07/01/15 5:20am
photo courtesy of A24

Directed by Asif Kapadia
Opens July 3

Many music documentaries tend to take a wistful perspective on an artist’s life and work—a sort of good-person-despite-it-all tack that privileges creative genius over complex experience. (It only matters what they say about you, not how you got there.) The subjects in these sorts of films tend to come off as Teflon saints, their flaws rationalized, their edges sanded. Much of this has to do, surely, with interviewees and others not wanting to speak ill of the dead. Yet being raised to the level of a god often does the artist a disservice, leeching them of their humanity, hollowing them out by making them easy sells.


05/20/15 8:45am
photo courtesy of Disney

Directed by Brad Bird
Opens May 22

The very talented Brad Bird (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) made a big show of turning down the directorial reins on Star Wars: Episode VII. “It’s rare to do a film of size that’s original,” he said at New York Comic Con, describing the impetus that led him afield from a galaxy far, far away, and toward a much more personal project—a futuristic adventure based on a Walt Disney amusement park theme world. Hrmmm.

Skepticism that Tomorrowland will be anything other than a glossy specimen of corporate soullessness seems borne out by its off-putting opening scenes, in which stars George Clooney and Britt Robertson do some fourth wall-breaking wisecracking in an effort to get the viewing audience up to snuff. Clooney’s Frank Walker was once a boy-genius scientist (Thomas Robinson plays the younger Walker) who stumbled upon a secret entrance to the titular alternate reality while attending the 1964 World’s Fair. There he befriended a plucky girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and tried to win the approval of her stern father David Nix (Hugh Laurie), Tomorrowland’s de facto ruler.

Several decades later, rebellious teen Casey Newton (Robertson) receives a mysterious pin that, when touched, gives her brief entrée to this gleaming otherworld of rocket ships, jet packs and Space Mountain™. Her tour through Tomorrowland is captured in a surely digitally assisted but still exhilarating single shot that makes it seem (after the unpromising beginning) as if Bird has finally wrestled full control of the material from the Mouse House overlords. That sense continues as Casey goes in search of the now-grown Frank Walker, with Athena—who has strangely never aged—at her side.

There’s a Joe Dante-like kick to many of the subsequent sequences: a comic book store strewn with pop-cultural detritus from Forbidden Planet to Planet of the Apes to Star Wars is the site of a bull-in-a-china-shop showdown between Casey and two laser-toting androids. A mock movie poster advertising the latest in a series of postapocalyptic thrillers hints at some of the provocatively darker turns the script (co-written by Bird and, ugh, Lost ’n’ Leftovers creator Damon Lindelof) will take. And there’s a thrilling stretch during which Casey, Athena and Frank team up to escape from a creepy band of Men in Black, culminating in a spectacular setpiece atop the Eiffel Tower.

Then, sad to say, the film reveals its true colors. Those who criticized Bird’s Pixar-produced superhero tale The Incredibles for its vaguely disguised Ayn Randianism will have a field day with the third act of Tomorrowland, which posits this lustrous world to come as a utopia where the human race’s most imaginative citizens can brainstorm all of Earth’s problems away. All it requires is more benevolent dictators than Laurie’s dour cynic—who has inadvertently pushed humanity closer to destruction because of his simple lack of faith—as well as a United Colors of Benetton-esque recruitment program that cannily attempts to ward off any and all suspicions by being so multiculturally all-inclusive. This truly is a movie dear to Bird’s heart, even though it’s corny, childish gibberish writ large.

04/27/15 9:00am
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Far from the Madding Crowd
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Opens May 1

Thomas Vinterberg’s sun-dappled, superficial adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s beloved novel certainly wins the award for briskness. Hardy’s 480-pages (in Penguin paperback) are condensed into two spry hours (John Schlesinger’s 1967 feature starring an in-their-prime Julie Christie and Terence Stamp ran to nearly three), though the quickened pace often comes at the expense of emotional coherence.

