Woody Allen

1969
Take the Money and Run 71
[ This early (pre-“Spinal Tap”) entry in the mockumentary genre depicts the sordid life of a spectacularly incompetent career criminal named Virgil. In his directorial debut, Woody Allen machineguns gags at us like there’s no tomorrow, but also finds time to give us a taste of that which would drive most of his movies: love, of course. “After fifteen minutes I wanted to marry her, and after half an hour I completely gave up the idea of stealing her purse.” ]

1971
bananas 64
[ Allen’s Marx brothers phase continues in this satirical farce which pokes fun at everything from the awkwardness of buying porno mags to the violent absurdity of South American dictatorships. There’s even an appearance by a pre-fame Sly Stallone as a hoodlum! I love how the gags just keep coming, so that even if one misses there’ll be another hit the next minute. ]

1972
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask 40
[ This series of vignettes concerning such vital questions as “what is sodomy?” and “what happens during ejaculation?” is hit and miss, but there are some good bits with Gene Wilder and a sheep, a giant killer tit and Woody as a sperm! ]

1973
Sleeper 65
[ Enter the white-on-black opening titles and the accompanying jazz music. This is one of Woody’s most visually arresting films. Set in 2173, “Sleeper” is full of futuristic vehicles, designs, robots… There’s also plenty of absurdity (giant banana peels, orgasm machines, etc.), some cutting political satire (2173 America is a police state where dissidents are casually “reprogrammed”) and Allen directing the lovably kooky Diane Keaton for the first time. “My name is Rex. Woof. Woof. Woof.” ]

1975
Love and Death 89
[ Wow, I thought I had a good grasp of Allen’s cinema, but his filmography keeps surprising me. I used to think that all his movies took place in New York and dealt with relationships, yet here’s this gorgeously crafted epic set in Russia. Woody’s his usual neurotic, wisecracking self and Diane Keaton is adorable and funny as always, but around them there’s war, tragedy, duels and Prokofiev music! It’s a peculiar blend, but it makes for one of Allen’s best movies. ]

1977
Annie Hall 95
[ review ]

1978
Interiors 18
[ Woody does Bergman in this first drama about sisters whose glacial relationships grow even more miserable when they must deal with the separation of their parents. Allen describes it as “real drama of the hardest kind, where conflicts are small… seething and complicated.” In other words, 90 endless minutes of women hating each other – and themselves. Wake me up when it’s over. ]

1979
Manhattan 85
[ review ]

1980
Stardust Memories 87
[ The artsy-fartsy opening scene is puzzling at first, until you realize it’s a set-up for a hilarious reversal scene in which Woody acknowledges those who miss his “early funny ones”. The picture that follows has satirical elements, but it’s mostly very autobiographical with a touch of whimsy. There’s a definite Fellini feel, in tone but also in style (love the B&W photography). And the women are great, as usual: Marie-Christine Barrault, Jessica Harper and, especially, Charlotte Rampling. ]

1982
A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy 73
[ Written in two weeks and casually shot during the pre-production of “Zelig”, this ensemble piece plays lightly around the themes of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, with an added sense of irreverence and sexual forwardness typical of Woody. This film is oddly underrated. Oh, it’s not a major work, but it’s got pleasant countryside locations, beautiful use of Mendelssohn music and amusing characters: a frigid wife, a slutty nurse, a sleazy doctor, a pompous-ass philosopher, Woody being Woody (but in a flying bicycle!) and Mia Farrow making her first appearance in one of his pictures. ]

1983
Zelig 75
[ Allen’s second mockumentary has him starring as a chameleon-like man who puzzles doctors and fascinates the masses through the ‘20s and ‘30s. A brilliant pastiche of old newsreels with a peculiar sense of humor, it’s also poignant in an offbeat kind of way. Everyone wants to fit in, right? ]

1984
Broadway Danny Rose 60
[ Another B&W film set in and around New York, a period piece, with Woody playing a former comedian turned talent manager named Danny Rose. Nothing to see here, this is typical Allen fare, right? Well, not quite. Here you got this fat Italian has been crooner, his Mafia moll mistress (an unrecognizable Mia Farrow), even hit men! We’re far from the intellectual circles Woody usually chronicles, this is more like something Scorsese or Coppola would do, but played for laughs. It’s a pretty oddball flick, not one of Allen’s best, but still enjoyable enough. ]

1985
The Purple Rose of Cairo 91
[ Allen does an amazing job here of quickly setting up Mia Farrow’s endearing character, then quickly having her leave (sort of) her abusive husband (Danny Aiello) and her thankless waitress job. We’re left really wondering what she’ll do, especially since the carefully balanced tragicomic tone opens up all kinds of possibilities. It’s very much surprising and wonderful how the story goes into all-out fantasy, with Mia’s character going to see the same picture over and over until the romantic lead (Jeff Daniels) notices her, steps out of the screen and woos her away! This is one of the most evocative depictions I’ve seen of the relationship between movies and those who watch them. It’s easy to see why the 1930s “champagne comedy” which serves as film-within-the-film would charm Farrow, but we are also charmed by her “reality”, which is the film we are losing ourselves into, right? ]

1986
Hannah and Her Sisters 93
[ review ]

1987
Radio Days 63
[ Funny. I slowed down my Woody marathon because I was getting a little tired of his voice, but hearing it again after a coupla weeks off filled me with joy and nostalgia. Which is appropriate, because this is a nostalgia piece about Allen’s childhood listening to the radio. The film’s anecdotal structure makes for an uneven melody, but it’s got a chorus you can hum to and some catchy verses. Mia Farrow, for one, keeps surprising and delighting me. ]

1987
September 67
[ “God! I can’t believe my mother!” What is it with women and their mothers? OK, if your mom left your beloved dad or a sleazy gangster who you had to shoot, it’s understandable for the relationship to be tense. But still, I don’t get why women who clearly can’t stand each other don’t just stay out of each other’s way, even if they’re related. Anyway, the film’s a pleasant surprise. The boring coldness of “Interiors” made me fear Woody’s stabs at drama, but “September” can actually be warm and funny, in a very understated way, mind. You just want to hug Mia Farrow and Dianne Wiest, and Elaine Stritch is good too as the self-centered mother. There’s something very theatrical about the way the story unfolds, but it ends up unresolved, sad but true. ]

1988
Another Woman 55
[ Gena Rowlands plays a philosophy professor who sublets a one-room apartment to start work on a new book, away from noisy construction around her house, only to find that it’s next to a psychiatrist’s office and that she’s able to hear his sessions. She takes interest in an anguished, very pregnant patient (Mia Farrow), which leads to her questioning her own choices in life. After the staged play-like “September”, this is Woody’s attempt to do literature on film, with lots of wonderfully written narration, flashbacks, dream sequences… It can get rather dry and pretentious, but it’s mostly sad. So sad. ]

1989
Oedipus Wrecks 32
[ I love Woody Allen as much as the next guy, but this short (his contribution to New York Stories) just does not work. It does have an interesting plot. Allen plays Sheldon, a self-conscious, nervous Jewish banker who spends a great deal of time whining about his mother to his shrink, and it’s not hard to understand. His mom is an obnoxious, annoying old lady who keeps embarrassing him, telling whoever will listen about his love life and his childhood. For example, she’s against him marrying a divorcée with three children (Mia Farrow, who else), and she’ll let everyone know. The plot thickens when mom disappears and returns in a different form, and the film soon sinks into unfunny comedy. There’s all that weird stuff happening, but it’s kinda tiresome after a while. We still feel Allen’s talent somewhere in this mess, but this really ain’t a good film. It’s watchable, but it ain’t, like, a must. ]

1989
Crimes and Misdemeanors 80
[ “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” An ophthalmologist (Martin Landau)’s mistress (Anjelica Huston) wants to reveal their affair to his wife, so he talks to his brother (Jerry Orbach) about taking care of her, permanently. Meanwhile, a loser documentary filmmaker (Allen) is convinced to do a profile of a “pompous ass” TV producer (Alan Alda), with whom he winds up competing over the same woman (Mia Farrow). Woody’s 18th feature aptly mixes comedy and tragedy. Intelligently written, beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is like Hitchcock with zingers. And rabbis. And bizarre sexual mishaps. “A strange man defecated on my sister!” ]

1990
Alice 69
[ Alice (Mia Farrow) has “become one of those women who shops all day and gets pedicures”, but a visit to unconventional acupuncturist Dr. Yang makes her realize that she wants more out of life. Bored with her husband (William Hurt), she gets involved with a saxophone player (Joe Mantegna) and discovers she’s capable of things she never thought she could do. This is one of Woody’s most theatrical films, with scenes morphing into other scenes morphing into flashbacks and various fantasist gimmicks. Farrow is funny and touching as always, Mantegna’s a charmer and Keye Luke is hilarious as Dr. Yang. ]

1991
Shadows and Fog 77
[ Fellini meets Murnau in this Kafkaesque B&W tragicomedy, which has Woody unwillingly taking part in “the Plan” to catch a mysterious serial killer. Meanwhile, sword-swallowing circus performer Mia Farrow leaves unfaithful clown John Malkovich, finds refuge in a whorehouse (employing the likes of Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster and Kathy Bates!) and ends up servicing young student John Cusack for $700! Full of expressionistic cinematography, deadpan humor and philosophical symbolism, “Shadows and Fog” is as unique as it is pleasurable. ]

1992
Husbands and Wives 90
[ Woody’s defining 1990s film, like “Hannah and her Sisters” defined the ‘80s and “Annie Hall” defined the ‘70s. Not necessarily the best, but the picture that’s the most in tune with the decade’s broken social state. It feels like Allen’s been working towards this his whole life, building up to this heartbreaking piece that’s stripped down both emotionally and stylistically. “Husbands and Wives” takes the form and tone of a documentary, with handheld camerawork, jump-cuts and talking-head segments, but this couldn’t be more different than “Take the Money and Run” and “Zelig”. The film was made while Woody and Mia Farrow’s real-life relationship was in its death rattles, so this story is harsh and raw and cruel… “Closer” didn’t invent anything! The women here are passive-aggressive ball-breakers, the men are dirty old cheating bastards, how can their marriages not self-destruct? Liam Neeson and Juliette Lewis come off charming enough, but new prospects always do. Spend enough time with them and you’ll eventually get on each other’s nerves. Depressing, sure, but mostly insightful, brilliantly written and wonderfully acted – Sidney Pollack and especially Judy Davis complete the great cast. ]

1993
Manhattan Murder Mystery 84
[ review ]

1994
Bullets Over Broadway 88
[ “I haven’t had a drink since New Year’s Eve.” “You’re talking Chinese New Year.” “Naturally. Still, that’s two days. You know how long that is for me?” Ah, divas, if they didn’t exist we’d have to invent them. This isn’t on the level of masterpieces like “All About Eve” or “Showgirls” (!), but it’s a clever and funny backstage tale nonetheless. John Cusack plays a neurotic playwright whose latest play is bankrolled by a mobster on the condition that he’ll cast his bimbo girlfriend, but she quickly clashes with him and the other actors. Meanwhile, the play finds it still going through endless rewrites… by the gun moll’s bodyguard! Here Allen fully realizes what he attempted in “Broadway Danny Rose” , his previous gangster/showbiz comedy, and he directs one of his best ensembles ever. Dianne Wiest deservedly won the Oscar for her flamboyant portrayal of the alcoholic actress, John Cusack makes a wonderful Woody stand-in, Jennifer Tilly is hilariously clueless, Chazz Palminteri and the recently deceased Joe Viterelli do their best heavies, and Jim Broadbent and Tracey Ullman are amusing as well in smaller parts. ]

