Weekend Preview: A “Spectacular” Teen Movie is Another Great Summer Indie

SpecNow-Still-1080x669

I’ve written several times here that I think this has been a particularly weak summer for big-budget extravaganzas, and a particularly great one for indies. Films like “Blue Jasmine,” “Before Midnight,” “Frances Ha,” “Fruitvale Station,” and more. Even lesser picks like “The Way, Way Back” or “The East” is still worthy of mention.

“The Spectacular Now” is another, a smart, subtle, emotionally involving film with two stellar lead performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. It’s now playing at the Eastern Hills Mall, and I can tell you its high level of praise from Sundance to now is not unwarranted.

It’s the third film directed by James Ponsoldt, the follow-up to his solid alcoholism drama “Smashed.” (His first was the Nick Nolte-starring “Off the Black.”) “Smashed” was undeniably well-made, but never quite grabbed me. “The Spectacular Now” is his strongest work yet, and much of that is thanks to the performances of his two stars.

This is not surprising; Teller stole the dour Nicole Kidman drama “Rabbit Hole,” while Woodley gave the best performance in “The Descendants.” Here, playing a funny-cool, alcohol-guzzling high-schooler and the shy girl who wins his heart, respectively, they are just right.

It’s easy to underrate a film like this (and to overrate it). When I initially left the theater, I considered it a fine, entertaining teen movie. But the more I ponder, the more I think “The Spectacular Now,” like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” pulls off two very difficult things: it is utterly believable, and it does not talk down to its audience.

There are great supporting performances from “Smashed” star Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the great Jennifer Jason Leigh, a dazed Kyle Chandler, the lovely Brie Larson, and “Mr. Show”’s Bob Odenkirk (!), but this film belongs to Teller and Woodley.

The duo, and director Ponsoldt, have brought the summer to a lovely close. (I’d go 3 ½ stars.) Check out Ponsoldt’s very cool countdown of the best coming-of-age films here.

The other entries at the box office are typically eclectic. The horror film “You’re Next” has built great buzz, and I imagine it will join “The Conjuring” as an inexpensive summer hit.

I reviewed the long-awaited third film from Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright, “The World’s End,” for the Buffalo News, and found it a very good — and almost great — picture. As I put it in my review, which I’ll post here soon:

“For the first 40 minutes or so, ‘The World’s End,’ the third collaboration between U.K. director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, is a bold, funny, downright insightful film about that horror of horrors: getting old.”

It remains entertaining and fun, but it abandons what I loved about the opening for a killer robot/alien invasion subplot. Still, it’s a worthy third outing for the trio.

It might make me sound old, but I have no idea what “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” is. I’ve seen some ads. I’ve seen some posters. But I can’t tell you what it is, because I have absolutely no idea.

A video on demand note: David Lowery’s acclaimed “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” starring Rooney Mara (swoon), Casey Affleck, and Ben Foster, comes to VOD today. Along with “The Spectacular Now,” it was one of the most acclaimed films at Sundance 2013, and I can’t wait to watch it.

Earlier this week I talked about Marilyn Monroe, and BPAC’s “Misfits” screening. Now, you can experience her brush with WNY, “Niagara,” as tonight, tomorrow, and also on August 28, 30, 31, and September 1, The Screening Room celebrates the film’s 60th anniversary with 7:30 screenings.

Meanwhile, Bacchus goes Bond with “Skyfall” on Wednesday (August 28) and the UB North Campus closes its summer session with “The Great Gatsby” tonight. South Campus is all wrapped up.

Next week, I’ll discuss the Buffalo Film Seminars’ fall 2013 schedule in its entirety, but note that the series kicks off on Tuesday (August 27) with 1927’s “The Jazz Singer.” I don’t need to tell you what that is, correct? Good.

And note that next Friday sees the Buffalo opening of Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster.” I’ll be there.

Photo: Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in “The Spectacular Now”; courtesy of A24 

David Fincher Returns … With a Lovely Calvin Klein Commercial Starring Rooney Mara

Rooney-Mara-CK-Downtown

At some point in the last decade, probably around the release of “Zodiac,” David Fincher became one of my favorite filmmakers. I had always found his work compelling, even “Alien 3,” but it was that 70s-set mind-F epic that truly knocked me over. Since that film, I liked “Benjamin Button,” really liked “The Social Network,” and loved “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

“Dragon Tattoo” is a film that demands reevaluation; I still believe it was not given a fair shake critically, and was released at an insanely bad time (the holidays). What even the haters will agree on is that it was a star-making role for Rooney Mara, an actress who embodied the heroine of Stieg Larsson’s book (like Noomi Rapace did), but added a level of fragility that was positively mesmerizing.

Her performance is, I think, one of modern cinema’s finest, and it made me a swooning-Rooney-ite.

Mara went on to “Side Effects” and the upcoming “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” while Fincher turned to the Netflix series “House of Cards” as producer and occasional director. But what about big-screen Fincher?

