REVIEW: The Search for General Tso

25 02 2015

General TsoWith a title like “The Search for General Tso,” one would expect something like a Food Network special.  But the documentary actually turns out to be less like that network and more like something found on the History Channel (although the last time I looked at the latter channel, I saw very little that qualified as historical).

By looking at the evolution of Chinese food and how entrepreneurial restauranteurs adapted it to fit the tastes of the host culture, “The Search for General Tso” finds a microcosm of the immigrant experience in America.  Changes in cuisine are highly tied to political events from Congressional exclusion acts to Nixon’s visit to the East that “opened” China.  Oh, and delectable items like the fortune cookie and General Tso’s chicken? Both 100% American inventions.

Director Ian Chaney’s film is really a tale about cultural appropriation and its omnipresence, which has really undermined the way the world understands the concept of “authenticity.”  Searching for General Tso marks not so much an objective for the documentary as it symbolically represents the social construction of ethnic culture.  In a slender 71 minute package, it whips up a satisfying meal – although such a short runtime can’t help but leave some lingering desire for an additional course.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Girlhood

24 02 2015

GirlhoodWriter/director Céline Sciamma’s third feature bears the title “Bande de Filles” in its native French tongue, which translates roughly to band (or group) of girls.  Yet the English release of the film gives it this name: “Girlhood.”  The title seems not only ill-fitting but also begging for immediate foiling against Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.”

Such a comparison is facile and does a disservice to Sciamma’s wonderfully observed film.  She does not aim to provide a wide-ranging snapshot of female youth.  “Girlhood” is less about one girl, be she specific or a stand-in for all women, and more about gendered group dynamics filtered through the experience of the protagonist, Marieme (Karidja Touré).  Sciamma’s work does resemble many other great films, however.

“Girlhood” recalls Tina Fey’s insightful script for “Mean Girls,” which also focuses on a troublemaking quartet of girls.  Both depict the ways in which either one person can set the tone for an entire group – or a paralysis of groupthink can conduct the unit.  Perhaps the most memorable scene in “Girlhood,” save a lip-sync rendition of “Diamonds” by Rhianna, occurs when the clique encounters a former member who was exiled when she became pregnant.  Group identity is everything for these adolescent girls, until it is nothing.

“Girlhood” recalls Catherine Hardwicke’s hard-hitting “Thirteen,” an intense drama that follows two taboo-shattering teen girls down a rabbit hole of drug abuse and promiscuity.  Admittedly, this connection is more superficial.  Sciamma shows her main characters committing some questionable acts, but they do not necessarily define them as people.

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REVIEW: Serena

23 02 2015

SerenaDespite all the negative press churned out by the rumor mill as it sat for years in the editing bay, “Serena” is far from a disaster.  Susanne Bier’s saga of competition and coveting in 1920s North Carolina certainly contains a fair share of riveting moments.  Overall, though, it seems to lack focus.

For instance, is the protagonist of the story George Pemberton, Bradley Cooper’s timber baron intent on protecting his land from government encroachment?  Or is it Serena Pemberton, Jennifer Lawrence’s arrestingly beautiful and tempestuously emotional business and life partner?  The answer is unclear because the movie lacks decisiveness.

The same goes for which of the two storylines in “Serena” – George and Serena’s tumultuous marriage, or their contentious capitalistic ventures – serves as the predominant one.  The film would have undoubtedly benefitted from the demotion of one to the status of a subplot.

With some of these fairly basic issues left unsettled, “Serena” quickly becomes mostly notable as a showcase for its stars.  Had Bier and her editors somehow turned the film around in a few months after shooting in spring 2012, the performances would likely have received no end of acclaim.  But now, three years have passed, in which time Cooper and Lawrence have collected a whopping five Oscar nominations.  Their George and Serena now feel rather penciled-in when measured against Pat Solitano and Tiffany Maxwell.

The 105 minutes necessary to watch “Serena” might be put to better use by rewatching “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle,” or “American Sniper.”  Those films feature the stars giving more fully fleshed-out performances (with better accents) while also featuring more confident direction.  The fine details available for discovery by digging deeper into those characters far outweighs what can be skimmed from the surface of this middle-of-the-road flick.  C+2stars

REVIEW: Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

22 02 2015

Guy and MadelineDamien Chazelle might have struck gold on “Whiplash,” but before that, he had to get “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” out of his system.  The former, now Oscar-winning film feels like the story the writer/director was born to tell.  His actual debut, however, seems like that final student film he had to submit to get a diploma.  (Chazelle is a Harvard graduate, by the way.)

Even as it catapults well over the bar of the average thesis film, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” still feels mired in its trappings.  Chazelle feels beholden to a stubborn insistence on his own artiness, as if to announce his own arrival onto the scene.  And, apparently, he seems willing to sacrifice the narrative clarity of his modern romance on its behalf.