1995
Mighty Aphrodite 46
[ Woody’s told many different kinds of stories, but it’s still unexpected to find him tackling mythological tragedy. Now, calling this “a tale as Greek and timeless as fate itself” has got to be tongue-in-cheek, but the film does feature a Greek chorus and ironic twists of destiny. Allen plays a sportswriter who’s convinced by wife Helena Bonham Carter to adopt a child. Years later, when he becomes curious to know who the birth mother was, he’s stunned to learn she’s a porn star-cum-hooker! That’s pretty funny, especially everything around Mira Sorvino’s Oscar-winning performance as the amusingly dumb and vulgar whore (“I feel I owe you a great fuck.”) On the other hand, it’s kinda distracting and discomforting how the plot mirrors the ugliness of the Mia Farrow thing – the girlfriend adopting kids, the couple losing the spark, the guy getting involved with a much younger woman… I also find that the Greek choir stuff, while kinda clever in concept, doesn’t quite work, and neither do the subplots about the wife having an affair with Robocop and Woody trying to set up the prostitute with onion farmer Michael Rapaport. “Mighty Aphrodite” has got its moments, but it’s still one of Woody’s lesser efforts. ]

1996
Everyone Says I Love You 62
[ An homage to 1950s MGM musicals, but with actors who can’t sing and can’t dance! Instead, we’re rewarded with a sprinkle of Woody Allen’s trademark neurotic wit, and the film has a certain old fashioned charm. “I’m through with lo-ove…” ]

1997
Deconstructing Harry 86
[ Whoa! Manic edits and jump-cuts, Woody dropping F-bombs left and right as a pill-popping alcoholic three times divorced novelist who goes back to the school that once expelled him to be honored, bringing with him his kidnapped son, a hooker and a corpse! Gone is the charmingly neurotic Allen screen persona, we’re now seeing the man behind the curtain, an obsessive, selfish prick who uses the women in his life’s misery – which he often caused – in his writing, manipulating his ugly reality to make himself look oh so insightful and witty. Sounds harsh and heavy, and it is, but the movie is also a throwback to Woody’s “early funny ones”, with blowjob jokes, wacky bits with Death and the Devil and endless cameos: Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Tobey Maguire, Robin Williams, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Eric Bogosian, Paul Giamatti, Billy Crystal, Jennifer Garner… This is one of Allen’s ballsiest films, but also one of his most fun. ]

1998
Celebrity 67
[ The striking opening (“HELP”), the B&W cinematography, the self-referential Hollywood satire… Shades of “Stardust Memories” anyone? The difference is that the Woody alter ego is played by Kenneth Branagh and he’s not a filmmaker but a journalist. He still deals with celebrity though, not personally but pretty directly. There’s the dumb actress (Melanie Griffith) he has to interview, the nympho supermodel (Charlize Theron) he spends a night on the town with, an out of control movie star (Leonardo DiCaprio) he wants to involve with his screenplay, the supportive girlfriend (Famke Jansen), the nerve-wrecked ex-wife (Judy Davis) who’s replaced him with a dangerously nice producer (Joe Mantegna), the “obscure object of desire” extra (Winona Ryder), even Donald Trump pops up for a cameo! This is all very Fellini, but with a good deal of purely Allen gags:

“My body belongs to my husband. What I do from the neck up, that’s a different story.”

FEMALE FAN: “I use your exercise tape!”
FAN’S HUSBAND: “So do I.”
FEMALE FAN: “But I exercise to it.”

“He’s one of those assholes who shoots all his films in black & white…”

“The skindheads eat all the bagels?”

“What’s your next project?”
“Birth of a Nation, an all-Black version.” ]

1999
Sweet and Lowdown 63
[ Alternating talking head segments by jazz aficionados (including Woody Allen himself) with “re-enactments”, “Sweet and Lowdown” tells the story of Emmett Ray, the best guitarist in the world – after Django Reinhardt. A drunk, a kleptomaniac and a pimp who likes to shoot rats and to watch trains, this is a really fun character and Sean Penn is awesome in the role, as is Samantha Morton as his mute and half-wit sweetheart. The storytelling is a bit jittery, with plotlines introduced then not quite followed up on (even Morton disappears for half an hour at some point), but this fake biopic (which doubles as an homage to “La Strada”) remains one of Allen’s most enjoyable recent works. ]

2000
Small Time Crooks 68
[ review ]

2001
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion 49
[ New York, 1940. Woddy’s an investigator for an insurance company who feels threatened when an efficiency expert (Helen Hunt) is brought in – especially considering she’s a smart and driven woman ahead of her time, not at all like his sexy secretary (Elizabeth Berkley). Then when an hypnotist and a jade scorpion are brought into the picture, things get really complicated. This is a pretty silly movie, the casting of Hunt and particularly Dan Aykroyd is puzzling and not many of the gags connect. I did enjoy the banter between Allen and Charlize Theron (who plays a Lauren Bacall-style femme fatale), but other than that the film is a lightweight diversion at best. ]

2002
Hollywood Ending 37
[ Woody plays a has been filmmaker who’s hjred to do a movie by his ex-wife (Téa Leoni) and her new beau (Treat Williams). This makes for a wildly self-referential inside-baseball picture, with Allen poking fun at himself and the film biz in general. We’re light years from the finesse of “Stardust Memories” or even “Celebrity”, though. Many of the gags fall flat (the whole psychosomatic blindness thing is particularly misguided and unfunny) and the “romance” between Allen’s character and his ex-wife is just about the most unconvincing thing he’s ever written. ]

2003
Anything Else 54
[ Even the lesser Woody Allen films have a tendency to make me feel good. Oh, Jason Biggs is desperately miscast as a neurotic intellectual comic writer (that’s Jason SCHWARTZMAN you wanted here!), Christina Ricci tries for that crazy/adorable Diane Keaton thing but only comes up with crazy/unbearable and Jimmy Fallon is criminally wasted (only 5 minutes of screen time and not a single joke!)… Yet Woody’s writing remains clever and irreverent and he’s absolutely hilarious as Biggs’ “raving, psychotic, lunatic” mentor. ]

2005
Melinda and Melinda 93
[ review ]

Match Point 78
[ review ]

2006
Scoop 70
[ review ]

2008
Cassandra’s Dream 73
[ In South London, two working-class brothers ache to better their situation, one (Ewan McGregor) through investments, the other (Colin Farrell) through gambling, both of them through much bluffing. Relatively good blokes nonetheless, their sense of morality will be put to the test when their well-off uncle (Tom Wilkinson) asks them for a very delicate favour… Thematically similar to “Crimes and Misdemeanors” or “Match Point”, this underrated picture is a Hitchcockian thriller with a dash of film noir and a sprinkling of Greek tragedy. Admirably assisted by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and composer Philip Glass, Woody directs all of this effectively and his screenplay, while not reinventing the genre, remains thought-provoking and engrossing from start to end. ]

Vicky Cristina Barcelona 71
[ I have to say, I was slightly disappointed by this one. I liked it alright, but it’s been so overhyped since Cannes as being one of Woody’s best in a long time that I expected a more than this. Oh, the photography and the music are indeed warm and sensual, Barcelona itself is gorgeous (particularly Gaudí’s architecture), Javier Bardem is a hoot as an aggressively sexual Spaniard, the eponymous duo of American tourists are wonderfully played by Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, and Penélope Cruz does sizzle as the hysterically passionate ex-wife of Bardem’s character. So what’s the problem? Well, I found the storytelling to be somewhat capricious and, once you get past the novelty of the setting, you quickly realize that this is very familiar terrain thematically for Allen, with little new insightful or witty observations about relationships and the such. One thing that might have set the film apart was if it made the most of its erotic potential, but even with much talk about making love and actresses as hot as Cruz and Johansson getting it on together (spoiler!), “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” remains oddly chaste. It’s still a pleasant watch, but a new Woody classic, not so much. ]


2009
Whatever Works 72
[ This has got to be one of the most natural combination of filmmaker and actor ever devised. If you’ve ever watched “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, you know already that Larry David is basically an angrier version of Woody Allen’s neurotic Jewish intellectual persona, so it makes perfect sense for him to star in the writer-director’s latest comedy. Now, this story of an ill-fated relationship between an aging misanthropic genius from Brooklyn and a pretty but naïve young woman from the Deep South (the irresistible Evan Rachel Wood) is hardly all that distinctive, but this remains an insifghful, funny and rather involving watch, with a few truly clever touches, notably the way David’s character keeps breaking the fourth wall, to the great puzzlement of the people around him. ]


2010
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger 58
[ “Shakespeare once said that life was a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” is the opening statement of off-screen narrator Zak Orth, which made me think this would be a black comedy fuelled by droll cynicsm, but a comedy all the same. Not so much. Oh, there are amusing bits here and there, but this 40th feature by Woody Allen in just over 40 years is closer to… not to a drama per se, because it’s not particularly sad or moving… It’s mostly a depressing story laced with bitter irony, about generally unsympathetic characters acting in questionable ways and ending up high and dry, minus an exception or two. I liked Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, the jazz and classical music soundtrack (special mention to the use of Tali Roth guitar tracks), and the cast is typically top-notch (Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Freida Pinto, Antonio Banderas, etc.). But this latest London-shot film feels rather slapdash and lifeless at times, almost like this is Allen on autopilot. Crumbling marriages, spouses tempted to cheat on each other, intellectuals and artists who act like fools, older men attracted to younger women, including a trashy bimbo (Lucy Punch) who makes Mira Sorvino’s “Mighty Aphrodite” character seem like a smart, classy broad… Minor Woody at best. ]


2011
Midnight in Paris 86
[ The opening sequence, a jazz-scored series of postcard-perfect shots of the City of Lights, wonderfully sets the mood. This is a love letter to the French capital, as seen through the eyes of an American who has a thoroughly romantic vision of it. I’m talking about Woody Allen of course, but also about his on-screen alter ego, played by Owen Wilson. His character, a Hollywood screenwriter who dreams of moving permanently to Paris to become a serious novelist, is a typical Woody protagonist, down to the existential crisis, the dysfunctional relationship with a nagging woman (Rachel McAdams) and the temptation to go for another girl (Marion Cotillard)… Except that said girl happens to live in 1920s Paris, hanging around the same circles as Picasso, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzerald, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, Dyna Barnes, Luis Bunuel, Man Ray, T.S. Eliot, Matisse and other legendary artists! As such, “Midnight in Paris” is pretty much a pure fantasy, a delightful time-travel tale driven by nostalgia, “Golden Age thinking” and, maybe, denial as well… But you can’t deny how gorgeous and pleasant it all is. I particularly enjoyed Alison Pill as Zelda Fitzerald and Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí, plus the present-day cameo by Léa Seydoux. And while it’s mostly feather-light, it eventually leads to Wilson’s character having an insight – an admittedly minor one, but still! I don’t want to overpraise it, but I’m thinking this might be somewhere close to being, say, one of Allen’s ten-best pictures. ]

2012
To Rome with Love 62
[ With this film, Woody Allen continues to shoot in great European capitals, in this case Rome. We get to see a lot of gorgeous images of the city and we get a great feel for it and its people. At least half of it’s in Italian, too! But what of the movie itself? It’s minor Woody for sure, but it’s pleasant enough. It jumps back and forth between four stories: a retired opera director (Allen) who comes to Italy to meet his daughter (Alison Pill)’s fiancé (Flavio Parenti) and who discovers that the latter’s father (Fabio Armiliato) is an amazing singer, at least in his shower; a schmuck (Roberto Benigni) who suddenly becomes famous for no reason; an architect (Alec Baldwin) who revisits the time spent in Rome as a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) when he was tempted to cheat on his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) with an actress friend of her (Ellen Page); and newlyweds (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) on their honeymoon who find themselves cavorting with, respectively, a whore (Penelope Cruz) and a movie actor (Antonio Albanese). It’s all kind of silly and uneven, but there are some good lines and good moments here and there, the cast is wonderful and, again, the Rome setting is pretty wonderful. ]