The answer finally came this week, as it was finally announced that he would direct an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” I am currently reading the massive bestseller, and while it has not completely grabbed me yet, I can see why it appeals to the director. If he’s looking for a commercial slam-dunk, this is it. And now that he has inked Ben Affleck? Even better. It will be interesting to see who is cast as the female lead; while still early in the book, I see it as a Jessica Chastain/Amy Adams type.

“Gone Girl” is an exciting choice, but that’s now surprise; check out the many interesting projects Fincher supposedly had percolating:

  • “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”: An odd choice, to be sure, but a fascinating. The latest, sadly, is that Brad Pitt has passed on this oft-delayed movie. That’s a bit of a surprise, and one wonders if this may sink the whole project.
  • “The Girl Who Played With Fire”: As a “Dragon Tattoo” fan, I am hoping this is next, but it is unlikely to be the case. And if it is, it is hard to know whether Fincher will be behind the camera. There were recent rumors that Daniel Craig was holding things up with salary demands, although there is no confirmation that this is indeed the case.
  • “Utopia”: News just broke that Fincher may be developing an American version of this U.K. series.

The finest recent example of Fincher’s talents might just be this drop-dead-gorgeous black-and-white Calvin Klein commercial starring one Rooney Mara. It is a stunner, and a reminder of his commercial roots. He seems to bring something truly entrancing out of Mara, and perhaps the finest praise one can give this TV spot is that it makes me hungry to see them work together again. Like, now. Is it too late to throw her name in the mix for “Gone Girl”?

 

Image: © Calvin Klein

Wednesday Round-Up: Is Woody Allen America’s Most Secretive Filmmaker? Plus, a Month of Truffaut on TCM

bluejasmine18

I love the secrecy that surrounds every Woody Allen project, the way a film would be mentioned as “Woody Allen Fall Project 2002” or “Woody Allen Summer Project 2008.” That is still the case; sometimes little is known about his latest film until just weeks before it opens.

Take “Blue Jasmine,” which opens later this month. I’m not sure if anyone was certain that it was a drama until the first trailer dropped. After all, this is a cast that includes Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay (!). Surely, we could expect laughs, correct? Perhaps not, as the trailer seems quite dark — darkly comical, perhaps, but dark all the same. I think? This IFC.com post summed it up nicely:

“The tone of this trailer is all over the place, making it difficult to tell if ‘Blue Jasmine’ is meant to be funny or sad. The story, the music, the fact that we see two comedians who don’t actually do anything funny — everything could be taken both ways.”

We’ll find out in just a few weeks. Until then, let’s start our round-up with some nicely vague details on Woody’s NEXT film, set to star Colin Firth and Emma Stone. (It looks like this level of secrecy is nothing new; check out this article from 1982.)

Photo: Left to right: Director Woody Allen, Cate Blanchett, and Alden Ehrenreich
Photo by Jessica Miglio © 2013 Gravier Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Rent This: The German Drama “Lore” is a Gripping, Emotional Experience

Lore_1

There are so, so many films showing each year at the Toronto International Film festival that deciding what one can and should see becomes very tricky. I’ve often tried to base it around films that I expect may never come to Buffalo, or will not for some time. There are occasions when I just can’t resist the allure of a “big” movie, even if it’s one that will be opening within weeks. And there are others that simply fit into my schedule.

One that I was unable to see but made a mental note to check out ASAP was Cate Shortland’s “Lore,” and it was worth the wait. This is an emotionally devastating stunner set in Germany during World War II, focusing on the five children of an SS officer. Their mother and father leave them – the scene in which 14-year-old Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) chases after her mother is heart-piercing – and the children must attempt a harrowing journey to the home of their grandmother. Along the way they meet Thomas (Kai Malina), a refugee who may offer their only chance of survival.

Visually stunning, wonderfully acted by Rosendahl and Malina, and very moving (there is a death which is truly shattering), “Lore” is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. If we need to give it a star rating, I’d call it an easy four out of four.

Interestingly, I watched it shortly after finishing Steven Soderbergh’s HBO Liberace biopic, “Behind the Candelabra,” and it made me realize how unmemorable the admittedly entertaining “Candelabra” really is. It’s enjoyable (let’s say three stars), and Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are dead-on, but one never feels they’ve learned much more about the enigmatic “Lee” than they knew going in. It is likely one of the most inessential films of Soderbergh’s wildly varied career. I far preferred his underrated recent Rooney Mara-Jude Law-starrer, “Side Effects.”

Back to “Lore”: It will be interesting to see what’s next for the cast and director Shortland, a filmmaker I was unfamiliar with. “Lore” is new to DVD and Blu-ray from Music Box Films. I highly recommend you track it down.

Photo: Liesel (Nele Trebs), Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), Jürgen (Mika Seidel), and Günther (André Frid) in LORE. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

 

In “Goodfellas,” One Dog Goes One Way, One Dog Goes the Other Way, and I’m Watching Them Both

goodfellas dog

It’s possible I’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” more than any other film in my last twenty or so years. And when I come upon it — on AMC, Spike, etc. — I have to watch it. It makes no difference to me whether it is edited for TV or not. Sure, it’s nice to hear Pesci’s poetic profanity, but I’ll take it either way.

