Teller’s documentary, “Tim’s Vermeer,” like Penn & Teller’s long-running cable series, could also be entitled “Bullshit!” Film historian David Bordwell’s enthusiasm for the film is infectious: “Sometimes you sense that a film is made especially for you, and you expect to enjoy and admire it well before you see it…. It involves Penn & Teller, two demigods of mine; it’s about art and technology; and it investigates the possibility that a painter used optical devices to create glowing, mysterious images. In the process, it reawakens the controversy around David Hockney’s thesis in ‘Secret Knowledge’ that many old masters were employing lenses and mirrors to render nature with unprecedented richness. I wasn’t disappointed. It was the most intellectual fun I’ve had at the movies in the last year.” Man, I wish I could marshal that enthusiasm for what’s on screen. I recommend Bordwell’s piece for its keen appreciation, and reaction exactly opposite of mine. Read the rest of this entry »
With ambition that outstrips her experience, first-time director Jenée LaMarque’s fairytale “The Pretty One” mingles implausible drama and awkward comedy to less-than-middling result. Playing identical twins, the always-captivating Zoe Kazan brings some charm to the troubling premise: mouseburger twin Laurel takes on the life of her more exuberant sister, Audrey, after her abrupt death. Quirk and hipsterism-nearing-twee ensues, and how. (The brightly colored production design is toothsome, if largely overwhelming.) Kazan’s gift for winning oddity carries the day, even as LaMarque fails to find a persuasive overall tone. Read the rest of this entry »
Arne Toonen’s arch, blithely rude “Black Out” is another of the stylish, dark Euro-dramas that have become a specialty of Music Box Films and now its new genre label, Doppelganger Releasing. The most banal but truest reduction of Toonen’s brash style is to label him a dirtier, flashier Guy Ritchie who re-situates “The Hangover” in Holland. An ex-con wakes up in an Amsterdam hotel room, the day before his wedding, a gun and a dead man beside him; gangsters are convinced he’s responsible for the disappearance of twenty kilos of cocaine. Also disappeared: a chunk of his memory of how he got into this mess. Read the rest of this entry »
Classically constructed, as rigid in its construction of suspense as any recent thriller, Alain Guiraudie’s “Stranger by the Lake” (L’inconnu du lac), is a masterful work, uncluttered yet lush, formally mechanistic, yet always surprising. It also takes its location, its construction of sexuality, as commonplace. Guiraudie’s movie is assuredly part and parcel of queer cinema, but also of the cinema of the quotidian, of the everyday. At a remote lakeside somewhere in France—which Guiraudie says is in the provinces of the South, where he grew up—men come each sunny summer day to sun, to cruise, to meet, to converse or to exchange gestures and, in one case, to murder. Read the rest of this entry »
(Kaze tachinu) “Airplanes are beautiful dreams.” Possibly the last film by seventy-three-year-old Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki, the sober, regret-steeped “The Wind Rises” is a period drama, a dreamily romantic recounting of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the aviation engineer who designed the Zero fighter, the plane that Japan thought would win them World War II, and was used for kamikaze attacks and at Pearl Harbor. It’s an honorable treatment of a subject that drew some fervent criticism early in the awards season. Fire and firestorm, wind and clouds and windstorms, sky and planes, are all gorgeously rendered in the fine line of Miyazaki’s virtuoso hand-drawn style. (The sound design, as always, is as gorgeous as the images.) The savor that remains after is the unique look and feel of Miyazaki’s work, but also the pungency of the portrait of the dreamer who sees only his dream, and not always the presages of the world falling down around him. Read the rest of this entry »
Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” runs 613 minutes, so why wouldn’t a big chunk taken out of it be possibly the longest outtake in film history? “The Last Of The Unjust” is partly a conversation with the last President of the Jewish Council in a Czechoslovakian ghetto. The eighty-eight-year-old director’s sustained conversation, shot in Rome in 1975, is with Benjamin Murmelstein, who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, working directly with Adolf Eichmann in the death camp at Theresienstadt, which was considered the model concentration camp. As the distributor’s notes simplify, “A rabbi in Vienna, following the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938, Murmelstein fought bitterly with Adolf Eichmann, week after week for seven years, managing to help around 121,000 Jews leave the country, and preventing the liquidation of the ghetto.” Read the rest of this entry »
Surprises in this gig are rare, but good, and sometimes great.
