Wednesday Round-Up: Defending “Marie Antoinette,” Debating “Man of Steel,” and Keeping Up With Patrick Bateman

Marie Antoinette

The middle of the week means it is time for my usual round-up of some of the articles I’ve been digging this week, including a handy list of “movies to see” at the mid-point of 2013. I’ve seen my share, but I have plenty of catching up to do …

First: I’m not sure what it is about Sofia Coppola’s films that seems to garner such strong reactions. I’ve met few folks who are in the middle about her work — it’s a love/hate thing, it seems. Her latest, “The Bling Ring,” starring Emma Watson, appears to open Friday in Buffalo (there is some confusion, but it is listed on Fandango), and it seems to be as glossy and surface-oriented as the rest of her films. But I have actually liked that about them. “Marie Antoinette” seems to be the most love-it-or-hate-it of the Coppola filmography, and on the occasion of “Bling”‘s release, New York Magazine’s Vulture website is mounting a spirited defense.

As author Amanda Dobbins puts it:

To be fair, not everyone hated Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.” New York’s David Edelstein called it “one of the most immediate, personal costume dramas ever made”; 55 percent of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes sided with him, to varying degrees. But seven years later, “Marie Antoinette,” loosely based on the best-selling Antonia Fraser biography, is probably Coppola’s least-loved film. It’s the one that got booed at Cannes (though of course it did, Cannes is in France); it is the one that didn’t live up to “Lost in Translation.” And if you are anti-Sofia, then it is probably the most obvious example of her worst tendencies: style over substance, minimal plot, overprivileged young women who refuse to speak in full sentences or really at all.

But I think I’m with Ms. Dobbins here: “I happen to love ‘Marie Antoinette’; it’s probably my second favorite of Coppola’s films, right behind ‘Lost in Translation.’ And while I understand some of the criticisms (specifically the part about no one using words, ever), most of its so-called weaknesses — even that famous pair of Chuck Taylors — are the reasons I enjoy it. For all its historical trappings, ‘Marie Antoinette’ is just a painfully hip period film about how annoying and fun and terrifying it is to be a teenage girl. It is a high-school movie transplanted to Versailles.”

And the rest:

  • Speaking of Sofia Coppola, Movie City News has posted her debut short from 1998, “Lick the Star.”
  • Bret Easton Ellis himself said “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” “star” Scott Disick would be an ideal Patrick Bateman in an “American Psycho” remake, but it took Kanye West to make it so.
  • I finally saw “Man of Steel” last night, and I’ll share some thoughts soon. (Let’s say I enjoyed it, with reservations.) The Playlist offers a solid breakdown of the best and worst of Zack Snyder’s Superman epic, and there are lots of good points here.
  • Roger Ebert’s birthday was yesterday, and his website offered up a nice list of films for which his review “made the difference,” including “Hoop Dreams” and “Dark Skies.”
  • Pitchfork’s new movie website, The Dissolve, has not launched yet, but its Tumblr site has, and the great Scott Tobias has posted the aforementioned “movies to see” so far in 2013 list, along with DVD and Blu-ray release dates for some.
  • Now the Rob Ford scandal is impacting the Toronto International Film Festival.
  • Will Brad Pitt’s “World War Z” flop? This writer seems to think so, and offers some convincing reasons why.
  • Yet another trailer for Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives,” starring Ryan Gosling.
  • Interestingly, after a mixed — well, mostly negative — response at Cannes, the filmmanaged to beat “Stories We Tell” and “The Act of Killing” for top honors at the Sydney Film Festival.
  • Lastly, Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is finally set to open in Buffalo this weekend. Here is a nice Guardian interview about that film, “The Avengers,” his career, and more.

