The Quick Spin on Woody, Blue, Blood and Lucy

Here’s a quick rundown on 2 flicks still in theaters (Magic in the Moonlight and Lucy) and 2 on Netflix (Blood Ties and Blue Ruin):

Magic in the Moonlight

Magic in the Moonlight – Woody Allen’s latest is a postcard pretty period-piece set on the sun-splashed French coast and countryside.  Here a renowned magician (Colin Firth) travels to France at the behest of his friend to debunk an American spiritualist (Emma Stone).  The whole film, like Emma Stone (luminously photographed in classic Allen fashion to play up her best features – that red hair, those blue eyes, that mischievous smile) is ridiculously good-looking and light on its feet.  Stone soaks up the sun and Allen’s directorial affections, plumbing her plucky personality to its most glorious depths.  Her performance, which takes on the allure of a subtle silent film starlet, is almost transcendent.  The film, far from Allen’s greatest, is sill a pleasure to watch, and would’ve been forgettable if not for Stone’s classically styled star turn.  Word on the street is she’s signed up for another Allen flick.  Like her character, clever girl.

Bottom Line:  Spin once.  Watch out for Emma Stone’s next Woody.

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Spotlight on the Independent Arts: In the Family

In the Family

With the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down DOMA, it seemed fitting for The Spin’s Spotlight to turn to In the Family – a scrappy but subtle independent film that struggled to find a distributor, was rejected at many festivals, was ultimately released by the filmmaker himself into a smattering of art houses in New York last year where it quietly received some raves (from the late Ebert and the Times) and is now currently available through Netflix.

*SPOILERS AHEAD – this is as much a review of the film as it is a study of the film’s techniques and storytelling style*

Joey Williams (Patrick Wang) is a mild-mannered contractor from a small town in Tennessee.  He lives with Cody (Trevor St John), a fine upstanding middle-school math teacher, and together they raise Cody’s six-year old biological son, Chip (Sebastian Banes), as their son.  Their life couldn’t be more ordinary, more peaceful:  Chip is obsessed with dragons and talks too much, Joey works long hours and always drinks a beer before bed and Cody passionately runs his classroom like clockwork.  They hang out with friends and family, who range from wholeheartedly to awkwardly accepting of this happy little family unit.  They talk.  They laugh.  All is well.  But then Cody dies in a car crash, and Joey is suddenly thrust into a situation where he has no legal standing to keep his son and the only testament left behind is from just after Chip was born and before Cody got together with Joey where Cody left everything (the house, Chip) to his sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew).  Suddenly, in a fit of confusion and poor communication, the sister takes Chip, there’s a restraining order, and Joey’s world comes crashing in on him.

Sounds melodramatic, right?  Sounds like the perfect story for a filmmaker to get on a soapbox, right?  Sounds like someone’s going to take a stand…draw a clear line in the sand, right?  WRONG.  Great care is taken, and great restraint is shown.  Continue reading

The Quick Spin on Pi, Sugar Man, America and Sleaze

Ah, to dine on filmlandia’s smorgasbord and taste the world!  Behold, the treasures and the trash recently uncovered by the Spin that took us to India, the High Seas, South Africa, Detroit, Middle America and the backwoods swamps of the Deep South.

In Theaters:

Stunning visuals make a trip to the theater worthwhile in Life of Pi.

Stunning visuals make a trip to the theater worthwhile in Life of Pi.

Salty Sweet Pi: I was finally able to catch a screening of the much ballyhooed Life of Pi (in 3D no less, which no joke, is used brilliantly in this film and rises far above its typical gimmick status) which means Haneke’s sure to depress Amour is the only Best Picture Oscar nominee I have yet to see.  Adapted from an international best-seller I never bothered with, Ang Lee’s film is a sure-fire visual stunner featuring some of the best use of 3D ever (I especially loved the opening credits and the sinking of the ship sequences).  You’d have to be blind not be enthralled for two hours, but sadly the film is left adrift by surface level discussions on religion and an all too twee “parable/fable” ending.  Continue reading

The Importance of Order in Your Netflix Queue

It’s one of the greatest questions of modern times – is the order in which you place films in your Netflix queue victim to the luck of the drawl or is there a definitive art to this endeavor?

It is what it is, folks!

Sometimes I place movies in my queue I feel I need to watch just to say I watched them (even an amateur film critic like myself has to keep up with the latest releases no matter how bad I know they will be) or that I know will be gleefully awful (hello to you, my laugh-out-loud friend, Hobo With a Shotgun).  But for the most part, I’m pretty selective in my choices and I try to find a balance in how I order my queue so that I have a steady and proportional stream of “I know these will suck” entries mixed with highly anticipated new releases and classics I’ve been long overdue to uncover.

Lately I’ve been struck with a series of disappointments that serendipitously found their way to the top of my queue. Continue reading

Cinematic Culture Clash

I believe it was Chaim Potok who once said something to the effect of “all great literature is about the clashing of cultures.”  In his novel, The Chosen, his insular idea of culture clash was an Orthodox Jewish boy befriending an Hasidic Jewish boy.  I think the same can be said of great cinema, though independent filmmakers often take a more volatile approach.

Below are four films that have passed through my Netflix queue this year that I believe deserve to be singled-out, praised, buzzed about…chosen.  All four are in a way about the clashing or melding of cultures and the effects that has on individuals, and three of the four are from directors with immigrant heritages.  Three of them have a good chance of making my top ten list for 2009, while another (from 2008) is in the running for my top 25 of the decade.  As is often found in independent films, with lower budgets and tighter focus on achieving a personal dream, filmmakers hone in on story and character with often startling results.  Low profile or lost in the shuffle either due to foreign origin or lack of widened stateside distribution, they deserve a larger audience, and those selective cinephiles who routinely uncover them have a duty to pass on the word.  Queue these up, post haste. Continue reading

To Queue or Not to Queue

As tumbleweeds blow through the dust bowls of our nation’s cineplexes — Sunshine CleaningThe Soloist…where are you? — March has become a great time to stack your Netflix queue and catch up on all of the films that slipped through the cracks the previous year.  From the colossal bombs (Blindness, Miracle at St. Anna) to the buzzed about but little seen indie character pieces (Frozen River, I’ve Loved You so Long) to the high-profile curiosities that just didn’t connect (Changeling), the question before us now is:  To Queue or Not to Queue? 

All five films, though vastly different in story, structure and execution, share concurrent themes of people pushed to extremes when faced with societal injustices.  Meanwhile four of the five are galvanized by commanding performances from females in lead roles, and three of those four depict mothers who will stop at nothing to protect their children. Continue reading