F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 14, 2014)

14 11 2014

In 2006, I only knew Channing Tatum from playing man-candy roles in teen films like “She’s The Man” and “Step Up.”  But had I been paying attention, I would have noticed that he was also in a smaller indie film called “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.”  Tatum showed such skill and promise as a dramatically compelling and emotionally potent actor; it is such a shame that it has taken eight years for someone like Bennett Miller to convert that potential in “Foxcatcher.”

In a cast that includes Shia LaBeouf, Dianne Wiest, Chazz Palminteri, Rosario Dawson, and Robert Downey, Jr., Tatum is easily the standout.  “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” not solely for his performance, however.  Dito Montiel, adapting his own memoir for his screenwriting/directing debut, creates a deeply personal film out of his experiences that shakes up stuffy literature-on-screen conventions.

The action is split between the 1980s and the 2000s as the character Dito (played by LaBeouf and Downey, Jr.) comes to terms with his upbringing in Queens.  As a teen, he begins with a vague sense of yearning to move away from the gritty environment of Astoria, and the events of the film further solidify his need for escape.  “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” does not pass extreme judgment on the other characters, though; Montiel operates from behind the scenes out of respect for the figures of his past and refuses to let them become violent, delinquent archetypes of teen gang members.

Tatum’s character, Dito’s violent but admirably loyal companion Antonio, is defined less by what he does than who he is.  This makes him arguably more fascinating than Dito himself, who clearly achieves his aims of getting out since he narrates from decades later; Tatum captures this unpredictability to gripping effect.  Montiel’s direction matches this mercuriality, playing with form and self-awareness and discovering some intriguing (if not always extremely successful) results.  His “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” finds fresh variation on familiar themes and stories – not to mention one talent who is only now receiving appropriate roles.





REVIEW: Red Army

14 11 2014

New York Film Festival

Cultural differences can manifest themselves in almost every activity. Most, however, presume a modicum of universality to sports – after all, what are the Olympic Games if not a union of the world around competition and athleticism? Gabe Polsky says otherwise in his documentary “Red Army,” a look at Russian hockey with an emphasis on the country’s turbulent ‘80s and ‘90s.

There is no allele that makes Russians more predisposed to hold court on the ice; like many attributes of any people, social forces heavily condition its expression. In the Soviet Union, hockey was more than a sport. It was an expression of their national ideals, particularly collectivism. Some of the clips in “Red Army” that feature their national team passing should honestly be used in business presentations on synergy. (Maybe the only other place five people act so efficiently like one being would be in a “Human Centipede” movie.)

Red Army

Polsky effectively shows how, for the Soviet Union, hockey not only encapsulated their society in microcosm but also how sport could become politics itself.  That journey is shown best by the film’s central personality, Slava Fetisov.  After being brought up in the Russian youth farm system for youth, he eventually earned the ultimate honor of a spot on their Olympic team (only to be on the other side of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice”).  He also carries the distinction of being one of his country’s first defectors to capitalism on ice, or, as we call it in America, the National Hockey League.

Festiov, and “Red Army” as a whole, shows the best and the worst of the Russian tradition of collectivism.  He and his teammates, when at their highest function, translated the aesthetic beauty of the country’s Bolshoi ballet into athletic grace.  Yet such an emphasis on interdependence leaves them ill-equipped to mesh with the Western world and its individualistic style.  Russia’s political collapse coupled with the flight of its hockey stars really does result in a loss of national pride.  Thank goodness documentarians like Polsky are looking for these kinds of stories in less-than-obvious places.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Dumb and Dumber To

13 11 2014

If ever there were a walking contradiction of a film, it would be “Dumb and Dumber To.”  I remain confounded as to how a film can be so clever yet so inane at the same time.  Some jokes in the film are actually quite ingenious, but usually just when it registers, Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) make some crack that would not even entertain the least discerning thirteen-year-old.

So what to make of the Farrelly Brothers’ latest comedy, an uneven blend of upper-middle- and low-brow humor?  It caters to two wildly opposite sensibilities, providing no real meeting point for them.  I have a feeling its median will be both happy or unhappy, depending on how tolerant a particular viewer is when they approach “Dumb and Dumber To.”

