The biggest film event of this week is undoubtedly
Silverdocs, the annual celebration of all things
opening Monday at the AFI Silver. We’ll have reviews of
selected films and a roundup of critics’ picks coming soon, but for
now, here are the can’t-miss movies for this weekend.
The fourth feature from indie director Lynn Shelton is the first to feature bona fide star power (in the form of Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt)—and that’s not the only sign that Shelton may be on the verge of becoming a recognizable name herself. The writer/director takes her usually keen ear for natural dialogue (developed through improvisations by her actors), and creates a story that’s insightful and remarkably polished for a film in which so much is off the cuff. Her previous features often had the ragged qualities of microbudget indies, with the shaky handheld cameras and less experienced performers that may keep some viewers away, but this latest is accessible without ever compromising her usual intimacy. The story centers on Jack (Mark Duplass), a bit of a sad sack having trouble processing the grief from his brother’s death a year earlier. He heads to the woods for some time to think, at the behest of his best friend, Iris, who offers up her family’s secluded cabin for his use. But when he arrives, he finds Iris’s sister Hannah there dealing with her own recent loss. Thanks to a bottle of tequila, things become intimate in a hurry between the two former strangers, which creates further complications when Iris shows up the next morning.
Chris D’Arienzo’s 2007 musical told the simple story of a pair of young lovers—one a Midwestern girl newly arrived in LA in 1987 to seek fame as a singer, the other a stage-fright-ridden barback at the Sunset Strip’s hottest rock club with similar aspirations of his own—via the pop metal and power ballads of the day. Adam Shankman, who previously adapted the Broadway version of Hairspray for the big screen, does the same for Rock of Ages. The film’s two forgettable romantic leads are supported by a much sturdier cast that includes Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as the owners/managers of that club, Bryan Cranston and Catherine Zeta-Jones as moral crusaders looking to shut them down, and Tom Cruise as a drunk, spacey, oversexed rock-and-roll giant who provides much of the movie’s comedic fuel as well as the catalyst for much of the plot. If you like jukebox musicals and you’re fond of a nostalgia trip to a time when Whitesnake, Journey, and Bon Jovi ruled the airwaves, there’s probably enough enjoyment here for you to give it a look.
Each summer the Hirshhorn offers up a triple shot of campy, kitschy older titles in its summer camp series, and this year it’s all about babies. The series spans more than 50 years, starting tonight with Baby Face, a racy piece of cinematic pulp from 1933 (before Hollywood introduced the production code that kept movies squeaky clean through most of the mid-century) that features Barbara Stanwyck as a small-town girl looking to make it in New York and not afraid to use whatever talents she has at her disposal to get there. Let’s just say there are a lot of suggestive cutaways to tall buildings when her seductions become even too hot for pre-code standards. That’s followed up next week with Elia Kazan’s 1956 Baby Doll, an adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play about a 19-year-old married woman who teases her older husband—who can’t consummate their marriage until she’s 20—by engaging in a sexualized infantilism that drives him as crazy as the film drove the National Legion of Decency in the ’50s. Things wind up with Johnny Depp’s turn as rebel with a tear “Cry-Baby” Walker in John Waters’s 1990 musical Cry-Baby.
Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest film stars Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas as lovers engaged in an affair, the terms of which are quite specific and dictated by her. He must see her at the same time twice a week at her apartment, and can know nothing of who she is or what she does. Getting away is probably an attractive prospect for Hawke’s character, a writer who’s come to live in Paris to be closer to his daughter but can only find work there employed by the mob in a task as mysterious as the terms of his affair: He sits in a room and pushes a button whenever he hears a bell. As one might expect with all these mysterious dealings, things start to go wrong, and he eventually must attempt to clear his name when accused of a murder he didn’t commit.
It’s been less than a year since the AFI last screened The Princess Bride as part of its ’80s series last summer, and it’s taking advantage of another tie-in (the Peter Falk retrospective) to show the film again. And who can complain? It’s one of those movies that bears repeated viewings thanks to its rare blend of comedy and drama, adventure and sensitivity, and entertainment and artistry, not to mention a practically unmatched quotability factor. The Princess Bride is one of those perfect storms of a movie in which everything happened exactly right in all quarters.
William Goldman’s script, adapted from his own proudly quirky novel, is a rousing adventure, even as it slyly skewers every genre tradition it employs. All those quotable lines are delivered by actors who burn their dialogue into your brain with impeccable timing. All you have to do is say the word “inconceivable” in conversation, and anyone who’s seen the film immediately has a mental video of Wallace Shawn spitting out the word in disbelief. The rest of the cast is pitch perfect, from Mandy Patinkin’s vengeance-seeking Spaniard to Christopher Guest’s cruel six-fingered man to the lovably gruff Falk overseeing the whole thing from Fred Savage’s bedroom. Rob Reiner, in the midst of an impressive directorial run that had started three years earlier with This Is Spinal Tap, displays a light touch that lets the impressive cast and well-crafted script do all the heavy lifting.
Blu-ray/DVD Pick of the Week: Harold and Maude
A huge commercial flop reviled by many critics at the time of its release, Harold and Maude eventually found its audience, who firmly established it as a cult classic light years ahead of its time. In the early ’70s, though, deft gallows humor and overt quirkiness were not as readily accepted by audiences as they might be today. Which may explain why, as the years go by, this film just seems to be more and more well loved.
The film stars Bud Cort as Harold, a death-obsessed 19-year-old with a penchant for staging his own suicide in creative ways to shock his conventionally minded mother. It’s cruel, but Hal Ashby’s film, as is often the case with the director’s work, exists just far enough outside any kind of familiar reality that it just comes across as funny with a bit of added discomfort. Harold runs into the 79-year-old Maude (an unforgettable performance by Ruth Gordon) at a funeral, and the two strike up an unlikely friendship, which, in an even more unlikely development, turns romantic. Sex between characters with a 60-year age gap seems impossible not to play for shock value, but Ashby doesn’t really go there. That’s just one of the many extraordinary things in a film that defies convention in every way imaginable, including its celebration of life even as it takes such a wry look at death.
Special Features: New audio commentary by Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and producer Charles B. Mulvehill; illustrated audio excerpts from seminars by Ashby and writer-producer Colin Higgins; a new interview with songwriter Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens; and a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, a 1971 New York Times profile of star Ruth Gordon, an excerpted interview from 1997 with star Bud Cort and cinematographer John Alonzo, and another from 2001 with executive producer Mildred Lewis.