Friday, December 20, 2013

100 Words On … A Touch of Sin














Where most films by the great Jia Zhangke unfurl tales of everyday people cast adrift by the massive upheavals in China’s economy and social structure with a languor that almost masks their ferocity, A Touch of Sin burns like a comet.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Twice Born












Like Incendies, Twice Born is the story of a doomed romance and a loving family with secrets so toxic even the family itself doesn’t know them, set against the backdrop of a recent civil war. Also like Incendies, Twice Born is an intermittently powerful but ultimately unconvincing melodrama.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

100 Words On ... Little Shop of Horrors














Based on the Broadway musical, not Roger Corman’s rough-edged black-and-white original, Frank Oz’s highly stylized rom-com takes its cue from Alan Menken’s zesty R&B score and Howard Ashman’s witty lyrics and book.

Monday, October 14, 2013

NYFF 2013: Blue is the Warmest Color











After one of their titanic lovemaking sessions, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) teasingly asks Emma (Léa Seydoux) for a grade. Leah assigns her a 14 (out of 20 on the French grading scale), adding gently that she needs a little more practice. “I’ll give it all I’ve got,” Adèle promises.

That promise is kept in spades, by both character and actress, in Abdellatif Kechiche’s deeply felt coming of age story about a sympathetic young woman’s passage from adolescence to young adulthood and the first love that helps her find her true self. Seydoux is a worthy match for Exarchopoulos as the older and more experienced of the two (Emma is in art school and Adèle in high school when they meet), exuding the cool self-confidence of her character’s haute bourgeois background along with a charismatic artist’s seductive ability to make whoever interests her feel truly seen and understood.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

NYFF 2013: The Immigrant














Marion Cotillard is an icon of suffering in James Gray's somber passion play The Immigrant. As he did in Little Odessa, The Yards, and We Own the Night, Gray introduces us to a dysfunctional family and a criminal subculture prone to preying on the weak, going light on narrative twists to focus on the milieu and the interplay between his main characters. But where the best of his work sweeps you up in a tide of emotion and imagery so strong you aren't tripped up by on-the-nose dialogue or underdeveloped characters, The Immigrant leaves a few openings for suspension of disbelief to leak out.

NYFF 2013: Bastards











There is no shortage of title characters in this tale about the destructive power of a deeply dysfunctional family, but if the men inflict most of the violence, the women bear their share of the blame for the damage done. In the Q&A after the press screening, Claire Denis said: “They [women] are victims, for sure, often. But I don’t want a film to give them pity always. I prefer to be fierce with them.” Her story keeps circling back to questions of guilt and personal responsibility, each turn revealing more complications in her characters and their actions.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

NYFF 2013: Abuse of Weakness













Like its heroine, Abuse of Weakness wastes no time looking back, eschewing flashbacks of director Maud Schoenberg (Isabelle Huppert) ruling over a set or being courted by critics at Cannes. Instead, we meet Maud as she wakes up from a twitchy sleep to find herself half paralyzed by a stroke. Director Catherine Breillat doesn’t linger long on her recovery, either. We see enough of sterile, near-silent hospital rooms and painful therapy sessions to know it was a long slog, but we’re soon back home with Maud in her high-ceilinged Paris apartment, where the real story begins—and takes place, for the most part, since she can’t get around without help and she’s too proud to ask for much.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

NYFF 2013: Inside Llewyn Davis














"An odyssey where the main character doesn't go anywhere," as Ethan Coen put it in the Q&A after the New York Film Festival press screening of the film, Inside Llewyn Davis begins at the Gaslight Café, a fictional Greenwich Village coffeehouse, in 1961. After watching the title character (a mesmerizing Oscar Isaac) perform a soulful interpretation of an old folk song and then get beaten up in an inky back alley, we circle back in time to follow him as he couch-surfs his way around New York, hitches rides to Chicago and back, and visits, you suspect, just about everyone he loves or needs something from: his enraged ex-lover, Jean (Carey Mulligan); his sister (Jeanine Serralles), whose patience is fraying fast; his impossible-to-please father (Stan Carp), who's wasting away in a nursing home; his deceptively abusive, apparently avuncular agent, Mel (Jerry Grayson); and the kind, middle-aged couple (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett) whose comfortably bohemian-ish apartment is the closest thing Llewyn has to a home base.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

100 Words on… Come and Get It















Worth seeing for the star-making performance of the great Frances Farmer, who burned out a few years later, Come and Get It starts as a Hawksian portrait of manly “pine monkeys” at work, the captain of industry who leads them (Edward Arnold) and the gutsy woman who loves him (Farmer), complete with thrilling sequences of trees careening downhill and torpedoing into the water as men stand coolly just out of reach.

Monday, September 9, 2013

100 Words on… Fast Times at Ridgemont High












Natural-born feminist (probably thanks to that tiger mom he immortalized in Almost Famous) and lovingly bemused pop culture chronicler Cameron Crowe hit the ground running like Usain Bolt with this script, his first ever.

Friday, August 23, 2013

100 Words On: Singin’ in the Rain















Where The Artist damned the silent film era with fake praise, professing nostalgia for the worst of its sentimental excesses, Singin’ in the Rain brings the early days of talkies to cheerfully raucous life.

Friday, July 26, 2013

100 Words on…. The Power of Nightmares















This is a rare chance to see a powerful film that never aired on American TV or had a standard theatrical run since its BBC debut in 2004. Adam Curtis’s occasionally deadpan, always dead-serious documentary traces the parallel rise of radical Islamists in the Middle East and neoconservative ideologues in the U.S., making the case that each group gained power by fomenting fear of the other to create global mayhem.

Friday, July 19, 2013

100 Words on... The Servant












A glittery-eyed Dirk Bogarde morphs from abject subservience to contemptuous control while James Fox slowly deflates from the unearned confidence of blind privilege to sodden impotence in this intelligent adaptation of a novel about the triumph of an English manservant over his employer. Is this a parable about the collapse of the British ruling class or just a high-class game of cat and mouse—kind of a less gimmicky Sleuth?

Monday, March 18, 2013

SXSW 2013: Getting Back to Abnormal, This Ain't No Mouse Music!, No More Road Trips? Don Jon












Geeky, admittedly devoid of tact, and first seen on a radio talk show in which an series of African American callers accuse her of being a racist, Stacy Head makes an unlikely heroine. But that’s just what she proves to be, as Getting Back to Abnormal conducts a tour of the racial politics of New Orleans that’s as meandering and culturally rich as a second line parade.

Friday, March 15, 2013

SXSW 2013: Computer Chess, Swim Little Fish, Loves Her Gun












The fuzzy, shades-of-gray black-and-white of the decades-old Sony video camera that director Andrew Bujalski used to shoot Computer Chess is a worm tunnel through the space-time continuum, shooting us straight to the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. We arrive a computer chess tournament to which teams of artificial intelligence programmers from places like MIT and Stanford have lugged bulky CPUs and monitors. It’s an annual milestone in the race to develop a computer that can beat a human chess master. It is also, as one of the spectators puts it, the beginning of “the end of the world”—and the dawn of the one we inhabit now, in which we take it for granted that computers can do a whole lot of things better than we can

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

SXSW 2013: Before Midnight, Mud, The Act of Killing














My friend John Morthland, who programmed panels for the South by Southwest film festival in its infancy, says he could only get panelists from Texas and nearby states in those days. The schedule is crammed with panelists and films from all over now, but SXSW’s programmers still leave plenty of space for native sons and daughters.