To the Wonder of Roger Ebert

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Sometimes I believe in fate.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball on To the Wonder being the last review of Roger Ebert, published two days after his death.

That it was this film, and not something more banal — say Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles VI, or The Avengers Chapter XVI: Cataclysm of the Abominable Silver Snow-Surfer — that it was this film must be seen as more than coincidence.  Yes, fate.

And it happens I agree entirely with Ebert, who bestowed 3 1/2 of 4 stars on To the Wonder.  So I will defer to him.  But first my two bits: To the Wonder is quite unique.  I was trying to peg it as something like an Iñárritu-made cross between The Loneliest Planet and Blue Valentine, but that doesn’t quite work.  The narrative style — as Ebert wrote:

Although it uses dialogue, it’s dreamy and half-heard, and essentially this could be a silent film — silent, except for its mostly melancholy music.

— this style I’ve never quite seen before — never used throughout an entire film.  It’s a style that turned a lot of audiences and critics away.  Storytelling many found too oblique.  I mused on this, and feel that more conventional dialogue-driven To the Wonder - text blockaction could have told the story in a stronger way — but that would be an entirely different film, and not necessarily for the better.

That’s because To the Wonder is full of lyrical beauty, with a strong yet ambiguous story at its heart.  It’s open to interpretation, and that’s not a bad thing in movies.  Ebert’s final review so aptly — for this movie and his life — concludes:

Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren’t many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren’t many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn’t that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?

There will be many who find “To the Wonder” elusive and too effervescent. They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.

7/10

Availability: Netflix

Roger Ebert - Walk of Fame

Losing with Netflix

I am generally a fan of Netflix, but it was disheartening to see what movies were disappearing from the service come August, especially upon reviewing what would arrive in their stead.  A number of good movies, including Face/Off, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and The Fifth Element, will be leaving.  Replacing them?  Highlights include Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Season 2.  Yes, that’s sarcasm — and sadly, truth.  Point being, the additions amount to basically a big pile of garbage compared to what’s leaving.

The complete list of arrivals and departures is here.  Expect more and more good content — especially movies — to vacate Netflix.

Cinematic Greats: 48 Hrs.

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A great movie and an 80’s flashback in one!  Sometimes a movie just hits all the right notes.  That may sound clichéd, but hear me now and believe me later: 48 Hrs. is a fantastic, funny as hell movie with a great Dirty Harry-inspired villain and a thrilling storyline — much more than one could expect in Eddie Murphy’s debut.

If you never saw it, do yourself a favor and catch 48 Hrs., an essential picture that holds its place among the many great movies of the period.

Availability: Netflix

48 Hrs. - still - Murphy

She Uses Tangerine [Updated]

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Yes, that’s a play on the Flaming Lips.

Tangerine is the most talked-about indie of the year, and for good reason.  It splashes vibrant, ruddy, glowing color all over the gritty urban streetscape of Hollywood.  Then, as night falls on Christmas Eve, that patina is washed away, leaving only the ugly naked truth — and a few more laughs.

I’m going to draw an unlikely comparison to Boyhood, because movies are ultimately about the story.  And the story of Tangerine wasn’t bad, but neither was it great.  The same story with more bland, milquetoast characters would probably get a thumbs down — not just from me but most critics.  The audacious characters of Tangerine drive the narrative.

Tangerine - text blockYou can talk about how different, and how novel, a movie is — and I loved the novelty of Tangerine — but ultimately the story must be there.  So probably the best comparison of all: Beasts of the Southern Wild.  It’s like this whole new world you’ve never seen before.  This is what movies are supposed to do!  So how can you not be over the moon?  How can you not be wildly enthusiastic with your recommendation?  Because story matters.

Every once in a while I wish that some truly profound David Lynch – Inland Empire moment might burst forth to offer true, glowing transcendence — but it was not to be.  Still though, there is something endearing about Tangerine.  Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, my opinion has been raised upon reflection.  But also like Beasts, a more developed story would launch Tangerine into the stratosphere.  7/10

Update: A note I forgot to include: the film was shot almost entirely with three iPhones.  Inspiration to low-budget filmmakers everywhere.

Humans on AMC

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My name is Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you

Twilight Zone, episode “Living Doll.”  “A Thing About Machines” — with an electric razor chasing a man down the stairs — is also to the point here.

I wanted to post a short note on AMC’s Humans, which I’ve got caught up in.  With Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Better Call Saul, AMC has established a reputation which demands that its new series be given attention.  Humans is not up to the level of Mad Men or Better Call Saul, and Ex Machina may be thought of as a concentrated and much better overall effort than this series, but it’s still worthwhile.

What I like most about it are the character portrayals, especially of the “synth” Anita — who though friendly and helpful maintains a distinct sinister undercurrent, and the bonus of a well-optimized William Hurt.  The plot needs a little work, but nobody’s perfect.  Not even a robot.

