Thursday, October 31, 2013

'Dallas Buyers Club' Review

Matthew McConaughey has been on a hot streak for the last several years, and Dallas Buyers Club may snag him his first Oscar nomination. It's not the best thing he's done recently -- Mud, Magic Mike and Killer Joe are all great, too -- but it's a strong, unsentimental performance in a true story about a straight Dallas man in the 1980s who was diagnosed with HIV and went underground to find the drugs that could keep him alive. And, yes, Jared Leto is quite good, too. My review of Dallas Buyers Club is up at Paste.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Arcade Fire - 'Reflektor' Review

As someone who wasn't enthralled with Arcade Fire's Funeral, I wasn't initially on board with this Very Important Rock Band. But Neon Bible and The Suburbs turned me around on these guys and gals from Canada. Now comes Reflektor, which is, yes, pretentious. But what does "pretentious" even mean, really? It's a pejorative thrown around so much -- and says so little. I get into that (and the album, of course) in my review for Playboy.

'Mr. Nobody' Review

Mr. Nobody has had a difficult journey to distribution in the U.S. After premiering in Venice in 2009, the movie (from Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael) got released in other countries but not America. In fact, it wasn't until 2011 that Mr. Nobody screened in the U.S. -- and that was due to the efforts of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association's Films That Got Away committee, of which I'm a proud member. We programmed the film for that summer's Los Angeles Film Festival, and it was a huge hit with a predominantly younger crowd. That was understandable: Mr. Nobody's themes of chance and fate (mixed with some pretty great sci-fi effects) resonate with twentysomethings on the cusp of their own adulthood. Jared Leto is the star of the film, and he's quite good in it. As for the movie itself, my review is up at Paste.

Friday, October 25, 2013

'Ender's Game' Review

My review of Ender's Game doesn't spend a single second considering whether or not author Orson Scott Card is homophobic. (You can read all about that here.) I simply focused on the merits of the movie that was adapted from his acclaimed sci-fi novel. I ended up liking the aforementioned movie, although while watching it I did have the strange feeling I was sitting through a sincere version of Starship Troopers. But it turns out that the movie is more morally complex than it first appears. My review is up at Screen International.

Beirut - "Santa Fe"

In the middle of The Counselor, a song started playing in the background of a scene. It was driving my crazy -- I knew I recognized the song, but I couldn't place it. Then it hit me: Beirut's "Santa Fe." So, thanks, Ridley Scott, for bringing it back into my life.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

'The Square' Review

I could almost make a Top 10 of the year's best movies consisting entirely of documentaries. Add to that list The Square, a very affecting look inside the Egyptian Revolution. It opens Friday and is definitely worth seeking out. Here's my review for Paste.

'The Counselor' Review

Before fall movie season began, I'm sure a lot of folks circled The Counselor as one of the season's big films. Directed by Ridley Scott, written by Cormac McCarthy, a cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz and Javier Bardem: That seems like a pretty major movie, right? But despite plentiful TV commercials, there just didn't end up being that much buzz around it. Well, I saw The Counselor this week, and I quite liked it, although it's admittedly very, very loopy. My review is up at Screen International.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Hooray for Johnny Knoxville

I haven't seen Bad Grandpa, unfortunately, but I've come to really appreciate the strange genius of the Jackass franchise. For Playboy, I make the case for Jackass co-creator and star Johnny Knoxville as a modern-day performance artist: an assertion I don't think is that farfetched, frankly. Here's my article.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

In Defense of 'Blue Is the Warmest Color'

When I saw Blue Is the Warmest Color at Cannes, I never expected I'd need to write the above headline for this film. Almost universally beloved at the festival, it went on to win the Palme d'Or. And then ... controversy happened. This is a movie I love, and so for Deadspin I defend it against its many critics. I hope you enjoy.

