Whiplash

(Damien Chazelle, 2014)

with Robb Stey and Mike Lavoie, Eccles Theatre, 1/26/14

9

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This is it.  This is why we go to the movies.  Whiplash is tight, smart, relentless, exciting, funny, grounded, and terrifyingly assured.  The editing is sharp and crisp and musical, the performances rich and lived-in, the cinematography clever and beautiful but never self-indulgent.  Best of all, Whiplash remains unpredictable, in spite of its clean, stripped-down premise and ceaseless forward momentum.  What starts out as a portrait of perfectionism in all its reckless and destructive glory slowly evolves into a breathtaking battle of wills between two driven, uncompromising, fiercely competitive men.

Why are unrepentant assholes such a gift to the cinema?  Because 1) they’re funny; 2) they say what we can’t; 3) they force other characters to react (and thus drive the story forward); and 4) their rare moments of tenderness are all the sweeter for being unexpected.  The character of Terence Fletcher, played pitch-perfectly by J. K. Simmons, is an unrepentant asshole for the books.  He’s also a fully-rounded human being who believes in music – so much that he may be willing to kill for it.  How many music-lovers can say the same?

See this movie.  Whenever and wherever you can.  It’s bracing and galvanizing.  It will make you glad you exist.

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Published in: on January 27, 2014 at 5:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Imperial Dreams

(Malik Vitthal, 2014)

with Mike Lavoie, Prospector Square Theatre, 1/26/14

5

imperial dreams

Nine times out of ten, when a movie depicts a writer, his writing (or what we hear of it) turns out to be terrible.  If the writer’s talent is a major plot point, this results in cognitive dissonance; the movie keeps telling us the writer is good, while at the same time showing us that he’s lousy.  It’s even worse when the writing doubles as voice-over narration – as it does in Imperial Dreams.  Apart from this rather glaring flaw, this is an engaging enough story of struggle and redemption – though it doesn’t really have much of an ending.

Published in: on January 27, 2014 at 5:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

Young Ones

(Jake Paltrow, 2014)

with Robb Stey and Mike Lavoie, Library Center Theatre, 1/25/14

3

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Jake Paltrow is obviously eager to announce himself as a major new directing talent.  As a result, he throws every stylistic trick he can think of at the screen, and for a while he gets away with it, because the world he’s created is intriguing, the acting is strong, and the story seems to be moving forward.  Over time, however, Young Ones reveals itself for what it is: an empty exercise in style, with nowhere it wants to go and nothing it wants to say.  This is not the stuff promising filmmakers are made of.

Published in: on January 26, 2014 at 1:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Most Wanted Man

(Anton Corbijn, 2014)

with Mike Lavoie, Peery’s Egyptian Theatre (Ogden), 1/24/14

4

most wanted man

A movie like this – which builds and builds and builds, slowly and inexorably, scene upon scene, intrigue within intrigue – had better be prepared to deliver a killer ending.  A Most Wanted Man has a lousy ending.  Just an arbitrary, disappointing, meaningless dud of an ending.  Up to that point, the movie’s pretty engaging, in its own slow way.  But endings matter.  They matter an awful lot.

Published in: on January 25, 2014 at 6:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

I Origins

(Mike Cahill, 2014)

with Robb Stey and Mike Lavoie, Eccles Theatre, 1/24/14

6

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Clever and contemplative sci-fi movie of the future-is-now variety.  I Origins does a nice job of balancing its farfetched ideas with humor and humanity, and the trajectory of its story is pleasantly unpredictable; unfortunately, the pace never varies, and so the movie never quite seems to reach a climax.  Still, it’s an intriguing and thought-provoking ride.

Published in: on January 25, 2014 at 5:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

Life Itself

(Steve James, 2014)

with Robb Stey and Mike Lavoie, Sundance Resort Screening Room, 1/23/14

9

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Roger Ebert taught me how to love movies.  How could I possibly be objective about this one?  Ebert has influenced the course of my life more than almost anyone; ever since a thirteen-year-old version of me haphazardly picked up his 1993 movie guide at my grandparents’ house in Maryland – out of sheer boredom, more or less – I’ve understood that the movies are an art form worthy of study, discussion, obsession, and worship.  I wouldn’t have started coming out to Sundance if it hadn’t been for Ebert.  I wouldn’t have started this blog if it hadn’t been for Ebert.  I might well have never made a movie of my own if Roger Ebert hadn’t turned me on the medium in the first place.  That puts him up there in my pantheon of heroes with people like Jimmy Stewart, Tom Stoppard, and Steve Martin.  He’s that big for me.