 

Photo Credit: Sofia Coppola
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The Summer Movies of 1995 and 2013: It Was the Best of Times, it Was the Blurst of Times

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A friend recently pointed out that this seems to be a pretty awful summer for big-studio blockbusters, and I think that’s a reasonable argument. Behold this list of some of the biggies:

“Iron Man 3,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” “The Hangover Part III,” “Fast & Furious 6,” “Epic,” “After Earth,” “The Internship,” “This is the End,” “Man of Steel,” “World War Z,” “Monsters University,” “White House Down,” “Despicable Me 2,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Pacific Rim,” “Grown Ups 2,” “Turbo,” “Red 2,” “R.I.P.D.,” “The Wolverine,” “Elysium,” “Disney’s Planes,” “Kick-Ass 2”

Lots of sequels. Lots of star power. Lots of possible flops. (I’m looking at you, “R.I.P.D.”) It is not to say there is no imagination or ingenuity here, and even monsters like “World War Z” and “Pacific Rim” represent atypical attempts at the genre film. But there is little here to get overly excited about. And that’s too bad.

I have so many fond memories of seeing big summer movies, some I’m ashamed to admit I paid for — “City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold” and “The Cowboy Way” seemed like good ideas at the time — some I still enjoy revisiting.

The year 2013 most seems to resemble, at least in terms of iffy looking blockbusters, is 1995. That was … a pretty week year. Take a gander at this rum bunch, which I’ve out on separate lines for maximum impact:

“French Kiss”

“Crimson Tide”

“Die Hard with a Vengeance”

“Forget Paris”

“Braveheart”

“Casper”

“Johnny Mnemonic”

“The Bridges of MadisonCounty”

“Congo”

“Batman Forever”

“Pocahontas”

“Apollo 13”

“Judge Dredd”

“First Knight”

“Species”

“The Indian in the Cupboard”

“Nine Months”

“Under Siege 2: DarkTerritory”

“Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home”

“Clueless”

“The Net”

“Operation Dumbo Drop”

“Waterworld”

“Babe”

“Something to Talk About”

“Virtuosity”

“Dangerous Minds”

“The Baby-Sitters Club”

“Mortal Kombat”

Pretty grim, right? I know “Braveheart” is beloved, “Apollo 13” is solid, “Die Hard With a Vengeance” was “Die Hard” when “Die Hard” was still “Die Hard,” but outside of those, “Clueless,” and “Babe,” every other film is one I never wish to watch again. Even that summer’s indie releases were rather slight: “Desperado,” “The City of Lost Children,” “Fluke,” “Smoke,” “Kids,” “Unzipped,” “The Usual Suspects,” “The Brothers McMullen.” Not a bad bunch, exactly, but not a lengthy one, either.

Yet this summer, at least, there is something else happening, something noteworthy: It’s a phenomenal season for indies. Check out this small list of independent films that have opened or are scheduled for release from May through August:

“Before Midnight,” “Frances Ha,” “Only God Forgives,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” The Grandmaster,” “The Bling Ring,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Prince Avalanche,” “The To-Do List,” “The Spectacular Now,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Girl Most Likely,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Byzantium,” “The Hunt,” “Berberian Sound Studio,” “The Way, Way Back”

I can’t speak to the quality of most of these — I’ve seen “Frances,” “Much Ado,” “Girl Most Likely,” and “Byzantium,” but none of the others — but I can say with confidence that it’s an eclectic, fascinating mix. Any summer that includes films from Richard Linklater, Noah Baumbach, Nicholas Winding Refn, Wong Kar-wai, Sofia Coppola, Joss Whedon, Woody Allen, and Neil Jordan is going to offer a few gems.

At the very least, we can be thankful that the travesty that was “A Good Day to Die Hard” opened in February. It would have made a bad summer even worse.

 

Photo from “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Schobert on Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing”: “UTTER JOY.”

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On this rainy, perfect for black-and-white Thursday, I’m revisiting Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” the first movie I ever had the pleasure of beign quoted on, with a poster (see above) and a trailer. Seeing the trailer on the big screen before “The Great Gatsby” was pretty incredible.

It’s been a special experience for me. I saw the film on my last Sunday morning at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, wrote the review on my iPhone while standing in line for something else, and it was posted within minutes. I loved it, and look forward to seeing whether or not I feel the same after a second viewing.

Indiewire’s The Playlist reposted my review yesterday (it has already garnered some prickish reader comments. Here is the link, and here is a copy of the review:

How does one follow the biggest superhero film in box office history? Perhaps a better way to phrase it is, how does the man behind some of the most beloved cult TV series and characters in recent pop history follow the biggest superhero film in box office history? If we’re talking about the much-loved Joss Whedon – who else? – you decamp to your home, grab a camera, invite over your friends, and create a delightful, DIY, modern-day black-and-white adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Duh.

