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Watching "Mud"
Published on May 15, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new Jeff Nichols movie "Mud."

Here's an excerpt:

"The new movie 'Mud' is a boys’ adventure story in the same mold as 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' and cinematic coming-of-age quest stories, such as the great film 'Stand By Me.'

Directed by Arkansas native Jeff Nichols, the film tells the story of two 14-year-old boys who befriend an outlaw living in a boat on an island off the Mississippi River; because Nichols has a gift for striking, memorable images, the boat is lodged high into a tree, and the boys see it as a treehouse and hideaway. Instead, they find themselves running errands for the man who lives there, who goes by the nickname Mud, and bringing him food and other supplies. Mud (Matthew McConaughey, continuing his career renaissance with another eye-opening role) explains that he is waiting for his true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and that he recently killed the man she was involved with, because he was abusing her.

The boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), both come from troubled homes, which might explain why they gravitate toward this mysterious older man: Ellis’ parents are breaking up and Neckbone lives with his uncle and his little memory of his parents. Another crucial character is a weathered old man named Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) who lives in the river house across from Ellis’, and is one of the few people Mud trusts. We are informed that he was once a sniper, and you can bet that this is the sort of movie where he’ll have the opportunity to demonstrate his skills.

What makes 'Mud' immediately compelling is its sense of place. Nichols knows this territory well. He understands the people who live there, and the appeal, as well as the challenge, of living in a rural community where earning a decent living is becoming harder and harder. Ellis loves his house on the river, and the beauty and sense of freedom it offers; when faced with the prospect of moving into town, he yells, 'I ain’t no townie!' This is a corner of America that has seen some hard times, and Nichols portrays his characters with the compassion and complexity they deserve; 'Mud' might be a fable, but it always feels real."

Click here to read the whole thing.


Recent Viewing: Films
Published on May 8, 2013 by Sara Foss

Notes on Marie Menken (2006) ***

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) ***1/2

Mysterious Object at Noon (2001) **

Monsters (2010) ***

The Boy Friend (1971) ***

Date Night (2010) ***


Revisiting "The Wild Bunch"
Published on May 8, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I revisit the classic Sam Peckinpah western "The Wild Bunch."

Here's an excerpt:

"I’m a big fan of the classic 1969 Sam Peckinpah western 'The Wild Bunch.' I watched it several times in college and wrote a paper on it for the western unit of my American cinema course. However, college was a long time ago. I’ve been wanting to revisit the film, and so on Monday I headed out to Proctors for a special screening of 'The Wild Bunch.' Is the film as good as I remembered?

Well, yes. 'The Wild Bunch' remains a pretty bracing revisionist western — cynical, dark and uncompromising in its depiction of a band of outlaws and their ill-fated last stand. It is possible, at times, to sympathize with the aging gang, because they live by a code that stresses loyalty and toughness, and are fond of doomed, romantic gestures, such as giving stolen gold to a kindly prostitute before heading out to die. But Peckinpah never pretends his outlaws are good men, or that they really care about anyone other than themselves. We see them mercilessly gun down civilians, use women as human shields and initiate shoot-outs in public squares crowded with children. Of course, this being a Peckinpah film, the children are intrigued by the violence, rather than repelled by it; after the Wild Bunch tears through one village, children are seen running through town, pretending to fire guns. They aren’t scared of the outlaws. They admire them."

Click here to read the whole thing.


"Hemlock Grove": A Destination For the Dull
Published on May 6, 2013 by guest author: J.K. Eisen

After viewing the first episode of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” I found myself facing a dilemma. As I looked at the 12 remaining episodes, I had to decide if I would give in to instant gratification and do some binge viewing or take things at a slower pace and savor the episodes.

 

Ultimately, I took the middle ground, sometimes watching a single episode and other times jumping into another episode when I absolutely had to find out the fate of Congressman Frank Underwood, the deliciously devious character portrayed by Kevin Spacey.

 

This is part of the experience of watching a Netflix original series. Unlike traditional television, they serve up an entire season’s worth of episodes at once – a viewing experience closer to watching the entire season of a series on DVD.

 

When Netflix released its latest series, “Hemlock Grove,” though, I found myself facing a different dilemma. After watching the first episode, I was left wondering how many more episodes I should watch before calling it quits.

   

The answer is two episodes.