2013
Blue Jasmine 85
[ This film is most notable for Cate Blanchett’s exceptional, Oscar-winning performance as a woman slowly but surely losing her mind after the trafic end of her marriage to a super wealthy, super sleazy man (Alec Baldwin). Now crashing with her sister (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco, she tries to make a new life for herself, far from the glamorous lifestyle she used to have, but it proves harder than planned… “Blue Jasmine” is as well written and as well directed as you’d expect from Woody Allen, but again, what really sets it apart is how fascinating Blanchett is to watch. Popping pills, drinking too much, talking to herself while getting lost in flashbacks to her old life… She’s a sometimes funny, more often than not really sad figure, certainly one of the richest characters in a Woody movie in recent memory. ]

2014
Magic in the Moonlight 82
[ Emma Stone has quickly grown into just about my favorite actress in today’s Hollywood and she’s more irresistible than ever here as a young American medium who manages to win over a misanthropic magician (Colin Firth) who’s trying to expose her as a fraud. Funny, clever and charming, “Magic in the Moonlight” is also one of the most gorgeous movies I’ve seen in quite a while thanks to the locations in the South of France, the 1928 period recreation and especially Darius Khondji’s warm, bright and colorful cinematography. I could live in this movie! ]

2015
Irrational Man 75
[ Chez les critiques, il est de bon ton pour presque chaque nouveau film de Woody Allen de se démener pour dire que ses beaux jours sont derrière lui et que sa dernière offrande est décevante… Mais à mon avis, à moins de s’attendre à un autre Annie Hall à chaque fois, un nouveau film de ce grand cinéaste est pas mal toujours une bonne chose. Même un Woody “mineur” est généralement supérieur à un bon nombre des films qui prennent l’affiche. Et pour ce que ça vaut, je respecte encore et toujours Allen pour sa capacité à livrer un film dense et satisfaisant en quelques 90 minutes. A-t-il déjà fait un film de plus de deux heures? Ceci étant dit, Irrational Man n’est pas une réussite totale. On y retrouve trop de narration en voix off inutile, certaines transitions narratives sont maladroites et la situation de départ, bien que transcendée plus tard dans le récit, est franchement banale. Car avouns-le, la prémisse d’une jeune et jolie étudiante qui tombe amoureuse d’un professeur d’université d’un certain âge est usée. Il y a toujours moyen d’insuffler un nouveau souffle aux clichés, et le fait que l’étudiante soit incarnée par la craquante Emma Stone et le professeur, par l’intense Joaquin Phoenix, aide beaucoup. Mais c’est quand même lassant de voir une fille se pâmer devant un homme âgé tellement complexe, tellement cultivé, tellement tourmenté, tellement inatteignable… Et tant pis s’il est alcoolique, bedonnant et dépressif! Heureusement, ceci s’avère ne pas être le propos principal d’Allen qui, comme son personnage de professeur de philosophie, sort de sa torpeur à la fin du premier acte lorsque survient une idée inattendue, un plan d’action hautement discutable moralement, mais fascinant dramatiquement … Je demeure vague, car un des plaisirs d’Irrational Man est justement l’effet de surprise de ce rebondissement qui, aussi tordu qu’il soit, a pour conséquence de carrément recharger le protagoniste, lui redonnant l’appétit de vivre qu’il avait perdu. En plus d’une intrigue de plus en plus captivante, le film bénéficie des images formidablement lumineuses et chaleureuses du directeur photo Darius Khondji et d’un entraînant leitmotiv musical, The ‘In’ Crowd du Ramsey Lewis Trio, deux éléments réjouissants qui contrastent drôlement avec le caractère plutôt sombre et tragique du scénario. Sans être un des chefs-d’oeuvre absolus de Woody Allen, Irrational Man s’inscrit respectablement dans la lignée de films tels que Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point et Cassandra’s Dream.respectablement dans la lignée de films tels que Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point et Cassandra’s Dream. ]

Danny Boyle


1995
Shallow Grave 90
[ review ]


1996
Trainspotting 93
[ 1996 review ]
[ 2016 review on Extra Beurre ]


1997
A Life Less Ordinary 51
[ review ]


2000
The Beach 85
[ review ]


2001
vacuuming completely nude in paradise 79
[ After giving big Hollywood flicks a go, Danny Boyle went back to the UK to make a couple of low-budget movies for the BBC, both written by Jim Cartwright and shot on DV. “Strumpet” has yet to be released on this side of the Atlantic, but “vacuuming, etc.” is now available on DVD. A goofy twist on “Glengarry Glenn Ross”, it follows door-to-door salesmen at work. Pete (Michael Begley) is a failed mixmaster who stumbles into the job, while Tommy Rag (Timothy Spall) is a seasoned pro, at least in his mind. What he certainly is is the most obnoxious man alive! Spall is absolutely hilarious in the part, chewing scenery like there’s no tomorrow. Tommy Rag is a loud-mouthed, inconsiderate, arrogant fool, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, crazy-driving (“I like a bit of road rage, gets you going in the morning, better than caffeine.”) and terrorizing people into buying his vacuum cleaners, harassing coworkers (“You know what it’s like working at a place where everybody hates you? Invigorating.”)… This might have been made for TV, but it’s as dynamic as anything Boyle’s ever directed, with plenty of madcap camerawork, techno music and especially Spall, the greatest special effect a filmmaker could have! ]


2003
28 Days Later 83
[ review ]


2005
millions 64
[ review ]


2007
Sunshine 75
[ review ]


2008
Slumdog Millionaire 93
[ On paper, the premise of Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay (and the Vikas Swarup book that inspired it), which has an uneducated young man who grew up in the streets of Mumbai reach against all odds the final question on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, seems like a rather silly gimmick. But when you see the movie, you realize that the damn thing works, silly or not, and that it ultimately is indeed just that, a gimmick. You see, throughout Jamal’s time in the hot seat, after each question, we’re shown in a flashback how he got to know the answer to it.

So basically, the quiz show is just a framing device for the amazing life story of this kid who, despite all the grief, misery and abuse he’s had to go through over the years, has not only remained high-spirited but managed to learn from all these hardships. We see Jamal make his way amongst other little beggars, thieves and hustlers, including his brother Salim, with whom he has a rocky relationship, Salim being a fighter while Jamal is more of a lover… Which means that it’s ultimately all about a girl, the elusive Latika, whom Jamal will long for throughout his whole life, not unlike Forrest for his Jenny…

Blending action, comedy, drama, romance and even a musical number or two (stay for the end credits sequence!), “Slumdog Millionaire” is as rich, colourful and entertaining as the best of Bollywood, with an added grittiness and visual energy that reminds more of something like “City of God”. Behind the camera, Danny Boyle does his career-best work – we’ve known that he was mighty gifted all along, ever since he first made his mark with great flicks like “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting”, but like Wes Anderson last year with “The Darjeeling Limited”, it seems like shooting in India has galvanized his filmmaking more than ever before. Add solid acting all around and an awesome score by A. R. Rahman (with a few priceless assists from M.I.A.) and you’ve definitely got one of the most memorable pictures of 2008. ]


2010
127 Hours 80
[ Right from the opening credits, with their split-screen shots full of frantic imagery accompanied by Free Blood’s super dynamic song Never Hear Surf Music Again, you know that even though this is in many ways a small-scale, intimate story about one guy stuck “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” (to quote the title of his autobiography), there won’t be anything dull about it (except maybe the blade of the guy’s knife… *shudders*). Hyperkinetic visuals, taut editing and awesome music (including an original score by A. R. Rahman) abound throughout, as Aron Ralston drives, bikes, walks, climbs, squeezes and ultimately drops his way into a canyon in the middle of nowhere, where he’ll spend, yes, 127 hours (roughly 5 days).

As played by James Franco, Aron kinda reminded me of Emile Hirsch’ character from “Into the Wild”, another real-life, modern-day adventurer who went too far with his lonely man-against-nature journey… There’s also a bit of the harrowing mountain climbing documentary “Touching the Void” to it and, stylistically, it’s not unlike some of the one-guy-with-a-camera movies of Robert Morin, even though it’s very much a Danny Boyle picture more than anything. I loved the way he always keeps the camera moving, finding all the different possible angles and points of view in the narrow crevasse where nearly all the action takes place, from the widest establishing shot to the most extreme close-up, briefly cutting to flashbacks, daydreams and hallucinations but never straying too far from Aron’s painfully precarious situation…

Of course, “127 Hours” wouldn’t work if the charismatic James Franco didn’t do such an impressive job at holding our attention, making us feel all the extent of his character’s fear and desperation in the face of potential death, but also his extraordinary will to survive… Which leads to the as visceral as it gets moment you’ve probably heard about already, which involves the aforementionned dull knife and the part of Aron’s arm that’s trapped under a boulder. I gotta say, even though I knew it was coming, actually seeing that scene was even more hardcore horrifying than I imagined! Still, as difficult to watch as Boyle’s film can be at times, it’s ultimately more uplifting than anything, never more so than during the final sequence set to Sigur Ros’ triumphant Festival. ]

2013
Trance 63
[ The thing about a great filmmaker is that they can basically direct the hell out of even a silly B-movie screenplay and make it involving and fun. Here, we get a bunch of rather preposterous twists and turns involving art thieves and hypnosis and whatnot, but Danny Boyle finds all kinds of ridiculous/awesome ways to convey that visually, enough to make this a fun watch even though it’s mostly nonsense. It helps that it stars James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel, plus that it features a bit of gore and full frontal nudity! ]

2015
Steve Jobs 91
[ Reviewed on Extra Beurre ]

2017
T2 Trainspotting 62
[ Reviewed on Extra Beurre ]

Robert Zemeckis

1978
I Wanna Hold Your Hand 32
[ Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust, but 40 years ago it was in full outbreak as the Fab Four first came to the US to play the Ed Sullivan Show. This movie is about girls who will do anything to meet their idols. It’s played for laughs, but I found this tale of stalking and obsession mostly disturbing and pathetic. In the hands of a Scorsese or a De Palma, this story could have made for a dark and intense psychological thriller instead of this here unfunny comedy. ]

1980
Used Cars 23
[ Nothing’s funnier than car stunts, titties and cursing, right? Right? Anyone? These late ‘70s/early ‘80s comedies are really something… Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I don’t understand folks who love these flicks from the “Animal House”/“Caddyshack” school. Kurt Russell is amusing as a used car salesman who wants to take his bullshit into politics, but the movie’s a lemon. Hard to believe that producer Steven Spielberg, writer Bob Gale and director Zemeckis’ next collaboration would be the classic “Back to the Future”. ]

1984
Romancing the Stone 61
[ After a couple of mediocre comedies, Zemeckis finally comes into his own. While all his movies hold a wisecracking tone at times, Zemeckis is at his best when helming extraordinary adventures. His heroes travel through time, into cartoons, across modern American history, into space, on deserted islands or, in this case, deep into the jungle. Kathleen Turner plays a romance novelist who must go to Colombia to rescue her sister from bad guys who are after a priceless green diamond. She winds up going after the stone herself, with the help of rugged Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas doing his best Indiana Jones). This makes for kind of an ‘80s “African Queen”, with a city woman and a man from the rough overcoming various perils and growing intimate in the process. “Romancing the Stone” is scrappier than John Huston’s classic, but it’s still quality escapism. ]

