REVIEW: The Way He Looks

15 12 2014

The Way He LooksUntil the very end of Daniel Ribeiro’s “The Way He Looks,” when all the flirtatious words and actions are consummated, I found myself wondering if it could really even be called an LGBT film.  The attraction between the two leads just feels like a beautiful friendship, one sorely needed for bullied blind student Leonardo.

Any romantic angle in Leonardo’s relationship with the newest addition to his class, Gabriel, seems attached by his homophobic schoolmates.  Ribeiro captures the instinctual, learned bigotry of teenage boys with a stunning accuracy that rings as true in the United States as it presumptively does in the film’s setting of Brazil.  Yet in spite of taunts and hateful slurs thrown his way, Gabriel refuses to cave and abandon Leonardo.

For most of “The Way He Looks,” it seems like Leonardo and Gabriel simply share a gentle connection with some vague undertones of attraction.  For Leonardo especially, who has never really had a companion of the same gender, it feels like he might just be adding a sexual component to their friendship due to the lack of both in his life thus far.

A part of me almost wished it had remained up in the air whether or not the relationship between Leonardo and Gabriel actually had a sensual dynamic to it at all, or whether it would eventually blossom into something of that kind.  The third act of “The Way He Looks” pretty much settles the debate  – I don’t think this really counts as a spoiler, since advertisers have labeled the film gay – by providing a pretty conventional romance genre ending to the proceedings.  I would probably be more upset or disappointed, except it was just so charming and sweet.  B-2stars

REVIEW: Lilting

14 12 2014

LiltingWriter/director Hong Khaou’s “Lilting” deals with two stories.  The first involves Ben Whishaw’s Richard as he and his lover Kai (Andrew Leung) prepare to reveal their relationship to Kai’s extremely conservative unadjusted immigrant mother Junn (Chang Pei-Pei).  The second follows Ben as he attempts to care for Junn in spite of her objections.

The missing link between these two threads is Kai’s unfortunate death in a traffic accident.  It takes a while to discern a gap in time between them, and even when it does become clear, Khaou does not delineate particularly well between past and present.  “Lilting” jerks around without direction, simply portraying events without ever really making them add up to anything substantial.

The film aims for tenderness in its portrayal of love and affection, but it winds up treading too lightly to have any impact.   With its static characters and lifeless plot, the 91 minutes of “Lilting” are a depressing chore with no payoff for the pain.

At least “Blue Valentine” and “Revolutionary Road” had a grand statement to make about relationships to justify their bleakness.   “Lilting” just has banalities and boredom to offer.  The only audience for this movie is (hopefully) Ben Whishaw fans who feel the need to see his entire filmography – for better or for worse – when he gets the roles, and thus the stardom, he deserves.  C1halfstars

REVIEW: Life After Beth

13 12 2014

Life After BethAs the executives at Lifetime have now discovered with their ingenious “Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever,” Aubrey Plaza is today’s most lovable curmudgeon.  Her dourly misanthropic attitude paradoxically lights up any scene in which she appears.  “Life After Beth” is to Plaza what “Maleficent” was to Angelina Jolie – an ode to a certain defining essence.

Plaza’s Beth starts off the film dead, then all of a sudden is inexplicably walking around among the living.  This comes much to the confused delight of her devastated former boyfriend Zach, played by Dane DeHaan.  Tasked with playing the straight man in a “Ruby Sparks” style romance, where the girl is undead instead of imaginary, DeHaan opts for strung-out angst to contrast Plaza’s snarky charm.

Their strange reunion starts off under the guise of a comedy, which makes a great deal of sense given that Plaza’s pop cultural presence has been mostly relegated to “Parks and Recreation.” (That’s mainly because no one saw the undeservedly underseen “Safety Not Guaranteed” and no one knew who she was when she appeared in 2009’s “Funny People.”)  But all of a sudden, and without any real reason, “Life After Beth” shifts gears to become an action film.  Nothing ever hints at the fact that it will eventually morph into “World War Z.”

DeHaan, in an interview with Seth Meyers, referred to the film as a “zom-com-rom-dram.”  Kudos to writer/director Jeff Baena for attempting so much, but this novel mixture proves far too many genres than “Life After Beth” can handle in its slim 90-minute runtime.  Plaza definitely does a better impersonation of the possessed demon child from “The Exorcist” than Jonah Hill in “This is The End,” which is about the extent of the compliments that can be paid to the film’s bizarre back half.

Perhaps its action-packed conclusion would feel more earned if Beth had more time to develop as a character.  But it looks like “Life After Beth” is really just going to be good for a few entertaining GIFs on a BuzzFeed list about grouchy people.  C2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 12, 2014)

12 12 2014

WalkerThe end of the year is drawing near, which means plenty of “great man” biopics that paint flattering portraits of “important” men in history.  (Rarely are these ever about women, I feel.)  2014 brings with it “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything,” just to name two, that fit this description.  To the surprise of very few, both those movies are predictably pretty good.

But it is time for someone to take a radical approach to the biopic once again.  These formulaic, color-by-numbers films are getting too safe for their own good.  So, in order to revitalize the sagging genre, I would highly recommend that all daring filmmakers brush up on Alex Cox’s “Walker.”

This is tied for the oldest movie I have featured in my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column, but this 1987 release feels completely fresh.  Cox does Tarantino’s style before Tarantino made it famous, and he even has the guts to apply his eclectic, anachronistic, and oftentimes outright bizarre technique to real people and events.  Can’t imagine the family of Cornelius Vanderbilt was too thrilled about a cinematic portrayal of the business magnate where his most prominent feature is his flatulence…

Cox, working from a script by Rudy Wurlitzer, can certainly have more liberty with his subject given his relative obscurity.  “Walker” follows Ed Harris’ William Walker, a soldier of fortune who somehow ends up in Nicaragua doing the bidding of businessman in overthrowing their government.  Eventually, in a turn that no one who understands the effects of power will find surprising, Walker seizes what is essentially dictatorial control of the country.  And yes, this is a true story.

