DVD Review: 'Under the Skin'


...We follow Laura as she drives around the streets of Glasgow in a van, luring and seducing men into her orbit, often to their detriment. For these scenes, Glazer uses a series of non-actors in largely improvised environments; the van is outfitted with up to 10 hidden-camera setups.

The result of these conditions—regular people having unscripted conversations in a natural setting without cameras reminding them they’re being filmed—should be naturalistic. However, they don’t entirely feel this way. While these scenes do feel authentic, Glazer heightens the action beyond the typical found-footage-style documentary. His images are more beautiful than something you’d expect from dashboard cameras. He also sets the scenes to a discordantly beautiful score by Mica Levi. You can feel the disconnect between Laura and the rest of humanity; everything feels distant and unsettled.

This is largely to the credit of Johansson. She’s capable of telegraphing both seduction and isolation simultaneously. She connects with the men she meets on the street, but you can tell that there’s an emotional disconnect. While there is dialogue throughout the film, Johansson is essentially giving a silent performance. The words that pass between her and the men are of no consequence to the arc of the film; they’re just to get the men in the van. The emotional core of the story—which comes more and more into focus as the film progresses—is almost entirely advanced through Johansson’s face...

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DVD Review: Winter's Tale

The love story should be the heart of Winter’s Tale, but the movie is frequently caught up in the more supernatural elements of the story, and everything is consumed in its spiritual mumbo-jumbo. For example, at least two different characters are pressed into service to explain that Lake’s horse is “actually a dog”—specifically Athansor, the “Dog of the East”—that just sometimes takes the form of a horse. This information never comes to bear in the rest of the entire movie, as Athansor never appears as a dog; it’s just magical nonsense.

It’s not just background nonsense, either; the movie goes out of its way to play up its spiritual angle. Light and its mystical properties, for example, is a major theme of the movie. Instead of just being a recurring visual motif, though, Goldsman makes sure the light is always front-and-center. This results in something onscreen twinkling right before an awe-inspiring event happens. It’s a constant primer that the audience doesn’t actually need.

The magical elements of the story come at the expense of developing real characters. By the time a second set of major characters is introduced in the 2014 timeline, Winter’s Tale doesn’t have enough time left to get invested in them as people. Instead, they become just another set of mystical objects in Lake’s quest for miracles.

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DVD Review: Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit


...All of this happens in what is basically the prologue to the actual events of the film, which show how the squeaky-clean Ryan, following his injury, is recruited into the CIA, first as a data analyst at a financial firm in New York City, and then as an agent on his first field assignment to avert an act of financial terrorism in Russia. As Ryan progresses up the ranks of the CIA, though, the story doesn’t get any more nuanced. Ryan is always the most observant, most competent, most morally upstanding guy in the room. The Americans are the good guys; the Russians are the villains. It is, like its airport-novel origins, pretty boilerplate.

For something so formulaic, though, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is at least well done. Director Kenneth Branagh borrows from the best of recent thrillers. He throws in a Bourne-style fight scene here, a Mission:Impossible break-in-and-heist-sequence there, and some Zero Dark Thirty-like data analysis, along with a dash of his own classic, theatrical flourishes. (Branagh takes on the role of Russian baddie Viktor Cherevin, a cold-blooded killer who still makes time to talk about the novels of Mikhail Lermontov.)

With each of these sequences, Branagh changes his filmmaking style to match. The Bourne-like fistfight also borrows its director’s affinity for the shaky, handheld camera aesthetic. The longer heist scene has more fluid camera movements and quick cuts to ratchet up the tension. Throughout, Branagh makes everything sparkle: fluorescent lights of a city, reflections on smooth surfaces of modern architecture, blinking lights of a computer message. The elements of the story may be familiar, but everything looks shiny and new.

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DVD Review: Lizzie Borden Took an Axe

Taken all together, Lizzie Borden Took an Axe is unsatisfying on every level. It doesn’t dig deep enough to make Borden a deliciously evil villain that still inspires some loyalty, like Hannibal Lecter or Joe Carroll. The procedural elements detailing the trial amount to dueling monologues from the prosecution and defense, making them more dry than dramatic. (And shallow, too: You see the hoards of press and gawkers at the trial, but their impact is never explored.) It doesn’t shed any new light on the century-old case. And the camp doesn’t go over-the-top enough to fulfill any kind of cheesy midnight-movie craving.

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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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