Friday, June 21, 2013

World War Z: The Walking Zed.

Movie Review: World War Z

Director: Marc Forster

Reviewed: 18 June 2013

jamesintexas rating--***

With AMC's "The Walking Dead" delivering movie quality apocalyptic zombies chasing the remnants of humanity every week, the zombie bar has been raised for a film like "World War Z," based on a best-selling novel starring one of the biggest stars in movies today. Marc Forster, the director of "Monster's Ball" and "Quantum of Solace" seems an odd choice for such a sprawling, globetrotting, effects-heavy adventure, yet despite its limitations, he carries the film across the finish line with a solid performance by Brad Pitt and effectively tense scenes.

The opening scene establishes Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), retired United Nations field agent with experience in Kosovo and Liberia, as a househusband to Karin (Mireille Enos) and father of two young daughters in Philadelphia. Five minutes into the film, a traffic jam on Broad Street slowly ratchets up the suspense with tense motorists honking horns, cops racing by on motorcycles, and then, a far off explosion followed by a wave of violent, hyperkinetic zombies. The Lanes navigate the crowds, steal an RV, brave a grocery store under siege, and end up in a dilapidated housing project in Newark, awaiting a helicopter rescue from Gerry's old bosses at the U.N. who kept his number and conveniently need him back on the job. Now. A frightening chase sequence inside of the building plays out with only the red emergency lights and the flares that Karin drops showing the way up the stairs to the roof. Upon reuniting with the surviving leadership structure of the United Nations and the United States on an aircraft carrier 200 miles east of Manhattan, Gerry is tasked with reenlisting in exchange for his family's protection, as well as ordered to help the scientists find Patient Zero, the epicenter of the outbreak, who is rumored to be in South Korea. Find the patient; find the best way to make a vaccine to fight the apocalypse. Swiftly, Gerry travels to South Korea, Israel, and Wales in search of the best chance to save humanity.

The construction of the film eschews the novel's shifting global politics and sense of catastrophic camaraderie for the following of our single protagonist. Gerry's relentlessness along the way fleshes him out as likable and realistic. He knows solving this plague is the only hope he has to reunite with his family. His stakes could not be higher, and Pitt gives a fine minimalist, physical performance, though the film's PG-13 rating prevents him from being covered with the sort of splatter that comes from wielding axes, crowbars, and bats at close range against the undead. At one point, Gerry's crowbar is nonsensically clean. And that same PG-13 rating prevents the level of graphic carnage shown in other zombie films like "28 Days Later" or shows like "The Walking Dead," unyielding in their gore. We see the zombies, but Forster emphasizes long shots from a distance with swarms of them climbing over each other, underscoring shots of insects and animal pack behavior used in the opening montage.

While establishing Gerry as a loving father and husband, the film unfortunately delegates Mireille Enos's character to making the bed and waiting for a daily phone call from her husband. Somewhere a decision was made to sideline her so that she can be the rock for their two children and one adopted orphan, and neglect the telling of her story of survival within the precarious safety of the government. It is a lost opportunity. Pitt’s reunion with David Morse as an imprisoned ex-C.I.A. agent in South Korea serves as a nod to their work in the great apocalyptic film "Twelve Monkeys." But in general, "World War Z's" story is told in movement, not dialogue. The best scene in the film, a scene on the airplane, encapsulates the sheer terror of the lack of control and lack of escape, and touches on collective post-9-11 fears without being heavy-handed. The climax set in the World Health Organization offers a sterile, white environment that quickly becomes a maze for Jerry to wander amidst zombies, and the final showdown is striking for its simple bravery.

I wish that the film was more intelligent, I wish that the film took on more of the ambitious moments of its source material, and I wish that more thought had been put into stitching the story together. The ending shows vast other untold stories as well as unused performances. Yet, Forster and the three credited screenwriters (plus an additional screen story credit and the original novel by Max Brooks) assemble a series of fifteen-minute chapters that build tension, crest, and then skip to another location. Perhaps the story better fits our twelve to fifteen hour television miniseries cycle, but what "World War Z" has to offer is surprisingly powerful and suspenseful.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Mud and McConaughey: A Classic American Film and Performance.

