Now streaming on Netflix: Four of my 2013 favorites

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Very cool news: Four films from my top 10 of 2013 for The Film Stage are now streaming on Netflix. These are greats from filmmakers like Claire Denis and Noah Baumbach — and all four are must-sees. Below are my write-ups from The Film Stage.

Blue is the Warmest Color (#8):

The plot is, in some ways, simple: Teenager Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) meets Emma (Léa Seydoux), a college art student, and the two fall in love. During the course of the three-hour film, we see the highs and lows of their passionate relationship. But the film is much more complex, much more involving, much more vivid than that. It is, I think, one of the finest films ever made about young love. Yes, the film features several graphic, extended sex sequences. But they are only a small part of director Abdellatif Kechiche’s creation. The emotion is what stands out, and that is what makes those scenes memorable, not how graphic they are. “I have infinite tenderness for you. I always will,” says Emma late in the film. The viewer feels that tenderness — and shares it. What a great love story this is, and what a glorious portrayal of two unique people.

Bastards (#7):

Claire Denis continues to demonstrate why she is one if the world’s most provocative and important filmmakers with this razor-sharp, chilling bit of film noir. Dark, disturbing, and unforgettable, Denis’ film is a brutal shocker. There are images — blood running down a dazed, naked girl’s legs; the inside of a hellish barn; one of the most mesmerizing night driving sequences in film history — as brilliantly composed as any in recent memory.

A Touch of Sin (#6):

Jia Zhangke’s four-story tapestry is a harsh, epic exploration of modern China, and a study of defeated characters that rewards close viewing. In each story, violence comes quickly, sometimes coupled with absurdity: a villager strikes back against the oppressive powers-that-be, a killer takes aim due mainly to boredom, a sauna worker is pushed past her breaking point, and a young person shuffles from job to job with disastrous results. What does it all mean? For Zhangke, that is the ultimate, likely unanswerable question.

Frances Ha (#5):

There’s a sequence about thirty minutes into Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha that captures a feeling of real joy. Frances, played by Greta Gerwig, runs down the street, twirling, leaping, and smiling, in a Carax-appropriating scene set to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” The sequence seems, well, perfect, and in some ways, so is Frances Ha. It’s a simple, funny, moving story that captures the experience of drifting through your twenties, growing apart from friends, and discovering who you are as well as any film I’ve ever seen. A perfect film? It sure feels that way.

My top 10 of 2013: Frances Ha (#5)

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More from my Film Stage top 10 list. 

There’s a sequence about thirty minutes into Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha that captures a feeling of real joy. Frances, played by Greta Gerwig, runs down the street, twirling, leaping, and smiling, in a Carax-appropriating scene set to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” The sequence seems, well, perfect, and in some ways, so is Frances Ha. It’s a simple, funny, moving story that captures the experience of drifting through your twenties, growing apart from friends, and discovering who you are as well as any film I’ve ever seen. A perfect film? It sure feels that way.

Stream these: Frances, Bond, and Julian Assange

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Several biggies have dropped to Netflix in rapid succession, including one of my favorite films of 2013:

