David Edelstein

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.

A member of the National Society of Film Critics, he is the author of the play Blaming Mom, and the co-author of Shooting to Kill (with producer Christine Vachon).

The films of Joel and Ethan Coen pose a challenge: How do we reconcile their wildly disparate tones? Consider O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a burlesque of Homer's Odyssey centering on three stumblebums — but with a soundtrack assembled by T Bone Burnett of heartfelt historical gospel and country music. Ditto The Ladykillers: venal idiot characters, soaring African-American spirituals. The ridiculous and the sublime sit side by side, with no spillover.

Spike Lee's movies typically carry the label "A Spike Lee Joint," but Oldboy doesn't. He calls it "a Spike Lee Film," which my guess is Lee's way of saying he's a gun for hire — and that after a line of box office failures and difficulty getting financing for personal projects, he can make a fast, violent action thriller.

And as it happens, he can — a more-than-decent one. But this is also the first time I've come out of a Spike Lee film, bad or good, and not known why it had to be made. It's brutal, effective and utterly without urgency.

Last month, I saw the trailer for Alexander Payne's Nebraska, and only the fact that it was a Payne film made me want to see it.

The premise seemed a dead end: Bruce Dern plays an elderly man named Woody Grant living in Billings, Mont., who gets a letter saying he's won $1 million. All he needs to do is call a number and maybe buy a magazine subscription.

Blue Is the Warmest Color is a lesbian coming-of-age movie, and its long and graphic sex scenes have already generated controversy. The director, Abdellatif Kechiche, is a man, and at least one prominent female critic has accused him of leading with his own libido — a charge that I vigorously dispute, but of course I'm a man so take that as you will. Here's what I saw: a film that captures the intensity of sexual discovery — and dependency — in a way I've never seen. It's 179 minutes, every one of them charged. It's a remarkable experience.

As I watched Robert Redford acting all by himself in the superlative survival-at-sea movie All Is Lost, I suddenly realized why the setup feels so perfect: Redford is most in his element when he's alone.

Most kidnapping melodramas have final scenes — after their climaxes — that are, effectively, throwaways. There are sighs of relief, tearful reunions with families, cameras that dolly back on domestic tableaux to suggest the world has at last been righted.

I think it's telling that in Captain Phillips the most overwhelming scene is after the resolution, in the infirmary of a ship. So much terror and moral confusion has gone down — so much pain — that the cumulative tension can't be resolved by violence. The movie's grip remains strong even when it cuts to black.

In a season in which we're all talking about AMC's phenomenal Breaking Bad and Netflix's elating Orange Is the New Black, Hollywood needs you, your kids and everyone in Europe and China to get out from behind those TV monitors and into theaters. Movie studios are falling behind on compelling narratives. But they can give you what TV can't: absolute, total bombardment.

In phe last decade, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has worked hard to establish himself as a serious actor, and he's been so successful it's easy to forget he came of age in the '90s sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. The guy has comedy chops, and he's exercising them again in a smart new movie he wrote and directed called Don Jon.

Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said is her most conventional comedy since her 1996 debut, Walking and Talking. I don't love it as much as her scattershot ensemble movies Friends With Money and Please Give, but it has enough weird dissonances and hilarious little curlicues to remind you her voice is like no other. I love it enough.

It's easy to make fun of a certain kind of therapeutic language — the kind you hear all through the movie Short Term 12.

That title comes from the name of a group home for abused and/or unstable teens. Early on, a young counselor named Grace (Brie Larson) tells one smart-mouthed kid that "your attitude is not helping either one of us" — which would tend to make her a repressive drag in a typical Hollywood teen picture.

The World's End is a world-shaking, genre-bending, sci-fi comedy, and a splendid capper to what British writer-director Edgar Wright and actor-writer Simon Pegg call their "Cornetto trilogy," for an ice cream they eat on their side of the Atlantic. This one's arguably the best of the three, but who wants to argue over gorgeous satires like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World's End? It's like ice cream flavors: Have them all.

The teen romance The Spectacular Now is by turns goofy, exhilarating, and unreasonably sad — just like being a teenager.

It centers on a fast-talking, hard-drinking high school party animal named Sutter Keely, who boasts of living for today and in the now — instead of, say, studying — and how he takes up with a girl named Aimee, who's the opposite of a party animal.

Another year, another Woody Allen picture, and few agree on whether that's a good thing. For some, he hasn't made an interesting film since Husbands and Wives, maybe even Hannah and Her Sisters. Others think more recent morality plays like Match Point and comic parables like Midnight in Paris prove the old dog still hunts.

Two documentaries, Blackfish and The Act of Killing, are making waves around the world. The first riles you up; the second blows your mind.

"Blackfish" is the Inuits' name for the orca, a creature that they say is worthy of veneration but that you don't want to mess with — the chief example in Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish being Tilikum, responsible for two, possibly three human deaths.

The movie is Tilikum's story — along with the story of other orcas kept in captivity in theme parks like SeaWorld.

