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Ed Wood [Blu-ray]
Ed Wood [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Johnny Depp
Price: $9.17
24 used & new from $5.18

5.0 out of 5 stars A forgotten masterpiece, July 27, 2015
This review is from: Ed Wood [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)
Tim Burton's Ed Wood is one of the forgotten masterpieces of the 1990s. Though it's Tim Burton's best film and it has Johnny Depp's best performance, it grossed only a third of its budget (it made $6 million, which it had $18 million in production costs) and was met with moderate critical acclaim at the time, but not a terrible amount of accolades or long-lasting praise. That's silly; this film is a masterpiece that ranks as one of the all-time great biopics and one of the few color-era films (along with Raging Bull, Manhattan, Schindler's List, and Frances Ha) that utilizes black-and-white cinematography without it feeling like a gimmick. Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky (who shot The Thin Blue Line, one of the all-time great documentaries) does a wonderful job of showing nuance and texture in his compositions: the photography here is gorgeous and perfect.

Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski do a great job at showing a director who is severely inept, but sincere in his artistic sensibilities. The film is an exuberant examination of a man who is passionate, kind, funny, nervous, excited, and completely delusional. Ed Wood has a fetish for wearing women's clothing and a silly fantasy that he'll make the next Citizen Kane, but he is never shamed for his eccentricities. This could have been such a mean and nasty character study, but Ed Wood's lack of objectivity in assessing his own abilities as an artist are handled with warmth and empathy. To pull a sweet but idiotic character off requires the same mastery of acting that Wood lacked when it came to directing; Alexander and Karaszewski's script calls for a complex and multi-layered performance, and Depp handles this wonderfully. The supporting cast, which features Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Bill Murray, and an especially great Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, is first-rate, and a cameo from Vincent D'Onofrio as Orson Welles is worth the price of admission alone.

Ex Machina (Blu-ray + Digital HD)
Ex Machina (Blu-ray + Digital HD)
DVD ~ Oscar Isaac
Price: $16.76
37 used & new from $12.61

4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, though imperfect, July 27, 2015
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a film that comments heavily on the relationship between technology and sexuality in the 21st century and while it succeeds where Spike Jonze's Her failed, it is also a film that I admired more technically than actually loved personally. Garland is a talented screenwriter, and he makes the transition to director well, but he has some bad habits, particularly in how he ends his films: the resolution to Ex Machina is bold, but I'm not sure that it's brilliant. It frustrated me, and I’m not sure that it did that in good ways. I’m all for being challenged, but as with 28 Days Later, I couldn’t help but think that the third act was the weak link. It starts off promising and grows a tad formulaic, though it still entertains and offers some surprises.

On balance, though, Ex Machina is a very good film. Oscar Isaac continues his streak of being one of the most exciting and entertaining actors we have around, and both Domhnall Gleeson (the son of Brendan Gleeson) and Alicia Vikander are quite good in supporting roles. In all honesty, Ex Machina is a definite cut above most sci-fi thrillers these days, but a film like Jonathan Glazer’s polarizing (and great) Under the Skin is a definite cut above Ex Machina. Garland’s film focuses on three hugely intelligent character, yet unlike its characters, the film itself could be a tad less glossy and more cerebral. This is an enjoyable, good piece of filmmaking, and I look forward to what Garland does next. For now, though, I’m only a casual fan.

DVD ~ Winona Ryder
Price: $3.99
41 used & new from $3.05

4.0 out of 5 stars Dark as hell, but smart and entertaining, July 27, 2015
This review is from: Heathers (DVD)
I took a class on trauma, and the professor recommended this film, mentioning that it does a nice job in showing some of the bullying and unhealthy social behaviors that are unfortunately rampant in high schools. I was curious to check the film out, and on balance, my reaction was very positive: Heathers is an entertaining, though dark film that does a great job at showing the strong social cliques that tend to form in high school, along with the jealousy and passive-aggressive behavior people sometimes engage in when they feel powerless. Christian Slater is very good as J.D., a sociopathic type who speaks in ways that are strangely reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's portrayal of The Joker in Tim Burton's Batman (released that same year). Director Michael Lehmann has made some really dreadful films, like Airheads, 40 Days and 40 Nights, and My Giant. Heathers, though, is a notable exception. I'm not sure how I feel about the ending (my feelings may change with another viewing), but on balance, Heathers is a very effective black comedy.

