Friday, August 30, 2013

Love: The World's End

The moment I became really excited about seeing The World's End was when I got home late last Friday night and decided it was desperately important to re-watch Scott Pilgrim for the umpteenth time. As the film played, I ran the numbers and realized that Edgar Wright may have the strongest track record making films I really, really like (without caveats, qualifications, etc) of any director...ever. Granted, Wright only has a handful of films to his name (and the excellent Spaced), but all of them are rather wonderful.  Scott Pilgrim is admittedly my personal favorite for a host of reasons that come down to raw individual appeal, but each of the three flavors in the Cornetto trilogy are near-genius plays with the fluidity of genre and, of course, brilliant satires.  It's important to note, perhaps, that Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End are not parodies of the genres they replicate, they're not in the business of sending things up so much as they are of using time-tested genre archetypes to their advantage.  Each of Wright's Cornetto films has quite a bit to say about placid surfaces, workaday life, and 'good country people'.  The World's End may be the loudest speakerbox of them all, but an appraisal of message over material would be a shameful waste.  
Shaun of the Dead trafficked in zombies, Hot Fuzz in action tropes, and now The World's End introduces an invasion that's a bit like a combination of the two.  Though no human flesh is consumed, our heroes find themselves in a space where bodies may be snatched, things are not what they seem, and the line between corporate drone and, well, drone is blurred.  The action sparked as a result is deftly choreographed and there's little you could say about the plot that would spoil the visual punchlines.  The catalyst to all the action, though, is where The World's End covers the most ground.  Everything that comes to fruition - in the context of the film- is worst-case-scenario happenstance attached to a night that was never a good idea in the first place.  Five former friends reunite to attempt a pub crawl they failed at in their teenage years: the Golden Mile.  It's 20-years later, but the pubs remain: 12 pubs, 12 pints, various shots, one legendary evening. As they tend to do, however, things have changed. Relationships are strained, most haven't talked in years, and none of the members of the unmerry band seem to know why they've let their one-time leader, Gary King (Simon Pegg) talk them into this.
Gary is one of Pegg's least likable characters to date, and yet like him we do.  He's insufferable and selfish, a pathetic study of a man trapped forever in the live fast, die young mentality of his 18-year old former self.  The men he identifies as his closest friends all put him at a distance. Steven, Oliver, and Peter (Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, & Eddie Marsan) have all made passing attempts at settling into what they'd be quick to identify as respectable lives.  Gary's one time bestie Andy (Nick Frost), too, has given up alcohol and taken to holding a well-deserved grudge against his former mate.  When Gary appears in each of their lives, he does so as a sort of specter.  He's an apparition of their earlier irresponsibility dressed, naturally, in the very same Sisters of Mercy fan-gear he'd donned in his prime.  Gary is an addict, a liar, a shameless self-promoter and, in his quiet moments, a total sad sack.  Where many films would attempt to somehow redeem him or bend him towards compromise, though, Gary has a rather different role to play in The World's End.
Of course, as this is Edgar Wright and not, say, The Hangover, one might expect as much.  The characters are developed just exactly as much as each needs to be to fulfill their individual role in both the personal drama and the larger satire.  Gary is a fascinating comedic anti-hero whose belligerent foolhardiness is both punished and accepted - not rewarded - but accepted for the odd contrast that it provides, even as the film comments on what that might mean.  Gary's manic energy affects the other characters and triggers emotional responses that allow the genre concepts of the film to resonate beyond the success of each individual action set piece.  The result is something as smart and layered as it is funny.  And maybe I haven't said this enough, but it should go without saying: The World's End is very funny indeed.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Squalor: Lovelace

