Saturday, December 14, 2013

Short Takes: Recently Viewed 2013 Films

Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2013)

Every review for Frances Ha, Baumbach's first film since the bitter (in a good way) Ben Stiller comedy Greenburg, has compared it to HBO's Girls. The comparison is practically inevitable: both concern themselves with white twentysomething women in New York trying to make a living in the arts (Frances is a dancer) and struggling to grow up. In particular, though, the film focuses on Frances' resistance to any kind of change, especially when her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) decides to move in with someone else, leaving Frances without a place to live. Frances isn't a particularly easy character to like: she can be selfish, and more often than not her failures are her own fault, though she doesn't see it that way. In Greta Gerwig's hands, though, we understand what drives her and why she's this way (Gerwig also co-wrote the script). If anything, we're rooting for her to get out of her own way in her efforts to grow up. In classic Baumbach style, it's a deceptively bitter film, but it may also be one of his most positive. A-

The Conjuring (dir. James Wan, 2013)

The best horror films - and this is based completely on my limited experience in the genre - rely on building tension, keeping the unknown just that until the audience can't stand it anymore. Coming from the man who began his career with Saw nine years ago, the neatest trick Wan pulls in The Conjuring is making us care about the characters before hell is unleashed upon them. It helps, of course, that Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson play Lorraine and Ed Warren, paranormal investigators who come to the Perron home, and Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston play the Perron parents. But the film takes its sweet time getting to the terror, building slowly with small character moments and tense occurrences by an unseen perpetrator. When the third act finally does come, it blows the doors off. This is how you tell an effective ghost story. "Clap-and-seek" will never be the same. A-

Pacific Rim (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2013)

When is a Guillermo del Toro movie not a Guillermo del Toro movie? Pacific Rim comes the closest to answering that question. Del Toro's first film in five years tells the story of an Earth in which giant monsters known as kaiju have risen from the sea and are destroying cities along the Pacific rim (the rest of the world doesn't seem to have this problem). Humanity is fighting back with the help of giant robots known as jaegers. Charlie Hunnam's Raleigh Becket is a jaeger pilot who lost his brother in batter with a kaiju, and has not come back for one last stand against the beasts before they destroy everything. In typical del Toro fashion, the details make this world fascinating: the kaiju classification system, the way the film begins several years into the "kaiju war" rather than spending its entire running time on the first incidents, the unique designs of the creatures themselves. It's too bad the same can't be said for the story, which is predictable at every turn. On the human side of things, Hunnam is kind of dull, but Charlie Day's zany scientist, Rinko Kikuchi's troubled pilot, and especially Idris Elba's booming commander Stacker Pentecost (the names in this movie are probably the best thing about it) liven up the supporting cast. It's not as magically inventive as del Toro's previous efforts, but it delivers the solid giant-robots-fighting-giant-monsters entertainment it was made for. B

Oblivion (dir. Joseph Kosinski, 2013)

Back in 2010, Kosinski showed promise as an inventive sci-fi director with his work in the decent Tron: Legacy. Fast-forward to 2013, and Oblivion is not the film that that promise indicated would result. Left on Earth to clean up after an unseen alien war, Jack (Tom Cruise) is tasked with cleaning up the planet, with the assistance of Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) and a bunch of unmanned drones. In something crashes to Earth, it complicates Jack's mission and leads him to answers about why he's really there. The visuals are occasionally stunning, and Kosinski makes great use of the Icelandic landscape to give his post-apocolyptic Earth a truly otherworldly feel. However, this doesn't make up for a story that doesn't have any original ideas. Oblivion will likely be remembered as the film that ended Cruise's marriage to Katie Holmes - if at all - than as Kosinski's bold follow-up. B-

The To-Do List (dir. Maggie Carey, 2013)

Have you ever noticed how teen sex comedies almost always focus on the male point-of-view, with the guys trying to score the hot girl before they go to college or what-have-you? Filmmaker Maggie Carey did, and flipped the script to follow Brandy Klark (Audrey Plaza), a valedictorian who decides to make a list of sex acts she wants to accomplish before she begins college. Inexplicably set in early 1990s Idaho and cast with actors who are clearly too old to be in high school (both of these for the better), Carey's screenplay does rely a bit too heavily on gross-out gags and obvious jokes/cliches. But Plaza and the rest of the cast - particularly Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele as Brandy's best friends and Clark Gregg and Connie Britton as her parents - are completely game. And you've got to commend a film that not only celebrates female sexuality, but also emphasizes "chicks before dicks." B

Dallas Buyers Club (dir. Jean-Luc Valle, 2013)

The peak of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s is a tragic example of the United States turning its back on Americans in desperate need of help for wholly nonsensical reasons. Dallas Buyers Club represents an interesting facet of that history by focusing on Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a Texan bull rider and electrician who contracts HIV. Woodroof is a straight, homophobic womanizer (it would be nice for a major film to take the point-of-view of an LGBTQIA character in this era), but he's also a fighter and an opportunist. After being refused the drugs he wants for his treatment by his doctors (Denis O'Hare and Jennifer Garner, neither of whom add all that much to the film), he's inspired by reports from New York and starts a "buyers club" to move the non-approved medications and treatments into the US, selling legal "memberships" for access to the drugs. McConaughey is riveting in the role, capturing every side of this very complicated man. So is the remarkable Jared Leto, who plays Woodroof's trans* business partner Rayon. The movie sags when the focus moves away from their efforts to keep the operation afloat, but otherwise this is a terrific glimpse at an unheralded phenomenon from a dark period of American history. B+

Philomena (dir. Stephen Frears, 2013)

To those who are familiar with his previous work, Steve Coogan is not a name normally associated with dramas. And to his credit, Philomena - which he co-wrote and co-stars in - does have its share of comedic moments. Judi Dench stars as the titular character, an Irish woman who's searching for her son that the Catholic Church put up for adoption 50 years prior. Dench is phenomenal as usual, perfectly balancing this woman's daffiness with her genuine heartbreak and internal conflict of faith, and her journey is equal parts inspiring and devastating. Frears, together with Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope, use this story to explore different views on religion, as Coogan's Martin Sexsmith - a proud atheist - rails against the Church for what they did to this (and many other) women while Philomena remains a steadfast Catholic. It's an interesting route for the film to take, considering that it could have just been another road-trip comedy mixed with dramatic elements. The film doesn't completely make this all work, but the effort is impressive. B

1 comment:

Kaitlin Pendley said...

I watched the To-Do List and you were entirely too kind. What began as an entertaining first hour lagged into thirty-forty minutes that were quite pointless and lost the momentum built by earlier scenes. At times it felt like the film was trying to deliver a message, but could never quite settle on what lesson it's heroine should learn. C, I say. :) aka redbox it.