I'm So Excited! (2013)
Paola Ardizzoni and Emilio Pereda/
Sony Pictures Classics
Hanging an apparent left turn from his recent forays into melodrama of various flavors, Pedro Almodóvar re-embraces high-camp farce with a vengeance in "I'm So Excited!," along with the chance to regrumble his annoyance at the current state of his home country. The result is occasionally something like oxygen starvation. In Mr. Almodóvar's very broad-brush comedy, a variety of hapless and horny characters cocooned in the business class cabin of a Peninsula Airlines flight set about coupling, confessing and — in the Kenneth Williams sense — carrying on. A raft of Mr. Almodóvar's regulars pass along the aisles, including Cecilia Roth as a former dominatrix with the dirt on Spain's elite and Lola Dueñas as a vaguely psychic virgin with a bad case of peninsula envy. Flagrant fragrant archetypes all.
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The Look of Love (2013)
Paul Raymond, not just a name to conjure with but the name to conjure with if any of your teenage years coincided with 1970s Soho, withstands most of the attempts made by Michael Winterbottom's "The Look of Love" to unpick his inner workings with outer shell safely intact. As incisive inquisitions go, Mr. Winterbottom opts to attack his subject with a soft cushion. Raymond's many supposed sins against British good taste and more certain crimes against his own family are presented as-is, side effects of a northern lad's uninhibited progress through the big city. Even the vast cultural upheavals happening in his country and on his doorstep — some with fuses lit by Raymond himself — can only vaguely be heard rumbling somewhere off in the distance, exploding out of sight and around the corner.
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David James/Universal Pictures
If you filleted out all the bits drawn from other science-fiction stories and post-apocalypse fables, there wouldn't be much left of "Oblivion" except a hollow shell of pure design theory and a vague hint of new-car smell. But at least its design has some theories worth gazing at. In a plot teeming with so many familiar threads that it eventually short-circuits rather than untangle itself, the vividly antiseptic living-pods and sky-castles and bubble-ships that Joseph Kosinski and his design wizards concoct have a stronger identity than the flesh-and-blood individuals inside them. So too does the soundscape, an aural soup of machine language and data traffic that isn't the only echo on offer of young George Lucas and "THX 1138." Watching "Oblivion" with your fingers in your ears gets more tempting as the film goes on, but you'd miss some of the best bits.
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Fox Searchlight Pictures
Danny Boyle's new film circles back over some of the same territory he claimed nearly two decades ago, when his first movies dug under the skin of Britain and found that aspiration was the root of most evil while small-time crooks lived by their wits even when they had none. But in "Trance" things have changed, in every department. The criminals are now sharply suited slimeballs living in palatial splendor – bankers in all but occupation – while Mr. Boyle's film making has been ramped up for the occasion into a high style, a blazing sugar rush of digital camera work, Dutch angles and interior neon. And the director himself has been through an Olympian transformation, a wonderfully unexpected chain of events leaving the man who made "Trainspotting" installed as his country's national treasure on a tide of goodwill, Morale-Booster General by royal appointment.
In truth, "Trance" feels like the work of a man affected by his exertions elsewhere. The storyline is a tricksy, squirming nest of vipers, involving James McAvoy as a man with amnesia who can't remember where he hid a stolen painting, and Vincent Cassel as the nasty London criminal who badly wants him to remember. The criminal sets the amnesiac up with Rosario Dawson's hypnotist to try and unblock Mr. McAvoy's pipes, and after that the twists pile up. Mr. Boyle has dropped the name of Nicolas Roeg in connection with "Trance's" interlocked flashbacks and contradictory points of view; but really what we have here is just a serious case of unreliable narrators, a much less bitter pill than Mr. Roeg's medicine.
Continue reading "The Mentalists" »
To the Wonder (2013)
Robert Delaunay described painting as being "by nature a luminous language," and "To the Wonder" continues Terrence Malick's earnest progress towards a similarly lustrous alphabet with which to communicate with a filmgoing audience. The film takes the approach tried in "The Tree of Life" and shifts to the next logical notch, leaving vocal narrative even further behind in the rearview mirror and dealing instead in poetic epigrams delivered as whispered voice-over, and magic-hour sunbeams dappling shores and fields and wildlife; all as a means to tell an ostensibly conventional real-world drama of romantic strife. Whether this actually accords with the nature of the medium in question or goes against the grain is a divisive question. Your answer will probably determine if the response to the film is to be rapture or rampage, or both.