I would have been a little happier had the film not been so long; clocking in at a tumid 110 minutes, Harry and Lloyd, who are essentially glorified sketch comedy characters, really overstay their welcome.  It’s certainly not as if the plot sweeps us up because it amounts to little more than a skeleton onto which the jokes can graft themselves.  The wild, “Tommy Boy”-esque goose chase that ensues from Harry’s need for a kidney replacement brings a few good natural jokes, though the real laughs arise from the off-handed remarks and abundant malapropisms.

There are also far more laughs coming from Jeff Daniels, who rarely gets the chance to be this funny.  Carrey plays shades of his wacky, off-kilter Lloyd all the time; Daniels, on the other hand, only breaks out Harry once in a blue moon.  He usually waxes witty in everything from “Looper” to “The Squid and the Whale,” yet it is really a fun treat to watch him cut loose – even if the material feels beneath him at times.

And as a final post-script, whoever put in two seconds of Riskay’s “Smell Yo Dick” as Lloyd’s ringtone should pat themselves on the back.  I doubt they intended it to generate a big rise, but I caught the reference and got a wickedly perverse amount of pleasure from it.  Obscure semi-viral videos from 2009 should still have a place in our culture five years later, and better it be in “Dumb and Dumber To” than on another obnoxious nostalgia-exploiting clickbait BuzzFeed list.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Foxcatcher

12 11 2014

FoxcatcherTelluride Film Festival

In the opening minutes of “Foxcatcher,” a quietly quotidian montage details the routine of Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz, a wrestler living and training modestly in spite of winning gold at the 1984 Olympic Games.  The sequence concludes with him stepping behind a podium to address a less than captivated audience of elementary school students, and he begins with the line, “I want to talk about America.”

This opening remark appears to be a harbinger portending a film where director Bennett Miller will talk at us about America.  Ramming any sort of message down our throats, however, seems the last thing on Miller’s mind.  The deliberately paced and masterfully moody “Foxcatcher” provides a trove of discussion-worthy material about the dark underbelly of the world’s most powerful nation.  What Miller actually wants is to talk with us about America.

Miller works deftly within the framework of E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s script, which itself feels beholden to no convention or genre. They slowly parse out information on the characters of the film, providing disturbing details and abnormal actions that do not lend themselves to easy explanation. “Foxcatcher” thrives on small moments that do not seem incredibly consequential as they occur, though their cumulative effect is quite the knockout.

The film crafted by Miller is not one of conventional capital-A “Acting.” It’s performance as being, not as much doing. While the talented trifecta of Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo still has plenty of events to live out, they function best as the shiniest components of a larger tonal machine. Miller expertly employs them to highlight the sinister undercurrents running beneath the eerie, brooding surface of “Foxcatcher.”

His proclivity for cutaways and long-held takes has a tendency to turn the characters into specimens, but such an approach also solicits active examination.  The film’s co-leads, Tatum and Carell, each carry themselves in an unconventional, magnified manner that invites peering past their appearances.  What lurks beneath are truly tormented men, each seeking a symbolic meaning system to bring them fulfillment.

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REVIEW: The Blue Room

11 11 2014

The Blue RoomMathieu Amalric’s directorial venture “The Blue Room” is cobbled together from some fairly familiar elements: adulterous lovers, ongoing deceit, crimes of passion, to name a few.  But like many a successful film, the components themselves matter less than their arrangement.

Amalric is quite the visual stylist, a skill he could easily have absorbed from some of the great filmmakers with whom he has collaborated over the years (Julian Schnabel, Roman Polanski, David Cronenberg).  “The Blue Room” is a carefully constructed collage of image and sound, compellingly edited to gently pivot between past and present.  Each shot hums with equal parts mystery and beauty.