Movie Review: Mud

Director: Jeff Nichols

Reviewed: 18 June 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

Jeff Nichols's new film "Mud" exists in the same company as "Sling Blade," "Winter's Bone," and "Ulee's Gold," painfully beautiful films that seem of this world and of another entirely. With its small town setting near the border of Mississippi and Arkansas in an America rarely seen in film, its literary allusions (most notably to "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"), and its vision of struggling to survive in America as well as young love, "Mud" shines.

Two young boys named Ellis (Tye Sheridan, most recently of "The Tree of Life") and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) roam the forests and waters of their small town with an eye for adventure. A trip out to a small island reveals a boat trapped high up in a tree from the last flood. Attempting to claim it as their own, Ellis and Neckbone encounter the mysterious Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a drifting man in hiding, fishing and eking out survival on the island away from society. Mud's dramatic monologues on good and evil, love and women, and his own origin captivate the fourteen year olds, drawing them into his service. Ellis lives on the river in a houseboat and hears the growing conflict between his parents (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) about staying or moving to town, and possibly even more change. Neckbone lives with his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), who searches the muddy bottom of the Mississippi river for oysters and anything salvageable while wearing a clunky, old-fasioned diving helmet. From Mud, they learn of his tale of woe, his love for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and his reason for hiding. They decide to help him in his quest for redemption.

Watching the film is akin to unlocking a series of mysteries, each more revealing than the last. There is a hopefulness in the film, especially in its painful depiction of Ellis's pursuit of May Pearl, a girl that he likes. That relationship parallels Mud's with Juniper as well as his mother and father, and even Galen's transitory one. Without drawing too many overt connections, Ellis's desire to believe Mud's story coincides with his own desire to stay naive and childish.

McConaughey's performance is brilliant, perhaps his best ever, and when considered alongside his hilarious turn in "Magic Mike" and his darkly disturbing work in "Killer Joe," he has amassed an enviable record of range and depth. Witherspoon carries a world-weary sadness in a small role, and Sam Shepherd delivers a memorable performance as neighbor Tom Blankenship. Michael Shannon is wonderful in two small but important scenes. However, the two lead performances are Sheridan and Lofland though, and they carry the movie; their friendship is never forced or inauthentic. Both handle the emotional weight of the film with their steady eyes and skinny frames. Lofland resembles a young River Phoenix in "Stand By Me."

Nichols does not just use the setting of the small town to tell the story. He imbues its rhythms and sounds into the fabric of the film: riding in the back of a pick-up truck, studying the groups of teens outside of the Dairy Queen, delivering catfish to the local restaurants, falling in love, and trying to create something out of nothing. His film evokes Terence Malick with its loving shots of nature and sun streaking through the trees, and for the second time this summer, a film with young men in the wilderness earns my highest rating ("The Kings of Summer" being the first). "Mud" is tender when it needs to be, and when it turns to impending violence, it is frightening.

"Mud" lights out for the Territory and finds its place among the best films of the year. With "Mud" and "Take Shelter" from 2011, Jeff Nichols has become one of the most vibrant auteurs of our time. That much is clear.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

This Is The End: Hilarity at the End of the World aka "I don't want to die at James Franco's house."

Movie Review: This Is The End

Director: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

Reviewed: 17 June 2013

jamesintexas rating--***

It's the end of the world as they know it, and this group of friends feels fine because it ends at James Franco's house, and they are together. I measure a comedy by how much I laugh, and I laughed quite a bit at the clever, small film "This Is The End" by directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. The film stars a young generation of comedic actors in a virtual "Oceans 11" of talent. The format of the film is essentially one long sketch, stretched out to a feature length, but it works because of its sending up of its actor's personas, anarchic sense of fun, and inventive references.

