Sunday, September 29, 2013

'Breaking Bad': "Felina" Review

(NOTE: Obviously, don't read this if you haven't seen the Breaking Bad series finale, "Felina.")

So after all the speculation, Breaking Bad goes out the way it always was: fiendish, gripping, unexpected. But most of all, the finale was logical and practical, the show's most underrated qualities. Vince Gilligan didn't subvert expectations so much as surprise us by how straightforward and methodical his ending was. The ricin was used on Lydia, the guns were used on the Nazis -- which a lot of people guessed -- but I'm not sure how many prognosticators would have imagined how deeply satisfying the comeuppance would be. (I can't remember -- and I'm not sure I want to -- the last time I so unabashedly enjoyed a bastard being killed as I savored every second of Jesse strangling the life out of Todd.)

It's worth noting that Walt's master plan for his return to Albuquerque wasn't one of his most brilliant, which I think was part of Gilligan's point. The show has consistently wowed us with Walt's mind, but for "Felina" we never really forgot how mortal he was: almost getting caught in New Hampshire; duping his old Gray Matter partners with an admittedly hokey gambit; gingerly reaching for those car keys while no one was looking, knowing that everyone's fate hung in the balance. The finale had its share of predictability and implausibility -- if you're Uncle Jack, why don't you kill Walt as soon as he sets foot in the house? -- but such shortcomings can be forgiven a bit because of the slowly building sense of destiny that hovered over the stripped-down proceedings.  

And in the end -- how about that? -- Walt did get some sort of redemption. There is greedy, prideful and flawed, Breaking Bad ultimately seemed to say, but they're not the same thing as evil. The white supremacists were evil, and Walt's outsmarting of them wasn't just clever but also seemed oddly right. After everything that's happened, the moral universe suddenly seemed put back into alignment, at least for a brief moment. As for Jesse and Flynn and Marie and Skyler and Holly, I hope they all have long, happy lives. You can't say they haven't earned them.

Friday, September 27, 2013

'At Berkeley' Review

I wasn't alone at the Toronto Film Festival in being incredibly excited to see At Berkeley, the latest documentary from Frederick Wiseman. There, of course, was one problem: It's four hours long, which is pretty hard to schedule when you're stacked with other screenings during the day. Because I couldn't resist, though, I actually watched the first 30 minutes of At Berkeley before I had to go to an assigned screening. I loved what I saw. Now, I've seen the whole thing; it's quite, quite good. If you're going to the New York Film Festival, do try to check it out on Saturday if you can. My review is up at Screen International.

Lynyrd Skynyrd - "Free Bird"

There are songs that are hard to listen to without being reminded of all the cultural baggage attached to them. As a small example, I wonder if for a whole generation the sound of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is forever tainted by the memories of Kurt Cobain's suicide and the music industry's rush to capitalize on grunge. For these people, the song feels like a cliche of an era, the track's power and excitement reduced to shtick.

For me (and, I imagine, for a lot of other people), "Free Bird" is that way, too. It now sounds like classic rock radio and some idiot at every concert you've ever attended ironically requesting it at the top of his lungs. If those are the feelings you have attached to this Lynyrd Skynyrd track, do me a favor and give it a listen right now. It's really a lovely, propulsive thing.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

'Breaking Bad': One Episode to Go

Breaking Bad's finale airs on Sunday. For Playboy, I looked at how the show's final run has focused on the nature of evil. As we've learned in recent weeks, if you try to have a conscience or start showing personal growth, you're a dead man. Here's my article.

(Update: I talked with my old buddy Will Leitch for his Sports on Earth podcast to discuss everything Breaking Bad. If you missed our first conversation, that's right here.)

(Update 2: The Huffington Post's Mike Ryan surveyed a group of non-TV-critics for their predictions for the finale. My take, along with everyone else's, is here.)

