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The week’s critic wrangle: “Amazing Grace,” “Gray Matters,” “The Wayward Cloud.”

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How sweet the sound.+ "Amazing Grace": Michael Apted may have earned his place in the canon with the "Up" series, but his career as a narrative filmmaker is far less irreproachable, encompassing the highs of "Coal Miner’s Daughter" and the lows of "Enough." "Amazing Grace," a biopic about British abolitionist William Wilberforce (played by tasty slice of Welsh rarebit Ioan Gruffudd) (we have no idea what that’s suppose to mean, but so rarely get to bring up rarebit on this blog), seems to be falling somewhere in the middle of the scale. Stephanie Zacharek at Salon writes that "In the first 10 minutes, I feared the picture would be dull and earnest — until, about a half-hour later, I realized it was lively and earnest, and also refreshingly, unapologetically movielike." Though she dislikes the bombast of the score and admits that there’s an awful lot of expository dialogue, she contends that "even when it’s slightly clumsy, the conviction behind it keeps you from laughing at it."

Nathan Rabin at the Onion AV Club is also won over by the film’s passion and sense of humor, finding that Steven Knight‘s screenplay "nicely undercuts the project’s inherent preachiness with dry wit and an engaging depiction of the British parliament as a vicious realm where debate is a treacherous blood sport." At New York, David Edelstein calls "Amazing Grace" "a beautifully chiseled blunt instrument. No, it’s not subtle, but how subtle was slavery?", while Ed Gonzalez at Slant declares that "Amazing Grace is proof that liberal filmmakers can make movies that aren’t desperate manifestations of their political guilt."

Over at the New York Times, Manohla Dargis summarizes the effect of the film as "part BBC-style biography, part Hollywood-like hagiography, and generally pleasing and often moving, even when the story wobbles off the historical rails or becomes bogged down in dopey romance." She goes on to writes that "[i]t would be easier to dismiss ‘Amazing Grace’ for its historical elisions if it weren’t also filled with so many great British actors larking about in knee breeches and powdered wigs; if it weren’t, in other words, an entertainment." Armond White at the NY Press salutes "a courageous sense of social propriety and cultural mission in Amazing Grace, backed-up by Apted’s tasteful intelligence."

Not entertained is Michael Joshua Rowin at indieWIRE, who finds that in the film "[e]verybody wins, it seems, except those wanting their middlebrow fare to display, at the very least, the semblance of a spine." Ella Taylor at LA Weekly calls the film "[m]orally irreproachable and flat as a pancake," and writes that while Wilberforce certainly deserves heroic treatment, "[w]hat he doesn’t deserve is to be deified, sanctified and so thoroughly bleached of human blemish that hardened highwaymen and exhausted horses quail before his goodness and mercy. And that’s just in the first 10 minutes."

 

Heather Graham, now with bowling ball.
+ "Gray Matters": "Is it coincidence or a minitrend?" wonders Stephen Holden at the New York Times, addressing not the terrible name/title affliction that this film shares with a certain television drama, but the fact that, like "Puccini For Beginners," which flickered through theaters earlier this month, Sue Kramer‘s
"Gray Matters" is the story of a upscale New York love triangle with
twists both Sapphic and screwball. Kramer’s film does offer slightly
more star power in the form of lead Heather Graham, playing, yes, a character named Gray who falls for her brother’s fiancée. "If ‘Gray Matters’ follows the standard screwball comedy format, the two halves of its hybrid style — part early ’40s romp, part ‘The L Word’ lite — don’t mesh. Compared to ‘Gray Matters,’ even a Nora Ephron bonbon has the weight of urban neo-realism," concludes Holden. Ed Gonzalez at Slant calls the film "the most inexplicable comedy about delayed homosexuality every made," but adds that "the film at least understands that the buildup toward losing one’s gay virginity can sometimes feel like a colossal farce." And at the Village Voice, Michelle Orange calls the film "execrable" and sighs that "Heather Graham seems resigned to mugging and shrugging out the remainder of her thirties through a series of undercooked romantic comedies."

 

How not to eat your watermelon.
+ "The Wayward Cloud": Tsai Ming-liang films don’t often grace US theaters, and "The Wayward Cloud" isn’t getting a theatrical release, it’s just bobbing up at Anthology for a weeklong run two years after its premiere at the 2005 Berlin Film Festival. The critical consensus is that it’s not his best work, though we’d say it’s still a spectacle worth seeing, if you have the opportunity. "Sad to say, but the only thing more unfortunate than a Tsai Ming-liang film that fails to get a theatrical release is one that eventually does and sucks dick," sighs Nathan Lee at the Village Voice, who we are oft-tempted to put on sex metaphor watch ("the film’s belated New York release…comes (all over your face!) as something of a mixed blessing"?). He writes that "The Wayward Cloud’s sexual explicitness goes hand in hand with a shift from nuanced melancholy and stealth monumentalism toward garish, befuddled negativity." Keith Uhlich at Slant is conflicted:

The Wayward Cloud includes some of Tsai’s most risible work (never thought I’d feel so embarrassed for Chiang Kai-shek) alongside some of his best (the highlight: Lu Yi-ching‘s flames-and-spiders musical number, initiated by a gooey cum facial), but in action it all falls apart, and I’m uncertain, even after two viewings, if this is entirely a bad thing.

At the New York Press, Armond White writes that the film "is a self-conscious musical about dislocation—an, at times ingenious, at times, enervating variation on Tsai’s usual unhappy theme," but concludes that "[h]is anti-musical is, finally, equivalent to joyless sex." And of the infamous ending scene, A.O. Scott at the New York Times declares that "the display is less shocking for its sexual frankness than for its aesthetic crudity."

It feels willed, aggressive and unconvincing — clammy rather than cool — in a way that suggests artistic frustration rather than discovery. The water shortage may be a metaphor for the director’s creative desiccation, which his admirers can only hope is temporary.

Tsai’s newest film, "I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone," will be getting a small US theatrical release from Strand this year.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

Uncle-Buck

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…