Blue Ruin

Surprise indie ‘Blue Ruin’ nails neo-noir tension

Vengeance is not for the weak, the inexperienced or the unprepared, and yet so many are drawn to it, and just as many fail. “Blue Ruin” is about a man too careful and timid to get himself killed but not nearly clever, resourceful or vicious enough to get himself out of trouble. Jeremy Saulnier’s film speaks to our constant struggle for survival in an urban world contained within a minimal Greek tragedy. It’s one of the finest surprise indie films of the year.

“I’d forgive you if you were crazy, but you’re not; you’re weak.” Those are the harsh words Dwight (Macon Blair) receives upon returning home to his wife Sam (Amy Hargreaves). For months he’s been living as a vagrant along the beach, rummaging for half eaten food at carnivals and sleeping in cars. Dwight’s hair is long and filthy, his beard consuming his face. Though the movie doesn’t specifically say, he’s on the run from his own past. When a police officer informs him that a man named Wade Cleland is being released from prison, Dwight follows Cleland home and plots to murder him in retaliation for killing his parents years ago.

Dwight is so helpless that he can’t even steal a gun. When he manages to scrounge up a knife, his stealth attack is clumsy and a bloody mess, and his getaway is even worse. Soon the Cleland clan is after him, staking out his family’s home and tracking his every move. His idiocy often gets the better of him, yet somehow he manages to stay alive.

“Blue Ruin” has a quiet tension and careful, close-to-the chest filmmaking that recreates the best of neo-noir from “Drive” to “No Country for Old Men” to the Coen Brothers classic “Blood Simple.” And yet along with Macon Blair’s timid, feeble performance is a delirious sense that this guy is never in control. When he shaves his beard and hair and tries acclimating to society, he looks pitiful and out of place in his own clothes.

He’s trying so hard that he’s almost comically clueless. While trying to badger answers out of a Cleland gang member he’s taken hostage, he gets too close and has his gun stolen away from him. But the changing, ambivalent tone leads to some of the movie’s biggest surprise deaths and shocking acts of spite and hatred coming from this otherwise nervously crippled man.

Yet unlike something like “No Country” or “Drive”, “Blue Ruin” and Saulnier recognize that even these vindictive, backwards hicks are people he’s dealing with. They’re just as timid, just as vulnerable in their homes, just as impulsive to the trigger and just as reluctant to get future generations caught in the same mess.

The film does not end well for anyone involved, but it’s a powerful ending that speaks to how vengeance, hate and the unpredictable messiness of it all can only lead to a foregone conclusion.

3 ½ stars

BeginAgain

‘Begin Again’ recaptures the real, musical magic of ‘Once’

The mini-miracle of 2007’s hit musical “Once” was perhaps not so much of a surprise after all. Director John Carney took well-established Irish rock stars from the band The Frames (himself a former member) and made a simple movie without much of a plot and with much of Glen Hansard’s already classic music front and center.

But the fact that the movie had great music was really only half the battle. Everything about “Once” seemed cobbled together on the fly. Its look was a rough, documentary realism style and the dialogue was so bare bones it may as well have been improvised. And above all, the chemistry and romance between its two stars, Hansard and Marketa Irglova, felt genuine in both its journey and its outcome.

John Carney’s latest film “Begin Again” seems inspired by that makeshift attitude. It’s a story about working with what you’ve got and simply letting the magic happen. This time around, Carney is working with A-list actors, a pop-rock superstar and a budget that must dwarf what he had on “Once”. Yet when we see Keira Knightley singing into pantyhose with a wire inside or Maroon 5’s Adam Levine playing ping-pong, he’s found the magic again by making it feel real. Continue reading

TheArmstrongLie

‘The Armstrong Lie’ paints Lance with nuance

In the days following the revelation that Lance Armstrong, the most drug tested athlete in all of professional sports, was in fact blood doping and using banned substances all along, a quote came along that put the whole thing into perspective. “I don’t care if he lied; he’s done unbelievable things for cancer research that have nothing to do with his work on a bike.”

Another article talked about Lance’s skill and strategy on the bike that made him a champion regardless if he took drugs. During one Tour de France he daringly avoided a crash right in front of him and took his road bike offroad for several yards before picking up the racetrack again, not an easy feat while traveling 40 mph down a rough French mountainside.

After winning seven straight Tours de France, Lance Armstrong was undoubtedly seen as a hero, and his scandal was such a shocking lie and omission that the world turned on him in an instant. You really had to pick sides and decide, do you hate the man and believe he should be stripped of his titles or don’t you care and feel he should be respected for what he’s done on and off the bike regardless?

