Tag Archives: First film

Man of Tai Chi

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There are two aspects to this movie, and I’ll try to separate them for this conversation as much as I can. At the basic level, it is a film to be considered on its merits. In addition, it is the first film Keanu Reeves (My Own Private Idaho) has directed, which is what brought it to so many people’s attention.

So, to be fair, I’ll discuss the movie on its own merits first. Cause, let’s face it, if that didn’t work, who cares that Reeves was involved?

The film moves well and captures the two main cultures and environments of Beijing and Hong Kong. You won’t be bored, especially if you like martial arts films out of these areas. And you will likely recognize some of the faces, though the most prominent, Tiger Hu Chen, has been primarily a stunt man prior to this outing. Tiger does a good job of coming into the spotlight. The story is a little thin and obvious, though there is a subtle aspect I’ll get to. But the main focus, of course, is the fighting. The fights are entertaining and varied, but here is where I have to veer into Reeves as a director.

The fight scenes are impressive but, like a lot of the film, not always filmed the best way for my eyes, though the cinematography was generally good from veteran Davis. Another part of Reeves learning-curve was the editing, which was distractingly fragmented at times even during conversational scenes. It spoke to weak storyboarding or planning causing a need to jump back an forth in rapid perspectives to get reactions.

Despite some of these weaknesses, for the first time out behind the camera, Reeves manages to put together a fairly entertaining film that rides the line between China, Hong Kong, and American styles. The denouement (just to bring in a bit of old Europe) and underlying mystery, such as it is, are a little disappointing. However, as I mentioned above, the lead-up and the idea behind the overall plot are a little more subtle. Not to oversell it, but it ends up all more as metaphor than actual–highlighting, again, the Far Eastern influences. If writer, Cooney, had  a little more experience, it may have been a little more satisfying, but this was his first feature film as a writer as well.

With better material and some additional opportunities to improve, Reeves has another career path opening before him. That he managed this while also co-starring in the story allows me to handicap it a little as well–it was a heck of a risk on his part, but it also ensured the film would get seen globally. If you’re not a martial arts fan, you’ll not find much here to care about. But if you enjoy any of the genre, be it fantasy like Tai Chi Hero or any of the Jackie Chan or Jet Li oeuvre, to name a couple, you will find enough here to enjoy. 

The To Do List

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So, after yesterday proclaiming my love of black comedy, comes this much broader, more sophomoric brand of humor about sexual awakening. But it works. And it works mostly because it is painfully real and played with a strength of conviction and lack of embarrassment by Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed).

The cast is divided into three segments. Plaza’s female friends, her male subjects, and her parents. Each has their own sub-plot going on that fits in with the rest, but all are in service to the main point.

Shawkat (The Oranges) and Steele (Please Give), as her friends, and Bilson (Heart of Dixie), as her sister, give her a great foil to play against and learn from. Porter (Heart of Dixie) and Simmons (The Perks of Being a Wall Flower) as her main objects of affection, or the affection of her objects, give us the extremes of the male viewpoint.  And Hader (Saturday Night Live) along with Gregg (The Avengers) and Britton (Nashville) bring the adult perspective in. And none of these characters are perfect, nor are they purposefully mean or nasty. It is the last part that allowed me to really enjoy the film, even through some of its weakest points; cruelty rarely works for me in a comedy.

Behind all these performances and story is the twisted, but supportive eye of writer/director Carey. That the main creative hand behind the story was a woman probably had a lot to do with the film’s success. While the jokes were often crass, they weren’t exploitative, they were exactly what the character was striving for, exploratory. You weren’t laughing at her expense, you were laughing with her and the reality of the situation.

If it sounds like I’m rationalizing my enjoyment of the movie, I’m not. As with everything I watch, I’m just trying to understand why some things work for me and some don’t. Huge successes like Bridesmaids left me utterly cold; I couldn’t even finish the film. But this didn’t. It had me laughing and appreciating. And I do think it all comes back to the honesty and love of the characters rather than the humor being at the character’s expense.

Sure this is a low brow, crass, perverse tale of, well, tail, but it works for what it is and you just have to give Plaza her due for pulling it off. (Sorry, just couldn’t resist that last one.)

Violet & Daisy

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I like dark comedy; like my coffee, often the blacker the better. Why? Probably because I’ve a twisted sense of reality and am far too cynical for my own good (even while remaining a hopeless romantic). The start of this film had me hoping I’d found my new Boondock Saints. As it turned out, it wasn’t quite that good, but it definitely has its moments.