 Man, I wish I'd watched Lovelace back to back with Look of Love, I could have saved some time writing one big negative review about the confused, empty, superficially entertaining porn biopics of 2013. Both films embrace their retro aesthetic, both are quite watchable, but I'll be damned if either of them conclude with any sort of satisfactory resolution.  Where Michael Winterbottom's decades-long trip through the life of Paul Raymond allows itself to be breezily consumed, though, Lovelace seems to have a different motive: the film wants us to understand something about one-time "porn legend" Linda Lovelace.  The goal is to humanize her, to highlight her tragedy and, not only that, but to redeem her.  To her credit, actress Amanda Seyfried does well as Linda. The fit is perfect, really, as Seyfried herself has managed to maintain a curious 'good kid' reputation despite many a dangerous on-screen dalliance.  She's wide-eyed and likable here, but her work can't overcome the film's terrible structural issues.  The real life Linda Lovelace became a household name overnight with an infamous act recorded in Deep Throat. She was a punchline, a hot topic, and despite a brief flirtation with happiness and stardom, was also the victim of horrendous physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her megalomaniacal husband Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard).  
Traynor's treatment of Linda was (and is) about as unforgivable as it gets, and the great irony of Lovelace's life is that while her on-screen character's actions were painting her as the "poster child" for the sexually liberated woman, Linda herself was trapped, demoralized, and enduring tremendous pain.  The film gets too caught up in the camp sleaze and cheesy glitz of the porn industry to pay attention to its lead's actual struggle, or its resolution.  Directing team Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman attempt to really respect Linda Lovelace, and it's clear that they do, but they can't seem to balance out the narrative enough to complete their portrait in a way that still retains some dimension. What they do instead is flatten Lovelace out into just another victim.  We have to watch her life get sadder and sadder, her spirit get crushed, her body violated.  All of this, of course, is fundamental to Lovelace's story and to the interesting public figure she eventually became.  The biggest problem with the film, though, is that it seems more interested in Linda's victimization and in Deep Throat than in showing any of the years beyond those moments.  As time went on, Linda Boreman (her real name) became a very vocal anti-pornography advocate and publicly spoke out on the exploitation and abuse of women.  She had a life beyond her claim to fame and beyond Chuck Traynor, but Lovelace glosses over it in mere minutes.  It's a chance at deeper characterization, but one it seems the directors are only interested in as an optimistic wrap-up.  They'll stick to the sex and violence, thanks, the rest?  I mean, who'd want to watch that in a movie, right?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Love: In a World...

In a World takes its title from one of the most comically overused openers in voiceover narration.  There was a time, sure, when it seemed like the go-to way to introduce every alternate reality, otherworld, or bit of historical flux Hollywood had to offer, and comedic actress Lake Bell has figured out a way to capitalize on its easy appeal in a whole new manner for her first feature film as writer, director, and star.  In a world where I've always felt a little uneasy about what Bell had to offer, her big debut comes as a genuinely pleasant surprise.  Bell has long shown up in comic settings. She's one of the stars of TV short Children's Hospital and has appeared in any number of supporting roles as the go-to gawky sexpot.  With rare exception, something about her past performances never spoke to me. Quite the opposite: I'm really used to the world where I'm kinda just irritated by Lake Bell's anxious brand of 'am I trying to be funny here, or am I trying to be sexy'; it never sat right, and it never seemed genuine.  With In a World... though, Lake Bell writes herself, she directs herself, and in this frame, in this world, she's more natural, likable, genuine, and winning than a great many comedy heroes and heroines.
Bell writes herself into the role of Carol, a struggling vocal coach and aspiring voiceover actor trapped in the shadow of her father, Sam.  Sam (Fred Melamed) is the go-to guy in the industry, a titan with a God-like boom, a forest of body hair, and a selfish narcissism that knows no bounds.  We enter the story as the resurrection of the 'in a world' line looms on the horizon: a big, epic quadrilogy is coming down the pipe, and the voiceover industry is prepping for a fierce competition.  The voice that books this campaign is bound for glory, and the natural stand-off seems to be between Sam and the much reviled, rather prissy Gustav (Ken Marino).  Carol has been told numerous times that there's no way a female voice can succeed in their industry, and she believes it, to an extent.  When dad kicks Carol out, though, a bit of sound studio happenstance leads to the career boost of a lifetime.  The jump, with some quirky cheerleading from a charming sound engineer (Demetri Martin), means it could be anyone's game.  Underdog story aside, this is a behind the scenes look at the movie industry that we haven't seen before, and Bell builds compelling characters around the absurdity of that single line.
There's rarely a dull moment throughout the run time of In a World..., and from the supporting cast (including Nick Offerman and Tig Notaro) on up, the picture is remarkable in its clarity, cheerfulness, and carefully engineered awkwardness.  It is a straightforward comedy that's actually funny without losing any of its interest in the sort of character-driven, feel good stuff that lets it remain fresh and friendly.  Lake Bell has written characters that actually manage to exist as dimensional human beings without too much outside pressure from forced, dumb plot threads or blurred edges.  She manages, too, to inadvertently make a girl powered comedy that deals with a kind of chauvinism we haven't been repeatedly hit over the head with (or maybe haven't even noticed).  It's seriously good, and, in this world marks Lake Bell as a triple threat to be reckoned with.  Forget the Maxim spreads and dumb one-night-stand/younger girlfriend characters, she's beyond that now. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Love: The Conjuring

