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Author: Lisa Schwarzbaum (1-10 of 151)

Lisa Schwarzbaum on loving movies, being a critic, engaging with you, and the beauty of agreeing to disagree

Lisa-Schwarzbaum

Fourteen years after the fact, I still occasionally hear from readers angry that I didn’t like Fight Club. Four years later, I still occasionally receive messages from people upset that I liked The Twilight Saga: New Moon too much. Eight weeks since opening day, both lovers and haters of Les Misérables still have a thing or two they want to tell me about my review. I’ve spent 22 years at Entertainment Weekly, 19 of them as a critic—a glorious tenure that ends this week. And I’ve heard from hundreds of readers fired up about movies and passionate enough to respond to something I’ve written in the magazine’s pages or online.

Often the mail has been gratifying: I love that too! I hated that as much as you did! Sometimes the messages have been harsh: You suck! EW should get rid of Lisa! (Passing fun for the writer but crap for me, you-suckgrams have become a depressingly regular aspect of anonymous, online comment-board culture.) The pissed-off wife of a wildly successful producer of high-octane action schlock once sent me a popcorn bucket filled with stones because…well, I’m not sure why, something about throwing stones at her husband’s work. Anyway, she wanted to remind me that, while her beloved’s pictures rake in billions, my stuff would be gone in 60 seconds. On the flip side, I once received an effing cool email from Josh Brolin telling me, and I quote, “You can f—ing write!” and promising to be in my movie. Not that I have any plans whatsoever to write a screenplay.

A writer always wants to feel she’s connecting with readers. And certainly, agreeing with me or disagreeing with me is a heartfelt form of engagement. But as I move away from regular criticism for EW (my plans include a book, an online project, speaking engagements about popular culture—oh, and a dog!), here’s a party favor I want to leave you with: What matters is not if we’re in sync about a particular movie but why.

My part of the conversation is to use my own experience, analytic ability, aesthetic understanding, points of reference, writing skills, and—lucky me!—EW platform to explain how I come to, say, adore the Lord of the Rings trilogy or despair of the hideous Saw sensibility. (I even explained carefully why I was giving away the ending of Pay It Forward—but some readers went into a hate-mail rage nonetheless. Seen it lately, by the way? I didn’t think so. It’s still hideous hooey.) Your mission is to read with an open mind, watch movies with an open mind, and use the places where we diverge as inspiration for an ongoing conversation about this ever-changing medium we love together.

Grades, stars, thumbs, and assorted icons are inevitably crude, if handy, quantifiers of quality—they’re shorthand, attention-getting invitations to the party. Once we’ve both shown up, though, let’s have a good time pondering both the complexities of Django Unchained and the simplicities of A Good Day to Die Hard. Because then we’ll never run out of things to say to one another.

So keep exploring. Keep responding. And just so you know: The experience of talking with you for two decades has been A+.

Sundance 2013: 'Fruitvale,' 'Before Midnight,' and the same-sex sexytime of 'Concussion'

Before the awards are given out tonight at Sundance 2013, I’ve got three of my own to bestow, to movies that have stayed in my mind in the days since I traded the relatively balmy cold mountain air of Park City, Utah, for the frigid wilds of the Northeast.

The first award, for The Best Drama Most Likely to Break Your Heart, goes to Fruitvale — which, I’ll wager, will win other, more official awards later today too. This vivid, fast-moving, fired-up story propels forward with truth in its engine: In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, a young Bay Area African-American man named Oscar Grant was killed by a white cop’s bullet at the Fruitvale train station. Grant wasn’t a saint, but he wasn’t a sinner, either — just a guy with a live-in girlfriend and a young daughter, trying to figure out how to do right and stay away from doing wrong.

