F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 22, 2015)

22 01 2015

The Sundance Film Festival arrives, like clockwork, at the beginning of each year to inject a fresh bit of hope into our outlook for the upcoming year in film.  While we tire of the year’s awards season crop, the system begins to harvest its plants to bloom over the months to come.  The festival is great at providing two specific kinds of films: discoveries of major new talents from completely out of the blue, and surprising indie turns from well-known stars.  (Without said talent, the films would never be able to receive any financing.)

“Kill Your Darlings” falls into the latter camp.  This 2013 film was a big step in Daniel Radcliffe’s career reinvention – or at least a full-fledged turn of the page – from only being recognized as Harry Potter.  He stars as a young Allen Ginsberg, far before “Howl” brought the beat poet into censorship as well as the national spotlight.

John Krokidas’ debut feature is so much more than just a showcase for Radcliffe’s talent, though.  It is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because it tells a compelling, human story that just happens to be about a renowned poet.  His script, co-written with Austin Bunn, never veers into the realm of becoming a portrait gallery for the nascent counterculture movement.  Sure, there are appearances by William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), but the script never loses sight of who they are as people.

“Kill Your Darlings” does not feel the need for reverence to the towering legacy of a figure, an advantage the film is able to possess in part because it takes place before Ginsberg and his pals went supernova.  The plot begins with a young Ginsberg entering Columbia in 1943, where he quickly bristles with the established order and the canonized poets.  Radcliffe’s performance teems with self-discovery and fully realizes the awakening of an artist; perhaps there is a meta connection responsible for

Yet Radcliffe is not even the movie’s scene-stealing performer.  That honor goes to Dane DeHaan, star of “Chronicle” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” who has really begun to build a formidable résumé.  He plays livewire Lucien Carr, an obstreperous rebel.  He takes Ginsberg from a student merely curious about the iconoclasm of Walt Whitman into a full bohemian beatnik.  Lucien also lures him into a love triangle with an older outsider, Michael C. Hall’s David Kammerer, that turns bloody and forces Ginsberg to make a tough ethical decision.

“Kill Your Darlings” is part biopic, part drama, part thriller, and part exploration of an artistic movement’s birth pangs.  All these elements cohere marvelously into one wholly satisfying film.  It is one heck of a debut for Krokidas, and it makes a great case for Radcliffe and DeHaan to receive some meaty roles in the feature.

REVIEW: 99 Homes

22 01 2015

Telluride Film Festival

In 2002, President George W. Bush declared, “Here in America, if you own a home, you’re realizing the American Dream.”  Six years later, that unbridled spirit of homeownership at all costs led to a bubble of subprime mortgages bursting and contributing to the tanking of the nation’s economy.  This time of panic and crisis brought about pain for many hard-working Americans, and it also provides the foundation for writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s gripping look into the dark heart of capitalism, “99 Homes.”

Over five years years ago, George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham arrived on screens to inform blue-collar workers they were out of a job in Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air.”  A similar task falls to Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash, the protagonist of “99 Homes,” who enforces evictions in working-class Florida neighborhoods.  Bingham, however, could stay detached from the plight of the newly unemployed; Dennis can receive no such comfort.  Before becoming the man doing the evicting, he and his family were the evicted.

99 Homes

In order to provide for his son Connor and mother Lynn (Laura Dern), Dennis turns to the very person responsible for putting them in dire economic straits: the vile, e-cigarette smoking realtor Rick Carver (Michael Shannon).  While everyone suffers, his business booms, and Dennis is willing to sell his soul to his persecutor if it means putting food on the table.  Sure, he shares in some of the profits.  But, at the end of the day, Dennis heads back to the same kind of cheap motel to which he banishes countless other families.

Through Dennis, Bahrani brilliantly illustrates the sociological concept of false consciousness.  He buys into Carver’s policies and slowly deludes himself into believing he is of a higher class standing.  Carver, an unabashed believer that America only bails out winners like himself, takes the spoils and leaves workers like Dennis with the scraps.  Advancing out of their precarious position is merely an illusion.


If this sounds pessimistic, Bahrani earns the right with his intellectual depth.  “99 Homes” also wisely focuses on characters whose very livelihoods are in jeopardy because of the financial crisis.  Most films that have tried to grapple with the effects of the recession – “The Company Men,” “Margin Call,” “Arbitrage,” “Blue Jasmine” – only dare to assume the perspective of the upper-class descending to the middle-class.  Dennis and his family are not worrying about losing the Porsche or selling off the jewelry.  If they descend any lower, it is outright poverty and destitution.