Somewhere along the way I learned to love the horror film.  And when you learn to love the horror film, you find that you become a sort of advocate for the genre.  Horror fans -casual to obsessive- seem to have to constantly defend the repetitive, often reprehensible actions of the movies they like.  It's a cheap, B-movie genre characterized (perhaps more than any other category), by crummy dialogue, cheesy effects, and plots as complicated as a Girl Scout campfire story; we expect little more than a thrill or two, a laugh, or a reason to double check our locks.  I'll admit it: most of the time I watch a horror film just because and I expect absolutely nothing in return.  So many of them are dreadful, and, because of that, laughably fun.  A truly bad horror film is not a ridiculous one, but a boring one. A passable horror movie is like a roller coaster (but the fourth time around). And a great scary movie? A genuine one? Those are rare.  Considering the number released each year, there are really only a few horror films that have mastered their elements potently enough to extend beyond the realm of the midnight movie and towards a truly general audience. 

When they do, they stick out as exemplars passed down gleefully over generations.  The Exorcist, Halloween, Psycho, The Shining; these are some of the places where critics, horror fans, and our pop cultural vocabulary intersect.  As this review of The Conjuring runs a little late, I'm pretty sure you already know where I'm going with this lead-in.  The Conjuring is one of the great ones.  It's an instant genre classic, a phenomenal theater-going experience, a piece of shiny shiny retro-gold that seems to prove that there are still ways to make that worn-down recycled haunted house new, that there are still ghost stories to be told, and that upgrading the quality of the raw materials makes all the damn difference in the world.  
The Conjuring is about as well-built a fright fest as they come, and boasts a story as compelling as the raw terror it aims for.  Like The Exorcist before it, The Conjuring divides its attentions between the family impacted by the restless spirits of the house, and the paranormal investigators trying to help them out.  The story, supposedly true, is filtered through Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), the real-life husband and wife demonologist and medium whose case files previously inspired The Amityville Horror.  Here, we meet the two as touring curiosities presenting their work to lecture halls of anxious students, and get to know them as a surprisingly normal family.  We like them, they aren't sinister, and we see how they could easily get along with the troubled Perron clan, how they could be welcome into their restless home with open, well-meaning arms after weeks of frightening incidents.  The stories run parallel before intersecting, and the more we learn about the incidents occurring to Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) and their five daughters, the more we're prepared for the situation to build, escalate, and continue beyond its already jarring prelude.  It's a layering that works to the film's advantage, and the quality of the actors allows us to buy into the reality of the events in ways that shaky camerawork simply can't.

Much has been made of The Conjuring's R-rating for 'terror', and the shocking amount of success it has had in manifesting that warning into its audience's reality.  Though I've never been one to get flustered by the jumpy scares the haunted house horror film has to offer, and there was never a point I found myself truly surprised, I can say there are more than a few anxious scenes in The Conjuring...and they're delightful.  The scares are organic, immediate, and somehow without the bloodbath pyrotechnics (not that that's a bad thing, always) of so many of its kin.  It's the first horror film in ages I want to run around recommending to everyone I know, and so I'll end with this: see it. See it right now.  Do yourself a favor, get over your anxiety, go...

