REVIEW: Trainwreck

4 08 2015

Trainwreck PosterAt roughly the midpoint of “Trainwreck,” writer Amy Schumer sets up a remarkable parallel between two scenes at the same baby shower.  The character Amy, played by Schumer herself, has to endure a brutal game of “Skeletons in the Closet” where posh young mothers spill dark secrets … that actually reveal themselves as pathetically and predictably tame.

Meanwhile, Amy’s boyfriend, Bill Hader’s Aaron Conners, recounts details of the many athletes he has helped rehabilitate in his sports medicine practice.  He rattles of name after name to the same awe-struck reaction from a crowd of unfamiliar men … until he drops the name Alex Rodriguez.  Among this set of New Yorkers, this blasphemy inspires a sudden outburst of profanity.  But then, Aaron goes back to some more agreeable athletes, and the peanut gallery resumes the standard call-and-response.

These scenes, juxtaposed as they are, communicate a central tenet of “Trainwreck.”  Both genders, when taking cultural stereotypes of gender to the extreme ends of their performance, deserve mockery for their folly.  (This also includes John Cena, who briefly appears as Amy’s bodybuilding boyfriend who talks about the gym like many women talk about the nail salon.)  Schumer’s feminist intervention into the romantic comedy genre aims to level the playing field for men and women, not by putting the latter on any kind of pedestal but through suggesting the common humanity that unites them.

Her on-screen persona in “Trainwreck” arrives at the perfect moment, a time where many female characters are either monotonically strong or practically invisible and silent.  The “approachable” Amy, as her boss (played by a bronzed Tilda Swinton) condescendingly deems her, is a romantic comedy heroine cut from the cloth of contemporary society.  The hard-drinking, truth-telling, free-wheeling character benefits from the assertiveness in romance that women gained through the sexual revolution, yet she also pushes up against the lingering constraints left unconquered by that unfinished movement.  Amy also embodies the spirit of a generation scared to death of commitment, an era when the only thing scarier than the sea of possibilities is the choice to settle on one of them.

She meets her match in Aaron, an equally plain-spoken person who falls for Amy as she profiles him for the men’s magazine S’nuff.  The big difference, though, is that he possesses self-confidence where she shields her insecurities with self-deprecation.  Aaron, notably, never becomes a human incarnation of a “Mr. Wonderful” doll.  While exceedingly nice and admirable, Amy exposes a few of the buttons he might not like people pushing.

“Trainwreck” does not place Amy in the position of damsel in distress, nor does it make her some kind of prize for winning once tamed.  Amy’s impetus to change, although partially spurred by Aaron, seems to derive from an internal desire to stop numbing herself to the world.  And even in her triumphs (including the grand finale), Schumer always makes sure her Amy still shows some amusing, endearing flaws.  She is allowed to have flawed, circular logic, and it does not mean she is crazy; it just means we embrace her all the more.

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Random Factoid #579

3 08 2015

I have an X-factor when it comes to hunkering down to get stuff done.  It’s the ringtone from “The Devil Wears Prada.”

If you’ve watched the film, then surely you cannot forget the shrill tone that animates Andy’s phone when she gets the latest request phoned in from dragon lady Miranda Priestly.  (But in case you have, here it is anyways.)

I downloaded this ringtone and installed it on my iPhone.  It serves two purposes.

  1. An alarm.  When I hear this ringtone in the morning, it snaps me to attention and (usually) forces me to get out of bed.  Am I not such a millennial, animated primarily by the fear of falling down on the job?  Thanks, Great Recession!
  2. The ringtone for my boss.  Anyone who I work for and would be calling me about a job-related matter gets this ringtone.  That way, if I hear that tone, I know that I need to pick up as soon as humanly possible.  Other people (*COUGH Google Plus offers that won’t go away COUGH*) might not receive such a speedy response.

That’s all.