Stemming from this standpoint, the stakes feel appropriately extreme enough both to feel deeply and contemplate thoroughly.  Bahrani often scores the film with tense, thriller-like music, and it works exceptionally well.  If the lives hanging in the balance and the severity of the moral compromises being made do not merit an increasing heart rate, nothing does.

99 Homes

If the film feels exaggerated and over the top, the financial crisis was an absolute nightmare for many families that felt borderline apocalyptic, so grandiosity is justifiable.  If it feels like a preachy morality play, at least Bahrani has his heart and mind in the right place.  He understands that the home is a symbol of heritage, inheritance, legacy, and personal pride.

Yet “99 Homes” communicates something more important.  The home itself is not the American Dream.  It is the well-being of the people inside of the home.  A-3halfstars


21 01 2015

CakeJennifer Aniston stars in “Cake” as Claire Bennett, a woman struggling with chronic pain following a tragic automotive accident.  The poster and production stills almost completely hide it, but she sports a deep and instantly noticeable scar on her face stemming from the traumatic event.

And, per usual in an indie drama, the emotional scars run far deeper.  She attends group therapy as well as physical rehabilitation only to undo their progress in a toxic cocktail of booze and painkillers.  Claire further masks her agony through biting, sardonic wisecracks, deflecting anyone from exposing her pressing need for help.

It would be wrong to assign the character sole responsibility for her continuing struggles; the maelstrom of physical and emotional pain presents a tough obstacle for even the strongest individual to overcome.  Claire’s self-destructive tendencies do not disqualify her from receiving sympathy, either, yet the movie’s myopic focus on her pity party feels … well, pitiful.

Not to discredit or downplay her anguish, but Claire is a wealthy, white Angeleno living comfortably in unexplained luxury.  Her inability to function in society, shockingly, never seems to raise doubts about the continuance of her lifestyle.  She never seems to worry about having the funds to procure pain pills in Tijuana, and she never entertains the possibility of a world without the invaluable assistance of her inexplicably loyal Hispanic maid and driver Silvana (Oscar nominee Adrianna Barraza).

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REVIEW: Heartbeats

18 01 2015

HeartbeatsXavier Dolan’s “Heartbeats” amounts to little more than a schoolyard game between the straight female Marie (Monia Chokri) and gay male Francis (Dolan) for the affections of a sexually ambiguous Adonis, the flirtatious and friendly Nicolas (Niels Schneider).  Holding him up as a physical ideal, they objectify Nicolas as a prize to win.  And since Dolan casts himself, determining where his sympathy lies hardly proves daunting.

But the story is hardly the story of “Heartbeats.”  The precocious Dolan loves playing with speed, motion, and movement; on the latter front, he could rival the widely recognized master, David Fincher.  At times, the style threatens to overwhelm the film by virtue of its sheer virtuosity.  Fincher once said, “They know you can do anything, so the question is what don’t you do.”  Dolan, somewhat problematically, does everything he can do, and the movie comes off a bit like a highlight reel.

Still, “Heartbeats” tingles with the sexual energy of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Y Tu Mamá También,” mostly because of its powerful visual language. Dolan, impressively, manages to leave it unconsummated.  Possibilities and suggestions float through the air, yet they mostly just linger there.  Though Dolan goes all out with his bold technique, the beating heart of the film is anchored in this very authentic representation of love and desire.  Such a portrayal makes the film both watchable and enjoyable, even after the seemingly endless parade of mini-music videos.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Virunga

17 01 2015


Fortunately for the filmmakers of “Virunga,” but rather unfortunately for the sake of humanity, the titular Congolese park is a hotbed for a whole host of ills and tragedies.  At the start of the film, director Orlando von Einsiedel introduces a set of park rangers who literally put their lives at risk to protect a population of endangered mountain gorillas from poachers.  One ranger, rather touchingly, describes his relationship to them in these terms: “I am not a father. I am a mother [to these gorillas].”

As if that were not enough to keep them occupied, the multinational oil corporation Soco announces their intent to drill for oil within Virunga.  Oil exploitation conflicts directly with conservation, naturally, so their proposed operation is technically illegal.  But not to worry – Soco bribed the local officials to make it possible!  (In a statement shown before the final credits, the company vehemently denies any wrongdoing or unethical interference.)  The Congo, still sorting out its own internal sparring, never stood a chance to unite and block the destruction of their land.

