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Entries in Reviews (566)

Thursday
Jan302014

Sundance: 'Lilting' and 'Happy Christmas'

Our last two Sundance movies! But for the roundup/index post in the morning, this is our final bit of coverage from Sundance 2014. Let's end with two movies featuring faces and topics I'm willing to bet you'll love: Ben Whishaw in a gay culture-barrier drama and Melanie Lynskey and Anna Kendrick in a dramedy about sister-in-laws.

Chang Pei Pei & Ben Whishaw in "Lilting"

LILTING
Remember Chang Pei Pei as Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon? She's just as pissed off in Lilting, but with good reason. Her only son Kai (Andrew Leung) has abandoned her by way of sudden death. This is not a Spoiler Alert: We see him in flashbacks but he's dead as the story begins. She's left grieving and alone... but for unexplained visits from her son's "best friend" (Ben Whishaw) though she can't fathom why he keeps dropping in since a) she hates him though she can't exactly say why and b) she doesn't technically know that her son was gay. Props to Pei Pei's performance that those two details are so willfully and obtusely fused together. She knows. By the very nature of its plot, particularly if you've lost someone you deeply loved way too early in life, Lilting is hugely moving; I was a wet-faced wreck. But while the film gets much thematic resonance from Chang's inability to adapt or communicate in her new homeland (she never learned the language and leaned on her son heavily), I did grow frustrated with the constant withholding. Ben keeps refusing to tell her the truth, even though he has every reason and backstory desire to do so. Lilting won the World Cinema Cinematography prize and, though its simple images have a kind of crystalline beauty, I can only assume this prize is for all the dreamy shots memorializing the peak beauty of Andrew Leung & Ben Whishaw lolling about shirtless and snug in bed. That peaceful aesthetic beauty amplifies the furiously unfathomable irreversible loss of love.

Grade: B
Distribution: Not at this point but LGBT films usually find their way eventually. It was much easier for LGBT to get traditional distribution years ago when gay people were loyal to the arthouses. (But that hasn't been the case in some time.)

The Cast of Happy Christmas © Larry Busacca/Getty Images

HAPPY CHRISTMAS
IMPORTANT NOTE: Chicago readers can see this later today at the Music Box Theater with Joe Swanberg in attendance doing a Q&A!
Happy Christmas is an intimate highly enjoyable and tighly focused dramedy about a husband and wife (Swanberg with Melanie Lynskey) with a newish baby (Jude Swanberg - too hilarious!) who are lending their basement to the husband's sister (Anna Kendrick) after her latest breakup. Leaving the theater afterwards I wondered how much better Swanberg's films might be with a little more time for second drafts or rehearsal. He keeps cranking them out and though they're all quality (I highly recommend All the Light in the Sky if you can find it) they don't quite crossover. But then I realized how uncharitable that was. Though Happy Christmas is perhaps too modest for greatness I must also quickly emphasize that it is wholly satisfying. Swanberg describes his impetus for making the movie as wanting to dramatize the process by which in-laws become siblings. That's a beautiful goal and a rare topic, too. Also rare: the opportunity to see great supporting actors like Lynskey dig into a large role and mix it up in zesty character-based comic scenes with Lena Dunham & Anna Kendrick. (Swanberg writes outlines but the actors fill in the details)

Lena Dunham & Anna Kendrick babysit Jude Swanberg in "Happy Christmas"

On a related in-house note, I wanted to give a shout out to a reader 'TB' who, in our recent post about Anna Kendrick and the Movie Musical, provocatively suggested the following:

that Anna Kendrick is emerging as the face of musicals is a fundamental sign that modern Hollywood doesn't understand what makes musicals work. She constantly positions herself as an actress above and outside her films, happily pointing to all of the places where it's not real. She's skittish around her own emotions. She has two feet FIRMLY planted in reality at all times. She's staunchly contemporary. It's not just that these are flaws, it's that these...directly work against what a musical needs to survive.

I thought that was an astute point even if I don't wholly agree that a very contemporary persona can't work within the movie musical, a more flexible genre than most will concede. But I am happy to report that there is a pretty great moment in a funny-touching scene in Happy Christmas with Lynskey wherein Kendrick totally embraces and uses this very quality described FOR her characterization, both playing it out and commenting on her own skittishness. I think she's really talented. And, as it turns out, self aware. 

Grade: B+
Distribution: Yes. It's Magnolia so a very limited release will happen eventually. No word yet on when. But if you're in Chicago,  GO SEE IT TODAY. It's fun and sweet and the ensemble is great. 

Wednesday
Jan292014

Sundance Documentary Round-Up: 'Rich Hill', 'Happy Valley', 'Private Violence' and 'Last Days in Vietnam'

Our Sundance coverage is just about wrapped up. Here's Glenn on four documentaries that may just end up on the Oscar long list in 11 months time.

When I moved to New York early last year, one of my movie missions was to see more documentaries. Given there’s on average three released here a week, that was never going to be too hard. I definitely succeeded with a year-end tally that nudged 50, which I think is pretty good considering years prior my number was much smaller and in some particularly disappointing years was limited exclusively to Oscar nominees. Michael has already reviewed and liked Life Itself, Nathaniel has reviewed and didn't like Web Junkie, and I announced my love for My Prairie Home. For completions sake, here are four more starting with the Grand Jury winner...

