In Review: The Art of Self-Defense

Writer-director Riley Stearns reaches for arch misanthropy with his sophomore feature The Art of Self-Defense, a comedy of modern masculinity stuck in the stone ages. Gifted with a smartly assembled cast playing to their typical types but with some freshness, the film is assembled with competing doses of dark humor and familiarity. But despite some of its early laughs, the film’s influences are all too apparent to establish a voice all its own. As the film strays into thriller territory, the themes grow stale and its satire somewhat compromised.

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In Review: Pasolini

In ways both conventional and not, director Abel Ferrara pivots to the biopic with Pasolini. Fictionalizing the final day of filmmaker and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life with Willem Dafoe playing the provocateur, the film arrives to American audiences several years after its debut at the Venice Film Festival with a curious air of continuing examination. Ferrara may largely employ traditional true life narrative tactics for studying famous figures, but it darts in and out of the artist’s memory and creative imagination like smoke, closing on its subject with more ellipsis than finality.

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In Review: Wild Rose

Uplifting character studies centered around big musical dreams and humble beginnings are commonplace enough to have their own predictable cliches: crises of confidence, magical circumstances that leapfrog the protagonist into opportunity, loved ones who doubt. They are all at play in Tom Harper’s country (nix the western) saga Wild Rose, a fable about a young Glasgow woman with Nashville dreams weighted by her reckless and sometimes criminal behavior. You can keep time by the how the film hits all of its very expected emotional beats and its narrative one.

But what makes the film one of the most moving recent films of its kind is Wild Rose’s divergent final perspective, one that surprises and shadows the film’s closing moments with a grounded emotional truth that makes for a hell of a soaring closing number. Add to the mix a sensational performance from future superstar Jessie Buckley as the troublesome Rose-Lynn and you have one of the summer’s most joyous movie pleasures.

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In Review: The White Crow

After 2011’s Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus and 2013’s look at the love affairs of Charles Dickens The Invisible Woman, Ralph Fiennes returns to the director’s chair with The White Crow. The film is a biopic of the legendary ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev (played by Oleg Ivenko), detailing his early creative struggles and ultimate defection from the Soviet Union. But once again, Fiennes delivers a flatly watchable, if indistinct directorial effort that reveres its subject without ever really lifting off the ground.

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In Review: Shadow

After the colossal creative disappointment that was The Great Wall, master filmmaker Zhang Yimou returns to the wuxia genre in his typically visually stunning fashion with Shadow. Here is another tale of duality, this time set during third century China between Commander Ziyu and his proxy body double Jingzhou. As the country descends to war and secret palace romances bloom, the expected role reversal between Ziyu and Jingzhou brings about a fateful final battle. Cue some really cool shots of fancy ancient umbrellas and some terrifying knives, and Shadow is a salve for a certain kind of action seldom served to western audiences in very recent years.

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