Category Archives: Film

Film: Afternoon Delight

It’s hard not to look at Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight (2013) as a warmup for her series Transparent. Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) is a profoundly bored mother in Los Angeles whose marriage to breadwinner husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) has lost its spark. Rachel’s search for meaning leads her to a strip club, where Jeff buys her a lapdance from young stripper McKenna (Juno Temple). Fascinated by McKenna’s life, Rachel befriends her outside of work, and eventually invites her to live in her spare room – a move calculated to shake up, or perhaps blow up, her life.

Afternoon Delight is stylistically similar to Transparent in its frankness, its mix of comedic talent with dark subject matter, and its semi-improvisational scene-building. It’s also focused on characters ensconced in comfortable, expected, wealthy lives who are searching for meaning. Its story, alas, isn’t nearly as compelling as Transparent’s; Rachel’s journey feels more predictable than that of the Pfeffermans. I found my attention drifting occasionally. But Hahn is terrific in a rare starring turn, and she’s surrounded with convincing support from Radnor, Michaela Watkins, Jane Lynch, and others. Certainly not a must-watch, for me, but not without its strengths.

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Film: Wreck-It Ralph

What a pleasant surprise to discover Wreck-It Ralph (2012), an animated gem that leverages decades of video game lore to funny, quirky effect. Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the destructive villain of an old-school arcade game called Fix-It Felix, doomed to forever be the bad guy in a hopelessly programmed existence while his nemesis Felix (Jack McBrayer) reaps all the accolades. Ralph wants more out of life, and to that end he infiltrates another game in order to win a medal and become a hero. But Ralph’s quest for respectability has unexpected consequences when it takes a random turn into the racing game Sugar Rush. There his goals become entangled with those of Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman)…and, in a complicated chain of events, threatens to destroy the game-o-sphere.

Wreck-It Ralph does so many things right, and not just in the expected ways: the gorgeous animation, the sight gags, the perfect voice casting (especially from Reilly, Silverman, McBrayer, and Jane Lynch), the sense of humor, and the zany sensibility that welcomes newcomers even as it rewards seasoned, older gamers with amusing easter eggs. Even the product placement is clever. But most impressive to me was the surprising complexity of the story, which is rife with intricate subplotting and multiple resonating themes. The characters are winning, and their interactions are both fraught and affecting. Centrally, the friendship between Ralph and Vanellope is epic. And look, Mom, no sexism!

Somehow this film skated right past my radar when it came out, but it’s well worth watching: inventive, involved, funny, and surprisingly moving.

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Spy 100, #5: Our Man In Havana

Now this is the stuff. From writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed – the same winning team of The Third Man – comes Our Man in Havana (1959), an irresistable blend of classic filmmaking, spy intrigue, and dark comedy. The titular character is Jim Wormold (the great Alec Guinness), just a run of the mill British expatriate vacuum cleaner salesman living in Cuba before the communist revolution. Much to his amusement, Wormold is approached by a British spook named Hawthorne (Noel Coward), who recruits Wormold into his new Caribbean network. Wormold is no spy, and can’t imagine how he can be of any use, but Hawthorne won’t take no for an answer…and Wormold, whose frivolous daughter Milly (Jo Morrow) has expensive tastes, changes his tune once he sees the color of the British government’s money. The only problem: he possesses no intelligence. So, playfully, he begins making it up: inventing agents, fabricating reports, even generating his own top secret blueprints. It’s all harmless fun until one of his lies lands too close to the truth, a turn that spins his lark of a career in dark directions.

Can a movie be number five on a best-of list and still be underrated? Our Man In Havana is a wonderful film, an amusing comedy of errors that takes a dark turn into scathing critique of intelligence-world meddling. Guinness is delightful in an energetic, playful role, morphing convincingly from a cynically light-hearted opportunist into a repentant, actual player in the spy world’s dark alleys, working to engineer a valid endgame to the mess he’s made. Greene’s script is tight, funny, and doesn’t pander, while Reed builds the world with gritty black-and-white artistry. This one’s got everything I love in a good spy movie, with the added bonus of an incisive, whip-smart sense of humor. Very highly recommended.

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Film: In Your Eyes

For much of its run, In Your Eyes (2014) is a premise in search of a story. A fantasy romance from an early script by Joss Whedon, it’s about star-crossed lovers who share a mysterious psychic link that enables them to see through each other’s eyes and share emotional experiences. In small-town New Hampshire is Rebecca (Zoe Kazan), the troubled wife of a doctor, while Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) is an intelligent ne’er-do-well in rural New Mexico with a criminal past . Neither of their lives is going well, when their link suddenly comes into sharp relief, giving them each an instantly reachable confidant with whom to interact. Their obsessive connection creates problems in their separate lives, but also inexorably brings them together.