Writer/director Fletcher (Precious [as writer]) has a wicked sense of life and humor. He creates a dark world that is like some kind of Gothic dollhouse; full of toys and monsters. There is a razor edge between the reality and fantasy he creates–and this is really more of a fantasy than a reality, but it stays close enough to ring almost true. And that truth is thanks as much to the cast he pulled together as the writing. The directing is hit and miss, but never so bad as to drop you out of the world. Some of the cinematography is also quite beautiful, adding to the dissonance of the gritty, Noir-ish world he has created.  

Bledel (Gilmore Girls) and Ronan (The Host) in the titular roles work well together. Beldel dominates, both as her character and on screen. I have always enjoyed her work and her timing, so it wasn’t a hard sell. Ronan is good but, for the second time this week for me, she can’t command the screen. In this case, at least, she is balanced by the rest of her cast to help keep the energy up.

While no one was really talking much about it, this was one of Gandolfini’s last films to be released, though it was made a couple years back. Enough Said is getting all the attention (and Animal Rescue comes out next year), but he turns in a wonderful performance here as well. I suspect the subject matter had most people avoiding it despite his good turn.

A nice bit of surprise was Maslany (Orphan Black) showing up in a small role that is mostly inferred. Also Jean-Baptiste (Without a Trace) spikes up this odd fantasy in interesting ways.

Violet & Daisy isn’t for the feint of heart, but neither is it the indictment of the world that God Bless America is. This film is more personal, more about growing up than social commentary. Perhaps even a Where the Wild Things Are for girls in reverse? Whatever and however you decide to interpret, it is a good film that could have been great, but “good” was worth the trip for me.

The Way Way Back

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I run a risk here of over-selling this film so that it won’t meet expectations or under-selling it and having you miss it. So let me frame my recommendation by saying you should see this film, but it isn’t the best thing since sliced bread; it simply does what it does very, very well.

The primary reason for the success of the movie is its honesty. When Faxon (Ben and Kate) and Rash (Community) turned their empathetic eyes and first-time directing chops to a coming of age comedy, they delivered a darkly comic, beautifully condensed story. Both are better known as actors, but clearly they have talent in many directions as they showed in 2011 as the writers of The Descendants.

While the writing and directing are beautifully understated, the movie wouldn’t have succeeded without the cast. Leading them was James (The Killing, Psych), who embodies a depressed, adolescent child of divorce in need of a catalyst. Rockwell (Moon) provides the primary comedy and heart of the story as the man-child who needs to wake up, but has wisdom to share. These two actors build the support of the story.

Around that central post, Carrel’s (Seeking a Friend at the End of the World) character opposite Collette (United States of Tara), is disturbingly honest, never crossing the line into absurdity. If he had or if Collette had, it would have all come tumbling down as broad comedy. Instead, the sad realism chugs along dragging you with it. In addition, Janney (The Oranges) gives us another fearless performance of a broken woman and Robb (The Bridge to Terabithia) an intelligent nymph you can’t take your eyes off of. In smaller, but pivotal roles, Corddry (Warm Bodies) and Peet (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) make appearances as well as Faxon and Rash. 

The overall effect is that this film is so real at times, it is almost painful. But you can’t take your eyes off of it, even as you almost wish you could. It is a train wreck on laughing gas that ultimately sets you free.

Struck by Lightening

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First films are often quirky, but usually at the cost of polish. Lightening, while clearly indie in style and budget, certainly hits the quirk meter right from the beginning, but it is very well crafted on all levels. Chris Colfer (Glee) wrote a wonderfully engaging, sweet, and rather delightfully snarky script and had the sense to get Dannelly (Saved) to direct it. And while Colfer’s character is rather similar to his Glee persona, it is different enough to remain interesting.

Colfer and Dannelly assembled a surprisingly well-heeled cast, given their own  lack of history. The cast includes Hendricks (Mad Men), Janney (The Help, The West Wing), Mulrooney (The Grey), Wilson (Perfect Pitch), Hyland (Modern Family), Jenkins (Surface)  and several other talented folks. Typically, a movie like this would be populated with talent that you’d only recognize in retrospect. That this many folks jumped on means they saw something in there worth working to achieve, despite the lack of funds.

The story itself, to be honest, isn’t ground breaking, but it is told well and captures the delightful cesspool that is high school, if a bit exaggerated. You will laugh and even choke up a bit. But it is never saccharine and often has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. I’m curious to see if Colfer can more completely break his mold as an actor, but I’m fairly sure he has a career as a writer if he wants it.

