January 2014 - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

All Is Lost (2013)

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All Is Lost


All the basic facts you need going into J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost have been written about already. This is a mostly silent movie, with the exception of a monologue at the beginning and 2 other instances where less than a sentence is uttered. The only person we ever see onscreen is Robert Redford, whose character is never named (he's in the credits as “Our Man”). As the movie opens, Our Man wakes up in his small yacht to water flooding in through a hole in the hull, finding that he's collided with a floating shipping container on some unnamed ocean, and quietly, resolutely gets to work fixing his ship.

I think hull is the right term here. What would you call a wall above the stove in a yacht's kitchen? Doesn't matter—most of the movie is spent watching Our Man move about his ship in silence, calmly (at first) making corrections, altering his course, and fixing the hole. He ties ropes and marks maps and, at one point, connects what looks like a car battery to the highest points of one of the... sail posts (masts?). I don't know anything about sailing, and I didn't learn it from this movie. And that's ok, because Chandor and Redford have managed to make what sounds on paper like an excruciating seafaring version of watching your dad put a bunch of furniture together into a fairly captivating hour-and-a-half of a man struggling to keep his resolve in increasingly dire circumstances.


Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

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The Gaunt OneAndrew INDIFFERENCE BannerDallas Buyers Club met a level of breathless critical adoration that seemed impossible for Matthew McConaughey a few years ago.  But with the success that he’s had, starting with The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011 and continuing through 2013’s Mud, it’s become something of a given that he’s going to continue stretching his acting skills.  This is a great thing for those of us who weathered the harvest of empty snacks like The Wedding Planner or Failure to Launch.

Yes, McConaughey  shed almost 50 pounds to play a man wracked with HIV, which an impressive physical feat no matter what.   But Dallas Buyers Club feels like a step back.  There is hardly a moment that went by that I wasn’t aware of some aspect of the film pulling itself into too many directions to make too many social points.  Even McConaughey’s performance isn’t that much of a stretch as playing a Texas roughneck in a bit of a jam is a slight spin on the kind of roles he’s become associated with over the years.

I have no big problems with McConaughey’s performance, as it's very good, but it’s the sort of physical stretch that someone takes when they’re trying to be taken seriously again, not on the continuing end of an impressive streak of roles.  While McConaughey is good his partners don’t come off nearly as well despite doing their best.  Jared Leto, in particular, doesn’t look comfortable walking around in a pair of high heels, which sums up the movie as a well-intentioned bit of play acting that amounts to little.   We need more movies like Dallas Buyers Club, I just hope they get better.


American Hustle (2013)

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American Hustle (1)


The first scene of American Hustle is perfect: professional con-man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) slowly, painstakingly, applies a small hairpiece, the foundation of a bizarre and elaborate (yet somehow confidently worn) comb-over. He carries himself as a man who at first seems not to understand how ridiculous he appears. We realize only later, thanks in large part to a brilliant performance by Bale, that Irving is more perceptive and complex than we initially take him for. In the same way, David O. Russell's film is itself a hustle—a hyperactive assault of craft and style so confident in its delivery that it seems to think we won't realize what a bare-bones scaffolding it's hung on. Only once the movie is fully in motion does it become totally clear that there is a genius behind Russell's madness.

The film seems at times directed by Bradley Cooper's character from last year's Silver Linings Playbook (also directed by Russell)—there is a manic logic and zeal with which the story hurtles forward from plot point to plot point without ever seeming workmanlike. In the first half-hour we're introduced to Rosenfeld, his mistress and partner in crime Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), all in such a whirlwind fashion that we keep expecting a moment to stop and collect ourselves. The arc from Rosenfeld and Prosser first meeting all the way up to the point where they've built a successful con operation selling art forgeries and fake loans takes around 20 minutes—their relationship develops not through careful dialogue but by Russell's reliance on the audience's familiarity with archetypes and storytelling conventions to fill in the blanks.


Frozen (2013)

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The ice springs forthAndrew LIKE BannerAs Pixar has been off winning awards and becoming the golden child of the animation industry, Disney has gone through a quiet period of renovation.  The change occurred so gradually that I didn't realize until halfway through Frozen that they have created another solid classic, but one that could not have been made any other time.  Frozen is a beauty of a film that delicately comments on the world that children are growing up in today as uncertainties about different cultures and lifestyles make for scary conversations, and Frozen is here to make those conversations a bit less terrifying.

Starting with The Princess and the Frog, Disney has made the women of their films the focus instead of an accessory of the lead.  Tangled took this even further, and used tricky advertising to get audiences to think it was another animated comedy instead of a musical.  Now Frozen takes this focus to an excellent resting place, focusing entirely on the relationship between two sisters who were once so close.  It emphasizes aspects of their relationship that make it unique to sisters, but are so universal to siblings.

Frozen is a tribute to the strong women that have served as the side-characters for so many stories.  There is no story without Princess Elsa and Anna, because their relationship is what drives Frozen forward.  Neither one of them is prepared for the responsibilities of adulthood as they were both sequestered away from the world, Elsa (Idina Menzel) as a girl whose beautiful gifts are misunderstood to cause pain, and Anna (Kristen Bell) as a traditional princess who needs to find true love.  Frozen finds subtle fault in these things, critiquing the absent parenting that has been the basis of so many Disney films, and the idea that girls need to find satisfaction in a way that pleases others to be happy.


You’re Next (2013)

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Rockin that axeAndrew LIKE BannerReflecting on You’re Next, I realized that we’ve been moving away from horror as a form of self-flagellation and moving into a period where new directors are consciously recalling old classics.  Adam Wingard, the director, slaughters his cast with the kind of gleeful staging that Sam Raimi showed almost thirty years ago in Evil Dead II.  When that film came out Wingard would have been at just about that ripe young age when bodily fluids are still interesting and the right combination of grotesque executions and humor can make a lasting impression.  To Wingard’s benefit, they did.

He’s not the only beneficiary of those fertile images, and the casting decision of fellow director Ti West as one of the many victims hints a horror clique of sorts forming.  West’s great film House of the Devil is partly an ode to the stark clarity of horror from the ‘70s as it transitioned to a period of monsters and gore in the ‘80s.  Wingard’s You’re Next is very much a child of the ‘80s with a pumping synth line, sex-obsession, and dark humor that fueled many the slashers of the era.  One favors the subtle lead-in to the bloody spectacle, while the other starts with a crossbow bolt to the brain and never looks back.

Thank goodness this is a world where I have the capacity to appreciate both.  You’re Next may not reach the chill factor of its contemporaries, but as a bloody excellent time with a movie it’s hard to top.  Wingard borrows a bit of the old Raimi dark magic and blurs it with more overt ‘80s slasher tropes while maintaining a great sense of humor through pitch-perfect characterization.  His film may not have the zip of its forebears, but when it hits those manic highs I was thrilled by the carnage on display.