1985
Back to the Future 95
[ review ]

1988
Who Framed Roger Rabbit 77
[ One of my earliest cinematic memories is going to see this at the drive-in. The concept of not only blending animation and live action but also having Disney cross over with the Looney Tunes, with a strong helping of Tex Avery, was a treat for an 8 year old. Watching the movie again today, I was also delighted by the nifty pastiche of film noir. Bob Hoskins is great as the bitter drunken private detective in 1947 Hollywood who’s hired to snoop on Jessica Rabbit, the ridiculously voluptuous femme fatale wife of toon superstar Roger Rabbit, unaware that he’s being used in a conspiracy surrounding Toon Town. I mostly remembered the flick as being funny, which it is, but it’s oddly moving, too. What made Roger Rabbit an instantly classic character was that beyond all the goofiness, he’s filled with pathos. When he finds out his woman is “playing pattycake” behind his back, you can truly feel his pain. With a wife as hot as his, who can blame him? ]


1989
Back to the Future part II 69
[ I like some of the future stuff (flying cars, hover boards) and the idea of returning to 1955 again and messing everything some more, but plot holes abound and having Michael J. Fox play half the characters is a bad call. ]

1990
Back to the Future part III 86
[ A delightful pastiche of old Westerns, this reinvents nicely the dynamics of the original in a new setting, and the romance between Doc Brown and the schoolteacher is surprisingly touching. ]

1992
Death Becomes Her 24
[ This is a not particularly subtle satire of vanity and the obsession with youth, a supposedly comical spin on the whole extreme makeover nonsense. Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis are all capable performers, but their characters are unlikable, the drama between them is feeble and the FX-laced slapstick that makes up most of the movie is more weird than funny. Even Isabella Rossellini prancing around half-naked can’t save this ill-conceived comedy. ]

1994
Forrest Gump 100
[ review ]

1997
Contact 52
[ review ]

2000
What Lies Beneath 44
[ This supernatural thriller isn’t all that, with Harrison Ford mumbling all his lines and Michelle Pfeiffer hamming it up a bit, but Zemeckis’ direction is enjoyably Hitchcockian. The story might go from preposterous to downright grotesque, but it’s tightly crafted and quite gripping. Worth a rental. ]

2000
Cast Away 87
[ review ]

2004
The Polar Express 64
[ review ]

2007
Beowulf 94
[ review ]

2009
A Chrismas Carol 76
[ review ]

2012
Flight 61
[ When we meet Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), he’s waking up next to some naked girl he hooked up with, clearly hungover… Before long we see him take a hit from a joint and even snort a line of coke. The punchline of sorts? The guy’s an airline pilot and he’s got a flight to get to that morning. Fate has it that it’s a doomed flight, which the Captain will somehow land without killing everyone on board. A few lives are tragically lost, but many more are saved by his actions. Now, you might say he’s a hero, but what of the fact that the man had been partying the night before and into that very morning? Heck, we’ve even seen him fix himself a drink while on the plane… Most of the film deals with Whitaker’s addictions, as he quickly goes back to heavy drinking once he’s out of the hospital and dealing with the aftermath of the crash. He also somehow ends up living with a drug addict (Kelly Reilly) he met by chance, and it’s not necessarily clear where the movie is going with all this. I guess it’s a character study of a very flawed, not particularly likable individual, which is unusual enough in a Hollywood movie… though as Dave Poland wrote in his review, there’s a sense that it doesn’t go quite far enough. As such, save for Denzel Washington giving an impeccable performance, this ends up being a good but not that exceptional picture. ]

2015
The Walk 88
[ Reviewed on Extra Beurre ]

Steven Soderbergh

1989
sex, lies, and videotape 64
[ Peter Gallagher cheats on wife Andie McDowell with her sister Laura San Giacomo. Long-haired yuppie scum James Spader comes to town with a camera and a near-clinical interest in women’s sexuality and voilà: sex, lies, and videotape. Palme d’Or winner, one of the most lucrative and influential independent pictures ever made, the debut of filmmaker Steven Soderbergh… That’s a lot of baggage for such a small film. The way it turns on the audience only through suggestion is something special and the writing, direction and performances are good enough, but ultimately this just isn’t that deep or affecting a movie. It’s intriguing and worth seeing, but don’t expect the masterpiece it’s reputed as. ]

1991
Kafka 68
[ Jeremy Irons stars as Kafka, an office clerk (and writer on the side) who stumbles upon a sinister conspiracy while inquiring the disappearance of a co-worker. This is a taut psychological thriller, establishing a paranoid mood through expressionistic B&W photography and an ominous Cliff Martinez score but daring to occasionally break out of it for bits of acerbic comic relief and even a colorful (literally!) sci-fi set piece. This is like a waking nightmare, full of “petty tyrants”, anarchists and mutants. Some of the film puzzled me, but only inasmuch as to make me want to read Kafka’s actual writing. ]

1993
King of the Hill 75
[ Whoa, quite the change of pace! After the B&W fear and loathing of “Kafka”, we go into the sunny St. Louis childhood of a 12 year old Aaron Kurlander as he dreams of adventures with Charles Lindbergh, plays marbles, breeds canaries, collects cigar bands, dances with girls for the first time and interacts with the other residents of the hotel where his rapidly shrinking family lives, notably Adrien Brody, Spalding Gray and Lauryn Hill. The third act is a bummer, with suicide, eviction, sickness, police raids, hunger and more combining to drive Aaron nearly crazy. This gorgeously photographed and scored slice of lyrical whimsy is sort of a pit stop between 1970s Terrence Malick and 2000s David Gordon Green and, while it’s not quite on that level, it is a heartwarming little movie impressively carried by Jesse Bradford, endearing as the Fred Savage to these Depression-era “Wonder Years”. ]

1995
Underneath 71
[ Peter Gallagher plays a former gambler who unwisely rekindles with his ex-girlfriend, who’s now engaged to a shady club owner (William Fichtner), and somehow winds up getting involved in an armored car robbery. In the commentary track to the “Schizopolis” DVD, as Soderbergh talks about the movies he directed previously, his only mention of “Underneath” is as “a fourth film that I can’t remember the name of.” Wow, the film is underrated even by its own director! This might not be a major work, but this mood piece disguising as a thriller (a remake of the 1949 noir “Criss Cross”) displays all the stylish craftsmanship and deft storytelling we expect of Soderbergh. ]

1996
Gray’s Anatomy 80
[ It starts like an educational documentary. One after the other, various people tell the camera about how they injured their eyes. This is like the most terrifying horror for me, as I have problematic vision already and I’m paranoid about going blind. Then we get to Spalding Gray, who starts telling his own eye story from hell, with tangents about Christian Science, Indian sweat lodges, Nutritional ophthalmology and Filipino psychic surgeons. It’s really hard to define the overall experience. It’s not quite a documentary, not quite a filmed one-man show… Whatever it is, it’s fascinating. Gray is a genius storyteller, funny and depressing at the same time, not unlike Larry David. “Gray’s Anatomy” is not what one usually thinks of as a movie, but it’s definitely cinematic, with Soderbergh using all kinds of lighting and editing techniques to illustrate Gray’s monologues. ]

1997
Schizopolis 85
[ “Ladies and Gentlemen, young and old. This may seem an unusual procedure, speaking to you before the picture begins, but we have an unusual subject. Turn. When I say that this is the most important motion picture you will ever attend, my motivation is not financial gain, but a firm belief that the delicate fabric that holds all of us together will be ripped apart unless every man, woman and child in this country sees this film and pays full ticket price not some bargain matinee cut-rate deal. Turn. In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing; please bear in mind that this is your fault not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything. Turn. In closing, I want to assure you that no expense was incurred bringing this motion picture to your theater. And now, filmed in its entirety, and proven to heal minor cuts and abrasions, we proudly present… Schizopolis!”

No wonder Soderbergh (mostly) abandoned artsy indie cinema for Hollywood flicks after this film. You just can’t get more unrestrained and out there than this. It feels like Soderbegh put every idea he’s ever had in this film, even the stupidest – ESPECIALLY the stupidest! This is almost punk rock in its anti-conventions attitude, as meta as anything Charlie Kaufman would ever write (Soderbergh plays two different characters as Nic Cage does in “Adaptation”) and filled with more non sequiturs than a Burroughs-penned, Godard-helmed Monty Python movie would be. Self-indulgent? You bet, but “Schizopolis” is also more entertaining than it has any right to be.

“Dear attractive woman number 2, only once in my life have I responded to a person the way I’ve responded to you, but I’ve forgotten when it was or even if it was in fact me that responded. I may not know much, but I know that the wind sings your name endlessly, although with a slight lisp that makes it difficult to understand if I’m standing near an air conditioner. I know that your hair sits atop your head as though it could sit nowhere else. I know that your figure would make a sculptor cast aside his tools, injuring his assistant who was looking out the window instead of paying attention. I know that your lips are as full as that sexy french model’s that I desperately want to fuck. I know that if for an instant I could have you lie next to me, or on top of me, or sit on me, or stand over me and shake, then I would be the happiest man in my pants. I know all of this, and yet you do not know me. Change your life; accept my love. Or, at least let me pay you to accept it.” ]


1998
Out of Sight 92
[ review ]


1999
The Limey 84
[ review ]


2000
Erin Brockovich 65
[ review ]


2000
Traffic 90
[ review ]


2001
Ocean’s Eleven 92
[ review ]


2002
Full Frontal 28
[ review ]


2002
Solaris 60
[ review ]


2004
Ocean’s Twelve 43
[ review ]


2006
Bubble 93
[ What a deceptive film! It was announced as an ultra low-budget experimental flick with amateur actors, which sounds awful. But right from the first few minutes, you can tell that this is Soderbergh at the top of his game, both visually (he shoots almost all of his movies himself under the alias Peter Andrews) and in the way he handles actors – this is no “Full Frontal” jerk-off side project. And while small town factory workers seem banal as opposed to the smooth criminals that often populate Soderbergh’s movies, the fact that they’re manufacturing dolls instantly adds this wholly creepy vibe. Making human-like artefacts out of plastic? Definitely creepy. Thematically, this ties into how the characters are like humans stuck in plastic, shopworn existences… Most moonlight at other jobs as well, plus they have folks to take care of at home. This is a heartbreakingly sad story, with an understated love triangle that, again, is deceptive: the sadness doesn’t come from where you expect. I can’t say what it is exactly that’s so goddamn brilliant about this movie, and I don’t wanna oversell it by invoking Kubrick or Hitchcock. But I would definitely say that this is like the best film Haneke has never made. You got the same deceivingly simple mise en scène, the constant underlying tension/creepiness and the balance between grand tragedy and everyday routine; this is basically the Americana answer to “Caché”. Or a fully realized execution of what Van Sant’s been aiming at lately. The somewhat sedated performances from Debbie Doebereiner as Martha, Dustin Ashley as Kyle, Misty Wilkins as Rose, K. Smith as Jake and the rest of this small cast all work towards making you feel that this is a chronicle of nothingness but then, when something does happen, the relative void that came before becomes fascinatingly mysterious and you genuinely have no idea where the hell this is going. ]


2006
The Good German 77
[ The B&W cinematography, art direction and score are all a flawless throwback to the filmmaking style of the 1940s. While Tobey Maguire delivers an intense but contemporary seeming performance, George Clooney is right at home as the Bogart-like protagonist and Cate Blanchett perfectly channels Dietrich. The movie isn’t just an exercise in style, though. Soderbergh mixes things up by being franker in his handling of sex, violence and profanity. More importantly, the film uses the benefit of hindsight in its exploration of a key moment in history, the 1945 Peace Conference around war-torn Berlin and the backdoor dealings surrounding it. “The Good German” is a complex morality play in which things are far from black and white – the Germans and Russians are not necessarily all bad, and the Americans are certainly not all good. The muted tone, deliberate pace and staged feel might turn off moviegoers who don’t care that these are part of an intentional attempt to make an old-fashioned talkie. But, even though the love story is nowhere near as involving as the one in “Casablanca” and there is no presence as powerful as Orson Welles in “The Third Man”, Soderbergh’s homage to those classics should still be pure pleasure for fans of Hollywood’s Golden Age. ]


