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Cruel Intentions (1999)
Holds up well
So, they're making a TV series? I'm skeptical of how well that's going to work. I also understand why this movie polarizes people. At its worst, its manipulations are about as obvious as its antihero's. We're talking about a pretty slick piece of work, for better and for worse.
At its best, though: I'm legitimately moved, and I also laugh quite a bit along the way. Even with no Malkovich (Malkovich Malkovich) in this incarnation, it's still one of my favorite not-THAT-guilty soap-opera pleasures. I pretty much need to watch it at least every five years.
It's arch, campy fun that occasionally manages to be more, it's beautifully shot, and its soundtrack is brilliant -- especially the opening tone-setter from Placebo (despite the harsh edit), Aimee Mann's contribution, and a song by Counting Crows that is actually really good.
If the series can rise to at least 3/4 of this level, I'll probably at least DVR it.
What a letdown
I jumped at the chance to watch "Helix," especially because it's not as though we're drowning in great TV sci-fi at the moment. Zombie movies meet "The Andromeda Strain" with a bit of "The Thing" thrown in? Count me in! And for a few episodes, it really did seem as though it might become the diamond in SyFy's rough.
Unfortunately, "Helix" to date has failed to live up to its potential. By the end of the first season, the familiar sci-fi/horror tropes that served as a promising setup have become a stronger prison than its isolated setting. Where tension should be building, the story instead begins to run out of steam, with each new threat and cliffhanger somehow less compelling than the last. Questions are answered, but the answers aren't as interesting as they could be, and most of them fail to produce new questions that might take the story in unexpected directions. And while a few characters may hint at multidimensionality, others do things that they simply would not do -- solely for the sake of manufacturing drama, and with little sign that we might learn something about them later that would justify it.
By the time the final "big bad" of the season (who felt more like a reject from the "Harry Potter" franchise) arrived to walk us through most of the same plot points the previous one did, I was gritting my teeth to make it through the finale. I'm glad for the sake of its more devoted fans that "Helix" was renewed, but I don't see myself sticking around for the second season.
Beautiful funny thing
20+ years after I first saw it, this remains one of my favorite films of all time. Hal Hartley's second feature is built around the same deliciously weird sense of humor as his debut "The Unbelievable Truth" -- even if the balance here tilts a bit more toward (melo)drama than comedy. Hartley has been known to explain that he felt almost as though he put Adrienne Shelly's character on a pedestal in that first film, and wanted to explore the darker implications of that.
Shelly herself (RIP) is even better this time around, and in place of Robert Burke, we now get Martin Donovan as one of the more intense, flawed, and ultimately lovable romantic leads you'll ever see on film. (I almost put quotes around "romantic," because this is not really a love story in the traditional "does the guy get the girl" sense. It's more interesting than that.) Donovan would go on to appear in five additional Hartley films, even playing Jesus Christ in the terrific featurette "The Book of Life," but none of those roles is more iconic than this one.
Between the characters and the dialogue, Hartley and his cast created something here that is wonderfully unique, humorous, and poignant. Think _Sex, Lies and Videotape_, sort of: while the writer-directors have different voices, there's that same sense of careful economy, and of wondering whether these two messed-up people are ever going to get their acts together -- and cheering them on either way.
Free Samples (2012)
Unexpectedly charming and fun
Based in part on a worryingly low IMDb rating, I went into "Free Samples" with some hesitance, but to my surprise it ended up as the highlight of the Palo Alto International Film Festival for me in terms of sheer entertainment value. It reminded me a great deal of a Sundance favorite from a few years back, "Smiley Face" with Anna Faris, due both to its snarky but ultimately sweet sense of humor and the wonderfully expressive and funny things that lead actress Jess Weixler is able to so with her face and her delivery. It's the kind of quirky -- I think one may in fact be required by law to use that word when reviewing films like this -- comedy about not all that much that understandably will rub some viewers the wrong way, but it's executed with so much giddy confidence (especially for a first feature) that it had me from the first minute and held onto me for all of the rest. Director Jay Gammill mentioned at the Q&A that he's currently working on a second feature with the same screenwriter. I'm looking forward to it.
Poetic and quietly extraordinary
Of the three dozen films I managed to see at Sundance this year, "Old Partner" was my favorite, despite some extremely tough competition. It took me completely by surprise and left me wondering how on earth it came about. (First-time director Chung-ryoul Lee wasn't present for a Q&A, so I wasn't able to ask.) I don't see it getting any kind of significant distribution in the U.S., but I'm hoping against hope that I'm wrong.
I mean, seriously: why would you make a documentary about a South Korean farmer, his oddly lovable harpy of a wife, and their ox, as the three of them approach the ends of their lives together? I have no idea, but this film made me laugh and cry and recall once again (just in case I was in any danger of forgetting) how astonishing the medium of film can be in the right hands.
For the Bible Tells Me So (2007)
Deserves to reach beyond the converted
I'd have to agree with the previous reviewer who has pointed out that most of those who will watch this film are already on board with its powerful argument against discrimination. Yet that's no fault of the film itself -- and maybe, just maybe, it will stick around and change a few minds. Mr. Karslake and Ms. Mendoza have my tremendous respect.
Tomorrow, my state will vote on whether we will or will not cancel the right of two men or two women to marry, in the form of a constitutional amendment. It will be agonizingly close. After catching it at Sundance, I watched this film again last night in the comfort of my home, just to remind myself of what's at stake.
One way or another, the tide is turning. It will not be an easy win, but nothing worth fighting for ever is.