The actor Michael B. Jordan gives a major performance in Ryan Coogler's debut film, Fruitvale Station. He plays 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was shot in a run-in with cops at an Oakland, Calif., train stop in the early hours of 2009. The film opens with cellphone footage of the actual event, so you know what's coming. But the Oscar you meet on the last day of 2008 remains a man, not a martyr.

We're at the point when Johnny Depp's dumbest whims can lead to movies costing $200 million. I imagine Depp lying in a hammock on his private island and saying, "I've always wanted to play Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows!" and it's done. Then he says, "I've always wanted to do The Lone Ranger — but as Tonto!" and it, too, gets the green light.

The decade of the 1980s — when major corporations made their presence more felt in Hollywood — was for all kinds of reasons a low point in American moviegoing. But two beacons abroad, Pedro Almodovar and Neil Jordan, reminded us with movies like Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Mona Lisa how films could be personal and still reach a large (or large-ish) audience.

Thirty years later, we have Almodovar's I'm So Excited and Jordan's Byzantium — and these directors are still shining a light.

One word sums up my reaction to Joss Whedon's film of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing: Huzzah!

Here is the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and the director of The Avengers — working with American TV actors who have little or no training in verse-speaking. Who could have predicted such a team would produce the best of all filmed Shakespeare comedies?

The second collaboration between writer-director Zal Batmanglij and actress and co-writer Brit Marling is called The East, which happens to be the name of the movie's anti-corporate terrorist cult. Marling plays Sarah, an agent who infiltrates the group. She doesn't work for the FBI. Her employer is a private security and intelligence firm run by the sleek, profit-oriented Sharon, played by Patricia Clarkson. Its clients are Big Pharma, Big Oil, or Big Rich Any Corporation that, according to the group The East, poisons the world and everyone in it.

Lately I've been re-watching vintage Truffaut movies, and I've been struck by the resurgent influence on American independent films of the French New Wave of the late '50s and '60s.

The Truffaut borrowings are fairly explicit in Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, while Richard Linklater's Before Midnight takes its cues from Eric Rohmer's gentle but expansive talkfests. That's not a criticism: With mainstream movies seeming ever more machine-tooled nowadays, the impulse to reach back to an age of free-form filmmaking feels especially liberating.

Before I tell you about J.J. Abrams' second Star Trek film, with its youngish new Starship Enterprise crew, let me say that just because I've seen every episode of the original Star Trek and of The Next Generation, and most of the spinoff series, and every movie, I'm not a Trekkie — meaning someone who goes to conventions or speaks Klingon or greets people with a Vulcan salute.

The third time might be the charm for some things, but the number three after a movie title is typically shorthand for a deal with the devil.

The studio thinks there's more money to be squeezed from a particular property, and voila: Spider-Man 3, Superman III, The Godfather — God help us — Part III. OK, The Godfather's a special case. Most other threes, though, are what happens when a too-thin plot meets a too-fat budget.

Studios are putting most of their eggs in $100 million baskets these days, even as American independent filmmakers go hungry from lack of mainstream attention. But two of my favorite American indie writer-directors, Jeff Nichols and Ramin Bahrani, have new films with bigger stars than they've had before — films they hope will break through to wider audiences. The results, at least artistically, are impressive.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

The voiceovers from Terrence Malick's To the Wonder, which has a lot of them, are intoned on the soundtrack while the characters stare into sunrises or sunsets — whenever the light is right, what cinematographers call, "the magic hour." This film and Malick's last, The Tree of Life, suggest that he's evolved into a blend of director and Christian minister: These are psalms writ on film.

Mental is madder than madcap. I heard one critic sniff, "It's kind of broad" — and, Your Honor, the defense agrees! But if broad means "unsubtle," it doesn't have to mean "unreal." Mental makes most other movies seem boringly, misleadingly sane.

What surprises me about the ongoing discussion of violence in cinema and whether it influences violence in the real world is how people fail to engage with the male fantasy behind these films. There's a template for them, a theme; it hinges on violation and vengeance. A seminal action picture of the last 50 years is 1988's Die Hard, in which a lone male cop operates behind the scenes after an ingeniously orchestrated foreign attack on American soil. He's symbolically emasculated — he has no gun or even shoes, his wife is now going by her maiden name.

In the '60s, some fervent rock groupies formed a band called the GTOs — short for "Girls Together Outrageously" — and while it didn't last, the name captures the impulse behind stories in which women chafe against the male-centric society that pulls their strings. This week you can see a girls-together-outrageously triple bill: Spring Breakers, Ginger & Rosa and Beyond the Hills.

Oz the Great and Powerful. Say that name aloud and you will smile, I guarantee you: It will conjure up so many images, characters, actors, songs. Then hold that smile as long as you can, because you won't be doing much smiling at the movie called Oz the Great and Powerful, the so-called "prequel" to The Wizard of Oz from Disney Studios.

Pages