REVIEW: Tusk

25 09 2014

TuskI see so many movies that it’s easy to slip in to the comfortable delusion that I’m an unflappable moviegoer.  Nothing can scare me (save a cheap jump-out), nothing can shock me … you get how the fallacy operates.

Then I went to see “Tusk,” and I got an unfortunate reminder that I can still stare agape at the screen.  This came at the same time as remembering that there are certain sights I cannot unsee.  Here, that sight was Justin Long enveloped in a walrus suit made of human flesh.  (Because his ’70s porno mustache wasn’t frightening enough.)

Not that it was any more disgusting or scary than anything else I’d seen before.  I mainly sat in stunned, stupefied silence that someone had this idea and felt compelled to bring it to life for a paying audience.  I just wish there were some way to withdraw the $7.75 admission charge from financing, and thus implicitly encouraging, Kevin Smith’s bizarre and puerile stoner fantasies.

It was more than just the nasty walrus at its center that ticked me off about “Tusk,” though.  The entire enterprise seems ill-advised for a feature-length film.  Its beginning concept, the unsuspecting person stumbling into a den of horror and depravity, has been done by everything from “Psycho” to “Misery.”  Smith’s crazy of choice is Michael Parks’ Howard Howe, a Canadian backwoods-dweller intent on finding a man who he can transmute into the walrus, Mr. Tusk, with whom he fell in love with decades prior.

Smith’s take finds nothing new in the previously trodden territory, and the odd narrative structure and bloated length compound the imbecility of his specific story.  “Tusk” is the kind of idea that might make for a provocative YouTube video, but it lacks the depth and intrigue to sustain its 100 minute duration.  Even Johnny Depp, who shows up about an hour into the film in a baffling supporting role, cannot enliven the dead organism.

“Tusk” is all superfluous blubber with no meat.  Smith means to startle, but without providing any good cause for doing so, all he can do is elicit groans.  D1star





REVIEW: Salvo

24 09 2014

SalvoCannes Film Festival – Critic’s Week, 2013

In my second year at the Cannes Film Festival, I told myself I would expand my viewing beyond the Official Competition to enrich my experience.  (For those who might not know, the festival also has two officially recognized sidebars that boast impressive selections of their own.)  I feared I had run out of time to check out a film from Critic’s Week but noticed that, in a small pocket of freedom, I could catch a repeat screening of the winner, Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s “Salvo.”

Perhaps seeing the high expectations surrounding a newly crowned champion are to blame for my intensely negative reaction.  Or maybe I was just fatigued given that this was my fourth film of the day.  But I don’t think I had a more miserable viewing experience at that festival than “Salvo.”

The filmmakers commit themselves to minimalism, which is certainly not an immediate cause for dismissal.  But the reservedness does not draw us in further or illuminate the characters.  It’s the case where nothing just means nothing. “Salvo” has an interesting enough plot – an Italian mafia hitman has a crisis of conscience when faced with the prospect of having to whack a blind girl – but it’s executed with such an excruciating lack of urgency that it renders the final product practically unwatchable.  D / 1star





REVIEW: Tracks

23 09 2014

TracksLondon Film Festival, 2013

Maybe this is something I will grow out of as I get older, but I have always identified most with the wandering protagonists of the cinema.  From Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate” to Ryan Bingham in “Up in the Air,” these perpetual seekers seemed to forge the strongest and longest-lasting connection with me.

So I seemed predisposed to click with Robyn Davidson, the protagonist of the film “Tracks” who perilously treks with camels through the Australian desert just to learn something about herself.  I found myself nodding in vigorous agreement with the film’s epigraph from Davidson, “Some nomads are at home everywhere.  Others are at home nowhere, and I was one of those.”

Yet once the film began in earnest, I related to Davidson’s journey with mild intensity at best.  I felt distant from her the entire way, kept at arm’s length by Mia Wasikowska’s generic performance.  She and the film meander towards no particular destination, although that wouldn’t be a problem if the journey yielded any significant personal developments (and “Tracks” really doesn’t).

The film is still interesting to watch, even if it doesn’t inspire reflection at the level suggested by its opening quotation.  The cinematography by Mandy Walker captures all the sweeping beauty of the inhospitable outback, and Adam Driver (from “Girls”) makes for some amusing comic relief as Rick Smolan, a National Geographic photographer who sporadically documents her progress.  But sadly, “Tracks” never satisfyingly captures the psychology of its subject.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Stoker

22 09 2014

When I left “Stoker,” I was not entirely sure whether I liked or loathed it.  The sentiment was distinct from the normal ambivalence that I feel about rather bland, unremarkable films.  Rarely had such conflicting emotions about a work of art seemed so passionless to me.

Chan-wook Park’s English-language debut certainly has a cool neo-Hitchcock vibe to it, particularly in its impressive editing and heavy dependence on atmosphere.  Very little happens in “Stoker,” which revolves around an odd teenager India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), once her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) moves in to “comfort” her recently widowed mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).  They interact in cryptic ways, which are often so vague that only the language of the camera gives any clue as to what to make of it.

At first, this indistinctness is chillingly beguiling.  But after a while, “Stoker” just starts to feel like a bunch of smoke and mirrors.  I had no idea where the movie was going until the last 30 minutes, largely because it lacked a firm narrative.  And when there is little story to follow, all attention shifts to aesthetics.  With all that extra attention, Park’s style reveals itself as rather empty.

