Saturday, August 22, 2015

Digging for Fire: Sometimes It's Okay to Be Lame

I'd like to take just one minute to yell at the New York Film Critics Series, which led me to believe that Jake Johnson and director Joe Swanberg were going to be IN THE THEATER for a Q&A after the movie. At no point during the ticket-buying process was I made aware that this was a simulcast event that was happening in NYC. Shame on you, NYFCS. Seriously.

ANYWAY. Back to the actual film at hand.

Ignore the weird, Urban Outfitters-esque poster

I'd seen Swanberg's Drinking Buddies and I dug his naturalistic, organic style. He seems to have an interesting fix on good people who get tied up in romantic crises and make stupid decisions, but decisions that (in the long-run) make them realize the value in what they already have.

Okay, that's probably a mouthful to read without knowing what the plot even is, so let's take care of that:

Tim and Lee have been married for several years but are by no means old. In their mid-thirties (I think), they have a young son and while they like each other, they're experiencing some bumps in their marriage. As they house-sit for one of Lee's clients, Tim discovers a bone and a gun buried in the hill adjacent to the house. During a weekend away from each other, Tim takes the opportunity to try and dig up whatever's buried in the side of the hill while Lee has her own adventures. At the end of the weekend they each learn a lot more about themselves and what they want out of their marriage.

And what you find when you dig in hills.

There's something really sweet-sad about Swanberg's movies between this one and Drinking Buddies. They're so relatable on such an uncomfortable level. Anyone who has ever gone through a rough patch in a long relationship knows how easy it is to get curious about what you could be missing out there. While Tim "innocently" bonds with a young girl his friend brings along to a house party, Lee's adventure leads her into the path of a man she meets in a bar. There's an undercurrent of danger there. Is it as simple a fix as temporarily finding someone else who has an interest in you? Is it just the intoxicating possibility that you have options?

Lolz I'm bored.

But what's a little creepy, too, is that these are not bad people. And even though their intentions might not be pure off the bat, the walkabout that they go on over the course of the weekend is interesting. While each of them seems terrified of becoming old and irrelevant, they end their journey learning that their life together is a better adventure than the nostalgia that they feel in looking backwards.

I think that there must be a certain level of "oh no, I'm getting old" for anyone as they age, but it must be especially weird for new parents and young couples. One of my favorite clips in the entire movie is when Tim comments on how it's a widespread thing that older people say how they don't think of themselves as old, but how this, in and of itself, is such a byproduct of actually being old. I think another major thing that Swanberg does really well is to subtly show us how nostalgic Tim and Lee are to be young again, but how, once they live life the way they visualize, they aren't equipped for it anymore. Tim unsuccessfully tries to describe to old party buddies the joys of fatherhood, and Lee impulsively buys a leather jacket. It's only by the end of the film, and after their sordid adventures, that they realize how well-equipped and happy they are in the life that they already had, together.

7.5 outa 10. Good stuff, and makes you think. Well-acted by a great cast and thought-provoking without being overly dramatic or in-your-face.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Gift: Lessons in Stalking and Home Invasion

I know, I know, four posts in one week; what is this, Christmas? Lucky for you guys that I had a free soda coupon burning a hole in my pocket, and repeated requests from a friend to go and see this so she could see what I thought about it. So Regal Loyalty Card and Jennifer Lynn: this is for you guys.


Robyn (Rebecca Hall) and Simon (Jason Bateman) have just moved to California and are settling into their new neighborhood when Simon bumps into an old acquaintance of his from high school, Gordo (Joel Edgerton). Gordo is a little friendlier than most people might be. He gives them gifts, unprompted, and is constantly stopping by the house to chitchat with Robyn. When his advances get a little too close for comfort, Simon abruptly decides that they shouldn't associate with him anymore. But immediately after cutting ties with Gordo, weird things begin to happen around their house. As Gordo's presence in their lives remains mysterious, Robyn digs up some things that explain just why Gordo is acting so strange and why he's so keen on edging into their lives.

"I'm totally normal. I promise."

While I had heard a lot about how shocking the ending of this was, I've got to say, I wasn't very surprised. While the movie twists itself upside down by the ending, there isn't anything that happens that you couldn't figure out from context clues. That being said, the journey to the end holds your attention and the character evolutions are fascinating for all three main characters.

