DVD Review: 'The Trip to Italy'

...There are wisps of other plot threads—about how they relate to their families, feel about aging, and traverse through their careers—but most of the movie passes without too much incident. And, ultimately, it’s a genial way to pass a couple of hours. In the film, Brydon complains that people find his stage persona “affable”—a hard reputation to live up to in person—but “affable” is the best way to describe the film. It doesn’t require too much thought; audiences just have to sit back and let the jokes wash over them. There’s a teeny bit of literary history, a slight bit of drama, a smattering of food porn, but mostly jokes...

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PopMatters: The Best Films of 2014

I love contributing to year-end lists! I wrote a few blurbs for PopMatters' list of best films of the year.

The Best Films of 2014

No. 29: Only Lovers Left Alive

Vampires are overused. Scrubbed up and prettified to the point they can be nonthreatening romantic partners for teenagers, today’s cinematic vampires are, well, pretty toothless. With Only Lovers Left Alive, director Jim Jarmusch has managed to salvage the vampire mystique. His vamps are sexy, mysterious, brooding, and dangerous in equal measures. Adam (Tom Hiddleston, proving he deserves the admiration of a thousand Tumblrs) and Eve (Tilda Swinton, in one of her many standout performances this year) don’t do much throughout the course of the film—the two reunited lovers mostly bum around Adam’s Detroit home—but throughout their conversations, Jarmusch manages to slip in elbow-to-the-ribs jokes about history, ruminations about marriage, and most importantly, a meditation into the creation of art itself. And Hiddleston and Swinton make it look so, so cool.

No. 22: Whiplash

In Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, music student and jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) tells his girlfriend that he strives to be one of the greatest performers of all time. In reality, it’s actor Teller and his co-star—J.K. Simmons, playing Terence Fletcher, Neiman’s teacher and bandleader—who really seem to be making a play at greatness. The film is about their conflict, and how Neiman believes he deserves greater acclaim as a drummer, with Fletcher arguing Neiman needs to pay more dues. Their back-and-forth brings the movie to a fever pitch—whiplash, indeed—with Teller and Simmons portraying the extremes of anger, frustration, and ambition without being afraid to show the egoism and callousness that go with them. It all builds to a climax that’s nothing short of virtuosic, both musically and cinematically.

No. 5: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson has a reputation for being constricting. His shots are so composed and his aesthetic so specific that his stories barely have room to breathe. The Grand Budapest Hotel refutes this generalization. Anderson pulls back and widens the scope of his film, spanning multiple time periods (with different casts of actors for each), countries (imagined ones, at least), and even aspect ratios (with frame sizes changing to denote the different timelines). Along with the broadened scope comes a certain looseness not normally associated with a director as controlling as Anderson; the actors, for example, each speak with their own accents, whether or not it makes sense in the context of the film. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack the same emotional punch as Anderson’s other films; it subtly moves from sequences of light farce to moments of real grief, sadness, loneliness, and anxiety about an approaching war. It adds up to a masterpiece on par with Johannes Van Hoytl the Younger’s Boy with Apple.

No. 4: Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

If there were a theme to 2014’s best movies, it would be about the struggle of creation. From the generation of music, as seen in Whiplash and Only Lovers Left Alive, to the art of Mr. Turner, the year was full of characters fighting to get something out into the world. Birdman is no exception. Not only is Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) trying to mount a play (a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”), he’s also trying to complete an act of self-invention. Along the way, director Alejandro González Iñárritu completes his own metamorphosis, from a director known for cross-cutting to one crazy enough to make a movie that looks like it was all one take. The subtitle of the movie is “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”, but it should instead be “The Unabashed Joy of Ambition”.

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TV Review: 'Marry Me'

...Even if The New Girl and The Mindy Project have modeled some success, 2014’s crop of TV rom-sitcoms—A to Z, Manhattan Love Story, and Selfie—will have to figure out what they would do if they were lucky enough to make it to a second season. Do they extend the will-they-or-won’t-they tensions, or is that just stringing audiences along? Or, might the couples get together in a season finalé, fundamentally changing the blueprint of the show for a sophomore season?