  • Frances Ha: Some may find Noah Baumbach’s character study twee and obnoxious. That is the opposite of my opinion. I loved this joyous black-and-white concoction, and especially adored Greta Gerwig’s performance in the lead. Frances is now streaming, and also one of the latest additions to the Criterion Collection.
  • Skyfall: This Sam Mendes-directed James Bond smash was one of my favorites of 2012, although I think Casino Royale still has this one beat — barely. It’s a great film with a great villain, and one of the most satisfying Bonds to date.
  • Computer Chess: Andrew Bujalski’s 1980s-set film look utterly idiosyncratic and wildly offbeat. I missed this one at Squeaky Wheel, but I’ll make sure to catch it now.
  • Europa Report: This sci-fi film drew some modest praise, and arrived quickly to Netflix. The anti-Gravity?
  • Flight: I had little interest in Robert Zemeckis’s film last year, but found it a pleasant surprise on DVD. It is an unflinching look at addiction, and certainly features some of Denzel Washington’s best acting to date.
  • We Steal Secrets: The WikiLeaks Story: While I missed The Fifth Estate, I look forward to watching it and Alex Gibney’s Julian Assange documentary. Both drew their share of criticism, but reviews for Gibney’s doc were certainly more complimentary.
  • The Sapphires: I recall some Oscar talk about this film, talk that went nowhere. But Chris O’Dowd was such a joy on The IT Crowd and in Bridesmaids and Friends With Kids that I have this on my must-watch list. (He’s also drawing raves for HBO’s Family Tree.)
  • Twixt: My colleague Jared Mobarak and I saw Francis Ford Coppola’s latest at the Toronto International Film Festival … two years ago. It took some time for the horror flick to show up stateside, and when it did, it sank without a trace. I found it laughable and rather amateurish at TIFF, but I’ve often wondered if I came down too hard on it. I’ll say this: It’s unique. That’s putting it mildly.
  • Sharknado: That joke isn’t funny anymore. But that does not mean you should skip it.

It’s Never Too Early: Pondering 2013’s Best Films … So Far

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I think 2013 has been a surprisingly strong year for movies. Okay, maybe not BIG movies, but there have been many smaller films that, to me, will rank high when the year comes to a close. I decided to make June 30 the cut-off here, so any film that has not officially opened before then (that I’ve already seen) is not here—hence, no “Blue Jasmine.” And of course, there are plenty of movies I still need to see that could make a dent: “Leviathan,” “Beyond the Hills,” “Simon Killer,” “The Act of Killing.” You’ll note that there is plenty of 2012 product here, but I am considering any film actually released in 2013 in North America is fair game. This list may change dramatically tomorrow, but today, in random order, here it is:

  • “Stories We Tell”
  • “Frances Ha”
  • “The Place Beyond the Pines”
  • “Upstream Color”
  • “Before Midnight”
  • “The Bling Ring”
  • “Lore”
  • “Mud”
  • “No”
  • “This is the End”

Some others that at the very least are in the conversation, for me: “The Gatekeepers,” “Side Effects,” “Room 237,” “Like Someone in Love,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Fill the Void,” “Spring Breakers,” “To the Wonder,” “Something in the Air” (yes, I think I’ve completely changed my mind on this one), “Ginger and Rosa.”

What do others think? Here are several lists of 2013’s halfway-point bests:

“Upstream Color” still from the film’s official site.

 

A Mid-Summer Report Card: Pondering Superman, Monsters, and “The End”

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We’re at about the midpoint of summer, movie-wise, and it’s been a wild one, with a few hits, several high-profile bombs (“After Earth,” “White House Down,” “The Lone Ranger”), and some indie successes. I have not seen everything – still need to get to “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and “World War Z” – but here are some very brief thoughts on what I HAVE seen. (Note that even though I said “report card,” I’m sticking with the 4-star system.)

“Iron Man 3:”: Not a BAD film , exactly, but one that to my mind did nothing to move along the franchise. Robert Downey Jr.’s shtick has grown increasingly old, and I found the second installment far superior. That being said, Ben Kingsley gives his funniest performance on years. 2 1/2 stars

“Man of Steel”: There are some great moments here, and it will turn out to be, I think, a fine first chapter in a new Superman series. But it’s an odd film, and in some ways, a brutish, unrelentingly grim one. Still, I love Michael Shannon having a role in a blockbuster, and Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Kevin Costner, and Russell Crowe each turn in solid performances. What’s up with the insane product placement? By the way, I’m fine with Supe the killer. I come down on the side of the semi-satisfied … barely. Because 2 3/4 is not allowed, I’m going 2 1/2 stars

“Monsters University”: I haven’t seen “Brave,” so I’ve yet to see EVERY Pixar film, but this felt like the weakest by far. It’s entertaining, as they all are, but wayyy too long. 2 1/2 stars seems low, but I gave the superior “Despicable Me 2” 3 stars, so …

