REVIEW: When the Game Stands Tall - If Only the Game Was This Easy

by Andrew Johnson

It’s hard to think of a film genre that’s more American than the sports movie. Few other formulas so routinely perpetuate our most idealistic notions about ourselves, boiling down the American Dream of pulling oneself up by the proverbial bootstraps into easy-to-digest stories about winners and losers. Just work hard enough and you’ll be successful, the movies claim. All underdogs can be champions if they just put in the effort. Those other teams (or nations) may be tough, but they don’t have our will to win. The true victors take a hit and get back up.

If only real life was that simple. After over a decade of controversial wars and a growing distrust of our leaders, the American Dream of success through hard work and willpower feels like a tired cliché rather than a realistic possibility. We’re a country beset by economic strife, international conflict, broken health care and education systems, and near-constant reports of violence. It’s only been half a decade since the onset of the Great Recession, and after two controversial presidencies, the political climate is rife with dissent about how best to “get the country back.” The only thing we all seem to agree on is that the bubble has burst. The United States no longer feels like the welcome, prosperous superpower of decades past. What do we do when, after decades of being viewed as the best, we suddenly find ourselves struggling to keep up?

When The Game Stands Tall, the new sports drama from Sony’s Affirm Films (their branch focused on producing films aimed at evangelical Christians), takes an intriguing yet uneven approach to this question.

Grade: C

Click here to read the rest of Andrew’s review.

REVIEW: If I Stay is an All Too Familiar Entry in the YA Genre

by Tomris Laffly

There must be a written rule somewhere that all film adaptations of YA novels have to start with voiceover with muttered wise musings on life by way of introducing the female protagonist to the audience. Wasn’t it just a couple of months ago that another YA novel adaptation, the surprisingly resonant The Fault In Our Stars, arrived on the big screen (making just over $48 million on its opening weekend) with Shailene Woodley reciting voiceover narration?

You really want to care what Mia will choose to do in the end, but If I Stay’s flattened melodrama and lack of any sort of mystery will make sure that you ultimately don’t. So no, this isn’t the teenage version of metaphysical romances like Ghost or Just Like Heaven. Even when you sense (or hope) the film might eventually build up to some sort of emotional timbre, its austere tone lacks depth and a sense of dependability: the dialogue feels stiff and rehearsed, the sentiments are manufactured, and the plot lines are visibly manipulated to get the story from point A to point B.

Grade: C-

Click here to read the rest of Tomris’s review

REVIEW: Jealousy Stars Strong, But Never Delivers On Its Promise

by Amir Soltani

Philippe Garrel’s Jealousy (La Jalousie) opens with a static medium shot of Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant). The young, blond woman’s lips begin to tremble and tears gradually stream down her face. It’s a stunning composition and one that instantly throws us in the emotional whirlwind she is experiencing. Despite the complete absence of background information about her at this point, there’s an immediacy and punch to the scene that sweeps us up. It’s as powerful an opening as one can expect, upon whose promise the film unfortunately never quite delivers.

Grade: C

Click here to read the rest of Amir’s review.

Fight, Not Flight: The Sound and Fury of “Fight the Power” in Do the Right Thing

by Kyle Turner

Twenty-five years ago, Bedstuy erupted in animosity, the kinds that had been quietly building up without much fanfare. All it took was for a trashcan to be thrown into the window of a pizza parlor for much larger issues, one that transcended even the characters in the situation, to be brought to light when they had been largely ignored. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” opens Spike Lee’s seminal film Do the Right Things, a track whose lyrics demand that these issues of racism and inequality in contemporary America be addressed. As it reverberates around the room when one watches it, one can feel that the track, indelible in music and film history, is a call to arms.

Click here for Kyle’s full piece on the classic Spike Lee film.

10 Memorable Closing Shots

by Jake Pitre

There is a particular art to a final shot. Every shot in a film is important — it’s one that didn’t end up on the cutting room floor, so it is inherently significant, though perhaps not extraordinary. Any one of these shots can be truly dazzling in any number of limitless ways. But a film’s final shot requires special consideration. How do you want to leave your audience? How can you summarize what you’ve been trying to say, or should you even try? What do you want people to remember?