Monday, October 21, 2013

When the Soundtrack Is Better Than the Movie

For this week's Criticwire survey at IndieWire, writers were asked to name a movie in which the soundtrack/score was superior to the actual film. This was a pretty easy one for me to answer, but there are lots of fun responses, all of which you can read here. (For the record, I actually have a fondness for TRON: Legacy, so the great Daft Punk score wasn't a contender for me.)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Cardinal Way

I'm obviously thrilled the St. Louis Cardinals won the NLCS and are heading back to the World Series. But I think it's time to drop the sanctimony of "The Cardinal Way" that's brandished in articles like St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist Bernie Miklasz's gloating piece after last night's win:
Reality-TV America might not have liked it much, but the Cardinals sent Mickey Mouse, the Goofy in right field and the whole Disneyland cast of characters back to Southern California to begin their offseason grooming.

Main Street America is headed back to the World Series.


The glamorous Dodgers were said to bring a freshness and brashness to a tired old national pastime that is losing popularity to other sports.

Supposedly the Dodgers of Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig were going to make baseball more appealing by hotdogging, taunting opponents with mouse impersonations, striking a home-run pose in the batter’s box (while hitting a triple), showing up umpires, throwing the ball to the wrong base or sailing it to the backstop.

By contrast the Cardinals and their fans were depicted as a stern colony of baseball Amish because they prefer solid fundamental play, gentlemanly superstars such as Stan Musial and success with reasonable dignity.

Where’s your sense of humor, you hopelessly uptight and dour Midwesterners! Didn’t you receive the telegram from Western Union? America was trying to tell you that the 1950s are over. Why didn’t you answer your rotary phone?
It goes on like that, but I think you get the point.

The Cardinals themselves helped start the culture-war narrative that dominated the NLCS by complaining about the Dodgers' supposed "Mickey Mouse" behavior during the series. But the media took it from there, and soon you couldn't read a story that didn't glorify one team's way of operating while bashing the other team's. (And let's not forget that the Post-Dispatch got this idiocy going by running an NLCS preview that painted the Cardinals as the protectors of the "proper" way to build a baseball team, as opposed to those evil, deep-pocketed Dodger owners.) Depending on your perspective, St. Louis (and the surrounding Midwest) was either a bastion of high moral standing or a place populated by the most thin-skinned, overweight, backwards hicks. (By comparison, the Dodgers -- and Los Angeles itself -- were spoiled, shallow poseurs or an exciting face of the future.)

The playoffs always bring out animosity between the competing fan bases, but as someone who lives in Los Angeles but is a diehard Cardinal fan, this series' vitriol felt especially mean and personal. It cut deeper because I think it exposed the sort of cultural stereotyping that does more harm than good in this country. Between the NLCS and the government shutdown, I've had enough red state/blue state tumult for a little while. Weirdly, last night when the series was all over, I thought of Barack Obama's terrific keynote address from the 2004 Democratic National Convention:
The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.
As a Cardinal fan, the trumpeting of "The Cardinal Way" is especially silly -- and it's certainly the kind of nonsense that's beneath any intelligent sports fan. One of the things I dislike about other fan bases is their belief they're somehow more "deserving" of victory than their opponents. (This is akin to my endless annoyance when winning players thank God during post-game interviews, as if some divine being decided, yeah, Georgia Tech is definitely more worthy than Clemson and so He'll make sure they come out on top.) "The Cardinal Way" gets uncomfortably close to that territory -- it suggests that somehow the Cardinals have a monopoly on baseball excellence by dint of our moral superiority. It's not enough that we won: The victory has to mean something.

You know why the Cardinals beat the Dodgers? We were just a little bit better at key moments in the series. We caught a few breaks that they didn't. It could have easily gone the other way. Notions like "The Cardinal Way" project a false sense of surety in a world (and in a game) that is filled with uncertainty. Cardinal fans are often called "the best fans in baseball," which, as my good friend and fellow Cardinal fan Will Leitch points out, is the sort of thing that we take pride in but not something that we actively walk around bragging about. How unseemly would that be? But part of being "the best fans in baseball" means, I think, having a respect for and fascination with the eternal mysteries of the sport. And that means recognizing that nobody gets to claim ownership on the "right" way to play the game. Baseball is bigger than all of us: the Cardinals, the Dodgers and certainly "The Cardinal Way." Our trip to the World Series doesn't prove that our way of playing is "better" than Puig's. It proves that we won four games, and the Dodgers won two. And nothing more.   