Alex Gibney’s “The Armstrong Lie” teeters on those two sides. It’s hardly the only documentary chronicling the details of his lie, but it’s notable as the only one that features a candid Lance. Given that leg up, you would hope Gibney would do one of two things: tear into him and expose him as a psychologically damaged, pathological liar, or actually pay the man some respect and understand why he lied in the first place. Continue reading

GoneGirl

2014 Fall Movie Preview: 45 films worth talking about

Fall is that time of year when even a mediocre year for movies can transform into a stellar one, when established auteurs deliver instant classics as good as everyone anticipated them to be, when oddball indies turn into sure-fire prestige pictures and when under-the-radar studio movies become word of mouth smashes.

It’s a much more consistent time of year than the slowly eroding Summer movie season, in which good to great movies are drowned out by the louder ones and the biggest money makers are non-starters that aren’t remembered a month later.

2014’s lineup of movies features titles from David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Bennett Miller and Paul Thomas Anderson, as well as the third chapter to today’s truly great monster franchise. Below is my list of my most anticipated and a few more that may prove to be some of the season’s favorites.

Top 15 Most Anticipated Movies of the Fall Continue reading

The Trip to Italy

Coogan, Brydon, Michael Caine impressions return in ‘The Trip to Italy’

“I have drunken deep of joy, And I will taste no other wine tonight,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ah, but how sweet it is to experience both, drinking in the pleasures of frivolous banter while also admiring the drinks and cuisine of choice.

“The Trip to Italy” is drunk on such vices, a simple, palatable film that improves on the original “The Trip” without striving for much more. The carefree structure is the same, the food porn is just as succulent, the dialogue is just as snooty, sophisticated and silly, Steve Coogan is ever the droll sourpuss and the travelogue setting of Italy over the England countryside is even more beautiful.

The first “Trip” pleased many with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s playful yet eloquent and polished back and forth of impressions ranging from Michael Caine to Al Pacino to Woody Allen. Those who thought the Michael Caine bit from the original was “The Trip’s” high point and enough reason to revisit it on YouTube time and again will be pleased to know his voice has made a reappearance to warrant an admission price yet again. This time Caine is flanked by muffled, inscrutable impressions of Christian Bale and Tom Hardy from “The Dark Knight Rises,” two intense actors you’d never mention to their face you can’t understand a word they’re saying. Continue reading

What If

‘What If’ is a charming Millennial rom-com

While the romantic comedy formula rarely updates, the rules about love, friendship and sex must adapt to the way people experience relationships today. Modern rom-coms have been obsessed with high-concept rule making involving social media, texting and most recently sex tapes inexplicably uploaded to “the Cloud”, but they’ve never resonated with the Millennial generation. Our generation has fashioned itself more self-aware, ironic and cynical to all the social norms and barriers that define our romantic lives.

“What If” may just be the first Millennial rom-com, a spiritual successor to “When Harry Met Sally”, an often insightful look at the way contemporary notions of love shape our relationships and the first big studio rom-com in a long time in which every character in the cast feels like a human being.

It starts with the simple meet-cute of Wallace and Chantry in front of a refrigerator playing with magnets. Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) has just gotten over a year-long depression over a bad break-up. Chantry (Zoe Kazan) seems perfect, and she even gives out her number, just as she mentions she has a boyfriend. Continue reading

Particle Fever

‘Particle Fever’ observes Large Hadron Collider, search for Higgs Boson

Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye can go on TV today and make waves and a compelling appeal for science by remaining logical or taking the moral high ground. We should do more about climate change because it makes sense and it’s the right thing to do for the survival of our planet.

“Particle Fever” is about as dense of a science documentary as they come. But it appeals to the thrills and excitement of science by exploring what it is to be a scientist. “The things that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human,” someone says. That idealistic sentiment is what drives any scientific endeavor, and Mark Levinson’s film gets the passion behind understanding the world and discovering the mysteries it contains.

In “Particle Fever,” the beauty and coolness in question is the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, a giant machine designed to smash together particles with the intent of observing how they break apart and locating the elusive “Higgs Boson” particle that may be the key to the whole puzzle.