The Night of the Hunter (The Criterion Collection)
The Night of the Hunter (The Criterion Collection)
DVD ~ Robert Mitchum
Price: $23.49
19 used & new from $11.39

5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific; an essential psychological thriller, July 26, 2015
Well-acted and visually stunning, The Night of the Hunter is a really dark and bold film with a great performance from Robert Mitchum, playing a murderous charlatan with a kind of Frank Booth meets Ted Cruz vibe. The cinematography by Stanley Cortez (who shot The Magnificent Ambersons) has the strong influence of German expressionist films (like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and the use of stylistic techniques like false perspective really works. Though it was poorly received when it was initially released and Charles Laughton never directed a film again, one can easily see the influence on directors like David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and the Coen brothers. The Night of the Hunter is a creepy, eerie, depraved near-masterpiece that is essential viewing for fans of psychological thrillers.

I'm Not There (Two-Disc Collector's Edition)
I'm Not There (Two-Disc Collector's Edition)
DVD ~ Christian Bale
Price: $8.13
154 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars A flawed feast for Dylan fans, July 26, 2015
In general, I’m not a fan of biopics. All too often, they feel like pandering Oscar bait, even with they’re anchored in great performances (like Jamie Foxx in Ray or Chadwick Boseman in Get On Up). On the other hand, there are certain magical biopics that really tap not only into the minutiae of hugely interesting people's lives but also find a way to contextualize and makes sense of what their life meant to the culture they lived in. Films like Raging Bull, Capote, and American Splendor, for example, demonstrate that biopics can be just as great a genre as any other, and though it’s not quite on the level of those films, Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There is certainly a highly successful biopic.

What I like best about this film is that it avoids the mistakes that so many biopics make: it never feels overly reverential or reductionistic, and it always seems to respect both the complexities of Bob Dylan’s life and the fact that any biopic on Mr. Dylan will inevitably just scratch the surface. Haynes’ film uses many great Dylan tracks, but there’s no forced or awkward scene of “Like a Rolling Stone” being recorded and an accompanying montage on how people's lives were changed by it, though I can easily see that scene being played out in a lesser film. This is a smart film that assumes its audience knows at least a fair amount about Dylan; it’s not an on-screen Wikipedia article.

Many different actors play variations of Bob Dylan, which almost inherently means that some will be better than others. Marcus Carl Franklin, Heath Ledger, and Cate Blanchett are the stand-outs, though Christian Bale is surprisingly good as Jack Rollins and Pastor John; Haynes has various actors encapsulate various era of Dylan, and the Bringing It All Back Home-era character (Jude Quinn, played by Cate Blanchett) probably works best, largely because it’s grounded in arguably the finest performance of a great actress. On the other hand, Ben Whishaw and Richard Gere fall a little flat. Gere plays “Billy the Kid,” a “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”-era Dylan, but he seems more like a John Denver type. His performance never quite came together for me.

Despite a few performances than I didn't connect with and a perhaps bloated running time of 135 minutes, I really liked I’m Not There. There is something deeply episodic, yet still very focused about this film, and the structure—which shifts between actors and eras in the blink of an eye—is loose, but in ephemeral and really intriguing ways. It's, for better or for worse, Todd Haynes' Magnolia: a film that is flawed but it nonetheless brilliant and fascinating.

Seiko Men's SNK809 Seiko 5 Automatic Stainless Steel Watch with Black Canvas Strap
Seiko Men's SNK809 Seiko 5 Automatic Stainless Steel Watch with Black Canvas Strap
Price: $50.63
41 used & new from $48.10

5.0 out of 5 stars Great Watch, July 26, 2015
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
I had an analog Timex watch for years and years that I was happy with, but the fact that it needed its battery replaced on roughly an annual basis made it frustrating, both in terms of time and money. This automatic replacement watch, on the other hand, is a gem. Unlike my Timex watch, the SNK809 is quiet and automatic; it also has both the day and the date. There are fancier watches out there, for sure, but you get a lot of bang for your buck with this watch.

Listen Up Philip
Listen Up Philip
DVD ~ Jason Schwartzman
Price: $13.59
31 used & new from $5.87

2.0 out of 5 stars A pretentious bore, July 26, 2015
This review is from: Listen Up Philip (DVD)
Listen Up Philip is a character study of an impossibly self-absorbed writer (Philip Lewis Friedman, played by Jason Schwartzman). At the beginning of the film, Philip is living in New York City (the most cinematically underrepresented of all the major cities, obviously), and his second novel is about to be published. Though Philip has achieved a considerable amount of success, his rude behavior is jeopardizing many of his relationships, including the one with his girlfriend Ashley (played by Elisabeth Moss). Early in the film, Philip befriends his idol, a writer named Ike Zimmerman (played by Jonathan Pryce). Like Philip, Ike is a grade-A narcissist, but unlike Philip, he’s hugely prolific and disciplined. “Don’t make being lackadaisical and disorganized your thing,” Ike tells Philip at one point, a lesson that Philip doesn’t seem to pay much attention to.

