August, 23rd 2013

The Spectacular Now

Baltimore magazine

Considering all the bells and whistles (and explosions and car chases) that go into summer movies, it’s amazing when a film reminds us that all it takes to engage an audience is a couple of characters we care about. That’s the beauty of The Spectacular Now—which, indeed, has nothing spectacular about it, except for the spectacular charm of its two leads.

Sutter (Miles Teller) is a seemingly happy-go-lucky college senior. He’s the life of the party—everyone’s friend, the sort of guy who talks to teachers about his academic shortcomings in such a chummy way that they become co-conspirators in improving his grades.

Sutter also always has a flasket of alcohol at the ready (or a Big Gulp spiked with booze.) His alcoholism is not treated in a breathless, After-School Special sort of way, but rather like a symptom of a secret problem with Sutter’s sense of self that the film will eventually reveal.

As the film starts, Sutter has just been dumped by his beautiful girlfriend. He goes on a bender and ends up passed out on a neighbor’s lawn. He is discovered in the morning by Aimee (Shailene Woodley), who has awakened early to do her mother’s paper route, as she often does.

Aimee is sort of the anti-...

11:39 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
August, 15th 2013

Blue Jasmine

Baltimore magazine

 

 

For all of his best known tropes—fear of death, romantic anxiety, those inescapable mother issues—Woody Allen is rarely talked about in terms of his exploration of class.

Class, however, has been a constant theme of his work—whether it’s Martin Landau’s disgust over his philistine girlfriend in Crimes and Misdemeanors (she couldn’t distinguish between Schubert and Schumann) or Alvy Singer, feeling abundantly,  self-consciously Jewish as he sits around the WASP-y dinner table of Annie Hall. (Indeed, Allen’s films have always been a model of good taste themselves—from the Windsor typeface of his opening credits, to the perfectly curated jazz and classical music that fill up his scores.)

Allen’s understanding of class and, in particular, the near panicky snobbism of the upwardly mobile, is at the forefront of Blue Jasmine, and embodied in a brilliant, fearless performance by Cate Blanchett.  Her Jasmine grew up sturdily middle class but always had a sense she was destined for grander things. (She was adopted—which certainly might encourage the illusion that her rightful social standing had been unjustly snatched from her.)

Her dreams come true when she...

4:29 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
July, 28th 2013

Fruitvale Station

Baltimore magazine

Fruitvale Station starts with some actual grainy cell phone footage of the 2009 police shooting that took Oscar Grant’s life.

In a subway station in Oakland, a group of young black men are backed up against a wall, on their knees, told to stay still. There are shouts and cries, chaos. One of young men tries to get up, and he is pinned roughly on his stomach by an officer. And then there’s a loud, sickening pop.

The case got national media attention, and the officer (who maintained that he was going for his Taser, not his gun) was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison. There were protests, both violent and peaceful, and the case remains an open civic wound and a black mark on the Oakland police department.

Fruitvale Station ends with a narrative account of that same night (it was New Year’s Eve). But now the young man pinned to the ground (played by Michael B. Jordan, in a starmaking performance), is not a stranger to us, not a statistic. He’s a young man we’ve grown to care about and love. We can’t believe the cops could dehumanize him, or his friends, this way.

Of course, the cops didn’t know that Oscar had a young daughter, whom he loved...

1:20 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
July, 25th 2013

The To Do List

Baltimore magazine

 

When I was growing up, teen sex comedies were all the rage. They had names like Losin It and The Last American Virgin and they almost always revolved around the exploits of a horny young male virgin (or several) looking to get laid.

So I was stoked when I heard about The To Do List, set in the summer of 1993, which appeared to be a gender swap on that once-ubiquitous genre. Hooray! Finally, the girl was going to be the horny one!

Well, not quite.

Yes, The To Do List is about a teenage girl named Brandy (Aubrey Plaza) who is looking to lose her virginity. But not because she’s particularly lustful. Rather, she’s a class valedictorian, a perfectionist, who has been told by her older sister (Rachel Bilson) that it’s imperative she has sex before going to college. As such, Brandy ticks off her to-do list of sexual acts—most of which I can’t itemize in this family magazine—with a kind of grim, workmanlike sense of purpose.

This is particularly unsettling when Brandy takes advantage of Cameron (Johnny Simmons), the sweet boy who has a crush on her. He thinks they’re dating: In fact, he’s a kind of X-rated homework project.

Brandy may not have any...

3:11 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
July, 19th 2013

Red 2

Baltimore magazine

Generally speaking, it’s not high praise when the critic says, “The cast seems to be having a blast.” Who cares if the cast is having fun, if we in the audience aren’t in on the amusement? Perfect example: Grown Ups (and presumably Grown Ups 2, which I mercifully spared myself from). I’m sure Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, et al had the time of our lives. Too bad the movie sucked.

I make a slight exception, though, when it comes to Red and now its follow-up, Red 2. (Not Reds 2, people. Although I’d love to see what those crazy commies are up to these days!)

John Malkovich and Bruce Willis are both good actors (well, okay, one good actor; the other, a great movie star) who have been known to phone it in. I didn’t think it was possible, but Willis was so listless in A Good Day To Die Hard, he didn't smirk once! He had been de-smirked (desmirkafied?)! His eyes didn’t even twinkle! Twinkly eyes and smirking is what the man does, people! (His was the most diffident recitation of “Yippee kay-yay mother-#@&^*s!” known to man.)

As for Malkovich, he sometimes acts as though he just ate a big meal and is waiting for his check. 

But both...