Honestly, too, the whole "EVERYTHING WAS ACTUALLY BACKWARDS!?" kinds of mind-blowing endings have really run the full gamut lately. It was nice to get little surprises along the way instead of it being one huge big bang at the end.

No mind-blowing here.

But really, the most interesting piece of this movie is its commentary on telling the truth and the impact that your past has on your present. So much remains cloudy for the bulk of the movie, and when everything finally comes to light, bit by bit, the whole story makes a lot of sense. It brings up the importance of the kinds of things that we do offhand that end up having a huge impact on the lives of others, and makes itself a reminder of the importance of being authentic both to yourself and to others. And the long-term consequences of when you're not.

The trio of strong actors in this also makes for wonderful watching. And the cinematography/sound editing makes it super creepy.

7 outa 10. While there was no "OMG" moment, there were a lot of whispered "oh woah"s. Very creepy.

Also, fun fact: this is apparently also written and directed by Edgerton as well. Who knew this Welsh man was so talented?

Irrational Man: Sometimes Philosophy Steers You Wrong

Philosophy is weird. Not bad weird but just weird. It's an amorphous field of study. Even Merriam-Webster's definition of philosophy is sort of all over the place, "the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc." (Like "etc."? Seriously Merriam-Webster? That's about as effective as adding "Or y'know, whatever.") There are infinite ways to speculate about the meaning of life, what humanity is, and how we should operate. Woody Allen's latest, Irrational Man, takes a closer look at the moral ethics sect of philosophy and dives right in.

Irrational Man follows a middle-aged college philosophy professor named Abe (Joaquin Phoenix). Abe is in the doldrums when he arrives at his new post at a small made-up college in New England. He's lost his zest for life, all he ever seems to do is drink, and he is completely self-absorbed in a kind of depressive funk. He ends up befriending one of his students, a girl named Jill (Emma Stone), who finds his philosophy fascinating and ends up falling for him over the course of their friendship. But Abe's doom and gloom view of life takes an odd turn one day when they're hanging out at a local diner and overhear a conversation between people that they've never met. After making up his mind to commit an unspeakable act for the greater good, Abe makes a complete 180 and becomes a sunny, upbeat person who embraces everything life has to offer. But will he actually commit the crime? And what are the real-life consequences if he does?

Looks like a totally rational man, right? Well, spoiler alert: he's not.

For someone whose films are generally made for a sort of lofty, educated (one could even say snobby) kind of audience, Allen takes an interesting look at not only human nature but also the nature of philosophy in general. Throughout the movie, we're given snapshots of Abe's talks on philosophy, objectifying human nature and making theories about the way people are supposed to be living their lives. It's speculative. He even says it himself at one point that "Philosophy is mostly just verbal masturbation." But what's even more interesting as the film moves along is the way that this affects his actions. Determined stop being a bystander in his own life, Abe tries to make his own philosophy a reality. But experience steers him wrong.

As a philosopher, Abe makes sweeping, general observations about the human race, but without taking into account what an individual human life really is. In fact, despite his own admission that philosophy is mostly objective, his fatal mistake is over-objectifying humanity. By seeing one person as a scapegoat for a bigger world problems, he's fueled to make a decision that he thinks will better humanity. But he does it without seeing the reality of what a human life actually is, with all of its bits and pieces, its connections, its routines, its emotions. And without realizing the larger futility of the one act itself.

A not-rational man.

Opposite Abe him is the ever-fabulous Emma Stone as Jill, a naive student who ends up having to make some interesting choices regarding her and Abe and their relationship together. Jill is captivated by his stances on human nature, but it's noted even early-on that she disagrees with a lot of what he says as well. As Abe bcomes more tangled in his own ideas, Jill provides the reality check for us all, and Stone's acting is stupendous.

Honestly, even if you don't want to delve into the ethics of morality, the movie is a beautte. Phoenix and Stone are impeccable actors and this movie really allows them to play to their strengths. Phoenix is great as the totally self-absorbed philosophy professor and Stone plays the college student with a staggering amount of sincerity.

These two OGs.