Shortly after Ike and Philip meet, Ike tells Philip that the best way to get good writing done is to leave the city and retreat to the country. He invites Philip to his country home in Connecticut, and he later helps Philip get a job as a professor of creative writing. The film starts to grow a little dull and routine by this point, and not even the presence of Krysten Ritter as his half-estranged daughter can fix things. (I say half-estranged, because while their relationship is strained, they always seem to find a way to maintain a presence in each others’ lives.)

Jonathan Pryce is very convincing as a veteran writer and unbelievable jerk; many films often make questionable casting decisions when it comes to literary figures, but this one gets it right. Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally is a terrific romantic comedy, for example, but the casting of Bruno Kirby as a New Yorker writer feels totally off. The casting in Listen Up Philip does mostly work, but the real problem here is a very weak script from writer and director Alex Ross Perry. The jokes don’t land, the characters are not interesting, and there’s no real sense of brevity or economical storytelling: a story like this could possibly work in the hands of someone like Noah Baumbach, but Perry’s writing abilities are not on that level.

To be fair, this film does understand the literary world in ways that not all films do: Jonathan Pryce’s character (Ike) is clearly patterned after Philip Roth, a brilliant writer with a piss-poor reputation. In the film’s best sequence, the covers of several novels that Ike wrote in his prime are shown; they have titles like Madness & Women, Necessity Never Rests, and I, Zimmerman, and anyone familiar with the first edition covers of famous Philip Roth novels will spot the parallels, in terms of font and design. There’s a sort of Wes Anderson-like whimsy and intelligence to this sequence, though it never felt derivative to me; it could have felt like a rip-off of Moonrise Kingdom, but it was so cleverly done that it transcended that possible influence. Unfortunately, all the creativity and humor of that sequence was noticeably absent for the rest of the film: this is a movie that wants to be very smart and clever, but ends up coming across as smug and obnoxious as its two leading male characters.

Some indie films are smart and challenging, utilizing creative freedoms that are difficult, if not impossible, within the Hollywood studio system. Other indie films, though, come off as pretentious, and this film is definitely in the latter category. There's a sort of snobbery to this film that is deeply off-putting; Fox News conservatives who feel that Hollywood is brimming with condescending, elitist liberals need to look no further, and as a liberal, that bothers me. This film sees itself as very cerebral, and it just comes off as self-congratulatory and dishonest: this is nowhere as smart as it wants its audience to think it is. It’s a sort of generic Sundance picture that pats itself on the back for being something it’s not.

Though the film is 108 minutes, it feels considerably longer, mostly because there’s not a whole lot that happens. I'm all for films that jettison a strong sense of plotting for simple, slice of life storytelling. Not much happens in Alexander Payne's Sideways, for example, but that film is a masterpiece because it's well-written, well-acted, funny, and grounded in an examination of characters who are flawed but interesting. Listen Up Philip, on the other hand, is a slice of life of some really uninteresting and self-absorbed characters.

The sad truth is, there are some interesting characters in this film, but the film sells them short. When the film focuses on Elizabeth Moss’ character Ashley (as it does briefly in the middle), one can't help but wish that more time was spent on her. Though Moss is one of the film’s stars, her character is under-represented in screen time and simply under-developed in terms of screenwriting. She's one of the few people in the film that anyone would want to spend time with, yet in some respects the film itself disrespects her character as much as Philip does. No matter how rude Philip is too her, she always seems to be waiting around for him; she’s given essentially no autonomy, and the way her character is presented grows very frustrating by the film’s end.

The film also doesn't look very good, with constant usage of hand-held shots and some very, very tight close-ups. The cinematography by Sean Price Williams is very inept stylistically, and on any sort of technical level, this film falls flat. There’s a way to make enjoyable films about deeply unlikeable and sad people; Todd Solondz’s Happiness, for example, is well over two hours long and has an extended cast of borderline loathsome characters, but it’s grounded in really strong performances and a really funny, really smart screenplay. Listen Up Philip has mostly good performances, and the sequence with the fake books is truly dazzling, but a feature-length case study of a character who is both really obnoxious and really boring is just not my cup of tea at all.

