Sunday, August 31, 2014

The One I Love (**)

Directed by Charlie McDowell


Outside of their breakout hit from 2005, The Puffy Chair, the Duplass brothers' films have always felt like high concepts searching for a meaning. The plots and scripts are tight and the performances are inspired, but the substance behind it all is fleeting and unremarkable. For The One I Love, the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, are only listed as producers. The director is first-timer Charlie McDowell who, with one film, shows that he already has a profoundly more astute cinematic eye and attention to visual detail that the Mumblecore legends never really had. The script, written by Justin Lader, defies reality in ways that the Duplasses have never dared to do - a stab at Charlie Kaufman that's just unique enough to not feel completely derivative. And yet, the film still feels like the air has been let out. For all its zaniness, what is The One I Love actually getting at? The film's main conceit has been held so tightly under wraps, and all reviews have followed the filmmaker's wishes of keeping the main twist a secret. It's an interesting marketing ploy that inspires curiosity but also requires cooperation from others, and surprisingly The One I Love has gotten that cooperation. But with all this budding interest, can the film hold itself up under the scrutiny?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Love is Strange (***1/2)

Directed by Ira Sachs


Love is Strange is such an understated piece of filmmaking that some may not realize just how powerful it is. The story's protagonists are two upper-middle-aged gay men who've just gotten married, but it is not trying to be progressive or break the mold on serious social issues. It's a very measured document of love, marriage, family and getting older, that has glimmers of social tensions in the background because, well, those kinds of things are always playing back-up to the main spectacle that is the drama of our current lives. It's two stars are Alfred Molina and John Lithgow - both veteran performers known well for their training, their work on the stage and their reliable supporting work in films. Neither have ever had any real chance to carry a movie as its star, and even now with this film, they share that burden together. In a way, that lends heavily toward Love is Strange's balanced, generous ensemble which they lead without an ounce of competition or showmanship. It's a wonderful experience, crafted by director Ira Sachs into one of the most genuine movie experiences of the year.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Life After Beth (*1/2)

Written and Directed by Jeff Baena


Life After Beth is another in a string of projects headed by Aubrey Plaza in an effort to streamline the comedienne's transition from television's hit show Parks and Recreation to film stardom. Plaza is beautiful and legitimately funny, and appears to have more talent in a more variety of ways then most actresses working in major films. But she's yet to show she can really carry a film. To be fair, I don't mean to argue that she can't do it, she just hasn't been able to do it yet, and it should be said that none of the material she's been given has really been anything that really gives her much of a fair shot. Films like Safety Not Guaranteed and The To-Do List are lightweight fare, sure, but both films kind of left her on an island, to find character beyond what's on the page. About Alex gave Plaza the most adult, actor-ly role she's ever had, but it felt too much like she was playing against her own comedic persona - she was trying to branch away from the act that people like to see her perform. Life After Beth is the best lead role she's ever received - it allows her to explore her own deadpan, zombiefied delivery while playing an actual zombie. It's a brilliant piece of casting. And yet, none of the other decisions made by the first-time director Jeff Baena seem as inspired as that one.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

About Alex (**)

Written and Directed by Jesse Zwick


I'm not sure who was asking for a Big Chill for millennials, but we just got it. It's an interesting thing to watch a film like About Alex which is so sentimental and obsessed with nostalgia that it's both nostalgic about the 80's - it's film and music culture - while also being nostalgic about it's present young adult generation, an aimless group of people who are starting families later in life and complaining about student loans earlier than ever. We're bitter about the misdeeds of our parents' generation, we're angry that college is impossibly expensive and we're fucking furious that we bounced right into the worst job market since The Great Depression. Or at least, that's what filmmaker Jesse Zwick seems to want us to think. About Alex collects a serviceable cast filled with actors that are known mostly for television and gives them a plot that's probably more suitable for a television pilot, giving us only snippets of character while following through on a very film student-y script that never really disappoints but surely never really excites. It's ideas are noble enough and it has a cast that at least seems excited to plow through them, but the film really only touches the surface of the darker issues that it really wants to tackle.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams (1951-2014)

