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Philomena: Queen Judi Approximately

by Ethan Alter November 22, 2013 6:00 am
Philomena: Queen Judi Approximately

As if we needed one, Philomena gives us all yet another reason to praise Judi Dench, the Grand Dame of contemporary British cinema and an actress capable of elevating even the most predictable material (see last year's geriatric hit, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). Based on a bestselling non-fiction book that chronicles a fascinating, troubling piece of recent Irish history, Philomena is far from predictable, at least in terms of its narrative. Tonally, however, the film strives a little too hard to fit into the British tradition of tearjerkers that tackle difficult material with a light touch -- think movies like Made in Dagenham, Marigold Hotel or Quartet. These films seek to explore serious emotional terrain, but can't resist underlying every dramatic beat with a bit of comedy lest the audience's collective stiff upper lip starts quivering too much.

Indie Snapshot: Blue is the Warmest Color

by Ethan Alter October 25, 2013 5:55 am
Indie Snapshot: Blue is the Warmest Color

You can't get more art house than a Palme d'Or winning, three-hour long, sexually explicit French film chronicling the rise and fall of a lesbian love affair. (If Seinfeld were still on the air, that sounds like it would be the logline to the inevitable Rochelle, Rochelle sequel). But Blue Is the Warmest Color mostly defies such easy designations, telling an absorbing, relatable story while also achieving an intimacy and raw emotional power that has deservedly made it a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic… though not always for reasons stemming from the movie's quality. Ever since Blue's triumphant Cannes premiere in May, controversy has dogged the production, as the behind-the-scenes tensions between director Abdellatif Kechiche and stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux has spilled into the public arena. (As if that's not enough, the author of the graphic novel the movie is based on, Julie Maroh, has repeatedly expressed her dissatisfaction with certain aspects of the film.) As juicy as those stories are, try not to let it distract from the film itself, which succeeds (and, in some ways, fails) entirely on its own merits.

Indie Snapshot: Winnie Mandela

by Ethan Alter September 6, 2013 5:55 am
Indie Snapshot: Winnie Mandela

Originally shot in 2011 and sneaking into theaters before the November release of 2013's higher-profile Nelson Mandela biopic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom -- starring Idris Elba as the iconic South African civil rights crusader -- Winnie Mandela purports to be a life story of Mandela's now ex-wife, chronicling her personal bravery and public activism during her husband's long incarceration. But even though it's her point of view, the movie is still very much his story. Despite the title and the presence of an Oscar-winning actress (Jennifer Hudson) in the central role, Winnie Mandela turns out to be only moderately interested in the woman for bears that name.

Closed Circuit: Faulty Wiring

by Ethan Alter August 28, 2013 6:00 am
Closed Circuit: Faulty Wiring

Among the many disappointments of the thrill-free British thriller Closed Circuit is that it wastes such an evocative title on such a bland movie. After all, that name instantly puts one in mind of vintage '70s paranoia pictures like The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor, movies where a lone hero is plunged into a shadowy world of espionage and betrayal, perpetrated by an all-knowing, all-powerful corporate and/or government entity. And the film's opening credits sequence further teases that that's what's in store for viewers, filling the screen with footage gleaned from various closed circuit cameras positioned around a contemporary London neighborhood. At first, we're treated to scenes of ordinary life: people walking and talking, cops directing traffic and vendors peddling their wares. But then the image of a nondescript delivery truck starts to recur on the various monitors as it backs its way into a particularly populous section of the street. Just as a police officer comes over to wave the driver away, the screens go white as an explosion reduces the surrounding area to rubble.