An earnest, indie production, In Your Eyes is, alas, not a particularly good film. It spends a considerable percentage of its running time establishing its fantastical premise, but fails to realize that premise with any visual gusto; the one time it attempts to depict the characters seeing through each others’ eyes, the effect is weak, and the rest of the time their conversations basically play out like phone calls. The premise also handcuffs the stars with the challenging task of interacting, and falling in love, without actually being in the same place. Stahl-David manages this trick better than Kazan, but neither truly shines.

Eventually the couple’s rapport achieves some depth, and conflict enters the picture, and a story develops; the film is not completely without interest. But overall it’s an unimpressive slog, definitely a disappointment by Whedon’s usual standard.

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Film: The Lego Movie

My initial reaction upon hearing about The Lego Movie (2014) was that it sounds like Product Placement: The Movie. And it sort of is, but the video games are a little like that too, and I’ve enjoyed those, so why not? As it happens the movie is a clever, cute contraption that is much weirder than I was expecting it to be, if perhaps not quite as weird as I would have liked.

In the clockwork Lego city of Bricksburg, Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt) is a run-of-the-mill construction worker – a cog in the machine of society, happy with his simple, conformist lot in life. Then he stumbles across Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks), and accidentally lands himself in the middle of a cosmic struggle for the fate of the Lego universe. It seems that Professor Business (Will Ferrell) is planning to unleash a secret weapon called the KRAGLE on the universe, freezing everyone into their rightful positions and thus “perfecting” everything. Up against him are a ragtag band of “master builders” who thrive on the fluidity of the Lego world as it is, using the very landscape to express their inventive natures. Emmet doesn’t have a creative bone in his body, but a prophecy has deemed him “the Special,” and suddenly he finds himself responsible for the fate of everything.

It’s an inventive, visually arresting comedy-adventure, more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, and I enjoyed its unpredictable narrative – and finally catching the subversive undertones of “Everything is Awesome.” The voicework, which also features Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, and others, is well done, and the animation is frenetic and eye-catching. The conformity-vs.-nonconformity vibe gives the film unexpected thematic intrigue, and the ending gets into some weird meta territory. Unfortunately that same ending also kind of brought home the project’s overarching product placement-y nature: look how good Legos are for creative play! I wanted a little less family-friendly sap in those final moments, but I suppose it is a movie for kids – and for kids at heart – so I’ll give it up a thumbs up as a lively and clever diversion.

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Spy 100, #6: The Manchurian Candidate

Its inclusion on the list is unassailable, but on this viewing I wonder if The Manchurian Candidate (1962) might be a bit over-ranked. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely memorable fare, but I think it succeeds more as a fierce and pointed political screed than as a straight-up spy film.

In the aftermath of the Korean War, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) returns to the United States a decorated war hero, having single-handedly saved nine men in his unit from certain death. Or did he? Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) starts to question his memory of events when disturbing dreams begin disrupting his peacetime life. In the dreams, he recalls his Korean experiences differently: he and his squadmates, Shaw included, are surrounded by cultured ladies – or are the communist military leaders? – undergoing a strange sort of conditioning. And the heroic Raymond Shaw seems to be callously murdering his friends. Something’s not right, and as the dreams start to derail Marco’s career, he goes rogue to confront Shaw and find out what’s going on. His investigation leads to troubling revelations: he thinks the entire squad may have been brainwashed, and Shaw in particular may have been programmed to commit crimes against his own country. Not entirely sure he isn’t cracking up, Marco sets out to crack the mystery of what happened to him and his unit – and stop the enemy from making use of Shaw.

Oh, I love The Manchurian Candidate. This is John Frankenheimer at his incisive, artistic best, and the film’s eery, Twilight Zone-esque dream sequences set a very compelling stage. It’s got Frank Sinatra at its center, sweating and twitching and oozing paranoia. Angela Lansbury shreds the screen as Shaw’s vicious, horrible, politically connected mother. There’s Janet Leigh, underused but glowing with riveting, Old Hollywood star power. For us Mission: Impossible geeks, it’s full of familiar faces, from James Gregory to Khigh Dhiegh to Albert Paulsen. And the film just drips with the nasty political edge and creeping paranoia of Frankenheimer’s best work.