Monday, August 12, 2013

Like: Elysium

In an average year, Elysium would be getting a great deal of attention as an intelligent, savvy summer action film.  It's R-rated science fiction for adults, with themes that reach beyond its surface trappings and clever-enough mechanics.  In 2013, however, where so much has been so strong already, it seems that perhaps Elysium's deserved hype is taking a bit of a critical hit, possibly as a result of a certain ennui.  It gets tough to write positive review after positive review, and when most years are a more thoroughly mixed bag, it seems only normal to expect an existential crisis: is this movie actually good or are my standards just dropping?  This, it seems to me, is maybe the only logical reason I've come up with for Elysium's relatively disappointing opening this weekend.  After much buzz, the film has opened to a comparatively slight amount of fanfare, and even a few ill-placed mentions of After Earth.  That's just not right.  While Elysium tends towards the heavy-handed in its action sequences and in its big picture themes, it's the sort of science fiction that can, and should, be generally described as a good movie.  
 Any similarity to After Earth rests solely in the work director Neill Blomkamp is attempting with language, and yes, these moments are admittedly distracting, as we'll see.  The year is 2154, and Earth as we know it has been transformed into one overcrowded, resourceless, wasteland of a slum. The wealthy and powerful have vacated the planet to live on the star-like Elysium, a luxury space habitat of green lawns, white mansions, and semi-magical med-bays to heal your every illness. Everyone on Earth dreams of one day making it up out of their squalor and onto Elysium, and consequently, they're having a big of a border problem. Blomkamp, who previously worked with issues of xenophobia, racism, and the dangers of government in District 9 returns to that old hobby horse in Elysium.  Here the race and species of the 'other' is not at issue. There are no 'prawns', instead, humanity is divided by a severe rigidity of class.  The wealthy are quite able to literally look down upon the rest of humanity, and once that separation occurs, their desire to keep their gated community closed trumps all.  These much bigger issues become concentrated in the goals of a single man, Max (Matt Damon), a one-time petty criminal turned diligent factory worker whose world turns belly up when he gets hit with a soon-to-be fatal blast of radiation.  Knowing his condition can be reversed on Elysium, he begins to seek illegal transport there, and in selfishly looking out for himself becomes caught up in much more significant events.
 Blomkamp expands his tenement vision from District 9 into a nightmarish depiction of futuristic Los Angeles.  It's impossible not to think, at times, that this is a more plausible version of what The Road Warrior posited decades back: the technology has continued to improve, it trickles down to those who can't afford it via weaponry, broken down goods, and buffers to human contact.  The streets are overcrowded instead of deserted, the gangs dress in grimy plainclothes instead of becoming leather punks, tattoos overpower bodies, and dreams are kept in check.  Blomkamp makes it easy to see how most citizens of Earth would simply stay in their boxes despite their inarguable rage. The world building is what's great here, and we're able to buy into the idea of this space where uprising is too hard, life conditions too bludgeoning, and the skies are run by border patrol. They're just a bit too distant to be a tangible reality.  An interesting touch is the way Earth retains possession of the breadth of human variety. People and cultures have retained the accents of their parents and their culture. The languages, sounds, and -we imagine- customs are in tact.  On Elysium, we get the sense that all has become washed out and homogenized.  This is evident via the bizarre, vaguely After Earth-like accents on Elysium.  Delacourt (Jodie Foster), a tyrannical and vaguely terrifying bureaucrat, speaks in a mash-up of sounds stemming from the South African accent, but shifting quite often towards different European territories.  Perhaps this is a fault of Foster herself, but the weirdness of the speech patterns on Elysium is consistent, suggesting that the wealthy of the world have, in a way, formed their own shared heritage, their own sort of language.

This could be an interesting idea, but it's rather distracting, and, frankly...I'm not convinced.  When we lose the subtitles of the prawns and switch into a story requiring more typical, exposition-heavy dialogue than District 9, Blomkamp also noticeably loses some of his edge.  With the bigger budget, too, comes a less impressive mastery of the material.  District 9 was tiny and gritty. It worked, it felt personal.  Elysium is giant and lumbering, lording over you with its mashed up ideas and influences.  There are very bluntly heavy talking points here, often coming from Delacourt, and they lend an insincerity to the film that doesn't quite mesh with the genuineness its story is invested with.  IMMIGRATION. HEALTHCARE. BAAAAAAAHHHHHH. Still, Elysium is a strong film that pulls you towards its characters and gives you reasons to wish for their success.  Though technically a work of very practiced dystopian science fiction, the sci-fi elements here are most prominent when you step back, but seem to disappear into the cold facts of the film's environment while you're watching.  Even when Max is bolted into a robotic 'suit' and battling in space, Elysium has a weird plausibility that works to its advantage.  It's got style, it builds a compelling world, and that will be what saves it.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Like: The Spectacular Now