William Hurt (not a cyborg)

William Hurt (not a cyborg)

Film Brief: Trainwreck

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A nice surprise: all of a sudden I’m a LeBron James fan!  But not for his hoops — he’s a good and likable actor!  Playing himself, anyway.  That was one of the modes of success for Trainwreck — all the smaller roles and cameos.  Also, a nice long-haired hair turn for Tilda Swinton.  And let’s hear it for more Brie Larson!

If Trainwreck were a little more taut, and made me feel more empathy toward the title character (she’s not really such a trainwreck), we’d be talking 8+.  We might even be talking Obvious Child territory.  But as it is, a nice, fun little rom-com, but ephemeral.  Nothing here to stick around.  7/10

On The Double

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The Double, an adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novella, earns lots of style points, with its bleak, Eraserhead-conjuring industrial world.  The writer-director Richard Ayoade certainly has an idea.  But this movie is fairly pointless, and worse, not entertaining.

With Synecdoche, New York, BirdmanFight Club, Secret Window, The Machinist and Moon, and the granddaddy of all, Mulholland Dr., there is little reason to watch this rather weak take on the doppelgänger sub-genre.  4/10

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Amy’s on Fire

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The dead singer, not the movie about her.  If I were judging Amy purely on filmmaking skills, it would receive a thumbs-down.  Case in point.  I heard Tony Bennett’s posthumous compliment of her about being that rare “true Jazz singer.”  So it’s appropriate that the movie use this quote.  What’s inappropriate is repeating the quote three times.  That gets uncomfortable, because it uncovers the movie’s greatest fault: disorganization, and by extension lack of vision.  Amy did that a few times — repeated itself unnecessarily, as if the filmmakers weren’t confident they were getting their point across.  Repetition in film can be a very effective narrative device if done tactfully.  Tact is what Amy — the movie — lacks.

I think the reason for Amy’s faults is that the filmmakers were so absorbed with all the material in front of them that they got swallowed up by it.  Without knowing what to leave out, they threw everything in, sometimes multiple times.

But I admit, I got swallowed up myself.  There’s no doubt that Amy Winehouse was a great singer, a great talent, a young Amy - movie - text blockwoman full of soul and passion.  Amy did not open up any sort of deep, profound revelation that we’ve never heard before.  The job of a documentary like this is to provide that ‘ah-ha’ moment — and it failed at that.

Which is connected to another shortcoming of the film.  There was little trajectory, or arc of story — doom was written all over Amy Winehouse from the beginning.  One could argue it was impossible to show a trajectory that didn’t exist in the person, so in that sense Amy may be forgiven.

A couple more dings: the movie hails itself as “a ground-breaking motion picture.”  No way on that one.  And on Amy Winehouse herself — yes it’s a tragic story.  I can grant that.  But don’t compare what happened with her to the truly tragic ending faced by, say, John Lennon.  Amy is effective, but for an infinitely more emotional and powerful experience (and a vastly better film), go with Life Itself.

For all its faults, Amy — I think the singer more so than the film — did stick with me.  I have to give credit to the movie for putting me in her world, a sad place speckled with glory.  7/10

Cinematic Greats: The Mist

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The Mist - text blockTHOSE FIRST PULSATIONS through the corrugated tin door, which a moment later are found to come from tentacles — the giant, flesh-tearing tentacles of an enormous monster whose body is never revealed: this is the sense of mystery and wonder — and dread — that evokes those early marvels of Steven Spielberg.  James Berardinelli of Reel Views sums it up better than anyone:

The Mist is what a horror film should be – dark, tense, and punctuated by just enough gore to keep the viewer’s flinch reflex intact. … [Director Frank] Darabont has fashioned a tense motion picture that’s ultimately more about paranoia, religious fanaticism, and the price of hopelessness than it is about monsters.

The Mist is an intense macro-epic for when the world is being torn away.  You can read my previous comments here.  And the ending is brilliant — decidedly un-Hollywood.  A terrifically thrilling film.  9/10

Availability: iTunes, rental or purchase

The Overnight Express

The Overnight Movie Poster

A long day’s journey into night, without the day part.  Ella Taylor, NPR:

[Writer-Director] Brice manages admirably to make his comedy at once daring and earnest, outlandish and relatable, obscene and sweet.

After aptly applying “squirmy” to The OvernightDavid Edelstein concludes:

Does Brice even fully grasp what he’s getting at? Maybe not. That’s why this is such a juicy specimen of the Cocktail Party Walpurgisnacht subgenre. He’s in nearly the same place as his riven characters.

I quite enjoyed this romantic comedy-drama, which held me engaged from start to finish.  There might have been a bit more, but let’s not be greedy.  8/10