F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 29, 2015)

29 01 2015

FreewayI would count myself a big fan of actress Reese Witherspoon (see my personal anecdotes on my middle school crush in Random Factoids #49 and #88), yet I somehow managed to only learn of the existence of “Freeway” in 2015.  This film stars a younger Witherspoon as Vanessa Lutz, the daughter of a prostitute who has to do and say some unmentionables in the name of self-preservation and survival in a gritty urban environment.  She goes to prison, not to visit a client like Elle Woods but actually as an inmate.

This 1996 oddity might not fit Witherspoon’s squeaky-clean sweet Southern belle image, but it certainly gives her something out of the ordinary.  This modern retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale is a peculiar burst of energy from writer/director Matthew Bright, who has since done relatively little of note.  But his debut feature is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because it never holds back in its peculiar assessment of American culture as seen from the vantage point of its underbelly.

Witherspoon quickly asserts her pluckiness in “Freeway,” chaining up her social worker in order to seek refuge from her long-last grandmother.  On the way, however, she gets drawn into the clutches of the conniving serial killer Bob Wolverton.  Keifer Sutherland plays his wolf not as big and bad, but rather as eerily unsettling and deceptively meek.  (That was basically the mold of the ’90s murderer, so it makes sense.)

Somewhere on the path to grandmother’s house, “Freeway” changes up the script.  The film’s Little Red takes a step into the big leagues by gaining a welcome sense of agency, taking the film on an unexpected detour into courtrooms, prisons, and a trial by media.  The changes ought to prompt some stimulating discussion about what is and is not still relevant from the old tale.  By transplanting Little Red Riding Hood into modern society, rather than simply tweaking her story in a mythic milieu like “Into the Woods,” “Freeway” invites a freer dialogue.

Interestingly, when I went back to read reviews from the time of release, most critics reacted to the film as a satire.  “Freeway” still maintains a sense of exaggeration, sure, but it has lost a bit of shock after years of reality TV highlighting such unique specimens as Honey Boo-Boo, the Jersey Shore, and the Duck Dynasty family.  Nearly two decades after its Sundance premiere, though, its gentle mockery of the strange corners of America still entertains and excites.  Much of the film’s bite today comes from Witherspoon, who once again seems willing to explore these rough edges of her persona in “Wild” and beyond.


28 01 2015

Don JonFor all those who might have found Steve McQueen’s sex addiction drama “Shame” too intense in either content or form, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s comedic “Don Jon” may provide the perfect vehicle for discussing the same issues.  The film acknowledges many of the ills facing men in the age of internet pornography, such as the objectification of women and the notion that sexual satisfactions is deliverable on demand at the leisure of a Google search.

“Don Jon” will prove enlightening for anyone who has never thought deeply about masturbatory pleasures, especially because Gordon-Levitt’s script telegraphs his social commentary through heavy-handed voiceovers from his lead character Jon.  Anyone who has ever taken anything more than psychology or sociology 101 is likely to find the film’s observations shallow and skin-deep.  But if it gets people talking and consciously reconsidering their habits, then the movie at least serves some purpose.

And in case someone tunes out during Jon’s long-winded (and perhaps somewhat implausibly aware) confessionals on his porn addiction, the plot also effectively echoes the simple yet important message.  Though the womanizing, GTL-exuding Jon lands a smoking hot girlfriend Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), she quickly flees once she discovers the extent of his dirty secret and leaves Jon a wreck.  Only when he heeds the learned wisdom of Julianne Moore’s middle-aged Esther, who reminds him that sex is about satisfying two people, can he regain the same pleasure in the orgasm.

Though “Don Jon” may not speak fluently on matters on sexuality, Gordon-Levitt certainly understands gender politics quite well.  The film really nails some of what needs to change in our current conception of masculinity, and he begins to tackle the way that females reinforce that.  At one point while shopping, Barbara insists that Jon cannot, as a man, clean his own house because it clashes with the performance of manliness that she expects.  That, unfortunately, proves the extent of glancing at the other side of the gender divide, yet there is always time to explore further.  Gordon-Levitt ought to make a “Don Joan” movie to examine femininity as well since a little too much was left on the table in “Don Jon.”  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Computer Chess

27 01 2015

Computer ChessWriter and director Andrew Bujalski is largely credited with sparking the mumblecore movement in film.  This style of filmmaking aims to capture life as it is really lived, with all the sputtering and mumbling we do in the process of fumbling to communicate.

Bujalski released his watershed “Funny Ha Ha” in 2002, before digital filmmaking technology became truly and fully democratized.  Now, anyone with a camera – which is basically anyone with a phone – can create a film with the kind of naturalistic style that was previously so rare in the cinema.  The challenge for Bujalski and fellow mumblecore adherents is to remain relevant in the era of YouTube and self-distribution channels.  Far more so than a decade ago, they have to make the case for why their stories matter and deserve 90 minutes of our time more than something else.

That is precisely the stumbling block of “Computer Chess,” which just never really presents a strong rationale for the act of watching it.  To be clear, Bujalski most certainly has a better eye for aesthetics than the average Joe Schmo.  His film, set at a 1980 computer conference, captures the dominant analog videotape look of the time down to the difficulty with keeping images in focus.  It also boasts a few intellectually stimulating conversations about artificial intelligence, demonstrating that some clear thought went into making the film.

