May, 31st 2013

REVIEW: Now You See Me

Baltimore magazine

 

It’s best to think of Now You See Me as a superhero movie, except instead of fighting with superhuman strength and speed, the heroes use their superhuman brains and wits.

They’re all magicians, and they’ve been recruited by a mysterious figure to join forces to gain, well. . .the film is never completely clear on that, but it has to do with achieving total clarity or somethin’. (So they’ve got that.)

I absolutely loved the opening of the film, as we meet each of the magicians: Cocky David Blaine-esque J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, doing a variation of his Mark Zuckerberg, only with emo hair); crafty mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson); Atlas’s assistant-turned-sexy-headliner Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher); and an Artful Dodger-style street magician named Jack Wilder (Dave Franco).

In those opening scenes, at least, their magic seems credible, grounded in some sort of semi-believable reality.

But once they join forces—nicknaming themselves The Four Horseman—their tricks become increasingly over-the-top and incredible. They immediately perform an astonishing trick where they “teleport” a man to France and have him rob his own bank. Then, they give the money to the...

11:15 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
May, 24th 2013

Fast & Furious 6

Baltimore magazine

 

Generally speaking, I don’t bother to see films with the number 6 after their title. In fact, I usually check out after number 3. I figure such films are critic-proof—either you’re a fan of the series or you’re not—and my attendance is not required.

And yet, true confession: I have seen every single Fast & Furious movie (I particularly dug the last one). My loyalty even predates the ampersand. They’re something of a guilty pleasure.

Partly this is because of director Justin Lin, who took over the franchise with the third movie, Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift (if you’ll recall, this was the one installment that didn’t feature Paul Walker and Vin Diesel, because they apparently had much bigger fish to fry) (no comment). Lin stages expert chase and fight sequences that are ridiculously over-the-top, but strikingly lucid as well. You can actually follow the action. How novel.

But the series has other draws:

There’s, of course, Vin Diesel himself, who acts so rarely these days you can almost believe that he is Toretto, spending his days up to his arms in engine...

11:07 am Comment Count Tags: film reviews
May, 13th 2013

Review: It Felt Like Love

Baltimore magazine

So, sigh. . . Is there anything more annoying than a glowing review of a film you can’t see? I know, I know. . . But I saw this film at the Maryland Film Festival this weekend and fell in love with it and just needed to write about it. If there’s any justice, it’ll be coming soon to an independent cinema house near you (hint-hint, film distribution companies).

 

The noted philosopher Britney Spears once famously sang that she was “not a girl, not yet a woman” and that paradox perfectly describes the status of Lila (Gina Piersanti), a 14 year old spending a long, listless summer on the beaches of Brooklyn.

Her best friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeri) may only be a year older but she’s miles ahead in terms of her own sexual development. A dancer, Chiara has a knowledge of her body and its seductive powers. She’s already slept with boys and nonchalantly mentions that her new boyfriend, Patrick (Jesse Cordasco), needs practice in the oral sex department.

“I hate when they need practice,” Lila says, tentatively.

Lila’s own burgeoning sexuality has put her in a kind of fugue state—everywhere there is flesh, skin, and heat, and first time director Eliza Hittman...

May, 10th 2013

Review: The Great Gatsby

Baltimore magazine

The official title of Baz Luhrmann’s new film is not Gatsby! or The Great Gatsby 3D or even Baz Luhrmann Presents The Great Gatsby, but it could very well be any one of these things.

The best film adaptations of novels help us see and experience the book in a new way. Luhrmann’s gorgeous, gaudy, overstuffed Gatsby merely answers one question: What would The Great Gatsby look like as a Baz Luhrmann film?

Well, it would look a whole lot like his Moulin Rouge, mixed with a generous dose of his Romeo + Juliet (Leo is even in it!) and a dab of his Strictly Ballroom.

So the question remains: Is Luhrmann’s gonzo, over-saturated cinematic world actually a good fit for Gatsby? Yes and no. Like Jay Gatsby, Luhrmann sure knows how to throw a party. And the parties here are decadent, eye-popping affairs—with champagne flowing and roaming acrobats and giddy flappers mixing in with the society swells (all in 3D! It’s like you are there!). It’s the rest of the film that falls a little flat. All of this carefully orchestrated stimulation can be a bit stultifying—the film doesn't give us any room to breathe. (And the hip-hop infused soundtrack...

4:30 pm Comment Count Tags: film reviews
May, 8th 2013

Review: Downloaded

Baltimore magazine

Hey film fans! The Maryland Film Festival starts tonight! This is the last film I’ll be sneak previewing. It’s sort of great.

Before Facebook and Twitter—hell, before MySpace and Friendster—there was Napster, the music file sharing company that revolutionized, democratized, and completely freaked out the music industry.

Downloaded, the documentary on Napster, directed by Alex Winter (yes, that Alex Winter, from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure), is about the rise and fall of this audacious start-up. But it’s also about the seismic generational divide between those who grew up expecting free things from the Internet and those who didn’t.

Napster started, as revolutions often do, in the mind of a young person—in this case, teenager Sean Fanning, a coder and music lover who wanted to find a more efficient way to share music with his friends. He developed the code for Napster and watched it take off like wildfire. First a few hundred people using it, then thousands, then millions.

