F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 23, 2015)

23 07 2015

WhiteyIn light of the recent spate of thinkpieces written without having seen the movie in discussion, I do not wish to continue this shameful trend by discussing the (at the time of publishing) unseen “Black Mass.” But, based on information released to the public, I think I can safely make two assumptions.

1. The film’s protagonist is notorious Boston criminal Whitey Bulger. Whether Scott Cooper decides to portray him as a hero, a villain, or an antihero, Johnny Depp’s character will be front and center, which will likely have the effect of encouraging the audience to see the events through his eyes.

2. The film presumes as fact the assertion that Whitey Bulger was an FBI informant.  It’s even listed in the one sentence logline on IMDb.

This constitutes a basis for great cinema, and I do look forward to reading the reviews out of Venice for Scott Cooper’s film (and then likely seeing it myself).  But great cinema does not always align with reality.  For that, thank goodness we have documentarians like Joe Berlinger willing to interrogate the established narrative.

He calls into question a key assumption about Whitey Bulger – namely, that he served as an informant for the FBI.  Sure, he was likely in leagues with federal agents like John Connolly.  But was his involvement officially sanctioned by the government, or merely part of a larger cover-up within the government to hide their implicit sanctioning of Whitey’s rampant murders?

That’s the key question in “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger.”  Though it might sound like the basis of a conspiracy theory documentary found in the dark corners of YouTube, Berlinger’s thought-provoking piece is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  At the very least, he urges a look at the case with a critical eye that takes nothing for granted.  The film lays out the facts about a ruthless mob boss who knew how to play his cards right with every major party at the table, so we should discount no explanation.

Plus, Berlinger’s documentary focuses its attention on the people we should think about when we think about gangster stories.  “Whitey” scarcely ever shows its titular crime lord and never reenacts his horrible deeds.  Berlinger instead places a great deal of emphasis on the collateral damage taken by Whitey – the victims he claimed and the loved ones left behind.  These people deserve an explanation because they deserve justice.  Maybe “Whitey” cannot provide that definitive answer, but it’s at least a good start.


22 07 2015

'71As someone relatively unfamiliar with the conflicts that ripped Ireland apart, I always find it a little confusing trying to keep track of all the various factions, rivalries, and competitions in any cinematic representation of the fracas.  (Surely any nuanced portrayal of the wedges that led to the American Civil War might baffle foreigners as well.)  “’71,” as exciting as it might be, proved no exception.

Writer Gregory Burke does not much give much of a learning curve or vast simplification of history – plus, it’s not like you can easily discern a Protestant or a Catholic from any physical characteristics.  Like the film’s lead character, Jack O’Connell’s British peacekeeper Gary Hook, we are just plunged directly into the bitterly divided Belfast streets.  Amidst a botched operation, Hook gets separated from the rest of his unit and must navigate his way back through some rather hostile territory.

The adventure involves a complex array of people and parties trying to help and harm Hook.  While keeping track of the minutiae are a little challenging, director Yann Demange ensures the macro level tension is always exciting and intelligible.  Chief among his smart moves, he employs a pulse-pounding heartbeat of a score that keeps “’71” relentlessly tense.  The film makes for a quite thrilling and entertaining watch, though if it aimed for any kind of deeper commentary … well, it was probably lost on me.  B / 2halfstars

REVIEW: Penguins of Madagascar

21 07 2015

As far as I can tell, 2016’s “Sausage Party” (written by the people who gave us “Superbad” and “This Is The End“) can lay claim to the title of the first computer animated movie for adults.  While that could stand up to truth in advertising claims, I would like to humbly float the suggestion that DreamWorks Animation designed their “Penguins of Madagascar” film to appeal primarily to older audiences, even as it targeted younger crowds with its marketing.

These kinds of movies often get slapped with the moniker of “kids’ movies,” which is partially a misnomer.  They are really “family movies,” at least when released theatrically, because children lack the physical or financial means to attend on their own.  They must drag along their parents or some other generous benefactor who holds the keys to the car and the strings to the wallet.

Many family films, particularly ones made by DreamWorks, acknowledge that oft-forgotten half of the audience with clever jokes designed to fly way over the heads of kids in the crowd.  They started in the “Shrek” series, started to push the boundaries with “Puss in Boots,” and have now reached a glorious nadir in “Penguins of Madagascar.”  The kids have the TV series on Nickelodeon and Netflix; the grown-ups have this movie.

Had I been seven years old and sitting in the crowd with my parents, I would probably feel a slight resentment towards “Penguins of Madagascar.”  After all, why should they get to laugh more than me?  Sure, the film has a fair share of child-appealing antics like slapstick comedy and general silliness.

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REVIEW: The Cobbler

20 07 2015

The CobblerTom McCarthy may soon bear an ignominious distinction in the history of my sight, going from making my #1 film in 2011, “Win Win,” to likely one of the worst in 2015 with “The Cobbler.”  This adult fairytale, co-written with Paul Sado, makes “Click” feel like it possesses the profundity of an Aesop’s Fable.  It’s all of the magic with none of the heart.

Adam Sandler stars as Max Simkin, a pickle-munching mensch on the Lower East Side, who reluctantly becomes the “guardian of souls.”  It’s a title not only better deployed within the context of a Marvel movie but also a pretty terrible pun since Max is a cobbler who works with soles.  In a strange turn of events, Max discovers that he can literally walk around as his clients if he walks arounds in their shoes … because magic.