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Tuesday
Jan282014

Sundance: Horror Comedies Shine with 'Cooties' and 'In the Shadows'

Our Sundance Film Festival coverage continues with Glenn Dunks on two of the festival's midnight movies.

Horror comedies can be so tricky sometimes. Is the film a horror movie with comedy or a comedy with horror elements? It might sound like semantics, but I feel it’s the difference, for instance, between Scream and Shaun of the Dead, both of which are excellent examples of the tight rope act that is the horror comedy genre mash-up. They knew exactly what they were doing and ultimately work as both a horror and a comedy without forgoing one half or the other. Cabin in the Woods, on the other hand, by all rights should have been a smart and scary horror movie, but instead lacked the tension that its jokes should have been buffering. It’s a tricky minefield to manoeuvre, but when it goes right the results can be fantastic. 

ravenous pre-teens and vampires after the jump...

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Monday
Jan272014

Sundance: 'Calvary' is a Powerful Showcase for Brendan Gleeson

Our Sundance Film Festival coverage continues with Michael Cusumano on "Calvary".  


John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary gives the audience ample time to consider the screen presence of Brendan Gleeson. He is an invaluable actor; able to convey complete integrity side-by-side with a world-weariness that suggests nothing anyone says could possibly shock him. It’s a quality Calvary puts to good use. In its opening scene, Gleeson, playing small town Irish priest Father James, is taking confession when the man on the other side of the screen informs him that he spent years being abused by a Catholic priest and that he intends to murder Gleeson as symbolic punishment for the crimes of the Church. [more...]

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Monday
Jan272014

Sundance: 'Life Itself' Inspires and Entertains

Our Sundance Film Festival coverage continues with Michael Cusumano on "Life Itself".  

Is there any point in pretending I can be impartial in reviewing Steven James’ documentary adaptation of Roger Ebert’s autobiography Life Itself? I, like no doubt a lot of critics, feel Ebert is in no small way responsible for the fact that I write about film. I purchased a copy of his Movie Home Companion around age 13 that I read and reread until it literally fell apart at the seams. In college I wrote him with a question about Memento and he mentioned me at the start of his review (no fooling), which remains one of the cooler things to ever happen to me. At a time when I was badly in need of encouragement he posted a link to my blog on his Facebook page and sent a Biblical torrent of traffic my way. 

So yeah, it would be a challenge not to pass this movie with flying colors simply because I miss the guy dearly and am happy to spend two hours in his company. Luckily Steve James has made a documentary that I can safely say I would recommend regardless of the subject, although for hardcore fans the abundance of new interviews and previously unseen archive material makes the film a must-see. Life Itself is straightforward, funny, well paced and surprisingly moving. 

For long stretches the doc most resembles the final scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life with the movie inviting us to ponder what the film landscape would look like without Ebert's (and Siskel’s) influence. Filmmakers from Errol Morris to Ramin Bahrani to Werner Herzog testify how they would likely not have careers had Ebert not used his considerable influence to help them break through. In the film’s most memorable scene Martin Scorsese recounts how a career tribute from Roger and Gene helped pull him back from the brink of depression so bad he wanted to give up on films. Even the film itself is a gesture of gratitude since the director owes much of his success to the relentless championing Siskel and Ebert gave Hoop Dreams in 1994. 

Not that the film is a glowing hagiography of the man. Some of its most entertaining stretches delve into Ebert’s flaws: his massive ego, his alcoholism, his petulance when he couldn’t get his way with Siskel. Time is given over to those who feel that 'Siskel and Ebert' cheapened film criticism. Then there is the section recounting the bizarre circumstances that somehow led to Roger writing the Russ Meyer camp classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. A.O. Scott's attempt at finding a delicate way to describe the appeal Roger saw in Russ Meyer’s oeuvre brought the house down at my screening.

James was filming right up until the end, and there is footage of Roger in early 2013 right after tumors were found along his spine and doctors gave him months to live. Like all great biopics Life Itself manages to be about something more than the simple recounting of events. It’s about living a life full enough that when the end comes you can face it with some semblance of the dignity and clarity Roger Ebert demonstrates here.

Grade: Probably an objective B/B+, but I can only review it from my own perspective and I had an A- experience.

Sunday
Jan262014

Sundance's 'Young Boys in Trouble' Sub-Genre: White Shadow, Hellion, Web Junkie

Our Sundance 2014 coverage is entering the home stretch - Nathaniel

Aaron Paul and Josh Wiggins ham it up at Sundance

The 30th Annual Sundance Film Festival closes tonight -- they're screening all of last night's prize winners one last time today in their prescheduled TBA WINNER slots for each of the categories (World Dramatic, US Doc, etcetera) -- but we've got a bit of a backlog so I hope you can stick it out through two more days of wrap up reviews whilst we travel home. Well, actually, I'm the only one still left in Utah but I return to NYC in the morning. I've had a great time but I can't wait to resume normal living with my own bed, my cat, my laundry, my kitchen, etcetera. I'll sure miss that ski-lift though.  

So herewith quick thoughts on three films about teenage boys who've lost their parents, either literally or emotionally, and are in very deep trouble. Web Junkie, White Shadow, and the most high profile of them Hellion starring Aaron Paul and breakout teen star Josh Wiggins pictured above...

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