But the genre enthusiast in me found aspects of this one wanting, particularly in terms of plot logic – it lacks that sense of carefully structured inevitability that the best spy films seem to possess. It also telegraphs its moves a bit, and fails to capitalize on opportunities for surprise and intrigue. I think, in the end, it’s more interested in its overarching political metaphor – as eloquently laid out in a blazing monologue from Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver) – than in its espionage mechanics.

Which is, of course, fine. It’s still a great movie, which – along with Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May and Seconds – constitutes some of my favorite 1960s cinema. Its final plot twist makes for a quite satisfying exclamation point, and much of the genre furniture is perfectly in place. I think #6 may be a smidge high in terms of its list placement, but overall The Manchurian Candidate is definitely must-watch spy cinema.

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Film: Edge of Tomorrow

One of the year’s most poorly marketed films, Edge of Tomorrow (2014) is exactly what you’ve heard it is: a mashup of Groundhog Day, Starship Troopers and Independence Day. It’s better than its elevator pitch, more clever and entertaining than I was expecting, but unfortunately it falls short of ingenious – which I believe was its aim – thanks to a muddy, fumbled finale.

As the film opens a war rages between highly advanced, terrifying alien invaders called Mimics and a coalition of human defense forces. The aliens have conquered most of the European continent, but the humans have found hope: a recent victory in Verdun, led by heroic Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), has convinced them that a full-scale invasion of the continent could produce ultimate victory.

Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is a charismatic public affairs man for the army who uses his spin-doctoring skills to sell the war effort. On the eve of the invasion, he’s assigned by vindictive General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to cover the battle from the front lines. When Cage attempts to duck out, he’s arrested, demoted, and assigned to Squad J for full combat duty. Predictably, his first mission goes horribly wrong, and he’s killed in action just minutes after landing in France. But then he wakes up, back in time, the day before the mission: and is forced to join the assault all over again. And again. And again.

The writers and director Doug Liman wring a nifty, time-warpy plot out of the high concept SF action scenario, as Cage is put through the torturous paces of a grizzly war, over and over again. Cruise’s bigger-than-life smarm works to the story’s favor, as the endless life-death loop churns out dark laughter at the actor’s expense. But Cruise is, in fact, genuinely likeable in this one. As Cage repeatedly negotiates the violent, video-gamey scenario, the horrors of war wipe the smirk off his face, and he gains confidence as his knowledge of the future propels him ever closer to salvation. Blunt’s Rita Vrataski is charismatically badass, and Liman executes the proceedings with aplomb and efficiency.

Alas, it all unravels late in the game – pun intended. The sequence to confront the Final Boss descends into the kind of murky action spectacle that Big Hollywood frequently inflicts on its final acts. And the film resolves with a final moment that feels rigorously screen-tested, and makes no real sense. So yeah, Edge of Tomorrow pulls a hamstring in the home stretch, but until then it circles the track in exciting, and surprisingly fun, fashion.

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Spy 100, #8: Pickup on South Street

Much as I enjoyed Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953), I think it’s rated too highly on the list. The distinct visual style and rhythmic crime lingo of noir characterizes this cleverly plotted yarn, which is really only a spy film on its edges. It has the feel of classic cinema, but also a host of problematic, era-specific issues.

When a pickpocket named Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) lifts the wallet of an attractive woman named Candy (Jean Peters) on a New York City subway, it’s a simple crime that turns out to have wickedly complicated consequences. Why? Because Candy is a courier, who was delivering a top secret package for her shady boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). On top of that, she was also under surveillance by federal agents, who were following her to determine the package’s recipient. A chain of events ensues, entangling several conflicting motives. The feds recruit a notorious local stool pigeon, Moe (Thelma Ritter), to try to identify the pickpocket. Joey strong-arms Candy into retrieving what she lost. And the cavalier Skip ultimately learns the unexpected value of his asset, and works to leverage it to the fullest advantage.

It’s a wonderfully complex skein of shady criminal behavior, and I watched the first half-hour or so with pure delight. Peters makes for an interesting, fast-talking femme fatale, and Ritter is both a hoot and a heartbreaker as the ever-angling stoolie. And from a subtle, quiet start full of terrific visual story-telling, a beautifully shifty plot emerges, full of switchbacks and double-crosses and hidden agendas.

