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The Spectacular Now

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This adaptation of Tharp’s same-named book about growing up is solid with Teller (Rabbit Hole) and Woodley (The Descendants) paired up wonderfully. In fact, it actually marked a strong beginning of a string of movies for both of the young actors.

Director Ponsoldt, also fairly new to the large screen, delivered well, keeping a level of dark reality that reflects the high school veneer of most teenagers. Interestingly, the most tested of the production staff were actually the writers Weber and Neustadter. This duo also gave us 500 Days of Summer and the more recent young adult hit, and Woodley starrer, The Fault in our Stars.

In many ways, this film felt like a lesser cousin of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Not that this film is not well done, it feels very real and, while a bit more grounded than Perks, it is still a somewhat unrealistic world and story. However, I can see how anyone from ages 15-25 might find it a go-to movie. It is both empowering and acknowledging of the world as a teenager and young adult. Adults, however, will probably only find this a good watch once.

To see these two young actors as their careers start to take off is reason enough to see the film. The performances are entertaining and solid. The characters are real and bravely flawed. It may or may not become part of the list of films you always remember, but it isn’t time lost and it bodes well for any future work that any of those involved may put out there.

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Noah (2014)

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For Aronofsky, Noah was, by his own admission, a passion project. Also, admittedly, he is a man known for his passion projects. Whether his breakout Pi, his brilliant, time-spanning The Fountain, or his equally impressive, Oscar winning Black Swan, as a writer and director he bleeds into his efforts. It is part of what makes his films such unique and amazing journeys both to and on screen.

But apocryphal and classic myths are hard nuts to crack… and the shell is still on this one. Aronofsky, who is typically a great storyteller, should have approached this one sideways (think the Tempest as depicted in Forbidden Planet). Telling the tale of Noah in earnest just didn’t work… especially as he embellished it to make it feel more like Noah the superhero or a new high fantasy, a la The Hobbit. In doing so, he lost both of his potential audiences.

One thing he did right: he created a story about the best and worst parts about those who believe on faith and how interpreting the will of a deity can be tricky at best. However, it is so laden with personal mythos and symbology (some of which felt rather contradictory) that the meaning remains somewhat obfuscated. He also managed to set up the story such that it had current relevance to our own ecological challenges. Of course, both of these aspects also turned off more traditional viewers who wanted something more akin to The Ten Commandments than Lord of the Rings.

Frankly, while beautifully filmed and competently acted, the story is too long to excuse the viewing. I hope Aronofsky has this out of his system so he can get back to the kinds of movies he does best. If you want to give it a shot, I won’t stop you, but you have been warned.

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Winter’s Tale

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Back in the early 80′s, Helprin’s time-spanning romance captured the imagination of the reading public. The irony is that it has taken 30 years for the funding and technology to exist for it to become a film… and now the style of the story failed to capture the viewing public. This is a wonderfully done fantasy, but slow paced and with many unanswered and unexplained aspects. As a two hour movie distilled from 770 pages of text, that isn’t a surprise.

Goldsman, as adapter and director, did a great job of capturing the understated magic of the piece. It is our world, but with just some slight additions. He picks his moments to reveal them and they are at turns beautiful, scary, and surprising. Not only does the film does not get boring, the characters win you over with emotion on a grand scale. While Goldsman is a well-known writer and producer, this film is one of his few directing gigs; he managed it quite well. The film has a delightfully classic feel to it that makes it feel like an old friend. Had it been more updated, it really would have lost the feel of the source material. The film has a delightfully classic feel to it that makes it feel like an old friend. Had it been more updated, it really would have lost the feel of the source material.

Farrell (Saving Mr. Banks) is a compelling hero, lost in almost every sense of the word. Brown (Downton Abbey) creates the other, wonderful half of their relationship as a young woman with limited time but huge capacity. Crowe (Man of Steel) makes a great antagonist, though his story is somewhat veiled. Despite that, we get enough to allow us to fill in the blanks as we may. There are a few surprise appearances as well that add to the world and the quality of the final piece.

From a viewership point of view, beyond the shifted tastes in the movie-going public since its writing, part of the problem was the release date. It got dropped in a dead zone; though you’d think Valentine’s Day would have been a good match, it really wasn’t built for younger audiences who would take advantage of the theater for a date that weekend. It probably would have done much better during the holidays or as counter-programming for Halloween. Either way, far too many people missed a rather well-done, heart-warming film. Find a night you want to sink into a rich historical fantasy with someone you care about, or just for yourself, and dive in.