“This is the End”: Funniest comedy I’ve seen in some time, and can’t wait to see it again. Backstreet’s back. Yes, I would have liked Michael Cera and Emma Watson to have stuck around a bit longer, but still. 3 1/2 stars

“Before Midnight”: Another insightful, smart, passionate burst from Linklater-Hawke-Delpy. The opening, with the son boarding the plane alone, still gets me. 4 stars

“Frances Ha”: I’ve made my feelings on this clear – still the best thing I’ve seen this summer. 4 stars

“Copperhead”: I’ll be writing a longer review of this one soon; it is compelling, well-acted, and a tad dry, but overall it works – if you care about the Civil War going in. 3 stars

“The East”: Impassioned, brisk, and utterly fake. 2 stars

“The Great Gatsby”: This came out during the summer? Feels like I saw it two years ago. 2 1/2 (being generous)

“Mud”: A twisty coming- of-age epic brimming with great moments and performances. 3 1/2 stars

“Despicable Me 2”: What can I say? It entertained me more than Superman and Iron Man. 3 stars

 

Rentals …

“Hyde Park on Hudson”: This one literally evaporates upon viewing. Even Bill Murray can’t save this dull, strange concoction. It’s a misfire on every level. 1 1/2 stars

“Warm Bodies”: Not particularly funny or clever, despite a game cast. 2 stars

“Mama”: Scary and silly on equal measure, “Mama” has just enough to qualify as slightly above-average horror. 2 1/2 stars

“Quartet”: I love Dustin Hoffman, and it is difficult to find a weak link in the cast, but his directorial debut makes “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” look like a Gregg Araki flick. 2 stars

 

More to come soon, including “Fill the Void,” “The Conjuring,” and, hopefully, “Stories to Tell.”

 

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Weekend Preview: This is the (Week)end for Superman, Seth Rogen, and Jesse and Celine

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As Jeff Simon put it in his Buffalo News review of “This is the End,” with that film, “Man of Steel,” and “Before Midnight” opening locally, “this is, far and away, the movie opening weekend of the year on my scorecard.” Indeed it is, one of the most wildly diverse release weekends in a long, long time.

The number one spot at the box office will most certainly be claimed by Zack Snyder’s Chris Nolan-assisted Superman reboot, “Man of Steel,” but the question is, how big will it open? Some estimates have it pegged at a $100-million weekend, but I’m not so sure. Reviews have been wildly mixed, and I’m still not quite sure I’ve seen a “wow” trailer, so I think $90 mill is a more likely figure. Nothing to laugh at, and in a relatively week summer, it could play well for several weeks. It’s easy now to forget that Nolan’s “Batman Begins” took in “only” $205 mill in North America, but that was in 2005, and for a budget at least $100 million less than “Steel”’s. Warner Bros. is likely hoping for $300-plus, enough to justify a costly “Justice League” follow-up. We shall see. I’ll have my own thoughts on the film here soon.

“The is the End” is something very different, a well-reviewed apocalypse comedy in which some of the Apatow generation’s biggest names — Seth Rogen (who co-directed with writing partner Evan Goldberg), James Franco, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, Jonah Hill — play themselves. I’m especially intrigued to see the lovely Emma Watson as “Emma Watson.” The buzz on this is that it is extraordinarily wild; it could represent one of the few imaginative big studio releases of the summer.

While I’m intrigued by “Man of Steel” and “This is the End,” the movie I am anticipating more than any other is Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight,” which opens tomorrow at Dipson’s Amherst and Eastern Hills theaters. This is the third film in the “Jesse and Celine” series; the first, 1995’s “Before Sunrise” and 2004’s “Before Sunset,” are pretty close to modern classics. The idea of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprising their roles, and seeing where things are for this couple, which finally seemed to come together at the very end of “Sunset,” is intoxicating. It is one of the best reviewed films so far this year, and a possible Best Picture nominee, so this is certainly a must-see. More to come on this one, soon. (“Frances Ha” is still showing at Amherst and Eastern Hills, too.)

Note that the documentary “Hey Bartender” is screening Saturday night at the Amherst Dipson; I wrote about the film here.

