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October 24, 2013


Discussed here:
Before Midnight
Star Trek Into Darkness
Superman: Man of Steel 

Richard Linklater's Before trilogy began in 1995 with Before Sunrise, in which the Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy characters meet, followed in 2004 by Before Sunset. In the first installment, Jesse and Céline strike up a conversation on a train, then wander about Vienna over the course of a single night, talking. Before departing they agree to see each other in six months.

The second installment occurs nine years later, the six-month assignation not having taken place. Jesse is in Paris promoting the book that meeting Céline inspired, and after the reading, spots her. He has a plane to catch but time to talk and stroll through Paris, which brings them to her apartment. In the final shot she warbles along with Nina Simone, "Baby, you are gonna miss that plane."

Now, in Before Midnight, we find the couple another nine years later, visiting friends in Greece, with twin girls and Jesse's son, Hank. They put Hank on a plane to return to his mother, who has custody, and their friends give them a gift of a hotel room for the night, where they continue talking.

These are some of the talkiest movies ever made, and within the first 10 minutes of each one, I am certain it is going to devolve into narcissistic navel-gazing, but none of them do. They gain relational momentum as they go along. They are remarkably well acted, perhaps because the scripts are a collaboration between Richard Linklater and the actors themselves. The Hollywood Film Award for Screenwriter of the Year went to the trio. The characters are likable but flawed, and their endless talk is reflective not egotistical, what Socrates meant when he declared that the unexamined life is not worth living. What this director and his actors have created in this trilogy is a contemporary Socratic dialogue.
NYT Critic's Pick

I loved the original Star Trek TV series but have had no interest in the movies. The only reason I went to the most recent one is because Benjamin Cumberbatch plays the villain. And, boy, does J.J. Abrams need him. As A.O. Scott observes in his review of Star Trek Into Darkness, "Whether playing a hero or a villain, he fuses Byronic charisma with an impatient, imperious intelligence that seems to raise the ambient I.Q. whenever he’s on screen." Abrams studied at the feet of Steven Spielberg, and it is obvious in the overblown CGI and the blatant nods to Star Treks of yesteryear, which could be fun were there not such a "Did you get that?" sense about them. Like Spielberg, there is an annoyingly adolescent air about everything Abrams does. Silly special effects aside, the cast does a respectable job of inhabiting characters we have known for half a century, and having Cumberbatch in the mix does not hurt at all!

In Zak Snyder's origin story, Superman: Man of Steel, Krypton has brought about its own destruction through its reckless consumption of energy. Kal-El has just been born into the end days, so to ensure his survival his parents pack him into a capsule and shoot him into the galaxy from whence he lands in a kindly farmer's backyard somewhere on British Columbia's coast. Mr. Kent, the farmer, and his wife raise the boy they name Clark, who seems high strung but it's due to x-ray vision, superhuman hearing and eidetic memory, of which they are unaware. We learn all this and more about his youth through a series of flashbacks throughout the film, the zigzagging of which Snyder handles quite deftly. Manohla Dargis's review for the New York Times is as close to a comprehensive analysis of the film as the average person could want. She cites What Makes Superman So Darned American and Gary D. Engle's insight that "Superman raises the American immigrant experience to the level of religious myth."


Discussed here:
The Kings of Summer
The Way Way Back
The Spectacular Now

Joe wants to flee a belittling father, and convinces Patrick to get out from under the thumb of his embarrassing parents, so off they go to build a would-be man cave in the wild -- though the wild isn't all that wild being a hop, skip and a jump from the highway across which is a Boston Market. As their adventure begins, they run into an eccentric who claims to be an androgyne and who rarely speaks, though when he does, it's in a cryptic cipher. Jordan Vogt-Roberts's The Kings of Summer is a sweet idyll about that mysterious experience known as being a teenager.

Steve Carell has perfected an endearing, naive character in a number of incarnations in recent years (The 40-Year-Old Virgin; Evan Almighty; Crazy, Stupid, Love), but in The Way Way Back, written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, he's positively sadistic. Trent is step-father-to-be to Duncan, who would not be as clumsy and self-conscious were it not for the self-absorbed, sometimes callous adults around him. Duncan is on vacation with his  family -- mother (Toni Collette), who knows damn well she should not be involved with a jerk like Trent but is anyway, and a sister who has her own insecurities. They have a beach town cottage next to Betty (a brash and boozy Allison Janney), and they party with Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet), fueled by pot and alcohol. No wonder the kid's depressed. But he finds an unlikely escape when he stumbles upon Water Wizz, a ramshackle, post-WWII-era kiddie attraction where he meets and, unbeknownst to his family goes to work for, ne'er-do-well Owen (Sam Rockwell) and a laid-back, loving staff. Liam James embodies Duncan's adolescent loneliness, its humiliations and its victories, with aplomb.

