Friday, May 24, 2013


Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha" is the writer and director's best film to date. A black-and-white French New Wave inspired piece that's honest and telling, funny and smart, wry and sad, effervescent and fulfilling. In short, it's a masterwork of independent cinema. Baumbach's writing partner and real life girlfriend Greta Gerwig have proved a dynamic dream team. As an actress, Gerwig has never been better. First introduced in Baumbach's lesser "Greenberg," here as the titular Frances she is self-deprecating, awkward, clumsy, hapless, yet attractive, charming and endearing. "Frances Ha" is not only razor sharp about the anxiety of post-college life but, even more, about the complexity of female friendship -- two topics which, once combined, tap into something much deeper about coming-of-age at a time in life when someone's supposed to have already come of age.

Frances is like Hannah Horvath of "Girls" a few more years down the road, floundering trying to find her purpose in New York. She lives with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), from college who she knows inside and out. As they put it, they're like an old lesbian couple who doesn't have sex anymore. When asked by her boyfriend to move in with him, Frances shrinks away using her loyalty to Sophie and not wanting to break their lease as an excuse to not commit. Unbeknownst to her, however, Sophie is already planning to end the lease and move out into her dream neighborhood of Tribeca with another girlfriend. This shock to her system sends Frances floating in the universe on her own, coasting along with too little money and too many temporary roommates.

She bunks with Sophie's friends, Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), while trying to stay afloat at her dance company whose director is gradually and nicely trying to edge Frances out even if she fails to realize it. When asked what she does for work, Frances says it's complicated. "Because what you do is complicated?" "Because I don't it," she responds. One of Lev's nightly female visitors tells Frances at breakfast she looks older than she is. Not wiser or more responsible, just an older face. This is the state Frances is in, and though watching her struggling journey can make you cringe, Baumbach infuses it with such graceful delight that you can't turn away.

The point is that Frances is in a downward spiral. She takes a brief reprieve from her free fall to visit her parents (played by Gerwig's actual parents) back home in Sacramento for Christmas. It's a brilliantly constructed sequence, a flurry of family gatherings, warm conversation and familial feelings until next thing Frances knows, she's back at the airport waving goodbye. What follows is Baumbach not shying away from bleakness by having Frances subvert the typical girl traveling to find herself by giving her the most depressing trip to Paris imaginable.

What's to learn from Baumbach and Gerwig's "Frances Ha"? That everyone struggles to find what it is they're looking for in the first place; life can drift and lose direction, thus mirroring the film's very style; and above all, no matter how tight-knit or seemingly endless, friendships shift, change and dissipate at a moment's notice. And in the face of losing what once was your rock, your life raft, all we can do is learn to press on.

Saturday, May 18, 2013


J.J. Abrams' sequel to his 2009 "Star Trek" may not be brimming with the originality and awe of his initial creation which worked as a unique and clever pop culture reboot, but "Into Darkness" still makes for fine summer blockbuster fare. Now that Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto have been firmly introduced into their roles of Captain Kirk and Spock filling the shoes of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, Abrams and his screenwriting team (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof) can settle in and have some fun with the franchise.

The rest of the crew is back, too, and the interplay between all the characters is the best part of the film's writing where a bunch of disparate personalities butt heads. In the frantic opening, Spock is caught in the depths of a volcano, which forces Kirk to break Starfleet regulations to save his life. The half-Vulcan, unable to express full emotion, seems ungrateful for the heroic act instead harping on the rules broken; crewmate and girlfriend Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is equally upset with his lack of reaction. Abrams makes sure to keep us emotionally invested in these characters which work together like a dysfunctional family. Bones (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) all bicker, joke and really pop with a whole new dynamic and then ultimately join forces on the Enterprise now under Kirk's full command. The volcano incident is a hick-up that gets Kirk temporarily demoted by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood).

A much larger threat, however, brings immediate attention when an attack on Starfleet from a mysterious rogue agent named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) begins a galactic manhunt. The team flies to the world of the arch enemy Klingons to find the culprit who turns out to be Khan, the story pulling its inspiration from 1982's "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." The casting of the British actor mostly known as Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch, has beefed up and is brilliant as he brings a cold, calculated and ruthless unpredictability to the role. What's most exhilarating about this villain is the way, once captured and placed in a cell, he burrows his way into Kirk's mind forcing him to question his every action.

