Watching "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"
Published on April 23, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new superhero movie "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."

Here's an excerpt:

"Captain America is a throwback.

At a time when comic book superheroes tend to be edgy and brooding, Captain America is cheerful and friendly, patriotic and loyal. He wants to do what is right. He isn’t consumed by self-doubt or tormented by the burden of being a hero. He’s not Batman, or even the more serious Superman of last year’s big comic reboot, 'Man of Steel.' He’s just an ordinary guy who believes in America, and has extraordinary physical powers.

I liked the first 'Captain America' film well enough, and I was perfectly happy to see Captain America pop up in 'The Avengers.' But it’s tough to get too excited about him, mainly because he’s such a square — not nearly as fun or charismatic as Iron Man or even Thor. What makes 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' interesting is that it depicts Captain American’s growing disillusionment with government secrecy and modern-day surveillance. For the first time, he seems like a man who is capable of thinking for himself and taking matters into his own hands.

The Marvel comic book movies have a lightness of tone that’s really appealing, even during the big climatic fights, and 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' is no different. At times, the banter between Captain America, aka Steve Rogers, and the superspy Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff, sounds like something out of an old screwball comedy, which, come to think about it, is how much of 'The Avengers' and 'Iron Man' films sounds, too. Like most comic book adaptations, the interactions between the main characters is the best thing about 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier,' while the explosions, car chases and battles eventually grow tiresome. It’s fun to watch Samuel L. Jackson return as Nick Fury, and it’s a real kick to watch Robert Redford as the duplicitous Alexander Pierce. And Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson, aka Falcon, is a nice addition to the cast. But it’s the stars — Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson — who really carry this film."

Click here to read the whole thing.


Watching "Noah"
Published on April 10, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new movie "Noah."

Here's an excerpt:

"Let’s give 'Noah' some credit. This film inspired me to read a little bit of the Bible. After watching it, I was like, 'Hmmmm. Maybe I’ll take a look at Genesis and see how that whole thing with the ark really went down.' I was fairly certain that director Darren Aronofsky had taken some liberties with the story when adapting it for the screen.

Now, I don’t really care whether 'Noah' is or isn’t faithful to the original story, and I thought Aronofsky’s interpretation was pretty interesting — an intellectually provocative, highly personal re-imaging of a very famous Bible story. I didn’t always understand Aronofsky’s choices — why, for example, did he think it necessary to portray Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family as vegetarians, sustaining themselves through foraging? — but I was never bored by 'Noah,' and I appreciated his refusal to turn a sometimes dark and morally complex tale into a children’s fable."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Film Capsules
Published on April 1, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about some of the older films I've watched recently, including "Hatari!" and "Death Wish."

Click here for more.

Watching "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Published on March 26, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new Wes Anderson movie "The Grand Budapest Hotel."

Here's an excerpt:

"I had some time to kill before the Saturday evening showing of 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' that I attended, and so I swung by the coffee shop next door to the Spectrum.

'It’s been busy,'" the barista told me. 'And it’s Wes Anderson’s fault.'

Anderson is the whimsical auteur responsible for 'The Grand Budapest Hotel,' and his movies are highly anticipated among a certain subset of moviegoers. The screening I attended was packed with people who had clearly seen his previous films, and were delighted to see Anderson regulars such as Bill Murray and Owen Wilson pop up in small roles. Because Anderson has such a devoted following, the stakes seem to get higher with each new release. Fans excitedly discuss whether the film is great or merely good; his detractors complain that his work is cartoonish, mannered and has no heart.

Meanwhile, I keep wondering whether Anderson will ever make a film as good as his animated adaptation of 'Fantastic Mr. Fox.' 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' is a very good movie ... but it doesn’t surpass 'Fantastic Mr. Fox.'"

Click here to read the whole thing.


Watching "Tim's Vermeer"
Published on March 24, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new Penn & Teller art documentary "Tim's Vermeer."

