REVIEW: Only Lovers Left Alive

18 08 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive posterCannes Film Festival – Official Selection, 2013

I’ve listened to countless interviews with James Gray about his film “The Immigrant,” so many that I can’t pair a quote with a particular interview and thus cite it correctly.  But in one talk about filmmaking in general, Gray talked about how great directors are effective at conveying mood.

I haven’t seen enough of Jim Jarmusch’s filmography to make a definitive statement about whether or not he is a great director.  But I have seen his latest film, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” and I can say that simply because it has control of mood does not make it a great film.  Jarmusch favors ambiance over story development to a fault in his film that probably had its proper title, “Modern Vampires of the City,” stolen by Vampire Weekend’s latest album.

The film comes from an original screenplay by the director, and it certainly earns points for being clever.  “Only Lovers Left Alive” runs in a different direction with the current vampire fad,  portraying the bloodsuckers as hipsters hiding out in the latest haunt.  When we catch up with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s immortal lovers, wittily named Adam and Eve, he has shacked up in Detroit while she’s hanging in Tangiers.

It’s undeniably entertaining to get immersed in the distinctive universe Jarmusch has them inhabiting.  Watching them figure out how to get the blood they need to survive is cheeky fun, as is the creative ways they choose to consume it.  Not to mention, their demeanors and attitudes are so unexpected that it can’t help but be attention-grabbing.  (Hearing them name-drop some of their famous friends makes for a good chuckle, too.)

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REVIEW: The Zero Theorem

17 08 2014

The Zero TheoremLondon Film Festival, 2013

Terry Gilliam’s “The Zero Theorem” is the kind of film that raises so many important and intriguing questions that it’s entirely possible to forget some of them along the journey.  This oblique tale, bordering at times on the absurd, stuns with the sheer density of the thematic issues that Pat Rushin’s screenplay can pack into 100 minutes.

The film grapples with conundrums as timeless as the meaning of life, the nature of happiness, and the imminence of death and nothingness.  At the same time, “The Zero Theorem” also has its finger on the pulse of many modern malaises, such as screen addiction, the fading appeal of observable reality in relation to virtual reality, and the electronic mediation of human connection.

We explore these through the work of a computer programmer known as Q, played by Christoph Waltz, as he attempts to solve humanity’s conundrums.  In a change of pace from the two silver-tongued Tarantino characters that won him a pair of Oscars, Waltz sits back and delivers a largely reactive performance.  As he attempts to unlock the zero theorem and get to the core of human existence, Q doesn’t instigate events so much as he lets them happen.  Because we’re less focused on a conventional narrative, “The Zero Theorem” can easily delve into the realm of the existential and philosophical.

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REVIEW: The Trip

16 08 2014

The TripThis summer, Adam Sandler made a few headlines for admitting a fact that shocked many but surprised few: his movies are essentially paid vacations.  Be it the countryside in “Grown Ups,” Hawaii in “Just Go with It,” or Africa in his latest disappointing film “Blended,” Sandler certainly knows how to milk the studio teat.

Across the pond, it would appear that Steve Coogan has figured out how to pull a similar magic trick.  He stars as himself in “The Trip,” a film where he gets to go around with his pal Rob Brydon (also playing himself) on a restaurant bender around England.  Surely at some point along the way, Coogan thought to himself, “My, this a great way to eat well and expense the meals to the BBC!”

The film is not without its entertaining moments – a spirited discussion of how to properly impersonate Michael Caine’s voice springs to mind – but this hour and a 45 minute trip feels like an exercise in self-indulgence above all else.  “The Trip” is a chance to spend time with Coogan and Brydon just … because.

To be fair, Coogan is a much bigger star in his native England.  In the United States, we know him mostly as a character actor from films such as “Tropic Thunder” and “The Other Guys;” he has only really begun to enter our consciousness as a public figure with the arrival of 2013’s “Philomena.”  As for Rob Brydon, I hadn’t heard of him before “The Trip” and haven’t heard from him since.

So maybe the concept would work better for me if it was done by two actors with whom I was more familiar.  If a sequel to “22 Jump Street” doesn’t happen, “The Trip” with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum would probably be just fine.  B-2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 15, 2014)

15 08 2014

The BelieverIt seems hard to believe now, but there was a time when Ryan Gosling was not a movie star.  Plenty of people acknowledge his Mickey Mouse Club days with Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, just as others recognize how hilarious he is in “Remember the Titans.”   But most seem to think that he just came out of nowhere, like a gift from God, to steal their hearts in 2004’s “The Notebook.”

In actuality, though, Gosling first got his moment in the spotlight as leading man from 2001’s “The Believer.”  The performance may well be the polar opposite of his stoic characters in “Drive” and “Only God Forgives.”  As Danny Balint, a self-loathing Jew who turns from his upbringing to join a radical neo-Nazi cell in New York, Gosling absolutely electrifies the screen as he futilely struggles to suppress memories of his background in order to commit heinous deeds.

