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Monday Movie: The Score, by David Bax

13 Feb

When you think of great actors teaming up for the first time onscreen, you think immediately of Michael Mann’s Heat. For the first ever pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, Mann constructed a centerpiece scene surrounded by a three hour epic movie. The takeaway is that a film of massive import had to exist in order to support the weight of its two stars. That’s why it’s intriguingly odd that De Niro’s other marquee matchup, with none other than Marlon Brando (and with method heir apparent Edward Norton to boot), takes place in a nifty but formulaic mid-budget studio caper flick.

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Monday Movie: Bright Young Things, by David Bax

6 Feb

Bright Young Things is a terribly fun film to watch.  It should be, having been written and directed by the terribly funny British comedian/actor Stephen Fry (why this remains his only directorial effort I cannot grasp) and containing a cast beyond belief (Emily Mortimer, Michael Sheen, Dan Aykroyd, David Tennant, James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Stockard Channing, Simon Callow, Imelda Staunton, Richard E. Grant and Peter Freaking O’Toole).  It careens through its complicated and sprawling plot at a pace that could give Guy Ritchie motion sickness.  But it doesn’t rely on its bag of visual tricks merely to keep you entertained.  Stephen Fry (just like Evelyn Waugh, upon whose wonderful 1930 novel Vile Bodies the film is based) is not only a comedian but a satirist, a job description that counts insight and understanding among its prerequisites.  The story follows a loose group of wealthy socialites as they drink and party their way from the late 1920’s to the breakout of World War II (a slight shift from the novel’s timeline).  Fry is not only interested in letting you know that people born into riches who have lived entire lives void of responsibility and often find themselves the subject of cheap press existed well before Paris Hilton.  He also aims to explore, with the whiplash pace of his camera and his dialogue, the ways in which these people are still people.  They are tragically human and dangerously inhuman in ways that are devastating not only for themselves but for the world they live in.  Though it becomes upsettingly bleaker and bleaker as it progresses, Bright Young Things is a film full of life.

Monday Movie: Baby Boy, by David Bax

16 Jan

Back in the summer of 2001, way before #OscarsSoWhite, way before I’d ever heard the term “Social Justice Warrior”—let alone been proud to be one—I was an eighteen-year-old who probably lacked the sophistication or vocabulary to explain why I found John Singleton’s Baby Boy so compelling. Here was a movie that not only had no white characters in it but actually felt like it was made without a white audience in mind. Such movies by and for black Americans were actually more common at the time (Gary Hardwick’s underrated melodrama The Brothers had been released only a few months earlier), before Tyler Perry’s artless, pandering cottage industry cornered the market. In any case, my experience reflects the added bonus of calls for diversity. When we talk about representation, our main focus is rightly on expanding opportunities for people who don’t usually see themselves on movie screens to do so and thus be more empowered in the industry and in the culture at large. As a fringe benefit, though, those of us who are so accustomed to seeing ourselves on screen that it’s unremarkable get a chance to see the world from a new perspective. Isn’t that what movies are supposed to do?

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Monday Movie: The Tin Drum, by David Bax

19 Dec

Because the first Volker Schlondörff film I ever saw was 2000’s The Legend of Rita, he maintains a reputation in my subconscious as a chiefly political, formalistically straightforward filmmaker. Even though I’ve seen more of his work since, it remains a surprise when I see something at outré as 1979’s The Tin Drum. Yet despite the film’s compelling and sometimes unsettling outlandishness, one part of my first impression holds true. It is without a doubt a political film.

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Monday Movie: Thirteen Days, by David Bax

12 Dec

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With Jackie in theaters, there’s cause to reflect on the legacy of John F. Kennedy. How much, really, did he accomplish in his brief stay in the White House? If there’s one thing on the résumé that anyone can point to, it’s the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the United States and the Soviet Union shoved one another right up to the cliff’s edge of nuclear war and then Kennedy’s administration carefully and incrementally eased us back from it while the world sweated. Thirteen Days, made in 2000, dramatizes (and lightly fictionalizes) those proceedings. It’s not perfect but, in a way, it may be the ultimate Cold War movie. Battles herein are fought not between armies but in offices and over phone lines, by men in shirtsleeves and horn-rimmed glasses. But that doesn’t make it any less tense or thrilling.