2007
Ocean’s Thirteen 52
[ review ]


2008
Che 94
[ review ]


2009
The Girlfriend Experience 61
[ Last year, I put Soderbergh in my personal pantheon of the 10 most important filmmakers of the past decade, and that was before I even saw “Che”, which ended up being my favorite movie of the year. One thing I pointed out at the time was that Soderbergh is one of the most productive directors around and even though his output can be uneven, you always feel that he’s trying to challenge himself. So after making one of the most epic pictures of this era, we find him going back to making an ultra low budget, spontaneous little indie flick, in which a high-end escort (porn star Sasha Grey, in her first “legit” role) goes about her daily routine of entertaining rich men and, the film being set in late 2008, hearing them worry about the financial crisis and various business issues. This juxtaposition of interpersonal matters and economic concerns is rather Godardesque, which can be a mixed blessing (the line is thin between thoughtful and tedious). Likewise, as much as I enjoy Soderbergh’s use of fractured storytelling and impressionistic cinematography, I didn’t really get anything out of the protagonist or out of any of the other characters, unlike in “Bubble”, which managed to be both understated and extremely moving. This? Not so much. ]


2009
The Informant! 73
[ In the most superficial, reductive way, I suppose one could connect this new Soderbergh film to his “Erin Brockovich”, as both are about an individual taking on large-scaled corporate malfeasance. Now, this is where the comparision stops, because “The Informant!” just might be the filmmaker’s most peculiar, oddball flick since “Schizopolis”. Like that underrated picture, this loose adaptation of the Kurt Eichenwald nonfiction book follows a neurotic, somewhat goofy protagonist and is filled with non sequiturs, to the point where the actual plot, which involves a price-fixing conspiracy in the agri-business industry, barely matters. The interest of the film lies in the fact that the man who blew the whistle on it, played here by a pudgy Matt Damon sporting a mustache, glasses and a hairpiece, might think that he’s a character in a Crichton novel or Tom Cruise in “The Firm”, but he in fact turns out to be either a complete idiot, a compulsive liar or both at the same time! Add to that voice-over narration by Damon that’s mostly made up of stream of consciousness random thoughts and a wonderfully old-fashioned, ridiculously upbeat Marvin Hamlisch score and you get a movie that’s the farthest thing from an earnest, straightforward based-on-a-true-story drama. ]


2010
And Everything Is Going Fine 83
[ In this follow-up of sorts to “Gray’s Anatomy”, which was made after Spalding Gray’s death, Soderbergh assembles a “new” monologue out of excerpts of 20 years’ worth of archival footage of live performances and interviews. The result is impressively fluid, as if it was really all the same story Gray is telling, which makes sense since his material is autobiographical – this is is the story of his life, more or less. It’s all very captivating, alternately troubling and amusing, with all kinds of insights and clever asides… There’s also a self-reflective level to it, what with storytelling being a way of imposing order to the chaos of everyday life, of fictionalizing things somewhat, one way or another. And the fact that Soderbergh is mix and matching all these little bits and pieces out of context further makes this an artificial construction, in an interesting way. ]


2011
Contagion 91
[ review ]

2012
Haywire 92
[ review ]

Magic Mike 80
[ review ]

2013
Side Effects 72
[ Right from the opening moments, I was into the very Soderberghian nature of it all… The cinematography, the tone, the rhythm… Steven Soderbergh has explored various genres these past few years and told different kinds of stories, but his touch always remains distinctive. His films maintain a balance between indie and Hollywood, mainstream and artsy, visceral and thoughtful… I was also grabbed by Rooney Mara’s performance. I adored her in David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and in a more low-key register, she once again proves to be an exceptional actress. Her character here suffers from depression and she conveys this in all these subtle little ways. It notably has to do with how she’s not like super-sad all the time… She smiles, she goes along with things, she seems fine… And yet there’s this grey cloud hovering over her, this fleeting vulnerability in her eyes, this occasional sense that she’s slightly askew (there’s a shot early on of her looking in the mirror that depicts that exactly) . The cast also features Soderbergh’s recent BFF Channing Tatum as Mara’s husband, who is released from jail in the first few scenes after serving time for insider trading, plus Jude Law and Catherine Zeta Jones as, respectively, Mara’s new and former psychiatrists. Which brings us to the seemingly casual way drugs are being prescribed in the film. Antidepressants, to be precise, which can work, but can also have all these, well, side effects. Plus, there’s the fact that it’s not always clear whether doctors are prescribing them for the right reasons… Without spoiling anything, I can mention that “Side Effects” ultimately works in some thriller elements, but interestingly, it kind of goes in and out of them… Like, you’ll get the feeling it’s becoming this twisty plot thing, but then it turns back on itself and returns to being a rather down to earth thing. It’s hard to describe without going into specifics, but it’s captivating the way it plays with your expectations until the very end. ]

Behind the Candelabra 86
[ “It’s funny this crowd would like something this gay.”
“They have no idea he’s gay.”
It’s unbelievable that this could ever have been the case, what with Liberace being so wonderfully flamboyant, but hey: different times, I guess. In this made-for-HBO film (which also showed in Cannes), Mr. Showmanship is played by an amazing Michael Douglas, who completely disappears into the role and delivers one of his most charismatic performances. I also loved the impossibly flashy clothes and the “palatial kitsch” of the sets, it’s all so over the top, just like the legendary pianist himself. “Behind the Candelabra” isn’t a conventional biopic that tells its protagonist’s story from childhood to death. It only focuses on a specific time period, beginning in 1977, when Liberace is already a superstar in Las Vegas and he takes under his wing a young man played by Matt Damon. Their somewhat unusual relationship – Liberace wants to be his protégé’s “father, brother, lover, best friend, everything” – drives the story and it remains fascinating throughout. You can understand what the “crazy old queen” is getting out of it, but what’s more puzzling is why Damon’s character goes along with it. Is it just about the money or is there really love involved? One of the oddest parts is when a hilariously freaky looking Rob Lowe shows up and starts doing plastic surgery on the two of them and… Well, you’ll see! Also striking is the way Damon becomes a drug addict and how his relationship with Liberace crashes and burns. If this does end up being Soderbergh’s last feature, it’s certainly a fabulous finale to his filmmaking career. ]

2017
Logan Lucky 86
[ Reviewed on Extra Beurre ]

M. Night Shyamalan

1992
Praying With Anger
[ It’s apparently impossible to find, but I’ll see what I can do. ]

1998
Wide Awake 51
[ Kid’s grandfather dies and he wants to talk to God about it. Plus, Rosie O’Donnell plays a baseball-loving nun. Yeesh. Awkward pacing, Mickey Mouse music, cheesy narration… It’s no surprise to learn that Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein took the film away from Night and butchered it. Still, you can faintly hear Shyamalan’s voice somewhere in there: his sense of spirituality, his fixation on death, his romantic heart (the flower scene killed me). But yeah, it kinda blows. ]

In any case, here’s where Shyamalan’s career really took off

1999
The Sixth Sense 90
[ review ]

2000
Unbreakable 92
[ review ]

2002
Signs 94
[ review ] / [ review 2.0 ]

2004
The Village 85
[ review ]

2006
Lady in the Water 92
[ review ]

2008
The Happening 67
[ review ]

2010
The Last Airbender 74
[ review ]

after earth

2013
After Earth 40
[ How the mighty fall… To me, from 1999 to 2006, M. Night Shyamalan could do no wrong. “The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable”, “Signs”, “The Village” and “Lady in the Water” form a film cycle of unparalleled thematic and stylistic consistency. Then came “The Happening”, a rather ridiculous B-movie, and “The Last Airbender”, which I enjoyed when it came out, but which I’ve never felt the desire to revisit. Worse, when “After Earth” came out, I actually skipped it in theaters. The reviews were of course horrible (11% on Rotten Tomatoes), the trailer wasn’t very attractive to me and to be honest, I’d grown tired of defending Shyamalan. Still, I figured I’d catch it at home eventually. It took two years, but I now have. “After Earth” kicks off with a glimpse of a spaceship crash, followed by a quick exposition dump letting us know that in the future, a nearly destroyed Earth was evacuated by mankind, which ended up having to face evil blind aliens who can track us by smelling our fear… But there’s this guy Cypher Raige (an oddly stiff Will Smith) who’s so fearless that he’s invisible to them. Next, there are some scenes establishing Raige’s son Kitai (Jaden Smith in his awkward teen phase) as a hothead with an uneasy relationship with his father. Then we’re back on the spaceship before it crashes, on the abandonned Earth it turns out, which is now a savage land. With Cypher badly injured, it’s up to Kitai to retrieve an emergency beacon that will allow them to call for help. The film is well shot in 2.35:1 by Peter Suschitzky and the special effects are decent, but the plot is thin and not very involving, like something out of a low-rent video game, with little to offer beside Jaden Smith’s character running around, going through various levels and whatnot. Occasionally, Will Smith gives a speech via radio transmitter to his son and touches on some interesting ideas (“Danger is very real, but fear is a choice.”) and there’s an attempt at bringing in some emotion via flashbacks to the death of Kitai’s sister, so there’s that. Alas, it’s not enough to keep “After Earth” from being the most boring Shyamalan movie I’ve seen. ]

2015
Where Paradise Is Home (Wayward Pines pilot)
[ Shyamalan is one of the executive producers of this new series and he also directed this first episode, which is the best thing he’s done in oh, roughly 10 years. Tight, gripping, atmospheric, unpredictable… This feels like vintage Shyamalan. Matt Dillon stars as Ethan Burke, a secret service agent who wakes us, injured and confused, in the woods near Wayward Pines, Idaho. Through a bit of skillfully nonlinear storytelling, we slowly start piecing together what happened to him. At the same time, it becomes increasingly clear that the town he’s found himself in is creepy as hell! Unless it’s Ethan who’s losing is mind… or dead? (Vintage Shyamalan, I tell you!) Dillon is great and he’s surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast (Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis, Terrence Howard, Toby Jones, Carla Gugino, etc.). Of course, I also have to give lots of credit to series creator/writer Chad Hodge and to Blake Crouch, whose novels this is based on. But Shyamalan brilliantly establishes the setting, keeps things moving and milks every moment for all it’s worth. ]

The Visit 68
[ Reviewed on Extra Beurre ]

2017
Split 76
[ Reviewed on Extra Beurre ]

Stanley Kubrick

1955
Killer’s Kiss 73
[ The opening credits clearly show that even this early in his career, Kubrick was thoroughly in control of his movies. He wrote, produced, edited, photographed and directed “Killer’s Kiss”, the story of a washed up New York boxer who rescues a gorgeous blonde dancehall hostess from her sleazy boss, unaware that he bit off more than he can chew. This is a simple but effective noir tale, propelled by expressionistic black & white photography and a complex soundtrack mix of voice–over, music and background noise. It’s not a major work, but it’s exciting to find that Kubrick doing terrific little genre flicks before he turned to 3 hours long “Important” pictures. ]

1956
The Killing 85
[ Kubrick once again makes brilliant use of B&W cinematography and dry voice-over, but this is a much more elaborate story, dazzlingly told out of chronological order. Almost 40 years before “Reservoir Dogs”, Kubrick was making his own non-linear crime movie about 6 unrelated men brought together by an imposing gangster to pull a big job. There’s an ex-con, a sniper, a Russian wrestler, a barman, a crooked cop and one of the cashiers at the racetrack they’re knocking off. But unlike Tarantino’s film, there’s room here for a woman, a manipulative and money-hungry hateful bitch of a femme fatale who throws off the balance of their meticulously planned robbery. “The Killing” is one hell of a heist flick, full of hard-boiled dialogue and suspense. ]

