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Dreamland (I) (2006)
10/10
An excellent coming of age story with terrific performances
3 February 2006
This is a compelling, evocative coming of age story that has uniformly terrific performances and expert cinematography. The film invites and earns comparison with indie landmarks like GAS FOOD LODGING and RUBY IN PARADISE but is far more than a mere imitation. The stunning photography eschews the grainy, hand-held look of many independent films in favor of a classical expressionism that beautifully conveys the emotions at the story's core. Those emotions are in turn beautifully portrayed by a flawless cast that is given solid support by an unusually strong score and collection of source songs. For viewers looking for a solid character-based dramedy, this is a must see.
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Walk the Line (2005)
10/10
the best film of 2005
4 September 2005
I've long thought that James Mangold was one of the most underrated American directors; while other acclaimed auteurs like Wes Anderson and David Gordon Green have made names for themselves by essentially repeating themselves with each film, Mangold has attracted considerably less attention for actually having the gall to show some range. Like the great directors of the Hollywood studio system, Mangold shows visual and narrative skill across a wide array of genres: character-driven crime (COPLAND); horror (IDENTITY); issue-oriented drama (GIRL INTERRUPTED), etc. What each of these films shares in common is a stunningly elegant and expressive visual style, an attention to character reminiscent of Renoir, and an economy of storytelling that would make Howard Hawks envious.

Now Mangold has delivered his masterpiece, and it's the best studio release I've seen so far this year. WALK THE LINE, Mangold's story of the relationship between Johnny Cash and June Carter, is deliriously romantic, exhiliratingly entertaining (as a musical it invites and earns comparison with the best of Vincente Minelli), and profoundly moving--all set to a spectacular soundtrack. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are both brilliant as Cash and Carter, but not only in the ways you would expect. Their most impressive achievement is to convincingly portray two people falling in love in a manner that's sincere and sweet but never cheaply sentimental. This is the most unabashedly romantic American movie since THE NOTEBOOK, but it's totally authentic and lacking in melodrama; the subtlety with which Mangold and his performers delineate the one step forward, two steps back nature of Cash and Carter's love affair is staggering. Phoenix is particularly brilliant, not only in the romantic scenes but in moments in which Cash discusses his brother's early death; in these scenes the major tragedies of both the character and the performer's lives merge in a way that is heartbreakingly real. And the movie gets across the intoxicating nature of creative collaboration between two people in love better than any film I've ever seen--perhaps no coincidence given that Mangold and his closest collaborator, producer Cathy Konrad, are married. I could (and will) go on about this movie for hours, but let's just say that it's the movie to beat for the rest of the year.
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10/10
A hilarious riff on BEING JOHN MALKOVICH with some very funny performances.
13 February 2004
This is a hilarious riff on BEING JOHN MALKOVICH that delivers as both a witty satire on the porn industry and as a showcase for its talented leading man, Brian Berke. Berke, the stand-up comedian who directed the film, sharply parodies not only Jeremy's image but the psychology of the typical male porn viewer. The results are outrageous and sometimes insightful, and Jeremy's willingness to play along with the joke makes for some infectious fun. Like Malkovich in the Spike Jonze film, Jeremy is making fun not of himself but of the public's perception of him, and aided by the sharp writing he gives a genuinely winning performance. Andy Dick adds comic support in some of the movie's funniest scenes, and Berke's self-deprecating style marks him as a sort of X-rated Woody Allen. A very satisfying piece of entertainment.
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Wrong Turn (I) (2003)
A smart, stylish horror film in the tradition of THE HILLS HAVE EYES.
30 May 2003
This is a lean, mean, extremely effective horror film that combines elements from THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, SOUTHERN COMFORT and other classics to create a stylish and frightening exercise in suspense. The movie is helped in no small part by a dynamite performance by Eliza Dushku, whose intensity and truthfulness enhance the film in the same way that Jamie Lee Curtis added dimension to HALLOWEEN in 1978. All of the performers are terrific, however, and the script is a minor masterpiece of terror--it perfectly notches up the intensity in scene after scene, and director Rob Schmidt has a stylish but unobtrusive visual style that provides some nail-biting set pieces. The movie is essentially a horror film that exploits our fear of modern technology's inability to save us; as the heroes' cell phones, radios, etc. break down and they're forced to rely on primitive tools and methods to survive, the movie achieves a brutal purity reminiscent of early Wes Craven.