When it comes to exploring the dirty dealings of Soco, “Virunga” relies heavily on the investigative journalism of French reporter Melanie Gouby and her hidden camera recordings.  Her presence, informative though it may be, does slightly throw off the equilibrium of the documentary.  von Einsiedel tackles so much, and at times, discerning the true center of gravity is tough.  Who is the subject – Gouby or the nature conservationists? What is the central concern – the business, the oil, the land, the animals, or the general status of Africa?

“Virunga” manages collapse all its issues and questions into one mostly convincing narrative of capitalistic colonialism and civil conflict.  It provides a wide view of all the issues without giving any of them short shrift, not giving an overly broad or cursory treatment to any of its individual components.  Most importantly, the stakes are appropriately high.  von Einsiedel structures many parts of his film like a thriller, and it feels even scarier because these are real people and animals at risk.  If the world does not stand up and stop this injustice, an entire species could vanish from the face of the earth.  B / 2halfstars

REVIEW: American Sniper

16 01 2015

Towards the beginning of “American Sniper,” Bradley Cooper’s cowboy turned Navy SEAL Chris Kyle receives the instruction to make pulling a trigger an unconscious effort.  Director Clint Eastwood and writer Jason Hall, however, ensure that the audience watching Kyle’s exploits are very conscious of the rationale and logic behind the dispatch of every bullet.  No kill feels sensationalized to satisfy bloodlust, even when that sentiment disguises itself as patriotism.

The film simply portrays one man’s experience during four tours in the post-9/11 Middle East, opting not for any anti-military statement (like “Green Zone“) nor for a chest-thumping jingoism (like “The Kingdom”).  Since Kyle is the protagonist and the eyes through which the viewer watches the film, of course “American Sniper” tilts in his favor.  But he is not celebrated merely because of his record 160 kills; the film lionizes Kyle because of the value he placed on leadership and loyalty.

At this stage in the cinema’s grappling with what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, just telling stories from over there seems important.  And that basically sums up the extent of what “American Sniper” is: a presentation of Chris Kyle’s narrative.  Eastwood and Hall never fully commit to either showing the full terror of combating terrorism (a la “Lone Survivor“) or the grueling mental experience of the soldiers (in the vein of “The Hurt Locker“).  They pull elements from each effectively, yet they never really advance a thesis or a broader takeaway.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 15, 2015)

15 01 2015

Layout 1In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, the world once again finds itself in a place of anger and fear towards the Islamic faith because of a few violent radicals.  So often, the media tends to “otherize” these jihadists, completely denying them any shred of humanity because of their barbaric acts.  Needless to say, any detailed attempt to actually understand why they do these things is totally off the table.

Thank goodness, though, for documentarians like Laura Poitras (who now seems almost destined to win the Oscar for her courageous and journalistic “Citizenfour“).  She dares to search inside the hearts and minds of the people often made out to be the enemy, simply portraying them for who they are without taking a judgmental stance.  Her second feature, “The Oath,” takes a long look at al-Qaeda operatists in Yemen.

Watching the film does not require sympathy with the terrorists.  Poitras simply asks that they not be deemed savages without hearing their worldview.  “The Oath” is my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” for the way it puts a human face on jihadists and Islamic fundamentalists, going beyond their violent suicide attacks.  Possessing an understanding of them based in knowledge rather than in fear and hatred can only elevate policy discussion, right?

Poitras focuses most of her attention on Nasser Al-Bahri, also known as Abu Jandal.  By day, Abu Jandal is a taxi driver in San’a.  Off the streets, however, he trains the next generation of jihadists.  As he explains, “We don’t need everyone working in TNT and C4,” and his gift of switching the primacy of mens’ paths from men to Allah makes him too valuable an asset to sacrifice.  He spreads awareness of why al Qaeda attacked, yet he is no longer actively involved in the prior planning or subsequent justifying of such attacks.

Abu Jandal is decidedly against America and the West, but Poitras does not hesitate the highlight the complexities of his background and character.  Prior to the events shown in the film, Abu Jandal had served as a bodyguard to Osama bin Laden himself.  Yet when he saw the events of 9/11, he reacted with shock and dismay.  Imprisoned at the time, Abu Jandal decided to share his knowledge with the American authorities and provided enough valuable intelligence to justify delaying an invasion of Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Poitras also details the trial of Abu Jandal’s former companion, Salim Hamdan, who faces trial of questionable ethics in Guantanamo.  These scenes are colder and less intimate than the main narrative, playing like a classic political exposé documentary.  Nonetheless, the storylines still pair well with each other.

In “The Oath,” the subjects are neither lionized nor demonized.  Poitras simply allows to speak freely and openly about their beliefs without having to assume a defensive tone.  This is an opportunity to learn and listen like few others ever presented.


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