Chicago traffic kept me from the last-minute Chicago press screening back in October for Ridley Scott’s filming of Cormac McCarthy’s first original screenplay, “The Counselor.” It opened a couple of days later, reviews were scathing, I couldn’t get to the theater before it was gone, and the box-office topped out at $16 million in the U.S. (but made an additional $53 million in other countries).
I had read the published screenplay, filled with expanses of dialogue that are oracular, twisted and robustly disgusted with the world, and couldn’t believe the quickly-shot, $30 million movie could be so bad as that. But in an infrequent, fortunate twist of timing in a movie reviewing life, it turns out to have been a very good thing that I never saw that 117-minute theatrical version. The just-released Blu-ray director’s cut, at about 140 minutes, is the only one I really need to have seen: whatever pressures, professional or personal, that Sir Ridley felt to keep the theatrical version under two hours (as had happened with other films of his, especially “Kingdom of Heaven”), the “extended” version stands tall.
Honestly, I haven’t been this captivated, thrilled, horrified or amazed by a movie in too long. There’s so much nuttiness and finery and expansive desperation in its story of the machinations of people who don’t know just how desperate—and doomed—they are. And technically, “The Counselor,” this rendition, didn’t even exist in 2013, where it would have nestled nicely within any year-end best list. Read the rest of this entry »
A vital fairytale about a ten-year-old Laotian boy whose family thinks he’s been cursed since birth, “The Rocket” is an unlikely heartwarmer. Set in that country’s outback, the writing-directing debut of documentary-trained Australian Kim Mordaunt follows ten-year-old Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) in his quest to relocate his family as the government starts to build a giant dam, and eventually, to win a competition by constructing, well, a giant rocket. The purpose of the Rocket Festival is to beseech the sky gods for rain at the end of dry season, a not insubstantial irony for a country sometimes described as the world’s-most-bombed. Read the rest of this entry »
“Why is America so robo-phobic?” José Padilha’s Detroit-set, Canada-shot “RoboCop” is close enough to the letter of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 satire of man, machine and capitalism as to credit original writers Michael Miner and Edward Neumeier as well as new screenwriter Joshua Zetumer. And while Padilha, the Brazilian director of effective, brutish films like “Elite Squad” proffers the politics of drones, mass media indoctrination and other political hot buttons in blunt fashion, the Dutchman beats the Brazilian on intricate, ironic execution. Set in 2028, “RoboCop” is bookended by the all-heat-no-light “The Novak Element,” with hectoring, disingenuous speeches delivered by Samuel L. Jackson’s telegenic stooge filibustering for the United States to no longer be the final nation allowing drones and robot police. The words—virtuous, angry, nearly ironic, merely on-the-nose, taking on provocative contemporary topics, simplistic execution—are rife with topicality but wan when it comes to satiric pungency. Read the rest of this entry »
Sometimes scheduling keeps a reviewer from getting to a movie before it opens, and sometimes, that’s just Awesome. In the case of the exceptional “The Lego Movie,” from directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, getting to see their pyrotechnic computer-animated fantasia with a packed, thrilled, paying audience was a sweet treat, especially since its wall-to-wall Mad-magazine-like visual tapestry also draws subversively on any number of movies that would include but hardly be limited to the epic paranoia of John Carpenter’s “They Live” and “The Matrix,” as well as the Wachowskis’ most-misunderstood carpet-bombing of form, “Speed Racer.” (In the case of “The Lego Movie,” something is hardly rotten from the state of Denmark.) It’s not quite the communist insurrection that some commentators of predictable bent have called it, but it’s assuredly the most sophisticated release of the winter crop of new movies—simply cinema. Read the rest of this entry »