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...

Click through to read the full review at PopMatters.

The Daily Traveler: Amazing Outdoor Film Screenings

A Hot Tub Cinema? Our Favorite Outdoor Movie Venues

Who needs a drive-in? No cars are required to enjoy these outdoor movie screenings—and, chances are, the view will be as good as the film. Enjoy a sunset screening all summer long in an historic Italian piazza, on the rooftop of a cinema in Athens, in a cemetery in Los Angeles, and yes, in a hot tub.

Bologna, Italy

When the weather warms, Cineteca di Bologna turns the city’s Piazza Maggiore into one of the most historic outdoor movie venues, with Renaissance architecture surrounding the plaza on all sides and the dome of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita rising behind the screen. Cineteca di Bologna holds 51 screenings under the stars throughout the summer, with eight nights dedicated to the “Il Cinema Ritrovato” (Cinema Rediscovered) series of classic movies. It also claims that the Piazza Maggiore's screen is one of the largest in Europe.

Coming Attractions: Jules and Jim, The Spirit of '45, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Click through to see the full slideshow at The Condé Nast Traveler.

Photo: Lorenzo Burlando






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.

Click through to read the full review at PopMatters



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.

Click through to read the full review at PopMatters.

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.

Click through to read the full review at PopMatters.

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.) ...


PopMatters Year-End Lists: The Best TV of 2013 (and the Worst Movies)

The Best Television of 2013

No. 11
Girls
“One Man’s Trash”, a second-season episode of Girls, may have been polarizing even to the most strident fans of the show, but it proves why the series deserves a spot on any Top TV list. The episode finds Hannah Horvath (series creator Lena Dunham) spending a lost couple of days with a Brooklyn doctor (played by Patrick Wilson). The episode exists in a bubble; Hannah barely talks to any series regulars, and she and the doctor never venture outside of his brownstone together. It was so removed from the rest of the series, people speculated it was a dream. “One Man’s Trash” proves Girls’ originality and fearlessness. In a TV-watching culture that prizes serialized storytelling and binge-watchability above all else, Dunham isn’t afraid to take her show on a different tack and do a stand-alone episode. She’s also not afraid to go broad when other shows are trying to be grounded, or to show female characters spiraling out of control or refusing to grow up (normally the domain of male characters). It’s this willingness to take risks—some of which, admittedly, turn out to be more successful than others—that make Girls one of the most exciting shows on television.

No. 33
Sleepy Hollow
Sleepy Hollow throws everything at its audience. A time-traveling protagonist transported two centuries in the future? Yes. A menagerie of monsters? Why not. A secret, alternate history of the United States and Revolutionary War? Sure. Why not add in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (the famed Headless Horseman is one) and other Biblical catastrophes, too? It all works together, mostly because Sleepy Hollow moves along at such a pace that don’t have time to pick apart how any of it is stitched together. The mix of supernatural elements also gives the show a balance between monster-of-the-week episodes (which usually come with cool creature designs) and episodes that lay out the mythology for the oncoming war between good and evil. But what really sells it is the charm of Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), who sounds equally authoritative talking about 18th-century Freemasons as he does decrying the 21st-century “ten percent levy on baked goods”—aka the sales tax at Dunkin Donuts. Washington Irving would be tickled.


Click through to read the full list at PopMatters. I also had a few blurbs in The Worst Films of 2013 (#12, #16, and #23), but let's not dwell on the negative, shall we?

PopMatters Year-End Lists: The Best Films of 2013

Always happy to contribute to the year-end round-up features.

The Best Films of 2013

No. 25
The Bling Ring
Sofia Coppola has a way with lost young adults. The characters in The Bling Ring, based on real-life teenage burglars who targeted celebrities (as depicted in a Vanity Fair article), are certainly lost, being either home schooled or in the “dropout school” for past bad behavior. But instead of wallowing in their unsatisfactory home lives, Coppola shows how they’re swept up in everything they don’t have: designer clothes, huge mansions, access to the VIP celebrity lifestyle, and attention from the press. Coppola is able to dramatize this excess—shots of sprawling houses and overstuffed closets (including Paris Hilton’s actual residence)—and use it as both a critique of celebrity-obsessed consumerism and as a way of understanding why a gang of high schoolers would want to break in at all costs to steal of piece of it. She also makes the best use of the a slo-mo walking shot since Reservoir Dogs, only instead of identical black suits her characters wear pilfered couture.

No. 33
Prince Avalanche
With Prince Avalanche, you get the best of director David Gordon Green's two worlds: the lyrical prettiness and gorgeous compositions of his early indie movies (like All the Real Girls), plus the playfulness and humor of his bigger studio comedies (like The Pineapple Express). The film follows two lonely workers painting lines on a remote, fire-damaged road in the forests of Texas, and Green’s at his best when he’s working in this intimate scale. He’s a keen observer of human behavior, and he knows exactly what to slightly exaggerate for maximum comedic effect. Then again, there are parts of the story that are profoundly touching, especially when the main characters come across a woman who lost everything in one of the big fires. In this way, Prince Avalanche shows that you can do so much—evoke a whole range of emotions—with so very little—just two really strong performers (Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd), the bounty of nature, and a keen sense of the human condition.

No. 34
The Conjuring
Leave it to director James Wan, who kicked off the “torture porn” craze when he directed the first Saw movie, to be the one to lead the genre away from gristle and gore again. His two 2013 horror movies, Insidious Chapter 2 and The Conjuring, rely more on mood and atmosphere to ratchet up the tension and deliver their haunted-house scares. Of these, The Conjuring is more traditional, and more successful. It uses scares we’ve all seen before—from a menacing music box to a creeptastic twist on hide-and-seek—but uses them effectively; muscles will start to tense the minute you someone winds the gears of that music box or starts counting for that game of hide-and-seek. Wan elevates these tropes with a some visual flourishes, including an excellent tracking shot that follows multiple characters as they zig-zag through the haunted house on move-in day. There’s also an unexpected emotional core to the story, since The Conjuring portrays the interaction between two families: The Perrons, a boisterous family of seven that moved into the cursed Rhode Island farmhouse, and the Warrens, the demon-fighting couple that pledges to help them. (The Warrens are based on real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren.) It’s rare to see loving families depicted in horror movies—let alone two of them in one movie—which give stakes that are higher than every-teen-for-himself slasher movies since the characters have something important that they can lose (other than quarts of blood). Wan proves that you don’t have to be grotesque or shock to scare, so long as you have real people, not stock types, living in that haunted house.

Click through to see the full list at PopMatters.


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...

Click through to read the full review on PopMatters.