Are you in the present moment? Like, really here? Because, get ready, this is the instant where you lean in and I tell you a secret: I didn't really care for The Spectacular Now.  *Gasp!* What!? You didn't like the genuineness? The anti-formula narrative? The way it doesn't play like a normal high school narrative?  Well, yes and no, but mostly...nope. I followed it to a point and then I couldn't follow it any further, I went where it wanted to take me, the itinerary was received, and then - boom- I was over it and discreetly attempting to check the time on my phone.  So, yeah, personally? I didn't really care for The Spectacular Now.'s not the sort of film deserving of a merciless evisceration.  On the whole, it's a good film. A solid film. A well-acted, smart film. There are winning performances chock full of a variety pack of emotions. People really feel in The Spectacular Now, goddammit. They're fragile and human, dimensional and flawed. No one here gets to play a smart-talking young master of their ironic domain, and outlandish victories are not sought.  The world is small and sensible, trapped somewhere in Middle America without any suspect set-dressing from the outside. This is a world you likely know, and one that feels real.  Consequently, it's a film you will probably like, and when you do, many of the aspects you praise I will agree with.

The Spectacular Now is notably penned by the pair of dudes who wrote that other movie everyone else loves but I don't: (500) Days of Summer (they're also responsible for Pink Panther 2, but apparently we've swept that under the rug). Unlike Summer, Spectacular Now truly does drop any sense of ironic posturing. Gone are the days of JGL's sweater vests, musical numbers, and empty shells of characters.  No one here uses a mutual love of The Smiths as fodder for a crush, and that alone is a point of great success for the film.  When we meet Sutter (Miles Teller), our protagonist, he's opening up an online college admission form and typing up an expletive loaded essay on the hardship of being dumped by his long-term girlfriend (Brie Larson) in the wake of a misunderstanding.  The quick, snarky start is deceiving. What we're first shown is a rather superficial look at Sutter as an archetype. He was part of a power couple, a popular kid, the well-known class clown who had fun, took up antics, and enjoyed a good party.  When he goes to confront his now ex, however, at another party, he finds himself awakened by a classmate he doesn't know, on a stranger's lawn, without a clue where he left his car.  The classmate is a quiet, unassuming girl named Amy Finnicky (Shailene Woodley).  As they ride together on Amy's paper route, a friendship begins, and the film enters into a transformation.  The touch of snark is dropped, and the story quickly gains possession of a much weightier sense of purpose.  The great surprise of the film is how real Sutter and Amy feel, and how naturally their relationship progresses from a place of casual acquaintance to something unequal, but deep. 
The small details are what initially made me believe that I could fall for The Spectacular Now. There truly is something to be said about a high school film where the teenagers read as believable, fully-formed human beings.  There's something even bigger to be said about a high school film where the characters are visually depicted as such.  Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley look, more than most, like actual kids you'd find in a small town high school.  Their dress is not flashy or trendy, their bedrooms do not boast clever signs of the times or posters hinting at some applied interest, and they move through their worlds in ways that do not feel overly rehearsed or designed to land a scene's punchline.  One very small detail I appreciated, for example: Amy Finnicky often seems to be pulling back her hair in the moment.  Walking and tying a ponytail. Doing that thing that all girls with long hair do, but which I don't feel most films have the time for. She doesn't sit in front of a vanity mirror and fuss over her image, she doesn't show up with expertly coiffed and curled locks, she just talks to Sutter and blushes and nervously ties her hair back.  Completely natural, wholly rare.  

