October, 11th 2013

Captain Phillips

Baltimore magazine

 

Captain Phillips is about a group of Somali pirates who invade a U.S. cargo ship—but it’s also, most importantly, about the quiet, unassuming courage of one man. (There’s a reason the film is called Captain Phillips and not Terror at Sea or somethin’.)

And thank goodness that man is played by Tom Hanks, who projects decency and normalcy like no actor since Jimmy Stewart.

His Captain Richard Phillips is smart and seasoned and good at his job, but he’s no swashbuckler. It’s just that, as captain, it’s his responsibility to protect his crew and his ship—and that’s what he’s going to try to do, no matter how terrified he may be.

The director Paul Greengrass (who also did the heartbreaking but riveting United 93 and two of the Bourne films) excels at jittery, documentary-style action. Very much to his credit, he introduces us to the band of Somali pirates, humanizing them. They’re terrorized by a local warlord and desperate to feed their families. They’re led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a smart, but twitchy, young man with a dangerously fragile ego. Just as Phillips is not traditionally heroic, Muse is not traditionally villainous. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone....

12:08 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
October, 3rd 2013

Gravity

Baltimore magazine

In a decade or so, we’ll probably all be able to jaunt into space on long weekends. In the meantime, there’s Gravity, that serves as both a space tourism guide and a giant, honking cautionary tale against it.

Yes, there’s the incredible beauty: The shimmering stars, the infinite blackness, the eerie and endless silence. And there’s the fun, too: Spacewalking is, like, the coolest thing ever, once you’ve mastered the technique. But there’s also incredible danger: No oxygen or gravity, vulnerable communication with earth, extremes of temperature. Oh, and all that beautiful blackness and silence? It’s also there to remind you that you’re on your own up there, in a place where no man was ever meant to be.

 (I’m fine here on the ground, thank you very much.)

An astonishing Sandra Bullock, who continues to amaze me with the depth and range of her work, plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a biomedical engineer sent on her first space shuttle mission. But when a Russian satellite is destroyed, sending dangerous debris hurtling toward them, she and chatty astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney—roguish, charming—giving us the Full Clooney, if you will) are the only ones left alive.

It’s a brilliant stroke to...

3:29 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
October, 1st 2013

Don Jon

Baltimore magazine

Don Jon is the most sneakily feminist film I’ve seen all year.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in his filmmaking debut, plays Jon, a GTL type (that’s “gym, tan, laundry” for the Jersey Shore-impaired) who beds a new girl almost every night. But the only thing that truly turns him on is his Internet porn.

Night after night it’s the same thing: Meet up with his buddies, scope out the prospects (rating them on a scale from 1 to 10, natch), pick up the hottest girl (hence his titular nickname), sleep with her, and sneak out to his living room to watch porn.

While he finds the real thing somewhat mechanical and joyless, he can really “lose himself” in his porn, he explains in a voiceover, where the girls are hotter, kinkier, and, expect nothing from him.

Then one day he meets the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen (Scarlett Johansson) and she withholds sex, until he’s so hot and bothered, he’s convinced he’s in love with her. She also insists that he go to night school to make something of  himself, and that’s where he meets a mysterious older woman (Julianne Moore), a pot-smoking bohemian who finds him intriguing.

Gordon-Levitt proves himself to be a confident new director—with a...

12:15 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
September, 30th 2013

Breaking Bad's Greatest Trick

Of course, it’s impossible to have your cake and eat it too (or your meth and smoke it too, as it were), but Vince Gilligan, the visionary creator of Breaking Bad, has come pretty darn close.

With Walter White, played so persuasively and passionately by Bryan Cranston, he’s managed to create two things: A character that is a fascinating and morally flawed anti-hero, a man driven by desperation and ego to tap into the darkest depths of his nature, and a kind of pop culture folk hero: the high school chemistry teacher who discovers his secret inner badass. To deny one or the other is to deprive yourself some of the pleasures of Breaking Bad, which ended its extraordinary run last night.

I confess that for the longest portion of my Breaking Bad viewing experience, I only saw the first side of Walter White—the morally bankrupt anti-hero. In fact, I secretly wished the series had ended with Season 4, where Walt not only vanquished his greatest enemy but essentially, chillingly turned into him. Once Walt potentially...

September, 27th 2013

Enough Said

Finding a great romantic comedy is a rare and precious thing, like finding a four leaf clover or a bra that actually fits.

The genre is basically on life support at this point, replaced by het-up supernatural tween romances. But that’s not because romantic comedies are inherently flawed, it’s because we’ve been served up some really crappy ones lately. (What To Expect When You’re Expecting, anyone? Anyone?)

And then, along comes Enough Said, a movie so perfect, so charming, so frothy-yet-nutritious that it restores my faith in romantic comedies, romance, and, hell, all of humanity.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Eva, a massage therapist. She’s in her 40s, divorced, and—life crisis alert!—her teenage daughter is about to leave for college. At a party, she meets Albert (James Gandolfini) and they bond over their mutual empty nest paranoia (his daughter is also on her way off to school) and the fact that neither finds the other attractive (heh).