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A surprisingly effective slasher movie with solid direction that earns comparison with the early "Friday the 13th" films.
12 May 2003
This is a surprisingly effective slasher movie that's far better than the usual straight-to-video exploitation fare thanks to stylish direction and an eerie score. The movie is clearly influenced by '80s summer camp horror films like "Friday the 13th" and "The Burning," and it earns comparison with those cult classics due to an unusual respect for pace, composition, and performance. The suspense sequences are crafted with care and build to some pretty frightening payoffs, and the characters are well defined and well acted enough that we actually care about what happens to them. A creepy score helps matters along, as does expressive editing and a story that has its share of surprising twists. "Bloody Murder 2" is hardly original, but as an escapist thriller it delivers the goods.
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A sharp, compassionate satire that's Labute's best to date.
23 January 2003
Neil Labute creates his finest work to date with "The Shape of Things," a film that's reminiscent of the best of European auteurs such as Jean Renoir in its unusual combination of clarity, complexity, and elegant visual style. While Labute's enemies (and, like most great artists, he has many) will undoubtedly see this as simply another exercise in vulgar misanthropy, those willing to look at the film for what it is, rather than for what they expect it to be (a notion that ties in with a key theme of the movie), will find a powerful, witty satire that's ultimately as compassionate as it is scathing. Labute raises the question of what an artist's responsibilities are--to his/her culture, loved ones, self, etc.--and examines it from every possible angle in order to extrapolate greater truths about the subtle ways in which all men and women manipulate one another and try to shape their mates into the image that they desire (a theme nicely expressed via the interaction between the film's parallel couples). He does so through stripped down yet expressive compositions and color schemes that provide a direct pipeline to the characters' feelings--there's no fat on either the images or the dialogue, and the precision paradoxically makes the movie Labute's simplest to date at the same time that it is his most complex. The simplicity of the piece makes the endlessly provocative issues at its core instantly accessible, but since these issues are so challenging the movie never becomes pat or predictable. It's a masterpiece that's reminiscent of classic 1970's films like "Carnal Knowledge" and "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," and that's high praise.
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10/10
A brilliant cast makes for a remake that's worthy of its source.
22 January 2003
Keith Gordon's spectacular remake of Dennis Potter's acclaimed mini-series "The Singing Detective" is like three movies for the price of one: an audacious rock and roll musical reminiscent of French new wave classics like Godard's "A Woman is a Woman" and Demy's "Umbrellas of Cherbourg"; a witty film noir pastiche that both honors the traditions of its genre and takes them in new directions; and (and most potently) a scathing character study of a troubled writer who hates women and himself in seemingly equal measure. The movie's tone varies wildly, from goofy humor to haunting tragedy, but Gordon orchestrates the shifts with the same supreme sense of craft that he exhibited in earlier gems like "Waking the Dead" and "Mother Night." He's helped in no small part by his actors, all of whom are brilliant; Robert Downey Jr. gives the performance of his career in the film's complex leading role, and the other performers support him with wit and style (especially entertaining are Mel Gibson's uncharacteristically nerdy psychiatrist and the always great Katie Holmes as a nurse who shares the film's funniest scene (and sexiest musical number) with Downey. This reworking of Potter's original story (scripted by Potter himself shortly before his death) has all the pleasures of the original but stands on its own as a supremely original American musical.
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Pipe Dream (2002)
10/10
A charming comedy with wit and style.
26 February 2002
This is an extremely charming comedy that delivers on every level: as a witty, touching love story (Martin Donovan and Mary Louise Parker are both fantastic and have terrific chemistry), as a perceptive satire on filmmaking, and as a thoughtful look at the ways we perceive the people with whom we come into contact every day. The film's examination of how we perceive those around us is sharp and complex but never preachy---the movie's message is communicated through thoroughly absorbing drama rather than pontification. The direction is elegant and expressive without being self-conscious---the director doesn't have to force his effects because the characters are strong and the lush cinematography makes us fall in love with each and every one of them. The film goes in unexpected directions without feeling contrived and generates big, smart laughs. "Pipe Dream" is a real winner.