The micro-element of the ponytail, I feel, sums up the beauty of the big picture quite well. So much is gentle and natural, including the performances.  Shailene Woodley proves that her much lauded role in The Descendants was no fluke, and it's impossible to watch the film without wishing Amy the best in everything. Woodley gifts her a wonderful, balanced normalcy with a vulnerability spawned from her heartbreaking capacity for love. Amy wants, as so many teenagers do, to have those experiences she's only read about, and we watch as she nervously enters into a relationship with Sutter, a guy she'd clearly long believed was never an option.  Because this is not some sort of backwards comedy where the nerd dates the jock, however, Amy's actions are subtle. Her character changes in slow, surprising ways. We watch as she becomes enmeshed in the world of her first love, as she takes on his traits and tries to find ways to share in his life.  Teller, too, is well cast as Sutter. He's trying to push away from the inevitable, to postpone it and drown it in whatever happens to come along.  Sutter is a dynamic character, and Teller has enough talent to pull that off...with the dumb mug that suits a teenage sad clown.
So, on the whole, The Spectacular Now is a good movie boasting very good performances doing good and interesting things with a genre you've grown all-too familiar with.  What's the problem? Well (---you may wish to count this as a spoiler alert---), for all the groundwork it lays in one area, the longer it stretches on the more it seems to misplace all its hard-earned good will on a plot line that weighs heavy as an afterschool special.  See, Sutter is a teenage alcoholic.  As the film progresses, his problem becomes increasingly severe and detrimental to those around him.  It's a very real situation, of course, and a relatively unusual one to see on screen amidst many a related film (a few starring Miles Teller, even) feting binge drinking and epic, booze-fueled ragers.  Though director James Ponsoldt handles the material competently, I just couldn't escape the near Sparksian levels of emotional manipulation the film began to deal past a certain, shocking point towards the conclusion.  The desperate need to propel things forward swings the narrative so completely away from the place of the meandering portrait, that I found myself losing respect not only for Sutter, but for all the characters we'd been introduced to until that point.

This is, perhaps, one of the problems with depicting real teenagers: so many of us are stupid, illogical, and overly eager to please our friends and significant others at that age.  When we watch that as a reflection and not an edit, it becomes (especially for those of us who were maybe always more in-line with the snarky, ironic Darias of the world) deeply frustrating to watch.  We need some kind of intervention by the storyteller, something that keeps the film realistic without subscribing to something all-too real.  I hit a point where the film's strengths couldn't save it, and I left The Spectacular Now feeling more irritated than anything else, but realize that part of my irritation speaks to a success of the film.  We're made to care about the characters to the point that we're actually pissed off (as we would be with a friend or sibling) when we watch them making stupid decisions. That's a win for the actors, definitely, but, uh, the last thing I want when I'm watching a film is to feel like I should be planning someone's intervention.  

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Like: Crystal Fairy (& The Magical Cactus)

Leave it to Michael Cera to make cocaine usage look somehow innocent. As the exploratory inverse of his douchebag character from This is the End, in Crystal Fairy Cera plays Jamie, a wandering young American drifting through Chile in search of the ultimate trip, or, some sort of intangible, accidental answer.  He's exactly the type of guy who disappears for some section of his 20's to backpack idly towards adventure, an ugly American recognizable by his inability to speak the language, his casual interest in accumulating odd experiences, and the tourist's enthusiasm for restless, crude, party-centric behavior.  Jamie is exactly that guy you know on Facebook who resurfaces once a month or so to post a cryptic picture of himself on the edge of the world, drifting. He's a bit awful and immature, jerky and entitled in his actions and speech. Yet, for all his self-centered stupidity, his touristy hang outs with drag queen hookers, copious drug usage, and weird seedy secrets, Crystal Fairy is somehow a gentle vacation movie.  It's a light, meandering summer indie without much movement, but with a rather pleasing depth.
The film follows Jamie on his empty quest to track down a San Pedro cactus and indulge in mescaline tea. It's precisely the sort of moronic bucket list item a middle class suburban American would dream up, and he's humored by his Chilean 'friends' (the directors brothers, Agustin, Juan Andres, and Jose Miguel Silva).  They volunteer to drive him north in the name of his experience, and before they can Jamie invites a curious hippie-chick calling herself Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann) along for the ride.  Crystal, too, is precisely sketched. She's admirably comfortable in her body to the point of making others anxious. In the nude, with only her jangly bracelets and Kahlo-like eyebrows, she drops kerchief wrapped healing crystals in the beers of her new brothers, asking them to imbibe their essence and open their world to a sort of self-discovery she's clearly willing onto herself. Jamie and Crystal are both products of their own fantasy creation, trying-too-hard figments forced on this journey by their own lack of personal understanding, and the joke is on them.  Chilean director Sebastian Silva rather lovingly shows us how foolish each character is in their quest, but does so with the understanding that for them personally, it may not matter.  Cera is surprisingly subtle here, funny in an understated way and comfortably unlikable, but it's ultimately Hoffmann's movie.  As the title character, Hoffmann gives a bold performance as an occasionally irritating but ultimately sympathetic lost soul. After years off the radar, she's one to look out for.