The high achievement of Fruitvale, by first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler (an African-American son of the Bay area himself ) lies in the way Coogler shapes his story, dramatizing the last day of Grant’s life as a means of conveying character; in the energy and immediacy of the no-nonsense visual style; and in the fine cast he put together. Michael B. Jordan earns his movie-star stripes as Grant; the magnificent Octavia Spencer commands her part of the story as Grant’s mother; Melonie Diaz brings Grant’s girlfriend to full life. I hope Coogler has more stories he feels he needs to tell as urgently as he tells this one. READ FULL STORY

Sundance 2013: 'Computer Chess' wins the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize (as well it should)

I’m no psychic. But the minute I saw Andrew Bujalski’s sweet/geeky/playful/pointyheaded drama Computer Chess, I knew it would win the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, a cool-brainiac award from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that comes with a $20,000 huzzah for an independent film project that, in the words of the foundation press release, explores “science and technology themes or that depict scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in engaging and innovative ways.” I knew Computer Chess would win, first because most other films at Sundance this year explore relationships and sexytime themes rather than stories featuring scientists. And second because, in the guise of messing around with the limitations of PortaPak video aesthetics and technology circa 1980, Bujalski (the mumblecore pioneer who made Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, and Beeswax) gets at something deep and true about the nature of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and the young nerds of every generation who go on to invent the stuff that changes the lives of all the rest of us.

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Sundance 2013: Anita Hill and the power of telling the truth

There exists today a whole generation of young women who weren’t born when Anita Hill, a young African-American law professor, sat facing a phalanx of 14 white, middle-aged-to-oldie U.S. senator.s and testified in a Senate Judiciary Hearing scheduled over Columbus Day weekend in 1991. Composed and patient, she described to her interrogators – as well as to all of America, riveted in front of the TV –  the sexual harassment she had received in the past from then-Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas. For that new generation of young women, as well as for all who remember the stunning event and recognize the important changes her bravery brought about in the awareness of workplace gender equality, the documentary ANITA makes for rapt viewing.

In the twenty years since those hearings, presided over by then-Delaware Senator Joe Biden, Anita Hill has become, apparently to her own surprise, a feminist heroine, in demand as an inspirational speaker. Filmmaker Freida Mock spends a lot of time with today’s Ms. Hill, interviewing her as well as trailing after her as she gives speeches and receives awards. That part’s okay, if all over the place. The archival footage, on the other hand, is powerful, and stirring, and more than a little shocking, too: Here is one woman, stepping into a mess of political, racial, and sexual power plays, and not only retaining her dignity but also, it turns out, leading a revolution that the men who were grilling her couldn’t begin to understand had begun.

Nice detail: Ms. Hill brings the now-famous blue dress she wore to her grilling out of the closet. Other nice detail: It’s thrilling to watch ANITA at Sundance on a weekend that happens to fall before the confluence of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day and the inauguration of re-elected President Barack Obama.

Sundance 2013: Daniel Radcliffe and Joseph Gordon Levitt do good work (but not together)

Both have been famous since there were kids. Each is making smart, interesting career choices. And on the first full day of Sundance 2013, their latest projects aired back-to-back, making for an exceedingly satisfying Sundance-y day-into-night.

Radcliffe plays Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, and before you say, what, didn’t James Franco take care of that assignment pretty recently in Howl?, the answer is, this expressive, jazzy, ambitious movie by John Krakidas is something else entirely. In dramatizing a dark, hidden sidebar in the burnished history of Ginsberg and the Beat Generation – a murder entangling Ginsberg with William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, their charismatic Columbia University muse Lucien Carr, and Carr’s obsessed admirer David Kammerer – the filmmaker explores the challenges both of artistic revolution as well as sexual honesty. The cast has turned over during the years Krokidas worked on it, but luck and fate have worked in the filmmaker’s favor: In addition to Radcliffe (who first expressed interest in 2008), Dane DeHaan is hot and dangerous as Carr, Ben Foster burrows into Burroughs, Jack Huston seduces as Jack Kerouac, and Michael C. Hall is just the right combo of desperate/creepy/lovelorn as Kammerer. The movie – stylish-looking on a shoestring budget – makes fab use of music, from “Lili Marlene” to TV On the Radio.  And Radcliffe – hair permed into Ginsbergy college curls, full of vitality – holds the emotional center as a young artist in art and in life.

Meanwhile, in a sex tale of quite another color, Joseph Gordon Levitt writes, directs, and stars in Don Jon’s Addiction, an improbably entertaining and kind-hearted comedy about a specimen of New Jersey manhood – played by the filmmaker himself – who beds plenty of ladies, but gives his heart (and other parts) first and foremost to online porn. 