10:35 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
July, 11th 2013

Pacific Rim

Baltimore magazine

 

Take this as you will: My least favorite scenes in Pacific Rim were the ones when the giant robots were fighting the giant alien sea monsters.

Considering the fact that such scenes comprise about 50 percent of the film, this is a problem—for me, at least.

Now if you’ve come to Pacific Rim specifically for some hot giant robot on giant alien action, you will be thrilled—but perhaps annoyed that human beings occasionally get in the way.

Still, if we’re comparing Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim to Michael Bay’s Transformer films—and we must—advantage Del Toro. (Of course, advantage Del Toro for life, since he made the transporting Pans Labyrinth.)

The genius, I suppose, of Del Toro’s giant robots is that they are human-powered. Tag team powered, in fact, by a pair that does a mind meld called “drifting” and then operate the robot in concert, like it’s a massive, clunky Wii game. (Or, if you prefer, they appear to be doing a very slow, synchronized version of the dance “The Robot.”)

The potential for this mind meld is wonderful—the two pilots share memories and sensations—albeit not fully realized. Suffice it to say, none of the human...

11:29 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
July, 3rd 2013

The Lone Ranger

Baltimore magazine

 

Let’s put aside, for a second, any of our moral ambivalence about Johnny Depp, a white man, playing Tonto. He’s been made an honorary member of the Comanche Tribe, for what it’s worth. And he’s always shown a great respect and admiration for Native American culture. Besides, it’s a moot point: The Lone Ranger wouldn’t have been green lit without him. No Johnny Depp, no movie. (Ah, would it were so.)

So the next question is: How’s his performance? Briefly, in the film’s opening minutes, I thought he was really onto something. In those scenes, he plays Tonto as an old man: Reflective, world-weary, slightly mischievous, perhaps not fully equipped with all of his marbles,. The makeup is astounding; as is Depp’s careful, meditative Apache accent. For those brief scenes, I saw the performance that could’ve been. Instead, Depp and his director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) are up to their usual tricks.

For Verbinski, that means an overstuffed, overlong film with all sorts of show-offy visual tics (slow motion bullets; shattered pocket watches; a red balloon wafting in the sky), plus enormous and disorienting action sequences.

For Depp, that means lots of dead-pan...

9:57 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
June, 13th 2013

Stories We Tell

Baltimore magazine

 

At first blush, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell seems like a rather self-indulgent project. It’s about the director’s mother—a beautiful, talented, but quixotic woman, an actress, who died of cancer, and left many questions in her wake.

But it’s actually about so many things: It’s about families, in general, and how they inexorably shape our lives. It’s about perspective, and how the same story can morph and shift when told from different angles. It’s about the small lies we tell ourselves, the rationalizations, and the importance of self-mythologizing. And, for you cinephiles out there, it’s a deconstruction of the process of making a documentary film.

Polley, the pretty, but sad-eyed Canadian actress, had already made two exciting narrative films. Her Away From Her, about the painful slow descent of Alzheimer’s, was justifiably critically acclaimed. Her Take This Waltz—a wistful, insightful, sexy film about female desire—was well-received but deserved even more kudos (it made my Top 20 of last year—and probably should’ve been higher).

But with this film, I think she has announced herself as one of the most important young filmmakers working today. Polley...

11:26 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
June, 2nd 2013

Frances Ha

Baltimore magazine

 

Did you ever wonder what Annie Hall might be like if the main protagonist was Annie and not Alvy Singer?

You have your answer, in a way, in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. And I have a bit of bad news for you: The film would be a lot less delightful.

If you don’t know, Greta Gerwig, who plays the titular character, is truly the Diane Keaton to Baumbach’s Allen. (They are even apparently dating in real life.) He loves her—his camera loves her. He’s completely besotted with her fumbling, awkward, faux-näif adorableness. It was Baumbach who first introduced the mainstream to Gerwig, previously a darling of the mumblecore movement, in his Greenberg. I liked her in that movie, even considered her a star in the making. Since then, I’ve grown less enamored.

It’s not that I don’t think she has a certain charm—or a certain natural ability as an actress—it’s just that I find the whole “look at this adorable, broken fawn of a girl, always adorably blurting out the wrong thing and being adorably clumsy yet paradoxically, bewitchingly graceful” thing a bit tiresome.

Now if you do find Gerwig as bewitching as Baumbach does (and many do), Frances Ha will be the film...

10:37 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
May, 31st 2013

After Earth

Baltimore magazine

 

The critics have really crushed After Earth, calling it a vanity project and stealth propaganda for Scientology. (“Is After Earth the worst film of all time?” read one breathless headline.) (Spoiler alert: no).

I mean, is it a vanity project? I suppose. It was based on a story idea by Will Smith, who co-stars in the film alongside his 14-year-old son Jaden. But so what? Vanity in Hollywood? I am shocked, shocked, shocked!

Is it shilling for Scientology? Beats me. If it is, the message didn’t get through. I can safely say I have no desire to go to the bookstore and pick up a copy of Dianetics. (Although I just downloaded a bunch of Tom Cruise films—strictly a coincidence, I’m sure.)

What it is, really, is a children’s film—well, a tween and teenage boy’s film to be exact—about a young man who proves himself in front of his powerful and withholding father in a rather spectacular way.

It’s the future and the Earth is uninhabitable. Humans were largely wiped out by these sea monstery killer alien things who are blind, but smell fear. Will Smith plays General Cypher Raige (also the name of my new alt-country punk band, by the way), the only man who can “ghost” in...

9:17 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
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