Monday, January 30, 2012

The Netflix Files: January 23-29

Farewell, My Concubine (1993) dir. Kaige Chen
It may span an butt-numbing 171 minutes, but thankfully Kaige Chen's acclaimed cross-over hit earns every minute. This is a big film that tells a big story, starting in 1924 and ending in 1977, yet no time or period feels short-changed. For a film to cover the life of one character is impressive. Chen's film covers three. Filled with memorable characters, excellent performances (including a very young Gong Li), and stunning production values, Chen's film smartly navigates the expansive timeline, grounding each period of Chinese history just enough to make sure that it all sticks. At times the characters can feel a bit like they're being maneuvered and manipulated to achieve somewhat mechanical dramatic ends, but the overall achievement is more than worth a look, because it works as a character drama, a romance, and a big slice of complicated Chinese history, all while remaining coherent.

Grade: B+/A-

You Can Count on Me (2000) dir. Kenneth Lonergan
It took a distressingly long time for Lonergan's second film, Margaret, to hit theaters, only to be seen by virtually no one. After taking a look at his directorial debut, it really seems like a shame, because if You Can Count on Me is any indication, Lonergan is one of the most promising directors out there. Filled with moments of tenderness, anger, cruelty, and joy, the writer/director's exploration of family ties between a divorcee (Laura Linney) and her unreliable brother (Mark Ruffalo) has an undeniably authentic feel to it the whole way through. Linney and Ruffalo have an instant brother-sister chemistry from their first appearance together, and the way the film gives both characters their fair share of examination creates the feeling that you know these people inside and outside. The only element that feels off is Matthew Broderick as Linney's new boss, though this has more to do with the actor's performance than Lonergan's writing. He's the one part of the film that doesn't feel entirely authentic, although ultimately it's easy to ignore, particularly when scenes like Linney and Ruffalo's parting-of-ways comes along and emotionally wreck you.

Grade: B+

Sherlock: Season 1 (2010) created by Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat
The setting may be thoroughly modern, but Gatiss and Moffat's (best known as the current show runner of Doctor Who) modern adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels is a delightfully executed slice of TV that makes you beg for more after each episode (which is a problem, since each season is only 3 episodes). With each episode lasting roughly 90 minutes, Gatiss and Moffat straddle a fine line between serialized TV narrative and TV movie/mini-series, which gives the series a richer, more epic feeling. Case in point, the first episode, "A Study in Pink," which acts as a perfectly self-contained story all while establishing Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) in the show's modern-day London setting. Yet even though Moffat brings a certain amount of appeal to the series, it's watching the spectacularly-voiced Cumberbatch and Freeman play off of each other that's truly a joy to watch. Cumberbatch's Holmes is driven to the point of insensitivity, prone to arrogance in his quest to analyze and get to the bottom of things. Watching the actor recite detailed breakdowns of crime scenes, combined with the flashy close-ups and edits, is as riveting as any number of big setpieces in recent blockbusters. Freeman's more mellow, "every day" nature brings a nice touch to Watson. He's not a doofus, but he's a "normal" smart guy who still has to contend with the seemingly god-like analytical capabilities of his crime-solving partner. So even though episodes 2 and 3 (mostly 2) aren't quite as effective as "A Study in Pink," the actors and general execution make the show worth keeping up with. Now to get onto season 2 so I can see the much-buzzed-about finale...

Grade: B+

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