By the time I was born, Robin Williams was already one of the most famous comedians alive. My coming into consciousness coincided with him becoming a bonafide movie star. I don't know anything about a world that doesn't involve Robin Williams. I guess I'll have to learn. His shift into family films could not have happened at a more convenient time for me. Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire were two of the first films that I truly fell in love with. He was the first actor that I ever truly recognized. I knew that he was the star of Aladdin even though I only heard his voice. By this point in his career, he'd already proven himself as a legitimate actor beforehand. Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King gave him one of his four Oscar nominations, and it's probably the only performance of his that really allowed his manic comedic style to fuse together with his more subdued cinematic persona. His career was never consistent. He never went five years without making at least one film that was total crap, but he probably also never went that same time frame without giving at least one truly inspired film performance, or a rousing stand-up special. He was a tiresome cultural figure, but the effort was always part of his act. He was 100% hilarious, and even if a decade of sub-par movies led to us taking him for granted, his appearances on The Tonight Show or his bits during the Academy Awards reminded us that he was one of the funniest people in America. He won his only, much-deserved Oscar for Good Will Hunting, with a performance so beautifully timed and wise. His scenes as a sad-sack therapist across from Matt Damon's tortured Will Hunting are the highlight of the film, filled with wondrous monologues that only work because Williams gives that character such a sincere, lived-in dynamic. It's a funny performance, but not in the usual way that Williams is funny. The news of his suicide is shocking, but it was never easy to ignore the dark undertones of his stand-up bits and his frequent references to addiction. The worst part about this kind of death is that we may never see his movies without a filter of sadness, trying to find the cries for help. I hope that doesn't happen with him, because he was all about giving people joy and that's how he became one of the most beloved celebrity figures of my generation. His presence was recurring, never constant but always around. I'll miss his warm, some may say flammable, nature and the way it lit his movies, a lot of which would have been nothing without him. I'll miss the way he could interact in a scene with other, more heralded actors (consider the work he does with Pacino in Christopher Nolan's Insomnia) allowing others' talent to prevail while never succumbing himself. I will miss Robin Williams. I know I'm not alone in that, but it's important to be said. He gave away a lot of laughs to people who were more than happy to take it. Selfishly, I'd love to have some more, but luckily he gave us a treasury of films and specials for us to choose from if we ever decide to revisit him.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Calvary (***1/2)

Written and Directed by John Michael McDonagh


The Vatican sits in Rome, but no culture is more tightly linked or more implicated by the Catholic Church than the Irish. A large part of their existence is dictated by the strict ideals of this incredibly archaic institution. It doesn't help that they're surrounded by the islands of the United Kingdom and their largely Protestant populations alienating them. The ripples of Catholicism often find their way through the music and films and literature of the Irish, if even tangentially. It has a pretty prevalent presence in the work of the McDonagh brothers. Martin is an award-winning playwright, and a filmmaker who has directed at least one modern classic, In Bruges. His brother, John Michael, is a filmmaker as well, whose second film, Calvary is the most direct reference to the religious practice that either of them has ever made. It's protagonist is played by Brendan Gleeson, who was the star of In Bruges and John Michael's first film, The Guard, and provides a steady, actorly dynamic to this particularly bleak film. The film is not atheist porn, spouting Christopher Hitchins rhetoric about the evils of having faith, but instead a much more measured documentation of the rotting fish that the Catholic church is quickly becoming.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (***)

Directed by James Gunn


If we're considering Guardians of the Galaxy to be amongst the very best of the twenty-first century superheroes movies era - and it seems like we are - I think that most of it's success, and that which sets it apart from all the other films in this glutted genre, is it's commitment to being, first and foremost, a comedy. The Marvel Avengers series and its several component films blew past Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy in popularity because they refused to take themselves seriously (and because they had Robert Downey Jr.). Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't take itself seriously because it's, in fact, not a serious film. George Lucas caught a lot of grief for the amount of hacky humor, but few understand is that Star Wars transformed commercial filmmaking and science fiction cinema because people connected to the humor. If they hadn't, science fiction brands would have exploded in popularity a decade earlier with 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm not sure any commercial franchise film has ever been closer to Star Wars than Guardians of the Galaxy and yet it feels incredibly unique, an Avengers with more edge, less kid-friendly. It's a superhero movie filled with particularly unheroic personalities.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight (**)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen


Here's an interesting statistic: there hasn't been a single year in my life in which Woody Allen hasn't released a new film. His institution is well known, but for me personally, the arrival of each new film is very comforting. The fact that his tastes and styles and themes have more or less cemented themselves into a stasis actually helps his relevance as a filmmaker; while the rest of the world evolves and cinema itself breaks more ground, Woody's films stay essentially the same. Watching the same Windsor font of the type face as the opening credits appear, the main actors always presented alphabetically - there's no such thing as "billing" with him - you're put inside a time capsule. You could have easily seen Magic in the Moonlight in 1987 or 1999, because Woody doesn't budge for the swaying tides of culture. This is why every Woody Allen film, for me at least, is worth watching. Because you're reminded of every delightful detail and all the fond memories. Even when the film you're watching isn't very memorable. And while you can call Magic in the Moonlight many things, I'm not sure memorable would crack the list.