Where it all began.

Where it all began.

I never spoke a word to Roger Ebert, and he never spoke a word to me.  The closest I ever came to him was using an adjacent urinal at the Eccles Theatre in January of 2000 – my very first year at Sundance.  It was a trivial, almost laughable moment, but it kind of meant a lot to me.  I was eighteen.

I’m thirty-two now; I’m out at Sundance for probably the twelfth time; and Ebert is still pushing me into new places.  Last night Mike and Robb and I drove deep into the canyons of the Wasatch Mountains, and found ourselves for the first time at Sundance Resort Screening Room, where we took in Life Itself.  It’s a rich and beautiful movie, edited with uncanny insight and clarity.  It gives us an Ebert as stubborn and childish as he was warm, brave, and perceptive – an Ebert who fought ignorance, indifference, cancer, and Gene Siskel with the same unshakeable tenacity and unflagging humor.  The portrait of Siskel and Ebert’s friendship that emerges here is both caustically funny and deeply moving; it’s clear that they cared for each other a tremendous amount, and it’s equally clear that they never knew any way to express it other than by endlessly bickering onscreen and off.

I can’t tell you how glad I am to have had this chance to say goodbye to Roger Ebert.  He was a titan in the world of cinema, and he was a personal titan to me.  The world is a little poorer for his passing – but if this movie reminds us of anything, it’s that life is to be cherished.  Every last goddamn minute of it.

Rich Hill

(Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, 2014)

with Robb Stey and Mike Lavoie, MARC Theatre, 1/23/14

4

rich hill

Just a stone-cold bummer for the sake of it.  Rich Hill shows us the lives of three struggling families in a small Missouri town – lives full of frustration, deprivation, and heartache.  This is all very noble – if we choose not to see it as voyeuristic – but it doesn’t teach us anything new, and it’s hard to see what the point is supposed to be.  Sure, we can spend an hour or two feeling sorry for those less fortunate than we are, but how are we changed at the end of it?  Why are we watching these people?  Is it just so we can congratulate ourselves on our empathy?  If so, is that noble?  Or just a little bit sleazy?

Published in: on January 24, 2014 at 3:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

God Help the Girl

(Stuart Murdoch, 2014)

with Robb Stey, Rose Wagner Theatre, 1/21/14

4

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Belle and Sebastian’s music has sometimes been dismissed as “fey” or “twee” – labels which, as a Belle and Sebastian fan, I find sadly reductive (though not completely inaccurate).  One the other hand, this movie – directed by B&S frontman Stuart Murdoch – is so twee/fey/cutesy/precious that it could almost be a parody of the Belle and Sebastian aesthetic.  Imagine if Wes Anderson directed a musical about mopey teenagers, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect here.  The songs are great, the visuals jaunty and colorful, but the movie never decides if it wants to tell a story or not, and the whimsical cipher of a protagonist – played blankly and blandly by Emily Browning – isn’t helping matters.  As a debut feature from a prominent rock musician, God Help the Girl is impressive, and maybe even promising.  But it doesn’t really work.

Published in: on January 22, 2014 at 5:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cold in July

(Jim Mickle, 2014)

with Robb Stey, Eccles Theatre, 1/21/14

2

cold july

Cheap and cynical, shallow and lazy – needlessly violent and unsure of its own tone.  If anybody still thinks that flashy, exploitative garbage is the exclusive province of the major studios, Cold in July is the cure for what ails them.

Published in: on January 22, 2014 at 5:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hellion

(Kat Candler, 2014)

with Robb Stey, Eccles Theatre, 1/21/14

7

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Hellion is in many ways the quintessential indie movie; it’s about a troubled teen coming of age in a dysfunctional home, it’s set in a hardscrabble small town, and its washed-out handheld cinematography gives it a feeling of gritty, unsparing realism.  Fortunately, Hellion is also very good.  It’s a tough movie about tough circumstances, but it never allows itself to become bleak for bleakness’s sake, and it even extends a chance at hard-won redemption to its grieving, angry main characters.  Josh Wiggins is preternaturally subtle and nuanced as the 13-year-old protagonist, and Aaron Paul is just as good – or perhaps even better – as a good father fighting his own demons.  Maybe independent movies aren’t so bad after all.

Published in: on January 22, 2014 at 4:43 pm  Leave a Comment