Recent Viewing: Films
Published on November 11, 2012 by Sara Foss

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) ****

The Quiet Man (1952) ***

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) ***

The Last Station (2009) ***

Watching "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"
Published on November 7, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new coming-of-age film "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."

Here's an excerpt:

"The coming-of-age film is one of my favorite genres, which might explain why I’m willing to give certain coming-of-age films, such as the flawed-but-likable 'Youth in Revolt,' a bit of a pass, while coming down harder than necessary on the ones that rub me the wrong way, such as 'Thumbsucker.' Because here’s the thing about coming-of-age films: Most of them are flawed. They tend to be overly earnest, wildly implausible and cliched. I love 'The Breakfast Club,' but the film critic Pauline Kael was on to something when she described it as 'a movie about a bunch of stereotypes who complain that other people see them as stereotypes.'

The new coming-of-age film 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre, but is still worth seeing for its sensitivity, occasional wisdom and depth of feeling — the film is quite perceptive about the ways in which misfit teenagers relate to each other. One of my gripes about coming-of-age films is that they often revolve around characters who are desperate to be popular, rather than focusing on the kids who really couldn’t care less about any of that, and are just hoping to make it through high school with a handful of good friends and some good memories; since I was one of these kids, I know that they exist. Fortunately, 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' has a good sense of how high school misfits think and behave.

Click here to read the whole thing.

Watching "Argo"
Published on October 16, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new Ben Affleck movie "Argo."

Here's an excerpt:

"Somehow Ben Affleck has become a better director than actor. Not that he’s a bad actor. He’s just a much better director. Not necessarily a great director (yet), but a pretty good one, with three pretty good movies under his belt: 'Gone Baby Gone,' 'The Town' and the new geopolitical thriller 'Argo.'

The based-on-a-true-story 'Argo' is definitely Affleck’s most ambitious film. The gripping opening scenes depict Islamic militants taking over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and taking those inside hostage while six Americans quietly escape out a back entrance and take refuge at the home of a Canadian ambassador. The action then moves to America, and the C.I.A.’s discussions on how to get the six Americans out of Iran and back home. An 'exfiltration' expert named Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought into these brainstorming sessions, where he informs his co-workers that all of their ideas are doomed to fail. 'Do you have a better idea?' someone asks him. 'No,' he replies.

Later, while watching 'Battle for the Planet of the Apes' while talking to his son on the phone, a lightbulb goes off in Mendez’s head. He returns to work and proposes that the Americans pose as Canadian filmmakers who are scouting locations for a science-fiction movie. Told that this is a bad idea, Mendez’s boss, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), replies, 'This is the best bad idea we have.' The next section of the film shows Mendez recruiting make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help him with his ruse: They set up a fictitious film production company, find a script and hold auditions for the movie, dubbed 'Argo.' The Hollywood stuff is interspersed with tense scenes of the six Americans, who worry that the Iranian housekeeper has figured out who they are, and the final third of the film details Mendez’s audacious rescue — his effort to convince the Americans that his crazy plan to work, and trouble-shoot the various snags they encounter."

Click here to read the whole thing.

A Different Kind of Scare For Halloween
Published on October 14, 2012 by guest author: J.K. Eisen

Halloween is approaching, which means some people may be looking for a movie that can provide a good scare or two.

Of course, there are some obvious choices. Just as Christmas has movie staples such as “A Christmas Story” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Halloween has, well, “Halloween,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Friday the 13th.” So, here are a few alternatives for those looking for some Halloween horror – whether it’s hardcore or high camp – but largely off the beaten path. My terrifying 13 are listed in no particular order.

“Johnny Got His Gun” – This powerful anti-war movie from 1971 may be best known for being featured in Metallica’s “One” music video. It follows the story of a soldier (Timothy Bottoms) who loses his limbs, sight, hearing and voice in World War I. The doctors and nurses think he’s a vegetable, but he’s conscious and the moviegoer gets to witness the thoughts and memories of a man trapped within his own body. Donald Sutherland also offers up a memorable performance as Jesus Christ.

“Dead Snow” – This 2009 Norwegian film can be summed up in two words: Nazi zombies. The Third Reich’s undead terrorize a group of college students during a mountain getaway. Featuring great makeup effects and some seriously vicious undead, it’s a fun and unique zombie flick.


Watching "Looper"
Published on October 9, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new sci-fi film, "Looper," which I loved.

Here's an excerpt:

For a mainstream Hollywood movie, “Looper” is something rare: a hyper-intelligent, visually inventive, wittily written science-fiction thriller that pays tribute to numerous popular films, yet still manages to look and feel like a true original. Director Rian Johnson has created a wild new stew out of some familiar and beloved ingredients.