Here's an excerpt:

"I like magic, and I like Penn & Teller, the famed illusionists known for their prankish sense of humor and scientific skepticism. I still remember seeing the duo perform live as a child, and watching Teller swallow sewing needles and thread, then pull the thread from his mouth with all the needles threaded on it. As magic tricks go, that’s pretty unforgettable.

Penn & Teller always keep things interesting, which is why I was excited to see 'Tim’s Vermeer,' a documentary directed by Teller and produced by Penn Jillette and Farley Ziegler. The subject isn’t magic, but art — more specifically, an art mystery. The film focuses on inventor Tim Jenison (a friend of Penn’s) and his effort to prove that 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer used a system of lenses and mirrors — something similar to a camera obscura — to create his stunningly realistic domestic scenes.

Jenison wasn’t the first to suggest that Vermeer was aided by the technology of his time, and acknowledges his debt to British painter David Hockney, who explored the idea in his 2001 book 'Secret Knowledge.' But for those who believe Vermeer was a genius with an uncommon gift for painting light, textures and other tiny details, the theory is radical and unwelcome, because it suggests the great painter might have been a bit of a cheat, tracing images reflected on a mirror. Or, if not a cheat, a tinkerer and inventor, rather than a true artist."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Watching "The Wind Rises"
Published on March 13, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new Hayao Miyazaki movie "The Wind Rises."

Here's an excerpt:

"The final film from legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, 'The Wind Rises' is strikingly beautiful but also unsettling, a dreamy, ambiguous biopic about the engineer who developed fighter planes used by the Japanese Empire in World War II. Days after seeing 'The Wind Rises,' I can’t decide if the film confronts a dark chapter in Japanese history, or whitewashes that history. Maybe it does a little bit of both.

Animation-wise, 'The Wind Rises' is as captivating as anything in the Miyazaki canon, with flying scenes that are intricate, kinetic and colorful. It’s also Miyazaki’s most adult film, and lacks the fantastical creatures and wise children who typically populate his films. At times, the film feels like a cross between an old-fashioned romantic melodrama and a quirky fable about a plucky artist determined to bring his vision to fruition. In other words, this is not a film for kids, who might be bored by movie’s more languorous passages, which often involve watching the engineer, named Jiro Horikoshi, study airplane designs and offer his thoughts on rivets and fuselage. At its most basic level, 'The Wind Rises' is an especially elegant and visual stunning ode to science and math.

But it’s a lot more than that, and I sometimes wondered whether Miyazaki had bitten off more than he could chew. The film opens when Horikoshi (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a boy in rural Japan, eagerly reading aviation magazines, stargazing and dreaming of the day he can build airplanes of his own. At his first job, where he’s assigned to build a fleet new airplane for the military, he’s regarded as a genius, so consumed by his work that he neglects his personal life. When he later announces that he’s engaged, his boss roars with laughter, saying, 'We thought you would marry an airplane!'"

Click here to read the whole thing.

Watching "The Great Beauty"
Published on March 5, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review 2013's Oscar winning best foreign film, "The Great Beauty."

Here's an excerpt:

"For the first hour of 'The Great Beauty,' this year’s Oscar winner for best foreign film, I was convinced it was one of the best films of 2013. But the film runs for about 140 minutes, and by the time it ended, I was far less certain. 'The Great Beauty' is a feast for the senses and an unforgettable sensory experience — but what does all the flash, pageantry and debauched exuberance really add up to? I’m not sure.

Helmed by the talented Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, 'The Great Beauty' is the latest in a long line of films about soul-sick Europeans who have grown weary of living lives devoid of meaning and purpose. The film’s obvious spiritual forbear is 'La Dolce Vita,' the legendary Federico Fellini film about a gossip writer awakening to the shallowness of his decadent, party-filled existence. 'The Great Beauty' also owes a debt to the works of fellow Italian Michelangelo Antonioni, who spent his career exploring the lives of people who are highly educated, wealthy and completely bored with themselves, their friends and life in general.