8.5 outa 10. The movie is one of the most thought-provoking I've seen in a while. An interesting delve into the world of moral ethics and how we define right and wrong.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Vampire Movies That Don't Suck (Haaa)

I'm as big a fan of creature features as anyone, but if there's been one mythical being that's come under harsh scrutinty in the past several years it's gotta be vampires.

With all of the potential that vampires have to be creepy and thought-provoking and strange, it's a DAMN shame that pop culture and dumb teens turned them into sparkly, moody weirdos.

I think we all know who we're talking about here...

But, don't fret my friends. There are plenty of vampire movies out there that totally don't suck. And while there are obviously the ole hokey classics that we know and love (please see: Bram Stoker's Dracula, From Dusk Til Dawn, Lost Boys, etc.) there are lots of vampire movies being made lately that are worth your time.

Let's review!

1. Only Lovers Left Alive

I mean these two actors together. Yes, please, amiright?

Ahhh this old gem. The first time I saw it I was mostly surprised that it had taken someone so long to come up with the concept of vampires falling in love with EACH OTHER (gasp!). Instead of being conflicted with the ole usual of "oh no I'm in love with a human, what do I do, halp" plotline, Adam and Eve (seriously) are two vampires, centuries old, who are madly in love with one another. And this is not the cloying, desperate love that we're so accustomed to seeing in overblown paranormal movies. In fact when the movie begins, they're in two completely disparate places: he's in Detroit, and she's in Tangiers. Their lives come back together soon enough and we're shown that instead of being the primal creatures of the night (although Jarmusch never really lets us forget that either), they're mostly just snobs, lamenting humanity's lack of looking over their own history. This is one for lit nerds, philosophy nerds, musics nerds, and basically all nerds. Only Lovers Left Alive is a fresh look at the old vampire tales. Full review here!

Guitar nerds in particular will appreciate this scene:

2. Thirst

You a vampire yet or what?

Okay, lemme do my weird nerdy thing here, as usual, and take this moment to extol the underratedness of Asian thrillers/horror. Thirst takes us through the travels of a priest, who becomes the victim of a failed medical experiment, which then turns him into a vampire. Adjusting to this new problem, the priest finds some different tastes in his vampire life. The movie, done by Korean master Chan-Wook Park (of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance), is a fantastically creepy commentary on what vampirism means for those who are turned, and how they can (or can't) deal with no longer being human. Again, it's Chan-Wook here, so needless to say it gets a little weird. But if you're looking for a fresh look at this old fairy tale, you'll definitely find it in this movie.

3. Let Me In

Nothing to see here...

The American remake of the Swedish hit (I know, I'm terrible, I still haven't seen the original, sorry!) follows a young boy living in New Mexico who befriends a strange young girl who lives in his apartment complex. Both outcasts, they find comfort in each other. But while the boy is happy to have a new friend, the girl becomes increasingly strange, and the longer they know each other, the more demanding her friendship turns. This is a fascinating turn for the vampire tales we all know, with the vampire in this version being very physically immature despite her centuries-old psyche and the young boy who befriends her being about 11 or 12 years old. More a story of outcasts than anything, the movie focuses on the themes of loneliness, and how the life of a real vampire wouldn't be glamorous at all, but horrifyingly boring and sad.

4. What We Do in the Shadows

Omg, yes, all of it.

Yay! A funny one! A documentary crew gains permission from a house full of vampires to get perspective on their every-day lives. Oh my god. This movie somehow manages to poke fun at all of the stereotypical vampire legends at once. I don't even know if I can do this proper justice by explaining it, but suffice it to say, the movie is freakin' hilarious. Just watch the damn trailer:

5. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night


I hope in the near future they find some way for you to have videos that you can hang up on your wall, a la photos in Harry Potter. Because if that were possible, I'd hang scenes from this movie all over my walls. The cinematography is breathtaking. Shot in black and white, the movie almost reminds me of French new wave or something. The tone is meandering but calculated. Nothing in this movie happens by accident. Our plot follows a woman who stalks the people of a small Iranian town. Her story is spliced with that of a young man named Arash, an all-around good guy who meets her and starts to fall for her, not knowing what she is. But this is far from the Twilight-esque exaggeration of teen hormones. Their characters foil one another in a way that's fascinating and every scene that they share is almost totally tense, with a mixture of danger but also that dumb new-love kind of nervous energy.

