REVIEW: This Is Where I Leave You

20 09 2014

This Is Where I Leave YouIt took me until a college intro-level theater class to realize it, but the term melodrama actually means “music drama.”  In Shawn Levy’s adaptation of the novel “This Is Where I Leave You,” he really deploys that definitional dimension to convey all the film’s emotion.

As if we couldn’t already tell that two family members alone together was going to result in clichéd conversation, Levy cues each scene up with Michael Giacchino’s gentle piano score to softly amplify the forced profundity.  Or maybe if we’re lucky, Levy will treat us to a mellow Alexei Murdoch ditty.  (The singer is employed far less effectively than he was by Sam Mendes in “Away We Go,” for the few out there who care.)

The film seems to move forward solely on the logic that everyone needs to almost cry alone with each other.  It doesn’t matter to what extent the actors can manage authenticity – usually they don’t manage at all – because it’s impossible to escape the hoary hokeyness of the directorial heavy-handedness.

“This Is Where I Leave You,” which follows a family of four estranged siblings coming back to sit shiva for their deceased father, brings a lot more under its roof than it can handle.  Levy recruited a heck of a cast but seems unsure of how to deploy them in roles that require more than easy comedy.  The film’s dialogue makes more than a few attempts at humor, yet its talented players seem to timid to explore that element.

The reserve of the cast only serves to exacerbate the awkward blending of three distinct comic stylings: the reactionary stoicism of Jason Bateman, the strung-out loquaciousness of Tina Fey, and the live wire erraticism of Adam Driver.  (As for Corey Stoll, their eldest sibling … well, every family needs one serious member).  They don’t feel like family members so much as they come across as uncommonly adept scene partners who can feign a passable relationship until someone yells cut.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 19, 2014)

19 09 2014

All About My MotherIf you’ve been paying attention to recent trends in cinema, you’ll note that this isn’t a particularly great time for women.   Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain recently remarked, “the female characters, very rarely do they get to speak to another female character in a movie, and when they do it’s usually about a guy, not anything else. So they’re very male-centric, Hollywood films, in general.”

Five years after Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director, women still only direct less than 5% of studio releases and 10% of indie films.  Not to mention, they comprised only 14% of the lead roles in 2013.  And yet, women make up half the population and a slight majority of the cinematic viewing audience.  What gives?

If you are looking for a film that actually gives women the spotlight and attention they deserve, you ought to check out my pick for “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” Pedro Almodóvar’s “All About My Mother.”  This Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film boasts a female-centric ensemble probing all sorts of gender issues.  Almodóvar takes the time to give each character real humanity and inner life, two things which should sadly be a no-brainer for women in film (but often are not incorporated).

If you have the chance, be sure to familiarize yourself with “All About Eve” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” before dipping your toes in “All About My Mother.”  They certainly aren’t required to understand the film, but having some knowledge of them will unlock reservoirs of meaning beneath its surface.  Almodóvar engages audiences who enter with this cultural context in a very astutely observed conversation about the ways in which we internalize meaningful works of art.

Flowing from that, “All About My Mother” mainly concerns itself with the roles females play in society.  The film follows Cecilia Roth’s Manuela, a consummate matriarch mourning the tragic loss of her only son, as she brings and holds together a group of women all struggling with gender-related issues.  Pregnancy, cross-dressing, jealousy, suspicion … you name it, this film has it.  Almodóvar expertly juggles many characters and ideas, somehow managing to never drop a single one.  The experience feels nothing short of enlightening (and even 15 years later, still needs to make its way onto some Hollywood executives’ desks).

REVIEW: The Missing Picture

18 09 2014

The Missing PictureLondon Film Festival, 2013

Rithy Panh’s “The Missing Picture” shares more than a passing resemblance to Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing,” as both use the capabilities of cinema to confront the blood-stained past.  While the latter focuses on the perpetrators of mass murder in Indonesia, the former takes a painful look at the victims of a genocide in Cambodia at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Panh is himself a survivor of this brutal attempt at extinction, and “The Missing Picture” transforms his personal story into the political.  Through the use of claymation figures, Panh reconstructs his memories of oppression in a work camp.  These recreations also serve as a rejoinder to the recorded history of the period, which the Khmer Rouge attempted to whitewash with blatantly false propaganda.

The very form of the film is fascinating, although I couldn’t help but feel Panh’s reach exceeded his grasp on occasion.  The intellectual premise just doesn’t feel fully realized in “The Missing Picture.”  It’s not for lack of effort; it’s more for lack of discretion and tight focus.

Yet there’s a haunting power to the narrative that’s impossible to deny.  I knew nothing of the Khmer Rouge’s tyranny before entering the theater, but that hardly impeded the film from affecting me.  Panh makes the film feel searingly real, even though we’re watching patently fake clay figurines and having the story narrated to us by a disembodied, impersonal booming voice.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: The Drop

17 09 2014

In nearly every film appearance over the past five years, Tom Hardy has established himself as a man’s man.  Be it through delivering brutal beatings in “Bronson,” “Warrior,” and “The Dark Knight Rises” or by providing a portrait of masculinity both polished (“Inception“) and rugged (“Lawless“), he’s been a paradigm of behavioral virility.

In “The Drop,” however, Hardy tries on a different persona: a mild-mannered, soft-spoken simpleton.  When juxtaposed with all his previous films – even “This Means War” – the contrast is jarring enough to grab some attention.  As Bob Saginowski, the bartender unwittingly drawn into a robbery of dirty money from his establishment, Hardy is still effective even in his quietude.