Shockingly, Sandler’s character takes a whopping half-hour to discover the potential of the shoes for sex.  “The Cobbler” bops around from episode to episode, most stupid but a few touching, all the while squandering a great opportunity for an obvious message. The premise of the story effortlessly lends itself to discussing cultural differences and the understanding we can gain by learning through experience.

But sadly, this isn’t a Tom McCarthy movie, not really.  It’s an Adam Sandler movie.  In his movies, social commentary would never get in the way of entertaining genre fare.  Shame on us for assuming anything might be different here.  C2stars

REVIEW: Barbara

19 07 2015

BarbaraIn all fairness to Christian Petzold’s “Barbara,” Netflix kind of ruined the movie for me.

Here’s their logline: “In 1980 East Germany, Barbara, a doctor, is reassigned to a small rural hospital as punishment for trying to find work in the west.”  Knowing our culture of normalized spoilers, I assume this exile would mark a precipitating event or a major plot turning point.  Instead, it was the exposition rather than the conflict.

So, in essence, I spent much of the movie expecting something to happen that already had.  In many ways, this tainted and affected the experience.

But nonetheless, I still found plenty to admire in the film – namely, the haunting and beautifully removed cinematography by Hans Fromm.  Nina Hoss as the titular character also brings plenty to the table with a performance that make the repression palpable as she pines for greener pastures.

As for “Barbara” on the whole, I suspect the effects of Petzold’s slow, deliberate pacing vary by viewer.  It’s the kind of film you label “evocative” if you found it successful and “hollow” if not.  I found it had moments of both – not a total snooze, but certainly leaning more towards the drowsy end of the spectrum.  But, as I said, that balance might be different were it not for Netflix’s crummy summarization.  C+ / 2stars


18 07 2015

CreepNear the midway point of Patrick Brice’s found footage horror flick “Creep,” a lingering shot on Mark Duplass’ Aaron yields a moment of intense vulnerability capped with the line, “If I got to know you before you got to know me, I thought I would be less scared.” It’s one of the most incisive lines uttered on screen in recent memory, quickly alerting any smart viewer that this is far more than a standard-issue scare.

“Creep” is astutely attuned to the terror of the new generation of overzealous Internet commenters and predators, and Brice beats Lifetime to the punch on the concept.  (Just wait for it, we’ll see “The Tinder Killer” in no time at all.)  Duplass stars as Josef, a man who claims his life will soon be cut short by a malignant brain tumor and thus seeks a videographer to film some footage for the son he will leave behind.  In need of some cash, unwitting Aaron (played by Brice) answers the Internet posting and comes to Josef’s cabin to help.

Little does Aaron know that Josef is the kind of fanatical weirdo that makes every girl regret that swipe right on Tinder.  He has little regard for the personal space or feelings of others, constantly making ill-advised practical jokes and comments that make Aaron extremely uncomfortable.  Tellingly, Josef finds a kindred spirit in the wolf, a creature that he sees as loving deeply but also dangerously out of an undeveloped social instinct.

“Creep” proves so terrifying because Josef is not a pathologically ill menace, seeking to exact harm due to an unexplained chemical imbalance or traumatic childhood experience.  Our screen-addled, intimacy-phobic culture bred him.  It hardly seems like a coincidence that in the back half of the film, Josef delivers his threats to Aaron in a video message for playback on a DVD player.  Even when talking life and death, he feels safer behind the remove of a screen.

Unfortunately, Brice gives in far too often to the easy temptation of the jump out scare, but “Creep” nonetheless lingers in the memory with its chilling message.  Perhaps with the help of availability on Netflix’s streaming service, this film could become the next “Catfish,” only without any qualms over the blurry line between fiction and reality which plague that documentary.  “Creep,” wholly fictional, only has to stay true to its concept and internal logic – two things Brice pulls off expertly.  B+ / 3stars

REVIEW: Mr. Holmes

17 07 2015

Mr. HolmesSherlock Holmes has never been the most embraceable character, but “Mr. Holmes” takes his smug standoffishness to get-off-my-lawn levels.  In the opening scene, Ian McKellen’s more advanced Sherlock Holmes scowls needlessly at a child with whom he shares a railway car.  This detective acts superior simply out of habit, not out of a continually merited accomplishment.

Then, at the pace of a retirement home bingo game, Holmes mulls over three mysteries as he retires to an English countryside getaway run by an exasperated mother (Laura Linney) and her son.  One takes place in the around the time of the Great War, another in Japan in the time of World War II, and a final one unfolds in the present tense.  Triple the story hardly equals triple the excitement, though, as scripter Jeffrey Hatcher frustratingly delays connecting the dots and director Bill Condon never finds away to balance the storylines.

All the while, Holmes suffers from the loss of memory, and the mind once sharper than a trap must resort to writing details on a shirt cuff in order to recall them.  (To the film’s credit, the illness never gets played up for sensationalism.)  Quite frequently, “Mr. Holmes” took a toll on my brain too; it made me lose attention.

Thankfully, I did manage to hold on for the end, when the pieces do ultimately come together and provide a worthy reflection on the legacy of the Sherlock Holmes character.  Age may slow the fast-spinning wheels of reason in the head of this iteration of the beloved detective, ensuring that he would never be mistaken for the Benedict Cumberbatch or the Robert Downey, Jr. versions.  Yet with that experience comes retrospection, wisdom, and human intuition – traits often better embodied by his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson.  This discovery feels like something that Ian McKellen truly revels in, both as his character and as an actor in his own right.  B- / 2stars


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