I don't usually have a ton of patience for movies with this kind of pacing, but I've gotta say that the music mixed with the angles included in each shot make it worthwhile. I could really nerd out for a full post about how UH-MAZE-ING the cinematography, but suffice it to say, if you have an artistic eye, that alone will hold you over for the entire film. It's freakin' gorgeous. And while the film isn't horror per se, it's edgy enough to keep you on your toes!

Screw the trailer, watch this. And keep in mind that SHE is the vampire. Js.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Mistress America: Greta Gerwig Charms Again...Kinda

I've gotta give Noah Baumbach credit: he's very much a film auteur.* In the same way that Hitchcock fixated on Grace Kelly and Woody Allen used Mia Farrow in every damn thing for a time, Baumbach has the same sort of fixation with Greta Gerwig. Much like in Frances Ha Baumbach makes Gerwig a central quirky character of Mistress America, trying to find her way in the crazy city that is New York.
Mistress America (2015) Poster
We're best friends probably!

The plot follows young Tracy (Lola Kirke), a college freshman who has just moved to NYC to go to school, but who's having a rough time fitting in. The boy she likes doesn't like her back, she can't get into the prestigious lit society, and she's having a terrible time making friends. At her mother's urging, she calls her soon-to-be stepsister to try and make a new friend in the city. Instead of an awkward encounter over coffee, Tracy is swept off her feet by the spontaneous and jubilant Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Getting wrapped up in a tornado of amazing city experiences, Tracy and latches onto Brooke and her plans to start an incredibly unique restaurant in Williamsburg. But just when things start looking up for Tracy, Brooke gets the news that she's lost funding for her project. Trying to remedy everything and save the dream restaurant, Tracy, Brooke, and a motley crew of friends work out what's to be done.

So...let me just say right off the bat that I did like this movie, but it wasn't what I dreamed it would be. Thematically, Baumbach maintains the sort of girl-centric themes that make his other films, like Frances Ha and Zoe Versus, so comically endearing and quirky.


But this isn't Frances Ha. And I think it's hard to go from a movie that you really love, like Frances Ha for me, to a movie that's just...similar. Instead of seeing the movie objectively I feel like I got kind of wrapped up in how Mistress America (which is a damn good title by the way) wasn't like Frances Ha.

Principally, I did not really like the main character. While I think we're supposed to feel endeared to Tracy for being so young and so attached to Brooke so quickly, there was something I found mildly weird and annoying about her. I can't tell if it's my annoyance with high and mighty hipster kids or if she's supposed to be that way on purpose but I just didn't really empathize with her very much.

Brooke, too, is a bit of a letdown. While the movie takes efforts to maintain a lightness despite its complex themes (something I want to commend Baumbauch for, honestly), there's almost a lack of heaviness to the movie that makes it read a bit oddly. Like why is Tracy acting so weird towards her guy friend all of a sudden? How is Brooke a high-functioning adult with so much A.D.D. in regards to her lifestyle? Why is Brooke so mad at Tracy? What are the consequences here? What's going on?

"We're not sure either..."

However, I've got to say, if there's one thing that I did enjoy about the movie, it's that Baumbach is again a trailblazer in making women's films. Instead of pursuing predictable tropes like Brooke or Tracy falling in love with some boy and having that be the central driving theme, it's nice to see a plot that centers around girl friendships and girl identity without taking itself too seriously. Tracy and Brooke spend the film trying to find what makes them happy and, while the film ends without any sort of profound conclusion, it's nice to see these themes play out with them in the spotlight. To elaborate, many times we see female characters try and "find themselves" through romance, but this movie gives them the vehicle of female friendship.

I dunno. Cool theme-wise but the character of Tracy seemed a bit too complex for Kirke to pull off without seeming like she was trying too hard.

7 outa 10, mostly for Baumbach. Not bad, but not as good as Frances Ha.

*Sorry, Breaking out the hoity-toity film lingo again. A film auteur is a director with a marked film style who makes the film according to the way they see it. Or, as defined by our favorite lazy source for everything, Wikipedia: "In film criticism, auteur theory holds that a film reflects the director's personal creative vision, as if they were the primary "auteur" (the French word for "author")."