Friday, October 18, 2013

'Escape Plan' Review

Sylvester Stallone! Arnold Schwarzenegger! Escape Plan! Hell yeah! Well, actually, more like "Eh meh." I reviewed the film for Deadspin.

Pusha T (featuring Kendrick Lamar) - "Nosetalgia"

My Name Is My Name, the new album from Pusha T, may be the first piece of entertainment I've enjoyed that had anything to do with Chris Brown. (He guests on one track.) But I'm gonna focus on a song with another guest, Kendrick Lamar. I miss Clipse, but Pusha T is killing it fine solo. (Warning for those at work: strong language.)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

I Had Lunch With James Rocchi

I was quite honored to be invited to be on fellow film critic James Rocchi's podcast The Lunch. We chatted about current movies, including Captain Phillips, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, All Is Lost and Dallas Buyers Club. And we also sang the praises of some overlooked movies from the first part of 2013. A lot of fun all around. You can hear it here.

Pearl Jam - 'Lightning Bolt' Review

In their later years, Pearl Jam have had no stronger defender than me. OK, I'm sure that's not true, but I've said nice things about their recent output, including Backspacer, and I've felt that they've aged gracefully, a not-insignificant achievement. (And bear in mind that this is coming from a card-carrying Nirvana fan who always thought Pearl Jam were kinda mediocre back in the day.) All of this is my preamble before admitting that their new album, Lightning Bolt, is incredibly OK -- and it's incredibly OK in a dispiriting way. For my Culture Club column at Playboy, I discussed the album and the failed dream some of us had about alt-rock. You can read it here.

Monday, October 14, 2013

In Praise of Julianne Moore in 'Safe'

Backstage is currently doing a regular feature called Standing Ovation, in which different writers, journalists and other experts weigh in with their pick for the greatest performance of all time. When I was asked to contribute, my immediate thought was Julianne Moore in Safe. I decided to wait a week to see if I could come up with a stronger choice. As I suspected, I didn't. I've loved this movie -- and her performance -- since I saw it in 1995. I was happy to have an excuse to revisit Safe, which has lost none of its shock, timeliness or brilliance. Here's my essay on why Moore is so very good in the film.

Should You Be Cheering at the Ending of 'Captain Phillips'?

I'm a big fan of The Dissolve, so I was thrilled to write a piece for them based on my experience of seeing Captain Phillips at an industry screening. Some in attendance cheered near the end of the film, a response I think is unwarranted. But it got me wondering about why we react in certain ways to certain movies that are actually seeking a more nuanced response. Moral ambiguity, it's a tricky thing. Here's my piece, which I hope you enjoy.

Friday, October 11, 2013

D'Angelo - "Devil's Pie"

For a moment, think of all the things you've seen and done since January 2000. That's how long it's been since we've heard a new album from D'Angelo. Of course, his long absence from the record shelves has only made Voodoo's stature grow and grow. (Back then, there actually were record shelves.) Sorry, ladies, I didn't choose the "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" video. Instead, I'm diving into "Devil's Pie." 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Three Cheers for 'Parks and Recreation'

A late convert to Parks and Recreation, I've been very happy to catch up with the show in reruns, which has provided a rather instructional prequel to everything that makes the show so good now. Inspired by the ongoing government shutdown, I decided to write about what makes this NBC sitcom such a smart satire of politics. For as nice as the show's characters are, there's a lot of sting -- and sweetness -- in its attacks. You can read my piece at Playboy's safe-for-work site.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

'Escape From Tomorrow' Review

I get why Escape From Tomorrow is impressive. Writer-director Randy Moore made most of the film inside Disney World without permission, which is damn nervy. But beyond that? This surrealist satire leaves a lot to be desired. I reviewed the film for Paste.