“Looper” is set in 2074, when time-travel exists but is illegal, and thus only used by criminals syndicates, who employ time-traveling assassins called loopers to kill people and dispose of their bodies. These loopers travel back to the year 2044 to do their dirty work; the film’s protagonist, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), carries out all his hits in a rural midwestern cornfield. As depicted in “Looper,” the future is a time of deprivation and overcrowding, but the loopers are paid handsomely, and live in relative luxury. However, there is a catch: At some point, the criminal syndicate will decide it no longer wants or needs the looper’s services, and will order the looper to kill his future self, a ritual known as “closing the loop.” The film opens as more and more loops are being closed, and when one of Joe’s looper friends, Seth (Paul Dano), refuses to kill himself and flees, trouble ensues. Joe turns Seth friend over to the criminal syndicate, but finds himself in a similar predicament when his future self (Bruce Willis) fights him off, knocks him out and escapes before Joe can kill him.

This premise is more than enough to sustain a feature film, but Johnson has plenty of tricks up his sleeve, and the second half of “Looper” takes viewers into new and unexpected territory. The older version of Joe SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! vows to kill the child version of a dangerous criminal overlord known as the Rainmaker, in hopes of preventing the Rainmaker’s future misdeeds. Joe heads to the farm where his older self might be headed, with the goal of completing his assignment. At the farm, he finds a single mother (Emily Blunt) and her young son.

Click here to read the whole thing.

Thoughts on "Twin Peaks"
Published on October 3, 2012 by Sara Foss

Yes, I'm aware that the TV show "Twin Peaks" was popular in the 1980s. But it was such a phenomenom that I remember asking my parents about it. "It's really weird," my mother said. "We don't like it."

Now that I'm a grown-up, I make my own decisions about what to watch, and I've found that my tastes often differ from my parents. For instance, I like weird things. And I'm a fan of director David Lynch, who created "Twin Peaks." After the show was released on DVD, I put it in my Netflix queue, and I've been slowly working my way through the show's two seasons. I don't want to write a comprehensive review of the show, which would take forever, but I wanted to jot down some thoughts. Here they are:

- I once read a profile of Lynch where he talked about why he liked TV as a format. (His great 2001 movie, "Mulholland Drive," was originally conceived as a TV show.) If I remember correctly, the open-endedness of the format, and the way it allowed for the introduction of new storylines and characters, was greatly appealing to him. One of the best things about "Twin Peaks" is how it tells the story of an entire town, albeit a really strange town with lots of secrets. When the show ended, I felt really sad, because it was obvious that Lynch was still brimming with ideas. (I suppose I should go see "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me" so I can more fully assess his vision.)


Watching "The Master"
Published on October 2, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie "The Master." 

Here's an excerpt:

"Many people believe that Martin Scorsese is the best living American director, but I generally go with Paul Thomas Anderson, the auteur behind such contemporary classics as 'Boogie Nights,' 'There Will Be Blood' and, yes, the Adam Sandler vehicle 'Punch-Drunk Love.' Anderson is not a prolific filmmaker, and a new PTA film is a relatively rare event. But when each film is a masterpiece, or a near masterpiece, it seems churlish to complain about Anderson’s productivity.

I’ve grown so accustomed to loving Anderson’s films that I fully expected to love his new film, 'The Master.' Which is why it pains me to report that 'The Master' is disappointing — that it’s a good movie, but not a great one, full of astonishing, provocative imagery and terrific performances, yet ultimately disappointing.

The film tells the story of a traumatized World War II veteran and alcoholic named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who stows away on a ship captained by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and falls under his spell. Anderson based the character of Dodd on L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, and 'The Master' depicts the early days of the movement, here renamed The Cause. Based on this information, I was expecting a probing, nervy look at the birth of a cult, which might explain why I was so surprised to discover that 'The Master' is less about an exploitative quasi-religion and the damage it inflicts on wayward souls than the battle of wills between two men, Quell and Dodd."

Click here to read the whole thing.

There Will Always Be Good Movies and People Who Care About Them
Published on September 30, 2012 by Sara Foss

There's been a fair amount of handwringing from critics lately, about the supposed dearth of good movies and the death of film culture. Apparently, people just aren't lining up around the block for the latest Godard film the way they did back in the day, when people actually cared about the movies.

Writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir:

"Film culture, at least in the sense people once used that phrase, is dead or dying. Back in what we might call the Susan Sontag era, discussion and debate about movies was often perceived as the icy-cool cutting edge of American intellectual life. Today it’s a moribund and desiccated leftover that’s been cut off from ordinary life, from the mainstream of pop culture and even from what remains of highbrow or intellectual culture. While this becomes most obvious when discussing an overtly elitist phenomenon like the NYFF, it’s also true on a bigger scale. Here are the last four best-picture winners at the Oscars: 'The Artist,' 'The King’s Speech,' 'The Hurt Locker' and 'Slumdog Millionaire.' How much time have you spent, cumulatively, talking about those movies with your friends?"

O'Hehir then suggests that what people really care about these days is TV - "Breaking Bad," "The Good Wife," etc. Film, he says, has been replaced, and few directors generate the excitement that Truffaut and Kurosawa once did. (Click here to read read his whole piece.)

The New Yorker's David Denby and critic David Thomson take a different tack, arguing in the New Republic that the movies themselves have gotten terrible, as Hollywood invests heavily in comic book movies and little else. Denby's piece is despairing in tone, while Thomson's is sour - New Yorker critic Richard Brody is correct to suggest, in a response, that Thomson is dead to the movies.

So what's my response to all this handwringing? Well, here are some thoughts:


Film Capsules
Published on September 25, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about some of the movies I've watched on DVD lately, including Peter Jackson's splatter alien horror film, "Bad Taste," and the Marlon Brando film "One Eyed Jacks."

Click here to read it.

Watching "Sleepwalk With Me"
Published on September 18, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new anti-romantic comedy from comedian Mike Birbiglia, "Sleepwalk With Me."

Here's an excerpt:

“'Sleepwalk With Me,' the new independent film starring, written and directed by comedian Mike Birbiglia, is a fine new entry in a film genre that I’m unreasonably fond of: The Aimless Young Adult Genre. This is a slightly different genre than the coming-of-age genre (which I also love), because the characters in Aimless Young Adults really need to grow up. The goal isn’t so much getting the girl (or the boy) as becoming a halfway responsible human being.

'Sleepwalk With Me' is based on Birbiglia’s autobiographical off-Broadway show of the same name, and his book 'Sleepwalk with Me & Other Painfully True Stories.'

In the film, Birbiglia is Matt Pandamiglio, a bartender who aspires to be a stand-up comedian and has been dating his girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose) for about eight years. The two seem comfortable and happy, but Matt is, by nature, neurotic and unsatisfied, and the concept of marriage terrifies him. Which is unfortunate, because Abby would like to get married and have kids, though she isn’t very pushy about it.

As Matt tries to launch his comedy career and deal with the demands of being in a long-term relationshp, a third challenge emerges: He begins sleepwalking, and his sleepwalking is increasingly dangerous. One night, he climbs onto a dresser and falls off."

Click here to read the whole thing.

The Appeal of Bad Movies
Published on September 12, 2012 by Sara Foss

In general, I strive to watch good movies.

After all, life is short - why spend it watching bad movies?

And yet last weekend I found myself watching the 1970 Joan Crawford monster movie "Trog." I was not under the illusion that "Trog" would be a good movie; my film guides describe it in unequivocally negative terms and many critics seem to think its among the worst movies ever made. So why watch it? Well, there's a certain appeal to watching a truly terrible movie, at least in theory. Such films often provoke disbelieving laughter, and provide fodder for stories and observations - they can often be more fun to talk about then the serious dramas that tend to win awards. I mean, when was the last time you heard someone talk about sitting down to watching "Chariots of Fire," or "Driving Miss Daisy?"

So I understand the appeal of watching bad movies, but I must confess that I don't fully buy into the concept. My first foray into bad movie watching involved sitting down to watch the legendarily horrible Ed Wood film "Plan 9 From Outer Space" in high school with some friends. At first, we had a great time, mocking the horrible acting and direction and nonsensical plot, but after a half hour or so our laughter wore off. "Plan 9 From Outer Space" is about 80 minutes long, and although that's fairly short for a feature film, it feels long if the film in question happens to be terrible. I don't regret seeing "Plan 9 From Outer Space," but it certainly didn't inspire me to seek out other horrible films.


Watching "Robot and Frank"
Published on September 11, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new movie "Robot & Frank."

Here's an excerpt:

“'Robot & Frank' is a gentle comedy about an elderly man and his robotic home health aide, and also a shaggy-dog heist movie. The film has some good laughs and touching moments, some sharp insights about aging and technology and some nice performances, most notably from Frank Langella, as Frank. The film is set in the 'near future,' but in some ways it has just as much to say about the present day.

