Monday, July 29, 2013

July 2013

Although I took the trouble to visit the local cinemas about 10 times this month, I barely paid any attention to home releases because I rather suddenly decided to start working my way through five seasons of the old Twilight Zone TV series. (As of this writing, I've made it through nearly three seasons—a fairly respectable chunk.) This was the month I sold more than 200 issues of Hot Boat Magazine from my personal collection for $400+, digested the thrilling and seductive musical oeuvre of Rihanna, and planned an early August cruise with members of my family. I also managed to crack the screen of my fourth-generation iPad. Here's what I saw in July:



FRANCES HA (2013)—Having sufficiently enchanted me in her 2012 film Damsels in Distress (as well as her performances in Greenberg, To Rome With Love and Lola Versus), my hopes were high for Greta Gerwig's latest effort, which she co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach. Filmed in New York in gorgeous black and white, this comedy-drama can scarcely help reminding one of Manhattan, but thematically it's also a lot like the HBO series Girls, and even features Girls co-star Adam Driver. As with Damsels and Lola, the film traces Gerwig's loss of self-respect and self-esteem as bad things pile up, but it's all followed by a resurgence/redemption by the end. All three films in the trilogy mix comedy and drama in a very satisfying way. (9)



MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013)—Despite a wonderful score by Randy Newman, I was not a fan of the original Monsters Inc. by Disney/Pixar. Now, 12 years later, here comes a tardy prequel...and it's vastly more entertaining and engaging than the original. Thanks to Joan for encouraging me to see it with her. (9)



THE WAY, WAY BACK (2013)—Sort of a mashup of Meatballs and Adventureland, The Way, Way Back is a boyhood coming-of-age story with Liam James as a kid who has to put up with his mother's vile boyfriend (Steve Carell) during a summer-vacation trip to a beach house, among other assorted annoyances. Then he stumbles onto a job at the local water park, run by Sam Rockwell, who changes his life for the better. Rockwell is a comic genius, doing a variation of Chevy Chase's character in Caddyshack. It's not a perfect film, but there's enough good material in it to make it a very enjoyable summer treat. (8)



THIS IS THE END (2013)—One of the biggest hits of the summer, This Is the End give us comic actors Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, et al., playing themselves in an "apocalyptic comedy" that has the guys hunkered down in James Franco's mansion dodging demons and hellfire after the Rapture. Some of it is undeniably funny (a scene involving Emma Watson is roll-on-the-floor funny in its inappropriateness), but a lot of it is gross and the whole movie is probably much funnier to people who have seen Pineapple Express, which I have not. (I had no idea who stars Jay Baruchel and Danny McBride even were). The movie is a sophomoric crowd-pleaser, but I am not the target audience. (7)



STORIES WE TELL (2013)—Actress Sarah Polley definitively proved her savvy directorial chops in the charming 2012 movie Take This Waltz, featuring Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman. Her new movie, Stories We Tell, is a documentary about her family, with extensive interviews with brothers, sisters, her father, et al. The ostensible subject of the film is Polley's colorful mother, who is revealed to have cheated on her father before her death from cancer. This inevitably leads into an investigation into who Sarah's biological father might be, and the results are quite surprising. The movie relies heavily on phony "home movie" footage, so we're never really sure of what's real and what's not, but the story is real enough, so it doesn't matter that much. The interviews and the intrigue are fascinating to watch, and this is just one more reason to keep your eye on this important storyteller. (8)



UNFINISHED SONG (2013)—There are plenty of bittersweet movies about old people coming to grips with the inevitability of life's final bow, and the importance of living life to the fullest, regardless of what your age is. Unfinished Song, starring Terrence Stamp as the grouchy husband of ailing sweetheart Vanessa Redgrave, is one of these movies. As corny and manipulative as it is, I totally fell for this British import (called Song for Marion in the UK). There are a couple of tiny plot points I felt could have been better handled, but this is a tearjerker of the first order, magnificently played by Stamp, and with a delightful performance by lovely Gemma Arterton as a choir director. (9)



BEFORE SUNSET (2004)—1995's Before Sunrise was a charming little love story about a young American guy (Ethan Hawke) and a young French woman (Julie Delpy) who meet on a train and spend a romantic evening together in Vienna. Nine years later, writer/director Richard LInklater reunited the couple for what the viewer assumes is going to be a second one-night stand. The first movie ended with the pair planning to meet in Europe a year later; in Before Sunset, we find out that didn't happen, but fate has brought them together again. Not much happens in either movie, except the couple emotionally bonding as they chat about life, religion, family and love. I missed the sequel when it was first released, but now that Linklater has apparently decided to turn this into his own personal Up series, I decided to check this one out in preparation for the third in the series. (9)



BEFORE MIDNIGHT (2013)—And again, nine years later, here we are again with Hawke and Delpy. This time out, we learn that romance finally did take root, and we join them on a vacation in Greece. This film differs from the first two in one important way: for the first half, it follows the basic walking-and-talking pattern of the first two movies, but in the second half, our lovers start arguing—and it turns into one colossal clash that threatens to tear them apart for good. It's a bittersweet affair, but compelling. Looking forward to the next one in 2022! (8)



STILL MINE (2013)—Perhaps I was still tingling over the geriatric romance of Unfinished Song, and took in this second old-people drama while I was still in the mood. (It didn't hurt that reviews were uniformly excellent.) James Cromwell, so fine in the TV series Six Feet Under, as well as movies like Babe, The Green Mile and The Artist, deserves this starring role as a Canadian carpenter who's caring for a wife (Genevieve Bujold, absolutely perfect) slowly succumbing to Alzheimer's disease. He decides to build her a smaller house on their large piece of property so he can better take care of her…and becomes entangled in a lot of legal red tape from the local building commission. It's a tender, moving and serious piece of work—the anti-summer movie. (9)



BLUE JASMINE (2013)—The latter third of Woody Allen's directorial career has been spotty, with disappointments like Hollywood Ending, Anything Else, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Cassandra's Dream and Celebrity missing the mark so disastrously that one mourns the genius that produced classics like Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Zelig and Stardust Memories. On the other hand, despite a rough patch, the Woodman has rebounded in recent years—I've enjoyed his last five movies, even if none of them stand with his best work. Happily, Blue Jasmine is an unqualified success, a comedy-drama that features, at its center, a truly bravura performance by Cate Blanchett as the wife of a Bernie Madoff-like financier (Alec Baldwin) whose life begins to crumble after he's sent to jail and is revealed to be a cheating louse. Superb performances are also turned in by Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay and the always-dependable Sally Hawkins (who, like Blanchett, is a British actress doing a thoroughly convincing American accent). I will want to see this film again. (9)



THE HEAT (2013)—The Heat is a raunchy summer comedy that I attended with a friend who wanted to see it. Rotund Melissa McCarthy—whom I enjoyed as part of the ensemble Gilmore Girls cast between 2000 and 2007—has become a popular star of both the small (Mike & Molly) and big (Bridesmaids, Identity Thief) screens. Her specialty has gone from second-banana characterizations to very broad, profane, physical comedy, scoring big laughs from the hoi polloi with her bellowing, extended-middle-finger shtick. In this buddy comedy with Sandra Bullock, she plays the pit-bull undercover cop to Bullock's prim, know-it-all FBI agent as they team up to bust up a drug-smuggling ring. It would be a lie to say I didn't laugh occasionally, but there's no escaping the fact that this is a contrived, calculated variation on an old formula, perfected by Eddie Murphy in 48 HRS. (7)

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