Monday, March 31, 2014

True/False 2014: The Wrap-Up

About a month ago, I attended True/False for the second year in a row. One of the world's major documentary film festivals, True/False runs four days and serves as an excellent primer for what's going on in the world of nonfiction filmmaking. Like last year, I wrote an epic piece for Paste about my experience at the festival, but I'd also like now to do my ranking of the films I saw. This includes ones screened before and after the festival. (Links go to individual reviews.)

18. Tim's Vermeer
17. Private Violence
16. Dusty Stacks of Mom
15. 20,000 Days on Earth
14. E-Team
13. Particle Fever
12. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors
11. Happy Valley
10. Jodorowsy's Dune
9. Concerning Violence 
8. Killing Time
7. Rich Hill
6. Actress
5. Approaching the Elephant
4. Manakamana
3. The Overnighters
2. Boyhood
1. The Unknown Known

Friday, March 28, 2014

'Finding Vivian Maier' Review

I was unfamiliar with Vivian Maier's work until the documentary Finding Vivian Maier started making the festival rounds last fall. Maier died in her 80s, her photography only posthumously discovered. It's stunning work, the documentary about her life a little less so -- although I still definitely recommend it. My review is up at Paste.

Future Islands - "Seasons (Waiting On You)" (Live on 'Late Show With David Letterman')

I haven't had a chance yet to really dig into the new Future Islands album, Singles, but I've been enjoying its first single, "Seasons (Waiting On You)," for weeks. On the album, it's a deeply nostalgic, lovely synth-pop track, but when the band played it on Late Show With David Letterman, front man Samuel T. Herring turned it into performance art.

Rob Harvilla, my editor at Deadspin, described Herring's performance this way:

[H]e is absolutely mesmerizing. The power-schlub attire: black T-shirt smartly belted into black dress slacks, somehow recasting his hint of a gut and encroaching male-pattern baldness as assets, as seductive weapons. The knee-buckling electric-slide dance moves, so instantly iconic Dave worked them into his monologue the following night. The feigned-nonchalance-into-fist-pump lunge Herring pulls out for the choruses. The summer-stock-theatrical crease of pained sincerity on his face as he croons, "People change / But certain people never do," pounding his chest so hard his mic picks it up. The alluringly incongruous death-metal growls.  

He combines the jovial menace of the Pixies' Frank Black, the erudite yearning of Morrissey, the hammy ardor of Tom Jones. You want him to take you on a date, in a Venetian red Subaru Outback, to the Macaroni Grill. You belong together. 


[On the album] Herring has the crisp diction of a knighted English actor and the sneak-attack uber-goofball flair of Jack Black in High Fidelity (WWWAAAOOWW), but he wisely refuses to acknowledge that he's in on the joke, or that there's even a joke here at all, and there actually isn't: He sternly roams these ersatz-'80s vistas like Flight of the Conchords channeling David Bowie channeling King Lear.  

Dude is dead serious. There is a song called "Sun in the Morning" ("She feeds me daily soul"); there is a song called "Like the Moon" ("She looks like the moon / So close and yet so far"). The death-metal growls resurface big-time on climactic ballad "Fall From Grace." These are karaoke songs for when you wish to disguise your crushing depression in a veil of pompous vocal radness so intense it makes your monocle fall off.

This is a great way of putting it, although I'd argue that there seems to be less calculated thought put into it than Harvilla suggests. Although Future Islands' members have art-school backgrounds, Herring is so daringly genuine that, if it's an act, it's an incredibly persuasive one. The dorky dance moves, the oddly placed growls: They're all really charming, almost sweet, and they complement the song's hopeful, pining tone. The performance is funny, but it's also brave, which makes it sorta inspiring.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

'The Raid 2' Rocks

I was blown away when I saw The Raid 2 at Sundance -- it was my favorite film at the festival, although I acknowledged that the altitude could have affected my judgment. Well, I've watched it again, and although I'm a little less high on it now, I'm still a big fan. I wrote about its brilliant use of violence for Deadspin.

