Monday, November 25, 2013

Philomena (***)

Directed by Stephen Frears


Stephen Frears is one of the most consistent filmmakers working today, which makes it all the more unsettling that he's spent his last few movies orchestrating English prestige Oscar bait. When you think that he was the man behind such excitingly vibrant films like My Beautiful Laundrette, The Grifters and High Fidelity, it feels a bit like betrayal to see that he's got both the Freddie Mercury AND the Lance Armstrong biography coming down the pike. All that said, is there anyone playing the Oscar bait game who makes films as good as Frears? Is there anyone who really believes that Helen Mirren didn't deserve her steamroll toward an Oscar for Frears' The Queen? And while his 2009 collaboration with Michelle Pfeiffer, Cheri, was mostly dismissed as prestige pandering, it is actually an exceptionally made adaptation of Colette's novel of the same name. Frears is one of the few directors I trust in the Oscar bait director's chair, because he does actually care about making a good movie, even if he doesn't exactly have to. If he'd made The Iron Lady two years ago, I might have actually gone to see it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Nebraska (****)

Directed by Alexander Payne


Bruce Dern is a seventy-three year old actor who's spent most of those years working consistently as a Hollywood character actor. He was at the peak of his powers in the 1970's, with bombastic performances in films like Coming Home (for which he was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar) and Black Sunday. His version of Tom Buchanan is probably the only quality part of the otherwise droll 1974 version of The Great Gatsby. But he's spent most of his career as a relative unknown, especially these days, where his Oscar nomination is now forty-five years old. (Having just finished the documentary on actor John Cazale, I Knew It Was You, I realized the great parallels between Cazale and Dern - both terrific character actors. I wondered, had Cazale lived past 42 years, if he would've ever gotten his Nebraska). Alexander Payne's newest film, Nebraska, is the first time that Dern has been chosen to lead a picture. Staying true to his consistent professionalism, Dern delivers a perfect performance so evasive yet so incredibly intimate. The film also continues the consistent greatness of Payne, amongst America's best filmmakers, who crafts one of his best, most emotionally complex films to date.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Book Thief (**)

Directed by Brian Percival


The Book Thief really means well, and the overall nice-ness of the storytelling here makes it hard to really dislike. In it's purest form, this is really a story built for children, based on Markus Zusak's young adult novel, yet Brian Percival's film wants the prestige of a serious adult drama. It feels like its overextending its reach, even if it does have the gravity of a Holocaust story on its side. The Holocaust has inspired some of the very best films that I've ever seen (Schindler's List, Seven Beauties), but it's also inspired some disasters (The Reader, Life is Beautiful), with filmmakers attempting to tap one of history's greatest tragedies for sentimentality or life-affirming propaganda. It probably has less to do with the subject matter and more to do with the fact that there have just been so many damn movies made about it. The Book Thief is far from being either the best or the worst Holocaust movie, finding itself somewhere in the middle, with a collection of performances that manage to just raise it above dull.

Dallas Buyers Club (**1/2)

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee


It's hard not to feel like Matthew McConaughey's recent career resurgence is reaching its crescendo here with Dallas Buyers Club. It's a striking performance, so captivating and virile. He famously lost 35 pounds, and its a testament to the performance that it doesn't feel too much like stunt acting. It's a juicy role, one that's screams out for awards attention, but McConaughey plays it without shame, and even at times without decency. That is to say, by avoiding the obvious way to play the role, he made it seem like that was the obvious way all along. This is what happens when you get the right movie star to play the right part - this was also proven with Tom Hanks in Captain Philips and Robert Redford in All is Lost. But what about the movie itself? Dallas Buyers Club's premise is problematic on its own, but what's to say of its execution, which nearly forces us to feel compassion for a homophobic bigot and an AIDS profiteer? Shouldn't that matter at all? It's a film that requires a lot of unpacking, even if it does supply a highly watchable two hours.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color (**)

La vie d'Adele
Written, Produced and Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche


If certain straight people think that homosexuality is too mainstream, they should go and watch Blue is the Warmest Color. It's bullish, in-your-face and doesn't hide it's romantic entanglements behind narrative structure. It won the prestigious Palme D'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival earlier in the year, and was the first time in the festival's history that the award was given to two of the film's lead actresses as well as the director. It's part sexual awakening, part lesbian docudrama. It's part love story arc, part Mike Leigh-level improv experiment. It's depiction of the sex life between two women was explicit enough to earn the film an NC-17 rating, yet it probably spends more time peaking into classrooms, watching students of various ages read from pages of literature. Blue is the Warmest Color is one of the most important movies that you can see in a theater this year, but it is also probably one of the dullest, unequivocally muted by it's own need to capture reality, instead capturing mundanity.