But overall, “Computer Chess” just proves a little too obtuse to really connect.  There is not much of a story to follow, and the film lacks any strongly developed characters with whom any rapport can form.  The experience gets boring after about 10 minutes once the general purpose of the cinematic endeavor makes itself clear.  Afterwards, finding any reason to care constitutes a herculean task.  C2stars

REVIEW: Room 237

26 01 2015

Room 237Aside from showing how far the “fair use” exemption of American copyright can be extended, Rodney Ascher’s unique documentary “Room 237” is a film that demonstrates how the cult of auteurism has run amuck to its point of logical absurdity.  The cinephiles and film analysts he spotlights stretch the theory that a director is responsible for every detail in every frame almost to farcical extremes.

The images of Ascher’s documentary, or potentially a feature-length video essay, come entirely from Stanley Kubrick’s cult classic horror film “The Shining” (as well as a few of his other films to play the part of B-roll).  The words are all provided by five people convinced they know the secret meaning underlying every minute of that film.  Depending on which one of them you ask, “The Shining” is really about sexuality, the Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, the entirety of the human family, history’s collective amnesia, or even an apology for faking the moon landing.

Each interviewee has to adopt a certain attitude to how playful or serious Kubrick was in his crafting of the film, selectively pulling from film criticism to make their arguments irrefutable.  All seem to agree, however, that Kubrick is infallible, completely incapable of making a continuity error, mistake or oversight.  Nothing could be chalked up to coincidence, for Kubrick oversaw every speck in every frame.  A so-called “impossible window” could not possibly a snafu given that there were two different sets for the film.

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REVIEW: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

25 01 2015

A Girl Walks HomeWith “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour fuses together elements into a hybrid that likely never occurred to anyone else.  Her vampire film incorporates the western, the film noir, and tons of hipster cred (look no further than the vinyl records) – with dialogue spoken in Persian.  It’s essentially the best Sofia Coppola movie that Sofia Coppola didn’t make.

Amirpour’s film constantly exudes an ambience of coolness, which makes the experience mostly fun to absorb even when it gets dull to watch.  Like Coppola, she often falls into the trap of excessive stylization, especially when a killer tune is playing.  “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” thus often feels like a compilation of thematically related music videos.  The flesh-eating skateboarding girl simply seems to appear as a recurring character amidst the sea of drug dealers, prostitutes, junkies, strange old men, and curious kids.

Amirpour also has one heck of a strength to make the movie mostly work regardless: her exacting control.  Her eye for clean, classical visuals is remarkable.  In addition, she and cinematographer Lyle Vincent play with light and shadow with fitting and appropriate grace given the film’s theme of concealed identity.  While her directorial debut might boast all the style of a cult indie classic, it possesses the marginal storytelling of a student short overly obsessed with mood.  The combination leaves a little to be desired, though it certainly is not all bad nor a waste of time by any stretch of the imagination.  B-2stars

REVIEW: Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus

24 01 2015

Crystal FairyMichael Cera and the titular plant might serve as the main selling points of the marketing materials for “Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus,” yet the movie hardly belongs to either of them.  The best compliment for Cera is that at least his performance does not recall his stock character too much.

Sebastián Silva lets comedienne Gaby Hoffmann run rampant to cause free-spirited mayhem in the piece.  And boy, does she capitalize on the chance.  She provides basically all the enjoyment the film has to offer.

Hoffmann’s hippy Crystal Fairy joins up with Cera’s Jaime, an American in Chile, to find a magic cactus and harness its hallucinogenic powers.  Their quest is not particularly funny, serious, or insightful.  It just kind of happens, and then the movie ends, leaving no real lasting impression nor making any strong case for its reason to exist.

The film feels rather ragtag and loose to the point of fault; Silva might have been better off saving thousands of dollars by just shooting the film on an iPhone.  Then “Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus” would truly have the verité feeling it longs for in prolonged sequences of awkward “naturalistic” dialogue.

Anyone looking for realness and authenticity will just have to find it in Hoffmann, whose Crystal Fairy fearlessly owns the screen.  She plays an entire elongated scene in the nude, comfortably and confidently carrying out a conversation while flashing her lady parts to a room full of men.  Cera, and everyone else in the film, should have followed her bold lead.  C2stars

REVIEW: A Most Violent Year

23 01 2015

A Most Violent YearThe twelve months referred to in the title of “A Most Violent Year” are those of 1981, a period that saw an unprecedented spike in crime within the boroughs of New York City.  This illegality is not the story of the film, though; it is merely an intriguing backdrop for the saga of Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales as he attempts to expand his property holdings in order to become a more competitive player in the heating oil business.  All the world seems to be operating without regard to law or ethics, and it practically invites him to abandon moral high ground.

Abel clings stubbornly to his principles, refusing to arm his trucks even when they get held up and robbed.  The film rarely mentions this, but Abel is an immigrant from Colombia who married into a leadership role in the company.  While mostly masks the traces of his accent, the effect of his heritage is present in every decision he makes.  Abel realizes how far he has come, as well as how far he has to tumble with just a single prideful misstep.

Isaac makes this deliberative stoicism absolutely riveting, coloring Abel with shades of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone from “The Godfather” series.  He knows when the character is weak, when he is strong, and, most importantly, when he has absolutely no idea why any of it is worth the trouble.  It’s one of the beautiful ironies of “A Most Violent Year” that Isaac seems so in control of Abel, yet each passing scene in the film slowly strips away the illusion of control of his destiny from the character.

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