The Words

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There are different ways to appreciate The Words. Absent any experience as a writer or with publishing, it is a clever story-within-a-story about life, love, and choices. And the story is sold with a fairly solid cast, though Cooper (Limitless, The A-Team) is the weakest of the lot. Saldana and Irons, even Quaid, Simmons, and Wilde blow him off the screen.

If you’re a writer or an artist, the movie takes on additional levels. And, to the writers’/directors’ credit, the motivations for the choices are reasonably credible. However, you can also see all the gears turning in the the script. It feels like they took the original story, the idea of a found manuscript, and kept layering on new aspects. Once they had the past and future aspects, they realized it was still too obvious and predictable, and so they layered the Quaid/Wilde story as a final wrapper to excuse the weaknesses in the main plot to not be able to stand on its own. I’m basing all of this on absolutely nothing but gut, but my writer instincts could see the welds in the frame. Does that make it bad? No… the ideas were still good and the execution is still solid, but I could see the shadow of the writer moving pieces around the board, which bugged me a little. As a first script  and directorial debut they did quite well.

The movie had a lot of buzz before it released, but then it sank beneath the waves of notice fairly quickly. I suspect that was to make room for Cooper’s Silver Linings Playbook Oscar push. Given his uneven performance here, it was probably the right choice. But there is some good work here and the film will definitely leave you with some interesting thoughts and questions.

Gayby

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(Reposted to fix some HTML weirdness)

Ignore the descriptions of this sweet, independent film. The story summary is very misleading. This is a surprisingly funny, bare bones (no pun intended) story of two friends looking for love and creating their own family.

The story is definitely a very NYC-oriented cast of characters and exchanges. I can say that there wasn’t a character that I didn’t recognize as close to someone I actually knew or know. It definitely captures a reality that many may think is just hyperbole. Which isn’t to say this doesn’t stretch the truths a little, but it isn’t nearly as stretched as it may appear. And despite some of the stretches, even the most outrageous characters all have explanations behind their actions by the end of the story.

The writer/director Jonathan Lisecki also plays a significant (and funny) role in the movie. It will be interesting to see if he has any more tricks up his sleeve outside of a world he clearly knows or if there are other compelling stories he can entertain us with within it. It was certainly a fun start to his feature reel (that was assisted by Kickstarter; something you’ll see more often on the indie and VOD circuit) and a fun 90 minutes when you’re in the mood.

Iron Sky

If Ed Wood had a bigger budget, a bit of absinthe, and penchant for jack boots rather than angora, he may well have produced this delightfully bizarre and absurd movie. Just make a bowl of popcorn and strap in for a Saturday morning B-grade style film with some impressive CGI and even some good (intended) laughs.

The history of how this movie made it to screen is really more interesting than the plot itself and heralds a huge change in how movies may be coming our way in the future. The writers, director, and some of the producers became known for their online movie: Star Wreck. This provided them the notice and funding to create Iron Sky. Sure it took years and tons of investors and even a bunch of fan involvement, but they did get it done. Some of that split-personality shows in the chaos of the plot and the low-brow humor But that they did create such a huge f/x flick outside of the studio system and at a reasonable budget is pretty amazing and shows that the field can be leveled with the power of technology and social media. Quality, well, that is the ongoing debate with self-publishers.

Everyone involved committed completely to the story and the style. Perhaps a bit too much at times, but it certainly never fails on any point for shoddy or weak attempts at work. Again, we can argue the quality of what was delivered, but in the spirit of B-grade, it was all perfectly serviceable.

What was also fascinating to me is that this film had a huge following and made a big splash across the fan bases despite being heavily subtitled (for the German). While we’ve seen more and more of this as science fiction, in particular, attempts to be more realistic in having aliens speak, well, alien (be it Klingon or the beings in District 9). This internationalization may also help broaden the types of films we get to see.

Precious

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Precious manages what few movies ever do, it opens a window on these characters and allows you to just watch their lives unfold. There is almost no moment you don’t utterly believe the people are real, which is why it is also a brutal film to experience, but not one your will be sorry you did. It isn’t perfect and the time-line is jumpy and, sometimes, hard to follow, but the story is well-told and compressed, I suspect, to help you make it through. For all the pain, you can’t help but find heroes in the cast and everything you’ve heard of the performances is true. Mo’nique is especially astounding.