'Runner Runner' Review

I like Justin Timberlake. I like Ben Affleck. I like Brad Furman, who last directed The Lincoln Lawyer. But their film together, Runner Runner, is nothing more than a mess. I reviewed the movie for Screen International. I kept the gambling puns to a minimum.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Prodigy (featuring Kool Keith) - "Diesel Power"

A friend mentioned The Fat of the Land the other day. Haven't listened to that album in forever. It really is the sound of the late '90s, a time when we were all sure the future would be nothing but dance-rock. It didn't happen. Why "Diesel Power" wasn't a hit, though, I'll never know.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

'Prisoners' Review

Prisoners has been compared to Zodiac and Mystic River, but it's not as good as either of those movies. A long, deliberate epic about a kidnapping, this drama benefits from strong performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. But its darkness is more than a little oppressive. My review is live at Paste.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

'Rush' Review

Rush is a fairly straightforward racing film, but it's also somewhat subversive. A sports movie without a lot of the cliches, this is one of Ron Howard's better recent films. I reviewed Rush for Deadspin.

The Weeknd - 'Kiss Land' Review

The Weeknd's first mixtape, House of Balloons, made my Top 10 albums of 2011, and now he's finally getting around to releasing his official label debut. That would be Kiss Land, which I quite like. His world ain't a pretty one, though. I wrote about Kiss Land for Playboy.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Toronto 2013: 'Hateship Loveship' Review

I may need to stop seeing Kristen Wiig movies at Toronto. Last year I reviewed the unfortunate Imogene. This year, I caught Hateship Loveship, which is better, but not better enough. Ms. Wiig goes into Serious Actor Mode for this new movie, which is not without its charms but isn't interesting enough to recommend. My review is up at Paste.

Toronto 2013: 'Ida' Review

Ida is the new film from Pawel Pawlikowski, the director of My Summer of Love and The Woman in the Fifth. His latest is a stark, wry, melancholy black-and-white period piece about a young woman studying to become a nun who discovers that she's actually Jewish. Because she's living in Poland in the 1960s, that revelation is not without its serious implications. I reviewed the film for Paste.

Toronto 2013: 'Enough Said' Review

I caught Enough Said near the end of my stay at the Toronto Film Festival. The movie made me homesick, which is an odd thing to say considering its (lightly) satiric look at Los Angeles. For Deadspin, though, I focused on the great work done by James Gandolfini in the movie. It's one of his last roles -- and it's a gem. Here's my article.

Toronto 2013: The Rankings

Another Toronto Film Festival is in the books. Here now are my rankings, from worst to best, of what I saw from the festival. Several of these films were screened in advance or at other festivals (Sundance, Cannes). Links lead to individual reviews. 

35. Words and Pictures
34. Proxy
33. McCanick
32. Third Person
31. Sapi
30. Hateship Loveship
29. Parkland
28. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
27. The Fifth Estate
26. Don Jon
25. Bends
24. The Last of Robin Hood
23. The Stag
22. Going Away
21. Lucky Them
20. Young & Beautiful 
19. Philomena
18. August: Osage County
17. Only Lovers Left Alive
16. Ida 
15. Sarah Prefers to Run
14. Ilo Ilo 
13. Closed Curtain
12. The Missing Picture 
11. Enough Said
10. All Is By My Side
9. 12 Years a Slave  
8. A Touch of Sin
7. Labor Day 
6. Like Father, Like Son
5. The Past
4. Gravity
3. Bastards
2. Night Moves
1. Blue Is the Warmest Color

Toronto 2013: 'Night Moves' Review

Generally, I don't tweet immediate responses to movies as I'm walking out of the theater. (I want time to let them percolate in my brain.) But when I saw Night Moves, the latest from director Kelly Reichardt, I couldn't resist. Yeah, that tweet makes me cringe a little -- take a deep breath, buddy -- but I do think the film is pretty great. I go into more detail in my Paste review.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Toronto 2013: 'Gravity' Review

The Toronto Film Festival offers so many kinds of movies that you could meet 10 different festivalgoers and their choices might not match up all that much. But just about everyone I knew was excited to see Gravity. I caught the film on my last day at the festival. Count me among the people who are incredibly, incredibly impressed with the movie but still have a few reservations. My review is up at Paste.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Toronto 2013: 'Philomena' Review