But “The Believer” is not my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” simply because it is a great performance piece for Gosling.  Though he does steal the show, Gosling is hardly all the film has to offer.  “The Believer” may not quite rival “American History X,” another similar film about neo-Nazis, but it’s still a powerful examination of radicalism on both the personal and the political levels.

Writer/director Henry Bean satisfyingly delves into the psychology of Danny, looking at what might explain his volatile and unpredictable behavior.  There’s never one definitive answer, though, and the only person that seems to frustrate is Danny himself.  He’s a complete wild card, vacillating constantly between his desires to embrace the Jewish community that brought him up and his impulse to eradicate that same group altogether.  Maybe Gosling, now Mr. Strong and Silent, ought to watch “The Believer” now to bring some of the turmoil and conflict back to his work.





REVIEW: The Giver

15 08 2014

The GiverIf there was any doubt that we’re reaching the point of supersaturation with dystopian YA adaptations, “The Giver” confirms that the tipping point has arrived.  I get that life in post-recessional America doesn’t exactly inspire hope, be you a teenager or an adult.  But I doubt real life could be any worse than escaping into this derivative and, often times, outright laughable film.

I first read the film’s source material, Lois Lowry’s Newberry-winning novel that is now a staple of middle school English curricula, as an impressionable 12-year-old in 2005.  At the time, the post-“Harry Potter” adolescent fiction boom had not begun to tarnish the newly bolstered reputation of writing aimed for emerging readers (not even the “Twilight” series had been published).  YA was neither a dirty word nor a marketing buzzword then; it was just my demographic.

Lowry’s book might have been relatively short, but it sure packed a punch.  “The Giver” can serve a crucial function in the escalation of material for language arts, providing a key stepping stone towards more weighty adult literature.  If you can place yourself in the position of a teenager, the dialectical push and pull between order and chaos as well as pain and pleasure are actually quite thought-provoking.

Yet no matter how deeply one might have regarded the thematic content of the novel, it’s entirely possible to discredit “The Giver” as little more than a compilation of shallow marketing hooks for a cookie-cutter dystopian YA film.  The very premise of the story loses sophistication and nuance as it’s forced to fit the mold made popular by “The Hunger Games.”  What made Lowry’s story special is largely discarded in favor the conventional, leaving behind a film that’s a shadow of its literary incarnation.

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REVIEW: What If

14 08 2014

What IfRomantic comedies have been all but abandoned by major studios since 2011’s “Crazy Stupid Love,” leaving any filmmaker with an itching to tell a love story to develop their project with independent financing.  In that realm of moviemaking, the rom-com is either being outright lampooned (as in “They Came Together“) or struggling to escape the trappings of post-“(500) Days of Summer” ironically detached revisionism (like “Ruby Sparks“).

What If,” from director Michael Dowse and adapted from a stage play to screen by Elan Mastai, feels odd to watch in 2014 because it falls into neither predominant trend.  The film is unabashedly earnest as it tells the tale of Daniel Radcliffe’s Wallace as he struggles with his romantic feelings for Zoe Kazan’s Chantry, a close personal friend who happens to be in a long-term relationship.

In other words, it’s the kind of film that might have seemed quite redundant if it were wedged between, say, “27 Dresses” and “Definitely Maybe” in 2008.  But in today’s moviewatching climate, it’s a refreshing reminder of the kind of movie that’s been largely pushed out of the market by tentpole comic book flicks.  Say what you will about “Guardians of the Galaxy” being fun, but you could probably use the lessons from “What If” in your daily life much more easily than anything from the aforementioned space caper.

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REVIEW: Hateship Loveship

13 08 2014

Hateship LoveshipCraig Johnson, director of the upcoming Kristen Wiig vehicle “The Skeleton Twins,” remarked that even in her funniest moments, there’s a certain sadness to the characters Wiig portrayed.  I had never really thought of the comedienne in such a way, so I scoured YouTube to examine her work through such a lens.  Sure enough, the undercurrent is there in everything from her bit part in “Knocked Up” to her infamous Penelope sketches from “Saturday Night Live.”

In “Hateship Loveship,” we can see what’s left when you drain all the humor out of Wiig – and, as it turns out, it’s quite a morose sight.  She plays her character, Johanna Perry, with all the quietude of a church mouse.  Such restraint turns out to be devastatingly effective in creating a believable woman who is so passive that she practically lacks a personality altogether.

Sadly, the film veers off into such unbelievable directions – particularly in its second half – that it undermines the potential for Wiig’s performance to be a major breakthrough.  The premise of “Hateship Loveship” starts off with promise: Johanna moves into the home of an aging man (Nick Nolte) to be his caretaker and gets catfished by his granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld) in a rather mean-spirited prank.  Yet right when the film seems ready to veer into the realm of the tragic, it takes an unexpected turn.

After this rather shocking development, “Hateship Loveship” seems rather detached from reality.  Characters’ motivations seem hardly plausible, casting a shadow of doubt over the entire film.  The tone gets rather wonky, too.  It’s a pity that director Liza Johnson didn’t model her helming on the restraint and good judgment that Wiig brought to her character.  C2stars








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