The film opens by introducing us to Frank, a crotchety old man who is apparently one of the few people on earth who still reads books; when he learns that his beloved library is being converted into a community center, and that most of the books will be discarded, he is dismayed. Frank’s son Hunter (James Marsden) visits him every weekend, driving 10 hours round trip to Cold Spring, N.Y., and expresses concern over his father’s poor diet and messy home.

Exasperated by Frank’s failure to pick up after himself and cook nutritious meals, Hunter gets his father a robot who will do those things for him, in addition to nagging him to engage in positive pursuits, such as gardening. Frank is opposed to the robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), and refuses to name him, but only Hunter can turn him off, and Frank begins to grudgingly accept his help. Their relationship improves dramatically when Frank realizes the robot can be trained to pick locks, and has not been programmed to distinguish right from wrong. Turns out Frank was once a cat burglar, and would love to get back in the game. The robot’s priority is to improve Frank’s health and cognitive functioning, and planning a heist lifts Frank’s spirits dramatically."

Click here to read the whole thing.


Watching "Premium Rush"
Published on September 5, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the excellent new bike messenger thriller "Premium Rush."

Here's an excerpt:

“'Premium Rush' is the rare action movie that almost — almost! — feels like something that could actually happen.

And I do mean feels: This is a visceral, edge-of-your-seat thriller, with chase scenes that provide the equivalent of a buzzy, non-stop sugar high.

For the most part, the action movie is a tired genre, but director David Koepp manages to inject 'Premium Rush' with freshness and verve. How exactly does he does this? Well, by choosing an interesting subculture for the backdrop of his film — a subculture I don’t believe has gotten much cinematic attention. 'Premium Rush' is set in the intense and dangerous world of New York City bicycle messengers, who navigate city traffic at high speeds, weaving through traffic and dodging all manners of obstacles — taxis, trucks, cops, etc. A few years ago I took a class on how to ride a bicycle in city traffic, and our instructors impressed upon us the dangers posed by car doors opening suddenly. Well, in 'Premium Rush,' bikers get doored. However, they generally manage to pick themselves up and ride away, whereas a normal person would likely be on the way to the ER."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Zobel's "Compliance" Questions Authority
Published on September 4, 2012 by guest author: J.K. Eisen

Several years ago, a fast food restaurant in Kentucky made headlines when an employee was held in a back office and strip-searched after a manager received a call from a man posing as a police officer.

The 2004 incident raised the obvious question: How could this happen?

Director Craig Zobel explores that question in "Compliance," a deeply disturbing but powerful film about the danger of blindly submitting to authority.

Zobel’s film, inspired by the incident, opens with Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of the fictional ChickWich restaurant, dealing with what is shaping up to be a stressful day. Someone left a freezer door open, allowing several thousand dollars’ worth of food to spoil. The restaurant is also short some key ingredients. To top things off, they’re expecting a secret shopper from corporate to be at the restaurant.

Amid the rush of customers, Sandra gets a call from “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy). He tells her that a customer has reported one of the ChickWich employees for stealing money from her purse. He describes the suspect as a young blonde working the counter.

Sandra identifies the employee as Becky (Dreama Walker). Daniels convinces the manager to take Becky into a small back office, where over the course of the movie we watch an interrogation turn into a strip search and even worse – all the result of people heeding Officer Daniels' requests over the phone.


Watching "Bernie"
Published on August 28, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new Jack Black/Richard Linklater tragicomedy "Bernie."

Here's an excerpt:

"Richard Linklater isn’t a household name, but his films are always something to look forward to, because you never know what he’s going to do.

A Texas native, he debuted with 1991’s 'Slacker,' a mostly plotless film that follows oddballs, misfits and conspiracy theorists around the city of Austin, then followed it up with one of my favorite movies of all time, the last-day-of-high school coming-of-age film “Dazed and Confused.” He made the great philosophical animated film 'Waking Life,' the hit comedy 'School of Rock' and two films that comprise one of cinema’s sharpest and most incisive romances, 'Before Sunrise' and 'Before Sunset.' Now Linklater has returned with 'Bernie,' a film that melds documentary and fiction into an intriguing, offbeat tragicomedy.

'Bernie' is one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” tales. The film, which is based on a 1998 Texas Monthly article, tells the story of 39-year-old Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a well-liked resident of Carthage, Texas, who was accused of killing 81-year-old millionaire Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a deeply unpopular widow. Because Bernie was so highly regarded, District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) requested a rare prosecutorial change of venue in order to secure a fair trial."

Click here to read the whole thing.

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