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BFI London Film Festival 2017 Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete

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BFI London Film Festival 2017: Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete

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BFI London Film Festival 2017: Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete

Though written and directed by Andrew Haigh, Lean on Pete belongs to young actor Charlie Plummer from start to finish. Plummer plays Charley, a poverty-stricken, motherless 15-year-old who moves to Portland, Oregon with his father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), and takes a summer job working with a horse trainer, Del (Steve Buscemi). The boy's life is built around abandonment and tragedy but also a relentless hunger for affection—human or equine. He's immediately taken with the most passive of Del's horses, Lean on Pete, who's described by his grizzled trainer as “a pussy.” From then on, a child-animal bond is formed where child-adult ones have been consistently broken, the horse's increasing incompetence to race working as a kind of guarantee against abandoning the boy, because that which can't run can't run away.

Summer of ’90: Mummies and Gargoyles and Cats, Oh My! Tales from the Darkside: The Movie

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Summer of ’90: Mummies and Gargoyles and Cats, Oh My! <em>Tales from the Darkside: The Movie</em>
Summer of ’90: Mummies and Gargoyles and Cats, Oh My! <em>Tales from the Darkside: The Movie</em>

In horror anthology movies, the probability runs high that one or more tales will be terrible. It’s an affliction to which even the best films aren’t immune. While narrative shifts are expected and tolerated, one bad segment can derail an audience’s patience and goodwill, sending the film into a death spiral more horrific than anything depicted on screen. Filmmakers used to better their odds by limiting the number of tales being told, or better yet, by crafting their anthologies in the guise of episodic television, where the nature of the beast is measured in terms of a series rather than a single-sitting entity.

Tales from the Darkside plays both sides of this fence; before it made a beeline for the big screen, it ran for four seasons in syndication. Perhaps all that practice on TV made the filmmakers keep its three tales just about even in the quality department. Each mini-movie has the same tally of moments of greatness, grossness, and dullness, giving Tales from the Darkside: The Movie an even-handed feel. Plus, this being a horror film, viewers watching from a future point in time can enjoy spotting the newbie actors who became stars later on, and others whose stars of fame were quickly descending into obscurity.

Berlinale 2014 Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

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Berlinale 2014: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Berlinale 2014: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Obnoxiously, David and Nathan Zellner bill themselves as “The Zellner Brothers.” It offhandedly suggests Joel and Ethan Coen before Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a film that deliberately suggests the work of the Coens, even begins. Opening on a fuzzy, out-of-focus title card reading, in part, “This is a true story,” the film carefully builds its core mystery. The titular sullen twentysomething (Rinko Kikuchi) works days as a secretary in Tokyo: showing up late, less perky than her colleagues, ritually spitting in her boss’s tea. In her own time, she follows arcane maps to secret caves, retrieving buried VHS tapes. Those tapes contain a secret, an oblique chart pointing to a hidden treasure.

No use belaboring it: Kumiko is looking for the buried briefcase in the Coens’ Fargo, the one a bloodied Steve Buscemi buries along a North Dakota highway, marked with a red ice scraper. Convinced she’s located the “treasure,” Kumiko tearfully bids goodbye to her pet bunny rabbit, steals her boss’s corporate credit card, and heads to Minnesota, en route to Fargo.

Summer of ‘88: Vibes

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Vibes</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>Vibes</em>

This past June, 59-year-old Cyndi Lauper—an enduring and consistently surprising presence on the American pop-music scene—won a Tony award for her score to the Broadway musical Kinky Boots. The accolade was a remarkable achievement for the Queens, N.Y. native, particularly given that it was for her debut in the medium. But let us flash back 26 years to 1987 when Lauper, then known primarily as a peppy, kooky pop singer with a string of hits behind her, was gearing up for a debut of a different sort. She’d been cast in her first acting role, in Vibes, a high-concept comedy about a pair of hapless psychics who travel to Ecuador in order to help a shady figure obtain a mystical golden relic. Unfortunately, unlike Kinky Boots, the outcome wasn’t particularly rewarding.