Jay Baruchel returns to Los Angeles to visit friend Seth Rogen after a long absence. They find themselves at Franco's self-designed home in Hollywood, flanked by Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, and Craig Robinson, among other celebrities. A chance stepping out for a pack of cigarettes reveals the onslaught of earthquakes and sinkholes, beams of blue light, and a possible apocalypse. After gleefully dispatching dozens of celebrities, chaos ensues as the small band of friends hunkers down in Franco's house, sends up nearly every conventional of the disaster genre, and tries to survive the end of the world.

What really works is the satirizing of celebrity culture with countless cameos and the stars basically riffing on their reputations. Jonah Hill plays a pretentious version of himself, while Danny McBride amps up his Kenny Powers antics. Michael Cera is skewered mercilessly in two brief scenes, and it is generally fun to play spot-the-celebrity, even when they are falling into giant holes of lava. Large portions of the film have the leads barricaded inside of Franco's house, and the confinement plays heavily into the laughter, especially in one scene where they all find themselves creeping into the basement to join Jay in a sleepover party on the floor. A lone Milky Way takes center stage as a hilarious point of contention, Craig Robinson's squeaks and squeals delight, and Danny McBride nearly steals the movie multiple times with his obscene tirades.

There are genuine jumps and scares, though I wonder if the film needed the effects-heavy third act. I suppose it needed to end somehow, but I enjoyed it more when it was these smart, funny actors trapped in a room. The central friendship between Rogen and Baruchel hits its obligatory rough patches and redemption in clunky fashion. However, for the surprise factor and the genuine laughs created, "This Is The End" is worth watching. It throws in a bit of religious pondering and a fun final scene. I recommend seeing it.

Right? Right.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Dr. No: James Bond Begins

Movie Review: Dr. No

Director: Terence Young

Reviewed: 15 June 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

"Dr. No" is not the first James Bond novel by Ian Fleming, but it exists as the beginning of one of cinema's most enduring franchises. With its iconic gun barrel sequence and its thrilling music, "Dr. No" introduces the character of James Bond to audiences in a very deliberate, methodical way. Bond (Sean Connery) is seated at the card table, wearing a black tuxedo, a cigarette hanging insouciantly out of his mouth: "Bond, James Bond." Connery sells that moment and dozens more like it, and the character grabs hold of our consciousness. Bond has knowledge of cards, drinks, and fine art. He thinks in this film; at two points, he realizes that another person close to him is nefarious and reacts coolly. His first onscreen murder is a brutal one, rooted in avenging the deaths of a Jamaican British agent and his secretary.

Bond travels to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of fellow agent Strangways and a possible connection to a plot to topple U.S. missiles from Cape Canaveral by sending them off course. Bond's spying consists mostly of noticing details: drivers of cars following him, a woman trying to take his picture at the airport, a suspicious secretary. He eventually travels to the mysterious island of Crab Key, the home of Dr. No, in order to investigate radioactive samples taken by Strangways. There, Bond meets the iconic Honey Rider (Ursula Andress), rising from the ocean, and together with islander Quarrel (John Kitzmuller), they must hide from Dr. No's henchmen in the interior of the island. It all builds to a drawn-out conversation between Dr. No and Bond in an elaborately decorated lair.

Joseph Wiseman has only two scenes as Dr. No (three if voice-work counts). He appears rather late in the film (1 hour 24 minute mark), and the film suffers from his lack of presence. Since Bond escapes from his prison cell by crawling through air vents, the climax builds rather quickly. It mostly involves creating a nuclear meltdown and some grappling with Dr. No above a bubbling pool of radioactive water. Quarrel's character, unfortunately, is played as James Bond's servant ("Fetch my shoes!") and for cheap laughter and does not earn such a horrible death. Ken Adam's set design is striking with its verticality and scenery that looms over its characters. The music is fun as is the sensation of watching an actor, a director, a filmmaking team behind to uncover how to make the hero and legend of James Bond, a knight for the modern age on a quest to save the world.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Man of Steel: Two Movies Fighting To A Draw.