The result is an utter joy, Whedon’s most emotionally resonant and fully realized feature film to date. And I say that as one who is not a devoted member of the Whedon army. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed much of his work – I have, often. But I’ve not seen every episode of “Buffy” and “Firefly,” I never meandered into “Dollhouse,” and I thought “Dr. Horrible” was worth one viewing, but no more. Happily, outside of actor recognition, Whedon fanaticism is not a requirement to enjoy “Much Ado.”

Sure, “Firefly” fans will get an especially sharp kick out of seeing Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry react with horrified shock to being called an ass. But so will everyone else, and that’s Whedon’s genius here. He has created a Shakespeare adaptation that will please just about everyone. No easy task, that, especially since the first scene of the actors speaking Shakespeare’s dialogue feels jarring. Sure, modern-day versions retaining the original language have worked before… but will it here, in sunny, privileged Santa Monica? And will it be more than just another Bard adaptation? The whole project, after all, seemed to come out of nowhere, leaving one unsure what to expect. But we were wrong to worry. Whedon pulls it off, and makes us blush for having doubted that he could.

This incarnation of ‘Much Ado’ was shot over twelve days entirely at the director’s home, making this a sort of geek Architectural Digest spread come to life. For the uninitiated, or those who perhaps haven’t come upon the text since high school (like me), the film opens with the arrival of Don Pedro and company to the home of the wealthy and charming Leonato (a never-better Clark Gregg). His right-hand man, young Claudio (Fran Kranz) is in love with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), a match eased along by the cheerfully meddlesome Don Pedro.

Meanwhile, one member of the Don Pedro party, the caddish Benedick (Alexis Denisof) has a checkered past with Leo’s tart-tongued niece, Beatrice (Amy Acker). The duo form the film’s most irresistible couple, sharing a seemingly unbreakable bond of disgust. This is due to the crisp, wonderfully meaningful Bill Shakespeare dialogue (“When I said I would die a bachelor,” opines Benedick, “I did not think I should live till I was married”), but also its two stars.

I was unfamiliar with Denisof and Acker, both Whedon regulars from “Buffy” and “Dollhouse,” respectively, but I can say without question that ‘Much Ado’ should make them stars – or bigger stars, depending on your knowledge of the Joss-ary. Via knowing glances, sharp putdowns, and truly funny pratfalls, they bring Benedick and Beatrice to life in vivid fashion. Part of the fun of watching (and reading) “Much Ado About Nothing” is witnessing the clever series of pranks at its heart, and none is more enjoyable than the attempted union of B and B, with Denisof and Acker creating one of 2012’s most winning onscreen couples.
There are darker tricks afoot, as Claudio’s scheming brother Don John (Sean Maher) attempts to break the forthcoming marriage of Caudio and Hero. It is to Whedon’s and the actors’ credit that even knowing the story’s twists and turns, one finds the slander of Hero and, especially, the anger of her cousin Beatrice, so moving. Even during the film’s most love-sick stretch, there is humor, arriving in the form of Fillion’s Dogberry. As the buffoonish cop whose team discovers Don John’s plan, Fillion brings a burst of Whedon-y spirit to the proceedings, and, despite little screen time, gives one of the film’s most memorable and subtle performances.

“Much Ado About Nothing” appropriately ends with lovers united, evildoers punished, and, in this incarnation, a helluva party. Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment is the feeling this conclusion brings, one of smiles and joy. Watching Whedon’s take is a bit like sitting in on a dinner party of friends who feel not obnoxious, but friendly and lovable. Is it all a bit slight, and sometimes even amateurish? Sure, but that’s what happens when a group of friends make a film over twelve days. Its off-the-cuff nature makes for a film that is not flawless – the music is a bit daft, and some of the acting a little too “large” for the intimate setting – but is, from beginning to end, delightful. One gets the sense that this is less of an “Avengers” stop-gap for its director, and more a bold little battery-charger. Whatever Whedon’s intent, for audiences, it is one of 2012’s most unexpected treats. [A-]

 

 

Weekend Preview: Forget “Earth” — There’s “Something in the Air”

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Tomorrow is one of the oddest movie-opening Fridays of the summer, truly. It’s also one of the most boring.

