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Crimes of Passion

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Imagine a younger, hipper, Swedish Miss Marple in the 50s and you have a sense of the flavor of this 6-part series. The mysteries trace the meeting and friendship of 2 academics, Novotny (Slim Susie) and Whalgren, and a Stokholm detective, Rapace (Skyfall).

Each of the 90 min. mysteries is delightfully complex and stylized. All are also definitely of the culture and era from which they sprung and are steeped in noir. There is barely a moment when a cigarette isn’t being lit up, a drink being poured, a femme fatal strutting, a woman being demeaned, or a man being a controlling ass. But, in addition to their own entertainment value,  the mysteries serve as a spine for the journey of the three friends over several years. The structure is a bit like effect of Inspector De Luca, skipping through time to find the salient moments of a larger story… though this is a lot more fun and a lot less depressing.

Each of the offerings is a bit more adult than the typical drawing room cozy, but still not far from that formula, down to the gathering of suspects at the end of each episode. The dialogue is fun and the mysteries fair. If you enjoy the genre and are looking for a new or different voice, these are definitely worth your time.  And keep watching for the starring trio, you will be seeing more of them in the coming years, of that I am sure.

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The Fault in Our Stars

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When a movie lies so effectively and beautifully, you have to admire it. From the very top we’re told that, unlike other young romance films, this is “the truth.” And then the film goes on, except in one aspect, to be exactly like every other young romance with huge gestures, manipulated circumstances, and deep passions. And, damn them, it works.

I’m not saying there weren’t aspects that were daring or rare but, generally, this is exactly the movie it claims not to be; through some brilliant prestidigitation, it convinces you otherwise. That success is in large part due to the source material of Green’s novel. Weber and Neustadter (500 Days of Summer) did a great job on the adaptation, keeping humor and life where darkness and pathos could creep in.

But it is primarily Woodley (The Spectacular Now) and Elgort (Carrie), and their chemistry, that this film works. Woodley, in particular. While Elgort creates a great character, it really is Woodley who shines and shows her rather significant chops. She’s getting a leg up in the industry not unlike how Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: Days of Future Past) did when her career launched. Secret Life of the American Teenager aside, it is the past couple years that brought Woodley to the general public, starting with The Descendents. The two young leads were, oddly enough, most recently paired in Divergent as brother and sister… and you have to forget that relationship if you don’t want to be squicked out for this film.

Boone (Stuck in Love) guided the film with a fairly light hand, though a little heavy on the score for me. He got out of the way, allowing the performances to drive the story. The adults he added to fill out the story were well selected too. Dern (The Master), Trammell (True Blood), and Dafoe (Odd Thomas) each provided additional facets to the main plot that helped it along. Sadly, Dafoe, for all his power and intensity, creates an outlandish character that becomes central to the denouement, but is also the most unreal. This is a flaw in both the script and direction to my mind. I’m not sure it could be easily fixed, but it stood out amidst an otherwise grounded plot.

You know, or should know, from the the first frames what you’re getting into with the story. It isn’t an easy path, though one could argue whether it is a happy ending or not. The journey and message clearly resonate with people; it was a huge boxofffice hit. And, honestly, the movie is worth it for the performances, even as I continue to take exception to the lie… even as I allowed it to fill me and wring me out. Is it a brilliant film? No. Is it solid? Absolutely, and worth seeing once, but I’d never need to see it again, personally. But that may just be me. Go, laugh, cry, smile. It will play you like an instrument and you will either thank it or be annoyed, depending on your particular bent.

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We Are the Best! (Vi är bäst!)

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There are a ton of stories like I Declare War and Kings of Summer that examine the coming-of-age of young boys. There are far fewer that do so for young women. Even The Spectacular Now, with an arguably pivotal female role, was more about the boy than the girl.

We are the Best is all about the girls. It isn’t strong on story, but it is strong on the relationships and the changes as the three girls evolve and begin to take control of their own lives. And while it is purportedly about the band they form, to call it a musical or story about music would be a stretch. But the moments are real, funny and, while honest, avoid overly depressing moments–it is much more about the joy of their group than great, cathartic bouts of crying.

