Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review Round-up (Part I)

As promised, here are a few shortened reviews of some 2013 releases I've been catching up with in the past couple of weeks. While I'm not thrilled about doing it like this, time constraints and a massive viewing backlog have made it a necessity. More to come soon. 

Drinking Buddies (Dir. Joe Swanberg, Running time: 90 min., Rating: R)

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

Give Drinking Buddies credit for this: It's real. Almost uncomfortably, amusingly and sometimes unevenly real. What it isn't is your typical romantic comedy. That alone should be cause for celebration, even if it's  a muted one considering how low-key and casual the project feels (a compliment). That much of its script was supposedly improvised isn't much of a surprise. Brewery co-workers and best friends Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) have their feelings for each other tested over a long weekend despite both being attached to significant others Chris (Ron Livingston) and Jill (Anna Kendrick). In terms of working and dating life in your thirties, director Joe Swanberg really has it nailed down and kudos to giving the two major characters an occupation that's actually interesting and heavily informs the narrative in an intriguing way.

The two standouts are clearly Wilde and Johnson, both of whom give Indie Spirit worthy performances and come off so naturally endearing together on camera it's impossible not to root for them to cheat (as awful as that sounds). Wilde, especially, has never palyed a character this multi-dimensional before and many will be impressed how easygoing her work is while New Girl star Johnson continues to prove himself underrated as a film actor. Kendrick and Livingston play probably the two most boring people on Earth (intentionally) so that they soldier through this unscathed is a credit to them. Many will probably groan about the non-ending but it's probably one of the more ironic and painfully authentic finishes you'll see for a rom-com, if this can even be considered that. It's more of a low-budget, character driven alternative to the monotony of standard relationship movies. And it works just fine.

Frances Ha (Dir. Noah Baumbach, Running Time: 86 min, Rating: R)

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 
"Adorkable" may be the adjective frequently used to describe another current quirky TV character, but it may actually better suit 27-year-old aspiring dancer Frances (Greta Gerwig) who's stumbling and bumbling through her heavily extended post grad-life with an offbeat sense of humor and a giant smile on her face. You can't help but pull for her, even if at times you feel as if you've entered a world not completely comprehensible unless you're on board with Noah Baumbach's black and white universe of mumblecore hipsterdom. I mostly was. It succeeds almost in spite of itself, but most entirely due to Gerwig. When her Brooklynite best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner) decides to pick up and move on with her life, the "undateable" Frances must come to terms with the fact that hers is a mess. A broke, somewhat homeless, and minimally talented dancer with few prospects, she soldiers on, crashing at the pad of creative types Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegan). A visit to her parents in Cali to a trip to Paris to an attempted return to her college days upstate all mostly result in disaster. She's like a female, less talented Llewyn Davis, but lacking the depression.

It's rare to find a film and protagonist that's both so endearing and irritating at the same time. But then again, this is the guy who made The Squid and The Whale and Greenberg. Baumbach's clearly channeling Manhattan-era Woody Allen here but what's funny is how I actually enjoyed this more than anything Allen's done in the past decade (which admittedly isn't saying much). A scene with an elated Frances running down the streets with David Bowie's "Modern Love" blasting over the soundtrack is undeniably joyous. It's the one film on here I'd most quickly revisit despite being nowhere near the strongest and a mixed bag. So that says something. Baumbach's never made anything I didn't care for and this continues the streak.

Blackfish (Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Running Time: 83 min., Rating: PG-13)

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's a scene in the documentary Blackfish that's almost impossible to watch. As baby Orca whale Tilikum is captured by seaman off the coast of Iceland in 1983 with his family crying in the background. A fisherman on the expedition is interviewed, near tears as he regretfully looks back on it as his lowest moment as a human being. It's tough to argue, but he's hardly the only guilty party here. The most fascinating aspect of this doc is what should have been obvious to everyone isn't until now. Of course, keeping killer whales in in captivity and treating them like trained circus animals has to be dangerous, right? And yet we've all been conditioned by SeaWorld since youth to believe it's okay. I'm usually opposed to documentaries that take a stand for "causes" and animal activists certainly haven't been the most level-headed in the past, but this isn't a propaganda piece. The facts speak for themselves.

What we're shown is damning. From the chilling testimonials from former trainers to the horrifying actual footage of whale attacks (one escape by an experienced diver is a heart-stopper), the only question remaining at the end isn't how these whales could do this, but how they couldn't given the treatment they received.  The abused Tilikum would go on to kill two trainers, the second of whom was Dawn Brancheau in 2010. SeaWorld caused it. And then they sat on it, before blaming her. At best they're guilty of animal cruelty. At worst, they're murderers. It's a shock they're still in business, even if the release of this film justifiably puts the company's entire future in jeopardy. It's proof that documentaries can cause a serious, seismic shift in how we look at things. As for these SeaWorld executives? They should be tossed in the tank. I was surprised just how emotionally involved and outraged I felt watching it. This is documentary filmmaking in its purest, most powerful form.

The Bling Ring (Dir. Sofia Coppola, Running Time: 90 min., Rating: R)

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Taking its place alongside Spring Breakers, Pain and Gain and The Wolf of Wall Street, Sofia Coppola's latest is only further proof that 2013 in film will be remembered as the year of materialistic excess and social depravity. Based on real events, The Bling Ring tells the story of a group of celebrity obsessesed California teens who successfully burglarized the homes of Paris Hilton (funny), Audrina Patridge (funny), Megan Fox (still funny) Lindsay Lohan (funnier) and Rachel Bilson (not funny!) And that's pretty much the film, but it's amazing just how much mileage Coppola is able to squeeze out of it. It's supposed to be a satire, but that's not glaringly obvious, which is both its biggest strength and weakness.

There are points when you think it's entirely possible the director is enjoying herself a little too much, feeling almost too comfortable in this setting to really go for the jugular like Harmony Korine did with Spring Breakers. But there is a lot to appreciate here, starting with newcomer Katie Chang's performance as ringleader Rebecca and Israel Brussard's work as Marc, the new student sucked into her vortex and yearning for acceptance. He's really the only character with a conscience about what he's doing or comes close to gaining sympathy while Emma Watson's Nikki is by far the most detestable. It wasn't until I saw actual footage of the real person on which the character was based that I realized Watson didn't take it too far and was creepily spot-on with her vacant, airheaded portrayal.

This is the last film shot by the late, great cinematographer Harris Savides and it presents a California that's washed out, depressed and altogether atypical of how it's usually depicted on screen. You also have to appreciate that Sleigh Bells-backed opening title sequence. While I'd agree that the complaints against the film are valid and there's a certain repetitiveness to the break-ins, the hypnotic way it shines a spotlight on the ugliest side of our celebrity obsessed culture makes it a bit more compelling than its superficiality lets on.

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