REVIEW: Under the Skin

24 07 2014

Under the SkinUnder the Skin” has the perfect title, since it reflects not only the events of the film itself but also its effect on the audience.  Jonathan Glazer’s third feature, which has been nine years in the making, features Scarlett Johansson as an alien who quite literally steps into human skin to observe us and carry out a cryptic mission.  In the process, the film seeps underneath our own skin, lingering there for quite some time and demanding to be pondered.

Glazer absolutely beguiles with his unique bending of cinematic syntax to his will, compiling what amounts to a masterclass of technical control.  Through his unique confluence of image, montage, and sound, “Under the Skin” pulsates with a dreamlike cadence.  Several of the film’s most striking sequences unfold in solidly white or black spaces, furthermore contributing to a sense of hyperreality.

Though perhaps Glazer’s intentions are not always immediately clear, he keeps us beguiled throughout – and often ravished.  He follows Johansson’s siren of the Glasgow streets, picking up and picking off men with the assistance of a strange motorcyclist, with an attention that’s languorous rather than laboriously plotted.

Our access into her head comes not through any words penned by screenwriter Walter Campbell; it arises from the curious gaze of Johansson.  Or, it surfaces from Mica Levi’s hauntingly hypnotic score, which feels like a second script for “Under the Skin” in itself.  Though it may not spark a connection in your heart, it will send a tingle up your spine.

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REVIEW: Magic in the Moonlight

23 07 2014

Magic in the MoonlightAt a Cannes Film Festival press conference back in 2010, writer/director Woody Allen opined rather extensively about his views on life.  Among the misanthropic murmurs, he remarked, “I do feel that it [life] is a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience, and that the only way that you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself.”

Four years later, “Magic in the Moonlight” arrives in theaters to once again hammer home Allen’s personal philosophy as expressed in the quote above.  You know, just in case we happened to miss it in any of his other four dozen or so films.

This pessimistic fatalism goes down, however, quite palatably here because Allen casts two leads far more charming than himself: Colin Firth and Emma Stone.  Though they’re spouting lines that could make Nietzsche chuckle, the film never loses its mirthful mood thanks to the effervescence that the duo radiates.

“Magic in the Moonlight,” similar to 2009′s “Whatever Works,” has the feel of an undeveloped comedy from Allen in the ’70s.  That tenor is achieved by the nature of the concept, yet it’s also due in large part to the spell that Stone casts over it.  Allen clearly sees in her the same kind of alluring wit and personality that Diane Keaton immortalized in his films; it’s simply delightful to watch a wide-eyed Stone revel in one of his creations.

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REVIEW: For Colored Girls

22 07 2014

For Colored GirlsIf anyone thinks Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables” was a feckless and bumbling adaptation of a theatrical show, let me direct you to Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls” to see a real failure.  Granted, it’s a bird of a different color as Perry sets out to adapt Ntozake Shange’s “choreopoem” with the mouthful of a title “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf.”  But Shange’s bold and experimental work is transmuted into a set of clichés by Perry’s uninspired writing and direction.

To start, who thought Perry was a good choice to take on this work?  What qualifies the director of crude comedies like “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” to take on an iconoclastic work of theatre?  For all those who would argue that the quintessential Tyler Perry films have elements of drama, I raise the point that those sections are by far the weakest sections of his movies.  Perry’s movies play well with audiences because of the outrageous humor of Madea and his characters, not because of anything serious.

I am not familiar with the play, but there has to be some reason it has stuck around for decades.  I can only imagine Shange as a colored woman brought a certain amount of authenticity and urgency to the struggles of black women.  If what I suspect is true, Perry has turned the play’s strengths into unwatchable melodramatic mishmash.  The faux and unearned sympathy the movie tries to evoke fails on just about every level, and the two hours of “For Colored Girls” are thus miserable and interminable.

And I think Perry doesn’t even understand what the story is about in the first place.  He does less empowering of black women than he does evisceration of black men.  “For Colored Girls” should have been a celebration of the tenacity of African-American females and the community they always form during hardship.  Instead, it’s an opportunity for some of the best black actresses working in Hollywood to chew scenery in disconnected vignettes that Perry can’t make click.  D1star

REVIEW: I Origins

21 07 2014

I OriginsThe flaws of writer/director Mike Cahill’s “I Origins” have become more apparent as I have thought about the movie more in retrospect.  But remarkably, this awareness has not led me to think lesser of the product as a whole.  I still find the film’s aspirations noble, and Cahill manages to achieve his objectives even while stumbling (unlike his prior feature, “Another Earth,” which tripped out of the gate and never recovered).

The film is rather disjointed, feeling like two separate movies conjoined in the editing room – similar to Stanley Kubrick’s assemblage of “Full Metal Jacket.”  The first half of “I Origins” follows Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) as he attempts to disprove God with his studies of the human eye while romancing the free-spirited and spiritually inclined Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey).  In this section, Cahill’s dialogue is extremely overwrought and overwritten, yet it does manage to communicate the themes of the piece with great cogency.

