DVD Review: The Spectacular Now

'The Spectacular Now': What's So Great About Being an Adult?

On the surface, it seems like The Spectacular Now is no different from your average teen movie. It starts off at an Atlanta, Georgia high school sometime during senior year. The all-around popular guy, Sutter (Miles Teller), meets the pretty-but-unnoticed shy girl, Aimee (Shailene Woodley). They strike up an unlikely friendship, then an even-more-unlikely romance, and then have to figure out what to do about the world after high school.

In the hands of James Ponsoldt —adapting the novel by Tim Tharp—what could easily become your typical end-of-high-school love story becomes something much harder to create: a teen movie that resembles real life more than other teen movies. In Ponsoldt’s commentary and a handful of behind-the-scenes featurettes included in the Blu-ray, Ponsoldt says he was striving for authenticity and, for the most part, he achieves it.

Teller and Woodley, along with the rest of the cast, look and talk like real teenagers. Their clothes are worn and wrinkled and look like they were bought at Target. They sweat when it’s supposed to be hot out, and things like pimples and scars aren’t airbrushed out or caked over with makeup. (The authenticity spills over into the location as well; an Atlanta native, Ponsoldt notes in his commentary that he wanted to show off the city the way the locals see it, by including, say, his favorite college record store as opposed to the usual tourist attractions.) ...


DVD Review: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones


...To watch The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones without having read the book is to always feel like you’re missing some crucial piece of information that would make everything click into place and make sense. Unfortunately, a Rosetta Stone for the movie never arrives. Instead, you’re left to guess at everything that goes unsaid.

“This is as far as I go,” Jace tells Clary as they wander through the subterranean City of Bones, a catacomb of expired Shadowhunters, toward a great circular room where a ritual is to take place. Why won’t he go any farther? He doesn’t say. He enters the room, just keeps to the edge of it. Is he not allowed into the center? Is he afraid of the ritual? Does he think it’d make Clary stronger to go on alone? It’s not explained—and, ultimately, not important—which makes you wonder why it was such a big freaking deal for him not to go any farther in the first place.

The entire movie is a string of such head-scratching moments. Characters jump from location to location, and it’s not always clear why they’re headed where they’re headed. (Ostensibly, they’re on the search for the Great MacGuffin, but it feels like the quest takes them in circles.) Some objects and people are invisible to mundanes, until they’re not anymore. Sometimes the Shadowhunters use runes to conjure magic, sometimes they use wands, and sometimes the magic is innate. One character is bitten by a vampire, and it isn’t brought up again for the rest of the movie. When Clary is taken to the Shadowhunter HQ, she’s shown a greenhouse with magical plants. Why would the plants be different? It’s still New York City, right? The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is proof that rule-making isn’t the same as world-building, and the rules that govern the movie are so thick and arbitrary that it sucks out any of the pleasure of being immersed in a new fantasy environment...

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DVD Review: Byzantium

Just in time for Halloween, a review of a movie about female vampires.

'Byzantium' Has New Vampires That Play by New Rules

...[Neil] Jordan also moves beyond the stage’s confines by putting together some strikingly composed images: a black beetle crawling across Eleanor’s pale face, a line of rich red blood dripping across white fingers, neon carnival rides glowing against a dark night. If there’s one good thing about a vampires that aren’t sensitive to the sun, it’s that they can walk around in the light, so you can actually see all of the art direction—from painstaking period details of the past to the dingy nuances of the run-down hotel where the characters hole up in the present...

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DVD Review: The Bling Ring


...While Coppola doesn’t dwell on the situations that made the Bling Ring what they were, she does give you an overwhelming feeling of who they are: young, attractive, savvy, plugged in, and celebrity-obsessed. She scrolls through images of the Ring’s targets—Paris Hilton on a runway onDlisted, Lindsay Lohan at a court date on TMZ—then follows up with the Facebook photos of the Bling Ring members, often making the same poses. Even the celebrities’ bad behavior is mimicked; Lindsay Lohan gets a DUI, then so does Chloe. You can sense the characters’ attitudes towards these celebrities shift from admiration to a darker kind of “Why can’t that be me?” envy.

And if you’re looking for envy—or, depending on your attitude towards consumerism, revulsion—more than anything Coppola emphasizes the material aspect of Los Angeles’ celebrity culture. There are shots upon shots of enormous closets, with racks stuffed with designer dresses, drawers overflowing with jewelry, and rows upon rows of shoes in a spectrum of colors. Paris Hilton allowed Coppola to film inside her house—at the real scene of the crime—and it’s a good thing, because a fictitious version of the Hilton closet probably would not have been over-the-top enough. (A DVD featurette with Hilton gives a tour of her closet and house, complete with her backyard doghouse, modeled after her own, for her seven dogs.)