Movie Review: Man of Steel

Director: Zack Snyder

Reviewed: 12 June 2013

jamesintexas rating--**

The new Superman film "Man of Steel" ultimately betrays itself by not being sure what it wants to be. The two names attached to this film suggest two different movie-making philosophies: director Zack Snyder of "300" and "Watchmen" and producer Christopher Nolan of the "Batman" trilogy and "Inception." The resulting film is promising and uneven and frustrating.

For a portion of the running time, "Man of Steel" is a quiet, meditative origin story told through flashbacks, flash forwards, and through conversations with Clark Kent's adoptive parents, Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane). After an incredible opening sequence that reveals the world of Krypton and the conflict between Jor-El (Russell Crowe), the Minister of Science and General Zod (Michael Shannon), the Minister of Defense, the baby Kal-El, tasked with the secrets of his people, flies across space from the dying Krypton only to land on the Kent farm in Kansas where he is then renamed. Jump to an adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) who is introduced as a nomad, wandering from fishing boat to backcountry bar, saving people and brooding about his fate. A chance discovery in Canada of an ancient spaceship encased in ice leads him to cross paths with intrepid embedded journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) who begins unraveling his back story. Meanwhile, after the fall of Krypton, General Zod scours the universe to find the son of Jor-El and recreate Krypton. The opening scenes on Krypton feature exhilarating special effects, as does the interior of the space ship, including what can only be described as a silvery liquid metal frieze that comes alive to tell the moving history of the planet.

The strength of this film comes from its bold elliptical structure and its dynamic lead performances. Cavill carries an air of youth and gravitas simultaneously, handling scenes with just the right amount of wounded existentialism. He gets the scene right where Superman learns to fly, capturing the joy and fearful exhilaration of the moment. Both Costner and Crowe shine in minor roles, with both mentors appearing occasionally in memories or holograms; by structuring the film this way, Snyder allows himself to use more of these fine performers. David S. Goyer's screenplay selects moments from Clark Kent's early life to focus on instead of a purely chronological approach, and those moments are quite powerful including an early episode at an elementary school and a terrifying bus accident. The weaving in and out of the past makes for a much more interesting and complex film with genuine moments of melancholy. An intense scene involving a tornado seems eerily prescient given the natural disasters of the past two months, and its devastation plays out powerfully. Michael Shannon's performance as General Zod never bores, adding to the compellingly watchable mix of actors.

My frustration with the film comes from its bombastic, drawn-out fight scenes and its skimpy treatment of important plot developments. Snyder overuses the cinematic technique of tracking a moving object and then using a quick-zoom to follow it as it flies through the air. By the seventh or eighth time, I found it completely taking me out of the movie. Product placement distracted me during an exhaustive fight scene in Smallville, and the scenes with the Army and government are completely disposable; they could have been airlifted out of a "Transformers" film. In the bizarre third act, General Zod rains buildings down upon Metropolis as a terrible machine alters gravity and manipulates the earth's core and can only be stopped by...I am not really sure. Snyder pours on the Christ-imagery and marries that to an overflow of 9-11 references, and since the final plot points are incomprehensible (including just exactly how these two superheroes can hurt each other), the climax just becomes a mishmash of broken glass, panicked crowds running in the streets, toppling massive structures, and the clamor of so much destruction. It’s difficult to care about Superman catching one person out of the sky as thousands undoubtedly died around him.

So, "Man of Steel" contains many wonderful moments and yet is sabotaged by its own chaos. Prominent displaying Christopher Nolan's name in the lead-up to this film suggests an origin story and reboot with both intelligence and heart. Zack Snyder delivers that only about halfway, but that half is pretty enjoyable.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Star Trek 2: A Successful Blending of Philosophy, Special Effects, and Politics

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Director: J.J. Abrams

Reviewed: 8 June 2013

jamesintexas rating--***

Political relevance is not something one expects to find in the summer's biggest, boldest action films. Yet, here it is in J.J. Abrams's sequel "Star Trek Into Darkness," a big budget science fiction romp in which characters debate the efficacy of drone attacks, preemptive strikes, and seeking revenge. Dark stuff indeed, as the title appropriately promises. Echoes of the Gulf of Tonkin and the War on Terror reverberate through this film which features many twists and turns. I am not sure I have put it all together correctly, but the film is one hell of a ride and a worthy summer moviegoing experience.