After a mid-film climax that ultimately proves to be the apex of the entire story, “I Origins” forks off in an entirely different direction as the possibility of spiritual phenomena such as reincarnation.  This segment is quieter and more understated, perhaps leaving some things unsaid that ought to have been spoken.  In spite of those shortcomings, though, Cahill manages to ensnare us in a largely open-ended cosmic mystery.

The end does come rather abruptly, almost as if a projectionist had forgotten to show the last reel of the film (to use an illustration from a now bygone era).  Still, “I Origins” feels more or less complete even without a conventional resolution.  The film’s nearly two-hour runtime flew by – faster than most entertaining trifles being mass produced on the studio assembly line, I’d like to add.  In that period, Cahill raises a great deal of intriguing questions about tough subjects and discusses them with a fairly satisfying thoroughness.  B+3stars

REVIEW: Blue Ruin

20 07 2014

Blue RuinIn a current moviemaking climate where thrillers keep getting bigger, louder, and more involved, “Blue Ruin” provides a welcome change of pace.  Rather than rev his film’s engine to see how hard he can push it, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier holds his movie back with immense restraint.  It’s a fascinatingly controlled slow burn that’s executed with the utmost precision, resulting in a chillingly minimalist piece to watch.

At times, Saulnier’s extreme exactitude does come off a little cold.  We never really connect to the characters, nor do we really understand the psychology motivating them.  But that seems to be Saulnier’s modus operandi with the film, and it works just fine because he commits to it fully.

It’s not about this specific story but rather about what compels people in general to seek violent retribution.  (When they’re both available for home viewing, “Blue Ruin” would make a fascinating double bill with summer 2014′s “The Rover.”)  Saulnier provides precious little backstory on what’s compelling the film’s main character, Macon Blair’s Dwight, to seek revenge at all costs.  We keep thinking some giant explanation is coming, but it never does.

Normally, such vagueness in a film is equivalent to noncommittal or pure lack of imagination.  In “Blue Ruin,” though, it means exactly the opposite.  Rarely has so little meant so much.  B+3stars

REVIEW: The Congress

19 07 2014

The CongressAri Folman’s “The Congress” certainly cannot be faulted for any lack of ambition.  The director has fiddled with some seemingly unthinkable products in the past. “Waltz with Bashir,” after all, seems like an oxymoron (an animated documentary?!).

In that film, he used animation to explore questions of personal memory and conscience in the wake of a decades-old conflict between Israel and Lebanon.  Here, he’s shifted his focus westward to Hollywood.  Folman places his finger on the pulse of some very real anxieties in the City of Angels: motion capture replacing real actors, lingering fears of digitization, and the commoditization of celebrity, to name a few.

To explore these, he makes us of actress Robin Wright to play a fictionalized version of herself.  In “The Congress,” she’s an actress standing on the precipice of obscurity (the film was shot before “House of Cards” sparked a career revival) faced with a decision to sell her persona to the studios for digital “sampling.”

Folman’s commentary enters the realm of the satirical on many an occasion, recalling a justifiably little-seen film “Antiviral” where fans would inject themselves with viruses from stars to experience them further.  “The Congress” similarly follows its beginning concept, which doesn’t seem entirely out of the realm of possibility, logically into absurdity.  Along the way, Folman doesn’t hesitate to dole out copious amounts of shame to both the business that condones these developments as well as the public that consumes them.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 18, 2014)

18 07 2014

GatekeepersWith flaring tensions between Israel and Palestine back on the front page, perhaps there is no better time to Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated documentary “The Gatekeepers.”  This selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is a rather unique look at the conflict from 1967 onwards, told through the eyes of six former heads of the Israeli internal security agency Shin Bet.

“The Gatekeepers” marks the first time that these important geopolitical figures have ever told their stories publicly, and their honest accounts show some of the reason why.  This account of history doesn’t hold back, showing fault and folly from all perspectives.  His subjects critique the effectiveness of their own actions as well as offering commentary on the successes and drawbacks of various leaders who ran the state.

While this is undeniably a film about Israel, the lessons learned from “The Gatekeepers” ought to hit home for American audiences as well.  We find ourselves in a position not unlike Israel’s as we strap in for the long haul in our war against terrorism.  They’re fighting what increasingly resembles a war of attrition, not a war to bring about peace – a situation which feels awfully familiar to us.

The frank discussions of these Shin Bet leaders about taking out their targets, even if it means collateral damage of innocent lives, are certainly not specific to their nation alone.  And as Moreh takes us through their tales, he makes us question how effective fire really is at fighting fire.  “The Gatekeepers” is remarkable in the way it takes one specific clash and makes us think about the nature of conflict in general.  Such deliberation and careful thought is perhaps now more important than ever.


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