Now Playing: ‘The Great Beauty’

The great Tom Servillo lives it up in 'The Great Beauty'

The great Tom Servillo lives it up in ‘The Great Beauty’

greatbeautyposterEvery now and again, a filmmaker is able to conquer the cinematic world with a work that might not have a lot to say (coherently, at least), but it throws enough at the viewer to send them away impressed and a little dazed. Last year’s version of that film was Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, a bright and comic variation on Dante’s Inferno that doesn’t hold together in the light of day but seduced enough lovers of Rome and the high life to garner an Oscar nomination.

It’s still playing in arthouses across the land and likely will through the Academy Awards. My review is at PopMatters:

Spectacle is everything in Paolo Sorrentino’s fabulistic Roman candle The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza), and why not? He’s a grand visualist and ringleader of chaos whose talents might remind you of Fellini and Scorsese. Like those directors, however, his films can also suffer for lack of story. It’s almost as though the images come piling up one after another with such rapidity that a framework must be created for them, rather than the other way around. Whatever might have inspired The Great Beauty, it doesn’t come close to sustaining the resulting film. But what a show…

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Here’s the trailer:

Readers’ Corner: Peter O’Toole (1932-2013)

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Although he will go down in cultural history as the incarnation of Lawrence of Arabia (not so much the real-life one, but the fascinatingly cinematic variation thereof), Peter O’Toole had his literary side as well. When he passed away last week, most obituaries mentioned one of the hellraising actor’s more memorable lines of poetry:

I will not be a common man.

I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.

For more O’Toole greatness, check out Gay Talese’s rattlingly good profile on the man from Esquire in 1963. Among other snappy lines, it includes this bit:

All he knew was that within him, simmering in the smithy of his soul, were confusion and conflict, and they were probably all linked somehow with Ireland and the Church … a former altar boy, a drinker who now wanders streets at night buying the same book (“My life is littered with copies of Moby Dick”) and reading the same sermon on that book (“…and if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves…”)…

New in Theaters: ‘The Past’

Berenice Bejo and Ali Mosaffa in 'The Past'

Berenice Bejo and Ali Mosaffa in ‘The Past’

thepast-posterLike the writer said, The past is never dead, it isn’t even past. In Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi’s newest drama, a French woman (Berenice Bejo, from The Artist) invites her ex-husband back from Iran supposedly to finalize their divorce only to ensnare him in her tangled new relationship.

The Past opened this week in limited release but should roll out around the country over the next couple months. My review is at Film Racket:

Asghar Farhadi’s powerful but unraveled film starts as a domestic drama and then shifts into a mystery. Strangely, the further it pushes the mystery angle, with secrets peeling off like onion skin from the knotted core of the past, the less engaging it becomes. Farhadi’s greatest strengths lie in the parsing of intra-family conflict, where expectations and resentments bubble all around like a musical score. He’s on less sure footing when it comes to building tension by way of soap-operatic revelation. But give the man a husband and wife and a kitchen sitting between them as though it were the battlefield of their lives, and he’s in his element…

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Pauline Burlet as the daughter caught between her battling parents in ‘The Past’

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Her’

'Her': Loving what's not there

Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Her': Loving what’s not there

her-posterEveryone always says that they just love this phone or that gadget. So it makes sense that Spike Jonze’s visionary but powerfully naive new sci-fi rom-com Her would take that romantic displacement to its ultimate conclusion by having a guy (Joaquin Phoenix) fall in love with his new operating  system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

Her opens this week. My review is at Film Racket:

In the future, computers will be not only our friends and lovers, they’ll also help us discover our better selves. That seems to be the message of Spike Jonze’s partially genius, often infuriating yuppie sci-fi fantasy about love and meaning in the post-smartphone era. It’s a film that spends so much effort perfecting the sun-dappled look seen in digital-tech commercials, and squinting to see how technology will operate a few years hence, that it doesn’t have much energy left over for its humans. Jonze seems more truly engaged by Samantha, who is the most well-rounded character in the film. Notably, she’s not human…

'Her': Happiness is an advanced operating system

‘Her': Happiness is an advanced operating system

Here’s the trailer, soundtrack by Arcade Fire:

New in Theaters: ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) cajoles ‘Mary Poppins’ author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) in ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

savingmrbanks-posterIt’s been a while since Emma Thompson has been a fixture at the Academy Awards; her last win was in 1996 for writing the screenplay of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. That might change now, with her incomparable work in the new Disney biopic Saving Mr. Banks, where Thompson plays the icy Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers as she gets humbugged by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who’s intent on making her astringent fantasy novels into a big, splashy musical.