Stanley Kauffmann, Film Critic, 1916-2013

Stanley Kauffmann, in 1974 from "Why I'm Not Bored," on the value of movies:

"Concurrent with our lives runs this muddied, quasi-strangulated, prostituted art, so lifecrammed and responsive and variegated and embracing, so indefinable no matter how long one strings out phrases like these, that to deny it seems to me to deny the worst and the best in yourself, a chance to help clarify which is which, and which is in the ascendant on any particular day. No matter how much I know about a film's makers or its subject before I go, I never really know what it's going to do to me: depress me with its vileness, or just roll past, or change my life in some degree, or some combination of all three, or affect me in some new way that I cannot imagine. So I like being asked whether filmgoing ever gets boring: it makes me think of what I don't know about the next film I'm going to see."

Roger Ebert, in 1997 from Roger Ebert's Book of Film, on Kauffmann's skill as a critic:

"He is the sanest of critics and the one most likely to place any film within its wider context of literature, philosophy, art, or politics. I read other critics for their insights, their writing, or simply to see what they think; I don't much care whether I agree with them or not. But when I read Kauffmann, who became a regular weekly destination for me five years before I wrote my own first reviews, more is at stake; on important films, if we agree, I am gratified, and if we disagree, I am likely to go back to my own review and have another uneasy look at it. It's not that I assume he is right and I am wrong; it's that after Kauffmann disagrees, I wonder if he was perhaps more right."

Stanley Kauffmann, the longtime film critic for The New Republic, died this morning. 

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

'Romeo & Juliet' Review

This ain't your father's Romeo & Juliet, which I suppose was the Baz Lurhmann version from the '90s. Starring Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit fame, this faithful, tasteful adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy seems to be targeting English teachers who can play it for their classes to supplement the reading of the play. It's a perfectly acceptable film, I suppose, but I couldn't summon up much passion for it either way. My review is up at Screen International.

Monday, October 07, 2013

What Movie Would You Consider a Game-Changer?

That's the question posed in this week's Criticwire Survey over at IndieWire. I knew what my answer would be immediately. You can see my response, as well as my critic colleagues', right here.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Veruca Salt - "Celebrate You"

Oh, the '90s -- a time when bands with female singers ruled. That wasn't true, of course, but if you're gonna be nostalgic, don't let facts get in the way.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

In Praise of Alfonso Cuaron

With Gravity about to come out, it's hard not to be impressed by the career of its director, Alfonso Cuaron. He's made all types of films, everything from Children of Men to A Little Princess, but he's consistently delivered movies that weren't quite what they seemed. It may have hurt him commercially some, but the results? Well, the results speak for themselves. I sing the man's praises over at Deadspin.

Jerry Bruckheimer at the Crossroads

There's a lot going on in the world of Jerry Bruckheimer these days. The super-successful producer just turned 70, he's going to be feted with the American Cinematheque Award, and he and Disney are parting ways after about 20 years. For my Playboy "Culture Club" column, I decided to look at the man's legacy, warts and all. Hope you enjoy.

'Machete Kills' Review

I tend to defend Robert Rodriguez, up to a point. His movies tend to be a bit juvenile and trashy, but he's got a clear sense of his aesthetic, and when he does it well, like with Sin City, it can be pretty darn fun. I liked the first Machete, but the sequel, Machete Kills, is a drag. I don't defend it at all in my Screen International review.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The Greats: Robert Redford

Robert Redford may well get a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in the forthcoming All Is Lost. For that reason, as well as others, he's the subject of the latest installment in my Paste series "The Greats." His career has been far from perfect but, oddly, that almost seems beside the point with this guy. Here's my article.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

'All Is Bright' Review

One of the films I was most curious about from this year's Tribeca Film Festival was Almost Christmas, the long-awaited follow-up film from director Phil Morrison, who last made the impeccable Junebug. The reviews out of Tribeca were disappointing, and this Friday the film comes to theaters with a new name, All Is Bright. Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd are somewhat enjoyable in this decidedly melancholy holiday comedy, but All Is Bright is definitely no Junebug. My review is up at Paste.