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
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.
The Best Television of 2013
“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.
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?
Always happy to contribute to the year-end round-up features.
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.
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.
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.
...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.
Just in time for Halloween, a review of a movie about female vampires.
...[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...
Click through to read the full review at PopMatters.
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.)
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...
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.
My annual Fall Arts Preview covers all of the arts and entertainment events taking place in the area in September, October, and Novmber—plus all the best movies and book release for the fall. You can download the PDF, or read it online here.