The film clocks in at a lean 76 minutes, yet that is more than enough time for Amalric to provide an adaptation of Georges Simenon’s novel that feels complete enough for the price of admission.  The level of intrigue does start to drop off some at the back half of “The Blue Room,” though, as the police interrogation and criminal trial of the lovers moves from a framing device to the film’s main storyline.  Still, Amalric keeps things interesting through the shrouding and obfuscating of narrative truth.

“The Blue Room” doles out information on a need-to-know basis, not immediately declaring what crime the lovers have committed, who is under suspicion, or even who the victim is.  Moreover, the motives and allegiances of uneasily married Julien (Amalric, in front of the screen) and his mistress, the unhappily wedded Esther (Stéphanie Cléau), are always murkily identified at best.

Amalric’s purposeful indeterminacy extends as far as his portrayal of their sexual encounters.  If their moaning is audible, Amalric shows shots of the locale rather than the entwining of their bodies.  If they are visibly making love, the soundtrack reflects an entirely different noise.  These half-truths in “The Blue Room” eventually add up to something just short of complete illumination – but far greater than the average cinematic affair.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Rosewater

10 11 2014

RosewaterTelluride Film Festival

It is fairly common for a director to choose a protagonist that they identify with to some degree – after all, why devote years of your life to telling someone’s story if you cannot connect to them?  Thus, Christopher Nolan directs films about obsessive heroes, David O. Russell has recently been looking at characters trying to reinvent themselves, and Woody Allen devotes movie after movie to sexually tense intellectuals (just to name a few).

At first glance, few similarities appear between Jon Stewart, the director of the film “Rosewater,” and its subject, Maziar Bahari.  Stewart is, of course, a wildly popular satirical newscaster who has left an indelible mark on American political discourse.  Bahari, on the other hand, is an Iranian-Canadian journalist who dared to document the tense 2009 elections in his home country.  They did happen to somewhat cross paths, though, as Bahari appeared on a segment for The Daily Show.

This humorous interview was entertainment for Americans and evidence for the Iranian government, which was looking to clamp down on dissidents in the wake of former President Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election.  Bahari spent nearly four months in jail there, much of it in solitary confinement, while being interrogated ruthlessly as an enemy of the state.  “Rosewater” may very well exist as a film to placate the guilt in Stewart’s soul for his small role in causing this pain.

Yet self-absolution is far too simplistic an explanation for the film, as Stewart clearly identifies a kindred spirit in Bahari.  They face remarkably different circumstances and stakes in their line of work, obviously, but Stewart and Bahari both speak truth to power by relying on principles of logic and reason.  In the face of resistance, neither is afraid to use to ridicule the institutional folly.  Whether Bahari actually embodies these characteristics is anybody’s guess.  It is not hard, however, to imagine Stewart standing in the holding cell delivering his lines.

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REVIEW: Interstellar

9 11 2014

“We were meant to be explorers, pioneers – not caretakers,” utters Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper towards the start of “Interstellar.”  This declaration is true not only for the world of the film but also of its filmmaker, the inimitable Christopher Nolan.  As if exploring the deepest corners of the mind with “Inception” or redefining an entire cinematic genre with “The Dark Knight” was not enough, he has now flung his vision and ambition into the farthest reaches of space and time.

His “Interstellar” is not limited by dimensions nor encumbered by gravity.  It defies time and space entirely.  It is at once poetic and narrative.  It is a calculated work of science that also operates from a profound emotional level, wedding Kubrickian formalism to Spielbergian sentimentalism.  And most importantly, it inspires wonder and awe.

This is why, at least in Christopher Nolan’s lifetime, the movie theater experience will not perish.  His cinema is bold, immersive, and ultimately transcendent.  He goes beyond capturing an image or a feeling for what it is, showing the majesty it can embody and convey.  When at his calibrated best, Nolan can invoke not only a visceral reaction but also a spiritual one.

He is the undeniable myth maker of our time.  If that does not prompt loyal adherence, it should, at the bare minimum, command admiration and respect.  No one else working with this massive a budget is coming anywhere close to approximating Nolan’s scope or verve.  “Interstellar” is the latest shining star in his cinematic universe, and it shines brightly as a paradigm of balancing artistry and authorship along with accessibility and avant-gardism.

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