SAVE YOURSELF from “Horns”

2 08 2015

HornsLast summer, a friend of mine posted a cringe-worthy Huffington Post article on my wall that was titled “8 Movies From The Last 15 Years That Are Super Overrated.”  How on earth this piece managed to secure publication on a website of that caliber is beyond me since it included such memorable phrases as, “The problem with 2011’s ‘The Descendants‘ is that it sucked.”  Beyond being a terribly constructed and redundant sentence, it is also clearly NOT film criticism.

I try to avoid poor writing and potshots in my own reviews (although sometimes the devil on my shoulder manages to win).  But wow, I sure am tempted to pull out some low blow for Alexandre Aja’s “Horns,” one of the most wretched movies I have watched in quite some time.  So rather than drop to the level of that piece, I just decided to revive an old column … “Save Yourself!”

I can understand why Daniel Radcliffe and his management team might have thought this film seemed like a good idea on paper.  What better way to shed the squeaky clean image of The Boy Who Lived than to play someone who literally sprouts horns and basically functions as a Satanic figure?  “Horns” is basically his equivalent of Miley Cyrus twerking on Robin Thicke at the VMAs, though turns in “Kill Your Darlings” and “What If” accomplish the goal far better by just letting Radcliffe play convincing, real people.

Aja essentially lets Radcliffe off the leash in the role of Ig Parrish, letting him play the entire movie at the energy level the actor rapped “Alphabet Aerobics” on “The Tonight Show.”  After being falsely accused of raping and murdering his girlfriend, Ig’s horns serve as a supernatural blessing (or curse) to divine the real killer because – get this – the protuberances force people to spill all the skeletons from their closets.  Every moment feels so incredibly over the top and overblown, be it for comedy or for violence.  Actually, come to think of it, the violence even becomes perversely (and appallingly) comic in its heightened proportions.

“Horns” is not like a film in the vein of Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell,” where the ambiguity and ambivalence leave an exhilarating void for the viewer to supply their own reaction.  It’s just an indecisive tonal scramble, not sure whether it wants to be an all-out festival of gory horror or a black comedy.  Aja does neither effectively, and the film becomes a brutal slog to endure.  It’s not even overdone to the point of “so bad it’s good.”  This is just pain bad.  D1star

REVIEW: 10,000 km

1 08 2015

10,000 km10,000 km” puts a modern twist on the age-old conundrum known as the long distance relationship.  The Catalonian couple of David Verdaguer’s Sergi and Natalie Tena’s Alex finds itself rent asunder when the latter receives an artistic residency in Los Angeles.  Having made their union work for several years, they figure they can make it one more while Sergi remains in Barcelona.  Besides, with Skype and other text messaging services, they can remain in touch regularly.

Though the majority of Carlos Marques-Marcet’s film plays out as a two-hander centered around their conversations, yet “10,000 km” is best at capturing the loneliness of their arrangement.  While they may carry out talking with nothing mediating their connection but a screen, they still feel alienation effect of approximated presence.  They have each other, almost – and that tiny missing piece feels amplified by the number of kilometers separating them.

Nothing about Sergi and Alex’s ups and downs makes for particularly gripping cinema since their obstacles are fairly standard and predictable.  Their drama recalls Richard Linklater’s “Before” series with less developed characters and fewer profundities about the nature of love. But the way in which Marques-Marcet decides to let the story of “10,000 km” play out does prove quite absorbing for those who want to look beyond the chain of events.

As the scenes play out in rather drawn-out fashion, ponder a few questions: Why did he choose to show just the screen rather than the character’s full environment? Why depict a conversation from this person’s vantage point as opposed to the other’s?  “10,000 km” is a great environment to think about more than what the director says and move on to how he chooses to say it.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: A Lego Brickumentary

31 07 2015

A Lego BrickumentaryA Lego Brickumentary” gets part of its title by clever wordplay on the word “documentary,” appropriating about half of the letters it contains.  Fittingly, that roughly approximates the amount of content in the film that resembles non-fiction cinema.

As fun and engaging as the film might be to watch, directors Kief Davidson and Daniel Junge essentially do the bidding of the Lego brand.  This amounts to a shinily mounted piece of corporate propaganda, the kind of CNBC special that highlights the global reach and outreach of the company.  Lego comes across as a product deeply responsive to the needs and desires of its fans across all age groups – and, of course, the corporate social responsibility aspect gets trumpeted big time.

