REVIEW: By the Sea

28 11 2015

By the SeaAngelina Jolie Pitt’s third film, “By the Sea,” feels like a bloated student thesis project. And, for once, I do not use that term in a completely pejorative manner.

Jolie Pitt’s last directorial outing, “Unbroken,” was such a formulaic piece of studio entertainment that it felt depressingly soulless in its mediocrity. (Her deeply misguided mess of a debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” is best left forgotten.) Here, she seems to be grappling with some fundamentals of cinema: editing, shot choice, shot duration, camera movement. Since Jolie Pitt holds such a position of power in Hollywood that she will likely see many opportunities to step behind the camera again, watching her grow is inarguably a positive thing.

Admittedly, there are far more qualified directors – female or male – deserving of eight-figure budgets to make a personal project. It’s frustrating to think on who lost out on their chance because Jolie Pitt got this one. Still, if she ever wants to take the reins of “Cleopatra” herself, everyone should be thankful she got to make “By the Sea” as a stylistic exercise.

The film is almost pure style, like a sleek perfume or cologne ad drawn out to feature length. Jolie Pitt and her husband, Brad Pitt, play the bitter married couple Vanessa and Roland, estranged practically to the point of their union dissolving. “By the Sea” follows their trip to the luxurious beaches of France from arrival to departure, chronicling their manifold frustrations in languorously broad strokes. Roland galavants off attempting to write his next novel, while Vanessa mostly just lingers around their hotel room smoking cigarettes and throwing shade through her Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses.

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REVIEW: Testament of Youth

27 11 2015

Testament of YouthThe allure of period pieces, especially romances, is typically lost on me. So it’s always nice when something like “Testament of Youth” comes along to prove an exception to the rule. Rather than belabor its love story, James Kent’s film focuses on the experience of one extraordinary British woman during The Great War, Alicia Vikander’s Vera Brittain.

This richer, fuller narrative allows “Testament of Youth” to resonate for present-day audiences, not merely feel like a century-old time capsule. Vera begins the film pursuing an Oxford education, even then a struggle for women to achieve, but gradually feels her heart drawn toward the battlefields of Europe. There, her lover (Kit Harrington’s Roland), brother (Taron Egerton’s Edward) and many friends go to war for the soul of Europe. She begins to think it selfish to mill about in classrooms, so she shows some agency and joins the effort.

As a nurse, she gains a front row seat to the horrors of war, only amplifying the authenticity of her grief and worry for the men she loves. This perspective ultimately drives her towards taking a bold stance, one that Kent or screenwriter Juliette Towhidi do not necessarily presage in the two hours prior. Nonetheless, its high valuation of Vera’s opinion more than compensates for any narrative hang-ups. Vikander’s performance, emotionally forceful without ever resorting to maudlin histrionics, also helps quite a bit. B2halfstars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 26, 2015)

26 11 2015

Red Road

With the (deservedly) heightened focus on raising the profile of women directors in the film industry, one name springs to my mind among those deserving more opportunities: Andrea Arnold. If you didn’t read through all of Vulture’s 100 Women Directors Hollywood Should Be Hiring, there’s a chance you already saw her name since it falls at the beginning of the alphabet. However, you should look deeper into her imposing body of work and discover the prowess of a master.

I jumped on the Andrea Arnold bandwagon after her 2010 film “Fish Tank” gave me a new vocabulary to make sense of my formative adolescent years but shamefully only just got around to her 2007 debut, “Red Road.” This sparse, tense thriller is “Rear Window” by way of “The Lives of Others” – not a bad start for a director and definitely a deserving pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Kate Dickie stars as CCTV operator Jackie, a woman who finds herself so lonely that she begins to internally narrativize the people she observes on her screens. But one day, she takes it a little too far after watching a man and a woman fornicating in an abandoned lot. (Don’t worry, she’s not motivated by pure perversion.) Her target is Tony Curran’s Clyde, a figure with a connection to Jackie’s painful past that she unsuccessfully attempts to bury in her mind.

To say much more would only serve to spoil the suspense Arnold builds throughout “Red Road.” But in her slow burn towards an intriguing end of the road, she gives the viewer ample time to contemplate the ethics of voyeurism and interference. And, now, it makes one wonder how she wrangled the incorrigible Shia LaBeouf for her upcoming film “American Honey.”


25 11 2015

For many people, the sounds of Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” or Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” can pump them up and spur them onto achievement. They can see Rocky Balboa jumping, fists raised, at Philadelphia’s City Hall and feel a surge of inspiration.

I, on the other hand, roll my eyes and laugh.

Sports movies clearly calibrated to trigger a feeling of uplift very rarely work on me, perhaps in some part because athletics were always an arena of disappointment and embarrassment in my personal life. (Give me a tortured artist or woebegone writer flick, though, and we’re in business.) Something about the way they contrive practically every move from a calculated playbook always bores me far more than it excites me. If something were really that moving, why not achieve it organically?