A New Leaf
A New Leaf
DVD ~ Walter Matthau
Offered by On Target Discounts
Price: $13.99
23 used & new from $11.95

2.0 out of 5 stars Elaine May rules; this film doesn't, July 19, 2015
This review is from: A New Leaf (DVD)
A New Leaf is a little known, but generally well-regarded film from 1971 that I ultimately found underwhelming and a little disappointing. Elaine May is talented, and she has a great comedic mind (Alec Baldwin called Tina Fey "the Elaine May of her generation" and the comparison between the two seems fitting), but I just didn't connect with this film in the ways that I was hoping to. A New Leaf was Elaine May's first film as a writer and director, and it was a great opportunity for her to break free of her association with Mike Nichols and establish herself as a great American filmmaker. On the surface, it seems that she accomplished that; this film has a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and critics as great as Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars. Watching it in 2015, though, one gets the sense that to the extent that this film was fun when it came out, it doesn't really hold up today. In a year that saw legitimate masterpieces like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and A Clockwork Orange, this hardly seems like a highlight to me, though if you are going to watch a quirky, awkward romantic black comedy from that year, this is a superior film to Hal Ashby's overrated Harold and Maude.

The premise is simple: a rich man has blown his inheritance and aims to find a wealthy wife to continue his life of leisure. Walter Matthau is an appealing lead, and Elaine May is very good in her part as a clueless and clumsy heiress, but it just doesn't tie together very well. There are some good gags in the film, but there are also some really long laugh-free stretches that weigh things down considerably. In his review, Ebert wrote that the film is "hilarious, and cockeyed, and warm," and while I agree with him on the latter two counts, I just don't see too much hilarity here. Most of the jokes are sitcom-y and broad or visible from miles away (or both), and at the end of the day, you have a decent, watchable, and ultimately forgetful film from some appealing and talented people.

Kicking and Screaming (The Criterion Collection)
Kicking and Screaming (The Criterion Collection)
DVD ~ Josh Hamilton
Price: $20.83
19 used & new from $14.49

2.0 out of 5 stars I'm a Baumbach fan, but this didn't quite cut it, July 19, 2015
This is a film I really wanted to like. Noah Baumbach is a talented screenwriter and director, but this film (his first) seems to think that capturing the lives of a dozen or so twenty-somethings trying to find their footing after college is inherently fascinating and cinematically engaging; for me, it just wasn't. The problem, I think, lies largely with the characters; many of them are hugely annoying, immature, and narcissistic, and really none of them are all that interesting. The character that Jeff Daniels plays in The Squid and the Whale (a later, and far better, Baumbach film) is a huge narcissist, to be sure, but as unbearable as his behavior is, it's grounded in great screenwriting, a great performance, and a very real sense that the film is not condoning his awful conduct. I don't know whether we're supposed to laugh at these characters or with them. In all honesty, I'm not sure that I care all that much.

With Kicking and Screaming, you have a bunch of really irritating characters who at behave in very selfish and arrogant ways, and the film never really steps outside of the bubble these characters live in to provide any context as to how absurd they look in the context of the world around them (like Baumbach does in another superior film, Frances Ha, where the titular character goes to Paris and visits her parents in Sacramento). I shall revisit this in due time, but for now, I essentially see this as Clerks meets Reality Bites, and I don't mean that as a compliment.

Rumble Fish
Rumble Fish
by S. E. Hinton
Edition: Paperback
Price: $7.99
79 used & new from $2.67

2.0 out of 5 stars Not terrible, but disappointing, July 12, 2015
This review is from: Rumble Fish (Paperback)
Rumble Fish is S.E. Hinton's second novel and while I did enjoy her first book (The Outsiders), this one left something to be desired. It's obvious that this is the work of the same writer, as most of the characters here exude the same "I'm tough but I'm actually kind of sensitive" vibe that the characters in The Outsiders did, but while her first novel (written as a teenager!) was a poignant and moving coming-of-age story, this one feels a little more generic and uninspired. It's competent and it works, but it's also a little predictable and dull. Rumble Fish not a dreadful book, but there's just no there there. This book isn't really about anything, except for troubled young people facing challenges and building character in the process.

As someone in his mid-twenties (roughly the age that S.E. Hinton was when she wrote this book), I'm well aware that I'm not exactly the target audience here; this is a YA novel, of course, but even on that level it falls short. Novels like Lowis Lowry's The Giver or J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series found a way to satisfy young adult audiences and also appeal to older readers through the use of great characters, great plots, and great writing. Hinton, who did such a good job at such a young age on The Outsiders, stumbles here. This is the kind of book where a character will say, "Slow down, willya?," (11) only for a different character to say, "Shut up, willya?" (12) on the next page. For young adults who enjoyed The Outsiders, this may very well be a solid read; for me, it was unfortunately a little disappointing.

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