Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Gangs of Wasseypur

A cheeky repudiation of traditional Bollywood treacle, director-cowriter Anurag Kashyap’s gangster saga is a little bit Tarantino, a little bit Coppola, a little bit Scorsese, and ultimately all his own. Thanks to title cards and a voiceover by Nasir Ahmed (Piyush Mishra), a friend of the gangster Khan family around whom the action revolves, the two-part, 5-hour-plus saga charts the bloody rise and fall of three generations of the family while providing a crash course in Indian politics from shortly before independence to the present.

100 Words On... His Girl Friday

Perhaps the greatest of prewar Hollywood’s comedies of remarriage, His Girl Friday is a fast-talking, word-drunk joy. Roz Russell and Cary Grant spar and spark as Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns, Hawksian heroes who see clearly, feel deeply, and keep the patter light. As a canny newspaper editor and his ex-wife, who is also his star writer, they’re so effortlessly in tune with each other and so good at their jobs that Hildy’s attempt to quit and keep house for her sweet, boring fiancé (Ralph Bellamy) is clearly doomed. But oh, the fun to be had in watching Walter contrive to make her stay, in a battle of wits they both wound up winning.

Written for The L Magazine

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Play and Involuntary

For Ruben Östlund, a movie camera is an instrument of provocation and exploration. Often shooting his subjects from above or from a great distance in order to emphasize their relationship to one another, he studies his own culture like an anthropologist, dissecting social norms and looking for patterns in the ways individuals relate to one another.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Taken 3

The latest, and ostensibly final, installment in the Taken series has landed on our doorstep with a heavy thud. Directed by the aptly named Olivier Megaton and co-written and produced by Luc Besson, the film is, like its predecessors, a numbing exercise in overkill. Once more, ex-special ops agent Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) goes into superhero mode, this time to find out who murdered his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), and pinned the blame on him. And once more, ubiquitous aerial shots, swirling cameras, and pounding music strain to make even something as innocuous as an establishing shot of Los Angeles's jammed freeways feel as significant as the dispiritingly frequent chase scenes, gunfights, and beatings. Broken up into quick cuts and often filmed from confusing angles, the action seems aimed less at cluing us in on what's happening than simply amping up our adrenaline—and masking the impossibility of some of Mills's literally superhuman feats and escapes.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Episodes Season 4

Television veterans and real-life couple David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik do all the heavy lifting on Episodes, writing every word and directing and producing each episode. Klarik says he writes for revenge, and one can feel the sting of anger in sequences like the montage in the second episode of the show's fourth season. Grotesquely cheery insincerity reaches monumental heights as network executives shower the show's main characters, husband-wife writers Beverly (Tamsin Greig) and Sean (Stephen Mangan) Lincoln, with compliments on the new TV series the pair are pitching, then promptly suggest changes that would undo its very essence.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Talking to Tim Burton

If style is substance, Tim Burton is a very substantial director indeed. From his first feature, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Burton visually inventive style has done much of the work of gothacizing his humanist narratives, often through comically exaggerated costumes and sets, matter-of-fact dollops of surrealism, and wide-eyed, well-meaning misfit protagonists. Burton's latest, Big Eyes, is about another alienated innocent marooned in a middle America that's nowhere near as calm and comfortable as it's pretending to be. But in many other ways, the film feels strangely un-Burtonesque. Margaret Keane, its main character, painted the lookalike portraits of sad children with enormous eyes that spread like kudzu throughout the U.S. in the 1950s and '60s. But the more popular her work became, the more isolated she felt, forced as she was to keep a secret that had been cooked up by her husband, who wanted the world to think he was the artist behind her "big eyes" paintings. I spoke with Burton last week about what Keane's story has to say about the suburban American dream of the Cold War era and why he opted for a more subdued visual approach in telling her story.

I guess you must like Margaret Keane's paintings, since you own a couple of them.

Well, yeah. But "like" is a funny word. I grew up with them.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Big Eyes

Director Tim Burton and the story of Margaret and Walter Keane, a tale of extreme weirdness hidden under the manicured surface of two middle-class American lives, were made for each other. There’s even something Burtonesque about the Keane paintings that give the film its title, portraits of children with sad, deadpan faces and eyes so huge and flat that one of the film’s characters compares them to “big stale jellybeans.” After all, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice or Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands as Keane kids in Goth getups. But this “based on true events” tale is a Burton film without much Burton, its costumes, settings and sometimes on-the-nose dialogue all disappointingly straightforward.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Best Movies and Performances of 2014

Happy happy, merry merry, and welcome to list time.

First, here's Slant Magazine's 25 Best Films of 2014 list, which was compiled from the lists contributed by about 20 of us regular Slant contributors.

Next, Slant's 20 Best Film Performances of 2014, which I also contributed to.

And here's my personal Top 10 list for 2014, plus 10 runners-up.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Night and Fog, another great film about the Holocaust, warns of the danger in treating the Shoah as a one-time event buried safely in the past, perpetuated by evildoers who were fundamentally different than our presumably humane and civilized selves. “Are their faces really different from our own?” its narrator asks. Ida uses an investigation into the annihilation of a fictional Jewish family in Poland to pose the same question, contemplating the horrible helplessness of the ordinary citizens caught in the maws of the Nazis’ murderous totalitarianism. With minimal dialogue, luminous black and white cinematography and penetrating performances by open-faced Agata Trzebuchowska as the contemplative title character and sharp-faced Agata Kulesza as her gallant but cynical aunt Wanda, Paweł Pawlikowski's quietly devastating film limns one family’s losses with delicate precision.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Color of Time

By submitting nearly everything he creates for public approval, regardless of whether it's substantial enough to hold up to that kind of scrutiny, James Franco does no favors to not-ready-for-prime-time works like The Color of Time. The multihyphenate gathered students he had taught at New York University's film school to write and direct this fictional imagining of the life of poet C.K. Williams, which, despite stellar performances in the main roles, feels nearly weightless and painfully derivative.