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Man of Steel (2013)
An interesting but inconsistent reboot of the Superman franchise, Man of Steel definitely better than Superman Returns but there's nothing that different or new here to make it worth the time. This new script places a lot of emphasis on the Krypton story, with a long introduction segment with Russell Crowe who does a solid job as Jor-El, and Michael Shannon who provides a very good and human General Zod.
On the plus side, Henry Cavill is the best Superman since Reeve and he gives the character a lot of humanity as well as charisma; although, the Clark Kent persona doesn't appear until the end, and I'm not sure he can pull that off. Amy Adams, on the other hand, is very vanilla as Lois Lane, bringing none of the character's zest or passion into the role. Since she's already in love with Clark and knows who he is, we don't even have the sexual tension to look forward to in the sequel. The script isn't as flawed as other Nolan films but it's still messy; visually, it looks good but not as stunning as other Snyder films.
Todo sobre mi madre (1999)
Sensitive and beautiful
After her only son dies in an accident, a single mother (Cecilia Roth) goes searching for the boy's father, a randy transvestite, and falls back into her old group of friends including drag queens, prostitutes and actresses.
There isn't a very strong plot in this follow-up to Carne Tremula, but there's tons of atmosphere and fascinating characters, and everybody acts their hearts out, especially Roth and Antonia San Juan. Penelope Cruz is also good as a social worker with AIDS whom Roth takes under her wing. It's a continuation of the themes of grief, helplessness and fate from Almodovar's 1997 masterpiece but it's much less stylized, more sensitive and character-centered.
Career Opportunities (1991)
A lesser Hughes classic
John Hughes wrote but didn't direct this one, and it shows, Frank Whaley is a slacker and a chronic liar who spends his first night as a night janitor at Target and hooks up with runaway rich girl Jennifer Connelly.
The second act is quite good and has some elements of The Breakfast Club - existential, one-location story about the interaction between very different people. The third act completely misses its mark when the plot is interrupted by two robbers, and it turns into a Home Alone clone and ends on a very unsatisfying note. Connelly is very very good though and Whaley is good too, similar to but more likable than Broderick's Ferris Bueller.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011)
Good intentions but it doesn't work
Jason Segel is a 30-year old stoner still living with his mother (Susan Sarandon), who spends the whole film being stalked by her female co-worker at the office; Segel spends the day with his cynical brother Ed Helms whose marriage is falling apart, and looking for his purpose in life.
Segel brings a lot of heart and humanity into his role and he's the film's only saving grace, but Ed Helms seems to not realize that he's in a mumblecore dramedy and not in a Judd Apatow comedy, and at any rate mumblecore with A-list comedians doesn't really work. The script is forced and uninspired and the cinematography and direction are horrible, the camera keeps zooming in and out and makes it almost unwatchable.
Drinking Buddies (2013)
Not a comedy
Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson work together at a home brewery, they're obviously attracted to each other and right for each other but are stuck on platonic because of their relationships with Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick.
Drinking Buddies is probably the first real mumblecore film to get a real marketing campaign, but it was badly mismarketed as a comedy when it's actually a honest and realistic relationship drama. Acting is good and naturalistic, Kendrick and Johnson are especially good. Not a lot happens but the characters are very real and the situations are easy to relate to, and the cinematography is surprisingly good for this sort of low-budget film.
A wonderful panic attack
For the first time in a long, long time, a film made me feel like a kid again. From the very first (long and glorious) shot of Gravity I was completely lost in the world Cuarón created for me, and for the next ninety minutes I was on the edge of my seat and struggling for breath. It was like a 1.5-hour panic attack - a wonderful, wonderful panic attack. Suspension of disbelief hadn't been so easy for me in years, and part of it was the masterful use of 3D - by far the best I've seen so far - but most of it was thanks to Cuarón's directorial work. This was a perfectly paced thriller, pure cinema at its most condensed, the editing, the sound, the cinematography, the acting all coming perfectly together to keep my eyes glued to the screen (or to the 3D glasses). Leaving the theater, I was stumbling, still not feeling quite at home in normal gravity.
Then I went on the film's board to see people's impressions - and sure enough, it was filled to the brim with complaints about the various scientific inaccuracies and implausibilities in the film. I'm something of a geek myself and plot holes drive me mad. But I just don't get how so many people could hate a film like Gravity so much. Comparisons to Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff seem ridiculous to me; this wasn't about a real space mission, it wasn't about the space program or technology, it was a thriller/adventure focused on atmosphere, character study and a semi-spiritual journey that character goes through in the hostile territory of unfamiliar life. Sure, looking back at it, a lot of it wasn't very realistic, but when a film works on as many levels as Gravity did, I really feel sorry for people focusing on the little flaws - and I'm so happy that for once I didn't.
Benny & Joon (1993)
A story about two siblings
At the heart of 'Benny & Joon' is the story of Joon, a mentally ill young woman, and her older brother Benny, who takes constant care of her and, while complaining about how much that complicates his life, actually uses the obligation as an excuse for the fact that his own life is going nowhere. It's a story that's simple, realistic and painfully honest. It could have made for a touching little drama if only Chechik made a clean decision that that's what the film is about.
