Sunday, October 12, 2014

Short Takes: Films Seen in September/October, 2014

Medicine for Melancholy (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2008)

The easiest film to compare Jenkin's debut to is Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995): both are talky tales of two strangers united by chance. But Medicine for Melancholy is decidedly its own, assured feature. Set in San Francisco, the film follows Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins), who wake up together after a one-night stand. The two spend the next twenty-four hours together, discussing their world-views and the gentrification of the city. Politics play an important role, but they never distract from the central relationship between Micah and Jo. The hazy, washed-out cinematography gives the film a dreamlike quality. Cenac's and Heggins' easy chemistry is the film's secret weapon, though. There's a lot of pleasures to be found in these two chatting the day away. A-

Only Lovers Left Alive (dir. Jim Jarmush, 2014)

Only Lovers Left Alive - the latest film from indie journeyman Jim Jarmusch, could easily (and derivatively) described as a "hipster vampire film." Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a centuries-old vampire living in Detroit, recording dirge-like experimental rock songs and generally lamenting the human race. He calls on his lover, Eve (Tilda Swinton), to come visit him from Tangiers and comfort him in his latest fit of depression. When Eve's sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), comes to visit, she stirs up trouble for all three of them. As is to be expected in any Jarmusch film, there's not so much a "plot" here so much as a collection of interconnect scenes. This works in the films favor, giving time for the actors to breathe in their roles and bring these characters to life (or, not-life, as the case may be). Hiddleston and Swinton are predictably terrific, but it's Wasikowska who brings an unexpected jolt of energy to the proceedings. She nearly walks off with the movie. Even if the film doesn't necessarily go anywhere, it's a great deal of fun to spend two hours with these characters. A-

More after the jump.

Locke (dir. Steven Knight, 2014)

There's a solid gimmick at the center of Locke, writer Steven Knight's (Dirty Pretty Things) second film as a director. The film focuses on Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), a construction manager who is juggling the construction of a landmark building, the birth of his child, and informing his wife (Ruth Wilson) that he's having said child with another woman (Olivia Colman). The gimmick: the entire film takes place while Locke drives from the construction site in Birmingham to the hospital in London, with only Locke onscreen while he calls the film's other characters. As a result, the film rests fully on Hardy's shoulders, and he delivers a tour de force performance. Every inflection, every facial expression carries enormous weight, and Hardy relishes the opportunity to flex his dramatic muscles. In turn, he elevates the rest of the film; Knight's script is mostly a collection of writerly coincidences, and though he tries his best to keep the film visually engaging, there's only so much that can be done with a man driving his car. Thankfully it's Hardy in the driver's seat; with him behind the wheel, Locke is a journey worth taking. B

Don Jon (dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2013)

When it came to making his directorial debut, Joseph Gordon-Levitt could have chosen any number of projects that showcased his easy charisma. So it seems odd that he came up with Don Jon, in which he plays Jon, a New Jersey meathead who values his family, his apartment, and his porn. When he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), he believes he may have finally found the perfect woman for him. However, he's not ready to give up his porn habit for her. Don Jon is a fascinating, in-some-ways daring film, directly tackling Jon's attitudes towards sexuality while still remaining surprisingly sex-positive. Gordon-Levitt has an eye for good imagery, though the film never stops feeling like a "first film!" vanity project. The biggest problem is that though Jon learns his lesson over the course of the film, it feels cheap in execution and never fully earns the audience sympathy Gordon-Levitt craves. Luckily, he has a fantastic turn from Johansson to elevate the film. It'll be interesting to see where he goes next. C+

Joe (dir. David Gordon Green, 2014)

After several years of gun-for-hire work on Hollywood stoner comedies such as Pineapple Express (2008) and Your Highness (2011), David Gordon Green returned to the Southern-fried small-budget pictures that earned him raves early in his career. Joe concerns Gary (Tye Sheridan), a young boy seeking work for himself and his drunken father, G-Daawg (Gary Poulter). They come across Joe (Nicolas Cage), who runs a crew that poisons trees so that the land may be cleared. Joe becomes a stand-in father figure for Gary, which causes problems between Gary and G-Daawg. The film doesn't lack for authenticity, as every performance and scene feels lived-in. Cage, in particular, is working in his more-subdued register, and it works in his portrayal of Joe as a man trying to contain his rage. Sheridan, however, is the one who walks away with the film. He's been proving that he's one to watch for several years now, and even if he's mostly played the same types of characters (The Tree of Life, Mud), he's showing considerable talent. That being said, the film is perhaps too enthralled with its Southern-shitkicker attitude and gothic trappings. It has authenticity, but the drama doesn't feel real. B

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (dirs. Anthony and Joe Russo, 2014)

In both The First Avenger (2011) and The Avengers (2012), Chris Evans proved himself to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe's secret weapon in his performance as Steve Rogers, aka Captain America. In The Winter Soldier, he gets the opportunity to prove himself once more in what is certainly the best of Marvel's "Phase 2" films thus far. The arrival of the titular threat at S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Washington, DC headquarters prompts Cap, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to fight off an insurrection, with a helping hand from Cap's new friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie, the film's MVP). Directors Anthony and Joe Russo don't seem like the most obvious choices for this job - their previous experience mostly consists of Arrested Development and Community episodes - but they handle the task with remarkable ease, keeping the pace snappy and the tone consistent. The film has been described as "a '70s conspiracy thriller in disguise as a superhero movie." The only more apt description is "terrific fun." A-

Blue Ruin (dir. Jeremy Saulnier, 2014)

Revenge thrillers are a dime-a-dozen in American cinema, especially among independent filmmakers. The genre comes packed with an escapist narrative with beats the audiences can anticipate, making it an easy go-to. What makes Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier's low-budget thriller, exceptional is how it subverts those expectations. Vagabond Dwight (Macon Blair) learns that the man who killed his parents will be released from prison, and decides to take matters into his own hands for both his and his sister Sam's (Amy Hargreaves). It's refreshing to see the film portray Dwight as someone who is so completely out of his element as an assassin, rather than an ordinary man who magically becomes a skilled killer. Blair does a magnificent job at conveying Dwight's incompetence, driven by a willful logic that can only be described as suicidal stupidity. When the film reaches its violent climax, it feels like the culmination of a fight with only one outcome: mutually-assured destruction. Saulnier has crafted a quietly impressive little film; here's hoping he can continue to surprise us going forward. B+

The Skin I Live In (dir. Pedro Almodovar, 2011)

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar knows to expect a heightened melodrama with campy elements, either played straight or - more often than not - played up for maximum insanity. However, The Skin I Live In marks the first time the director has ventured into the horror genre, even if just barely. Gifted plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is experimenting with the development of a damage-resistent skin after his burn-victim wife to suicide. For his job, he tests it on mice; at home, however, he experiments on Vera (Elena Anaya), a woman whom Robert keeps prisoner in his seclusive home. Almodovar uses this twisted set-up to explore some of his favorite themes, including sexual identity, family relations, and disguises people use. The problem is that none of them quite land with enough impact, thanks to the film's juggling of so many insane incidents. Almodovar is a skilled director with insanity, of course, but even he can't quite keep everything going here. C+

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