One of the more buzzed-about titles from Venice was Philomena, the latest film from Stephen Frears (The Queen). It tells the true story of an older woman (Judi Dench) trying to hunt down the son she had to give up when she was only 18. Steve Coogan (who co-wrote the script) plays the journalist writing an article about her quest. My impression is that this true story is much better known in the U.K. than it is in the U.S., so for us in the States, Philomena will play a little more like a detective story. I caught the film in Toronto, and my review is up at Paste.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Jimi Hendrix Experience - "Little Wing"

For whatever reason, I've never really gotten into Jimi Hendrix. I like and respect him fine, but I don't seek out his music all that much. Watching All Is By My Side at Toronto made me curious to dig a little more into his ouevre. For now, though, here's "Little Wing," a song good enough that both Sting and Derek and the Dominos both managed to do respectable covers of it.

Toronto 2013: 'Going Away' Review

Going Away is a French drama about an unlikely love story and the difficulties people have in outrunning their pasts. There's nothing particularly revelatory about director Nicole Garcia's film, but its gentle observations worked for me well enough. I reviewed the film for Screen International.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Toronto 2013: 'Words and Pictures' Review

I love Juliette Binoche in just about everything but, man oh man, Words and Pictures is not good. It's a clunker in which she plays a prep school teacher being wooed by Clive Owen. The sparks don't fly. My review is up at Screen International.

Toronto 2013: 'Lucky Them' Review

There are some people who will watch anything just because Toni Collette is in it. These people are going to like Lucky Them, a disposable but fun comedy where she plays an aging music critic in search of the long-missing rock star who broke her heart. She's great in the film, as is Thomas Haden Church. I reviewed Lucky Them for Screen International.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Toronto 2013: 'August: Osage County' Review

My hunch is that by the time August: Osage County hits theaters at Christmas, you'll be sick to death of hearing about it. One of those big, brawny movies that arrives in the winter seeking as many Oscar nominations as it can get, this adaptation of the Tracy Letts play has plenty of acting acting acting. And, it should be said, it's often pretty darn good acting. I reviewed the film for Screen International.

'Wadjda' Review

I really hate talking about movies' Oscar chances, but I think we're going to be hearing about Wadjda as part of the Best Foreign Language Film competition. It's the first film to be made entirely within Saudi Arabia. Even better, it's quite good. I reviewed the film for Paste.

Toronto 2013: 'Closed Curtain' Review

Jafar Panahi may be under house arrest in Iran, but it's done little to slow down his productivity. His second movie since his supposed film ban is Closed Curtain, the most despairing house-of-mirrors meta-drama you're likely to see. I reviewed the film for Paste.

Toronto 2013: 'The Missing Picture' Review

The Missing Picture was a film I was sorry to miss at Cannes. I caught up with the documentary at Toronto, and I found it mostly worthy of the hype. It's not a slam-dunk, though, its daring technique a bit of a double-edged sword. My review is live at Paste.

Toronto 2013: 'Third Person' Review

I've written about my complicated feelings regarding Paul Haggis already, so I went into Third Person, his latest film, with an open mind. But after an interesting opening, this ensemble drama starts to fall apart. My Third Person review is up at Screen International.

Toronto 2013: 'McCanick' Review

McCanick will be notable because it's one of the final films in the young life of Glee star Cory Monteith. I wish the movie was notable for other reasons. Sadly, this mediocre crime thriller (which also stars David Morse) just doesn't have much juice. I reviewed the film for Screen International.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Toronto 2013: 'The Stag' Review

The Stag is a sweeter version of bromance comedies like The Hangover. But does that mean it's good? There's a lot of heart and a few chuckles, but not enough of either to really make me happy. My review is up at Screen International.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Toronto 2013: 'All Is By My Side' Review

If you're going to do a music biography, take a page from John Ridley's All Is By My Side. While far from perfect, it's an intelligent examination of Jimi Hendrix' life -- specifically, the year he lived in London before he returned to America as a conquering hero. And I quite like Andre Benjamin in the role. (I suddenly don't feel so bad that we never get Outkast albums anymore.) I reviewed All Is By My Side for Screen International.