The villainous Khan brings real world implications to 9/11-style terrorism creating a tension-filled morality play. In that effect, Abrams manages to bring "Into Darkness" onto a grander, more menacing scale without sacrificing any brains or brawn. And yet, even with as faultless as Abrams' second outing is, it already feels too familiar. The action sequences are muted and uninteresting save for a harrowing sequence where Kirk and Khan shoot like bullets from one spaceship to another. The mild frustration comes from not escaping the feeling of being a sequel for the sake of a sequel and only occasionally soaring to greatness.

My 4-star review of J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek"

Saturday, May 11, 2013


In its exuberant excess -- a signature style of Baz Luhrmann that he brings to a culmination here of pure flash, glitz and glam -- the director, perhaps unconsciously, evokes the same distant observation of that very excess F. Scott Fitzgerald described in his novel. It's not so much a classic adaptation than it is, mirroring the world Gatsby inhabits, a perfectly over-the-top display of crass indulgence. The fact that Lurhmann's audacious film is so grossly decked out in bells and whistles is more fitting than unnecessary in capturing the spirit of Fitzgerald's masterpiece: the over-the-top parties, the roaring 20s sensibilities and, most of all, the aching despair at the center of it all.

"The Great Gatsby" is also probably the only movie this year that will use 3D to proper effect. Luhrmann and cinematographer Simon Duggan put artistry in their use of the technology to soar above Manhattan, over the city and back into the illustrious mansions, twirling in and out of Gatsby's extraordinary parties. It creates an entirely sensory space, a highly stylized vision and nearly picturesque world where every scene is a perfectly choreographed dance. We open on a black-and-white Gatsby logo that pulses into golden life and zooms in on the infamous green light, the light upon which Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) gazes from his palace on East Egg across the bay into West Egg wherein lives the desired Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan).

Next door to Gatsby is the curious and wide-eyed Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) who moves to town to become a writer but ends up in the bonds business. He goes across the bay to visit his cousin Daisy and meets her husband Tom, (Joel Edgerton) who almost openly is having an affair with another woman, Myrtle (Isla Fisher), while the couple's friend, Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki), watches everything through a lens of close scrutiny and awareness. She also has information on the illusive Gatsby about which rumors swirl and has peaked Nick's immediate interest. Nick soon receives a personal invite from Gatsby to one of his big bashes to which everyone else in town just shows up. And it's not just any bash; it's the biggest bash in town.

The first Gatsby party awashes the audience in shimmering decorations, flowing champagne, and dancing and music galore. It's the pinnacle of booming decadence, Lurhmann gleefully throwing money into his grand production as if he himself is the Gatsby of filmmaking. The party scenes are dizzying and reminiscent of the zaniness of "Moulin Rouge!" highlighted, of course, by the film's largely promoted soundtrack that lives up to the hype. Flappers bust out to the beats of Jay-Z while the late-party hangover -- deflated decorations and discarded bottles covering the floors -- is set to a somber, crooning Florence Welch.

The introduction of Gatsby is the idealistic movie star moment. Panning up, we see a man smiling knowingly, sly and so confident, holding up a glass of champagne, fireworks over his head. It's bombastic, so very Baz and so fitting for introducing such a character -- and only Leonardo DiCaprio could've pulled off the role. It's hard to picture anyone else bringing potent vulnerability to such a famed literary character. He also looks as if he stepped out of a time machine from his days of "Titanic."

The core of the film is the ill-fated romance between Jay Gatsby, the powerhouse, and Daisy Buchanan, the delicate flower. Set to the anthem of Lana Del Rey's "Young & Beautiful," the high point of the film's robust soundtrack and score, we watch this superficial, material-driven world come crumbling down within the dark side of the American dream, the beautiful and tragic world that it is. And in the daring director's ability to capture that exact essence, that pointed feeling of wasteful extravagance, he succeeds immensely.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

IRON MAN 3 Review

The biggest problem with "Iron Man 3" is that it doesn't feel like an "Iron Man" movie. Under the new helm of writer/director Shane Black, best known for writing "Lethal Weapon" and collaborating with Robert Downey, Jr. on "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," there's a new level of manic energy that's hard to place. He co-wrote the script with Drew Pearce which is full of material for Downey, Jr. to chew on as the sardonic smart-ass Tony Stark. There's no doubt he brings his A-game, spurting off one-liners and verbal sparring that's fun and infectious. It's just too bad everything else about this Marvel outing is pure cash grab, a hold-over until the real sequel arrives.