When Coppola shows these lavish closets or the celebratory club-going after a heist, it looks like a fashion photo shoot. Other times, she switches to a reality-show-style handheld, reflecting how the Bling Ring participants saw themselves—as the stars of their own series. Other times, she shows them as shadowy figures on green, night-vision security cameras, or how they looked to the outside world. In the most interesting scene in the movie, the characters barely register at all: the camera stays outside a celebrity home, and all you see is the lights flick on and off in different rooms as they burglarize the house.

The range of shooting styles gives the movie interest, but like her protagonists, Coppola has a problem with excess. The cycle of Googling celebrity houses, breaking in, luxuriating in other people’s property, and heading out to party repeats itself too many times in the middle of the movie, with nothing extra added except another celebrity name to the list of victims...


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DVD Review: "Gimme the Loot" and "The We and the I"



Take Another Look at the Bronx with 'Gimme the Loot' and 'The We and the I'

It’s clear that Leon considers [Gimme the Loot] a personal movie. In his commentary, which his co-filmmakers drop in and out of at varying points, he discusses how certain elements of the story are rooted in his Bronx upbringing. Many of the actors in bit parts are people he’s known since high school. A great many others are regular Bronx residents he persuaded to be in the movie—for example, the man playing the owner of a pizza shop really is the owner of that pizza shop, doing what he does on a normal day.

Authenticity is also paramount for The We and the I, though it doesn’t feel as personal for [director Michel] Gondry. His film, on the other hand, is more of a vehicle for other people’s stories. He’s mentioned in interviews that the film was written in collaboration with students from The Point, an after-school program in the Bronx.

He had an outline for a script, then conducted long interviews with the kids to hear about their lives and experiences in their own words. Many of the conversations found their way back into the script, and the students found themselves playing characters with the same first names, based on themselves and their friends.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for any of Gondry’s typical magic. Outside the bus is a heightened version of the Bronx. The bus line, the BX66, is fictional, and wends its way through an unreal landscape. As the bus travels, the sun sets, going from mid-afternoon to twilight to mood-setting evening.

As daylight wanes, the mood in the bus becomes heavier. One by one, students reach their destinations and exit the bus. The real story of the movie takes shape and emerges as the remaining riders pare down. The antics and hijinx that mark the beginning of the film give way to something more serious, and it’s fascinating to watch how the movie develops as it goes on. 

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DVD Review: The Great Gatsby


...But The Great Gatsby isn’t just about details. It’s about people. You’d think it’d be hard for any performance to punch through all that art direction, but the assembled cast succeeds in making an impression—not just the shining DiCaprio, who fully earns his reputation as a movie star. Cary Mulligan as Daisy makes for a beautiful object of adoration, but Mulligan also embodies Daisy’s flightiness and superficiality, while Joel Edgerton is a brutal, physical Tom Buchanan. Still, no one projects the sleek, slinky Jazz Age glamour as newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Jordan Baker.

Luhrmann doesn’t always get at the inner lives of all these characters. Poor Jordan is reduced to best-friend capacity, and her relationship with Nick is barely explored. That’s the other perpetual problem with The Great Gatsby adaptations—even at 142 minutes, your favorite part from the novel has probably been cut or altered. Luhrmann sneaks in as much as he can, but even he knows there has to be a limit somewhere.

But rather than mourning what has been cut, Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is worth it for what he’s able to keep in: the exuberance and longing of people living out their younger and more vulnerable years in a glitzy time. This version of The Great Gatsby is for those who are all about the riotous excursions, not those looking for the privileged glimpses into the human heart.

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DVD Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

Sam Raimi Puts His Twist on a Classic with 'Oz the Great and Powerful'

Oz the Great and Powerful‘s origins are slightly ambiguous. It isn’t exactly a book adaptation. Baum wrote at least 14 books in his Oz series, and even after his exit, other authors took up Baum’s mantle. While Oz the Great and Powerful draws from details and characters in the books, it’s not an adaptation of any plot or combination of plots from the series, like Walter Murch’s Return to Oz was in 1985.

Nor is it a straight prequel to the MGM’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz movie. It hews extremely close, with a visual style that’s of a piece with that world. The Wicked Witch bears the same trademark green skin, the Emerald City has those familiar glowing skyscrapers reaching into the sky, and the Yellow Brick Road winds its way through the land. But Oz the Great and Powerful didn’t have the rights to some of that movie’s other signatures—the ruby slippers, for example, which are entirely absent from Oz the Great and Powerful. You can tell the movie was striving for continuity, but not everything lines up exactly.

Instead, the not-book-adaptation, not-movie-prequel has a much harder job at the start. It has to return to a beloved fantasy land, staying true to both Baum’s words and Victor Fleming’s vision while expanding both of them. It has to not only tell the story of how Oz, the wizard (James Franco), goes from a Kansas huckster magician to a Great Man (“Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison all mixed into one”), but it also has to fill in the backstories of all of Oz’s witches, including Glinda (Michelle Williams), Theodora (Mila Kunis), and Evanora (Rachel Weisz)—one of whom turns out to be the infamous Wicked Witch of the West. And it has to do it all on an epic scale, traveling through more than 30 sets; co-mingling live action and CG, animation and marionettes; and wrapping the whole thing in a unified turn-of-the-century stagecraft-meets-Hollywood-studio-glamour aesthetic. The only thing they didn’t throw at the production was musical numbers (though Danny Elfman does add a nice score).