Toronto 2013: 'The Last of Robin Hood' Review

Who doesn't love Kevin Kline? His occasional appearance on Bob's Burgers is one of that show's consistent highlights, although his movies of late have been rather hit-or-miss. His latest, The Last of Robin Hood, is decidedly mixed, looking at the final years of Errol Flynn. My review is up at Screen International.

Toronto 2013: 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' Review

When Will and I put together our list recently of fall's most anticipated films, a couple commenters wondered why we didn't include Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. My reason was simple: I wasn't sold on its director, Justin Chadwick. Turns out that my concerns were well-founded. This 144-minute biopic on Nelson Mandela is filled with serious purpose, but it doesn't have much of a personality, even though Idris Elba is quite fine in the title role -- and so is Naomie Harris as Winnie. My review is up at Screen International.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Toronto 2013: '12 Years a Slave' Review

Here it is, my review of the most acclaimed movie of the fall film festival season. I loved director Steve McQueen's last movie, Shame, so my expectations were high. 12 Years a Slave is quite good, but it's no Shame, which is hardly a shame. Ugh, yes, I made that joke. I'm sorry. My review is up at Screen International.

Toronto 2013: 'Proxy' Review

As someone who has a high tolerance for weird genre offerings, I was curious about Proxy, which is about a pregnant woman who loses her baby during a vicious mugging. She seems to have found a new friend to help her cope with the trauma, but then ... well, stuff gets weird. Too bad stuff doesn't get good at the same time. Man, Proxy is kind of a stinker, which I explain in my Screen International review.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Toronto 2013: 'Labor Day' Review

As someone who has liked but not loved Jason Reitman's earlier films, I was quite impressed with his latest, Labor Day. Before it sputters near the end, this drama is his strongest, most assured work, showing the unlikely bond that develops between an escaped convict (Josh Brolin) and the divorced mom (Kate Winslet) he takes captive. My review is up at Screen International.

Toronto 2013: 'Sapi' Review

I'm one of those critics who tries not to reveal the most shocking and lurid moments from a film during my festival reviews. (Why spoil all the good stuff?) That philosophy was severely tested by Sapi, the latest film from director Brillante Ma Mendoza. It's a horror movie of sorts, and Mendoza has a few oh-my-god moments in there. But I revealed nothing! Well, almost nothing. My review is up at Screen International.

Bee Gees - "How Deep Is Your Love"

Easy to mock, much harder to resist, the Bee Gees' music isn't something I seek out. But when it pops up on the radio ... well, I'm only human.

Toronto 2013: 'The Fifth Estate' Review

The Fifth Estate, about the life of Julian Assange and his controversial creation WikiLeaks, gets turned into a political thriller in the hands of director Bill Condon. Is that gutsy? Yes. Does it work? Eh... My mixed review of the film is up at Screen International.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Your Fall Movie Preview

What movies am I most excited to see this awards season? Here you go -- and my pal Will Leitch picked his most-anticipated as well.

Keith Olbermann: The Smartest Guy in the Room

For my Playboy Culture Club column, I take a look at Olbermann, the new ESPN show from former SportsCenter star Keith Olbermann. My verdict? It's a good show stuck on a bad network. My essay is here.

'A Teacher' Review

A Teacher represents the sort of indie drama I tend to like. The Austin-based film tells the story of a young high school teacher who's having an affair with her student. Why is she doing it? The film never says, letting the mystery sit with us. A Teacher is intriguing without being particularly successful. I reviewed the movie for Paste.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Greats: Frederick Wiseman

Most people wouldn't recognize the face (or maybe even the name) of Frederick Wiseman, but he's one of the world's best documentary filmmakers. And at age 83, he remains prolific: His latest, At Berkeley, will be playing Toronto and just screened at Venice. If you haven't heard of the man -- or even if you have -- I hope you enjoy my tribute to him over at Paste.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

'Parkland' Review

Welcome to fall film festival season. I'm not at Telluride or Venice, but I've seen Parkland, which is playing both festivals. (It will also be playing Toronto, where I'll be in a few days.) This ensemble drama is a retelling of John F. Kennedy's assassination through the eyes of the people who witnessed its aftermath from the frontlines: nurses, doctors, FBI agents, bystanders. I wish it was better. My review is up at Screen International.