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Image Credit: Thomas Kloss

Scarlett Johansson – comedienne! — channels a soupçon of Jersey gum-chewing doll and a dash of Judy Holliday to turn into the real-life girl of his (objectified) dreams who’s out to domesticate him; Julianne Moore is the earthy older woman (!) who teaches him what love’s got to do with it. Gordon Levitt goes broad in Joizy accent, in jokes based on stereotype, in sexual politics – but he does it with such good cheer that he leaves viewers with a happy ending.

 

Sundance 2013: Michael Cera charms in 'Crystal Fairy'

What is illustrious Arrested Development alum Michael Cera doing on a Chilean beach, tripping on hallucinogenic cactus juice with a band of South American brothers while a blithely nekkid Gaby  Hoffmann cavorts nearby? Beats me, but I’m glad he’s there. Crystal Fairy — the title refers to the name preferred by Hoffmann’s New Age-y character — tastes a little of Y tu mamá tambien, with its sandy ramble of an outing. (That in itself is a good thing.) But the flashes of absurdist humor, druggy space-time perceptions, and low-keyed empathy are the bright work of New York-based Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva. (Seek out his 2009 Sundance award-winner The Maid — so good.) It’s no accident that Cera’s character, a cloddish, insensitive American guy out for an exotic (and low-budget) South American Adventure, keeps referring to The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley’s account of his own drug-induced revelations that inspired generations of college-age seekers to turn on and tune in. Crystal Fairy is shot through with sharp, fleeting insights about beauty, spontaneity, and the human hunger to connect. Plus, at the old-man age of 24, Cera has honed his expressive deadpan — shading from incredulity to aggression to bewilderment and back to comedic — to even more mature advantage, and the director recognizes the extra laughs of putting such a grating gringo in among gentler Spanish-speaking locals. Hoffmann, meanwhile, wanders around in the altogether with phenomenal hippie aplomb.

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Toronto Film Festival: 'The Master' towers, 'Cloud Atlas' wanders all around the galaxy, and other updates

Nothing else I’ve seen in my time at TIFF approaches the strange power of The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson’s unsettling meditation on the elements that shape a man’s nature is thorny and difficult and towering, with a great, almost frighteningly intense performance by Joaquin Phoenix. It’s yet another striking, consuming work of movie art from one of the most important filmmakers in action today. READ FULL STORY

Toronto Film Festival: 'The Place Beyond the Pines' starring Ryan Gosling: Maybe it's not you, it's me

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It’s rare these days to be able to walk into the screening of a new movie knowing little except the most basic information. Settling in for the premiere of The Place Beyond the Pines, all I knew was that the picture reunites director Derek Cianfrance and his Blue Valentine star Ryan Gosling. I knew it also stars Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes (and I’m a big fan of all three). I knew the production was shot entirely in upstate New York, because a friend in the area told me she was tickled to catch a glimpse of Cooper during the shoot. Plot outline, genre, even running time? I sat happily ignorant as the theater lights went down.

Then came trouble. Five minutes in, my internal bullpoop detector began setting off a faint alarm. A very long two hours and twenty minutes later — after the fate and legacy of Gosling’s motorcycle stunt-rider-turned-bank-robber linked up fully with the fate and legacy of Cooper’s conflicted cop who ends the robbery spree — the clang of hooey! deafened me with its reverb. I’m just one opinionator; my colleague Dave Karger has already shuffled the performances into his deck of Oscar contenders, and critical praise is arriving from other quarters. But until you click in search of a happier review, I’m going to analyze a few  elements of pretention in what looks and sounds to me for all the world exactly like a Sundance movie on Toronto steroids.

–First sign of trouble: tattoos. Art directors and a certain breed of cool younger actors love them, but, seriously guys, they don’t convey toughness; they convey lazy character development and/or actorly affectation. Playing a dead-end drifter named Luke, Gosling sports a dagger-and-tear design under his left eye, spidery writing on his neck, and stupid-ass designs up and down his arms and torso. He also favors bleached-platinum hair, a cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips as he mumbles in a pained-life monotone, a wardrobe of (expertly) distressed tee shirts worn inside out, and a repertory of long, wordless, opaquely placid stares that mask a capacity for psychopathic violence. For those who saw Gosling’s soulful-loner performance in Drive, this riff is a rerun. All decked out in art-directed grunge, Gosling’s Luke remains an arbitrary cypher.