1957
Paths of Glory 65
[ The first of Kubrick’s anti-war movies goes into the trenches of World War I to find Kirk Douglas ordered to take Ant Hill from the Germans, even though it will mean sure death for at least half his men. When the mission fails indeed, the asshole General who ordered it tries to distract attention from himself by sending three random soldiers to martial court for cowardice, which prompts Douglas, a lawyer in civilian life, to rise to their defence. “Paths of Glory” and its crisp B&W photography are technically impeccable, but this time Kubrick is after more than an exercise in style. Here’s a film that suggests that patriotism is “the last refuge of a scoundrel” and that the army is a place where being an idealist is something to be pitied. This is commonplace in this Michael Moore era, but to say these things in the 1950s while people were being blacklisted left and right was mighty gutsy. ]


1960
Spartacus 87
[ In 73 BC, Rome is at the peak of civilisation in many ways, but it’s also deep into decadence, suffering notably from that most despicable of diseases: human slavery. Spartacus has been slaving away in mines since childhood, then he’s sold to a gladiator school but eventually enough’s enough, and Spartacus leads a massive slave uprising… This is a true epic, with huge sets, countless extras and spectacular action scenes. It also has depth and resonance – everyone knows about the homoeroticism (“Do you eat oysters or snails?”), but the film also shows how power corrupts and how the powerless need to fight for their freedom. Kirk Douglas’ performance is a bit one-note, but that one note does burn up the screen even when he goes full scenes without saying a word. Sir Laurence Olivier and Charles Naughton are unsurprisingly great as conniving politician bastards, Jean Simmons is lovely as Spartacus’s romantic interest and Peter Ustinov is a hoot as a slave trader. This might not be Kubrick’s most distinctive film, as it’s the only project on which he didn’t have full control over the script and he had to struggle with Douglas (who also produced and, incidentally, fired original director Anthony Mann), but it remains a powerful picture. ]

1962
Lolita 70
[ Vladimir Nabokov himself adapted his classic novel about the confounding attraction power of nymphets. Of course, having been made in the last years of the Production Code, the film is rather chaste as compared to the current overflow of teenage flesh that fills our screens, but sometimes working into guidelines inspires one to find more subtle way to suggest lust and it’s all the more erotic. Well, subtle might not be the right word to describe the talk of “cherry pies” and Camp Climax for Girls (!), but through the whole film the nature of Humbert Humbert (James Mason) and Lolita (Sue Lyon)’s relationship remains ambiguous. I also love the fluid B&W cinematography, the very ‘60s lounge score and especially Peter Sellers, hilarious as devious “genius” Quilty. ]


1964
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb 97
[ review ]


1968
2001: A Space Odyssey 94
[ Reviewed on Extra Beurre ]


1971
A Clockwork Orange 92
[ review ]

1975
Barry Lyndon 86
[ The classical music, the storybook narration, the absolutely magnificent use of light and color… This is one of the most aesthetically pleasant films ever made, but it can also be sexy, sneakily funny and violently passionate. The 185 minute length is a bit straining, but I remained engrossed in the adventures of a poor Irish lad (Ryan O’Neal) with the English and Prussian armies, with eye-patched gambler Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee) and in marriage with a wealthy widow (Marisa Berenson). “I demand satisfaction!” ]


1980
The Shining 84
[ review ]


1987
Full Metal Jacket 75
[ review ]


1999
Eyes Wide Shut 90
[ review ]

Sam Raimi


1981
THE EVIL DEAD 91
[ review ]


1985
CRIMEWAVE 10
[ review ]


1987
EVIL DEAD II 84
[ review ]


1990
DARKMAN 93
[ review ]


1992
ARMY OF DARKNESS 92
[ review ]


1995
THE QUICK AND THE DEAD 79
[ review ]


1998
A SIMPLE PLAN 92
[ review ]


1999
FOR LOVE OF THE GAME 40
[ Raimi apparently really, really loves baseball, but that still doesn’t explain his selling himself out to direct this Kevin Costner romantic comedy. It’s actually not that bad. Costner’s charming enough, I like John C. Reilly as the catcher to his pitcher, Kelly Preston and Jena Malone are lovable… Still, this is a mostly forgettable, indistinctive Hollywood flick; Raimi can do better. ]


2000
THE GIFT 87
[ review ]


2002
SPIDER-MAN 85
[ review ]


2004
SPIDER-MAN 2 88
[ review ]


2007
SPIDER-MAN 3 91
[ For reasons I can’t comprehend, the advance buzz has been negative or mixed at best. Even the most positive reviewers seemed to agree that this was the lesser of the three Spidey flicks. WRONG! As far as I’m concerned at least, this is by a good margin the best of them. Sure, it’s a bit overstuffed and definitely over the top, but damn it if I didn’t love every moment of it. Love the opening titles, love the (re)introduction with the upbeat narration which suggests that everything’s finally gonna be OK for Peter Parker – as if! Still, it’s nice for awhile to see our favorite dork be happy. Then there’s MJ singing, Harry Osborn coming into his own as a super-villain (Hoverboard Goblin!), the arrival of the mysterious alien symbiote (which even gets its own POV shot later on, “Evil Dead”-style!), and then straight into Sandman’s origin (geek note: Sandman’s daughter is played by Perla Haney Jardine, aka B.B. Kiddo in “Kill Bill”). This movie wastes no time!

This third episode is non-stop action, emotion and wonder. Both the Sandman and the Venom special FX are astounding and all the fight sequences are the coolest they’ve ever been. This is also the funniest film in the series, with more priceless Daily Bugle scenes between Peter and J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson, Elizabeth Banks’ Betty Brant, Ted Raimi’s Hoffman, Bill Nunn’s Robbie Robertson and now competing photographer Eddie Brock, hilariously played by Topher Grace. It’s neat how he mirrors Peter Parker, and we also get sort of an equivalent of MJ in Gwen Stacy, played by the wonderful Bryce Dallas Howard. Plus there are the inevitable but always welcomed cameos from Stan Lee and Bruce Campbell. Yet, more than ever, these movies are carried by Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and James Franco, who all shine here.

Thematically, this perfectly completes the previous outings. #1 was about choosing to be a hero, #2 was about considering the choice of not being a hero no more, and #3 is about being tempted to become an antihero, driven by pride and anger. Cue Peter Parker going all-black, goth/emo and shit! How they work three villains into this I’ll let you discover, but I’ll say that I personally thought that they made it work and that the storytelling was surprisingly fluid, if dense as hell. Some plot points are rushed or contrived (Harry’s flickering memory, the link between Sandman and Uncle Ben’s murder, the way the symbiote goes from Parker to Brock, etc.), but it’s ultimately fine in a comic book kind of way, and the climax is so spectacular that it’s hard to hold the circumstances that lead there against it. ]


2009
DRAG ME TO HELL 63
[ The idea of Sam Raimi putting Spidey aside to go back to making an old school B-movie full of cheap thrills, bodily fluids and cartoonish effects sounds awesome on paper. But when you see the result… I don’t know, man. The plot is pretty simple: a young woman, whose main concerns are making a good first impression on her in-laws and getting a promotion at the bank where she works, gets sidetracked by hallucinations and attacks from evil spirits after a disgusting old gipsy woman puts a curse on her. What follows is not so much scary as really silly and over the top, with lots of gross-out gags and freaky shit going on. It’s fun enough, but not nearly as much as the “Evil Dead” flicks were. Why? Well, for starters, Alison Lohman’s okay, but she’s certainly no Bruce Campbell. Then there’s this sense that Raimi is being self-indulgent and/or too overtly trying to give fans what they want. This kind of nasty little horror comedy is a young man’s game, and it benefits from being made on the cheap by an eager newcomer. Raimi is most definitely not at the same place he was back in 1981 (or 1987, or 1992), and that’s okay; Peter Jackson isn’t doing splatstick movies anymore either. Still, with all that being said, I still got a kick out of some of the most outrageous sequences, notably the séance scene with the talking goat (you’ll see!) and the very E.C. Comics-ending. ]

2013

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

Richard Linklater

1991
SLACKER 76
[ What I love about Linklater’s movies is that they’re philosophical, unconventional and artsy, yet they don’t feel pretentious at all. Linklater doesn’t want to show off or to prove that he’s smarter than you, the impression you get is that he’s endlessly curious about the things of life, great or small. It’s like the filmmaker and the audience are on the same level, both contributing to the experience. “Slacker” is a series of glimpses into the lives of various Austin hipsters, weirdoes, oddballs, nutjobs and yes, slackers. We follow one guy who meets with someone, then we go off with this other dude and so on. You could watch these unrelated scenes in any order, you could even turn the sound off and make up your own stories about these characters or close your eyes and associate whatever images you want to this symphony of small-talk, semi-profundities and conspiracy theories. There is no plot, no definite themes, no conclusions – the person watching the film brings as much to it as those in it. Trippy. ]


1993
DAZED AND CONFUSED 80
[ review ]

1995
BEFORE SUNRISE 87
[ I used to be a total infatuation-sucker. I basically fell in love with every girl who paid the slightest attention to me. And when it went beyond that, watch out – best and worst feeling in the world at the same time. You know, you meet someone new and you start talking and magically there are no awkward lulls, no small-talk filler, you’re just going smoothly back and forth about all these fascinating little funny things. It goes on for hours and it’s like you’re the only two persons left on the planet, out of thought and time… Unfortunately, too often it ends there, each going back to their own life, or it sputters away into unsatisfying friendship. Still, one cherishes these brief moments when, as Alaskan poet Jewel Kilcher once wrote, 2 Become 1. That’s “Before Sunrise” right there. Ethan Hawke is one day away from leaving Europe when he meets beautiful French student Julie Delpy on a train. They strike up a conversation and they decide on a whim to both get off in Vienna and spend the night together, just walking around and talking… It doesn’t really matter what you think of Hawke and Delpy or whether you agree or not with the ideas they share. What’s so touching and special about the film is the way it captures that connection, that chemistry, that space between two people where, for a while, everything is possible. ]


1996
SUBURBIA 92
[ review ]

1998
THE NEWTON BOYS 28
[ Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio and Skeet Ulrich star as Texan brothers who leave horse trading and cotton picking for more lucrative bank robbing. Eventually they get caught, there’s a trial, then title cards explaining what happened to them after they got out of jail. Roll credits. This almost-Western is the least distinctive film Linklater’s ever made. McConaughey’s a charmer and I like the old-timey music, but the narrative seriously lacks urgency and there’s nothing here we haven’t seen done better many times – even the hold-ups are boring. ]


2001
WAKING LIFE 92
[ review ]

2001
TAPE 69
[ This low-budget DV movie is adapted from a stage play by Stephen Belber. Ethan Hawke is a dick who deals (and does) drugs, Robert Sean Leonard is his sensitive artsy filmmaker friend and Uma Thurman is a girl who got between them back in high school. The whole film takes place in a motel room, as the three are reunited after ten years apart and confront unresolved issues that blur the line between who’s a “dick” and who’s “sensitive”. Belber’s screenplay is complex and full of ambiguities, the performances are strong and Linklater keeps things relatively dynamic. It still feels more like a filmed play than a movie-movie, but this huis clos works surprisingly well. ]


2003
THE SCHOOL OF ROCK 85
[ review ]


2004
BEFORE SUNSET 90
[ review ]


2005
BAD NEWS BEARS
[ The almost unanimously rotten reviews (notably our own Jean-François Tremblay’s) scared me away – I’ll catch this foul ball on DVD. Maybe. ]