'The Great Beauty’s' protagonist is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), who is celebrating his 65th birthday at the utterly intoxicating rooftop party that opens the film. (Sorrentino is second-to-none when it comes to filming party scenes.) Jep is a writer who penned a highly acclaimed novel 40 years earlier, but never followed it up; today he writes fluffy, entertaining articles for a magazine. His real vocation, it seems, is hob-nobbing with Rome’s high society and hosting all-night shindigs. 'I’m a writer. I’m not a pimp,' he tells someone. Given the lavishness of his lifestyle, it’s easy to see why he feels the need to draw a distinction."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Watching "The Lego Movie"
Published on February 27, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the great new animated film "The Lego Movie."

Here's an excerpt:

“'The LEGO Movie' is just as much fun as you’ve heard. It has you grinning from its opening moments until its closing credits. It takes a dubious premise, and somehow manages to spin it into gold. It is fun, fun, fun — one of the most fun blockbusters I’ve been to in a long time.

This film could have been terrible. It could have been an extended LEGO commercial, and nothing more. But in the capable hands of co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (whose previously film, '21 Jump Street,' was also way better than anyone had a right to expect), 'The LEGO Movie' becomes a witty, visually astonishing, occasionally subversive delight. At times it plays like 'The Matrix' for kids. At other times, it reminded me of the Mike Judge comedy 'Idiocracy' and the Pixar film 'The Incredibles.' But it never feels like it’s ripping off those earlier films.

'The LEGO Movie' is something rare: a unique cinematic experience. Of course, it would be hard for me not to love a film in which the villain unleashes his minions with the cry 'Cue the micromanagers!' and the 2002 NBA all-stars make a cameo appearance."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Watching "August: Osage County"
Published on February 18, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review "August: Osage County."

Much to my surprise, I sort of liked it!

Here's an excerpt:

"Every year, there’s at least one Oscar-nominated film I can’t stand, and this year I fully expected 'August: Osage County' to fill the slot. But this movie surprised me. At times, I found it unbearable. But I also found it strangely moving, darkly humorous and entirely engrossing. A day later, I still can’t say whether I liked the film, or describe exactly how it made me feel. But I certainly won’t forget it anytime soon, which is a testament, I think, to its weird, almost ghoulish power.

What elevates 'August: Osage County' is its source material, a Pulitzer-prize winning play by Tracy Letts, and a terrific cast. Meryl Streep, as monstrous matriarch Violet Weston, and Julia Roberts as bitter, strong-willed daughter Barbara Weston, both earned acting nominations for their performances, but the rest of the cast — Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson — is equally good. Frankly, any film composed of scene after scene of barbed conversation, yelling and arguments is going to sink or swim based on the conviction and intensity of its actors. I’m not the world’s hugest Julia Roberts fan, but this might be the best performance she’s ever given, and whenever 'August: Osage County' threatens to fly off the rails, she keeps the film watchable.

The film tells the story of the dysfunctional Weston family, who find themselves gathering at their Oklahoma homestead after the alcoholic patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepard) has drowned himself in a lake. One daughter, Ivy (Nicholson), has remained in the area, faithfully tending to the cancer-stricken, pill-popping Violet, but two other daughters, Barb and the flighty Karen (Juliette Lewis) return home after a long absence. Karen has her sleazy fiance (Dermot Mulroney) in tow, and Barb is accompanied by her husband Bill (McGregor) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin, looking way more sullen than she did in 'Little Miss Sunshine.') The trip comes at a bad time for Bill and Barb: The couple recently separated, due to Bill’s affair with one of his students."

Click here to read the whole thing.




Watching "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Published on February 5, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about the new Coen Brothers film, "Inside Llewyn Davis."

Here's an excerpt:

"After this year’s Oscar nominations were announced, film critics took to social media to voice their complaints. Many of them were outraged by the snubbing of the new Coen Brothers film, 'Inside Llewyn Davis.' One of my favorite tweets said something along the lines of 'Congratulations to all the best picture nominees. And congratulations to ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ for actually being the best picture of the year.'