'Mistaken for Strangers' Review

Now that I've explored my feelings about competitiveness and male rivalry in regards to Mistaken for Strangers, here's my Paste review of the documentary. I think the National's fans will love it -- but you don't need to be aware of (or even like) the band's music to get a lot out of this movie.

'Cesar Chavez' Review

Critics always complain how formulaic biopics are. Cesar Chavez tries to shake up that formula a little -- too bad it's all for naught. Michael Pena does his best as Chavez, but the movie refuses to come to life. I reviewed Cesar Chavez for Paste.

'Mistaken for Strangers' and Male Competitiveness

The National are releasing a documentary this Friday called Mistaken for Strangers. It's not really about the band, though: It's about the simmering sibling rivalry between lead singer Matt Berninger and his dopey screw-up of a younger brother Tom who tags along with the band during a European tour. The movie affected me in a personal way: As a competitive person who sometimes has problems with male friendships, I found myself feeling for both Matt and Tom. So I devoted this week's Culture Club column at Playboy to the phenomenon of male rivalry. I really hope I'm not alone in feeling these feelings -- and I hope you like the piece.

My Interview With Michael Pena

I had a great time talking to Michael Pena, the star of End of Watch and the forthcoming Cesar Chavez. I profiled him for Backstage, and we chatted about playing Chavez, his technique to become a sharper comedic actor, and how high school wrestling made him a better performer. You can read all about it here. (And if you're thirsting for an extra excerpt from our talk, then go right here.)

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Greats: William Goldman

My latest installment of "The Greats" for Paste pays tribute to William Goldman. He's the screenwriter behind All the President's Men and The Princess Bride (also the novel), but maybe he'll end up being remembered most for a three-word mantra that's still a truism in Hollywood. I get into all that in my essay.

Beck - "Wave" (Live on 'Saturday Night Live')

One of the standouts on Beck's new album Morning Phase is "Wave," a gorgeous, string-laden song that maybe sets the record for how many times one track has included the word "isolation." This Saturday Night Live version is particularly striking -- there's something stirring about a live string section doing its austere, mournful thing.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

'Noah' Review

After all the talk about behind-the-scenes drama between the filmmaker and the studio, Darren Aronofsky's Noah finally emerges ... and I wish I liked it better. There's much ambition here, but I found the film strangely unengaging. I delve into Noah over at Screen International.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

'Nymphomaniac' and CGI Sex

Director Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac: Vol. I isn't one of his best -- I haven't seen Vol. II yet -- but it does perhaps suggest what the future of cinematic sex might look like. Maybe the NC-17 movie will emerge from the ghetto? I ponder such issues in this week's Playboy column.

'Muppets Most Wanted' Review

I quite liked The Muppets, even if it did run out of gas somewhat in its second half. But, man, the sequel is stupendous. Very dopey, very silly, very joyful, Muppets Most Wanted is a real treat. I reviewed it for Deadspin.

'Jodorowsky’s Dune' Review

One of the last films I saw at this year's True/False Film Festival, Jodorowsky’s Dune looks back at director Alejandro Jodorowsky's failed attempts to make a movie out of Frank Herbert's novel in the 1970s. It opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles: Movie buffs are gonna eat this documentary up. I reviewed Jodorowsky’s Dune for Paste.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

'Divergent' Review

I'm approximately one of five people who didn't love The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, so I'm probably not to be trusted when it comes to female-driven, young-adult science fiction. But I thought Divergent was merely so-so: I get into my many reservations over at Screen International.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Immortals - "Techno Syndrome (Mortal Kombat)"

This turned out to be Video Game Week at the blog thanks to my article on why video-game movies are always terrible and my review of Need for Speed. So let's finish things up with this wonderfully, epically cheesy theme song to Mortal Kombat. If you're making a movie set in the '90s and want some music to capture the ridiculousness of the era, you could do a lot worse than picking this.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

'Need for Speed' Review

Aaron Paul has several movies on the way, including ones directed by Ridley Scott (Exodus) and John Hillcoat (Triple Nine). But his first post-Breaking Bad film is the unfortunate Need for Speed. Funny enough, I think I may like it more than most people, and I don't like it much at all. I reviewed the film for Paste.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

'Bad Words' Review

Jason Bateman swears a lot in Bad Words, which is the next generation of those Bad Santa/Bad Teacher movies. But this comedy isn't nearly as dark and subversive at it thinks it is. My review is up at Deadspin.

