After a bit of a lull I've been watching motion pictures again, and wanted to tell you about the most recent five I've seen. Sure, you can skip to the letter grade and then rearrange your own Netflix queue accordingly, but I'd recommend reading my insightful and penetrating commentary in an effort to question your personal biases & assumptions and to broaden your cineastic vocabulary. Let's get started!
THE IDES OF MARCH - Talk about exceeding expectations, this dark political morality tale from George Clooney & starring both him and Ryan Gosling was as good and as thrilling a film I've seen since "Melancholia". Gosling's an idealistic junior campaign manager for a Hollywood liberal dreamboat Democratic candidate (Clooney) on the eve of a make-or-break Ohio primary. Through a series of back-stabbing meetings and fortuitous discoveries vis-a-vis his "just sex" encounters with the ravishing intern played by Evan Rachel Wood, Gosling maneuvers himself into a much different place in Clooney's campaign than he was in at the start of the film.
It plays like a thriller, and shines a light on the Washington DC dirtbag political culture as well as anything I've ever seen. The cast all actually seem completely and totally real, especially the senior campaign managers played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti. Sure, it's a pretty Hollywood film but so well-acted and -paced and so nasty that I'm surprised it didn't get more attention the few weeks it was around. Absolutely a must-rent. A-
YOUNG ADULT - Only missed seeing this in the theaters a few months ago due to lack of babysitter and a surfeit of inconvenient showtimes. I knew I'd dig it based on the reviews, despite the marquee writing credit of the overexposed "Diablo Cody". The film is a scathing look at a self-centered, self-deluding former homecoming queen high school beauty played by Charlize Theron whose best days were behind her the moment she threw her graduation cap in the air. She's now a declining, aging but still-beautiful Minneapolis ghostwriter for a series of young adult novels, who begins to obsess about her high school boyfriend back in small-town Mercury, MN the moment she finds out he's had a baby.
Through an alcoholic haze with lots of lying to herself, she concocts a plan to lure him back to her, 17 years later. Since the very funny Patton Oswalt plays the voice of reason, despite having been brutally beaten by "fag-bashing" jocks decades beforehand and being a bit of a lush himself, I expected "Young Adult" to be a mildly tragic film with doses of comedy to leaven the pathos. Quite the opposite. This is a heavily tragic film, brutal in parts, with a tiny bit of comedy to smooth out a few minor rough edges. And Charlize Theron is a pretty phenomenal actress, isn't she? When did that happen? A-
JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME - As it turns out, this still-in-theaters film actually shares a ton of DNA with "Young Adult" - not the cast nor the directing/writing staff, but the way it looks at adults still stuck in the throes of mental childhood. I've written before about my love of all things Duplass, and the brothers direct this one just as deftly and comically as all their others, maybe just a tick down from "Cyrus", their high point as far as I'm concerned. It all takes place in a day, and stars emotional cripples Jason Segel and Ed Helms as a live-at-home stoner and an incompetant husband, respectively, who happen to be brothers.
The former simply needs to go out and get a wood shutter repaired for his mom; the latter is having marital trouble; as their paths cross on this day, they discover that Helms' wife (the always-great second banana character actress Judy Greer) might be having an affair. Madcap hilarity ensues, and the "chase" to find out what she's up to leads them into unexpected discoveries - and insights about themselves! Whoa! Kidding aside, it's a great way to spend not even ninety minutes and there's no way on god's green earth you're not going to like it. The Duplass Bros always make sure of it. B
INCENDIES - All of last year I kept hearing about this "French film" (it's actually French-Canadian) called "Incendies" that was fantastic and that should have won best foreign film honors in 2010. ("In a Better World", which I reviewed here, was actually the winner that year). So we put it in the queue, and when it came, we just sat on it for five weeks and pretended it wasn't there. When it finally made its way into the DVD player, neither my wife nor I even knew what it was about. When it finished, we were both pretty thoroughly wiped, and ashamed we sat on it for so long. It's a heavy tale set both in the present and against the backdrop of the 1970s Lebanese civil war between Christians and Muslims (and the other factions murdering each other around that time). Despite the complete and total implausibility of the story, it's still tense, taut and exceptionally well-told.
Twins Jeane and Simon receive a will from their recently-deceased mother; in order for it to be executed, they must find their true father (whom they though to be dead) and brother (whom they never knew about). This leads Jeane and later Simon into modern Lebanon to trace the history of a mom they never truly knew. Their discoveries are increasingly shocking, and they find that their mother was not only a political firebrand but also endured some of the worst suffering a person can endure. Like I said, the final "reveal" at the end stretches credibility to the extreme - but hey, it's a movie, right? I was totally on edge during this entire film and I'd recommend it for anyone ready for a completely mirthless and heavy voyage into war, loss, and self-discovery. B
KINGS OF PASTRY - This was a total trifle, the sort of thing you watch on the couch in pajamas with your belly exposed. I don't ever watch reality cooking shows, so I'm not sure how closely this follows the form, but for 80 minutes this 2010 French documentary on a pastry-creating competition is a lot of fun. There's apparently a haughty designation bestowed upon pastry masters in France that's something only the French could dream up, and to get it, pastry artists (and that's what they are - more artist than chef) from around the world compete in a once-a-year tournament to see if they're magical enough to get the ribbon. Actually, it's a collar that one gets to wear when cooking that tells the world that you masochistically put yourself through the competition and somehow came out on the other side.
From what little I know about reality TV, this hues pretty close to the style. Ambition, a little (not much) backstabbing, heartbreak and redemption. The pastries themselves, with their elaborate candy ribbons and intricate decorations, are really something to behold - and totally meaningless as "food you can eat". I have such an innate distrust of the "reality" of reality programming that any drama that occurs feels to me as forced and made up for the cameras. I can't say for sure on this one, but like I said, you could do far worse on a Tuesday night. B-