There are few summer releases that look less alluring to me than the Will Smith-Jaden Smith vehicle “After Earth.” In fact, perhaps the only element to pique my interest is the invisibility of director M. Night Shyamalan in the film’s ad campaign. Considering “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender,” that’s probably wise, but I’m not sure what impact it will have at the box office. I’d expect this one to open in the low-thirties, probably ending up making a bit more than the similarly-themed “Oblivion” when all is said and done.

The real question is whether it will hit No. 1 this weekend. I would expect “Fast 6” to maintain its hold, and it is even possible (if unlikely — this is a Will Smith movie, after all) that “Earth” will come in behind “Epic” and “Star Trek.”

Coming in behind all those should be the magicians-robbing-banks thriller “Now You See Me.” The trailers are fun, but if this was directed by anyone other than Louis Leterrier (“Clash of the Titans”), I’d be a heckuva lot more excited. Look at that cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and one of my favorite actresses, the incandescent Mélanie Laurent. Good reviews could make this a modest success, and it is worth noting that Leterrier directed two of the enjoyable “Transporter” films.

In the world of indies: I saw “Something in the Air” at TIFF 2012, and my initial response, for Buffalo Spree, was muted, at best: “One notable miss was Olivier Assayas’s autobiographical film. This look at students in Paris continuing the struggles of post-May ’68 life is handsomely made but pretty vacant.” But I seemed to sense the tide could turn: “Of course, time often changes my opinions. Seeing Sarah Polley’s ‘Take This Waltz’ at TIFF 2011, I was horribly disappointed. Watching it again months later, outside the pomp and circumstance of the festival setting, I adored it. There’s hope for you yet, ‘Something.’”

This was indeed the case. The more I’ve pondered “Something in the Air,” the stronger it has seemed. Film fest fatigue played a role, I think, in my response; it was the last film, at 9 or 10 p.m., after a long day of walking and watching. And it directly followed the overwhelming emotional experience that is “Amour,” so it certainly seemed rather anonymous, in terms of character and emotion, by comparison. My earlier criticisms are valid, I think. It is hard to find a compelling character here — blah is the most intriguing, but she’s not really the star — yet the mood, the vibe, and the surroundings are so right that it works more often than not. I look forward to seeing it again.

It’s ironic that “Kon-Tiki” is opening today, since yesterday brought major news for its directors, Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg: The duo will helm the fifth installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, once more starring starring Johnny Depp. An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Feature, the well-reviewed “Kon-Tiki” looks like a visual stunner, and, perhaps, a big-screen must-see.

Michael Shannon makes any film more interesting, and it will be especially fun to see him tackle the meaty villain role in “Man of Steel.” Hitman drama “The Iceman” has a heckuva cast — Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, James Franco (of course), David Schwimmer (?), Stephen Dorff — but carries the whiff of we’ve-seen-it-all-before. Still, it’s a nice alternative to “The Hangover,” and I’ll catch up with it at some point.

Local filmmaker alert: Cheers to Peter McGennis, the native son director of “Queen City,” which opens tomorrow at the North Park. Taking place and shot in Buffalo, it stars Vivica A. Fox and features a talented lineup including Susan Tedeschi, Allen Toussaint, Maria Muldaur, and Sharon Jones. I did not get a chance to attend its fall screening or see McGennis’s “Buffalo Bushido,” but it’s always nice to help promote an ambitious local filmmaker.

Incidentally, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is moving to the Movieland 8, and “Renoir” and “Mud” are still hanging around, too. Also note that “The Place Beyond the Pines” is showing at both the Movieland and McKinley Mall.

Last but not least, Joss Whedon fans in Western New York should note that “Serenity” is showing at the Screening Room tonight, part of a double-bill with sci-fi oldie “Rocketship X-M.”

Coming soon from me are some thoughts on this strange summer, which features a long lineup of dull blockbusters but some truly stunning smaller films. One of these, “Frances Ha,” opens next Friday. You’re going to love it.