Unfortunately, 'Benny & Joon's biggest asset is also its undoing, and that is the wonderful and charismatic performance of young Johnny Depp. Depp enters the scene almost halfway through as Joon's love interest, the mentally unbalanced but extremely charming Sam who chooses to model his personality (or lack thereof) on silent comedy stars Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Sam swoops Joon off her feet and disrupts the delicate balance of the siblings' relationship, which forces Benny to face up and decide whether he can let Joon go or not. Depp is terrific in his role; in one extended scene where he showcases his slapstick abilities he proves just how much of a screen personality he was and why he became one of the most bankable movie stars of the 90's. The problem is that he's so charismatic that he can easily fool the audience (and often does) that Sam is a romantic hero rather than a disruptive, chaotic presence; that this is the love story of Joon and Sam, rather than the story of Benny and his coming to terms with his own life decisions. What's worse, Depp's charisma emphasizes just how pale and unimpressive Aidan Quinn is in the role that should have been the lead.
It's not a bad film; it's a pretty and touching little drama, wonderfully scripted. On the other hand, Depp's scenes are a pleasure to behold. But the contrast between the two is what ultimately makes it a failure. It doesn't help that Chechik can't quite make up his mind about how seriously he's taking Joon's mental illness, which is played for laughs a bit too often.
Friends with Benefits (2011)
A formula that works
Friends With Benefits is a genre film and it isn't ashamed of it. It uses every cliché in the book and it uses them to full effect, better than any rom-com I've seen in ages. In an age where the classic rom-com is all but dead, when hipsterish films like (500) Days of Summer subvert every rule of the genre to hell and back for the sake of being edgy and subversive, Friends With Benefits is just self-aware and subversive enough to feel like it was made in 2011 and not twenty years earlier, but even if they make a snarky remark while doing it about the lack of realism in this sort of film, they still do everything you know - and hope - they will. The amazing thing is, it works. This comedy inspires true catharsis in the viewer and reminds us all why these clichés and rules were created in the first place - long before the genre turned into the bad, sticky joke that it is.
A lot of the credit should go to the cast, of course; because a film like this could never work if you're not rooting for the two leads to end up together. Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, it should be noted, are not in any way great actors. When each one is alone on the screen, they fail to impress, and when they interact with any member of the excellent supporting cast - Richard Jenkins, Woody Harrelson, Patricia Clarkson and even Emma Stone - Kunis and Timberlake are always the less interesting and less magnetic half of the scene. And yet - when they're together, they have an incredible and natural chemistry, one that only the great couples of the silver screen could ever achieve, and they make even the sex scenes, that could have been awkward with other actors, feel natural and pleasant. They makes for a real and likable couple that you want to root for, even relate to, so much so that you can set aside your cynicism and forget that the scenario would have been very different with two people who, well, don't look like Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake.
Most of all, though, it's the screenplay that makes Friends With Benefits work against all odds. It shows real wit and understanding of the characters' age-group, and doesn't try too hard to be hip and modern that it alienates the viewers and the actors. It's radiant with love for New York City, turning it into as major a player in the story as the lead characters, giving the story a strong sense of location and reality. Most impressive of all is the dialog during the sex scenes, which is more candid, realistic and hilarious than you would ever expect from a rom-com. Where other films would stop short when these scenes and fade to black and blast up the music, Friends With Benefits doesn't really show what people having sex look like - it's still a mainstream American comedy, after all - but it does show us how they act, and it's extremely accurate, avoiding any manner of idealization or romanticization and as a result is very relatable and as a result, very funny.
I'm a heterosexual male. I don't, by definition, like romantic comedies. But I liked this one. I understood where the story was going about ten minutes in, I knew exactly what the characters were going to do, but I'll be damned if I didn't really want them to do it. And I enjoyed it all the while. Friends With Benefits won't change the world, it's highly likely that I won't remember it two years from now. But if, ten years from now, it'll pop up on TV, it'll jog a pleasant memory, and I'll watch it all over again. And it'll be two hours I'm sure to enjoy.
Whether you take Dogtooth as an allegory or at face value, it's a disturbing and unsettling film. Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos used very naturalistic, realistic presentation and amateur actors to present the surreal story of a family of five living in total isolation in their country estate, the domineering parents creating a clean and controlled reality for their children to protect them from the temptations of the outside world.
It's not an easy film to absorb. Lanthimos throws the viewer right into a day in this family's life, and shows every aspect of it without rolling any punches, throwing an explicit (and disturbing) sex scene and some gruesome violence at the audience before they even have a chance to figure out what's going on. The naturalistic photography, uncompromising candor and relentless editing make for a very difficult watch, that many would have the stomach for and few would ever want to rewatch. And while the open ending makes sense, it also makes for a frustrating film with no catharsis that stays more or less still throughout, not quite using up the dramatic potential it starts out with. Still, it's an unusual and gutsy film, worth your time but not recommended for the easily offended.
The Naughty Nineties (1945)
Who's On First?
The one and only reason to watch this film, as far as I'm concerned, is that it contains the full-length, and probably the best, version of the famous 'Who's On First?' routine. The delivery of that routine is perfect, and it's a few of the most side-splittingly funny minutes ever put on film, and since it takes up nearly ten minutes of the film's 76 minute run, you might as well just go ahead and watch the whole thing, but unless you're an Abbott & Costello fan, you could well skip it and not lose any sleep about it. The Naughty Nineties has a couple of good routines and gags, and two or three very funny scenes of physical comedy; Costello is always tons of fun and Abbott is the ultimate straight-man, and when they're together on screen the dynamic is always great. But there are far too many scenes where only one of them is featured, and those always fall short; and the truth is, once you pass the 'Who's On First?' scene, nothing else comes close.