 (More)


Experimental Films at EMPAC
Published on May 6, 2013 by Sara Foss

I don't know a lot about experimental film, but I manage to touch upon Laurie Anderson, Marie Menken, Ken Jacobs and others in a recent DG post about Anderson's recent EMPAC presentation.

Click here to read it.


Watching "The Place Beyond the Pines"
Published on April 30, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new movie "The Place Beyond the Pines." Or, as I like to call it, "The Film Set in Schenectady."

Here's an excerpt:

"When I was on vacation in Alabama, I kept seeing TV advertisements for 'The Place Beyond the Pines.'

'If you want to know what Schenectady looks like, that’s the movie to see,' I told my friends. I hadn’t seen 'Pines' yet, but everything I’d seen and read indicated that it captured the look and feel of the city, that it was set in a real place that would be immediately recognizable to the people who live here.

I made a special trip to the Bow Tie on Sunday to watch 'Pines' with Schenectady friends, because watching the film in the city where it was filmed seemed like the right thing to do. And I’m glad I did it. It was a kick to see local landmarks such as the Altamont Fairgrounds, Union College (the alma mater of one of my viewing companions) and the Route 7 Diner on the big screen. If you’ve ever wanted to see a motorcyle/police car chase through Vale Cemetery, well, this is your film. For me, a longtime dream of seeing the newspaper I work for represented in a Hollywood movie has now been fulfilled.

Let’s be honest: I would have enjoyed 'The Place Beyond the Pines' even if it was a terrible film. But it’s not a terrible film at all. In fact, 'Pines' is quite good — a stirring, epic tale of fathers and sons, familial responsibility and the inescapability of the past.

The film is ambitious, and there were a number of developments I found fairly implausible. But “'Pines’' scope is wide, and the film ultimately taps into greater truths, despite periodically threatening to drown in a sea of heavy-handed cliches about masculinity and fate. What distinguishes the film are its fine performances and director Derek Cianfrance’s knack for finding the raw emotion at the heart of every scene, as well as his knack for stunning visuals — he is a master of color and motion, imbuing each frame with a sort of gritty impressionism. The film is quite beautiful, in a downtrodden, working class kind of way."

Click here to read the whole thing.

 


Recent Viewing: Films
Published on April 29, 2013 by Sara Foss

The Central Park Five (2012) ***1/2

Ju Dou (1990) ***1/2

Leviathan (2012) ***1/2

Platform (2000) ***

No (2012) ***

Skin (2008) ***1/2


Watching "No" and "Leviathan"
Published on April 23, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new movies "No" and "Leviathan."

Here's an excerpt:

“'No' is a pretty engrossing political thriller that often feels like a cross between 'Mad Men' and 'Argo.'

But its surfaces are grimy and grungy, rather than slick and sophisticated, an aesthetic choice that reflects the wearying, day-to-day ugliness of living under the brutal rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet. The film concerns a chapter of history I was completely unaware of: the national plebiscite of 1988, in which Chileans were asked to vote on whether Pinochet should rule another eight years, or whether there should be a democratic presidential election. The vote was held under pressure from the international community, and was initially viewed by Pinochet as an easy way to legitimize his reign in the eyes of the world. Each night the Yes campaign, which urged citizens to vote for Pinochet, and the No campaign, which urged voters to reject Pinochet, aired campaign advertisements that were viewed throughout the country. 'No' takes viewers inside the competing ad campaigns, focusing on a young advertising executive named Rene (Gael Garcia Bernal), who is hired to produce the No campaign; his co-worker at his advertising agency, Lucho (Alfredo Castro), is a Pinochet loyalist tapped to run the Yes campaign."

Click here to read the whole thing.

 


Cutting the Cord
Published on April 17, 2013 by guest author: J.K. Eisen

It’s never easy ending a long-term relationship, but sometimes it’s obvious you’ve grown apart and it’s time to go your separate ways.

That was the case with what was one of the major love affairs of my life – cable television. A few months ago, I finally cut the cord. I cancelled my cable. It was one of the best entertainment decisions I have ever made.

Like many people, it seemed every year I was paying more for less. I also noticed a shift in my own viewing habits. I watch fewer and fewer shows as they’re broadcast, choosing instead to stream them to my TV through services such as Hulu Plus. And Netflix has taught me I don’t need to pay even more money to get Showtime or HBO when I can stream or rent DVDs of “Weeds” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” It became apparent that I wouldn’t miss a thing thanks to Internet streaming services.