He demonstrates a clear understanding of both cinema verite American independent film as well as MGM-style filmed musicals, even making the bold move to combine them into a single feature.  When he wants, Chazelle proves capable of making a few fun modernizations to the movie musical tropes.  But more often than not, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” appears uncommitted to its stylistic approach.  Chazelle, understandably, comes across as somewhat apprehensive of going full throttle.  C+2stars

REVIEW: John Wick

21 02 2015

John WickDirector Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad made it abundantly clear to star Keanu Reeves what kind of action movie “John Wick” should be.  This was not a philosophical puzzle like “The Matrix” or a thrilling cat-and-mouse adventure like “Speed.”  It was just fun, stupid entertainment that was fully aware of its own ridiculousness.

These unabashedly silly popcorn flicks can serve as fun antidotes to movies dripping in self-seriousness or an inflated sense of importance.  And, on paper, the seemingly washed-up Reeves makes for the perfect casting choice.  His presence also lends the film a meta narrative to accompany its actual one.  Reeves’ John Wick reawakens from retirement to unleash a can of whoop-ass on some people who did him wrong, just as it appears the actor himself wants to prove some value past his supposed expiration date.

While Reeves enables “John Wick” to reach its goal of being a campy, kitschy action film, he never does anything to help the movie differentiate itself.  If someone is in the mood for what the kind of adrenaline rush it hopes to offer, nothing stands out about this particular film.  Many other movies do it better (just in 2014, “Lucy” easily outdid it – and is rare for actually caring about women).

The only real highlight of “John Wick” is watching a B-list “The Expendables” form among the supporting cast.  Stahelski must have hired one great casting director if they could get all these notable character actors in one film.  Most just have one random scene, but when Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, and Michael Nyqvist (from the Swedish “Dragon Tattoo” and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol“) all show up, it is only natural to wonder who will pop up from behind the next door.  C+2stars

REVIEW: Wild Tales

20 02 2015

Wild TalesOver the past few years, the phenomenon of binge-watching television shows has essentially revolutionized the way media and narratives are consumed.  When they can sit still for longer than the duration of a ten-second snapchat, people now want a rapid succession of rising action and escalating climaxes.

Argentinian director Damián Szifron is certainly not the first person to create an anthology film, nor is he unique in housing multiple narrative threads under the same canopy.  Nonetheless, his “Wild Tales” feels special in the way it adapts this form to meet the demands of an audience with access to troves of great television (not to mention short films).  This thematically curated collection of six large scale mini-movies permits a rhythm of continual engagement and repeated payoff.

These dividends feel substantially greater than the average movie.  The effect could have something to do with the quantity of storytelling present in “Wild Tales,” yet Szifron also brings some serious quality to the table as well.  His characters and scenarios range from a jilted wife at her wedding reception to a raging motorist and even a plane full of people who all crossed the wrong man, but they all somehow circle back to matters of animalistic revenge and cosmic karma.

Fittingly, Szifron supplies a wickedly biting sense of irony to every tale.  While the guiding approach to each story might be similar, the manifestations are only similar in their dark, demented humor.  Those familiar with the social and political context of Argentina might get a little more out of the film, though “Wild Tales” communicates on such primal channels of human impulse that its appeal is not tied to one nation.  Anyone who has ever felt victimized or wronged by some unexplainable force should find something relatable in Szifron’s compilation … and then relish hovering over the proceedings, observing the pain of others from a god-like distance.  A-3halfstars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 19, 2015)

19 02 2015

The Imposter

“For as long as I could remember, I wanted to be someone else.”  So begins Frederic Bourdain, the narrator of Bart Layton’s documentary, “The Imposter.”  The line may seem commonplace, but it sets the stage for a rich exploration of identity – inherited, assumed, and forged.

Here is a case where the truth is not only stranger than fiction, as the old adage goes. “The Imposter” is also more interesting and compelling than many scripted narrative films these days, thus making it a more than deserving choice for my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  Bourdain uses one real story to illuminate the human proclivity for deception on a much grander scale, showing the way we bury secrets through buying into our own lies.

In 1990s Texas, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappears.  Three years later, he mysteriously reappears in Spain.  It’s rare to find a missing child alive years after disappearance … and even more uncommon to find that child in another country.  If the documentary sounds like a first cousin of the Clint Eastwood-Angelina Jolie film “Changeling,” the similarities end past the logline.

As the title implies, “The Imposter” is about someone pretending to be Nicholas Barclay – in this case, Frederic Bourdain.  A bum looking for any path to a better life, he falls short of a criminal mastermind, though he certainly knows how to exploit loopholes and alleyways in a lazy bureaucracy.  Somehow, he manages to circumvent each and every safeguard that should have exposed his act.

Since the film’s title makes direct reference to his deception, the through-line of suspense is the anticipation of the moment when his house of cards tumbles.  Yet just when the jig seems up for Bourdain, “The Imposter” takes one heck of a surprising turn.  Perhaps there is not only one talented artist of concealment in the film.  I’ll stop talking now, lest I spoil this gripping, entertaining, and enlightening film.


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