Having now seen 'Inside Llewyn Davis,' I think it’s safe to say that it’s one of the best films of year, and better than perhaps all but one of the best picture nominees. If I were to revise my list of the best films of 2013, 'Inside Llewyn Davis' would probably be third, behind 'Upstream Color' and 'The Wolf of Wall Street.'

'Inside Llewyn Davis' is one of the best films the Coen Brothers have ever made, which is saying something. It revisits themes from some of their previous films, such as 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?', with its emphasis on American music and nods to Homer’s Odyssey, and the more recent 'A Serious Man,' about a modern-day Job. But it also builds upon the brothers’ earlier work, exploring matters of philosophy and religion with a surprisingly light touch. For a film about an unhappy folk singer’s doomed quest for popular success in the aftermath of his singing partner’s suicide, 'Inside Llewyn Davis' is both fun and funny, filled with the sort of quirky, offbeat characters and touches the Coens are known for. A basic description of the plot of 'Inside Llewyn Davis' makes it sound like a depressing experience. But the film is a joy to sit through."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Watching "Her"
Published on January 30, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new Spike Jonze movie "Her."

Here's an excerpt:

"When I was little, I had two imaginary friends named Waxy and Jenny. Most people assume I played with Waxy and Jenny when I was lonely and none of my real friends could come over. But this isn’t true. Sometimes I broke away from my real friends to go hang out with Waxy and Jenny. One of my best childhood friends remembers me wandering off into the woods to look for them.

I no longer abandon my real friends to spend time with my imaginary friends. But I often have to repress the urge to check my email or social media when I’m with other people.

And I’m not alone. Whenever I go to a bar or a restaurant, it seems like at least half the people in the room are looking at their phones, checking for messages and updates.

Why do we do this? Is it because we’re addicted to instantaneous feedback and commentary, and fearful of missing something? Because we imagine we’re more important than we are? Or because it’s easy to trick ourselves into believing that the friends who aren’t with us are more interesting than the friends who are?

Whatever the case, the new Spike Jonze movie imagines a world where people don’t just communicate with friends and family through gadgets. They communicate with the gadgets themselves. Why bother the messiness of real-world relationships when you can have a rewarding relationship with a machine that caters and responds to all of your needs?"

Click here to read the whole thing.

Watching "Nebraska"
Published on January 23, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new Alexander Payne movie "Nebraska."

Here's an excerpt:

"The new Alexander Payne film 'Nebraska' is one of the funniest sad films I can recall, a tender and melancholy movie about a son trying to connect with a dad who is deteriorating mentally and has never been emotionally available or particularly fatherly.

The dad is played by the great Bruce Dern, and the son by Will Forte, who is best known for his comedic work on 'Saturday Night Live.' Dern has been nominated for best actor and is receiving well-deserved praise for his performance, but Forte is the key to the film. We see the father, an irascible alcoholic named Woody Grant, through Forte’s eyes, and relate to every other character — Forte’s mother, his brother, his cousins and aunts and uncles — through Forte. And it is Forte who provides the emotional core of the film. There’s an aspect of Woody that is distant and unknowable. But the son, named David, is a likable everyman. He is put-upon and weary, yes, but also kind-hearted and generous and clearly trying to do right by his ailing father, who has failed him in many ways.

The plot concerns Woody’s belief that he has won $1 million. David informs him that his mass-mailed sweepstakes letter is really just a scam to trick him into buying magazines, but Woody’s having none of it, and tells David that he intends to walk to Lincoln, Neb., to collect his money. Realizing that his dad is too stubborn and addled to be reasoned with, David offers to drive Woody to Lincoln. When his mother Kate (the little-known June Squibb, in a fantastic performance) lambastes him for indulging Woody, David says, 'What’s the harm in letting him have his little fantasy?' packs up the car, and takes off. Of course, Woody is not the easiest traveling companion. When David asks whether he wants to stop at Mt. Rushmore, Woody replies, 'It’s just a bunch of rocks,' and when they get there, he observes, 'It looks unfinished.'"