He eventually joined forces with Sean Parker (later to be played by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network), an...

May, 7th 2013

Good Ol' Freda

Baltimore magazine

Another solid offering from this year's Maryland Film Festival.

When she was 17 years old, Freda Kelly took a job as a secretary—and that job made her the most envied girl on the planet.

You see, her bosses went by the names John, Paul, George, and Ringo (“Richie” to her). Okay, technically, she worked for Beatles manager Brian Epstein (“Eppie”), but she hung out with the lads all the time—her crushes rotating based on who was nice to her on a given day.

Good Ol’ Freda tells the story of this smart, sensible, capable girl from Liverpool—a Beatles fan, but not an overly breathless one—who got a front-row seat to Beatlemania. A dedicated, protective employee,  she ran the Beatles fan club—which included writing their newsletter and handling their sacks and sacks of mail (featuring all sorts of arcane requests for locks of hair and pillowcases that Ringo slept on)—like a tight ship.

Good Ol’ Freda also gives us a somewhat priceless glimpse at the Beatles when they were first starting out—just a bunch of fun-loving, wide-eyed blokes from Liverpool, prone to clowning around Freda’s desk, with no idea of what was...

May, 6th 2013

16 Acres

Baltimore magazine

 

Here's an absolute can't-miss from this year's Maryland Film Festival.

 

This astonishing documentary—part Greek tragedy and part absurdist comedy—takes a look at the 16 acres in lower Manhattan where the World Trade Center once stood. (“The most valuable 16 acres on earth,” as one observer describes them.)

Consider that space, if you will. Even under the best of circumstances, developing such priceless real estate in Manhattan would be quagmire of zoning regulations and various financial and political agendas. But when you consider that the space didn’t just have to be big and profitable and safe from future terrorist attacks—it also had to essentially heal a nation, you can imagine the depth of conflict. “It’s not just a commercial site,” says Philip Nobel, the architect and critic who serves as a priceless voice of perspective and insight in the film. “It [has to be] a symbol of defiant renewal and healing.”

Oh, is that all.

So what we’re left with is, basically, a fiasco. And that’s what the film gives us a front row seat to.

For starters, there’s Larry Silverstein, the...

May, 3rd 2013

Zero Charisma

Baltimore magazine

Here's another impressive one from this year's Maryland Film Festival. 

Before there was nerd chic, there were just plain old nerds, and they were notorious for engaging in elaborate role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons in their parents’ basements. In recent years, the Dungeons and Dragons crowd has been overtaken by the computer gaming industry, but in this funny and dark and a little sad (but mostly funny!) film, we meet the 20-something Scott, who still plays his own “RPG” with his adult buddies in his grandma’s den. But, of course, they’re not really adults at all—instead, arrested adolescents who retreat to this imaginary world because the real one hasn’t treated them too kindly. Scott is the group’s leader. He’s the one who  has created the game, and also the one who makes the rules, does the voices of the various kings and damsels and dwarves—creating his own little captive theater in the round. Scott’s happiness and self-esteem is completely wrapped up in this isolated fifedom, where he isn’t an underemployed, virginal loser, but a gamemaster—a geek god.

All of this changes when two monumental events occur in Scott’s life. He recruits...

May, 3rd 2013

I Am Divine

Baltimore magazine

The wonderful Maryland Film Festival starts next Wednesday. Over the next few days, I'll be posting reviews of select titles from the event. 

To those of us from Baltimore, it sometimes seems that Divine, the plus-sized “cinematic terrorist” with the double-stacked eyebrows, freakishly receding hairline, and bad-girl-on-a-bender attitude, emerged, fully formed, on our movie screens.

But, of course, Divine was just a character—his portrayer, Glenn Milstead, didn’t even see himself as a drag queen (although the world would never quite agree)—just an actor playing a particularly fabulous part.

In that sense, I Am Divine, Jeffrey Schwartz’s affectionate, lively, and appropriately ribald documentary about Divine, featuring great interviews with his friends, family, and admirers (including John Waters, Pat Moran, and The Village Voice’s Michael Musto) is best seen as an origin story.

We find out about Milstead’s childhood. He grew up closeted and confused in Baltimore. (His refuge from bullying at school was food, a lifelong compulsion.) He had a love of hair and makeup—when he and his high school girlfriend (...

April, 26th 2013

Pain & Gain

Baltimore magazine

 

I'm tempted to call Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain a clever film for dumb people. It operates under the guiding principle that if you put ironic air quotes around everything, you are immune from all criticism. The characters can be vile, the violence gratuitous, the film can be casually misogynistic and anti-Semitic, but hey, that’s okay because it’s all just a joke, people. Lighten up.

The film begins to insulate itself right out the gate by saying, “This is based on a true story . . . unfortunately.” (I laughed.)

It’s Miami in the 1980s. Our “hero” is Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a body builder and personal trainer who believes that his own physical perfection is merely his first step toward the American dream. One of his clients is a self-made millionaire named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a greedy and grasping little man with a giant Star of David dangling from his hairy chest (for reals). Lugo gets the idea to kidnap Kershaw and get him to sign away his fortune. He recruits two body building cohorts: Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a former cokehead just out of prison, now a guileless born-again Christian; and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), a gym rat who’s been made impotent...

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