So I was thrilled to recently write about a new Blu-ray box set that includes “Goodfellas,” “Heat,” “Mean Streets,” “The Departed,” and “The Untouchables” for buffalospree.com. Since it’s a rather busy day, I thought I’d post that piece, which also looks at some other cool recent releases. It’s all part of my occasional “Mondays With Schobie” segment for the Spree site.

Incidentally, a few years ago, my best friend Anthony surprised me with one of Henry Hill’s paintings, and a print of the famous “One dog goes one way, one dog goes the other way” painting pictured above. They adorned the walls of my Spree office for years.

Take it away, me (note that on the Spree site, titles are italicized; since I’m lazy, I generally put them in quotes here):

There are certain movies that I simply have to watch any time I stumble upon them on TV, and while the roster has changed periodically since I was a younger man (I’d no longer include the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, although I still love them dearly), there are a few that have sat there comfortably for the last few years.

  • Interestingly, five of them have been put together in a new Blu-ray set from Warner Home Video, and it’s almost as if they asked me what I’d like to see in a set called “Ultimate Gangster Collection.” There are actually two sets—“Contemporary” features Mean Streets, The Untouchables, Goodfellas, Heat, and The Departed, while “Classic” is comprised of Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, The Petrified Forest, and White Heat. And while I’m referring specifically to the former as my repeat viewing favorites, these are both must-owns (and smartly timed for release just before Father’s Day). The “Contemporary” set is ideal for a viewer like me who owns all of these films on DVD, but is ready to trade up for remastered Blu-ray versions. There are a number of special features for each film, but in each case, the movies themselves are what truly excite. The three Martin Scorsese crime classics — Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and The Departed—are fascinating to view together, coming at three distinct periods in the filmmaker’s career. Meanwhile, The Untouchables is both Brian De Palma’s most commercially successful and purely enjoyable film, and Heat is the quintessential Michael Mann epic. The films of the “Classic” set are, of course, legendary, with two of James Cagney’s finest performances (Public Enemy and White Heat), Edward G. Robinson’s immortal “Rico” (in Little Caesar), and Petrified Forest’s stunning trio of Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and Leslie Howard. The subject matter might be tough, and the violence brutal, but both sets represent the peak of cop-robber-and-gangster cinema. (Warner Home Video, 2013)
  • Now for something completely different: Another of those if-it’s-on-I-gotta-watch-it is National Lampoon’s Vacation, and a new thirtieth anniversary Blu-ray of the Chevy Chase-starrer offers a chance to revisit the film minus the commercials and TV edits. (Until watching this new edition, I’m not sure I’d ever seen the film uncut.) What stands out most about the film today is how grounded in reality it was; even Randy Quaid’s immortal cousin Eddie is pretty darn believable. And it captures the often overwhelming stress of the family road trip in a way I’m not sure any other film has. Vacation looks better than it ever has, and the disc also features a well-made documentary. (Warner Home Video, 2013)
  • Several other recently released DVD/Blu-rays that benefit from a second viewing include: Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects (Open Road Films, 2013), featuring award-worthy performances from Rooney Mara and Jude Law; Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (ERBP, 2013), a mind-F of a film that, literally, I watched twice in one sitting — this one demands it; and two recent Criterion releases, Godard’s Band of Outsiders and Alex Cox’s punk-sci-fi cult hit, Repo Man (Criterion Collection, 2013).

I also want to give a quick mention to a few books I’ve read since last I wrote this columns that fit here, sort of. When I finished all three, I had to dive back in to re-read some favorite parts, so there you go.

  • The Man from Primrose Lane: I came upon James Renner’s sci-fi-ish stunner when news broke that Bradley Cooper would star in a film adaptation. Considering Cooper’s ascension to the Hollywood A-list, that’s a good indicator a book could make some waves, and if Primose has not yet, it will, and soon. It’s the strange story of an old man (“the Man from Primrose Lane”), a sudden murder, a best-selling author whose wife has committed suicide, and an obsessive quest to discover the truth. It’s a book that, like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, is at times difficult, but always compulsively readable. (Macmillan/Sarah Crichton Books, 2012)
  • The Interestings: Meg Wolitzer is the author of nine novels, and her latest, The Interestings, is her most acclaimed yet. It’s a sprawling tale of five creative teenagers and their tangled adult lives, and I found it a story that seems ready-made for an HBO series. It’s sad, funny, and, for anyone who ever thought their destiny might lie in the art world, unmissable. (Penguin Publishing/Riverhead, 2013)
  • The Friedkin Connection—A Memoir: William Friedkin is one of those filmmakers whose highs could not be higher (Oscar wins for The French Connection, box-office glory for The Exorcist) and lows could not be lower (the flop of Sorcerer, the controversial Cruising, and, well, pretty much every movie he made between To Live and Die in L.A. and last year’s Killer Joe). His memoir is an honest, remarkably candid look at almost every one of his movies, and at his own failings as a person and filmmaker. It is especially insightful to hear him discuss Cruising, the gay serial killer film that ranks among the most fascinating, wildly flawed studio pictures of the last thirty years. (Harper, 2013)

All of these films and books have something common: I could sit down with them now and be just as contented as I was the first time I watched or read them.