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Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures
Kathryn Bigelow has defended "Zero Dark Thirty" with the carefully turned phrase "depiction is not endorsement." As a noted practitioner of other arts in addition to filmmaking, as well as the small matter of being a ferociously willful director with nerves of steel, Ms. Bigelow is no doubt well aware that depiction in fact provides the most significant endorsement any art can provide: an endorsement for the viewer to think, rather than to vegetate; to see rather than unsee. At the very least the film throws new light back onto "The Hurt Locker," where she and writer Mark Boal can now be sensed kindling behind the camera, unfinished business on their minds about how the residents of Camp Victory came to move in.
Continue reading "Casus belli" »
Francois Duhamel/Columbia Pictures
Recalled by mutual agreement from that unhappy period sorting out Bolivia's tap water in "Quantum of Solace," James Bond spends most of "Skyfall" on more comfortable ground, safely back in a Neverland Britain of slick intelligence, government Jaguars and Pax Britannica. Not that the outside world really gets much of a look in: Sam Mendes's epic-length journey to the center of the spy is mostly concerned with the inside mechanics of MI6 and the inner workings of Bond's head, and especially with the mother figure perched at the hinge of both. The first half of the film practically sighs with relief at the prospect. Who cares, it says, about all the similarities between Bond and the other damaged law-enforcement orphans now wandering the screen? Who needs a niche for its hero other than the one Daniel Craig provides just by turning up in the morning? For a Bond, "Skyfall" is almost unselfconscious, which accounts for many of the striking things that happen in the film's early stages, as well as some of the wayward stuff that turns up later on.
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On the Road (2012)
Gregory Smith/IFC Films
The urge to make movies out of things never intended to be movies — to put every cultural artifact with any potency through the moving-picture mincing machine and see whether what comes out of the other end, can reach the parts the original never managed to in some meaningful (or profitable) way — is a thoroughly mixed blessing. "On The Road," Jack Kerouac's freewheeling jazz symphony of youthful dislocation and post-war America reformation, lends itself to cinematic presentation not at all, so Walter Salles and writer Jose Rivera make some eminently reasonable compromises trying to squeeze the author's squirming text into a tidy box and sit on the lid. But one of them was to not actually use the roads that Kerouac's characters worshiped, instead forced by logistics to film in Canada and South America, and so depriving the characters and the rest of us of the chance to chase the same horizons that Kerouac had in mind. Of all the gifts that a film version could have brought to this particular story, forgoing that one leaves a dent in the grand plan: The America in this American myth has gone missing.
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Anna Karenina (2012)
Laurie Sparham/Focus Features
Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard's bracing adaptation of "Anna Karenina" throws its roots out in all directions. Set 90 percent of the time in an impossible theatrical limbo of sets and stagecraft - in which reality warps every time anyone opens a door - and the other 10 percent in a calm pastoral outdoors where nature seems to have paused for breath, the film gingers up its costume drama with luscious practical effects and a Brechtian grit. Threads from relatively unusual suspects such as Richard Attenborough's "Oh! What a Lovely War" mix with the modern self-conscious fizz of Baz Luhrmann and the model train work of Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula." It's a big risk, and it pays off more often than not.
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Dredd 3D (2012)
Judge Dredd, Britain's lawman for all seasons — his passport stamped as Robocop's cousin for American purposes while actually being as site-specific as the early works of Johnny Rotten — rides again. And does so in a film stripped down to the bone, all froth removed jointly by author and budget until there's nothing left but sinew and gristle, globs of which then splash across the screen. Arriving just as the doors shut on Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" odyssey and its many tons of polished microengineering, "Dredd 3D" turns the dial back to a point nearer John Carpenter and Richard Stanley, to films set 20 minutes into the future, where the neon doesn't work and the daylight doesn't penetrate, and around the corner someone with an overdraft waits to separate you from your head.
Continue reading "Down by Law" »