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot/Nothing is going to get better. It's not." James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now, adapted from Tim Tharp's 2008 novel, is set on the eve of high school graduation. If I may be permitted  some armchair psychologizing, Sutter Keely suffers from atychiphobia. He so fears failure that he chooses not to take any risks -- if one excepts the voluminous quantities of alcohol he swigs every waking hour. He masks his fear and self-loathing with charming swagger. Coming to on a stranger's lawn he finds Aimee standing over him. Having just been dumped, he segues in to Aimee's heart as she tries to penetrate his armor. It is she who insists he should make a final demand of his mother to find out where his wayward father is. Emotionally that reunion does not get him what he wants, but it may get him what he needs. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley as Sutter and Aimee and Jennifer Jason Lee and Kyle Chandler as Sutter's parents all deliver admirably nuanced performances.

October 21, 2013


Discussed here:
Frances Ha
The East
Short Term 12

I am not alone in musing over what, exactly, constitutes an independent film these days. I discussed this in my round-up of 2011's films, and it may be the case that the term has become obsolete. More and more I am seeing reviews in which a film is said to have an "indie feel." These three films share that.

Filmed in black and white, directed by Noah Baumbach, starring Greta Gerwig, and co-written by them, Frances Ha is a Bildungsroman about a 27-year-old. Yes, she's a late bloomer though characteristic of her generation. Without an actor of Ms. Gerwig's talent and a director of Mr. Baumbach's skill, Frances Ha could easily have gone off the rails. This young woman at first seems thoroughly self-absorbed, but she is self-effacing, too. She seems to want to remain forever young, while wanting to be taken seriously as an adult. She can be irritatingly irresponsible but charmingly likable. Her sometimes boyfriend repeatedly tells her she is "undateable," and though her best friend, whom she still thinks of as her soul mate, may be making the wrong choice for a possible husband, at least she's moved out of the perpetual adolescence in which Frances is stuck. Yet we feel for Frances as we watch reality nipping at her heels and telling her, "It's time to grow up."
NYT Critics' Pick

In 2011, Brit Marling co-wrote and played the cult leader in Zal Batmanglij's Sound of My Voice. They team up again in The East, in which Ms. Marling plays an undercover agent for a private intelligence firm who infiltrates an underground group of subversives, itself teetering on a cult-like reverence for Benji,  the charismatic man at its center (Alexander Skarsgard). Their mission is to make corporate players victims of their own dirty dealings -- big pharma, petrochemical corps. For anyone who has ever harbored anarchist fantasies about making willful polluters, union busters, agri-business, et al. pay, there is a certain satisfaction in the premise, but the film falls a little short in its attempt to examine the ethical questions involved in means versus ends, questions Robert Redford's The Company You Keep also explores, and in which Ms. Marling also has a part. (Ms. Marling co-starred in and had input into the script of the compelling 2011 Another Earth, which Mike Cahill directed, a far more reflective narrative than Lars von Trier's heavy-handed Melancholia that same year.)

 The East Movie Review

Destin Daniel Cretton spent time working in a facility that took in kids who were being relocated to foster care. He brings his experience to bear in his beautifully wrought, cinéma vérité film Short Term 12 about Grace and Mason, who head up such a facility, and their wards. When Jayden arrives she seems to hold herself above the rest, until we come to understand her situation. The only way she can reveal anything about herself is to read Grace a story she has written about a shark who befriends an octopus who has never had a friend and therefore does not know what real friendship is. The shark exploits this ignorance until the octopus is no more. When Mason asks Marcus, another resident, to recite a rap he's just finished composing, the ensuing chant builds into a powerful dirge-like primal scream. Not only in moments like these does Cretton's cast touchingly capture the pain that is borne of abuse and the meaning of unconditional love.
The Film Prospector blog's review is here.
David Edelstein's NPR review is here.

Short Term 12 Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield

Short Term 12 2

Short Term 12 3