Apparently, my experience isn’t that unusual. Plenty has been written about the growing number of people breaking up with their cable company. The Nielsen Co., the go-to source for American TV viewing habits, has even taken notice of this trend.

What isn’t mentioned as much is that streaming services are more than a mere substitute for cable. It’s a much more active and exciting entertainment experience. Though cable promises an array of shows and movies on hundreds of channels – it’s a passive and exceedingly repetitive viewing experience.

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Watching "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me"
Published on April 16, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about the new documentary "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me," which I caught at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C.

Here's an excerpt:

"During my vacation, my friend Adam and I swung by the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C., for a screening of a documentary about the legendary 1970s Memphis rock band Big Star.

Big Star never became a household name, and the band’s three albums were all commercial failures. But over the past several decades they’ve become a beloved cult band whose work influenced a number of more widely known bands, such as R.E.M. and The Replacements. The Replacements happen to be my favorite band, and my immersion in their catalog prompted me to learn more about Big Star, and I eventually acquired the band’s three fantastic albums: '#1 Record,' 'Radio City' and 'Third/Sister Lovers.' One of the Replacement’s best known songs, the raucous, jangly anthem 'Alex Chilton,' is a love letter to Big Star’s enigmatic frontman, and includes heartfelt and enthusiastic lyrics such as 'I never travel far/without a little Big Star' and 'Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes around.' Unfortunately, Paul Westerberg, The Replacements’ lead singer (and the man for whom my cat is named), does not appear in the documentary. But that’s one of the only complaints I can make about the film, titled 'Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.'"

Click here to read the whole thing.


Recent Viewing: Films
Published on April 16, 2013 by Sara Foss

Spring Breakers (2013) ***1/2

How to Train Your Dragon (2010) ***1/2

Saw (2004) **1/2

Return to Oz (1985) ***1/2

Howl (2010) ***

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Us (2013) ***

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) **1/2

Dead Snow (2009) ***

 


Roger Ebert, RIP
Published on April 4, 2013 by Sara Foss

I've never met Roger Ebert.

But I feel like I know him.

I began reading his criticism when I was in middle school. My piano teacher happened to own one of his collections of movie reviews, and I borrowed it and read every review. At the time, I lived in a small town without a movie theater, and I went to the movies very seldom. Ebert's reviews gave me a sense of the sorts of films I should seek out, when I was finally able to rent or attend the movies of my choice.

Thanks to the Internet, you don't need to borrow your piano teacher's movie review book to get a sense of what Ebert was all about. You can just visit his website, and search for his review. After I watch a film, one of the first things I do is see what Ebert had to say about it. The fact that there is never going to be a new Ebert review fills me with sorrow. In the past two weeks, I've read his thoughts on "The Human Centipede," "How to Train Your Dragon" and "Lost Highway." I've wondered what he would have made of "Spring Breakers" and "Stoker" - two recent movies he didn't review.

The web is filled with lovely tributes to Ebert written by film critics expressing their admiration for both his writing and his generosity. Here are some of the things I valued about Ebert:

He was passionate about film. He wasn't one of those grouchy critics who seem to hate everything. He genuinely enjoyed the movies - not just great movies, but noble failures, formulaic Hollywood fare and obscure passion projects. He was not a snob about cinema, and I think his lack of snobbery helps explain why I've always had such a wide-ranging interest in film: Ebert appreciated and championed all genres. He liked the classics, foreign films, independent films and had no qualms about endorsing films others might describe as guilty pleasures. He was always open to new experiences, and unafraid to give a film a chance. He was a humanist, who believed the movies could deepen our understanding of people, cultures and society.

I also enjoyed Ebert's show with Siskel, and later with Richard Roeper. It aired at an inconvenient time, and so my dad recorded each week, and I would watch it on Sunday afternoon, usually after church. The "thumbs up, thumbs down" gimmick has been criticized, but it made a great impression on me: It's probably no coincidence that my high school literary club adopted the thumbs method when voting on submissions to the magazine, or that we called the first issue of the magazine Rule of Thumb. Which, by the way, is the name of this website.