These longer-term questions aside, the single-camera Marry Me distinguishes itself by focusing on a couple who is together from the beginning. In the premiere episode, airing 14 October, Annie (Casey Wilson) and Jake (Ken Marino) have already been through their meet-cute, fallen in love, and spent six years together. The series premiere focuses on their bumpy engagement.

With this history in place, the show is free to focus on the comedy portion of the relationship, rather than the earliest, more sentimental stage. That doesn’t mean this rom-sitcom leaves out emotional moments; it’s clear that Annie and Jake really care for each other. Flashbacks to their initial meeting and the first time each says, “I love you” briefly deliver blushing first moments of love for viewers interested in that stage. That said, these early moments look ahead to the problems ahead, as Annie and Jake’s awkwardness gives way to scenes of abject embarrassment. Wilson and Marino are skilled enough performers that they can sell the tender scenes as well as the more exaggerated comedy... 

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DVD Review: 'Obvious Child'

...If there’s a problem with Obvious Child, it’s born of the movie’s strengths. It’s a relief to see a movie that doesn’t treat abortion as a ordeal, and it’s refreshing to see a man in a romantic comedy be an idealized fantasy object. However, the combination of these two elements makes the film light on conflict. It’s important to Obvious Child to keep the abortion regret-free, so once the decision to end the pregnancy is made, it doesn’t continue to drive the narrative. The focus shifts to the relationship between Donna and Max, but he never seems to anger no matter how bad Donna’s behavior gets. Donna goes through ups and downs on her own accord, but nothing is too extreme...

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TV Review: 'Mulaney'

...Mulaney knows enough to feature a ringer or two, beginning with Martin Short, who plays his loopy comedian and game-show-host boss, Lou Cannon. Short is a tremendous physical comedian, and he can sell the gags that Mulaney can’t quite pull off. Thankfully, the show makes great use of Short’s talents. Not only does he careen around the set, he has ingenious comic timing. Cannon tells Mulaney that he likes “fast setups and slow punch-lines,” which seems to apply to Short himself, though there are times when his fast setups are followed by rapid-fire punch-lines, too.

Not every character is so well served by the material. Mulaney and Motif’s third roommate, Jane (Nasim Pedrad), is especially problematic. Though Pedrad doesn’t sound like a stand-up, Jane is obviously underdeveloped, and thrown into subplots that focus on typical—if not offensive—female storylines and stereotypes...The offense only gets worse when you realize that she’s the only one of the three roommates who, after the first few episodes, doesn’t have a clear profession. (Motif and Mulaney are both, predictably, comedians.) She’s another female character on TV who’s defined by her relationships with men, whether it’s her platonic friendship with Mulaney or her train-wreck romances. If Mulaney really seeks to emulate Seinfeld, it should seek to turn Jane into as vibrant and singular a character as Elaine Benes...

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TV Review: 'Gotham"

'Gotham' Is No Place for Nice Guys

...From the series premiere, it looks like Gotham fits somewhere between Burton’s and Nolan’s creations, not quite as stylized as the former, but not quite as contemporary as the latter. It’s dark—even the daytime scenes feel overcast—and the streets feature little retro touches, like checkered cabs. The striking visuals make clear that Gotham really is about the city first and foremost. While the first episode mostly follows Gordon, it does so to explore the city’s institutions (legal and illegal), how they overlap with each other, how each vies for control.

The institutions are premised on the individuals they affect as well as those who wield power. And, like most first episodes, this one offers a quick overview of the series’ players. Gotham feels like a fully populated town, almost akin to The Simpsons’ Springfield. Batman fans will recognize a few of the names, like Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), Ivy Pepper (Clare Foley), and Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith). Since it’s too early in the Batman timeline for them to give in wholly to their villainous tendencies, right now they’re just townsfolk, however eccentric...