Carey Mulligan is quite good as Hardy’s heroine Bathsheba Everdene, a headstrong woman living in Victorian England who juggles the affections of three men after she is willed a family farm. Beleaguered shepherd Gabriel Oak (Mattias Schoenaerts, a sadly dull specimen of rugged manhood) is her soulmate, though misfortune has left him on a lower social station, and marriage (which our leading lady is semi-appalled by anyway) is especially out of the question after he goes to work as Everdene’s caretaker. That leaves wealthy milquetoast William Boldwood (Michael Sheen, having fun as usual), who mainly exists as a toyed-affections target, and Sergeant Troy (pretty-faced Tom Sturridge), a handsome young soldier who courts Everdene despite being in love with the hardship-prone Fanny Robin (Juno Temple, doing a corseted variation of her manic-pixie-dream-girl routine).

Each twist of this tragicomic love story feels rushed-through, as if we’re watching a season-long soap opera that’s been inelegantly condensed. As a result, the film lacks any impassioned spark, something Vinterberg tries to make up for with plenty of gauzy pillow shots of grassy English landscapes. More often though, he sticks disagreeably close to his actors, as if trying to recapture some of the visceral charge of his Dogme 95 family melodrama The Celebration (1998).

There are a few memorable images, like the one in which Oak’s flock of sheep is herded off a seaside cliff by a mad dog. But only one scene feels properly breathless—when Troy’s infatuated redcoat woos Everdene by swinging his sharp-edged sword around her body so as to prove his trustworthiness. The threat of blood being let makes the viewer’s blood pump. Beyond that, though, this is little more than handsomely mounted Cliffs Notes cinema.

02/25/15 8:59am
photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Opens February 27

For its first two acts, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s twisty con artist romance is a slick delight. Will Smith is Nicky, a charismatic grifter who crosses paths with amateur thief Jess (The Wolf of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie) after she and an inept partner try to rip him off in a Manhattan hotel. Realizing Nicky is her entrée into an exclusive criminal underworld of lucrative hustles and scams, Jess convinces him to be her mentor. Atop the snow-covered roof garden of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe theater, Nicky educates his protégé in sleight-of-hand watch and wallet lifts—a schooling that doubles as the first of this very attractive duo’s many amorous gambols.

It isn’t long before Jess is brought into the flimflammer’s fold for a series of con jobs during championship football week in New Orleans. This extended section is the movie’s highlight, as Nicky, Jess, and a motley crew of mountebanks lift all manner of valuables from unsuspecting gridiron fanatics. It culminates in a brilliant setpiece in a VIP skybox at the Superdome as Nicky appears to lose all of the stolen cash in a series of bets with a gambling-addicted businessman (BD Wong)…or does he? (If nothing else, this beautifully constructed scene shows there’s still inspiration to be wrung from yet zanother needle-drop of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For the Devil.”)

Post-New Orleans, the film jumps forward three years and one continent to Buenos Aires, where Nicky and Jess find themselves at odds trying to pull one over on a wealthy race car enthusiast (Rodrigo Santoro). The double-crosses and deceptions pile up (none too convincingly) and the movie goes irreparably slack—a problem that also plagued Ficara and Requa’s relationship comedy Crazy Stupid Love, which, similarly, began boisterously and then turned irritatingly sluggish. Swindler cinema is only as good as its architecture; once the big picture is revealed, viewers should be thrilled at having had one pulled over on them. Focus, sadly, leaves you feeling bilked.

02/11/15 9:00am
Photo courtesy of BBC Worldwide North America

Queen and Country
Directed by John Boorman
Opens February 18 at Film Forum

Once more unto the breach for writer-director John Boorman, who revisits the semiautobiographical characters from his superb WWII dramedy Hope and Glory (1987) in the beautifully bittersweet Queen and Country. It’s been almost ten years since young Bill Rohan, Boorman’s onscreen alter ego, gleefully witnessed his elementary school destroyed by one of Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombers. Now it’s 1952 and eighteen-year-old Bill (played by the fetching, charismatic Callum Turner) is conscripted for two years’ mandatory service in the British Army, which is currently embroiled in the war in Korea. Not that he’ll see any action: Barring the occasional leave, Bill is assigned to a gated-in boot camp where he lectures prospective recruits alongside his troublemaking pal Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) and does battle with several stuck-up authority figures, from the PTSD-suffering Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis) to the growling taskmaster RSM Digby (Brían F. O’Byrne).