Ebert's attitude toward film was inspiring, but so was his attitude toward life. He's been sick for about a decade, and unable to speak or eat solid food for much of that time. But he's remained an avid moviegoer and writer, and has done everything he can to champion the movies, in the most compassionate and engaging way possible. He is gone, but he will not be forgotten. I, for one, will be visiting his archives for years to come.

 

 


Watching "Spring Breakers"
Published on April 2, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new Harmony Korine movie "Spring Breakers." 

Here's an excerpt: 

"My spring breaks deliberately avoided the kinds of places and activities where I might encounter the sort of people featured in the new Harmony Korine movie 'Spring Breakers.' No Cancun or Panama City Beach for me! Instead, my friends and I headed south for New Orleans, where we went on alligator tours, ate oysters and wandered around the French Quarter drinking beer and people watching. Have I ever regretted not having the stereotypical spring break experience? Of course not! Then why was I so eager to see 'Spring Breakers,' and spend an hour-and-a-half with the type of witless college students who would normally make my skin crawl?

Well, the fact that Korine directed the film was a big draw. Korine first rose to prominence at the age of 22, as the screenwriter for the controversial 1995 film “Kids,” and then became known for directing the off-putting provocations 'Gummo' and 'Julien Donkey-Boy.' He has never made a film that’s remotely mainstream, and his last film, the dreadful 'Trash Humpers,' was shot on worn VHS home video, and featured people in masks running around downtown Nashville, yelling nonsense and humping garbage cans. I thought the relentlessly unpleasant and pointless 'Trash Humpers' was an unfortunate regression for Korine, who does have real talent — a unique ability to find beauty and transcendance among outcasts and the grimiest of locations. But maybe Korine had to get 'Trash Humpers' out of his system to make his most commercial and enjoyable film to date.

'Spring Breakers' is Korine’s take on the teen sex comedy, an experimental riff on the 'Girls Gone Wild' series, and the plot is pretty simple: Four girls lack the funds for the spring break trip they’re so desperate to take, and so they rob a diner using squirt guns and head to Florida. They drink and do drugs and dance and hook up, and are eventually arrested and forced to spend the night in jail in their bikinis. They are bailed out by a local rapper/drug dealer known as Alien (James Franco), who insists he just wants to get to know them. The token good girl (Selena Gomez) has the good sense to realize that Alien is bad news, and heads back to campus, while her friends Brit (Ashley Benson), Cotty (Rachel Korine, the director’s wife) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) party on."

Click here to read the whole thing.


Recent Viewing: Films
Published on April 1, 2013 by Sara Foss

Black Rain (1989) (Japan) ***1/2

Stoker (2013) ***1/2

Lost Highway (1997) ***

The Gatekeepers (2012) ***1/2

The Human Centipede (First Centipede) (2009) ***


Watching "Stoker"
Published on March 26, 2013 by Sara Foss

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

Here's an excerpt:

"For a certain type of moviegoer, 'Stoker' is one of the most anticipated movies of the year.

A stylish Gothic thriller, the film marks the English-language debut of Park Chan-wook, the Korean auteur behind the cult hit 'Old Boy' and the bloody and haunting 2009 vampire film 'Thirst.' Chan-wook is a boundary pusher, and his films are often extremely visceral — violent, sexually provocative and emotionally raw.

On the surface, 'Stoker' is a little more buttoned up and restrained than Chan-wook’s previous films, telling the story of a teenage girl named India whose mysterious Uncle Charlie moves into the family mansion after her father is killed in an automobile accident. But there are strong emotions roiling beneath the surface, and the film builds to a thrillingly deranged conclusion — perhaps not quite as deranged as the final scenes in 'Old Boy' and 'Thirst,' but certainly in the same ballpark.

The film centers opens just after India (Mia Wasikowska) has learned of her father’s death; at his funeral, she notices a handsome young man watching the proceedings from a hill. This handsome young man turns out to be Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who charms her frosty mother (Nicole Kidman) and makes himself at home. Mia takes an immediate dislike to Charlie; she didn’t know that she had an uncle, and regards him warily. Charlie is friendly, but we know from the opening scenes that there’s something wrong with him, although we don’t know quite what, and that he poses a threat. India is also a bit odd: Her heightened sense of hearing enables her to hear conversations and sounds that nobody else can, and she has no close friends. Her only close relationship was with her dead father (played in flashbacks by Dermot Mulroney), who taught her to hunt."

Click here to read the whole thing.


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