of the films of yonder that paved the way, and executes its plan while making its ancestors proud. It's a physical light show, devoid of meaning but overflowing in testosterone. It is also completely empty, armed with characters slightly less flimsy than cardboard and a screenplay that actually makes you think: "Yeah, that was alright but they way they did it in Independence Day was better". It's a movie for America, and its also a movie for the world, shamelessly pumped with global iconography hoping to snag as many international moviegoers as possible, but enough arrogance to realize that it is absolutely a Hollywood movie.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Way, Way Back (***)

Written and Directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash


I think we've all been part of a terrible vacation - they always seem to happen at some beach house, the heat adding to the discomfort - surrounded by people you don't want to be around, pretending to have fun. Vacations are supposed to be times of absolute relaxation and endless exuberance, so when it ceases to be enjoyable, it's twice the burden. This is the plight of Duncan (Liam James), a 14-year-old loner with the usual social awkwardness particular to young teenage boys. His summer from Hell is on a beach in the Hamptons, where he's placed in an unbelievably charming coming-of-age story, torn between two men who are two completely different types of childish.