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DVD Review: 'Transcendence'

In Transcendence, Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) is introduced as the classic mad scientist, someone who moves forward with experimental technology without stopping to consider the consequences. Of course, she has a good reason to do so: love. Her husband, the brilliant scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp), was making breakthroughs in the field of self-aware artificial intelligence when an anti-A.I. group, Revolutionary Independence from Technology (R.I.F.T.), assassinates him with radioactive poisoning. Since it’s such a villainously slow death, Evelyn has enough time to copy his brain activity and upload his “consciousness” into the A.I. supercomputer he created. Friend and fellow scientist Max (Paul Bettany) has reservations about copying Will’s consciousness and hooking it up to the world’s network of computers, but Evelyn considers it a sound scientific plan, since a digital husband is better than no husband at all.

Similarly, on paper, Transcendence seems like it should be good idea. It’s an original sci-fi concept, not based on a pre-existing franchise property. Wally Pfister, longtime director of photography for Christopher Nolan, chose it as his directorial debut. (In one of the wan bonus features, someone calls Pfister a veteran with the passion and energy of a first-timer.) The cast also features members of the Christopher Nolan Repertory Company, including Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy. With all of these factors in place, it wouldn’t seem unreasonable to expect a movie on the level of Nolan’s Inception. But, like Dr. Caster’s experiments, Transcendence is much smarter in theory than it is in practice.

Not that the movie should be blamed for trying. Many recent films have focused on Transcendence‘s two main themes: the practical applications of self-aware artificial intelligence, and humanity’s relationship to it. Just a few months before the film’s release, for example, Spike Jonze‘s Her covered similar ground. But while Her focused in an emotional, one-on-one human interaction, Transcendence‘s view is more macro, centered on the power of A.I. that has access to the world’s accumulated knowledge in a plugged-in society. Or was it more of a political view, telling the story of the struggle between the people who barrel forward with new technology too quickly versus the people who rally against it entirely? Or is it about whether or not humans can form a romantic relationship with A.I. created from the exact neural pathways of someone they once loved? And, if scientists can create A.I. from the exact neural pathways of a living human, what makes that A.I. different from the original? In short: What makes us human, and can it be copied or created?

These are big questions, and Transcendence tries to tackle all of them without ever really getting a bead on any of them...

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DVD Review: Disney's 'Ichabod and Mr. Toad' and 'Fun and Fancy Free'

...It would have been neat if the Blu-ray gave viewers a choice to either watch the movies as two distinct features in their original forms, or as a series of shorts that could be accessed separately and watched in any order. Yet if you want to go from “Sleepy Hollow” to “Bongo”, you have to stop Ichabod and Mr. Toad, head to the top menu, select Fun and Fancy Free, select play from that menu, and fast-forward through the overlong introductory material with Jiminey Cricket.

Format nitpicking aside—and I realize it is a lot to ask Disney to slice-and-dice its beloved feature films—this Blu-Ray two-movie collection has charm to spare. For the most part, the shorts are some of Disney’s strongest, and taken as a whole they offer a variety of animation styles, characters and tones...

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DVD Review: 'Need for Speed'

'Need for Speed' Is About the Thrill of the Ride, Not the Script

...In other words, this is a car movie, one made for people who love cars, and for people who love other car movies. Enthusiasts get to gawk at Marshall’s Ford Mustang GT500 and other exotic cars, like a Lamborghini Sesto Elemento or a Koenigsegg Agera R.

These cars are treated (and shot) with a lot of love. Director Scott Waugh, in his commentary with Paul, mentions that he favors practical effects over CGI, and you can tell; the cars have heft and weight to them, and the most interesting visuals in the film are done in the service of the driving scenes. The cars are also the subject of most of the Blu-ray’s features, which do everything from break down the biggest stunts to analyze the different rumbles that each car makes.

But besides just lavishing attention on the cars, Waugh loves placing them in the context of other, classic driving movies, from Bullitt to American Graffiti. In the commentary, Waugh and Paul point out many of these references (and, yes, video game Easter eggs, too), down to the tiniest background details. (A stunt coordinator and son of a stunt coordinator, Waugh also likes to give shout-outs to all of the stunt drivers and their previous films.) When Bullitt is playing in the background of a drive-in theater during one of the opening scenes of the film, Waugh mentions that he was afraid the movie would come across as a period film, since he puts in so many references to the ‘60s and ‘70s...

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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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