F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 8, 2014)

8 08 2014

The House I Live InIt’s often easy to put a good deal of distance between ourselves and the Holocaust.  In no way am I promoting this as a good development, but the continuous passage of time only amplifies our sense of removal from the era of mass extermination.  Moreover, Americans in particular can see themselves as the liberators in such a genocidal scenario, not as perpetrators.

Ask Eugene Jarecki about the Holocaust, however, and he will tell you that America has and continues to perpetrate their own against its own citizens.  Sound a little dramatic?  By the time he analogizes the War on Drugs with the Holocaust in his documentary “The House I Live In,” it might not feel all too hyperbolic.

Jarecki’s haunting, informative opus marks my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because it nimbly balances both the personal and the political as it explains how the War on Drugs began and the ways it tears at the fabric of our society.  He brings in top academics and scholars (as well as David Simon, the creator of “The Wire”) to discuss the roots of our current situation of mass incarceration.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, a whole lot of it comes back to racism and capitalism.

But “The House I Live In” is far from a lecture.  Jarecki really drives the film’s thesis home by interviewing the victims of the War on Drugs, namely, low-income families and racial minorities.  Crucially, Jarecki allows an emotional entry into the film through the story of his African-American help from his childhood, Nannie, and her family.  He shows the damage the broken system has wrought on her family to devastating effect.

If you saw John Oliver’s segment on prison and crave more information on the problem, go straight to “The House I Live In.”  You’ll be shocked, enlightened, and hopefully outraged enough to demand some changes.

REVIEW: Calvary

7 08 2014

Summer 2012 has been uncommonly rife with spiritual themes, from “The Immigrant” to “I Origins” and even “Wish I Was Here” all delving into faith issues on a personal scale.  Writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” expands even further, taking a look at the institutional level of religion through his protagonist, the unconventional Catholic priest Father James (Brendan Gleeson).

McDonagh imbues James with a unique brand of wisdom, partially due to his unusual path to the priesthood.  Father James was a normal man who even fathered a child, only finding his way into the cassock after the death of his wife left him reeling.  This background in the realm of the worldly leads him to be a more patient, understanding paternal figure for the small Irish town he oversees.

Such purity of intent makes him a perfect target for one villager, who comes to confession in the first scene of “Calvary” announcing his plans to make Father James a sort of sacrificial lamb.  This mysterious man, who was repeatedly sexually abused by a Catholic priest as a child, seeks the blood of an innocent man to atone for the sins perpetrated against him.

McDonagh doesn’t shy away from looking into the effects of priests’ sexual misconduct, both for the victim and for the church at large.  In that respect, “Calvary” goes quite a bit deeper than 2008’s “Doubt,” although that’s not necessarily a fair apples-to-apples comparison.  (The latter film takes place when the scandals were only just beginning to enter public consciousness, while “Calvary” takes place in the present.)

Sadly, McDonagh doesn’t always play to the strengths of the story and character.  The opening scene would appear to indicate that the film will follow Father James as he deals with this threat on his life.  Yet for the most part, “Calvary” just provides a rather episodic snapshot of his odd bunch of parishioners.

The film is still interesting in these portions, largely because of Gleeson’s nuanced, deeply felt performance and the wide variety of interactions he can have over the course of a week.  But the large bulk of “Calvary” does not seem to be pushing the action towards its inevitable conclusion, making the film feel a little unfocused and meandering in the process.  McDonagh’s finale arrives with a bang, though it could have been a sonic boom had the whole plot been building behind it.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: The Quiet Ones

6 08 2014

The Quiet OnesI don’t quite know what I was expecting when I followed a group of friends to see “The Quiet Ones.”  When I looked it up on IMDb, all I really saw was Jared Harris from “Mad Men” and assumed it must be a prestige drama.  But as we walked in, I heard someone mention it was a horror film … and at that point, it was too late to turn back.