Perhaps “Stoker” can approximate a Hitchcock thriller in terms of finesse. But Hitch had compassion for his characters, which is such a crucial X factor that has led his work to retain such a foothold in the public imagination.  Park, on the other hand, builds such a distance between us and the characters that I found myself retreating into my own imagination to think about the next movie on my agenda.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Starred Up

21 09 2014

Starred UpStarred Up,” not unlike its apparent next-of-kin “Bronson,” falls firmly into the category of great but not sensational British prison movies.  It’s entirely engaging and entertaining, even though it does not look beyond its confined setting.  And I’m totally fine with it.

The film begins with a silent bang as its protagonist, Eric Love, arrives to be locked away.  He’s the spiritual progeny of anarchic Randall P. McMurphy from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and James Dean’s renegade Jim Stark from “Rebel Without a Cause.  Already hardened by years in a juvenile facility, Eric arrives to play with the big boys and establish his position at the top of the pre-ordained social structure.

Rising star Jack O’Connell brings writer Jonathan Asser’s creation to vivid life with a viciously physical performance.  O’Connell neither entirely humanizes nor animalizes Eric, yet he’s still a staggering force.  Even as he erects barriers preventing us from really sympathizing with Eric, he becomes all the more enticing of a character.

His insurgency, of course, causes conflicts with other hardened criminals in the pen.  But it also draws the interest of two figures who feel compelled to save Eric from his foolish youthful mistakes.  One is, somewhat predictably, prison counselor Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend) who takes more interest than usually in psychologically stabilizing a potentially dangerous inmate.  More surprisingly, the other is Eric’s estranged father Neville (the highly underappreciated Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to make sure his son finds his place in the pecking order.

There’s no conventional battle for Eric’s soul.  There’s no giant climax the film towards which the film heads.  And, yes, there’s also nothing of particularly extraordinary merit in “Starred Up.”  But it has great storytelling and great acting that is wholeheartedly effective for the film’s entire duration.  Sometimes that in itself is sufficient.  B+ / 3stars





REVIEW: This Is Where I Leave You

20 09 2014

This Is Where I Leave YouIt took me until a college intro-level theater class to realize it, but the term melodrama actually means “music drama.”  In Shawn Levy’s adaptation of the novel “This Is Where I Leave You,” he really deploys that definitional dimension to convey all the film’s emotion.

As if we couldn’t already tell that two family members alone together was going to result in clichéd conversation, Levy cues each scene up with Michael Giacchino’s gentle piano score to softly amplify the forced profundity.  Or maybe if we’re lucky, Levy will treat us to a mellow Alexei Murdoch ditty.  (The singer is employed far less effectively than he was by Sam Mendes in “Away We Go,” for the few out there who care.)

The film seems to move forward solely on the logic that everyone needs to almost cry alone with each other.  It doesn’t matter to what extent the actors can manage authenticity – usually they don’t manage at all – because it’s impossible to escape the hoary hokeyness of the directorial heavy-handedness.

“This Is Where I Leave You,” which follows a family of four estranged siblings coming back to sit shiva for their deceased father, brings a lot more under its roof than it can handle.  Levy recruited a heck of a cast but seems unsure of how to deploy them in roles that require more than easy comedy.  The film’s dialogue makes more than a few attempts at humor, yet its talented players seem to timid to explore that element.

The reserve of the cast only serves to exacerbate the awkward blending of three distinct comic stylings: the reactionary stoicism of Jason Bateman, the strung-out loquaciousness of Tina Fey, and the live wire erraticism of Adam Driver.  (As for Corey Stoll, their eldest sibling … well, every family needs one serious member).  They don’t feel like family members so much as they come across as uncommonly adept scene partners who can feign a passable relationship until someone yells cut.

Read the rest of this entry »





F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 19, 2014)

19 09 2014

All About My MotherIf you’ve been paying attention to recent trends in cinema, you’ll note that this isn’t a particularly great time for women.   Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain recently remarked, “the female characters, very rarely do they get to speak to another female character in a movie, and when they do it’s usually about a guy, not anything else. So they’re very male-centric, Hollywood films, in general.”

Five years after Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director, women still only direct less than 5% of studio releases and 10% of indie films.  Not to mention, they comprised only 14% of the lead roles in 2013.  And yet, women make up half the population and a slight majority of the cinematic viewing audience.  What gives?

If you are looking for a film that actually gives women the spotlight and attention they deserve, you ought to check out my pick for “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” Pedro Almodóvar’s “All About My Mother.”  This Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film boasts a female-centric ensemble probing all sorts of gender issues.  Almodóvar takes the time to give each character real humanity and inner life, two things which should sadly be a no-brainer for women in film (but often are not incorporated).

If you have the chance, be sure to familiarize yourself with “All About Eve” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” before dipping your toes in “All About My Mother.”  They certainly aren’t required to understand the film, but having some knowledge of them will unlock reservoirs of meaning beneath its surface.  Almodóvar engages audiences who enter with this cultural context in a very astutely observed conversation about the ways in which we internalize meaningful works of art.

Flowing from that, “All About My Mother” mainly concerns itself with the roles females play in society.  The film follows Cecilia Roth’s Manuela, a consummate matriarch mourning the tragic loss of her only son, as she brings and holds together a group of women all struggling with gender-related issues.  Pregnancy, cross-dressing, jealousy, suspicion … you name it, this film has it.  Almodóvar expertly juggles many characters and ideas, somehow managing to never drop a single one.  The experience feels nothing short of enlightening (and even 15 years later, still needs to make its way onto some Hollywood executives’ desks).








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