There’s a lady, too: Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton), a mysterious dream woman who our lovestruck protagonist pursues against all odds, and who Boorman shoots with the same mythical gauziness as Helen Mirren’s Morgana in Excalibur (1981). Fantasy has always played a crucial role in Boorman’s cinema, though it’s especially affecting here (as it was in Hope and Glory) because it carries the weight of lived experience. This is the now 82-year-old filmmaker casting a hard glance back at himself through a deceptively whimsical lens. There’s never a moment when Queen and Country isn’t a joy to watch, as infectiously giddy in its way as the elaborate prank Percy orchestrates involving a Queen Victoria-owned antique clock. But there’s real sadness underlying even the gentlest scenes; a whole movie could be made about Bill’s free-spirited expat sister (Vanessa Kirby), whose status quo-deflating eccentricity goes hand-in-hand with her unspoken anguish about the many irritations, but also the relative stability, of family and tradition.

There’s a longing in the film that isn’t quite rose-tinted nostalgia—more a yearning for a moment when there was plenty of time to waste on frivolous things and the future could sort itself out. The final passages of Queen and Country are among the most moving Boorman has ever directed because they have the feel of a valediction, a great artist saying goodbye not only to his youth, but to all the ups, downs and in-betweens that followed.

12/17/14 4:59pm
Photo courtesy of Disney

Into the Woods
Directed by Rob Marshall
Opens December 25

For Stephen Sondheim obsessives, the news that his sublime 1986 musical, Into the Woods, was finally making its way to cinemas was cause for celebration and concern. Sondheim’s material typically hasn’t been treated well in movies; he’s a major theater artist whose multilayered music and lyrics somehow seem diminished on the big screen. (Search Elizabeth Taylor and A Little Night Music on YouTube for an especially horrifying example.) That Rob Marshall was helming the composer’s beloved fractured fairy tale was even more distressing; as suggested by Chicago (2002) and Nine (2009), he’s the 21st century’s answer to lifeless theater-to-film transplant Joshua Logan.


12/03/14 4:00am
Photo courtesy of FOX


Exodus: Gods and Kings
Directed by Ridley Scott
Opens December 12

Who knew Sir Ridley had a goofy biblical spectacular in him? The mega-budgeted Exodus: Gods and Kings elicits plenty of (unintentional?) giggles at the start with the casting of John Turturro as a Hebrew-killing pharaoh. But this is actually the rather dynamic and very handsomely mounted tale of the rivalry between the despotic ruler’s son Rhamses (guylined and bronzed-all-over Joel Edgerton) and Moses (charismatic Christian Bale), an adopted child of Egyptian royalty with a most prophetic destiny. Moses supposes (erroneously) that his loyalties lie with the sovereignty. In truth, he is the divinity-dictated leader of the many Judaic slaves (a squandered Aaron Paul and Ben Kingsley among them) longing to resettle in Canaan across the Red Sea.


11/05/14 4:00am

Open Windows
Directed by Nacho Vigalondo

Glowing-eyed telepathic zombies are attacking a bowling alley! What’re a guy and a girl desperately holding onto their humanity to do? Some sexy fun time should take their minds off the brain-dead apocalypse. But wait, what’s this? It’s just a movie—specifically the trailer, premiering at Austin, Texas’s annual Fantastic Fest, for sassy starlet Jill Goddard’s (Sasha Grey) latest horror opus. Clever fake-out. But as the clearly irritated prima donna takes the stage for a cattish Q&A, another layer gets peeled: We’re actually watching the event via live-stream on the personal computer of Goddard’s number one fan Nick Chambers (Elijah Wood), who’s won an online contest to have dinner with his beloved scream queen.