The films in that genre I like are few and far between, and most of those I can actually get behind are ironic or self-aware.  If I want to be scared, normally I go to more artfully crafted films like “Requiem for a Dream.”  A more atmospheric horror can get underneath my skin and chill me to the bone, leaving me terrified long after the movie ends.

“The Quiet Ones” is quite the opposite, resorting time and again to the oldest trick in the genre’s book: the jump scene.  You know the drill, where everything grows eerily quiet or tranquil, some strings begin to play, and then WHAM!  Out of nowhere, something jumps out and scares you.  It’s effective for an immediate jolt, though the scare dissipates the moment the surprise is revealed.

Was I scared?  Sure.  I’m not ashamed to admit that “The Quiet Ones” got the better of me on multiple occasions, and I quickly fell into a routine of plugging my ears and averting my eyes from the screen.  So in some small sense, the film is effective.

But “The Quiet Ones” fails to do anything else interesting and will likely be of little use to anyone other than adrenaline junkies who thrive off the jump scenes.   The plot of the film is really only filler to string together these jolts of terror.  And even though the story follows Harris’ Oxford psychology professor and a group of students (including one played by Finnick from “Catching Fire,” Sam Claflin) as they perform an experiment on a disturbed woman, the proceedings are void of any mental stimulation.

It’s just the same old schtick, destined for $5 DVD bins at the CVS checkout registers and BuzzFeed lists about other movie projects of “Hunger Games” cast members.  But if you’re only in it for the cheap scares, chances are the blandness of “The Quiet Ones” was never something that concerned you anyways.  C+2stars

REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

5 08 2014

When Marc Webb was announced as the next director to helm the “Spider-Man” series, more than a few eyebrows were raised (including my own).  With only “(500) Days of Summer” under his belt, Webb seemed like an odd figure to entrust with a multi-million dollar franchise.  While that film showed a true creative mind at work, its exuberant eclecticism was not an obvious fit for a series that had been rather somber under the guidance of Sam Raimi.

None of these qualifications showed at all in his first outing with the arachnid hero, 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which slavishly recreated the hero’s mythology for the generation that didn’t see the 2002 version in theaters or in its million syndicated cable showings.  The reboot felt timidly directed by Webb, whose trepidation at approaching a new genre of filmmaking was clear.

In his second go-round, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” glimpses of his distinctive stamp on the series become a little more clear.  One scene in particular where Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker angrily puts in his earbuds and makes a map to decipher the mysterious past of his parents seems to directly parallel the sequence in “(500) Days of Summer” where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom draws a cityscape of Los Angeles.  And in one of the film’s final scenes, Webb leaves us with a hauntingly emotional denouement using no words, just powerful images and montage.

Sadly, these small pockets of artistry in the film were few and far between.  Though the film as a whole feels more confident than its predecessor, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2″ still suffers from the general lack of inspiration plaguing big-budget filmmaking, and especially comic book adaptations.

The screenplay is crafted this time by the Kurtzman-Orci duo that has given us some of the more ingenious popcorn flicks of the past few years (“Star Trek“) as well as some of its biggest duds (“Transformers“).  This film falls somewhere in between; it’s good enough to keep interest throughout, but we can see every plot development coming from a mile away.

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4 08 2014

In any musical biopic, the key ingredient is channeling the persona of its subject.  So in that regard, “Get On Up” succeeds behind Chadwick Boseman’s electric performance as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Boseman captures the firebrand in all his passionate fits of rage and spirited swaggering dance moves, and he does it with such astonishing accuracy that I had to remind myself on multiple occasions that I was in fact watching a fictional portrayal of Brown.

Beyond Boseman’s towering turn, however, there is very little else in “Get On Up” that manages to rouse. Most of the film’s issues, sadly, are deeply rooted in Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s script. With the very blueprint of the movie so wonky, it’s tough to judge anyone involved in the film too harshly. They likely just did the best with what little they were given.

The problem has less to do with individual scenes, which were more or less fine when evaluated independently. The Butterworths’ problem is that these units drawn from various times at James Brown’s life simply do not cohere nor do they ever move in any distinct direction. Unlike “Boyhood,” the mere passage of time in “Get On Up” is not cause enough to watch a movie or maintain attention.

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REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy

3 08 2014

When I sat down and thought about it, most of the praises I could lavish on James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” are really backhanded compliments that slap the Marvel universe in the process.

For example, I don’t really think Kevin Feige and the Marvel brain trust really deserve a great deal of lauding for creating a film that can stand on its own with a self-contained narrative.  The majority of movies already just do that anyways.  Those movies also just have well-developed characters with internal lives given as an assumption, not as a point of commendation.

But if you want to grade James Gunn’s take on a lesser-known Marvel property against their hopelessly generic and shamelessly commercial films of better known characters like Captain America, it’s going to look like a masterstroke.  “Guardians of the Galaxy” has two attributes that probably make executives at Marvel cower in fear: a unique creative vision and a good sense of humor.  It’s a playful film that often feels like fan fiction uncovered from a child of the ’80s raised on a steady diet of Lucas and Spielberg.

To achieve this adolescent fantasy of a film, Gunn assembles a very game group that becomes akin to Marvel’s version of the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.”  The film stars Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (or Star-Lord, as he’d have you call him), a profit-motivated intergalactic thief who might be the most morally ambiguous blockbuster hero since Jack Sparrow.  On an average commission to retrieve an orb, Quill gets pulled into a gigantic power struggle that endangers both he and his precious Walkman.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 1, 2014)

1 08 2014

The Snowtown MurdersIt usually takes a director two to three features to work out the kinks in their style and settle into a comfortable groove of filmmaking.  That is not the case, however, for Australian director Justin Kurzel.  His debut film, “The Snowtown Murders,” has the confidence and assurance of a director with far more experience under his belt.

Yet even without grading on a curve, it still merits the title of “F.I.L.M. of the Week” for Kurzel’s virtuosic control over mood and atmosphere.  Though a title like “The Snowtown Murders” had me in a mindset expecting something like “Bonnie & Clyde,” following a serial killer from their perspective, the film delivers something else entirely.

Kurzel provides all the chilly commentary on the allure of sociopathic killers that you might expect from a Fincher film like “Zodiac” but adds an incredibly satisfying humanist element.  “The Snowtown Murders” is less about the titular acts themselves and more about the man who perpetrated them, as well as the entourage of bystanders who did nothing to stop them.

The film is told not from the perspective of the actual murderer, John Bunting, but of a 16-year-old boy Jamie drawn into his web of violence.  Bunting spies an opening to tap into some simmering hatred and lust for revenge in a small Australian community, funneling their anger into consent for violent retribution.  Kurzel doesn’t sensationalize the goriness of Bunting’s savagery, though he hardly shies away from it, either.

These bloody events help release some of the tension in “The Snowtown Murders,” yet it hardly dissipates between killings.  Kurzel allows the very darkness of the story drive the film, something it can only do effectively because of his masterful control over tone.  Though he does struggle some with extended sequences of dialogue, his montages are simply mesmerizing.  Kurzel strings together some haunting images and makes them pulsate with a broodingly dark energy (also a function of Jed Kurzel’s score).  And to think, this is Justin Kurzel’s baseline…

REVIEW: The Lego Movie

31 07 2014

Back in 2012, “Zero Dark Thirty” gave audiences a pulse-pounding conclusions as it showed SEAL Team 6’s bold mission to kill Osama bin Laden in stunning detail.  Yet even as gripping as that was, I couldn’t help but chuckle a little bit when I saw who they cast as the finger behind the trigger: Chris Pratt, who I knew and loved as Andy Dwyer (and his FBI alter ego Burt Macklin) on the TV comedy “Parks & Recreation.”

Well, as it turns out, Kathryn Bigelow was as right about Pratt as an action star as she was about Jeremy Renner as a fine dramatic actor.  And now it’s Pratt who’s laughing all the way to the bank.  “The Lego Movie” proves that Pratt doesn’t even have to be present in the flesh to lead a movie towards some very fun adventure.