The portents were ominous from the beginning. Dan Aykroyd was cast as the male lead, but bailed because he felt uneasy about Lauper’s intuitive acting style. As Lauper recalls in her 2012 memoir: “We did a reading together…I was totally green, and nobody told me how to do it. And when Dan saw what I did, I guess he felt my approach was just wrong and he kept saying, ’How are you going to talk to your spirit guide?’” Aykroyd was replaced by Jeff Goldblum, but another setback followed when original director Ron Howard, who’d recently hit big with Splash and Cocoon, suddenly dropped out, leaving relative rookie Ken Kwapis (Follow That Bird) to take over.

Summer of ‘88: Call Me - Orange You Glad You Came?

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Call Me</em> - Orange You Glad You Came?
Summer of ‘88: <em>Call Me</em> - Orange You Glad You Came?

The poster for Call Me is full of sexy promises. It prominently displays a dame’s gorgeous gams, one bent and one elevated. Both are wrapped in a long, curly telephone cord that salaciously travels the length of female real estate. The eyes can’t help but traverse that cord. Into the poster it comes, going around the calf and across the thigh. It ventures between the bend behind the knee that no lover should ignore before making its exit over the ankle and dangerously close to an elevated high-heel shoe. Positioned between the legs is a pink switchblade and the orange from which it has just carved a small, obscene sliver. This juicy fruit is positioned so the viewer can see the suggestive slit in it. “Her fantasies can be fatal,” the tagline warns, reminding us that nobody can enjoy fucking without consequence in American cinematic smut. The title, complete with punctuation, beckons the horny reader with its bold, typewritten font: “Call me.” Naughtiness should ensue if you obey, n’est-ce pas?

By now, you should know that such advertising tawdriness can only lead to tears of disappointment. Call Me is a wrong number on all accounts. It plays as if someone saw the poster and, inspired by its visual elements, wrote a terrible screenplay. The title should have been Call Me: Based on the Poster Pushed by Sapphire, the Vestron Pictures Marketing Lady. You can almost hear the director, Sollace Mitchell, yelling, “Don’t forget the orange!” to screenwriter Karyn Kay. That orange is the only memorable aspect of the film. Since it plays a dirty, yet crucial role, I will gleefully spoil its appearance for you later.

SXSW 2013: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and V/H/S/2

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SXSW 2013: <em>The Incredible Burt Wonderstone</em> and <em>V/H/S/2</em>
SXSW 2013: <em>The Incredible Burt Wonderstone</em> and <em>V/H/S/2</em>

Another opening-night gala screening, another crapshoot. Two years ago, South by Southwest gave the red-carpet treatment of Duncan Jones’s entertaining time-travel thriller Source Code, but last year Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s irritatingly snarky horror-genre deconstruction The Cabin in the Woods got the top honor, and now this year we have The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, which, in spite of a nasty concluding punchline, can’t even claim the kind of cleverly subversive comic gusto The Cabin in the Woods has in abundance—for better and for worse.

2011 Primetime Emmy Winner Predictions

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2011 Primetime Emmy Winner Predictions
2011 Primetime Emmy Winner Predictions

On September 18, Bryan Cranston will not win his fourth trophy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, as Breaking Bad’s fourth season fell outside the award show’s eligibility period—and if you think that bodes well for the AMC program’s chances for Outstanding Drama Series in 2012, remember that Mad Men’s much-delayed fifth season is still slated to fall within the upcoming Emmy calendar. Standing to gain from Cranston’s absence is always-a-bridesmaids John Hamm—unless Steve Buscemi’s Golden Globe and SAG victories earlier this year, and the chillier-than-Mad Men Boardwalk Empire’s surprise showing at the Creative Arts Emmys last weekend—weren’t just flukes of nature. A three-time winner for Outstanding Drama Series, Mad Men may have to move over for the new HBO prestige drama on the block, and if Betty White doesn’t win her 3,897th Emmy for acting saucier than your grandmother, that may be enough for this Sunday’s telecast to go down as the Year of the Passing of the Guard. Below, my predictions in a handful of the major categories—brought to you with less than my usual dash of wish-fulfillment.