Saving Mr. Banks opens this weekend in limited release and then wider on December 20. My review is at PopMatters:

One of the great selling points of Saving Mr. Banks is this clash of characters. Travers is the proper British writer representing an already fading ideal of Victorian decorum. Disney is the modern American televisual salesman who has made a career out of ransacking the myths of the world and repackaging them in singing, dancing, animated Technicolor. The practically perfect Thompson is all stiff lip and querulous frown, her Travers wondering what fresh hell she’s just stumbled into; Thompson delivers more information out of a slight narrowing of the eyes than most actors can with an entire speech…

This is ALL wrong...

This is ALL wrong…

Here’s the trailer:

New on DVD: ‘Les Miserables’

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lesmiserables-dvdEvery few years, Hollywood decides to go back and see whether it’s worth reviving the musical. Generally it’s well received, but then instead of getting back into the genre, they wait a few more years for the next one. So it was with 2012’s Les Miserables, an adaptation of a musical that trends ponderous on stage but comes alive under Tom Hooper’s deft direction. 

It’s available now on DVD and Blu-ray. My full review is at Film Racket; here’s part of it:

Some stories are so bulletproof that even a tuneless Russell Crowe can’t deliver a mortal wound. There are also some so prone to overwrought pathos that even a fearsomely committed Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, working every creative muscle in their bodies, can’t quite elevate to greatness. In Tom Hooper’s labor-of-love adaptation of the workhorse musical Les Miserables, nearly all the story’s strongest and most crowd-pleasing elements are passionately brought to the fore…

You can watch the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘War Witch’

War Witch

war-witch-posterThere has been plenty written about the tragedy of child soldiers in the African wars, but little that has been put on film that wasn’t a documentary. Kim Nguyen’s blistering, Oscar-nominated War Witch uses the subject as the basis for a haunting, unforgettable film about a lost girl trying to put some kind of a life together.

My full review is at Film Journal International:

In some sub-Saharan African country where wars ebb and flow in a constant, blood-dimmed tide, a teenage girl with the eyes of a traumatized warrior tells the story of how she became a soldier. She wants her child to know what happened, even though she believes her evil deeds are not forgivable. The girl, Komona (Rachel Mwanza), relates everything in a numbed voiceover as though narrating a nightmare. With all its talk of witches and gris-gris and the many ghosts walking around like flesh-and-blood people, War Witch is more like a fairytale from long ago than an of-the-moment topical drama…

War Witch opens in limited release on Friday. Seek it out.

You can see the trailer here:

Now on Sale: ‘Eyes Wide Open 2012′

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It’s only about a week to go before the Oscar Awards broadcast. In and of themselves, they don’t matter, even for serious movie fans. Not a bit. Given the wild richness that can be found in just one year’s worth of American studio and indie (for whatever that distinction is still worth making), identifying one particular film or performer as the “best” is an exercise in futility.

Eyes Wide Open-coverSo why do we care? If nothing else, the Oscars (like the Golden Globes) serve as an excuse to look over a year’s worth of cinema and determine what was most noteworthy about it. Or, more commonly, to argue about what those out-of-touch types in the Academy foolishly considered the best.

To help continue that argument, we offer for your consideration: Eyes Wide Open 2012: The Year’s 25 Greatest Movies (and 5 Worst). It’s a compilation of some 100-odd pages’ worth of material that I wrote over the past year (as well as some new pieces written for this book) about the films of 2012—the good, the bad, the preposterous, and the utterly forgettable.

In addition to the best and worst lists (The Hobbit made one list, and Cloud Atlas made the other; try guessing which), there’s also some essays, DVD reviews, and even some awards lists of my own (because, why should the Oscars have all the fun?). It covers everything from the strange genius of the late Tony Scott to the yawn-inducing mediocrity of The Avengers and the stark political attack contained in Brad Pitt’s Killing Them Softly.

You can get the ebook here and here; there’s also a print-on-demand paperback here.

If this works out, it might become an annual thing. Let me know what you think.

Department of Satire: ‘The Critic’

thecritic-posterBack in 1962, the 36-year-old Mel Brooks was watching an avant-garde film when an old man behind him wouldn’t stop with his grumpy and frustrated running commentary. Brooks turned this experience into his own short film, The Critic, in which he ad-libbed over some abstract animation; borscht belt meets the downtown art scene.

The result was a three-and-a-half-minute piece of genius that  won the 1963 Academy Award.

You can watch the whole thing here:

(hat-tip: Open Culture)

New on DVD: ‘Detropia’

Detropia-DVD-FThough it was on the Oscar documentary shortlist, the final selection of best documentary nominees shamefully overlooked the unforgettable Detropia, which finally hits DVD today.

My full review is at Film Journal International:

“We are here at a critical time!” shouts a tent-revival preacher somewhere in the gloom of a rapidly downsizing Detroit. His is one of the many frightened, brave, saddened, still-fighting voices that Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady include as a chorus of the forgotten in their tragedy-tinted but clear-eyed look at what happens when a city’s reason for being up and leaves…

You can see the trailer here: