REVIEW: The Club

1 02 2016

The Club

This review originally appeared on Movie Mezzanine, for whom I covered Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX.

When great filmmakers tackle religion, they do not just talk about God – they show God in their visual schema. Witness Scorsese’s tortured characters warping their bodies into the shape of a crucifix, or the camera-eye of Malick constantly looking up in awe at the heavens. But God may not always be the warm, lens flare-inducing sun like it is for the latter director. In Pablo Larraín’s “The Club,” the ominous deity constantly announces his presence as a pervasive cool light that washes out the frame.

This harsh, judgmental presence lends an appropriate griminess to the story, about four exiled Catholic priests in their twilight years. The group lives in relative comfort together in a house on the shore of a small Chilean town, even making some money on the side by gambling with a greyhound they train. But when a newcomer joins their ranks, the transgressions that landed them all there threaten to spill over into the public eye, forcing the church’s hierarchy to institute some more punitive measures.

Anyone who has followed the scandals plaguing Catholicism over the past few decades in any capacity can probably guess immediately what landed at least one of these priests on the outskirts of their religious community. Still, Larraín’s take on the sensitive topic of sexual abuse in the church presents the issue in a different light worth our consideration. To be clear, he never abandons the perspective that taking advantage of young children is indefensible. Yet “The Club” dares to delve into the headspace of these priests, attempting to understand how they see shades of grey on a moral question that appears so black and white to everyone else.

The film proves most compelling when it gets down in the mud with the priests and their flimsy justifications. Each one of them warps stories and scriptures in order to square their deeds with their religious calling and rationalize the behavior that earned rebuke. Yet even in focusing the majority of his attention on the perpetrators, Larraín never loses sight of the survivors. One in particular, Sandokan (Roberto Farías), shows just how easily the priests can victimize and subsequently ostracize the children on which they prey.

“The Club” examines impunity in shocking, enlightening ways that effectively challenge the privileged position held by the Catholic Church in Chilean society. The narrative focus may provide a tricky wire to walk, but Larraín glides along it with the grace his characters so desperately lack. And while the eyes of God may not glare down on the proceedings, his stark light still casts disapproval as it seeps through every window. B+3stars

REVIEW: I Smile Back

31 01 2016

I Smile BackMental illness on screen, particularly as it pertains to women, always makes for an interesting subject to study. For men, from “A Beautiful Mind” to “Silver Linings Playbook,” the affliction often becomes like a hurdle on their road to victory. For women, it’s the problematized slippery slope that opens the floodgates to a wide variety of social ills.

This is especially true of Adam Salky’s “I Smile Back,” an illness-of-the-week style story saved from TV movie status only by virtue of picking up a theatrical distributor. Though star Sarah Silverman brings heart and passion to her role as depressed suburban housewife Laney Brooks, she can not overcome the shortcomings of the script by Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman. Salky obsesses over her self-destructive tendencies and the behaviors that infantilize her to the same level as her children. He also adds plenty of ham-fisted thriller music behind her day-to-day activities, meant to emphasize just how much of a ticking time bomb she is.

Sure, it helps to feel and experience what people suffering from depression and anxiety go through. But do not reduce them to a set of clichés. Their lives are hard and complicated, not easily reduced to a set of storytelling devices. All something like “I Smile Back” does is turn Laney into a trainwreck barreling into a fragile society, which provides little help or hope for those silently struggling with their own demons. It practically gives everyone else an excuse to continue turning a blind eye to their pain. C+2stars

REVIEW: Mojave

19 01 2016

MojaveYou know how Al Pacino is one of the greatest actors of his generation, yet is still in such films so obviously beneath him as “The Humbling?” Or how Robert DeNiro does movies like “Stone?” Well, if Oscar Isaac is one of the great actors of our time (see: “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “A Most Violent Year”), then”Mojave” is like his “The Humbling” or “Stone.” It’s a chance to cut loose and maybe get some of the negative impulses out before having to deliver a real, controlled performance.

“Mojave” comes from the mind of William Monahan, who gave the world a real gift with his script for “The Departed” … but also a lump of coal with “Edge of Darkness,” the last non-ironic Mel Gibson movie. It’s a literate work but also one of overwrought, overblown pretension. Isaac hams up his character, the mysterious desert drifter Jack, and seems to be enjoying himself. If only I could have shared in that feeling.

He gets an enjoyable moment here and there, but these are never enough to redeem – much less cohere – the mess that is “Mojave.” The film dabbles in far too many genres, sub-genres and plot digressions that I do not really know what to call it.

Monahan begins the film with Garrett Hedlund’s Thomas, a frustrated actor (the most severely underrepresented group on film – NOT), who meets Jack in the desert while trying to escape his life. The two share an exaggerated, overly articulate conversation, but it’s at least compelling. For whatever reason, I had the impression the movie would be a pure two-hander. “Mojave” might have been better had Monahan kept it this way, just letting the two men feed off each other. Hedlund could certainly use a meatier role; he has yet to further develop the charisma shown in 2012’s underseen “On the Road.” But Monahan mostly just leaves him to sulk. Actors, you know? C2stars

REVIEW: Green Room

18 01 2016

This review originally appeared on Movie Mezzanine, for whom I covered Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX.

Jeremy Saulnier’s breakout film Blue Ruin depicted violence as an elemental force; a practically innate disposition of the human condition. In that spin on a classic revenge tale, Saulnier metes out precious little information on the characters hell-bent on destruction to highlight how shockingly natural these primal acts are.

His follow-up, Green Room, also takes violence as one of its major subjects – but here, the filmmaker shifts gears, depicting the savagery of human conflict as something aberrant to our very nature. As a punk rock band, barred off in a green room, wars against the group of neo-Nazis that hosted their show, acts of brutality take on an almost cartoonish tenor. For instance, someone’s mangled arm looks like a candy cane of flesh and blood, a sight Saulnier milks for all it’s worth to the tune of disgusted groans.

Green Room

This unnatural, unsettling violence provides heightened stakes for what otherwise might play like a simple hodgepodge of tropes from final girl” captivity or siege-style thrillers. Throwing in a group of white supremacists helps to add weight (especially when these groups are currently coming out of the woodwork to endorse Donald Trump’s presidential run). But while their violence may be exaggerated, Saulnier never strips them – or their trained attack dogs – of basic dignity. He even includes a sequence, beautifully shot by director of photography Sean Porter, which manages to find a bit of impressionistic poetry in the writhing bodies of their mosh pit.

To be clear, Green Room never condones the group’s ideology. The skinheads are still clearly the villains, but Saulnier’s choice to withhold immediate and unflinching condemnation allows some insight into what holds the group together. Their leader, Patrick Stewart’s Darcy, hardly matches the model of the charismatic authority figure. Instead, along with his tactical right hand man Gabe (Blue Ruin star Macon Blair), he evinces a magnetism of the calm and collected variety.

Green Room 2

That disposition stands in stark contrast to the manic array of rockers that constitute “The Ain’t Rights,” led by Anton Yelchin’s Pat and Alia Shawkat’s Sam. Even though their music pushes them to the fringes of performance venues, the group still lacks common sense and self-defense mechanisms. Still, Saulnier clearly feels a good deal of kinship with the punks and gives them dynamic personalities that prove oddly compelling. These vibrant characters ensure more colors are at play than just the red that dominates Green RoomB2halfstars

REVIEW: Inside Llewyn Davis

17 01 2016

Inside Llewyn DavisCannes Film Festival – Official Competition, 2013

“If it was never new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song,” explains Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) after yet another gig strumming his guitar at Greenwich Village’s Gaslamp in”Inside Llewyn Davis.” The film is full of folk tunes in its soundtrack as it recreates the pre-Dylan early 1960s scene in New York. Yet, in many ways, the Coen Brothers’ film itself is a folk song, if judged by the definition they provide.