But that also doesn't stop an onslaught of other Marvel outings we'll be seeing later this year and next, too. "Thor: The Dark World" and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" are both on their way, part of the second Marvel wave before the second act, the main attraction that is "The Avengers 2." This Iron Man outing serves more as a sequel to "The Avengers" than actually "Iron Man 2" itself. The characters reference the incidence in New York, the opening of an alien wormhole in the sky at the conclusion of Joss Whedon's extravaganza. Still reeling from it, Tony Stark is unstable, not sleeping, suffering from panic attacks and working on endless replicas of his metal suit.

The Mickey Rourke-Sam Rockwell villain combo from "Iron Man 2" may not have been the strongest, but at least it wasn't the lame-brained concoction the Mandarin (played with exuberance by Ben Kingsley) is. He is the face of an entire terrorist manifesto, which is meant to be the core of the film's darker storyline as represented in the trailers. But once the plot begins peeling away the layers of Mandarin's evil and introduces a mad scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), logic gets thrown to the wind, and the nationwide threat becomes borderline farcical. Devolving into a jarring mix of quippy humor and shocking violence, the movie is tonally all over the place.

Once the action gets underway, some of these sequences are great. The total annihilation of Tony Stark's cliffside Malibu house is thrilling as is the highly-teased free-fall sequence out of Air Force One as Iron Man soars through the sky to catch an improbable number of people. These harrowing scenes, however, are wasted in a screenplay that instead chooses to take Tony Stark to the heart of middle America to meddle around with some young boy. Luckily the temptation of sentimentality is avoided as Stark is consistently snarky and shooting the boy down every chance he gets. Still, the whole second act is a weird diversion when more important characters should be getting screen time.

Don Cheadle's Rhodes has a newly re-branded Iron Patriot that gets minimal use while Gwyneth Paltrow's once sweet and charming Pepper Potts bursts onto the scene as her own form of superhero looking more bronzed, more ripped and sporting only a sports bra for the film's climactic battle: an onslaught of clashing metal reminiscent of a "Transformers" movie. Shane Black does have fun with new twists in the Stark technology having individual pieces of the suit remote-controlled and soaring onto the body of different characters -- Rhodes and Potts included.

But what more is there to say? What once started as a strong and promising franchise has turned into another perfunctory cog in the Marvel machine with this threequel. The ending credits tease that Tony Stark will return, and we can only hope that's referring to the next "Avengers" and not "Iron Man 4."

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


Olivier Assayas' follow-up to 2008's "Summer Hours," "Something In the Air (Apres Mai)" is also a rumination on art, youth and the passing of time but takes us to 1968 Paris where social unrest and political revolution are certainly what's in the air. It's a film that perfectly captures the look and mood of the era, not only in the building tension of a revolution but even more so the shapeshifting passions and desires of the group of teenagers at the film's center.

The original French title of the film is "After May," which is more fitting because it follows Gilles (Clement Metayer) just after he's finished high school. In light of his community's political climate, he's torn in which direction to take his life: radicalism or artistic expression. These two opposites are physically represented in two women, Laure (Carol Combs) and Christine (Lola Cretin). Laure shares Gilles' spirit for becoming an artist, but she's moving away. And once he gets more involved in the youth revolution movement, he confides in Christine as a new love interest choosing the path of radicalism. In one of the film's most striking scenes, however, Gilles returns to Laure where she's caught up in a ill-fated romance with an older man with whom she takes heroin and lazes around a cottage house, a dreamlike delusion outside reality.

To what impact does an artist have on society or a small pact of revolutionaries? This is what Assayas contemplates through his self-announced semi-autobiographical story, a largely thematic but still tastefully understated exploration that is wry and critical in its view of youthful passions and aspirations. The film starts out very tight and politically-minded as we witness a renegade team of teenage revolutionaries run through the streets escaping the police, many of them getting beaten along the way. Another scene follows the teenagers during a nighttime vandalism run that puts one of the youth in trouble, which sends them all fleeing away from the city.

From here, the story starts to wander and drift much like its central characters, a cast that becomes more robust including an American dancer who gets lost in her own ambition. The friends, each going their own direction, begin questioning their activism versus the pursuit of their art. The most focus, however, is on Gilles as we watch his decisions represent this larger movement, a larger ideal of how much art can affect politics and vice versa.