–Second sign of trouble: Luke’s temporary residence is a trailer in the woods. This signifier of low social strata is particularly attractive to indie filmmakers who have never lived in trailers in the woods, and don’t understand that such set-decorated habitats and hideaways have little to do with what life is really like for young dead-enders in these United States.

–Third sign of trouble: Yet another night-shift diner waitress job with which the struggling single mother (Mendes) earns meager money to feed her year-old son. Is there no other job in the movie universe for attractive struggling single mothers? (Wasn’t that Carey Mulligan’s gig in Drive?)

–Fourth sign of trouble:  Lousy, only-in-the-movies police work. Let’s just say, spoiler free, that unlike Cooper’s cop, a police officer on duty in a squad car would never be traveling without a partner as he chases  an obviously dangerous suspect.

–Fifth sign of trouble: Ray Liotta as a cop who’s both rotten and threatening. Really? In this day and age? Yet again?

I could go on, clucking at various directorial moves that draw attention to the direction rather than the material — the opening tracking shot, pretty and meaningless, is one place to start. But I’ll finish up with a ding of the uh-oh bell for the distractions offered by a portentous-sounding score, with its steady bass rumble of subliminal existential unease. At least I think that’s what the rumble is supposed to suggest. A pumped-up exercise in genre and a playground for big acting gestures rather than a a story told with conviction about characters worth caring about, The Place Beyond the Pines represents the kind of inauthentic indie-style American movie that has established itself as “cool” and manly-intimate today.

Toronto 2012: 'Argo' and 'The Gatekeepers' get the festival off to an exciting start

At this year’s Toronto Film Festival — branded acronymously as TIFF — it’s possible to devour a big chunk of the upcoming movie season in the course of eight crazy days and nights. I’m talking about the prestige stuff, the awards bait, the grown-up menu. Jammed and overlapping, the schedule allows a caffeinated venue-hopper to gulp down The Master, Argo, Cloud Atlas, The Place Beyond the Pines, Silver Linings Playbook, Hyde Park on the Hudson, To the Wonder, Great Expectations… and I’m sure I’m missing a jumble of other titles. READ FULL STORY

'The Dark Knight Rises': The most disturbing aspect of the on-screen violence

I don’t think the comic-book violence embedded in Batman movie mythology caused  the horrible movie-theater killing spree in Aurora, Colo., turning mass excitement at the first showing of The Dark Knight Rises into mass terror. Assault weapons and a mountain of ammunition, pathetically easy and legal for an average American evil madman to obtain, did that. While the attack took place at a suburban multiplex on a summer’s night, the same horror could have been unleashed somewhere else — a baseball stadium, a shopping mall, a music arena, any place we gather as a group, feeling trusting and fortunate.

I do think, though, that a very specific kind of bullet-free brutality employed at length in TDKR ought to disturb viewers a lot more than it does. This desensitization has been on my mind since I saw the movie, and it bothers me now, even as the weekend is filled with debate, yet again, about American gun laws. The physical, hand-to-hand ferocity with which Batman and his latest nemesis, Bane, try to kill one another is documented at such length, and with such lavish visual and aural attention paid to pain and bone crushing, that, even within comic-book superhero parameters, it’s an agony to watch. Or at least it should be.

It’s no secret that, aside from his plan to pitch Gotham City into anarchy using weapons of mass destruction, Bane is, personally, a monstrous thug. Just look at the guy! His flesh tank of a body is built to withstand pummeling that might cripple your average villain, and Bane is capable of delivering damage so intense that, for a time, Batman is truly out of commission. This vulnerability is meant to parallel the good guy’s own existential exhaustion, etc. etc. etc., yet the rain of oofs and pows had me flinching for so long that at some point I became inured. And then angry. Why is this exhibition in our faces? Why must we look?

To complain about oofs and pows in a movie about superheros and supervillains is arguably silly. I get it, that’s what these stories have been built on since the first kerSPLAT sound effect was inked on a pulpy page. We know the difference between what can break a real human body and what make-believe beings can endure. Yet the pitiless determination with which these drawn-out scenes of human-scale violence have been so carefully, even obsessively, staged and filmed in this comic-book production, built on the scale of a modern epic, kind of broke my spirit. And my heart.

This weekend, as millions of hearts across the country are broken in the wake of such extreme real violence, I feel like I never want to see another orchestration of fictional oof ever again. How about you?

Follow Lisa at @lisaschwarzbaum

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