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Lucy

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Ever since The Fifth Element, one of my favorite movies, I’ve loved Besson as a story-teller.  Whether he  is doing action/adventure like this, or the simple and fantastical (Angel-A) he understands that stories involve all aspects of human emotion and that audiences are not dumb. Even when credibility is stretched, he at least tries to plaster over the gaps in a plot, allowing the viewer to suspend disbelief. He also doesn’t over-explain, trusting the audience to connect some of the dots.

Lucy, entertains, wows, and has a great deal of fun a midst mayhem, while still managing to make a point. Johansson (Under the Skin) leads the cast with a wonderfully understated performance that references Her, 2001, Avengers, even Charly and The Lawnmower Man as it attempts to show an individual approaching singularity. Besson riffs on these themes and nods right up to the end.

Bessonj, after a string of relative hits early on, has been playing in film at a remove for the last many years. He has been found more often writing or producing, but only recently starting to direct a lot again. Lucy is back to his swing. It isn’t perfect, but it is a great deal of fun from the moment it starts till the moment it ends. In short, just good story-telling that whips you along. And I’d certainly sit down to watch it again at some point.

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The Raid 2

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The Raid: Redemption was in many ways just a different version of Dredd; a thin excuse for a lot of fun carnage. The sequel, however, takes more time with story (almost an hour more) and is, at times, practically operatic in its vision, themes, and presentation. But make no mistake, there is plenty of fighting and blood as well. But Evans control of his pallet and story has definitely improved from his first directorial go around in this world.

Uwais’ (Man of Tai Chi) portrayal of Rama carries forward from the first film, but is painted on a bigger canvas and with raised stakes. It isn’t entirely credible a plot, but the movie works hard to make you care about all sides of the twisted families involved. In some ways the story is overly complicated and life is less than cheap. For all the effort put to creating characters with feeling and depth, there is little allowed for the mourning of lost life or the effect the act has on the killer. It is probably its greatest weakness as a story… but it really depends on why you come to the film in the first place.

As a set of fights, they are inventive and often shocking. They aren’t wire works, but they are a little choreographed. However, the talent of the fighters is worth the exhibition nature of the matches. If you liked the first round a couple years ago, you’ll love the second. The ending may or may not feel complete… but again, is that why you picked up this disc in the first place?

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300: Rise of an Empire

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Perhaps if Synder (Man of Steel, Watchmen) had directed this weak and pointless sequel within a year or two of his original 300 release, it might have been interesting and engaging.  Perhaps. As it is, distance and a new director did not serve it well. From the beginning, which is a 20 minute voice over explanation, you know you’re in trouble. Headey’s (The Adventurer, Dredd) monologue only serves to confuse as it flips back and forth in time and tries to help you understand Xerxes background (and this is so not his movie) and when the action will happen in relation to the original film (complete overlap). Any story that requires that much exposition has already failed.

Now, let’s be honest, the original 300 was no literary prize either, but it had visual style, a pretty straight-forward story, and guys who’d worked out for months in preparation for their screen time. The sequel, while competently filmed and adding the interest of water battle to the mix, is a rehash of the visual style, has an absurd and confused story, and the physiques are generally rather sub par in comparison. The attempt to add a strong woman into the mix in the form of Green (Perfect Sense) was a misfire. While she probably had a great deal of fun in the role personally, it was ill-conceived and flat, with very weak motivation.

All this said, you may well throw it in the hopper and, with the help of some relaxant, natural or otherwise, find it diverting. But, personally, I’d keep the 100 minutes to spend it better somewhere else.

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A Young Doctor’s Notebook and Other Stories…

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From the life affirming to the nihilistic in a single night. Young Doctor’s Notebook is a delightfully dark comedy in the Russian tradition. The four, short episodes, each self-contained but covering a larger story, fly by in the blur of a narcotic snowstorm. You will laugh, cringe, and feel for these characters, despite the depths to which they sink.

Radcliffe (Kill Your Darlings) and Hamm (Howl) make a great younger/older self pairing despite their height differences. They managed to merge their performances and energy such that you just buy it. Watching each of these talented men ply their craft is a great bonus to your time investment. There is a depth to the performances worthy of the soulful, dark, apathetic feel of the Russian north and the early 1900s literature the story emulates. Give it a shot. At 20 minutes an episode, you won’t lose much time and it is a far cry above 99% of the similarly sized sit-coms on TV at this point.

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Two to Live By (Elaine Stritch and the Lady in No 6)

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Last night was a wonderful double-feature of like stories. Both were documentaries about women, now both gone, who grabbed onto life and who inspire in ways that are hard to even begin to put into words. Two women for whom music and performance was the underpinnings of their lives, though each reflects against that aspect in very different ways.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is an incredibly bitter-sweet, well structured, entertaining documentary as much about the indomitable Stritch as it is about how to live and keep on going.  To see this is to be ready for the world, despite your fears.