Or has he? Part of the fun of Nacho Vigalando’s ultimately too-clever shocker is watching Nick get pulled deeper and deeper into a byzantine conspiracy—involving Jill, a masked kidnapper (Neil Maskell), a trio of French hackers and an identity-shifting tech guru (basically Bill Gates by way of Banksy)—without ever leaving his laptop. That’s not to say Open Windows is the equivalent of a single-set play. Though there’s some Rear Window-esque stage setting in our meek protagonist’s hotel room, Vigalondo is quick to contrive a scenario in which Nick is forced to go on the run and keep his MacBook (or its Apple-rival equivalent) running.

The mobile PC gives us one perspective, but that title is literal: There are cameras everywhere, and their respective views pop up on Nick’s desktop as the plot requires, to thrillingly kaleidoscopic effect. (Talk about a movie made for watching while web-surfing.) Wood gets to mine some of the same paranoid pathos as he did in the recent giallo homage Grand Piano, and Grey does well in a role that, at times, leans too heavily on her status as a porn movie icon to facilely implicate the fanboy demographic (see the near-exploitative striptease sequence). The whole movie is a clever stunt—there’s even a crazy climactic car chase!—that intrigues as long the overall endgame remains murky. Unfortunately, Vigalondo is out to make a larger statement about the debasements of our plugged-in culture that his cheap-thrills architecture barely supports.

Opens November 7

10/22/14 4:00am

Directed by Alexandre Aja
Opens October 31

The devil take him: one minute small-town disc jockey Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) is lying with his childhood sweetheart Merrin Williams (Juno Temple) in romantic bliss. The next he’s waking up in the topsy-turvy real world where his beloved is dead and he’s the prime suspect in her murder. His family looks at him suspiciously, he’s hounded by paparazzi, and all the townspeople want him dead. It’s his own personal hell, and would that Alexandre Aja’s lukewarm horror romance (adapted by Keith Bunin from a novel by Joe Hill) took the hint and approached the material with more Beelzebub-ian fire.

Though the Lord of the Flies himself doesn’t appear, Ig does feel the scorch of the underworld after he sprouts a pair of horns. Are these physical manifestations of his guilt, or something more? Now every time he’s around other people, they confess, and sometimes enact, their darkest desires. This leads to a number of ribald farcical encounters—like the doctor who wants to take his comely assistant’s temperature with his meat thermometer—but it also provides for a way to find Merrin’s real killer.

Radcliffe throws himself into the role with such committed, baggy-eyed brooding you’d think he was playing one of the great tragic love stories. But his efforts are thwarted by Aja’s wet-blanket filmmaking—the film runs a very bloated two hours (in particular, some lengthy flashbacks to Ig and Merrin’s childhood feel entirely expendable)—and the wild vacillations in tone. It’s hard to take the gauzy scenes of the couple’s courtship very seriously when they’re juxtaposed with labored instances of gross-out comedy (the watering-hole introvert who’s always wanted to give everyone a full-frontal show) and fire-and-brimstone shenanigans (demon… snakes… moving… so… slowly) that barely cause the pulse to quicken.

Among the supporting performers, David Morse fares best, bringing true pathos to the role of Merrin’s grieving father. And it’s fun to see Kathleen Quinlan and James Remar as Ig’s parents, even though they both play their horns-influenced confessions way too broadly. But what a waste Aja and company make of the lovely Heather Graham as a floozy waitress whose lies about Ig put her in a literally hissable predicament. Rollergirl, you’ve fallen so far.