The Grandmaster: It’s Good, Not Grand

by Ethan Alter August 23, 2013 5:52 am
The Grandmaster: It’s Good, Not Grand

Putting the "art" back into martial arts cinema, Wong Kar Wai's eagerly awaited The Grandmaster is yet another sumptuously photographed tale of romantic longing from one of the current grandmasters of love-found-and-lost stories. This time, though, the yearning is punctuated by high kicks and lightning-fast punches since the would-be lovers in question are a pair of martial arts wizards. In one corner, you've got Ip Man (the director's regular leading man, Tony Leung) a real-life fighting legend and grandmaster of the Wing Chun discipline, who lived through the Japanese occupation of China during World War II and later moved to Hong Kong, where he trained a young boy who would grow up to become Bruce Lee. Facing off opposite him is the fictitious Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of another martial arts master whose designated heir has sullied the family name, requiring his actual child to appoint herself to clean-up duty.

Only God Forgives: Prognosis? Pain

by Ethan Alter July 19, 2013 5:55 am
Only God Forgives: Prognosis? Pain

In a perverse act of audience-baiting, Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling follow up their widely-liked auto-themed thriller Drive with Only God Forgives, a movie that actively seems to be trying to punish viewers who enjoyed their previous collaboration so much. "You liked Gosling's man-of-few-words character?" this film seems to be saying, "Well, here he's going to speak only four or five times." Or, "You loved the neon-lit cityscape of Los Angeles in Drive? Well, here we've shot the streets of Thailand through a bright, headache-inducing red filter that makes it resemble the seventh circle of Hell." Or: "You loved seeing Albert Brooks go bad? Well, here's Kristin Scott Thomas playing the world's worst mother." Or perhaps most of all: "You loved the slow, but confident pace of Drive's narrative? Well, here's a movie where absolutely nothing happens. Enjoy!"

Indie Snapshot: I’m So Excited

by Ethan Alter June 28, 2013 12:12 pm
Indie Snapshot: I’m So Excited

It's been a good two decades since Pedro Almodóvar has attempted one of the zany farces that first put him on the world cinema map in the mid-'80s -- think movies like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Labyrinth of Passion. And while I wish I could say that I'm So Excited was worth the wait, this strained, resoundingly unfunny comedy instead emerges as one of the Spanish director's few creative misfires. Remember Woody Allen's painful mid-2000s run of laugh-free bombs like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending? Well, I'm So Excited is basically Almodóvar's Jade Scorpion -- a trip down memory lane that leaves you wishing the filmmaker had never tried to go home again.

Indie Snapshot: Shadow Dancer

by Ethan Alter May 31, 2013 5:55 am
Indie Snapshot: Shadow Dancer

Having toggled between documentaries and narrative features for much of his career, British director James Marsh returns with Shadow Dancer, a fictional story (adapted from a book by Tom Bradby) set against a very real piece of history: the tumultuous "Troubles" that defined life in Northern Ireland from the '60s to the early '90s when the film is set.

Indie Snapshot: Aftershock

by Ethan Alter May 10, 2013 6:00 am
Indie Snapshot: Aftershock

I'll give Eli Roth this; having found a successful gimmick, he's not about to surrender it anytime soon. That particular gimmick can best be described as "Assholes abroad" -- an idea he tried out in the first Hostel and returns to again in Aftershock, the new horror film/disaster movie he co-wrote, produced and stars in, but didn't direct. Be grateful for small favors, I guess.

Indie Snapshot: Unmade in China

by Ethan Alter May 3, 2013 9:22 am
Indie Snapshot: Unmade in China

As media reporters rarely miss an opportunity to remind us, China is rapidly becoming the world's biggest market for entertainment. Amidst the Hollywood studios in particular, getting a movie onto the nation's carefully regulated screens represents the new box office Holy Grail. To try and grease the wheels in their favor, more and more big companies are striking co-production deals with Chinese media conglomerates as a way around the lengthy, laborious approval process. The documentary Unmade in China depicts another potential way for American filmmakers to tap into this market. Unable to find domestic funding for his thriller based on the infamous "lonelygirl 15" Internet scam, indie director Gil Kofman winds up finding an interested backer in China and agrees to direct a Chinese-language version of the film on location in Xiamen, despite having never visited the country before or speaking a single word of Mandarin or any other of the country's numerous dialects.

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