2006
A SCANNER DARKLY 58
[ review ]

FAST FOOD NATION 42
[ Linklater tries his hand at a “Traffic”/”Babel”-style multithreaded socio-political ensemble piece, with more or less success. He’s not the brilliant visualist that is Soderbergh, nor is he able to milk every moment for every last drop of its dramatic potential as would Gonzáles Iñárritu, for better or worse. Linklater’s strength lies more in everyday human interaction and conversation as narrative drive. It doesn’t help that this is a film that attempts to make storylines out of a non-fiction book and that fast food, bad as it may be for you, is hardly as potent a subject matter as, say, drugs, which often do destroy lives. To fill things out, they have to digress into subplots about illegal Mexican workers, chicks fucking the foreman and doing drugs, a teenager hanging out with her uncle, etc. This is all watchable enough, co-leads Greg Kinnear, Ashley Johnson and Catalina Sandino Moreno are fine and there are some noteworthy cameos by Luis Guzmán, Kris Kristofferson, Patricia Arquette’s cleavage, Bruce Willis and Avril Lavigne, but it doesn’t add up to anything particularly profound or affecting. ]

2009
ME AND ORSON WELLES

2012
BERNIE    83
[ I knew next to nothing about this one before seeing it beside the fact that it was directed by Linklater, reuniting with “The School of Rock” star Jack Black. So when it said at the top that it was a True Story, I didn’t know whether or not to believe it (the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” has forever made me suspicious of films claiming to be based on a true story). Likewise, I was never sure whether the documentary-style interview bits with folks from Carthage, East Texas were the real deal or not. But these fact-or-fiction? tensions were not a drawback, quite to the contrary. All through “Bernie”, I felt engaged by them, wondering if I should laugh or not at these people/characters. Once Matthew McConaughey shows up, about half an hour in, in another hilarious turn this year (see also: “Magic Mike”) I started to suspect this was all a big bunch of straight-faced silliness à la Christopher Guest. One thing’s clear from the get-go: Jack Black is a treat as a super-sweet funeral parlour employee who may or may not also be a bullshit artist and may or may not be gay. Oh, and he spends nearly as much time singing here than he did in “School of Rock” (gospel, mostly)!  Much of the story deals with his unhealthy relationship with a mean old widow played by Shirley MacLaine, which is ambiguous like the rest of the movie. Who’s exploiting whom there? And there are more such questions we ask ourselves further down the line, as things grow more dramatic. The kicker? This actually IS a true story! Reality can be stranger than fiction, eh.   ]


2013
BEFORE MIDNIGHT 90
[ It’s all these long scenes, showing people talking and interacting… Living, man. Maybe it doesn’t seem like much, but when you think about it, it’s virtuoso writing, directing and acting. I mean, it all feels so natural yet it’s so precisely and involvingly crafted. Plus, there’s the obvious fact that we’ve grown to care so much about these characters. It’s almost never been done, to have a trilogy like this where you catch up with characters every decade or so. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) met and fell in love as twentysomethings in “Before Sunrise”, then their paths crossed again as thirtysomethings and the attraction was still there in “Before Sunset”, and now, in “Before Midnight”, they’re in their early 40s and they’ve been together since the last time, they even have kids now. And once again, we follow them for a day and a night and it’s fascinating. I loved everything about it: the gorgeously shot locations in Greece, the relaxed feel / pace /tone, the dialogue, the music… Most of all, I just love Hawke and Delpy together, even though they’re not so young and idealistic and romantic anymore… In fact, I think I love them more for having flaws and fighting and all that. That’s life, man. ]

2014
BOYHOOD 89
[ It kicks off with Coldplay’s “Yellow”, the first of many great music cues in the film. I’ve always loved that song and it always felt cinematic to me, which is the first of many moments of resonance for me in the film. The other thing you realize right from the get-go is that writer-director Richard Linklater really lucked out when he cast Ellar Coltrane, the young actor he would depict growing up from 6 to 18 years old. You’re immediately taken in by his big expressive eyes and by his very natural performance. Linklater’s daughter Lorelei is also good as Coltrane’s sister, though she’s a bit more of the precocious, cutesy type. Then you’ve got seasoned pros in Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the divorced parents and they’re as solid as you would expect them to be. Together, these four actors form a very believable family who we quickly grow to care about as they go through various ups and downs. Even though the film lasts 165 minutes, it doesn’t feel long because the storytelling is so effortless, skillfully using ellipses to capture 12 years in the life of a boy and his family. It’s endlessly fascinating to watch Coltrane and the others get older right in front of us; kids especially change so fast! It’s also interesting to catch the little bits of current events and pop culture sprinkled through the film as we go through a decade and change, which, again, make us marvel at how fast time goes by! That’s the main thing about “Boyhood”. Some drama happens here and there, but for the most part, this is a thick slice of life or a hanging out movie, very much in the vein of Linklater’s “Slacker”, “Dazed and Confused” and “Before” trilogy… and then it ends with Arcade Fire’s “Deep Blue”,  the last of many great music cues in the film.  ]

2016
EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! 93
[ Reviewed on Extra Beurre ]
 

Lars von Trier

1988
MEDEA 90
[ According to Greek mythology, Medea was the wife of Jason (of “and the Argonauts” fame). After fetching the Golden Fleece, Jason abandoned Medea and their two sons to marry the young daughter of King Kreon, and Medea’s love turned to hatred… With such a premise, you know you’re in for one bleak film, and when it’s directed by von Trier from an unfilmed screenplay by the late great Carl-Theodor Dreyer, you’re almost scared to enter such heavy territory. Indeed, right from the opening minutes, as Medea lies on the beach and lets the tide wash over her until it almost drowns her, I felt like bursting into tears. And as this most disturbing tale of betrayal and revenge unfolds, it just gets more and more devastating. This is a low-budget, kinda shoddy-looking Danish TV production, but von Trier manages to create haunting imagery out of video and he gets extraordinary performances as always from his actors, namely Udo Kier as Jason, Henning Jensen as Kreon and especially Kirsten Olesen as Medea. ]

The EUROPA trilogy

1984
THE ELEMENT OF CRIME 68
[ It’s odd how the Dogme master’s early work is so stylish and polished. And this is a genre film! No long suffering women here, just a troubled European cop straight out of film noir investigating a series of murders in a world falling apart and apparently flooded, all in sepia tones and bluish hues, with dead horses, scattered lotto tickets and disaffected sex scenes… It’s all pretty fucked, like a David Lynch minus the black humor and with no room to breathe. A harrowing exercise in style. ]

1987
EPIDEMIC 67
[ After their computer eats their screenplay, a filmmaker named Lars and his writing partner decide to start over and do “something more dynamic”: Epidemic. A voice-over dryly explains that in the five days it will take them to write this new script, an actual epidemic will break out. This film isn’t actually much dynamic, but it offers interesting/terrifying insights about the various plagues that hit Europe over the years, “king rats”, boils, people being buried alive, etc. It’s also a fascinating deconstruction of the writing process, as we see the screenwriters brainstorming through long takes, often in front of unmanned cameras. These stretches have a non-fiction feel, though you can’t trust von Trier not to be manipulating the audience even then. Scenes like the one with Udo Kier playing his own creepy self, the wine tasting and the thing about the Atlantic City girls are kinda pointless, but the film-within-the-film segments are beautifully photographed (in B&W, like the whole picture) and make great use of Wagner. All in all, “Epidemic” is an uneven but mostly effective cerebral horror story. ]

1991
EUROPA 87
[ You’re an American in 1945 Germany. You get a job as a train conductor. You experience first-hand the post-war dismay of the country. You fall in love with a woman played by stunning classic beauty Barbara Sukowa. You love her so much that you find yourself entangled with a terrorist group. You’re Jean-Marc Barr, acting in one of Lars von Trier’s brilliantly crafted early films, as wonderfully artificial as von Trier’s later work is movingly naturalistic. Expertly shot in B&W with occasional bursts of color, with hypnotic narration and a Bernard Herrmanesque score, “Europa” is a powerful ride. ]

The GOLDEN HEART trilogy

1996
BREAKING THE WAVES 91
[ “When you talk to God, it’s called praying. When he answers back, it’s called schizophrenia.” Or is it? It’s never quite clear whether Bess is insane or whether she does have a straight line with the Holy Father. What we know for sure is that the Scottish woman’s love for her oil rig worker of a husband is dangerously intense. As is the film as a whole, a harrowing psycho-sexual fable shot in Dogme minimalism, but with colorful chapter breaks of ‘70s rock and quasi-surreal imagery. And then there’s Emily Watson, giving one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen. As Von Trier puts it in the production notes, “Emily has a face that expresses an enormous range of emotion; a face you can never tire of watching.” Indeed, she has the brightest eyes and the loveliest smile, and it’s all the more devastating when the going gets tough for her character. “Breaking the Waves” is a heavy watching experience, but it’s a rewarding one. ]

1998
THE IDIOTS 53
[ An unhappy woman (with a heart of gold?) joins a group of oddballs who get off on acting like retards in public. Shot with handheld cameras in natural locations, this is pure Dogme 95. Amusing at times, unsettling at others, it’s never clear what von Trier is going for but it’s an interesting experiment. ]

2000
DANCER IN THE DARK 92
[ review ]

The USA: LAND OF OPPORTUNITY trilogy

2003
DOGVILLE 95
[ review ] / [ review 2.0 ]

2005
MANDERLAY 92
[ review ]

201?
WASINGTON

***

2006
DIREKTØREN FOR DET HELE 57
[ Alright, this is kind of a wank-off. Like “The Idiots”, this is an intentionally amateurish, Dogme-style trifle, with inconsistent sound mix and light levels, inept framing, apparently random jump cuts… Coming from an unknown, you’d quickly dismiss it as an unremarkable little flick with a good performance by Jens Albinus and a few amusing bits (the sex scene, Jean-Marc Barr butchering the Danish language, etc.). But of course, von Trier’s reputation warrants more of our attention, a fact he neatly milks. He pops up (off screen) 3-4 times to poke fun at how this is just a silly comedy, “not worth a moment’s reflection”, and he points out bad camerawork, forced plot turns, how needlessly stretched the ending is… You gotta give it to Lars, clever bastard, he makes it almost impossible to hold his perceived failings against him!