Pratt is like the world’s oldest 7-year-old, a lovable, innocent kid that you can’t help but root for because he reminds you of all the naive optimism of a simpler state of mind.  When his plastic Lego teddy bear of a character, Emmet Brickowoski, chants the film’s theme “Everything Is Awesome,” it’s hard not to smile a little bit.  He’s not just singing from a place of pure naïveté like Selena Gomez on “Barney,” but also from a position of contagious optimism that makes Emmet quite irresistible.

Thankfully, the writing/directing dynamic duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (they who blessed us with the gift of “21 Jump Street“) matches Pratt’s enthusiasm throughout “The Lego Movie.”  They bring a boundless imagination to the project, resembling the kind of creativity that Legos themselves spark in children all over the world.  What they ultimately construct is wild, wacky, and quite inspired. Read the rest of this entry »


30 07 2014

SuperJames Gunn’s “Super” plays like a stubborn sidekick to Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 revisionist comic book action flick “Kick-Ass.”  Perhaps it should have adopted a name defining itself better in relation to that film: “Half-Ass.”

Gunn’s film is made in good fun, but “Super” is a little too footloose and fancy-free for its own good.  The off-kilter antics follow cuckolded sad-sack Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson), who dons the costume of “The Crimson Bolt” in order to win back his wife (Liv Tyler) from the clutches of a drug lord (Kevin Bacon).  The material is wacky enough for Wilson to dive into head first, but it feels a bit like an abandoned pilot for a Dwight spinoff of “The Office.”

Frank works as a quirky, peculiar character to follow, but the same could not be said for Ellen Page as his wannabe partner-in-crime “Boltie,” also known as Libby.  Page goes balls to the wall in her performance, though it winds up feeling rather sloppy, especially in her chemistry with Wilson.  She’s so unhinged that I wondered if she simply stopped taking her Adderall during the filming of “Super.”

Gunn’s total package resembles Page moreso than Wilson in the end, unfortunately.  The tone in the film fluctuates from over-the-top hum or to downbeat drama and then to a teenager’s wet dream of gory violence.  By the end, I found myself wondering if I was watching the scribblings of a deranged comic book devotee who’s been to one too many Comic-Cons.  C+2stars

REVIEW: Fading Gigolo

29 07 2014

Fading GigoloOn paper, “Fading Gigolo” sounds like the kind of movie Woody Allen would have made in the ’70s or early ’80s.  The bored Murray (Allen) facing the obsolescence of his current job decides to pimp out his unconventionally virile buddy Fioravante (John Turturro) to jaded women.  The concept is ripe for laughs and some good character development.

Sadly, Woody Allen didn’t direct “Fading Gigolo.”  That position belongs to John Turturro, who can’t quite recreate the magic of the acclaimed director he managed to cast in a key role.  Whereas even the minor films of Allen manage to provide a unique experience, Turturro’s film is rather bland.

Allen’s character is firmly supporting, which is a shame since he’s the best thing “Fading Gigolo” has going for it.  Even though it’s a little bizarre to hear him speaking someone else’s dialogue, there’s a certain vitality his trademark persona brings to the screen.  The same could not be said for Turturro, who seems to be sleepwalking through the film.

Fioravante is supposed to be entrancing these women, but I’ll be darned if I could tell you what exactly was capturing their imaginations.  Either Turturro was on downers the entire shoot, or he just actually lacks the charisma to hold the screen as a leading man.  He’s been great as a character actor for the Coen Brothers in the past, so I don’t quite know what to think.

In the director’s chair, Turturro is every bit as colorless.  He could certainly have learned the economy of comedy on set from Allen, but he proceeds with making a bloated film that lacks a pulse.  Everything from the way Turturro directs the actors to the elevator music he chooses to score the film feels drained of energy.