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Monday Movie: Haywire, by Craig Schroeder

18 Jul

haywire

Haywire is one of the best action films of the decade. Overlooked when it was released wide in 2012—possibly due to a January release date, the typical garbage depot for studio lepers and Oscar bait run-off—Haywire is a taut action-thriller, forgoing the bombast and histrionics of typical action films for tight choreography and bold, resourceful filmmaking.

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Monday Movie: Spartan, by Tyler Smith

4 Jul

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In recent years, I’ve been very critical of writer-director David Mamet. Once a revolutionary playwright whose ability to write realistic dialogue was unmatched, Mamet quickly fell in love with is own linguistic tricks and dense plotting. After a while, his characters no longer sounded like real people; everything was too stylized. The addition of Redbelt to his filmography didn’t do him any favors with me, either. However, once we accept that Mamet’s style has changed- and he no longer has any interest in showing us real people in real situations- we allow ourselves to enjoy the work for what it is. Probably his most notable and exciting film since The Spanish Prisoner, Spartan tells the story of a lone government agent trying to find the truth behind the recent disappearance of the President’s daughter. At first, it seems simple, just the way the agent likes it. Then, in the usual Mametian style, the plot folds back on itself and we realize that what we accepted as truth was really just a manipulation. It is a film of political paranoia and suspicion made to look like a typical action/suspense story. It may not be on the same level of Glengarry Glen Ross but it’s entertaining and stimulating.

Monday Movie: The Little Shop of Horrors, by David Bax

27 Jun

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Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors is, in retrospect, kind of an important film in my personal development as a cinephile. As a young boy, I was more than a little taken with Frank Oz’s uneven but definitely watchable film adaptation of the musical version. This is why one day, my father brought home for me a bargain bin VHS copy of the 1960 original, which I had no idea even existed. The box exuberantly touted the appearance of a young Jack Nicholson. It was to be the first Roger Corman film that I would ever see, an important enough milestone on its own. Yet it was also a first in other, more abstract ways. It was in black and white but it wasn’t like the stately, old-seeming black and white movies I would have seen up to that point. It was loose, irreverent and fun, assembled in a charmingly slapdash but nonetheless competent manner. I realize now that it was my first exposure to the independent spirit and it has remained with me, in ways both conscious and subconscious, ever since.

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Monday Movie: ¡Three Amigos!, by Sarah Brinks

20 Jun

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¡¡Three Amigos! is a classic 1980’s comedy starring some of the best comedians of our time: Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short. This is one of those films that defined my childhood and my sense of humor. The premise of the film is that three silent film stars of a series of films about three wealthy Spanish land owners called the “Three Amigos” are mistaken for real heroes and hired by a small Mexican village to stop an evil crime lord from terrorizing them. The Amigos think it is a real acting gig, when in fact it is a real cry for help. Hilarity, of course, ensues.

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Monday Movie: Viy, by Scott Nye

6 Jun

viy

Viy is officially noted as the first horror film released in the USSR, and it is the debut film from two filmmakers who would never direct together again. But where these two factors could easily lead to something derivative, stealing from decades of genre work done in the U.S., Italy, and Germany, Viy (pronounced simply “vee”) is entirely its own beast. Adapted from an 1835 story by Nikolai Gogol, it deals with a priest who, after accidentally killing a witch, is forced to say prayers over her for three nights before she is buried. There are a lot of mechanics to get there, but that’s the gist. Naturally, the witch is not about to let him get away unscathed, and those three nights are anything but pleasant. Directors Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov realize this story with astounding special effects – utilizing rear projections, rotating sets, and false surfaces at all sides of the room, ensuring no piece of the small environment in which the priest is shut away can keep him safe. The priest himself is something of a fool, easily taken advantage of and boundlessly prideful as he tries to wriggle out. This lends an element of comedy to the film, as though the priest is using every distancing technique the audience might try themselves in the face of the clearly-artificial effects work and sometimes-silly character designs – make all the jokes you want, they’re still going to steal your soul.