It’s an extremely tall order, and it’s a shame that Sam Raimi didn’t record a commentary track to explain how he negotiated it all...Instead of hearing in-depth about the nuances of a new Oz film from Raimi himself, we can marvel about how much Raimi-ness he was able to add to such an iconic, established world. The twister that removes Oz from Kansas, with its speediness and slapstick, is quite possibly the Raimi-est act of severe weather ever brought to screen. Even Oz himself, at times, resembles Ash from the Evil Dead series—a stance of confident buffoonery described as “Charlie Chaplin meets Clark Cable”—that Franco doesn’t quite nail, but does well enough. (This is most evident in the character’s insistence on calling Glinda by the incorrect name of Wanda.)

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DVD Review: Dark Skies

'Dark Skies' Leans on the Right Nerve

Dark Skies follows Lacy (Keri Russell) and Daniel (Josh Hamilton), a typical small-town couple trying to make ends meet while raising their two sons, 13-year-old Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and six-year-old Sam (Kadan Rockett). Throughout the movie, two types of dramas unfold simultaneously within the family. The first is a suburban tale of a weakened marriage, with a husband and wife at odds with each other, threatened by outside forces and tested under the scrutiny of a close-knit (and judgmental) community. The second is a sci-fi/horror story about unknown visitors wreaking havoc in the homestead and menacing the children...

All of the suburban elements of Dark Skies work well, even when they don’t necessarily further the plot. The movie often goes on diversions with Jesse, delving into his best-friendship with a neighborhood thug (L.J. Benet) and his first romance with a girl (Annie Thurman). It might seem incongruous to insert in a coming-of-age subplot into a movie already stuffed with a broken marriage and supernatural beings, but these scenes don’t seem shoehorned in. They’re genuine and give an honest, nostalgia-free glimpse at what it’s like to be a new teenager, even if this is the last movie where you’d expect to find such sentiment.

When the movie veers away from the naturalistic and towards the horrific, though, it starts to falter. Sure, the forces at work serve their purpose for the characters, driving a wedge between Lacy and Daniel. Taken on their own, however, the threats feel overly familiar. These forces cause clichéd ailments: birds crash into windows (didn’t we just see this in Red Lights?); noses become bloodied; time is lost; and rashes, bruises, and strange marks appear. Some of it is even captured on home-security webcams, just like in Paranormal Activity.

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DVD Reviews: BBC's Alice Through the Looking Glass and Alice in Wonderland

Two of the worst Alice adaptations I've ever seen!

A 3-Dimensional World, Flattened: 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' & 'Alice in Wonderland'

...Alice Through the Looking Glass is hardly a joy to watch. The scenes mostly take place with the actors standing in front of painted, storybook backgrounds, a halo of green-screen surrounding them. In each scene, Alice comes upon another character, they stand almost stock-still and have some kind of loopy conversation, a poem is recited (reenacted by different actors in front of a different storybook background), and Alice is on her way again. It’s hardly cinematic and barely even dramatic. It’s one step beyond having someone read the book aloud at the local library. 

With all of its limitations, somehow Alice in Wonderland manages to be worse. The cheap sets and poor effects are still present despite the 13 year gap. Kate Dorning, who’s taken over the role of Alice, seems much too old for the part—with someone as old as she is demonstrating a basic lack of understand about how the world works, she comes across as just plain simple (and with a squeakily high voice). Sometimes she argues with herself aloud, other times her inner monologue is presented as a voiceover, and it’s impossible to tell why one is used over the other...

... With the low-budget production values and bad special effects, Alice Through the Looking Glass and Alice in Wonderland combine the worst of public-access television with the worst of community theater. Take, for instance, the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland. There’s a crowd of extras, but the stage is so small there isn’t room for any running. Instead, the characters just shuffle about, remarking at how chaotic it all seems. It’s so ineffective, it can’t even be appreciated as camp.

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DVD Review: Taken 2

Thanks to Key & Peele, I kept thinking of this as "Tooken 2" while I was reviewing it.

'Taken 2' Dutifully Follows the Most Standard of Sequel Formulas

All of this setup is really piece-moving to allow Mills to, in his words, “Do what I do best”—meaning charging after the bad guys without any backup, and taking them down. Sometimes there’s hand-to-hand combat; sometimes he gets a gun and just starts firing. There are neat little sequences, but no surprises: Everything that follows is as you would expect. It’s not that the action is poorly handled, but it’s just good enough to get Mills from the hordes of anonymous bad guys to the slightly more important bad guys to the really bad guys. At no point does Taken 2 deviate from this goal, or work any harder or get any smarter than it needs to be.

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