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10/10
A thoroughly entertaining rock and roll movie.
24 February 2002
This is yet another terrific rock and roll movie from Kurt Voss ("Border Radio," "Sugar Town") that's both a detailed look at the Portland music scene and a funny, pointed ensemble character study. Voss's characteristic efficiency when it comes to storytelling enables him to juggle several storylines and characters without any of them feeling underdeveloped or ignored---in fact, the subplots all complement each other beautifully, building to create a hilarious ensemble piece reminiscent of some of Altman's best work but with an underground sensibility all its own. The songs and score are fantastic, as are the performances by a cast made up largely of musicians---the movie positively oozes authenticity on every level, from the production design to the dialogue, and it couldn't be more entertaining. With its distinct, edgy style and intelligence, this is what independent filmmaking is all about.
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A terrific documentary by one of our greatest directors.
31 October 2001
This labor of love represents one of the greatest triumphs of director Martin Scorsese's career. Picking up where his "Personal Journey Through American Movies" left off, "My Voyage to Italy" expands upon and enriches the themes of the earlier documentary as the focus shifts to Italian cinema. It's not merely a great film about Italian movies, though it is that--with the help of collaborators such as the always incisive film critic Kent Jones and the always reliable editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese crams a semester's worth of Italian film history and criticism into four hours. Beyond being a thoroughly entertaining and insightful cinema course, however, "My Voyage to Italy" is a marvelous film about the intersection between movies and day-to-day life, both on a personal scale (as Scorsese recounts the effect that Italian films had on him and his family as he was growing up) and an international one (as Scorsese delineates the relationship between movements such as Italian neorealism and the historical context of the time). This is a movie that reminds us that movies matter, and Scorsese and his collaborators appropriately make the connection between the films under discussion and more recent works from countries such as Taiwan and Iran---showing us that the tradition of socially engaged filmmaking is alive and well, and that the world is a richer place because of it. This is a gift to film lovers everywhere, and stands alongside "Casino" and "Kundun" as yet another recent masterpiece by perhaps America's greatest filmmakers.
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The Heist (2000 Video)
10/10
A sharp, witty action film proving yet again Voss's versatility.
28 October 2001
This is yet another sharp, stylish genre piece from the talented and always underappreciated Kurt Voss, a skilled director as at home in the world of low-budget exploitation as in that of character-driven art house work. Here Voss uses the limitations of the low-budget genre world as assets, creating a work of energy and distinction marked by the same kind of witty dialogue as his collaborations with Allison Anders or his underrated HORSEPLAYER. Whereas most of the straight-to-video and cable world is a vast wasteland of clunky, empty-headed junk, Voss is continuing in the tradition of people like Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, and Joe Dante, who in the seventies used exploitation films as vehicles for intelligent, personal entertainments. Like all of Kurt Voss's work from BORDER RADIO to SUGAR TOWN, THE HEIST is a great deal of fun and highly recommended.
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10/10
This is a terrific combination of moving romance, political commentary, and a haunting ghost story.
28 October 2001
This is yet another masterpiece from one of our greatest independent filmmakers, the always intellectually rigorous and emotionally powerful Keith Gordon. With WAKING THE DEAD he's crafted his best film to date, a movie that's simultaneously a powerhouse romance, a moving ghost story, and a thoughtful piece of political commentary on the decline of genuine liberalism in America. Most impressive are the performances by Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly, which in their depth and authenticity are reminiscent of the best acting in John Cassavetes' films. There isn't a false moment in their relationship, which makes its ultimate resolution all the more powerful. Gordon is comparable to Stanley Kubrick in his talent for precise compositions and difficult adaptations, but he does the master one better when it comes to accessible emotions--it's difficult to imagine Kubrick ever plumbing the emotional depths that this film does, and the seemingly endless truths about relationships (some of which are Gordon's, some of which are novelist Scott Spencer's) combined with a sharp but nuanced political sensibility make this the best American release of 2000.
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