The scientists behind it say that the purpose of this machine started with the idea that they’re going to learn something that will change everything they know about physics forever. Or they’ll fail and be set back decades in terms of scientific understanding. Hyperbole much? Continue reading

Guardians of the Galaxy

‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is fun, but doesn’t shatter the mold

The narrative surrounding “Guardians of the Galaxy” is that it’s something of a risk and a departure for Marvel. The comic on which it has based has no name recognition outside of comic fans, and the on-paper, ragtag bunch of misfits that includes a goofy thief, a green assassin, a hulking, deadpan behemoth, a raccoon with a rocket launcher and a sentient tree, could come across as a bad attempt to recreate the success of “The Avengers” or just a strange, downright misfire. But Marvel is specifically known for making movies that are becoming increasingly calculated, planning movies out a decade and including them all in their intersecting web of stories known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

To put it lightly, Marvel isn’t stupid, and like the group at the movie’s core, it’s stronger and more put together than you’d think. “Guardians of the Galaxy” may just be the most idiosyncratic movie in the Marvel canon, but any illusion that the film is taking this oddball story and shattering the mold of what Marvel is or does is really pushing it. Continue reading

The World According to Garp

Rapid Response: The World According to Garp

Robin Williams passed away this week, and in every tribute written about him (including one of  my own) he was described as “a great comedian but also…” In another tribute this week I wrote that being a great comedian was enough because he was a wild man while doing it. But more often his praise as an exceptional actor was that he could take surprising, dramatic turns in movies like “Good Will Hunting,” “One Hour Photo,” “World’s Greatest Dad” or “Insomnia” while also playing the fool in “Aladdin,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” or “The Birdcage” or the exuberant hero in “Good Morning, Vietnam” or “Dead Poets Society”.

One movie that rarely crossed the threshold into conversation was “The World According to Garp”, George Roy Hill’s 1982 black comedy based on the controversial and bestselling novel by John Irving. Williams made it near the end of his run on “Mork and Mindy”, and what’s immediately surprising is how ordinary Williams comes across, considering he was famous for playing an alien. This isn’t strictly a dramatic performance, but come to think of it he probably never says a funny thing despite the movie being a comedy. Much of the comedy comes from the inanity and anarchy going on around him, and Williams has both the toothless likability as well as the energy to keep pace with it all.  Continue reading

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

‘Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me': A touching profile, now an elegy

At the start of “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” we see the legendary Broadway actress strutting down Manhattan city streets in a giant fur on her way to a rehearsal. She crosses the street and yelps theatrically. An actress she’s worked with recognizes her on the street and Stritch’s comment is “This business sucks.” As the camera follows her, it edits and darts down the street at the spitfire speed of her voice.

Even if you are not familiar with Elaine Stritch, you know this woman. Her poise and the way she is depicted here defines her as a star and a woman who has seen it all. Chiemi Karasawa’s documentary profile is less interested in Stritch’s storied past and more in how she carries herself in the here and now.

“Anyone aging gracefully really knows something,” Stritch says. Having just passed away less than a month ago, not long after this movie was first released, Stritch really did have it all figured out, and yet she was no less afraid of death or any less human. She makes for a wonderful character study not because of her history but because of who she was in 2013 in the last year of her life.

And what we see is a documentary that may as well have been directed by Stritch herself, even if someone else was behind the camera. Always aware of the ins and outs of show business and forever concerned with her image and putting the best show forward, she scolds the cameraman for getting too close (“This isn’t a skin commercial!”) and demands reshoots when he seems to be a mile away.

In fact the film is so selective that it doesn’t bother with its own version of narrated or edited history; her memory will do just fine and be told more theatrically than any editor could muster. Her ability to think on her feet and always play for laughs or an emotion echoes on stage and off. “Shoot Me” mostly follows Stritch during the production of a one-woman show in which she sings the work of Stephen Sondheim. She’s performed these songs dozens if not hundreds of times over, but at this age and this stage in her career, she’s a different actress. “It’s hard enough to remember Sondheim lyrics when you don’t have diabetes,” she jokes during rehearsal. Karasawa plays that lapse of memory for a strong callback later when on stage she visibly forgets her lyric, but manages to turn it into a charming moment of truth and storytelling for the audience.

Not everyone is a Broadway fan or may not even be familiar with Stritch’s resume, but “Shoot Me” is loaded with amusing anecdotes and witty to tender commentary from Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and another recently departed legend, James Gandolfini.

“She is a molotov cocktail of madness, insanity and genius,” a friend says about Stritch. “Shoot Me” gets at that perception with its own confection of ingredients and stories as well as its own sharp tongued look at a woman so deserving of the attention.

3 1/2 stars