Francis Ford Coppola’s most recent film, “Twixt,” finally arrived on VOD a few days ago, and ironically, his debut feature, the enjoyably daft “Dementia 13,” is showing on Friday and Saturday night at 9:15 p.m. at the Screening Room. (“Sorry, Wrong Number” screens at 7:30 p.m.)

Here’s something I’ll outline more in the weeks to come: Buffalo.com recently posted the schedule for the University at Buffalo’s outdoor summer film series, and it has some real gems, including “The Place Beyond the Pines.” The proceedings open with a movie that makes me very nervous, since I’ve felt from the get-go that it could be a disaster, Sam Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful.” (I actually have it from Netflix right now. It’s staring at me, angrily.) It shows at 9:15 p.m. on Tuesday, June 18, and Friday, June 21, at the North Campus, and at 9:15 on Wednesday, June 19, at the South Campus.

Meanwhile, I’m a week late in mentioning Bacchus’s Summer Film Series, which is held in its quaint courtyard. The Buffalo-appropriate “Natural” kicked things off yesterday, June 12, but the series continues with “The Truman Show” next week, the 19th, and, even better, “The Big Lebowski” on June 26.

Superman, Seth Rogen, Julie and Celine, cocktails, Coppola, Oz, and a God-like Ed Harris? An eclectic week for movies, to be sure.

 

Photo credit: Left to Right: Ethan Hawke as Jesse and Julie Delpy as Celine. Photo by Despina Spyrou, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

“Frances Ha” is a Joy to Behold

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Another busy Saturday, so I wanted to quickly repost the short piece I wrote for buffalospree.com on “Frances Ha,” part of my occasional “TIFF Revisited” series for the website. I love, love, love this movie. It will surely finish the year among my favorites.

Take it away, me:

There’s a sequence about thirty minutes into Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha that captures a feeling of real joy. Frances, played by Greta Gerwig, runs down the street, twirling, leaping, and smiling, in a scene set to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” Now, that might sound lame. But in the context of the film, it is positively joyful. (Baumbach has admitted that he lifted it, so to speak, from a film by Holy Motors director Leos Carax—one that I’m now aching to see. As Film Comment noted, “When Frances leaps through the streets of New York to Bowie’s ‘Modern Love,’ you almost forget about Denis Lavant’s iconic Paris sprint to the same song in Carax’s Mauvais Sang.” Here is the clip.)

The sequence seems, well, perfect, and in some ways, so is Frances Ha. It’s a simple, funny, moving story that captures the experience of drifting through your twenties, growing apart from friends, and discovering who you are as well as any film I’ve ever seen. Suffice to say, it’s probably my favorite film so far this year. It opens today in Buffalo.

Some may find it slight, but I’m not so sure. Its issues are personal and emotional, but they feel right, and true. Greta Gerwig proves that she is one of the (if not the) most interesting actresses of her generation, and Baumbach has done something that even Wes Anderson had difficulty doing: He has created characters the audience truly cares about and believes in. It does not feel forced, like Margaret at the Wedding, nor off-putting like Greenberg. (I liked the Ben Stiller vehicle, but come on—it was pretty off-putting.) Frances even surpasses The Squid and the Whale in terms of emotional weight and believability.

The story? Frances, a wannabe dancer, and her best friend drift apart, leading her to new places and people. That’s about it. But that’s enough.

I missed Frances at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, and it’s no exaggeration to say I have been kicking myself ever since. Now, I’m glad its pleasures were waiting for me. It’s a film that requires a certain kind of viewing mood, but if you’re willing to embrace its eccentricities, you will not be sorry.

A perfect film? It sure feels that way.

Photo courtesy of IFC Films

 

Weekend Preview: “Frances,” “Maisie,” and “Love” Finally Make it to the Buff

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I’m not sure why there has suddenly been a cluster of TIFF 2012 movies opening in Buffalo, but I’m not complaining. This week sees three interesting films for adults that emerged from the Toronto International Film Festival with varying degrees of buzz: “Frances Ha,” “Love is All You Need,” and “What Maisie Knew.”