So Ryan Coogler’s “Creed,” as nicely mounted it might be, felt dead in the water for me the moment I started recognizing all the expected beats in this passing of the “Rocky” franchise torch. Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Johnson, the son of the great Apollo Creed, looks to become a professional boxer by training with the great Rocky Balboa. And to do so, he apparently has to go through all the same plot points as his mentor: the training montages, the preparatory fights, the tacked-on romance (with Tessa Thompson, a tremendous rising talent who deserves better).

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REVIEW: Legend

24 11 2015

The term “Scorsese lite” gets bandied about in critical discourse often (I’ve used it to describe both “Black Mass” and “Blood Ties“), but if anyone needed a textbook definition, they should probably look at Brian Helgeland’s “Legend.” Here is a film with all the style and gang violence of “GoodFellas” with none of its poise or polish. Helgeland is all talk, no walk.

At one of the many points during the film’s bloated 131 minute runtime when my mind drifted away from the action, I came to realize what a deceptively difficult act “GoodFellas” was to execute. Henry Hill’s saga essentially has no major character obstacles (other than the law), no major goals nor anything driving the action … and yet it’s totally compelling and engaging the whole way through. “Legend,” despite a “Parent Trap”-style dual performance from Tom Hardy as the Kray Twins, just runs around in well-styled circles to the tunes of a great jukebox.

The Krays are supposedly the most feared men in London, but you can hardly tell from the movie, which seems to take that fact for granted. “Legend” mostly consists of brotherly bickering between Ronnie, the more unstable one, and Reggie, the one with interest in conventional goals like getting married. Hardy has proven himself great at exposing the homoeroticism that lies dormant in the male propensity for violence, and the Krays are another great showcase of this gift. Too bad the film insists on turning these undercurrents into such obvious overtones.

And, oddly enough, Helgeland chooses to frame their story through the narration of Reggie’s wife, Emily Browning’s Frances. It seems like a choice meant to rebut some of the sexism that plagues gangster films, though she winds up feeling like a token character. Her character is of little consequence to the narrative – heck, “Legend” probably does not even pass the Bechdel Test. Worse yet, this is just skimming the surface of basic screenwriting issues from a writer who won an Oscar for his “L.A. Confidential” script. C / 2stars

REVIEW: The Gift

23 11 2015

The GiftThere is nothing explicitly wrong, so to speak, with being a throwback to a type of movie that does not get made much anymore. Such is the case with “The Gift,” written and directed by Joel Edgerton, a film that harkens back to Adrian Lyne-style thrillers like “Fatal Attraction.” The setup is practically identical, even, with an outsider posing a threat to a young professional couple.

In “The Gift,” however, the menace is not the temptation of sexual gratification in the future but the looming specter of the past. Jason Bateman’s Simon finds himself and his wife, Rebecca Hall’s Robyn, pestered by his old high school classmate Gordo (Edgerton – in front of the camera as well). The annoyance goes far beyond the social awkwardness Gordo tends to exhibit, and it draws Robyn’s curiosity to answer the question why exactly her husband just wants this guy to go away.

Her quest for clarity provides some decent thrills as it also invites an escalation of creepy defensiveness from both men. Yet, in equal measure, “The Gift” also manages to feel so … expected. Why Edgerton brings out these somewhat dusty genre tropes remains a bit perplexing. This style of thriller is not yet so outmoded that other filmmakers should be paying loving homage, so that motive does not feel right. He’s neither in conversation with the conventions nor revising them.

Perhaps, for his feature debut, Edgerton just wanted to go with something that generally tends to work. Hard to blame him for choosing safety, though it’s a somewhat disappointing start as a director for a man who makes such riveting choices as an actor. B-2stars

REVIEW: Spotlight

22 11 2015

SpotlightMany a procedural, be it “Zodiac” or “Zero Dark Thirty,” has created suspense by following a straight, chronological line towards its ultimate result or finding. Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” a story of the Boston Globe‘s uncovering of widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, takes a slightly different approach to achieve a similar goal. His screenplay, co-written with Josh Singer, treats the journalistic investigation like solving a Rubik’s Cube.

In order to understand the magnitude of the discovery made by the Spotlight team, a four-person squad of the Globe‘s finest inquirers, it is crucial to grasp just how complex and intertwined all the key players were. The molestation was committed by over eighty priests in the Boston area, which alone is a staggering and abhorrent finding. But the complex web of officials in the church, in the government and in the community who enabled the abuse and remained complicit in their silence makes for the real story. Not even the press, celebrated as it is in the film, gets off without a slap on the wrist.

“Spotlight” respects the work of the team enough not to simplify their work into a simplified narrative. It feels effortless to watch and manageable to comprehend since McCarthy directs the proceedings with great agility, pivoting from one strand of thought to another without ever causing motion sickness. Perhaps only when the film nears its foregone conclusion, the publication of the earth-shattering article, do we fully realize just how many crossed wires they had to untangle.

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