There are some issues with the film. The view is certainly narrow within the types of family and the period (early 80’s in Stockholm). As a side note, if you want a bit more of a view of the same society, though a very different story, check out Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves. And the final frame is, well, just odd given the rest of the story.

Written and directed by the Moodysson’s, Lukas and Coco, I am wondering if the production was intended as a letter to their kids. No matter the genesis, the journey is entertaining and, in its way, heart warming. Certainly it is empowering for young girls who may feel they can’t take the same risks boys do.

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Obvious Child

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Obvious Child is funny but also painfully open and honest… and probably one of the weirdest romantic comedies you’ll see. It’s up there with Harold and Maude, though for very different reasons even if it hits on similar themes.

Slate and Lacy deliver wonderfully layered performances in a wide range of situations. Both manage to keep a surface of broad comedy, underpinning it with depths of pain, joy, confusion, and frustration. Which makes this all sound dire and heavy, but it isn’t. It just feels real, for all the absurd coincidences and extreme situations. What makes it work is the unjaundiced eye of the director, who keeps it all on keel.

When Robespierre set out to adapt and direct a full length version of the original short of the same name, she dove in teeth and breast bared. The love and lack of judgement of her subject comes through clearly. It is also clear that there is a strong personal connection to the events; a clarity of experience and an anger at how the rest of the world likely reacted. That is a leap as an audience member, but the extreme control of the story in order to keep it from making a statement, to keep it matter-of-fact, had to come from somewhere. More importantly, she succeeds in allowing the story to tell itself. Any judgement is brought by the viewer, not the movie.

I’d heard a lot about the film before seeing it. A bit more than I wish I had. It is every bit as good as I’d heard from the festival circuit. In its own weird way, it is a date movie, but not a first date film to be sure! But it manages to be aimed at Millenials without excluding older viewers and it is, at its core, romantic (and a bit desperate) which gives it a broader appeal than it may appear to target. Certainly there are other similarly age-bracketed films out there, but this one feels more honest than most.

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Radio Free Albemuth

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Philip K. Dick stories are notoriously difficult to adapt to screen. Blade Runner is probably the best known and most successful example of one that went well. So many others have failed. What Blade Runner did right was not lose track of the internal battle that is part and parcel of Dick’s philosophies. All of his stories are intensely introspective and questioning of life and the meaning of it all, highly psychological and dubious of reality. Most films focus on big effects and action to keep it all going and drop the “boring” bits.

Radio Free Albemuth takes the opposite approach, focusing almost entirely on the philosophical and dialectic. It is incredibly topical (both when it was written and, scarily, now). It is a quiet, intense film that, despite its writing and directing faults, manages to stay interesting. That remains true even as it drifts into open discussions of religion and mythos that may not match your particular beliefs.

Scarfe (Hell on Wheels) and Whigham (True Detective, Boardwalk Empire) lead the film with what can only be described as an extremely understated approach. Some aspects of that work wonderfully–recognition of big things doesn’t have to have nefarious music and hair pulling to be interesting. However, it also makes some of the tension vanish from the screen.

This is where new write/director Simon really got lost… when to raise the energy levels. On the other hand, even if he didn’t use them well, he landed some solid talent, including the leads and smaller roles for Tenney (The Closer) and Alanis Morissette.

There is a lot to think about in this film. Much is put straight in your face by having the characters discuss and question it. But there are subtle layers as well, not to mention reveals. For those that like to chew their movies a bit and have them spark thoughts, it isn’t a wasted evening. If you want high tension, explosions, and chase scenes, you’ll likely fall asleep or curse the person who made you watch the film. Me, I sorta liked it, again despite all its many faults. In some ways it reminded me of Primer, which is unabashedly low energy, low budget, and philosophical. Primer is a better conceived plot, but for the right audience, Albemuth is an interesting watch.

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Killers

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If it weren’t for Mr. and Mrs. Smith out five years before this film or, for that matter, True Lies, this may have felt more original. It isn’t bad. It, in fact, goes back to the Bond-ish feel a bit more than either of these other films I’ve mentioned. It is story-driven before devolving into action and absurdity. And, my, does it devolve into absurdity.