So what is the movie about? Actually, it’s got a promising premise. Albinus plays a pretentious, idiotic actor who’s hired by a businessman to pose as the fictitious president of his company, whom he made up so he could remain chummy with his employees and blame unpopular decision on his higher-up. This elusive “boss of it all” now needs to materialize at the request of a grumpy Icelander they’re about to sign a major deal with, hence the need for someone to play the part. Not that surprisingly, even in this light comedy, von Trier sneaks in some commentary about capitalism, acting and people’s desperate need for attention/ approval. So this isn’t a complete waste of time, and maybe if the comic timing wasn’t undermined by having to read subtitles I’d even recommend it. As is, this is mostly for completists. ]

“I hate women and I love them. Come on, we all do.”
– Lars von Trier at the 2009 TIFF

2009
ANTICHRIST 88
[ You should know where you stand more or less just from the prologue. Marrying slow-motion b&w images and opera music with hard fucking and tragedy, this can easily be taken as pretentious and preposterous, and the movie will only go further in that direction throughout. But if, like me, you’re a Lars von Trier fan and you often get the sense that he’s purposely messing with audiences, you should be able to appreciate this always provocative, sometimes profoundly silly, yet nonetheless affecting tale of grief, fear, pain, despair and evil. Aggressively stylish (this is in many ways a throwback to von Trier’s “Europa” trilogy) and featuring fierce performances from Willem Dafoe and especially Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Antichrist” puts up a Grand Guignol façade that almost dares you to reject it. But if you’re able to see past it or, even better, to embrace these excesses, this is quite an extraordinary experience, like an unholy cross between Zulawski’s “Possession”, Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and Raimi’s “The Evil Dead”. To be honest, it doesn’t all work, but it’s such a bold film that even when it goes off the rails, which it often does, it remains fascinating. Chaos reigns. ]

2011
MELANCHOLIA 90
[ It opens with a striking overture, a series of gorgeous slow-motion tableaux set to Wagner which, in retrospect, pretty much tell the whole tale. The tale of a bride and her sister. The tales of two planets on a collision course. The tale of the what may be the end of the bride’s world, as well as the end of the whole world. Divided into two parts (“Justine” and “Claire”), the film initially focuses on bride Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst in her best performance ever, which deservedly won her the Best Actress award in Cannes last May. It’s astonishing how she can be gorgeous and glowing for a while early on, then get ugly and dark, as if something had just snapped inside of her… Afterwards, she sometimes smiles and shines a little again, but you can tell that she’s faking it, that her heart just isn’t into it, even though her dress is amazing, the groom is amazing (Alexander Skarsgård), the venue is amazing… What’s her problem? Could be depression (“I’m trudging through this grey, woolly yarn”), but it could also be caused by the impending doom facing Earth if it’s hit by “fly-by” planet Melancholia… Which will become the main concern of Claire, Justine’s sister, who becomes increasingly filled with cosmic dread, terrified that she is that she, her husband (Kiefer Sutherland) and especially her young son (Cameron Spurr) could be obliterated in a matter of days. Part drama, part science-fiction, “Melancholia” is shot by Lars von Trier with his signature post-Dogme unstable camera style, which mirrors how Justine and eventually Claire feel, and the cinematography is also often stunning, with a painterly use of light and colour bringing to life more tableaux throughout the film. Von Trier’s vision is cynical and nihilistic (“The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.”), but also laced with black humor and some genuine emotion, and it’s the kind of picture that only grows in your mind as time passes. Even though the ending is jaw-droppingly awesome, I came out of the theatre feeling slightly disappointed… Then again, as I write this the next day, I’m still haunted by it and looking forward to seeing it again already – always a good sign, obviously. Dunst and Gainsbourg dominate it of course, but the entire ensemble cast is excellent as well, including Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt as the girls’ divorced parents (yes, the accents all over the place in that family, going from English to American to French, but it doesn’t really matter), plus Stellan Skarsgård, Brady Corbet and my personal favorite, Udo Kier as the wedding planner! Lots of greatness all around but, again, maybe not the immediate impact of, say, instant classics like “Dogville” or “Dancer in the Dark.” Even then, it easily ranks as one of the year’s best films. ]

2014
NYMPH()MANIAC: VOL. I 89
[ “I’m just a bad human being,” says Joe (alternately Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin, both tremendous) early into this first part of Lars von Trier’s epic, supposedly pornographic film (I watched the “censored”version). We listen to Joe as she tells Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) the long, “moral” story of her life as a sinner, starting with discovering her “cunt” at age 2, then later losing her virginity at age 15 in the least romantic, most mechanical way (thanks, Shia LaBeouf!), and so on. The events she recounts are often captivating, as tales of sex tend to be, but there’s something to be said about the way von Trier presents them, throwing in various visual inserts, on-screen captions and whatnot, not to mention a lot of really interesting dialogue laced with philosophy, psychology and of course, black humor (that Uma Thurman scene!), plus a bunch of references to anything from fly-fishing to botany, literature, music and mathematics. It all culminates with a stunning split-screen sequence and a cliffhanger of sorts, leaving us eager to watch the next part! ]

NYMPH()MANIAC: VOL. II 65
[ As was revealed at the end of “VOL. I”, Joe is suddenly numb down there, incapable of having an orgasm. But instead of stopping her sexual adventures, this pushes her futher, into the arms of “dangerous men” and into more perverted practices, such as a Negro sandwich and bondage/S&M (thanks, Jamie Bell!). The tone is less fun and wild, more dark and troubling… But as is always the case with von Trier, there’s still room for a bit of black humor. Plus, Joe’s storytelling and Seligman’s “digressions” remain interesting. Now, this is definitely not as great as the first half and the ending is questionable, but taken together, both parts do add up to a somewhat satisfying whole. All the same, I would be curious to see the 5 1/2 hour uncensored director’s cut to compare. ]

Michel Gondry

Films
2013
L’ÉCUME DES JOURS

IS THE MAN WHO IS TALL HAPPY?: AN ANIMATED CONVERSATION WITH NOAM CHOMSKY

2012
THE WE AND THE I

2011
THE GREEN HORNET 72
[ review ]

2009
L’ÉPINE DANS LE COEUR

2008
BE KIND REWIND 40
[ With “La Science des rêves”, Michel Gondry made his most personal film, finally shooting in France again and putting his wild imagination and his love of artisanal visual effects more to the forefront than ever. “Be Kind Rewind”, while not devoid of those qualities, appears more than anything like a not that distinctive Hollywood comedy. In fact, it’s practically a sweded version of “UHF”. Like in that Weird Al Yankovic movie, we follow a bunch of losers (Jack Black and Mos Def) who, to save a family business (here a video store), start making homemade productions which, while shoddy, possess a certain charm which is embraced by a large audience. This premise should actually have been perfect for Gondry, if he’d just used it as an excuse to create a series of funny little vignettes. Alas, the sweded versions of flicks like “Ghostbusters” and “RoboCop” take up a relatively small portion of the film – you’ve seen practically all the best bits already in the trailer. The rest of the (bloated) running time is devoted to the laborious setup of how the tapes in the video store end up being erased, to a subplot about legendary jazzman Fats Waller and to a lot of scenery-chewing by Black, who can be hilarious but isn’t given much to work here. It’s almost like “Be Kind Rewind” in itself is a sweded movie, i.e. voluntarily botched and naïve. This gives the whole thing kind of a sympathetic vibe, like it’s just a bunch of friends goofing off with a camera, but even Gondry’s biggest fans will have to admit that this is a minor work. Not as awful as “Human Nature”, mind, but still pretty forgettable. ]

2006
LA SCIENCE DES RÊVES 79
[ review ]

DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY 82
[ Kick-ass performances from hip hop luminaries such as Kanye West, Mos Def and even the reunited Fugees, hilarious bits by Chappelle (“Hit me!”) and a whole lotta positive energy. Gondry doesn’t actually put much of an auteur print on this, but he doesn’t have to, what’s on screen is entertaining enough. ]

2004
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND 94
[ review ]

2002
HUMAN NATURE 21
[ How can the same writer and the same director create an all-out masterpiece in one case and an utter misfire in another? Whereas Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s warped minds perfectly fused through “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” into a film that’s funny, moving and thought-provoking, their earlier “Human Nature” is all WACKY! ideas for the sake of WACKY! ideas. Patricia Arquette covered with fur, Tim Robbins teaching mice table manners, Rhys Ifans as a dude raised as an ape… Might sound amusing, but it’s not. ]

Music Videos

2007
DANCE TONIGHT – Paul McCartney 66
[ Paul playing mandolin, Natalie Portman as a ghost, and Gareth Keenan! ]

2005
HEARD ‘EM SAY – Kanye West 64
[ Kids playing around Macy’s at night, stop-motion ahoy. Nice video, most notable for how great the song is. ]

THE DENIAL TWIST – The White Stripes 73
[ More mind-bugging visual trickery, weird shifts in perspective – and Conan O’Brien! ]

2003
THE HARDEST BUTTON TO BUTTON – The White Stripes 70
[ Every time Meg hits the bass drum, she “teleports” to a new drum kit next to the first one, and on and on up streets, down stairs, in the subway… I don’t know what’s more baffling, how Gondry gets all these crazy ideas or how he actually manages to bring them to life? ]

2002
DEAD LEAVES & THE DIRTY GROUND – The White Stripes 60
[ Images of happier times are projected on the walls of Jack’s empty house like so many ghosts. ]

FELL IN LOVE WITH A GIRL – The White Stripes 65
[ Legos! ]

COME INTO MY WORLD – Kylie Minogue 72
[ A single shot of Kylie walking around a busy street corner. Big deal, right? Well, when a second Kylie joins her, then a third and a fourth, this does become a big, dazzling deal! ]

2001
STAR GUITAR – The Chemical Brothers 62
[ The view from a moving train follows the beat and feel of the song. Doesn’t sound like much, but this is oddly captivating. ]

1999
LET FOREVER BE – The Chemical Brothers 84
[ One of Gondry’s trippiest videos, with ever confusing shifts of perspective as a dancing girl multiplies and morphs back into one over and over, with a camera that seems to be everywhere at once. ]

1997
EVERLONG – Foo Fighters 70
[ A punk rock Evil Dead dream within a dream, with giant kung fu grip action! Funny. ]

DEADWEIGHT – Beck 68
[ Beck plays a Bizarro guy who works on the beach and vacations in an office and, in one of the most clever music video / movie tie-ins I’ve seen, actions and props around him are echoed in clips from Danny Boyle’s “A life less ordinary”. ]

AROUND THE WORLD – Daft Punk 69
[ Busby Berkeley on acid, with dancing swimsuit girls, skeletons, space invaders, mummies… No midgets, alas. ]

JOGA – Björk 61
[ Emotional landscapes. Indeed. ]

BACHELORETE – Björk 76
[ Björk plays a woman in the forest who finds a book that writes itself, about a woman in the forest who finds a book that writes itself then takes it to the city to have it published and falls in love with her editor, so she takes it to the city to have it published and falls in love with her editor. Then the book is adapted into a play about how it was found, published and adapted into a play, which leads to a play-within-a-play, then a play-within-a-play- within-a-play… Man, Gondry was doing Charlie Kaufman-style mind-trips before we even knew who Charlie Kaufman was! ]

1996
SUGAR WATER – Cibo Matto 74
[ Whoa. Split screen. One half in reverse, the other going forward, until midway through when both sides collide and we see the reverse side going forward and the forward side in reverse. Whoa. ]

HYPERBALLAD – Björk 58
[ An odd mix of projections, superimposition, light show and video game. ]

1995
ARMY OF ME – Björk 71
[ A Tank Girl, a gorilla dentist, a giant diamond, a museum explosion to wake up the boyfriend… Curiouser and curiouser. ]

ISOBEL – Björk 53
[ This B&W video is sorta imaginative and pretty, but not particularly memorable by Gondry standards. ]

LIKE A ROLLING STONE – The Rolling Stones 85
[ Pre-Matrix “bullet-time”, with a sloshed twist. Patricia Arquette’s sloshed too, but she looks gorgeous anyway. And then there’s Mick, Keith and the others, clearly enthusiastic about performing this Dylan cover. Good times. ]

PROTECTION – Massive Attack 56
[ I like the bright colors and the thing with the windows is neat, but the video lacks a certain je ne sais quoi that might have made it spark. ]

1994
LUCAS WITH THE LID OFF – Lucas 52
[ Frames, screens and windows “sample” moments of life, just as the song samples vocals and riffs. Alright. ]

1993
HUMAN BEHAVIOR – Björk 80
[ A quirky storybook tale starring a stuffed bear, stop-motion moths and Björk as the most adorable astronaut in the world. ]

JE DANSE LE MIA – Iam 77
[ This is one cool video. The song itself is catchy as hell, French hip hop with a definite old school vibe, and the video is full of hilarious ‘80s touches (“La main sur le volan – avec la moquette!” ]. On top of that you’ve got the camera always zooming in and out and making surprising transitions. Très cool. ]

LA TOUR DE PISE – Jean-François Coen 75
[ Brilliant use of split-screen and neon signs and billboards to spell out the lyrics of the song, and with a moody feel, too. ]

1988-1992
BOLIDE, JUNIOR, JOYEUX NOËL, LES CAILLOUX, MA MAISON, LA VILLE – Oui Oui
[ Goofy little tunes, goofy little videos… Not of much interest, beside to see Gondry honing his skills. ]