James Gray’s most recent film, this year’s The Immigrant with Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, is a great film for many reasons, but it has been rightfully celebrated for its gorgeous, show-stopping closing shot. Without giving it away, one half of the screen is a mirror, the other a window, and there is so much being said in this one brilliant shot. It’s a shot people will remember, as they consider Ewa’s journey going forward, and the fact that hers is one story among many. It’s such a perfect shot that it got me thinking, so here are some of my favorite final shots, excluding some of cinema’s most celebrated ones like those in 2001: A Space OdysseyThe ShiningPsycho, and Casablanca.

Obviously, some spoilers follow.

Click here for Jake’s full list.

Beyond Blaxploitation: A Few Words on James Earl Jones

by Adam W. Hofbauer

As the story goes, “Blaxploitation” began in 1971 with the success of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. The low-budget, X-rated film’s popularity inspired Hollywood to cash in on exploitation films featuring black characters in urban situations. But if we separate Blaxploitation from 1970s black cinema, and recognize both as far more diverse than they are usually given credit for, we have to travel further back in time to find an origin point. And there are few better years to begin than 1967.

The Watts riots and the assassination of Malcolm X both occurred less than two years before, cultural tuning forks depleting the optimism of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Black Panthers were not yet a year old, and yet their birth seemed a natural progression of the era’s growing political nihilism. Martin Luther King Jr. would be killed before the summer of 1968. Robert F. Kennedy would survive him by less than two months. In Hollywood, the old system was failing before the new generation; petulant kids the executives couldn’t understand. The monolithic studios were gone, and the modern blockbuster wouldn’t swim into existence for another ten years. In the interim, creative forces were sparking everywhere, black voices ready to be heard.

Click here to read the rest of Adam’s piece.

REVIEW: Coldwater is Impressively Executed, Until It’s Not

by Anna Tatarska

In Coldwater, indie visual sensitivity and genre intuition unexpectedly meet. The effect is, surprisingly, a rather classic, but skillfully – and tastefully, despite the graphic content – executed drama that tracks the painful blossoming of maturity during a crisis of authority and morality.

Grade: C+

Click here for the rest of Anna Tatarska’s review.

Netflix Weekend 8/15: Lars von Trier and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

by Kevin Ketchum

This week I’ll be highlighting a filmmaker whom I have a much more complex relationship with than previous entries: Lars von Trier. Anyone who knows me know that I’m often hot and cold on his work, feeling that at his best, he’s transcendent, and at his worst, he’s insufferable. His last three films, the self-titled “Depression Trilogy”, often serves as a perfect example of this quality, producing a literal mixed bag of thematic exploration, and more or less capture everything that he believes in. Those three films are AntichristMelancholia, and Nymphomaniac.

Click here for Kevin’s full Netflix column.

Future Panic: Temporal Anxiety in 2014 Films

by Charles Bramesco

In her 2006 text “Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image,” film theorist Laura Mulvey carefully maps out the medium’s obsession with death. Celluloid degrades, film preservation provides a finite but eternal life to dead people, and home-viewing offers the deeply discomfiting ability to bend the film to your will through pause, rewind and fast-forward — all of this is to say the medium’s relationship to time is a complex one. On a cursory glance, it would seem that the top-shelf cinema of 2014 shares Mulvey’s preoccupation with the passage of time. Many of this year’s critically-acclaimed arthouse pictures, as well as a handful of big-budget studio endeavors, have cast an anxious eye towards the future while lamenting an increasingly remote past.

Click here for Charles’s full piece.

REVIEW: The Expendables 3 is a Smooth, Predictable Remix of Past Action Films

by Anna Tatarska

“We’re like children with arthritis,” Sylvester Stallone joked during a press conference in Cannes earlier this May. No offense to the youth, but not many of us “kids” would not be able to do half of what the kick-ass grandpas are doing in The Expendables 3, the latest installment in the franchise, even after months of solid workouts. Despite adding a bunch of muscular, tanned newbies, The Expendables 3 still stands on the wide arms of a whole battalion of legendary action genre heroes. And it is an experience as expected as it is enjoyable.

“It started with a kiss” is how romantic stories often take take off. This one starts with a blast – a classic, blow-it-all-up action sequence with all the fancy props an action-genre fairy godmother could provide. A speeding train, humongous guns, a bit of fist-fighting, and a helicopter dancing in the air swiftly as a well-trained ballerina are all here, leading to a spectacular explosion that ends the reign of doom. The good brutes win, as they always do. But this is just the beginning of their problems. As usual.