Starting in media res, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) engage in a daring rescue of an imperiled planet with a volcano about to burst. Abrams effectively and efficiently introduces Bones (Karl Urban), Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Lt. Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Mr. Sulu (John Cho). Unfortunately, the by-product of assembling such a strong cast of supporting characters is the feeling that many are underused and merely background. In the foreground, Kirk and Spock debate following rules and breaking them, and meanwhile, a daring terrorist attack destroys a Star Fleet Archive, forcing emergency procedures. After an even more daring attack upon the leadership, Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) commands Kirk to take the Enterprise to the edge of Klingon territory to pursue the terrorist responsible, supplying Kirk with horrifying new weapons to do so. The Enterprise flies into darkness, naturally, trying to figure out its true mission and the greater good. As Spock puts it early in the film, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one."

The opening scene has promise in its Indiana Jones-type of energy, and I liked how Abrams just jumped into the story, having laid the groundwork in the first film. We know who these characters are; we know how they would act. His storytelling takes the time to develop the conflicts in philosophy between Kirk and Spock, and the film is the rare blockbuster with something to say about our own post-9-11 world. My critique of "Star Trek Into Darkness" revolves around Abrams's reliance upon swirling, twisting camera work and the illogical shots of multiple characters running and jumping down hallways in a spiraling ship. Many of the director's instincts are strong, and the twisting scene parallels the more memorable one in "Inception," but in terms of originality, I am not sure that any of the imagery from "Star Trek Into Darkness" will stick with me beyond this summer. The special effects are superbly done, and is there anything more terrifying than being blown out into space during warp drive?  RIP, unnamed Enterprise crew members around its edges. It is difficult not to compare this film to "Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan" which evoked fear in me at a young age with its hissing Ricardo Montalban, and upon a recent viewing, that film still scares and packs an emotional power. In this film, a scene where two characters fly from one ship to another resembles a video game (and maybe is better seen in 3D), but the stakes seemed low to me; there was never doubt that the characters would make it. Late in the film, there is a chance to aim for greatness, but Abrams does not take it.

Everyone in the "Star Trek" universe is extremely smart, and I have always liked that, as well as the formality of names and ranks, the sense that these ships are living organisms constructed of hundreds of tiny roles that must function properly. Benedict Cumberbatch is memorable, and the best scene in the film is a classic Star Trek face-off with Cumberbatch's character outwitting Spock. Watching these two fine actors think is pretty amazing because they are both incredibly smart. A large portion of the film involves smart people out-thinking each other. Zachary Pine's work here is fine, and I think he is at his best when being punched in the face or bleeding or jumping in some daring stunt. His James T. Kirk does not don reading glasses and peruse "A Tale of Two Cities." The elements are assembled well here, and Abrams has proved an expert at rallying together a relevant, emotional, and technical achievement in filmmaking. I wish that he had shown more courage in the ending of "Star Trek Into Darkness," but perhaps franchise management superseded artistic concerns. The final speech feels clunky and inauthentic for all that has gone before.

The Best Star Trek Film of All.

Movie Review: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Director: Nicholas Meyer

Reviewed: 11 June 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Admiral Kirk reads novels by Charles Dickens. Super-villain Khan quotes Herman Melville. Captain Spock arches an eyebrow containing volumes. Space ships move slowly, and James Horner's score heightens the emotions. Although I am no Trekkie and have limited knowledge of the television series, I am can boldly declare "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" to be the best of the film series. Its plot concerns the U.S.S. Enterprise embarking on a voyage with a crew of trainees (and the usual cast of familiar faces behind them) to investigate a transmission from a far-off scientific research lab working on The Genesis Project, a device of transformative power with the ability to introduce life to any moon or desolate planet in the galaxy. Of course, the device could also be used as a weapon to extinguish life on any planet. As Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) and Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) travel the heavens, a chance investigation by the U.S.S. Reliant plays into the hands of the diabolical Khan (Ricardo Montalban), a genetically engineered criminal exiled in a desert wasteland for fifteen years by then Captain Kirk. Khan seizes the opportunity for escape, mind control, baits a trap for Kirk, and attacks ruthlessly.