What is fascinating is watching Heigl (One for the Money) and Kutcher (Two and a Half Men) take their more typically sweet characters and twist them into something like teddy bears with teeth. OK, wax teeth, perhaps, but the script gave it a shot. And the setup is a bit more based in the honest desire and love of two people rather than the use of those as part of a legend.

Adding to the family fun, Selleck (Blue Bloods) and O’Hara (Frankenweenie) jump in as a rather tightly bound set of in-laws. And a host of character actors fill out the neighbors including Sussman (Big Bang Theory), Riggle (Let’s Be Cops), Mull (Dads), Borstein (Family Guy) and others. In some ways having so many recognizable faces and voices ended up a distraction rather than an assist. Ultimately that fault lies with the writers and directors.

I might have expected more from director Luketic (21, Legally Blonde). Then again, Luketic didn’t write this one, he only took on the challenge of making it work. However, I should have expected more from co-writer Griffin (Oceans 11, Terriers) whose hand is more sure than what ended up on the screen.

This is a fun piece of treacle, but not a lot of meat (sweet or otherwise). For a rainy afternoon, sure. It may even be a good light evening with someone you care for, but there are other more engaging films out there.

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Mr. Peabody and Sherman

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Fractured Fairy Tales and the entire collection of delightfully odd cartoons they aired with, like Peabody, played an important role in the young lives they touched. They taught history and current events, adultish humor and, perhaps most importantly, they also taught punning. OK, some may feel that was a bane on a generation, but I loved it. So it was with both interest and trepidation I came to this latest Hollywood revival…

I think the best way to describe the film is that it is a mishmash of intents that, while it satisfies, isn’t really the show I remember. It starts from the very beginning where we get a good sense of Peabody. But then it falls into an adoption story… Mr Peabody was never Sherman’s dad. He was more of a mentor to the boy. Also while Sherman was a naif for Peabody’s jokes and information, he wasn’t a buck-toothed idiot. I think this latter part bugged me the most. They explain, present, and use the adoption thread well. However, that such a boy could be that foolish living in that house beggars imagination. It wasn’t that he was naive, he was outright dumb at times… and at other times quite smart. The intent, I think, was to make him socially awkward, but book-smart. However, that wasn’t how it was presented.

Janney (Bad Words) certainly ate up the screen and had great fun with her Cruella De Vil interpretation. She was an entertaining, teeth gnashing villain of the first order. I wish we had understood more about her than we ever do. She ends up just a delightfully evil black-hat with no obvious motivations, which was a shame. Burell (Muppets Most Wanted) did a great Peabody and Charles (Neighbors) did well with what he had for Sherman, actually taking him on a journey despite his incredulous choices.

There is enough here for kids to keep them interested, and some nice adult references as well. As a story it felt rather forced and weak, but it may fit the bill for you, depending on your particular love of the original.

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A tale of two love stories

Every once in a while I’ll do a weird double-feature that causes me to rethink the movies involved. The paring is rarely ever created in order to provide insight, but often they reflect on one another in interesting ways; their themes come out differently or are highlighted better for me.

The other night Grand Budapest Hotel followed by Captain America: The Winter Soldier was such a duo. What came of that pairing? The bizarre recognition that they are, at their core, both love stories.

Budapest, once you get through its madcap, nested plot the first time so you can understand it, is clearly a love story. Captain America is a little more complex in the face of that theme. It is both a bromance (in a few ways) and the more or less reconciliation of the jingoistic past coming to terms with a love of justice that needs to supersede an existing national order. I said it was complex, didn’t I? Both films  stand up wonderfully to rewatching,

The fun of experiencing this powerful, base emotion drive the action in different ways in two very different movies was fascinating. I would have never expected to think of Captain America in those terms… afterall, it is just a great, fantasy action film on the surface. But this is part of why the Marvel universe generally, and the Avengers cycles in specific, work so well: They are driven by human emotions on very personal levels, even when it is galaxy-spanning (and often spandex wearing) plots.