The biggie is surely Noah Baumbach’s swoon-worthy “Frances Ha,” a wonderful film that I wrote about today on buffalospree.com. I’ll likely be posting that piece and more thoughts on the film here very soon. Suffice to say, I adored it, and Great Gerwig’s performance in it. I’m not sure I’ll ever hear Bowie’s “Modern Love” again without thinking of her twirling through the air. This one is highly recommended.

Susanne Bier is a fascinating filmmaker, but I’m not sure I’ve figured her out yet. She directed the stunning “Brothers” (the original) and “After the Wedding,” featuring one of Mads Mikkelsen’s finest performances). But her English-language debut, “Things We Lost in the Fire,” while a gallant effort, fell flat. So, too, did her Academy Award-winning “In a Better World,” a marginal work that somehow defeated Haneke’s “White Ribbon” for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.

“Love is All You Need” looks like a rather dopey adult romantic comedy, but the presence of Bier and stars Pierce Brosnan (who has grown more interesting with age) and “Better World’s Trine Dyrholm, along with the lovely Italian scenery, make it moderately alluring. Reviews have been very mixed; as Stephen Holden put it in the New York Times, “The first sign of trouble in the romantic comedy ‘Love Is All You Need’ is the clichéd and incessant use of ‘That’s Amore.’”

The pint-sized star of “What Maisie Knew” is adorable — her visage truly sells the poster — but the movie, a present-day Henry James adaptation, does not sound appealing. The first line of the film’s description fills me with dread: “Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a pushy but seductive rock and roll icon married to Beale (Steve Coogan), a charming, distracted art dealer.” Oh boy. Yet the cast is a draw; Moore, Coogan, Alexander Skarsgard. And directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel have done interesting work together (“The Deep End,” “Uncertainty”). I would expect this one to close quickly, so if interested, act fast.

Of course, these are just the wee indies. In the multiplexes, the big openings are the Vince Vaughan-Owen Wilson Google-promotion/comedy “The Internship,” and Ethan Hawke in the horror-home invasion thriller “The Purge.” Get this: Box office buzz indicates that “The Purge” may top “The Internship.” That would be a huge blow for Wilson and Vaughan; there seems to be little enthusiasm for the film, and perhaps the Onion has hit on why with this headline: “‘The Internship’ Poised to be Biggest Comedy of 2005.”

It actually seems as if “Internship” won’t even hit the number two or three spot, with the still-going-strong “Fast & Furious 6” and the surprise hit “Now You See Me” coming ahead of it. If Shawn Levy’s comedy is topped by “After Earth” in its second week, we’ll officially have a disaster on our hands …

One other option, of course, is to stay in and watch Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” on Netflix. Yep, this mind-blower is now streaming.

As I previously mentioned, coming this Friday and Saturday at the Screening Room in Amherst: “Sorry, Wrong Number” at 7:30 followed by “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” at 9:15.

And as the Buffalo News reports today, the North Park Theater is no more — at least, for a little while. It’s a shame, truly, but it is fitting that the final film to play there under Dipson was Buffalo product Peter McGennis’s “Queen City.” Let’s hope the theater does, indeed, reopen soon.

Next week sees Superman return in “Man of Steel” while Seth Rogen and friends face the apocalypse in “This is the End.” What’s the best news for Buffalo movie fans? Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” arrives.
Photo: Doane Gregory/Sony Pictures Classics

Meet Frances, and Her Website

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It does not open in Buffalo for a few weeks, but I want to get you thinking about the most purely enjoyable movie I’ve seen so far this year: Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha.”

I missed “Frances” at TIFF, and spent months anxiously awaiting it. I had the chance to see it, and I can tell you that the Greta Gerwig-starrer is one of the best films about friendship, the end of friendships, and twentysomething life ever made.

Plus, it has an absolutely killer website that does a genuinely nice job of capturing the feeling of the film. Check it out, and look for more here on “Frances” soon.

Photo courtesy of IFC Films