“We’re like children with arthritis,” Sylvester Stallone joked during a press conference in Cannes earlier this May. No offense to the youth, but not many of us “kids” would not be able to do half of what the kick-ass grandpas are doing in The Expendables 3, the latest installment in the franchise, even after months of solid workouts. Despite adding a bunch of muscular, tanned newbies, The Expendables 3 still stands on the wide arms of a whole battalion of legendary action genre heroes. And it is an experience as expected as it is enjoyable.

“It started with a kiss” is how romantic stories often take take off. This one starts with a blast – a classic, blow-it-all-up action sequence with all the fancy props an action-genre fairy godmother could provide. A speeding train, humongous guns, a bit of fist-fighting, and a helicopter dancing in the air swiftly as a well-trained ballerina are all here, leading to a spectacular explosion that ends the reign of doom. The good brutes win, as they always do. But this is just the beginning of their problems. As usual.

Click here for the rest of Anna’s review.

Blu Ray Review: Muppets Most Wanted

by Josh Spiegel

In 2011, Jim Henson’s Muppet characters roared back onto the big screen after more than a decade away with Disney’s The Muppets, a moderate box-office success that played on the nostalgic effect of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and co. spending time together again. It’s been less than three years since that film opened, winning a Best Original Song Oscar in the process, but the Muppets still felt the need to convince audiences of their worth with the follow-up Muppets Most Wanted. (The original title, referenced in the bouncy opening number, “We’re Doing a Sequel,” wasThe Muppets…Again, which isn’t a marked improvement, but…literally, the characters champion that title in the first song, and then we get this one instead.) It’s perhaps a bit painful to revisit this joyous and goofy movie on Blu-Ray, because guess what? It turns out the Muppets were right to feel the need to reassert themselves; this film made just over $50 million domestically and floundered with critics.

And yet, in many ways, Muppets Most Wanted is an improvement over its predecessor, precisely because it allows the Muppets to take center stage. (The 2011 film is enjoyable, no doubt, but it turns the original Muppets into supporting characters.) Here, though there are a bevy of cameo performers and three main human actors, they’re all on the sidelines.

Film: A-
Video: A-
Audio: A-
Extras: B+

Click here for Josh’s full review of the underrated Muppet movie.

REVIEW: Life After Beth - Brains, Brains, and No Brains

by Andy Crump

Watching Life After Beth feels an awful lot like watching square pegs being jammed into round holes. On paper, all of the film’s bits and pieces make sense: a dead girlfriend, her insufferably pining boyfriend, shady parents, a case of inexplicable resurrection, a subsequent spree of zombie hijinks. But few of them end up satisfyingly fitting together, no matter how hard the cast and crew try over 80 minutes. The results aren’t bad so much as pitiable. You wish that someone would do the courtesy of performing a mercy killing and putting the film out of its damn misery.

Grade: D

Click here to read the rest of Andy’s negative review.

Five Ways Robin Williams Changed My Life

by Alexander Huls

The role of a teacher, in Dead Poets Society, always struck me as a perfect one for Robin Williams. After all, what is a teacher—like an actor—but someone whose gift finds its natural habitat in front of attentive observers, practiced within the rigidity of one-to-two hour periods? And what is a greatteacher—like a great movie star—but someone who sees their abilities and influence extend beyond the confines of four walls and brief time periods and into the day-to-day lives of those blessed with them? 

It’s certainly what happens to the students of Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society, a film about the ability of one teacher, with an extraordinary gift for understanding and inspiring, to change people’s lives forever. Keating’s wisdoms and encouragements are absorbed like seismic existential shifts in the personal autobiographies of his students. It’s an ability Williams himself possessed to uncanny effect. 

As an actor, Williams was always too big to stay trapped on the screens he appeared on. Not just because of his five-Red Bull rat-a-tat-tat energy, but because—even at his most manic—he felt too familiar, too well known to us to be someone limited to a television or theater screen. They couldn’t contain him. He spilled outwards and inward, leaving us to carry his movies, their sentiments, and—most of all—him with us all the years. 

Click here for Alexander’s full retrospective of the great actor.