Friday, August 9, 2013

RIP: Karen Black

Actress Karen Black, who made her mark in the 'New' Hollywood of the '60s and '70s, passed away yesterday after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.  74-year old Black most notably starred in Easy Rider, Nashville, and received an Academy Award nomination for her performance as a waitress in Five Easy Pieces.   

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Late Night Trailers: 'Her' + 'The Counselor'

There's a double-header of fresh trailers deserving our attention today, and though I was perhaps more entertained by Stephen Colbert's ebullient Daft Punk dance moves, these two films both look like must-sees.  The first is Spike Jonze's return to the director's chair, Her, a technology-driven love story set in the not-too-distant future.  Joaquin Phoenix reunites with The Master co-star Amy Adams (and a whole cast of cool ladies) to play a lonely guy who seems to have an emotional connection with his computer's operating system.  I'm guessing we're in for a fair amount of melancholy here, but we'll see when Her opens November 20.On a rather different note, the first look at Ridley Scott and author Cormac McCarthy's collaboration, The Counselor, has dropped as well. McCarthy pens the script here, and Michael Fassbender plays the title character, a respected lawyer who embarks on a little dalliance into the drug business. Scott has a tendency to make his thrillers a touch too overblown (I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking American Gangster ran about 40 min too long), but The Counselor has a pedigree that cannot be ignored, and a cast to match. Fassbender is supported by Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, and will be out on October 25.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Love: Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine is, in essence, what it looks like when Woody Allen writes as Tennessee Williams. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) herself is a variation on the Blanche DuBois theme; she's a cultured pearl, a pampered Manhattanite whose world turns belly up when her husband is arrested for white-collar crimes.  As she waves goodbye to her Birkin bags, beach houses, and diamonds, Jasmine experiences a psychotic break.  Broke, unstable, and licking her wounds, Jasmine shelves her pride and moves in to her classless adopted sister Ginger's (Sally Hawkins) humble San Francisco apartment. Like Blanche, Jasmine is a woman who remains haunted by the traces of her former self. She's still pretty, still gives off an aura of taste and wealth, and can't shake the immediate distaste she has for most of what she sees as Ginger's chosen lifestyle.  So she calms her frayed nerves in glass after glass of Stoli, hands shaking as she struggles to convince herself that her life in the 1% will somehow go on.  Of course, Blue Jasmine isn't a straight adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, more of a loose working with time tested material.  Allen's version is very much of the here and now, a cold sweat instead of a humid, murky bit of Southern Gothic.  The sexual hang-ups and repression of the mid-20th century exchanged for a recession-era portrait of a woman who tried to look the other way - like so many politico trophy wives and Wall Street spouses before her.  
 Jasmine's story is told in temporal jumps and flashback. Time passes, and we're made privy to the events leading to her fall via surging memories that seem to break through the character's own consciousness. The slightest hint of the wrong thing and she's sent spiraling back to a moment when things were a certain way, only to find herself shaken into the present, still carrying on the same conversation.  The film's rhythms are a bit difficult to grasp at in its opening scenes, and though the pattern eventually finds its stride, something about Allen's approach to the narrative and tone leaves the story uneven and, more often than not, a bit unsatisfying.  At plot-level, Blue Jasmine is rather a disappointment.  The film belongs to Blanchett, and her mesmerizing performance is what keeps the story from drowning in its own tedium.  She's phenomenal here, discarding her collected red carpet presence to become a woman visibly crumbling. She speaks in optimistic fits and starts, rapidly swings between body language closed and open, stares blankly with an intensity reminiscent of Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence.  Allen allows her to do her thing, steps away and lets the actress treat the camera like a working part of her character's delusions.  She's brilliant and sad, perfectly complimented by Sally Hawkins' reprisal of her Happy-Go-Lucky character's plucky naivete.
 Both actresses are bound for recognition come awards season, and between the two of them they make Blue Jasmine a film well worth watching.  Blanchett is shakingly impressive, and she manages to make Jasmine's struggle into an actual tragedy where it could have easily been mined for comic, fish-out-of-water fodder.  This is a more dramatic Allen than we've visited with lately, and though the film still possesses a laugh-worthy levity at points, the gravity of the Jasmine's situation takes hold again and again as a sort of embittered, bleeding punchline.  Though the story at times seems too predictably built to exploit the extreme class discrepancies between the two sisters, and to construct relative caricatures of affluence and what it deems "regular folk" (Ginger and her fiance seem displaced from the Jersey Shore), Blue Jasmine transcends its meager storyline to become a big, absorbing, emotionally devastating piece of work.  You won't say it was pleasant, you may not want to revisit it, but you'll walk away raving about the caliber of its actors.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Under 250: Ginger & Rosa