I’m not suggesting anyone set up this evening for themselves. It is certainly a whipsaw way to spend a night. But I would encourage you to do double features that may not be obvious and see what revelations they prompt for yourself. You never know what you might discover.

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Brick Mansions

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There are definitely some improvements over the original material in this American remake of Besson’s District B-13. In particular, the acting and some of the plot aspects are better considered and worked though. As one of Walker’s  (Fast & Furious 6) last films, though, it isn’t going to seal his place in history. Still, it was relatively entertaining on its own.

The truth, however, is that this reinterpretation lost a lot of the lightness and fun of the original, which was really more a fantasy actioner than a serious one. That oddness was part of both its success and its failures. This new version is just so earnest that it is painful at times. The premise is absurd in both films, though Detroit is a great setting for the plot in Brick Mansions. However, playing it for real stretched credibility, and the chemistry of the main players was all wrong. It needed to be a Rush Hour sort of experience (heck, they even stole at least one of the fight scenes from that franchise), but neither the writer nor director seemed to understand that aspect; it was a mistake on both their parts.

Additionally, the filming of the action was not nearly as good as B-13. Whether that was to cover a weaker Parkour fighter or simply style choices is beside the point. The simple truth is that they lost the jaw dropping choreography that made the original fly (and still does today). It isn’t that there aren’t some good fights, but the quick cuts diminish the believe-ability that a continuous shot approach could provide.

All in all, I’d stick with the original. This isn’t horrible, but it isn’t as much fun on almost any level as Besson’s first crack at this story, even with the outlandishness of a lot of that script. Director Delamarre’s background in editing action films (Colombiana, Lockout) did not really prepare him for this new role. But if  you’ve not seen the original and don’t want to deal with subtitles, it may provide enough entertainment, if not quite the same value, as District B-13

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The Zero Theroem

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This musing on life and existential angst is crafted beautifully with Gilliam’s (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) trademark style and sense of twisted worlds.

As good as the film is, it would not work without Waltz (Django Unchained). He creates a delightfully broken man with whom you find yourself both frustrated and sympathizing with at the same time. Confusing and enlightening his world, Thierry (The Hollow Crown) provides a beautifully unapologetic woman of strength and subjugation. The levels of interaction between the two are complex, funny, and heartbreaking.

While somewhat peripheral, Hedges inserts himself into this mess of a relationship and life in a performance whose energy and style echos River Phoenix or a young DiCaprio. It is a meatier part than he’s typically landed (Labor DayGrand Budapest Hotel) and could get him some nice notice.

The triumvirate are surrounded by a plethora of characters, as almost any Gilliam film collects. Damon (The Monuments Men) delivers a controlled and spooky performance not quite like anything I’ve seen him do before. Thewlis (Red 2) provides his trademark sympathetic-weird, as does Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive). Both get their chance to shine in this story, but neither is quite complete or real–they are set dressing and plot pushers only, however entertaining. In a much smaller, amusing role Whishaw (Cloud Atlas) chews up the screen for a few moments as well.

But, ultimately, this is a Gilliam film, even if he didn’t write this one. It feels like the Gilliam of old; the man whose brain fascinates and terrifies. It is probably his most impactful and unique since Brazil, but I’ve loved them all along the way, even Tideland, which most people missed entirely.

While just hitting screens, it started its role-out and continues availability by VOD now, which is how I had to see it. Honestly, if you can see it on the big screen, it deserves that space to better show off all its detail. The richness of the world, the density of the set dressing, and the detail of the composition works on any screen… you just may have to watch it a few extra times to catch it all and all the references to other Gilliam works. This continued choice to rollout on multiple platforms (just like Veronica Mars and Snowpiercer) has me somewhat torn. I love that I have the chance to see and support these films early, rather than having to wait for a disc as they didn’t get screens anywhere near me. However, I am also frustrated as they are often truly big-screen films that are never provided the right venue for a huge part of their audience.

Bottom line, if you love Gilliam this is a must-see film. If you’ve never seen a Gilliam film, this will certainly give you an undiluted taste.