December, 5th 2013

Out of the Furnace

Baltimore magazine

 

There are certain buzz words that worry me when they’re used to describe a film. “Quirky” is one. “Gritty” is another.

It’s not that I have anything against grit (quirk, however, can take a hike), I just think that if your goal at the outset is to make a “gritty” film, you’re doing something wrong. “Grittiness” should be an organic byproduct of the film’s journey, not the destination itself.

Which brings me to Out of the Furnace. It’s directed by Scott Cooper, who did Crazy Heart, which I loved. That film was gritty, too, in its own way. It had a very credible sense of the seedy life of a has-been musician. It also had great music, that surprising central relationship, and a wonderful performance by Jeff Bridges.

Out of the Furnace, on the other hand, simply doesn’t pass the smell test for me. Its grit feels self-conscious, self-congratulatory. Worse still, it doesn’t have anything new to say.

The film starts with a scene that sets up Woody Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat as one scary dude. I liked the backdrop of the scene—a drive-in movie theater, as a B horror film plays on the screen—but the details felt overly familiar. The woman he’s with doesn’t realize...

3:36 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
November, 25th 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color

Baltimore magazine

 

I never thought I’d utter this phrase: I loved Blue is the Warmest Color despite its seven-minute sex scene.

If you’re not up on la controverse de Cannes, the movie won the Palme d’Or at this year’s festival but was immediately dogged by negative publicity. The two young actresses at the heart of the love story said they felt bullied and exploited by director Abdellatif Kechiche and that he forced them into graphic sexual intimacy they weren’t comfortable with. What’s more, some female viewers, lesbians in particular, felt that Kechiche’s film was more about the male gaze than real intimacy between two women.

Defending a film against accusations of the “male gaze” is a bit tricky. Aren’t all films essentially the “gaze” of the director? Yes, Kechiche’s film is abundantly sensual—fleshy, you might even say. But he doesn’t only apply this gaze to the sex scenes. He eroticizes a bowl of spaghetti Bolognese as much as a naked breast. The whole film is an orgy of human desire.

And it’s a remarkable achievement: A three-hour film about a subject no less well-trodden than a young girl’s first love that is absolutely mesmerizing from beginning to end. When we first meet...

1:10 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
November, 23rd 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Baltimore magazine

 

Sorry this review is late. For reasons unclear, Lionsgate chose not to screen it for Baltimore critics.

 

I’m going to start this review, unconventionally perhaps, by praising one of the bit players: As master of ceremonies Caesar Flickerman, Stanley Tucci—his face preternaturally tanned, his teeth an ungodly shade of white—literally made me laugh with every single unctuous line he delivered. Never has smarminess been served up with such gusto. The guy deserves all the awards (alas, none of which he will get, save for a Teen Choice Award, perhaps).

Actually, pointing out Tucci’s brilliance at the start is not that inappropriate for this film. Like Harry Potter before it, all the “adult” roles in The Hunger Games are played by marvelous actors—Donald Sutherland as the insidious President Snow, Woody Harrelson as the drunk but wily Haymitch Abernathy, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the deceptively mild-mannered gamemaster Plutarch Heavensbee, and a truly wonderful Elizabeth Banks, who proves in this installment that there’s more to Effie Trinket than powder puffs and boas.

But of course, it would be all side dishes and no entree without the remarkable...

3:43 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
November, 14th 2013

Dallas Buyers Club

Baltimore magazine

 

 

Mark it down, folks: 2013 was the year I finally stopped worrying and learned to love Matthew McConaughey.

In the past, not liking him was kind of my “thing.”  I’m not sure if it was the constant bongo playing, the shirtlessness-as-a-life-choice, or his stoner-genius life’s motto, “JKL” (stands for “Just keep living” in case you didn’t know), but the guy bugged the heck of me. And as an actor, I felt like he coasted on good hair, good teeth, and good ol’ boy charm.

That being said, there was one role I loved him in: His first, as the irresistible sleazeball David Wooderson in Dazed and Confused. (Wooderson was famous for his take on high school girls: “I get older, they stay the same age!”) That, I thought, was the real McConaughey—a red neck stud, an unrepentant bad boy, a true American archetype. If he could just tap into that, he’d really be onto something.

Well, he’s onto something.

Because in the last few years, McConaughey has stopped trying to be a heartthrob, or whatever Hollywood expects him to be, and has embraced his own particular brand of reptilian charm. As a result, he’s given some of the best performances of his career—Magic Mike, Mud,...

10:37 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
November, 7th 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Baltimore magazine

You could make the case that the second film of any potential comic book franchise is the most important. Of course, the first one had to do well enough at the box office to even warrant a second. But the second one tells you where the franchise is going, if its characters have the depth and appeal to be sustained, if its mythology is worth exploration.

The original Thor didn’t break any box office records, but it performed solidly enough ($181 million domestic gross) and was greatly boosted by the wild success of The Avengers and the rising stars of both Thor himself (Chris Hemsworth) and his jealous brother Loki (mmmmm….Tom Hiddleston). (Did I just write that out loud?).

That film was directed by Kenneth Branagh, a great filmmaker with serious Shakespearean bona fides. It also gave us the origins of the Thor/Loki rivalry and told a great “man out of time” story, with Thor landing on earth and falling for pretty physicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). I loved the Shakespearean elements of that brotherly feud and all the humor Branagh teased out of Thor’s fish-out-of-water scenario.

Thor: The Dark World, on the other hand, is directed by Alan Taylor, who has some impressive TV...