And I don’t mean to imply that Turturro is some kind of an anti-Semite, but I felt ill at ease with the way he portrayed the Jewish community in “Fading Gigolo.”  Much of the plot centers around Murray trying to convince a Hasidic rabbi’s widow to see Fioravante for some healing sessions, creepily against her strict religious vow of modesty.  His presence brings about the curiosity of a particularly zealous Hasidic neighborhood watchman played Liev Schrieber, complete with fake sidelocks.  The whole community seems to be constructed as rather exotic by Turturro, almost to the point where their differences are the butt of jokes.

Perhaps it’s just me who found that troubling, but I can make other assertions about flaws in “Fading Gigolo” with confidence.  It’s a film conspicuously lacking in humor as well as in panache.  C+2stars


28 07 2014

After “Black Swan” topped my best of 2010 list, Darren Aronofsky could have made a film about virtually anything, and I would turn out to see it.  From the earliest announcement of Aronofsky’s “Noah” in 2011, I was deliriously excited to see his distinct spin on the well-known Biblical story.

I maintained faith in spite of nearly every media report drumming up controversy about the film.  It became impossible to escape stories that claimed Aronofsky was replacing the original narrative with an environmental message, or that he was purging God from the film entirely.  Going in, I had the impression that I was bound to be offended by something in “Noah,” no matter how artfully Aronofsky presented it.

As it turns out, nothing that generated headlines about the film offended me.  What did, however, was the simple and rudimentary script of “Noah.”  It felt like Aronofsky went into production with the first draft for something that shows potential for greatness but achieves little of it.

As a character, Noah feels remarkably incomplete and incoherent.  His motivations are unclear, and I’m not sure whether to interpret that as Aronofsky saying God is confused … or whether Aronofsky himself is confused.  Russell Crowe turns in a rather schizoid performance, grappling with the seeming non-sequiturs of his character as much as he is with anything relating to God.

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REVIEW: A Most Wanted Man

27 07 2014

A Most Wanted ManDirector Anton Corbijn came into film through photography, a background which makes itself quite evident in “A Most Wanted Man.”  There’s a certain placidity and patience in the proceedings that seem to bear the mark of a photographer’s cool distance.

Corbijn’s perspective gives this adaptation of John Le Carre (the mind who gave us “The Constant Gardener” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy“) a distinct flavor, one that adds rather than detracts from the mix.  Though this spy film tackles counterterrorism, it lacks a definite endgame like “Zero Dark Thirty” had to push it along.  Instead, the focus is on the seemingly never-ending process of apprehending terrorists, not the final product of those efforts.

The calm collectedness and careful restraint of Corbijn does a great job highlighting the grimy, laborious legwork done by a Hamburg, Germany intel unit headed up by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Günther Bachmann.  He has a knack for foresight and playing the long game, two traits that put him at odds with the more impetuous, results-driven German intelligence community (not to mention the American embassy, represented by Robin Wright’s ambassador Martha Sullivan).

Bachmann quietly enters the fray to handle the curious case of a Chechen, Issa Karpov, who washes up in Hamburg and enters the city’s network of Muslim terrorist cells.  His approach is to use this refugee as a pawn to gain access to the real power players and continue working up the chain.  Along the way, Bachmann must join forces some unwilling participants, including a shady banker (Willem Dafoe’s Tommy Brue) and a lawyer who provides counsel for terrorists (Rachel McAdams’ Annabel Richter).

“A Most Wanted Man” does drag on occasion, but it’s consistently interesting thanks to the way Corbijn’s direction allows us to savor the careful maneuvers of counterintelligence chess.  While the film might be a little less ostensibly artistic than his last outing, 2010’s “The American,” Corbijn’s chosen aesthetic for the piece suits the highly-plotted story quite well.  It also allows Philip Seymour Hoffman, in what will sadly be his last leading role, to quietly show his mastery over the craft of acting one final time.  B2halfstars


26 07 2014

Lucy” may well be the most peculiar movie of summer 2014.  Director Luc Besson strangely amalgamates high-brow ambitions with B-movie antics.  It amounts to a simple-minded film about big ideas, something far less than Besson achieved on “The Professional,” but I’d be lying if I didn’t have a decent amount of fun on the ride.