Teenage besties Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert, of Beautiful Creatures) are inseparable, so close and linked they're practically sisters.  Change is coming, though, and in 1962 London, Ginger finds herself pulled and captivated by the threat of nuclear warfare.  She fancies herself a poetess and brings Rosa to protests, chattering purposefully about the impending end of the world. Their nights out are mash-ups of growing up, all the cold realizations alongside all small mistakes. Ginger's social-consciousness is contrasted with Rosa's interest in boys, parties, and strange trust in the power of prayer. Director Sally Potter returns from an extended absence, and Ginger & Rosa is a slip of a narrative powered by the intensity of its emotions and stark purity of its camerawork. Elle Fanning is the true star here, and as Ginger spends her life waiting for the bomb - or the other shoe- to drop, we get close-up after close-up of her ability to silently articulate the severity of the situation.  Though soapy drama abounds, Ginger & Rosa is saved by Fanning's performance and the richness of the cinematography.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Guest Post: Tryst and the Sundae Date Night

Tryst is on her way to becoming some sort of semi-domestic goddess, and she returns with a delicious snack plan I'm eager to try out. And let it be known: she may be the only person who's allowed to call her husband 'hubby' without pushing me towards instant nausea. Fact.  So, as I delve into the mass chaos that is Grant Park during Lollapalooza, I'll let her show you how quick desserts are done...

Dinner and a movie was once a very common date night for me and the hubby. But a wriggly baby does not make for a pleasant theater going experience so our date nights have become quiet nights in. But, you can't really call it a date night if it is just like every other night. So, I came up with this sundae to add a dash of fun and romance to our Netflix and RedBox evenings. 

Salty, buttery popcorn is wonderful on its own. However, I like to add some chocolate or caramel to sweeten things up. My husband hates buttered popcorn (he prefers sugared) so we compromise with kettle corn smothered in caramel and call it a day.
a generous handful of kettle corn
2 scoops of ice cream

a stream of caramel
1. Scoop ice cream into a chilled bowl. (I like to pop my ice cream bowls/glasses in the freezer for 30 minutes before eating).
2. Cover with popcorn
3. Drizzle with warm caramel 
4. Enjoy!

Tryst's Sundae Date Night film faves:

Our guest columnist and special fashion consultant Tryst is your one-woman guide to filmtastic styling, easy to spot on the sartorial street because of her excellent taste in tutus and expertise balancing in ridiculous footwear. With a degree in English and Biology, she is officially certified to make up both words and diseases, but prefers to make fashion judgments. While she does enjoy curling up on the couch with a movie and her English husband, she will be the first to tell you that pajamas belong on the inside…not outside…of your abode.  She blogs about real life things at Pond Crossings 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Mixtape: It's My Rushmore

What began as a mixtape inspired by Rushmore became something else entirely: a soundtrack for an imagined Wes Anderson film. Our playlist kicks off with one recycled song you'd expect to hear, and continues with 21 from our field notes. Troubled children, this is for you. You'll find a pair of safety glasses and some earplugs under your seat. Please feel free to use them.

Listen here and check out the rest of the L&S movie mixtapes on 8Tracks.

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