1:01 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
October, 31st 2013

About Time

Baltimore magazine

 

Hey ladies! Wanna trick your man into going with you to see the rom-com About Time? Tell him it’s science fiction. It is about time travel, after all.

In truth, About Time is as interested in science as I was back in my ninth grade chem class. (Sorry, Mr.  Mackie).

It’s the latest brainchild of British filmmaker Richard Curtis who, as usual, is much more interested in adorable, fumbling people doing adorable, fumbling things. He never met a bit of whimsy he didn’t want underline, spit-shine, and share with the world. And yet, somehow, thanks to his considerable wit and intelligence, his films manage to not be impossibly cloying. (He’s like the salted caramel of filmmakers that way.)

This one comes close to overdosing on whimsy. Still, I can (reservedly) recommend it.

When Tim, played by the knock-kneed, rumpled, charmingly self-effacing Domhnall Gleeson (in other words, your basic Richard Curtis dream date) turns 21,  his father (a rakish Bill Nighy) reveals a secret: The men in his family can time travel. Not in any dramatic way, mind you. They can’t go back and seduce Helen of Troy, alas, his dad tells him. They can simply go back and relive days...

9:38 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
October, 28th 2013

The Counselor

Baltimore magazine

 

I wish I could unsee The Counselor, but I can’t.

I have seen it. It is a part of me, rolling around my subconscious like a pebble trapped in a shoe. But that doesn’t mean you have to see it. 

Where to begin on how awful this film is, on how many different and unique ways it goes wrong?

Let’s start with director Ridley Scott and his screenwriter Cormac McCarthy. (This is the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist’s first—and hopefully last—original screenplay.) How could two such talented gents have gone so far astray? This is the kind of film that makes you rethink the previous work of all parties involved. Maybe Gladiator wasn’t that good, after all. Is it possible that The Road deserves the “over-rated” chant? (And what of the 35 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes who actually liked this dreck? Is there any way I can formally file a petition to get their critics’ licenses revoked?)

So what’s the movie about? Uh, excellent question.

I think it’s about real men. Real men who make deals with the devil and pay the consequences. Real men who lie down with dogs and wake up with fleas. Real men who play with fire and get burned. (Okay, I think you get the...

11:34 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
October, 25th 2013

12 Years a Slave

Baltimore magazine

 

In the year 1841, Solomon Northrop (Chewetel Ejiofor) is living in Saratoga, NY with his wife and two children. He is a violinist, an upstanding member of the community. He is not completely impervious to the nearby horrors of slavery—a curious slave sees Solomon shopping in a general store, wanders in, only to be excoriated by his master—but it’s something happening to other men, in other parts of the country, less educated men, not men like him.

One fateful day, he agrees to take a job as a traveling musician, but it’s all a ruse. He’s drugged and sold into slavery. Solomon’s hell is not just that he’s been enslaved, but that his erudition, his very status as a free man, must be kept secret from his masters, who will sooner beat him to death than allow him to put on supposed airs. Against all instinct, he must learn to somehow bide his time, blend in, while secretly searching for a way to reclaim his freedom.

Yes, the film is based on a true story.

When I was a young girl I saw the wide-reaching and educational mini series Roots and it had a profound effect on me, as it did for many of my generation. But in a way, by focusing on the plight of a single man, 12 Years a Slave...

12:14 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
October, 19th 2013

Carrie

Baltimore magazine

 

I suppose not all remakes are bad (just most of them), but it’s particularly dicey to make a remake that features an iconic character.

For example, you wouldn’t make a Rocky remake without Sly Stallone. You’d be a fool to make a Chinatown remake with someone besides Jack Nicholson.

And you can’t make a remake of Brian De Palma’s horror classic Carrie remake with anyone other than Sissy Spacek.

The image of Spacek’s Carrie at the prom, her ghostly-white, tremulous, freckled face and strawberry blonde hair streaked with blood, is ingrained in our collective consciousness.

Nothing against Chloe Grace-Moretz, the smart young actress cast as Carrie in Kimberly Peirce’s remake. I happen to like her, even if I think she’s a bit too sturdy for the part. That’s besides the point. She’s never going to erase the image of Spacek’s Carrie. So why even bother?

And here’s another argument against this remake: A whole lot has changed since 1976. Today, in our post-[Name Your Unthinkable School Tragedy Here] era, the idea of a young girl, bullied at school, exacting a bloody and supernatural revenge on her classmates, has a different, more real-world resonance...

12:48 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
October, 17th 2013

The Fifth Estate

Baltimore magazine

 

Films about coders and hackers are notoriously hard to pull off. I mean, what’s more boring than watching someone type—even with great purpose—onto their computer screen?

The best example of overcoming that challenge was the dazzling The Social Network (still my favorite film of the last 10 years), about Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. It’s useful to compare that film to this one, about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Both Assange and Zuckerberg are brilliant and enigmatic guys. Both have an intimidating intellect and anti-social qualities. In both cases, their ascension to fame (or in Assange’s case, infamy) was aided by the diligent help of a loyal sidekick and friend, who ultimately felt cast aside.

But The Social Network made a very canny choice: Instead of telling the story from the perspective of Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield)—a more natural and relatable lead character—they told it from Zuckerberg’s point of view. He was our protagonist, and as such, we got to know him from the inside out.

The Fifth Estate does the exact opposite: We see Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch, sporting a stringy white wig) almost exclusively through the eyes of his...

2:44 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
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