After a dynamic introduction, the film foregrounds the conflict between Kirk and Spock's philosophies, as well as the acknowledgement that nearly all of the major players are older and studying their own mortality. Horner's score is still a magnificent blend of percussion and wonder, and the film comfortably unfolds at its own pace. In contrast to "Star Trek Into Darkness," director Nicholas Meyer takes the time to show the leaders touring the sick bay, seeing the aftermath of some of the attacks. The stakes are quite high in this film with The Genesis Project representing both the best and worst of humanity, potentially, as well as Kirk's own confronting of his past and choices made. Kirk's quarters acknowledge the explorers of the Enterprise alongside the context of explorers of the past. Pistols of pirates are prominently displayed next to knightly armor, giving the feeling of this being a ship at sail, an exploratory vessel, where the captain reads and thinks and reflects into his journal.

And Montalban and the ear-bugs! I cannot say enough about them. Montalban is iconic and magnetic as the soft-spoken, hissing Khan who delivers intense monologues but never gets to share a physical scene with Kirk. His chest prominently displayed and surrounded by former Chippendale dancers, he captures the pathos of a grieving husband, a wronged man desperate with revenge. Montalban's voice often plays a scene more quietly than histrionic, a wise choice. And the ear-bug scene still delivers a primal, oozy wince from me, even though the special effects from 1982 do not hold up as well.

The film's climax involves a moment of genuine sacrifice from a member of the Enterprise, and it still registers as a genuine movie moment for me. The acting and the editing are superb, as well as the subsequent funeral in space, complete with Scotty playing bagpipes, a strange collision of cultures that works. "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" is not about Khan as much as it is about that intrepid exploratory crew aboard the Enterprise, that amalgamation of personalities working together, forming friendships, taking time for conversations, and healing from pain. Shatner may have become a stereotype of himself later, but I think that his work here is brilliant. The film's final moments offer hope, and not just of a sequel.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Kings of Summer: The Best Film of 2013 So Far.

Movie Review: The Kings of Summer

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Reviewed: 5 June 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

Like "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Moonrise Kingdom," Jordan Vogt-Roberts's debut film "The Kings of Summer" announces the arrival of a fantastic new storyteller in cinema while at the same time delivering a wonderful coming-of-age tale with memorable characters.  One sign of a great film is the desire to spend more time with the characters.  I wanted more of the world of Berea, Ohio and its gorgeous forest where a young trio builds a makeshift home in the woods to get away from their families and seek out something fresh and new.

Joe (Nick Robinson) struggles with being fifteen, with the loss of his mother, as well as a strained relationship with his father (Nick Offerman). Joe longs for Kelly (Erin Moriarty), a friendly classmate, to be more than just a friend. His best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) has parents who lovingly smother him, and he too wants a way out. Biaggio (Moises Arias) is last to join up and seems the perennial outsider, the kid who turns up whenever least expected and slowly forms an unbreakable bond with the other two. The plan?  Build a home out in the middle of the woods in an impossibly beautiful spot. Run away from home, responsibilities, and family pain. Form something new and good out in the woods. Survive on their own wits. Truly be the kings of summer. To say more would ruin the remarkable pleasure of this film.

Vogt-Roberts shoots this film with an almost Malickian eye for nature with sunlight streaming through trees, animals moving through the forest floor, and trees swaying in the summer breeze. He punctuates scenes by including specific shots of animals, foreshadowing what is to come. The degree of difficulty for this kind of film is high: the story of the kids in the woods must be believable and the stress of the parents back in civilization must be palpable. Vogt-Roberts balances teen emotions quite well, and the film seems to have excised all of the typical conversations and moments of this genre going instead for something deeper. The soundtrack is remarkable, and the teens sound like teens.