Why Are Video-Game Movies Always Terrible?

That's the question I try to answer with this week's "Culture Club" column at Playboy. (Watching Need for Speed helped put some ideas into focus.) You can read my piece here.

'The Cold Lands' Review

I'm a huge Kelly Reichardt fan, and there was something about The Cold Lands (written and directed by Tom Gilroy) that made me think of her movies. It's about a boy whose mother dies, leaving him to fend for himself in the woods surrounding their upstate New York home. Quiet, reflective, observant, The Cold Lands has a decent amount of atmosphere. But it's not a particularly strong movie, unfortunately. My review is up at Paste.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Greats: Julie Christie

Julie Christie, the rumors are true. And now that I've made the obligatory reference to the Yo La Tengo song, I can tell you that my latest installment of "The Greats" for Paste is on the Oscar-winning actress. Hope you enjoy.

'Veronica Mars' Review

Veronica Mars the movie made headlines when it raised its entire budget through Kickstarter, a remarkable feat for a studio film. But is the film any good? Alas, not good enough, although it is fun to see Kristen Bell back in action as the young gumshoe. My review is up at Screen International.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Liars - "Mess on a Mission"

KEXP has been playing this lead single from Liars' forthcoming album, Mess, with enough frequency that it's lodged in my brain. So now I'm gonna try to lodge it in yours.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

True/False 2014: 'Rich Hill' Review

Rich Hill was the big winner at this year's Sundance in the U.S. Documentary competition, and it's easy to see why. An affectionate, judgement-free portrait of three teens living in middle-of-nowhere Missouri, the film can easily play on liberal sympathies: Liking Rich Hill is akin to agreeing with its thesis that the poor are people, too. But, as I discovered, the movie cuts much deeper than that. My review is up at Paste.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

'The Grand Budapest Hotel' Review

The sets are gorgeous, Ralph Fiennes is hilarious and Wes Anderson flirts with his first action-thriller. Those are just some of the delights awaiting those about to see The Grand Budapest Hotel. My review is up at Deadspin.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

What's the Worst Mistake the Academy Awards Ever Made?

I was flattered to be asked to contribute to The Atlantic's monthly feature, "The Big Question." For March, we were asked, "What Was the Biggest Oscar Night Mistake Ever Made?" My answer, along with those from Peter Bart, Mark Lisanti and others, can be found here. (Sorry, Dad.)

Monday, March 03, 2014

True/False 2014: 'The Overnighters' Review

The Overnighters was one of the most acclaimed movies out of this year's Sundance. Catching up with it at True/False, I can see why: It's a beautifully told story that's resonant but also, surprisingly, filled with twists. I think this one is going to grow on me. For now, here's my review at Screen International.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

True/False 2014: 'Approaching the Elephant' Review

Can a free school do what traditional public schools can't? The documentary Approaching the Elephant, which world premiered at True/False, spent a couple years investigating one such school in New Jersey to find out. Director Amanda Rose Wilder's film reminded me all over again that: (1) Teaching is incredibly hard; and (2) Kids can sure be a challenge. I reviewed Approaching the Elephant for Paste.

True/False 2014: 'Manakamana' Review

Manakamana is a film I've been wanting to see for a while. The documentary had gotten great reviews out of Locarno and Toronto last year, and I missed it at AFI Fest. Well, I finally caught up to it here at True/False, and it was just as great as I'd heard. My review is up at Paste.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

I Love the Silly, Boring, Ridiculous Oscars

Every Oscar season, we're beset with a series of articles about "How to Fix the Academy Awards." But what if they don't need fixing? What if they're perfectly good the way they are? That's my thesis for this week's Playboy column. Hope you enjoy.