They start to date: At first she thinks she can’t...

1:33 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
September, 26th 2013

I Used to Be Darker

Local filmmaker Matthew Porterfield uses naturalism in such a way as to make other, supposedly “realistic” films seem positively glamorized.

His camera is never in a rush. He focuses on tiny, mundane details, the kinds of things we rarely see in a movie: The cluttered bins of a dime store, an ugly generic plastic bag, the smudged “x” on a hand at a rock show.

Because his camera moves so languorously and because he favors quiet observation, those rare moments where emotions do run high are particularly affecting.

Take the scene featured in the trailer: Bill (Ned Oldham) sits in his basement strumming a beautiful song. Then, the song ends, and without provocation, Bill smashes his guitar against a beam, breaking it.

You see, Bill has been left by his wife Kim (Kim Taylor). There’s an intimation that when Bill and Kim met they were both musicians with ambitions of a professional career. Somewhere along the line, Bill became the breadwinner, while Kim continued to pursue the life of a musician.

“Write a song about it,” Kim says to Bill early...

2:26 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
September, 20th 2013

REVIEW: Battle of the Year 3D

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

Warning: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS ABOUT BATTLE OF THE YEAR. HOWEVER, IF YOU ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT SPOILERS FOR BATTLE OF THE YEAR, YOU’RE DOING SOMETHING WRONG. 

For me, Battle of the Year will forever be know as the “Where’s Chris Brown?” movie, as in “Where’s Waldo?”

Let me start by saying, I’m no Chris Brown fan, for reasons I’d rather not get into here (but you can probably guess). But he is talented guy and, by far, the biggest star in this movie.

And the movie—about an all-star group of break dancers training to become a “team” and bring home the trophy at an international B-Boy competition—treats him that way.

One of the many (many) problems with the film is that the various B-Boys don’t become distinct characters to us—they all more or less blend together. But then there’s Chris. While he’s not doing himself any favors by playing a cocky bad boy (hey, that’s between him and his agent), his arc is virtually the only one we care about...

2:47 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
September, 19th 2013

Prisoners

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros Films

 

 

There is a great film buried somewhere inside Prisoners—and I want to see it. Seriously, I want to see this exact same film—same actors, same characters, same premise, heck, even the same director (providing he can learn to restrain himself). I just want to see less of it.

It’s not that Prisoners is too long (although it is), it’s that it’s too much everything. Too dark, too melodramatic, too improbable, too horrific. Indeed, despite an obvious sense of itself as a kind of high-minded studio art film, it’s really just a supremely well-dressed horror movie.

One Thanksgiving, two little girls—the daughters of neighbors and family friends—go missing. An RV had been spotted parked on their street and when the cops find the van, the driver (Paul Dano) tries to flee. He’s brought in for questioning but he has the IQ of a 10-year-old—he doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to pull off a kidnapping, let alone hide his motives. “You can’t pass a lie detector...

9:26 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
August, 30th 2013

Getaway

Baltimore magazine

 

At first I thought it was audacious for Getaway to give itself a title that so obviously evoked the Sam Peckinpah/Steve McQueen classic. Now I have a new theory: The producers had never heard of that film.

I only say that because Getaway is so bad it gives the sense that, not only has director Courtney Solomon not seen The Getaway, it’s quite possible he’s never seen any film at all. (Okay, correct that: This is his third film, Lord help us, so he’s at least seen two others.)

Actually, calling this thing a “film” is a stretch. It’s a series of stunts—car chases—that only pause briefly to let us catch our breath. And it’s a testimony to how bad the film is that even those breathers make no logical sense (they’re this film’s version of the gang of thugs who calmly wait, one by one, to be beaten up by our hero).

Here’s the “plot”: Retired NASCAR driver Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke, growling, goateed—basically doing a bad Christian Bale impression), now living in Bulgaria, comes home to find that his apartment has been ransacked and his wife kidnapped. (Just for the record, even in these first moments his behavior rang false: Instead of running through the house frantically...

11:24 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
August, 28th 2013

The World's End

Baltimore magazine

 

I’m not one of those Anglophiles who think the Brits do everything better than we do. (Hello, can you say. . .dental care? And beer is supposed to be cold, people!) But I will say this, they know their way around comedy. Very specifically, Brits know how to do low-brow humor that is secretly smart—very smart.

To illustrate this point, you don’t have to look any farther than the films of Edgar Wright, who gave us Shaun of the Dead (a smart send up of zombie tropes), Hot Fuzz (a smart send up of cop movie tropes) and now the ingenuous The World’s End (a smart send up of. . .well, several genres at once).

At first blush, The World’s End seems a bit like a slightly more thoughtful version of The Hangover.

Gary (Wright’s longtime writing partner and leading man Simon Pegg) was the cool guy in the London suburbs where he grew up. He and his four best mates (this is a British film, I’m authorized to use the word mate) ruled the campus and once even attempted the famed Golden Mile—12 pubs all situated along a one-mile route, ideal for high-endurance bar-hopping.  (The name of the final pub on the route? You guessed it: The World’s End. ) They didn’t...

11:07 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
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