Indie Snapshot: Blue is the Warmest Color

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

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.

The Grandmaster: It’s Good, Not Grand

by Ethan Alter August 23, 2013 5:52 am
<i>The Grandmaster</i>: 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.

Indie Snapshot: Unmade in China

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

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.

Stoker: All in the Family

by Ethan Alter March 1, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Stoker</i>: All in the Family

Here's how I like to imagine the way that the making of Stoker, the only vaguely indie-ish new thriller from Fox Searchlight, went down: Screenwriter Wentworth Miller (yes, the same Wentworth Miller who got Mariah Carey all hot and bothered in a music video and then spent four seasons breaking out of various fake prisons on television) turned in his script, and then the studio took one look at it and realized its wannabe Hitchcockian tale of a twisted family was never going to fly if played straight. So they bought playfully perverse South Korean director Park Chan-wook a plane ticket from Seoul to the movie's Tennessee set, whereupon they handed him the screenplay and told him to just go nuts with it. The result is one of the most beautifully directed bad movies I've seen since the immortal Brian De Palma trifecta of Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars and Femme Fatale (known unofficially as De Palma's Trilogy of Awesome Awfulness). Thanks to Park's endless creativity behind the camera, it's impossible to look away from Stoker, even when what's happening on the screen is truly risible.

The Impossible: Swept Away

by Ethan Alter December 21, 2012 5:58 am
<i>The Impossible:</i> Swept Away

Viewed purely as a ripped-from-the-headlines survival story, Spanish director J.A. Bayona's new film The Impossible is an often harrowing experience, depicting the devastation caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami that engulfed South Asia in December 2004 through the eyes of one family, who are left separated in its wake. On holiday in Thailand when the tidal wave sweeps through, British couple Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three adorable boys -- who are, in order of age, Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin) -- abruptly go from lounging about the pool at their high-end resort to fighting for their lives as the current rockets them along. When they're finally becalmed, Maria and Lucas are miles from the hotel, while Henry, Simon and Thomas manage to find safe harbor closer by, and each group believes that the other is likely dead. Henry refuses to abandon all hope, however, and goes hunting for his wife and eldest son at the same time that Lucas is bringing his severely wounded mom to an overcrowded hospital where she joins the ranks of the hundreds and hundreds of people in immediate need of medical attention. Will her husband find her? And, if he does, will she still be alive?

Red Dawn: Why the Remake is So 2009

by Ethan Alter November 21, 2012 6:00 am
<i>Red Dawn</i>: Why the Remake is <i>So</i> 2009

If there was ever a good reason to remake the '80s chestnut Red Dawn, it would be to bring John Milius's teenage action movie kicking and screaming into the 21st century in a version that didn't resemble such a Cold War relic. And that seems to have been the motivating idea behind this new, updated Dawn that's finally opening in theaters a full three years after it wrapped production in 2009. (The movie fell victim to the bankruptcy of its original studio MGM -- the same plight that delayed the release of Joss Whedon's The Cabin in the Woods, which was made around the same time and received a belated theatrical release last April.) Funnily enough, in the relatively short amount of time, the new Red Dawn already seems as dated as its 1984 predecessor. Her are four ways that this largely pointless remake feels so 2009:

Anna Karenina: Train in Vain

by Ethan Alter November 16, 2012 4:06 pm
<i>Anna Karenina</i>: Train in Vain

As with any new cinematic adaptation of a frequently-filmed Great Novel, the biggest challenge facing the makers of Anna Karenina -- the umpteenth film to be derived from Leo Tolstoy's enduring 19th century romance -- is convincing moviegoers that they really need to see the same story told again. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard's method of persuasion is to inject a surfeit of audacious theatricality into a novel that modern audiences might consider stodgy and old-fashioned (wrongly, of course, but that's a separate issue). In their conceit, the woeful tale of the titular Russian socialite (played by Keira Knightley, in her third collaboration with Wright) plays out within the confines of a period-appropriate theater, which constantly morphs and changes to become its own world. The motivating idea seems to be that since Anna's tragic story unfolds on a very public stage, the other characters function as both players in -- and spectators to -- her downfall. It's an intriguing approach that's executed with impressive showmanship, but it also inadvertently misses what's at the core of the book: passion.

Argo: Fake It Til You Make It

by Ethan Alter October 12, 2012 6:01 am
<i>Argo</i>: Fake It Til You Make It

Your average, conventional thriller probably wouldn't build its big climactic set-piece around a bunch of people waiting in line at the airport trying to catch a plane, but then Argo most certainly isn't your average, conventional thriller. Instead, Ben Affleck's third feature film as a director is a loving throwback to the political procedurals of the '70s -- think films like All the President's Men and Three Days of the Condor -- where the "action," such as it is, chiefly involves government (or government-adjacent) guys in suits talking, scheming and plotting instead of running around firing off their guns. In fact, the film's central hero, CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck, handing himself the starring role as he did in The Town two years ago) never wields a firearm once during the course of the movie, even when he's in the most desperate of circumstances. He's on a mission where stealth matters more than a show of action movie strength.

Indie Snapshot: The Intouchables

by Ethan Alter May 25, 2012 5:58 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>The Intouchables</i>

Male bonding, Gallic style

Life in a Day: Around the World in 90 Minutes

by Ethan Alter July 29, 2011 6:00 am
<i>Life in a Day</i>: Around the World in 90 Minutes

From the website that brought you Rebecca Black, the "Leave Britney alone!" guy and the sneezing baby panda comes an honest-to-blog feature film.

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