Category Archives: Short Reviews

American Hustle (2013)

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I just don’t have much to say about American Hustle. Not for lack of trying, but the film hasn’t given me much to think about since I saw it a week ago. It’s a perfectly okay movie built on a mildly interesting true story that has a few things to say about the follies of greed, and includes a pair of knockout performances. But more than all that, and first, it’s a film that reminds you how utterly flaky Academy voters can be.

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Help! (1965)

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The plot of Help! is absurd and absurdly simple: An eastern cult can’t perform its sacrificial rite without a gaudy ring that, as it turns out, was sent to Ringo and is now stuck on his finger. Led by a screw-eyed Swami named Clang (Leo McKern), the cult hunts the Beatles and the ring around the globe — whenever possible, tomfoolery abounds. It’s a story made for a 20-minute cartoon, yet Director Richard Lester, in his second outing with the boys, somehow found a way to stretch it into a full 92-minute feature.

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Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony (2012)

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Let me get this out of the way: Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony is not a well-made documentary. The assembly is a mess, the storytelling is irritatingly self-indulgent, and the film is cut with a series of animated, expository songs that look and sound a bit too much like commercials for the overpriced merch available on the documentary’s website. This is almost surely thanks to actor and Bronies chief architect John de Lancie, previously known best for his turn as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s villainous Q, and now a Brony A-lister thanks to his voicing of Discord, a My Little Pony baddie. De Lancie is omnipresent in the film as a kind of Brony guide and grand seigneur, and, despite his priggishness, is adored by the Bronies — a testament to how eager these fans are to share their joy with pretty much anybody. Still, get past the washed-up egomaniac and the lousy filmmaking, and it turns out there’s something to the Bronies.

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Only God Forgives (2013)

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There are a lot of compelling ideas in Only God Forgivesnot enough to make it a good film, but certainly enough to make it interesting. When you put it next to Drive, Only God Forgives becomes an opiated chapter in Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Machismo Fables, with Ryan Gosling’s maddeningly stoic anti-hero (known here as Julian; in Drive as simply Driver) at the center. As with his other films, Refn considers the power of violence, and like Drive he explores the lengths to which a man will go for a woman — even a hellish virago of a mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. In general, these subtexts seem relevant more for their cultural antiquity than their place in modern culture, and I suppose there’s something to be said for the tenacity of Refn’s thematic exploration, but the utter torpor found in so much of Only God Forgives makes its 89 minutes feel interminable. There’s a viciously sharp performance by Vithaya Pansringarm as the film’s chilling Chang, and certainly Refn’s films always deliver stylistically — this is the most beautifully shot film I’ve watched in months — but his lack of balance is quickly relegating him to a style-over-substance storyteller.

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Bernie (2012)

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While a majority of “Based on a True Story” projects tend to overindulge their artistic license, occasionally something happens in real life that requires little to no alteration on its way to the big screen. Bernie–the tale of a 39-year-old funeral director named Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) who murders his 81-year-old, millionaire companion, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine)–is such a story, Tiede a perpetually winning idealist pushed to his limit by a tyrannical misanthropist. The relationship between these two opposites provides ample fodder for the town’s yakity-yaks, but it’s the murder that sets the community to a boil, pitting the pro-Bernie public against their puffed-up DA, Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey). Director Richard Linklater keys in on the communal aspect of this story, bringing in a mix of actors and real people to serve as the townspeople in a collection of interviews that form the bulk of the film. While the expository nature of the interviews may feel like a shortcut, it’s crucial to conveying the role of the story’s small-town denizens, along with articulating the kind of person Bernie Tiede truly was. (A pretty damned good one, by all accounts.)

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In addition to selling its audience on the kindness and virtue of a convicted murderer, Bernie features a seminal performance from Jack Black, and a fascinating glimpse into the politics of a small town.

Speed Racer (2008)

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To make a kid’s movie that isn’t just a kid’s movie, you have to establish a balance between the simple stuff that appeals to kids on an instinctual level, and the more complex, allegorical stuff that parents want their kids to see. Speed Racer is a boisterous example of this, coupling a potent visual experience with themes of family and honor. At the film’s heart is Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), a once-in-a-generation driver whose love of the sport is matched only by a steadfast devotion to family. When his roots put him at odds with a corrupt sponsor (Roger Allam), Speed is forced to defy his father (John Goodman) and follow in the footsteps of his disreputable older brother (Scott Porter), threatening his own standing in a series of dangerous, underground races. Along with most of the film’s race sequences, these less-than scrupulous events provide the film’s most exciting moments, and reveal the Wachowskis as not just dynamic, but remarkably efficient filmmakers.

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Watch it with kids or don’t, but understand that Speed Racer was created with them in mind. It’s a film with a heart, and a lesson: through anything and everything, your family will be there for you, and you must be there for them.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Singin’ in the Rain is not a complicated film. Like a circus or a carnival or a baby’s birthday, it bathes you in its technicolor glow with the sole purpose of bringing a smile to your face. Gene Kelly (a remarkably spry 40-year-old Gene Kelly, at that) plays Don Lockwood, a silent film A-lister unsettled in his success and longing for love. He bounces and grins and sings his heart out, enchantingly dedicated to creating a world where three friends doing an animated musical number at one in the morning is perfectly ordinary. And the result is astounding, as Singin’ in the Rain remains, all these years later, a paradigm of pure, effusive joy. The trio of Kelly and co-stars Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds compliment each other beautifully, with each player’s standout talent given its moment in the spotlight, and each performance as effortlessly executed as it is technically incredible. O’Connor is Cosmo Brown, Lockwood’s cartoon of a best friend and fellow Hollywoodite, and a 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds plays Kathy, the doll-faced innocent whose talent and general abundance of personality (relative to 1952) ensorcel the romantic Don Lockwood.

Don and Kathy harmonize their way to a happy ending, and Singin’ in the Rain certainly charms its way into your heart, but the biggest takeaway for a modern audience has to be the joy of watching such deftly executed schmaltz. Like a few other Hollywood relics, this is a high point of an entirely extinct era of film, and remains a thoroughly delightful and utterly timeless flick.