Click here to read the whole thing.

Watching "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Published on January 16, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about Martin Scorsese's new film, "The Wolf of Wall Street."

Here's an excerpt:

“'The Wolf of Wall Street” is one of those love-it-or-hate-it movies.

Well, I loved it. This wild black comedy (yes, it’s a comedy) is the funniest movie Martin Scorsese has ever made, as well as a trenchant examination of dude culture’s uglier facets. The characters are stockbrokers, but they occupy the same moral universe as the gangsters in “Goodfellas.” Both films suggest that if your sole goal in life is to be rich, you’re probably a soulless monster.

'The Wolf of Wall Street' tells the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who founded the corrupt firm Stratton Oakmont, made a bundle of money, abused countless drugs and was ultimate convicted of defrauding investors with fraudulent stock sales. (The story of Stratton Oakmont also inspired the 2000 film 'Boiler Room,' which is worth a look.) Scorsese films Belfort’s rise and sort-of fall in the most electrifying way possible, as an unhinged, non-stop bacchanal that DiCaprio has described as 'almost like a modern-day Caligula.'

The excess and style on display has prompted some to wring their hands and worry that Scorsese’s film glorifies the criminal and immoral actions of really bad men. But I never got the sense that Scorsese viewed his characters as good people, even as he invites us to laugh at and indulge in their antics. At heart, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a deeply moral film, about the consequences of allowing people like Jordan Belfort to run amok and slapping them on the wrist when their crimes can no longer be ignored. For all his wrongdoing, Belfort only served 22 months in prison. This isn’t Martin Scorsese’s fault."

Click here to read more.

2013 in Film
Published on December 31, 2013 by Sara Foss

I watched a lot of films this year.

Over at the DG, I list some of my favorites.

Click here to see what they are.

Watching "Dallas Buyers Club"
Published on December 10, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new film "Dallas Buyers Club."

Here's an excerpt:

"The new film 'Dallas Buyers Club' isn’t the best film of the year, and I doubt most critics would give rank it among their favorite films of the year. And when I walked out of the theater, I would have been inclined to agree with them. 'Well, that was pretty good,' I said, damning it with faint praise. But a day later, I’m still thinking about the 'Dallas Buyers Club.' I still feel attached to its characters. If DBC isn’t one of the best films of the year, well, it’s certainly one of the most affecting.

'Dallas Buyers Club' is anchored by two amazing performances. Matthew McConaughey is Ron Woodruff, a hard-partying electrician/rodeo rider diagnosed with AIDS and told he has just 30 days to live. Jared Leto plays Rayon, a transgender woman who becomes his unlikely business partner.

After a middling career filled with unforgettable parts, McConaughey is in the midst of a career renaissance, and Ron Woodruff is one of his most memorable roles. Jared Leto has always been a good actor (I loved him in 2000’s 'Requiem for a Dream'), but he hasn’t always had a chance to prove it. I’m hoping he wins an Oscar for his work as Rayon, and is rewarded with a McConaughey-like career resurgence. I’m not just praising Leto for making a risky career choice. His Rayon is full-fledged individual, sweet, funny, sad and tough. Together, he and McConaughey make for one of the more compelling cinematic odd couples of 2013.

Based on a true story, 'Dallas Buyers Club' is set in the early days of the AIDS crisis, when the disease was mainly restricted to gay men and intravenous drug users. Woodruff is a homophobe and a bigot; when he’s first diagnosed with AIDS, his reaction is one of disbelief and denial. But he doesn’t want to die, and begins researching the disease and treatment options, which are minimal; AZT, which he’s told is the most promising drug, is only available to patients enrolled in a trial. Woodruff seeks help from a doctor in Mexico, where he learns of other, promising drugs that haven’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It isn’t long before he’s importing these drugs back over the border and providing them to AIDS patients, making an enemy of the FDA and the medical establishment.

Click here to read the whole thing.

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