Alas, the nihilistic noir trappings and gross gender politics of the era do eventually assert themselves, ultimately spoiling the soup. Evidently Widmark’s arrogant bad boy snarl is supposed to be charming, but it doesn’t play – in fact, he’s almost entirely irredeemable, which renders a crucial flash-romance between Skip and Candy decidedly unconvincing. Too much of the relationship relies on Candy’s poor judgment, and it’s undercut even further by the casual, explosive physical abuse she receives from Skip – and later, more seriously, from Joey. This is standard noir misogyny at work, I suspect, cavalierly handled in a manner that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. And for all the clever build-up of its nifty plot, it resolves awkwardly: the climactic fight scene fades out oddly, followed by a weirdly Hollywood ending that Skip certainly doesn’t deserve, and that I wish Candy hadn’t wanted.

It’s a shame, because there is so much to like here. Fuller’s directorial eye is in fine form, the scenario is full of intrigue and suspense, and oh, the glorious patter of slick dialogue. It’s even, amazingly, a Bechdel pass, with female leads who totally outshine their male counterparts. But in the end it’s a number of awkward missteps short of brilliant.

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Film: Pleasantville

When Pleasantville (1998) turned up on TV over the holiday weekend, I realized I’d never seen it. It’s a well put together, if problematic, high-concept Hollywood portal fantasy. It’s about a sulky teenager named David (Tobey Maguire) who, in order to escape the imperfections of real life, regularly loses himself in the white, suburban fantasy of an old TV sitcom called Pleasantville. When David’s television breaks, a peculiar TV repairman (Don Knotts) shows up to fix it – and magically propels David into the show. The catch? His sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) ends up coming along for the ride, bringing her sexually experienced, non-goody-two-shoes attitude along with her. Jennifer doesn’t know the protocols of Pleasantville’s unchanging, surfacey 1950s landscape – nor does she care. It doesn’t take long before they both becomes flys in the ointment, upsetting the town’s comfortable stasis to show its citizens – and, of course, themselves – a new way to live.

Pleasantville is a nicely assembled film, with some funny early moments as it explores its premise. It also has a striking look, with a clever visual conceit: the bland, black-and-white fifties backdrop gradually falls away as David and Jennifer’s contemporary influence gets the citizens of Pleasantville thinking outside the idiot box for once, a process that magically injects color into the world. It’s a well rendered “enlightenment” metaphor, especially early. There’s also effective casting: Maguire and Witherspoon are perfect for their parts, as are Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, and William H. Macy as cardboard sitcom characters forced to see beyond the confines of their traditional roles.

Alas, something doesn’t sit right with me about this film. The structure’s too formulaic, the thematic destination too predictable. While it’s clever, it also manages to be obvious and simplistic. Most troubling, there’s something tone deaf about the way it leverages discrimination language as the black-and-white citizens become “colored.” This may be the whitest film ever made, and obviously it’s deliberate, practically built into the premise…but, yeah, it probably shouldn’t have gone there. There’s also premise fatigue late in the film, particularly in the climactic courtroom scene near the end.

A mixed reaction, then: I can understand how it did well, and there are aspects of its craft worth appreciating, but it also left a weird taste in my mouth. An interesting watch.

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Spy 100, #9: The Lives of Others

In my view, the quietly devastating The Lives of Others (2006) is right up there with other classic films investigating the emotional perils of surveillance and voyeurism: The Conversation and Rear Window come immediately to mind. Indeed this may be one of the Spy 100 list’s most powerful entries, underrated even at #9.

In early eighties East Germany, secret policeman Captain Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is given a simple assignment: investigate squeaky clean, party-approved writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). A party idealist to the core, Wiesler dutifully sets about his task, establishing a listening post in the attic of Dreyman’s building. But his job, rather straightforward on the surface, turns out to be a more complicated tangle: a personal vendetta involving a politically powerful rival for the affections of Dreyman’s girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). This kind of abuse of power isn’t part of Wiesler’s job description, but then neither is his slowly mounting empathy for the artists he’s been tasked with destroying – an unexpected development that leads him to subtly start pulling strings to manipulate their fate.

Impeccably produced, The Lives of Others is a moving, intense examination of life in a corrupt, communist surveillance state. Its bleak depiction of the stultifying day-to-day conditions of life during that time is truly eye-opening. But it’s also a heartbreakingly beautiful film, full of emotional power, thanks to outstanding performances in the key roles. Koch and Gedeck are superb, selling the troubled central relationship convincingly, but it’s Mühe who breaks my heart in this one. His subtle, gradual transformation – from stern, unquestioning agent of the state, to a quietly empathetic guardian angel for the artists whose love he vicariously lives through – is the core of a perfectly structured story. It all culminates in a wrenchingly beautiful final moment. A sad, quiet, slow-building masterpiece.

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