There is no inside baseball, political calculation, or dreary historical tedium to be found in “Walker” – only awesomeness.  Every turn of the film brings a new and unexpected joy in the form of a bold risk taken by Cox.  Whether it is in the characterization of Walker himself or in the gratuitous flow of blood in a battle, “Walker” constantly elicits the response, “I can’t believe he just did that.”  And it works practically every time, too!

Furthermore, “Walker” is not just style for style’s sake, a trap into which Tarantino far too often seems to fall.  What better way to show the connection between the factual past and controversial present of the film’s release, the Iran-Contra scandal, than to literally merge them within the movie itself?!  This is a work of pure, mad genius.

REVIEW: Ivory Tower

11 12 2014

Ivory TowerFull disclosure: I watched “Ivory Tower” fully hoping its thesis was wrong, for my and my parents’ sanity.  I have one semester left in college, and had Andrew Rossi’s documentary proven that it was not worth the price tag … well, finish that sentence as you will.  (And I attend a private university, so the cost is considerably steeper.)

Still, it is nonetheless a topic that needs debate and discussion.  Costs have really spiraled out of control, and the college education that serves as the cornerstone of the American dream of self-advancement may eventually grow out of reach for many families.  Frighteningly, the price of college tuition has increased more than any other service in the United States.

There are plenty of threads a documentary on the contemporary university could follow, and Rossi really makes an attempt to follow just about all of them.  This proves somewhat detrimental to “Ivory Tower” in the long run as it provides a broad overview of the problems at the expense of a pointed conclusion.  Such an approach increases knowledge but discourages action.

Some topics, like the newly imposed tuition at the previously free university Cooper Union, receive an unduly amount of attention.  Since this is such an isolated case, too, it seems like an ill-advised use of precious time.  Issues like the impending student debt bubble collapse, or the false promise of supplemental online education, or even the rise of successful entrepreneurs without a college diploma feel like far more pressing concerns.

Still, this documentary packs enough punches to prompt some decent thought afterwards.  While “Ivory Tower” may lack the streamlined clarity of Rossi’s last non-fiction film, New York Times inside-look “Page One,” it raises many valid concerns that are likely to resonate with a much larger group of stakeholders.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Camp X-Ray

10 12 2014

Camp X-RayWriter/director Peter Sattler tackles some big topics in “Camp X-Ray,” and I certainly admire his streak of ambition.  A drama set at the high-stakes location of Guantanamo Bay certainly should not settle for anything ordinary, after all.

He explores the effects of callings inmates “detainees” rather than “prisoners,” a system that seems designed to entrench hostilities between captors and captives.  The film also looks at the other major force at the prison, the guards who oversee it, through the eyes of Kristen Stewart’s Cole.  “Camp X-Ray” shows the distinction between being a “soldier” and being a “female soldier,” an unduly additional burden that Cole must shoulder.

Yet Sattler never really puts these issues in service of the plot, which hardly feels strong enough to sustain a two-hour feature.  “Camp X-Ray” feels neither expressly political nor earnestly personal; as a result, it just comes off as rather nondescript.

Sattler does a commendable thing in defining Cole away from her job, where she must check her emotions at the door.  What exactly she is doing in Guantanamo provides an interesting existential dilemma for Stewart to play.  Thankfully, it cannot all boil down to something hopelessly anti-feminist as she expressly states that she is not in the military to hunt down a husband.

For all the scenes of Cole outside the barbed wire, though, “Camp X-Ray” explores her character the most when she converses with a particularly intelligent and loquacious detainee, Ali, played by Payman Maadi (the superb leading man from “A Separation“).  These exchanges are the center of the film, and while they may not significantly advance events or provide dramatic escalation, the cross-cultural chats feel worthwhile just … because.  C+2stars

REVIEW: Low Down

9 12 2014

Low DownAs a general rule of thumb, I do not walk out of movies – or even turn them off when watching at home.  It’s a general sign of respect as well as perhaps a misplaced optimism.  You just never know when a movie might show the tiniest sign of redemption.

I was recently fortunate enough to receive an electronic screener link to view “Low Down,” which is now among the rare class of movies that I could not bring myself to finish.  The film is not actively, egregiously bad.  It is just never good, save a mildly impressive control of period atmosphere by first-time director Jeff Preiss.

I must have forgotten to hit the pause button when I left to get lunch or something because when I came back, I could not remember where I had stopped the screener.  As I was scrolling through different scenes, I honestly could not recall whether or not I had watched them.  “Low Down” left that soft of an impact on me.

I saw the writing on the wall when a character misquotes a line from Shakespeare (it’s “if music be the food of love,” not “fruit”) and no one, in front of or behind the camera, seems to bat an eyelid.  “Low Down” is a considerable squandering of talent, as it deploys the virtuosic John Hawkes as Joe Albany, a gifted jazz pianist struggling to kick a drug addiction.  Never seen that one before…

There are plenty of talented actors playing characters in his orbit, including Glenn Close as his mother.  But none is more disappointing to see go to waste than Elle Fanning, the talented young actress from “Somewhere” and “Super 8” who is well on her way to eclipsing her older sister.  She plays Joe’s daughter in what could arguably be considered a co-lead performance, yet she has little personality and might as well just be an accessory to her father.

I did, out of the mildest of curiosities, skip to the final scene of the film just to see the ultimate fates of the characters.  Spoiler alert: there’s nothing to spoil.  You know what’s coming, but I dare you to outlast the tedium of “Low Down” to make it there.  C-1halfstars


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