The film, with its friendly and funny narration provided by Jason Bateman in CGI Lego form, feels like it is not meant for consumption in the fashion of a normal documentary like “Citizenfour.” Discretely contained portions could play across multiple rooms at a Legoland exhibition, which may very well be its ultimate destination. (In which case, the feature format makes for a particularly egregious cash grab.)

But the puff piece elements notwithstanding, “A Lego Brickumentary” actually makes for pleasantly informative viewing. How people use the bricks for art, physics, and social connection proves very unexpected and fairly intriguing. Disentangling the reality from the corporate PR spin makes for a small concern, sure, yet getting to see how the Legos make such universal creative building blocks from geeks to math professors actually makes for quite an eye-opening watch.  B / 2halfstars

REVIEW: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

30 07 2015

The “Mission: Impossible” series, now spanning nearly two decades with its five installments, somehow manages to sustain a childlike sense of adulation for its leading man.  Tom Cruise, perhaps the biggest movie star in the world when the franchise launched in 1996, has seen his ups and downs both personally and professionally in the years that followed.

But watching “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” it seems like his star has miraculously managed to lose no shine.  These movies see no parallels between the furious arm-pumping intensity of Tom Cruise’s movie run and the limber legs that propelled him to jump on Oprah’s couch.  Never does his stardom feel laced with irony or constrained by public perception.  The film treats Cruise like the greatest thing since sliced bread … or at least since Harrison Ford.

Cruise makes his first on-screen appearance by dashing into frame after a quick cut on his unexpected opening line, and it feels triumphant.  This is the cinema’s closest approximation to the kind entrance that Bernadette Peters or Idina Menzel can make when they walk on stage – which is to say, it mandates a pause to let the audience applaud simply on sight.  Cruise, working on assignment for writer/director Christopher McQuarrie and co-writer Drew Pearce, so thoroughly owns his superstardom here that he gains the power to push “Going Clear” completely out of mind for two hours.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 30, 2015)

30 07 2015

Code BlackLeave your feelings about Obamacare at the door and enter with nothing but your humanity for “Code Black,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  This documentary takes one of the most hotly politicized issues of our time and makes it about people again.  Healthcare is a far too important topic to blindly accept a party line, director Ryan McGarry suggests, and we all ought to seriously consider what steps are really necessary to ensure the simplest way to preserve the doctor-patient relationship.

The film follows a class of ER doctors in America’s busiest facility, Los Angeles County Hospital.  And not only do they have the highest patient volume, but they also take on some of the toughest clients that get dismissed by private facilities – in particular, the mentally ill.  On top of it all, their operating budget gets determined by county officials who can easily choose to allocate less to the hospital (and usually do).

The residents all enter with a great sense of hope and integrity in their chosen career path, much of which gets slowly drained out of them over the course of a year.  They all speak eloquently of how they want to spend time with the sick, getting to know what causes their pain and quickly determining treatment.  But the reality, they come to find, is just mountains of paperwork to comply with crushing privacy regulations as well as defense against malpractice lawsuits.

Is this the ideal resting heart rate of America’s healthcare system?

“Code Black,” at the very least, hands the microphone over to the doctors and lets them describe the situation from the frontline.  No Beltway blustering allowed here, just trained professionals trying to live their calling and do their jobs in spite of all the obstacles placed in their way.  If what McGarry captured in his film represents even half the truth, then anyone who wants to become a doctor in this climate must be some percentage crazy.

Let’s just hope the population of crazies stays replenished for a while, lest we end up in the position of one of the rare patient interviewees in the film.  The 58-year-old attorney, who appears to have attained a relative amount of success, saw her business go up in flames and her insurance evaporate with it.  When we see her in the film, she waits for treatment at LA County with plenty of the urban poor.  McGarry asks her what she’s going to do next, and she can only reply, “I don’t know.”  The look of utter panic in her eyes ought to scare the living daylights out of everyone watching.  Thank goodness the doctors profiled in “Code Black” care.


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