Through Fresh Eyes: Monster House, Cars, and the Evolution of CG Animation

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Through Fresh Eyes: <em>Monster House</em>, <em>Cars</em>, and the Evolution of CG Animation
Through Fresh Eyes: <em>Monster House</em>, <em>Cars</em>, and the Evolution of CG Animation

We are in a golden age of cinema right now—the golden age of computer-generated (CG) animation. Every year brings a new breakthrough in technology or storytelling. It is fast coming into its own as an art form with an ability to take well-worn film genres—plus bits of grammar and technique refined over a century—and make it all seem new again, simply by translating it into a new medium. Already Pixar is building a body of work than rivals Disney in its pioneering heyday (the 30’s and 40’s); and there are now so many new CG animated features released each year that when we go to see one in a theater, all the previews are for other movies of the same ilk.

Pixar’s Cars and Sony’s Monster House were the two that stood out this summer, and I was much more impressed with the latter. A basic haunted house story that’s way too scary for tots, Monster House held me almost to the end, when its need to hit all the notes of a conventional action/suspense climax finally wore me down a little.

The title structure is a demonic eyesore in an otherwise pleasant suburban neighborhood, situated on a lot right across the street from our young hero D.J. (voiced by Mitchel Musso). All the neighborhood kids are frightened to play near it; if they lose a basketball or even so much as set foot on its lawn, old man Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) will storm out, (“Get away from my house!”) shoo them away and punish their trespassing by stealing any toys they leave behind. When D.J. thinks that sole proprietor Nebbercracker has died from a heart attack, he becomes convinced (and rightly so) that the house is angry and wants to punish him. It’s Halloween eve and D.J.s parents are away on a trip. Under the not so watchful eye of babysitter Zee and her beer-swilling loser of a boyfriend Bones (wonderfully voiced by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jason Lee), D.J. enlists the aid of best friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) and new girl Jenny (Spencer Locke) to help him destroy the house.

The Sopranos Recap: Season 6, Episode 7, "Luxury Lounge"

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<em>The Sopranos</em> Recap: Season 6, Episode 7, “Luxury Lounge”
<em>The Sopranos</em> Recap: Season 6, Episode 7, “Luxury Lounge”

If the first six episodes of this season felt like a voyage into unexplored territory, Sunday night’s Sopranos episode felt like a return to familiar stomping grounds—specifically those stretches of Season Two and Three when you felt pretty sure that David Chase and his writers were trying to run out the clock a bit while they figured out how to stage the mandatory season-ending string of whammies.

Written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Danny Leiner, this episode, titled “Luxury Lounge,” wasn’t unwatchable. It had unifying emotional threads, specifically envy and its twin, resentment. Diverse groupings of social strivers directed those feelings toward higher-ups on the food chain (aspiring Hollywood player Chris Moltisanti flying to L.A. to bag Ben Kingsley and becoming obsessed with the swag handed out to the sorts of people he dreams of emulating; failing restaurant owner Artie Bucco resenting Tony Soprano and the freelancing mob goons who were robbing him in a credit card scam) while the powerful expressed indifference or condescension toward those beneath (Kingsley’s wary rebuffs to Hollywood parasites; Tony realizing the depth of Artie’s despair too late to halt its consequences). All in all, though, the hour still felt slack and formulaic. (Admittedly that may seem an odd complaint, considering that last week’s episode, “Live Free or Die,” struck many viewers as meandering and uneventful—but I thought it was the year’s second most suspenseful episode, after “Join the Club.”)