Llewyn’s story is all too familiar – and one that hits close to home for anyone yet to achieve the lofty success they were promised with every participation medal. Most stories of musicians trying to enter into the business involve some measure of pain and frustration, but for Llewyn, the bad breaks seem almost cosmic. He’s always a smidgen too early or a moment too late to shake off the funk that seems to set a tone of frustration and misery for his life. “King Midas’ idiot brother,” his ex-flame Jean (Carey Mulligan) describes him, and by the end of the film, such a mythological explanation for Llewyn’s woes seems entirely possible.

It proves frustrating to watch him endure trial after tribulation, though not because the beats are tired. The doomed slacker routine may have been done before, but certainly not like Joel and Ethan Coen do it. Insomuch as the duo would ever make something so straightforward as a “personal” film, “Inside Llewyn Davis” addresses the price a person can pay for trying to maintain the purity of their art. Llewyn decries the easy, the accessible and the crowd-pleasing, lamenting anyone who panders to these attributes as sell-outs or careerists.

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16 01 2016

“Hands, give me the hands,” Bradley Cooper’s Neil Walker vehemently instructs a cameraman filming Jennifer Lawrence’s Joy Mangano as she sells her Miracle Mop on QVC. For Walker, the consummate showman (and perhaps the stand-in for writer/director David O. Russell), these appendages are the attribute that sets stars apart from the average person. Hands are important because, in his words, “that’s what people use.”

Russell uses hands as a motif running throughout “Joy,” a hymn to ingenuity and perseverance inspired by true stories of daring women. To him, hands mean physical labor, the kind of work traditionally delegated to men. But that traditional division of duties never stopped Joy, who built kingdoms out of paper as a child, dog collars as a teenager, and finally a self-wringing mop as an adult. Her knack for creation, when coupled with her practicality and pragmatism, means she has real potential for success.

Indicative of just how overextended Joy is among her large family, her hands spend most of their time at home doing household repairs like plumbing which would normally be left to the male authority figure. (Her ex-husband, Edgar Ramirez’s failed singer Tony, spends most of his day crooning in the basement.) On top of all the emotional labor of caring for the physical and emotional well-being of her two young children, she has virtually no time to pursue a path that could bring fulfillment and fortune. Yet another mess Joy must clean up enables her to dream up the revolutionary mop after shards of glass lead to gashes all over her hands.

In order to turn her flailing life around, Joy has to compete in the man’s world of business to get her product in front of customers. She has virtually no cues as to how to operate in this sphere; repeated asides from a fictional soap opera show the kind of cues from which Joy can draw. Boys get “The Godfather.” Girls get puffed-up camp like “The Joyful Storm.”

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REVIEW: Winter on Fire

15 01 2016

Winter on FireNetflix seems to be building a sort of auteurist curatorial attitude in their documentary pick-ups. Evgeny Afineevsky’s “Winter on Fire” resembles the streaming service’s 2013 doc “The Square” in many ways – beyond just the fact that both scored Oscar nominations. The two films take a democratic approach to people’s protests calling for democracy, mostly outsourcing the video to footage taken in the popular uprisings and presenting context where necessary.

Afineevsky, however, might have done well to stick by a more verité, found footage style of documentary filmmaking. Context is important to understanding the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution, and he presents it succinctly and clearly during the opening credits. But he overloads the explanatory retrospective interviews throughout “Winter on Fire,” which both disrupts the narrative and detracts from the power of the images. When the police beat a citizen’s head so brutally that his brains have spilled on the street, the visual is strong enough to speak for itself.

He also might have been smart to pick a protagonist or some person that the audience can follow throughout the 93 day demonstration – besides ousted Ukranian president Viktor Yanukovych, that is. It makes sense given the collective nature of the protest, which united the country against Yanukovych’s maneuverings to align Ukraine with the interests of Russia rather than heed the will people to join the E.U. “Winter on Fire” is the story of all, not the story of one. But the lack of entry points into experiencing the fight for freedom as something more than a citizen-journalist news report demonstrate the limitations of turning that spirit into a narrative. B / 2halfstars


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