Stritch, with her trademark irascibility and wealth of talent lays open her life and her mind, warts and all. And, best of all, she performs. To see the contrast of her rehearsing and her on stage is amazing. She comes to life on stage in a way that her day-to-day keeps very much on simmer. She was a gift to theater, film, and TV till the end. Having lost her so recently… and practically as this film left the theaters, made the end all that more powerful because her impact was so large and covered so many decades.

The Lady in Number 6: How Music Saved My Life is the more somber and sobering of the two. It is also less expertly directed; more a straight-forward discussion and history of Herz-Sommer’s life.  To Clarke’s credit (as his Oscar shows) he kept the film to an appropriate length for his point and the story.

I honestly didn’t know whether to cheer, cry, or rage at times listening to Herz-Sommer’s life and responses. Her attitude was necessary to survive, but a part of me couldn’t decide if she wasn’t fooling herself to do it or simply wired so differently she could deal with unimaginable horror with grace. There are moments in the interview, a look in her eyes, that leave these possibilities open. That she lived to 109 and still enjoyed, played, and loved music suggests she was a unique individual who was an incredible example of survival and the ability to see good no matter how buried in darkness. And she stayed sharp till the end, and what a life she had.

 

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Jodorowsky’s Dune

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More movies are conceived of, and even start production, in Hollywood than ever get made. The ratio is likely so high as to strain credibility. In extremely rare cases, the failed production becomes legend. In recent history, Gilliam’s Don Quixote come to mind… it too inspired a great documentary, Lost in La Mancha (and the film may yet be made).

Jodorowsky is infamous in his singularity of belief and vision when it comes to his movies. Quality is something you have to judge for yourself, but you can’t decry his efforts; what he creates is what he intends or guides, unencumbered by studios or outside judgment. He is an artist and a spiritualist who truly believes that art can transform people and the world and even transcend reality.

In the early 70s, Jodorowsky took this combination of force of nature, egotism, and luck, and pulled together a collection of legends and soon-to-be-legends to bring one of the most important books of science fiction and political-social commentary to the screen: Dune. They designed it all, lined up actors, musicians, and created detailed storyboards bound into a book. They had it all ready to go, but never got enough money to produce the product. Over the years, it has been unofficially named “the greatest movie never made.” True or not, the talent involved and the output of those efforts is nothing short of extra-ordinary. And the story, from many of those involved and from Jodorowsky himself, is actually well told and riveting. There is passion for this project that even 40 years of distance has not been able to quench.

The disc, however, is a disaster, with half the subtitles cut off. The interviews flip between English, Spanish, German, and French with rapidity. The subtitles are simply necessary for most of us. I tried changing resolutions on my TV and via my Oppo, and could do no better than seeing the top quarter of any second line of text. A very frustrating experience. Perhaps it was the gods of irony that produced this mess… a weird karmic representation of the path of the film it documents? What I do know is that the story was enough to get me to suffer through the problem, but it detracted from an otherwise great documentary. I don’t know if the problem was solely mine; it would appear that the disc I saw is a rental version as it lacks all the extras. I’ve never seen this issue with other films–and I watch a LOT of foreign film–so I am confident the issue is with the edition of the disc I received from Netflix. I’m not seeing similar comments from those that purchase the full edition. The documentary is certainly worth seeing, but it is your gamble to make on which disc to do so.

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Under the Skin

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If there is one thing you can say about this story: it takes its time. If there is another: it is more mood piece and rumination than complete story. There has been a lot of buzz about this film as it made the festival circuit and some very mixed response in general release. Now I understand why.

What director/co-writer Glazer (Sexy Beast) does well is that he has created a very unique alien story, using Faber’s book as a leaping off point. I do think there have been other alien point-of-view films that have either entertained more or did it better, for instance, I was reminded of the darkly humorous Liquid Sky or the more sober The Man Who Fell to Earth. But the first three quarters of this film is solidly locked in the alien view, allowing us to view humanity through her lens. It is fascinating and, at times, chilling. It is tense, but not exactly energetic.

Johansson (Don Jon, Winter Soldier) does a solid job of turning on and off her persona. What she is up to, we are never really sure. The one hint we get is so oblique as to be more tease than satisfaction. However, her modus operandi and the effect of humanity upon her is fairly well done. While the movie is artfully filmed and interestingly structured, it is her performance that makes it work. But, this isn’t a film that will meet everyone’s needs, so the choice is really up to you.