Clearly Besson feels more comfortable in the realm of the non-human, staging vibrantly kinetic car chases and action sequences with flashy visuals.  These sequences have a definite panache to them, which is good given that they largely have to power the entire film.

Besson keeps “Lucy” moving at a swift clip, so brisk that you almost don’t have time to think about how excruciatingly bad his inane dialogue is.  It’s obvious that he views words as means to the ends of expression and plot development, not ends in and of themselves.  Worst of all, these unimaginative lines are delivered by Scarlett Johansson and company with feeling equivalent to rote recitation, rendering the film’s human element unintentionally laughable.

The film’s editing could have used some work, too.  Besson begins the film by heavy-handedly intercutting animals and prey with the events of the story (a clumsy attempt to be artful).  Then, he cross-cuts an intellectual lecture given by a professor played by Morgan Freeman (an obvious ploy to be taken seriously on an intellectual level) between multiple scenes of Lucy.  If you think about it, the edit really makes no sense as it either has no sense of time … or Freeman’s Samuel Norman is giving the world’s longest address!

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 25, 2014)

25 07 2014

Even the RainApparently, everyone from NPR to CollegeHumor is trying to make “Columbusing” a thing.  The phrase is used to describe the act of false discovery and claiming it as your own.  So in the spirit of trying to be trendy, my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is Iciar Bollain’s “Even the Rain,” a Spanish film that quite literally looks at the original act of “Columbusing” and its ramifications.

Bollain’s film takes off from a story where life quite literally begins to imitate art.  In “Even the Rain,” Gael García Bernal stars as Sebastian, a Spanish director looking to film a movie about the Spanish conquest of Latin America on the cheap in Bolivia.  He ultimately gets quite a bit more than he bargained for in his location, however.

At the same time as his picture is shooting, great civil unrest and riots are rocking the community.  The workers are suffering at the hands of multinational corporations that are charging exorbitant fees for access to water.  Sebastian and his creative team find themselves drawn into the conflict, against their desires and wishes, when one of the Bolivian stars of their film leads vehement opposition against their exploitation.

Bollain’s film raises important questions about colonialism, both ancient and modern.  And thanks to fine performances from Bernal (who always seems to pick the best Spanish-language projects – no offense, “Letters to Juliet“) and Carlos Aduviri as the Bolivian firebrand, “Even the Rain” is more than just a political diatribe.  It’s gripping cinema with a real conscience.

REVIEW: Under the Skin

24 07 2014

Under the SkinUnder the Skin” has the perfect title, since it reflects not only the events of the film itself but also its effect on the audience.  Jonathan Glazer’s third feature, which has been nine years in the making, features Scarlett Johansson as an alien who quite literally steps into human skin to observe us and carry out a cryptic mission.  In the process, the film seeps underneath our own skin, lingering there for quite some time and demanding to be pondered.

Glazer absolutely beguiles with his unique bending of cinematic syntax to his will, compiling what amounts to a masterclass of technical control.  Through his unique confluence of image, montage, and sound, “Under the Skin” pulsates with a dreamlike cadence.  Several of the film’s most striking sequences unfold in solidly white or black spaces, furthermore contributing to a sense of hyperreality.

Though perhaps Glazer’s intentions are not always immediately clear, he keeps us beguiled throughout – and often ravished.  He follows Johansson’s siren of the Glasgow streets, picking up and picking off men with the assistance of a strange motorcyclist, with an attention that’s languorous rather than laboriously plotted.

Our access into her head comes not through any words penned by screenwriter Walter Campbell; it arises from the curious gaze of Johansson.  Or, it surfaces from Mica Levi’s hauntingly hypnotic score, which feels like a second script for “Under the Skin” in itself.  Though it may not spark a connection in your heart, it will send a tingle up your spine.

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