And it is funny. I think it is the funniest film of the year with a performance that caught me completely off guard by Moises Arias as Biaggio. Nick Offerman gives a fine performance as the dad, lost and isolated. A few other familiar faces deliver strong scenes (Offerman's wife Megan Mullally; Marc Evan Jackson; Alison Brie) and a conversation with a delivery man (Kumail Nanjiani) stretches on forever in hilarity.

What distinguishes "The Kings of Summer" is its tenderness. Youth, like summer, is fleeting; in this film, the adult world offers little in terms of wonder, beauty, or fulfillment to these young boys. The desire to achieve some sort of autonomy, sort sort of separation from parents and school can serve as a metaphor for growing-up and coming-of-age. Or, it can just be the story of a ferociously fun and weird summer for three young men.

Why did I react so strongly and positively to this film? Why did I find myself camping in the wilderness once a month from age eleven through eighteen with my Boy Scout Troop? Camaraderie of friends without the judgements that so often came at school? The satisfaction of building a fire, setting up a shelter, or cooking a meal? The ability to curse freely? The beauty of isolated nature? The refuge that it symbolized? The quiet and stillness?  I think all of it played a part. Time spent with nature and away from society is also time spent creating society. Was I my idealized self in the woods away from nearly everyone with only a few friends and mentors to guide me? Was that time crucial to my own development? Will I always look back at that time with wonder?

I am going to end this review with a quotation by Thoreau from "Walden" which I think is particularly apt for "The Kings of Summer" and its offerings. Thoreau states, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

I could not recommend this film more highly. "The Kings of Summer" is the best film that I have seen in 2013. It sucks the marrow out of life. Seek it out.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Frances Ha: Frances Enjoyable

Movie Review: Frances Ha

Director: Noah Baumbach

Reviewed: 2 June 2013

jamesintexas rating--***

Shot in gorgeous black and white, Noah Baumbach's new film "Frances Ha" consists of an episodic structure of addresses and an endearing female protagonist. Through a series of very short cuts and scenes, Baumbach establishes Frances (Greta Gerwig) as one of a mercurial temperament, a twenty-seven year old dance apprentice in New York City, broke but not broken, intertwined in her deep friendship with Sophie (Mickey Sumner), running through the streets, laughing and leaping. The loosely constructed plot has about five movements all related to places that Frances lives or visits.  Her complexity as a character grows as she interacts with new roommates, struggles with changing friendships, and slowly finds her way.

Gerwig is a standout here, and in multiple scenes she captures the awkward zaniness of Frances as well as her deep sadness.  However, to be clear, Frances is no manic pixie dream girl; her development works because of her completeness as a character with flaws and talents, dreams and self-sabotage.  Baumbach's construction of the film leads to jarring moments and tonal shifts where I was not sure whether to laugh or cringe.  In multiple scenes, Baumbach arranges conversations at cross purposes where four characters interact in hilarious and unsettling ways due to the stillness of his camera and the script (written by Baumbach and Gerwig) assigning who talks when.  It is inevitable to compare the film to Lena Dunham's show "Girls," but I think the style compresses so much in the brief chapters; often, Frances announces an intention to do something and the subsequent shot reveals her doing the exact opposite.

A line in Michael Dies's graduation speech resonated with me recently; I saw the film the same day as our high school's graduation.  He quoted from the television show "House" where a character stated, "Life is a series of rooms and who we get stuck in a room with adds up to what our lives are." June is the season of graduations, of moving out and across the country, of good-byes or just the last time you see someone.  Appropriately, Frances's journey takes her to the past (Sacramento, California to her parents as well as Poughkeepsie, New York to her alma mater) as well as the future.  The final moments of the film are revelatory and epiphanic in that great way movies can be, assembling everyone that has come before into one room.  And the last shot in the film is just lovely.