08/17/09 12:00pm

You may also wish to check out the L’s coverage of Tarantino’s new Inglourious Basterds, reviewed here by Nicolas Rapold, and discussed here by Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart

As some readers may know, I’m not the world’s most enthusiastic defender of Quentin Tarantino; I discussed my reservations about him a while back with my friend Keith Uhlich, the managing editor of The House Next Door, a Time Out New York film critic and an unabashed Tarantino booster. But because I do admire Tarantino’s idiosyncratic style, and because some of Keith’s arguments made me question my assumptions, I took another look at the director’s work in advance of his latest feature, Inglourious Basterds.

Bottom line: unfair as it probably sounds, Tarantino’s still not quite the director I’d personally like him to be — the Tarantino-influenced South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook, whose movies are equally artificial but more emotionally engaging, is much more my speed. But while re-watching QT’s films, I did find myself admiring elements that had previously bugged the hell out of me. Tops on the list: Tarantino’s profane, rococo dialogue. It once struck me as wildly hit-or-miss – either brilliantly florid and theatrical (sometimes revelatory) or else redundant and navel-gazing, dragging the filmmaker’s characters into a quagmire of telling when the films could have been showing instead (Tarantino is very, very good at showing). I’m taking the second part of that characterization back. More so than almost any arthouse favorite since Ingmar Bergman (and bear in mind the precise point of comparison here before you roll your eyes), Tarantino’s talk is not just the fuel of his movies: it’s the engine, the wheels and most of the frame. It’s where the real dramatic and philosophical action takes place. The gunshots, car crashes and torture scenes are punctuation.

From Abernathy in Grindhouse describing how having sex with a dude named Cecil would rule out the possibility of being his girlfriend, to the title character of Kill Bill Vol. 2 defining the essence of superheroes as a prelude to revealing why Superman does not fit the paradigm, to Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction debating the implied carnal intent of a foot massage and the relative merits of pigs and dogs, the director’s films prefer verbal spectacle to the physical kind. Tarantino doesn’t just explore language’s capacity to reveal and conceal motives and personality, he shows how people pick words and phrases (consciously or subconsciously) in order to define themselves and others, and describe the reality they inhabit (or would like to inhabit). Even low-key and seemingly unimportant exchanges are as carefully choreographed as boxing matches. Clever flurries of interrogatory jabs are often blocked by witty responses; the course of conflict can be shifted by deft rhetorical footwork that re-frames the terms of debate.

Think of Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs implying that Mr. Pink’s opposition to tipping demonstrates insensitivity to working women. Mr. Pink counters that his opposition isn’t based on the notion that waiters don’t deserve to be tipped; he objects because there’s no logic behind the practice, and he doesn’t want to support a practice just because he’s told that he should. (“Society says, ‘Tip these guys over here, but don’t tip these guys over here.’ It’s bullshit.”) In Vincent and Jules’ Pulp Fiction coffee shop exchange, Vincent latches onto Jules’ admission that even though dogs are dirty, he likes them better than pigs because they have personality. “So by that rationale,” Vincent presses, “if a pig had personality, he would cease to be a filthy animal — is that true?” “Well, we’d have to be talking about one charming motherfucking pig,” Jules replies.

A seemingly throwaway moment in that same movie is even more revealing of Tarantino’s m.o. When Marsellus Wallace hands boxer Butch an envelope full of cash as payment for the fight he’s about to throw, he asks, “Are you my nigga?” Butch replies, “It certainly appears so,” then takes the cash. Butch isn’t lying. His statement is a truthful assessment of the moment: Wallace thinks he’s got Butch in his hip pocket, but he doesn’t. Butch’s response also says a lot about his peculiar code of honor; he’s willing to double-cross his boss by winning a fixed fight, but he won’t lie to the man’s face.

With a generous assist from Keith, I’ve pulled some examples of Tarantino’s attention to language from five features: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Death Proof (his half of Grindhouse). With some exceptions, this montage favors smaller, more fleeting moments over the widely quoted monologues (there’s nothing from Jules’ Ezekiel speech, and only a fragment of Mr. Pink’s Reservoir Dogs rant about tipping). I’m trying to show how the filmmaker’s Socrates-in-a-dive-bar mindset influences his films — how Tarantino puts words in action.