All the shenanigans that follow don’t really give Hardy much of a chance to show any range in this newly subdued register.  He gets a quasi-romantic arc with Noomi Rapace’s Nadia, who really feels like little more than the means to introduce the film’s primary antagonist, Matthias Schoenarts’ Eric Deeds.  Bob does manage to draw some sympathy, though, by adopting and caring for a beaten pitbull that seems to have sauntered out of a Sarah McLachlan SPCA commercial.

But beyond its leading man, “The Drop” has very little to offer that we have not already seen countless times (not to mention better).  Director Michael R. Roskam does not seem to inflect the action with any stakes, so it subsequently comes across as low intensity.  Though it runs a slender hour and 45 minutes, the film feels substantially longer.

Perhaps fans of James Gandolfini, who appears in his last on-screen role here as Bob’s business partner, will want the action to drag on so they can maintain the illusion that he is still with us. He gives a good performance, to be clear.  Yet I found myself asking the same question as when I left “A Most Wanted Man,” which will be Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last non-“Hunger Games” role: is this really the movie on which a great actor would want to go out?  Just another ho-hum, forgettable mob thriller?  C+2stars

REVIEW: Bullhead

16 09 2014

BullheadWhen I sat down to write this review, it had been roughly two months since I sat down and watched “Bullhead.”  Even in spite of the relatively small window – sometimes I’ll shamefully go much longer from viewing to writing – I found that I remembered fairly little about the film.  Perhaps that’s telling as to the kind of film this is: not terrible, but also not particularly memorable.

“Bullhead” does boast a ferocious leading turn by Matthias Schoenarts that makes the film ultimately worthwhile.  Though the Belgian actor has since impressed in films such as “Rust and Bone” and “Blood Ties,” this is by far Schoenarts’ best foot forward.

As Jacky Vanmarsenille, a farmer with masculinity issues abounding due to an unfortunate childhood incident, Schoenarts is a bull with massive pent-up rage he’s trying to unleash.  All he needs is someone to throw a red cape in front of his face.  Yet he performance isn’t all brute force and physicality; director Michael R. Roskam often poignantly captures the brooding soul inside Jacky with close-ups.

Beyond its towering leading performance, however, “Bullhead” struggles to offer little more than the ordinary.  The film has a relatively simple agrarian story that gets convoluted by poor character definition.  Its narrative is also further clouded by unclear ethnic tensions between the Belgians and Flemish, which might be more clear in its native country but came across as confounding to this particular American viewer.

So unless you really love gorgeous establishing shots or feel an insatiable urge to see every Schoenarts performance in case he becomes the next Michael Fassbender, there’s no reason to check out “Bullhead.”  It’s not entirely bull—- (think of the most common phrase involving the word bull), but Roskam certainly misses the bullseye.  B-2stars

REVIEW: Finding Vivian Maier

15 09 2014

Vivian MaierAfter “Searching for Sugar Man” won the Oscar, it seems only natural that distributors would begin searching for more artist biography-cum-investigative journey documentaries to exhibit.  “Finding Vivian Maier” thus feels like the kind of kindred spirit to 2012’s Academy Award-winning doc that we could expect to ride its wake to moderate success.  While the film certainly boasts an intriguing angle on its subject, it never fully delivers on its premise.

An apples-to-apples comparison between the two films is not entirely fair, although Vivian Maier’s quiet genius can’t help but summon parallels to Rodriguez.  Maier, employed most of her life as a nanny in Chicago, surreptitiously took some of the most stunning street photography of the 20th century.  As stunning as it was, she never bothered to publish it; heck, plenty of film rolls were left undeveloped!

Documentarian John Maloof stumbled upon her work by accident and has since dedicated himself to making her work known to the world.  Maloof has mounted numerous exhibitions of her work, and now, he and Charlie Siskel have made “Finding Vivian Maier.”  Though the documentary is not without its merits, it does have the feel of an overlong informative video that you would watch on an uncomfortable, crowded bench before entering a gallery.

Maloof and Siskel spend a good chunk of the film delving into Maier’s private life, hoping to come to some resolution as to why she seemingly chose to keep her work secret.  If one of their interviewees is to be believed, “Had she chosen to make herself known, she would have been a world-famous photographer.”  It’s not a tragedy that “Finding Vivian Maier” cannot provide a grand answer to the bizarre questions its subject raises, but all the time spent on her personal life does not really inform her artistic output.

When the film just shows Maier’s photos, however, the work does speak for itself.  The way she captures life in one suspended moment is nothing short of stunning.  I just wish I could have really lost myself in them by looking for the amount of time I deem sufficient.  Though “Finding Vivian Maier” does not focus enough on the why of Maier’s work, it is still entirely possible to appreciate the what of it.  B / 2halfstars

REVIEW: Gloria

14 09 2014

GloriaIn a recent article published through Variety, David S. Cohen recounts a story told to him by a film editor.  He was frustrated with the dailies, lamenting that the leading actress wasn’t giving him much of a performance.  In the end, however, she won the Oscar for the part.

Speculate away on who that might be, but the anecdote highlights a truth that many movie lovers often ignore.  In film, we tend to give all the credit to the actors in crafting their role as if they were on the stage.  Yet in this medium, an editor is every bit as crucial in getting their character across to an audience.

If you have any doubts about this, I recommend you check out “Gloria” and see how film editors can create the most memorable moments of a movie by the shot of an actor they choose, where they position it in the story, and how long they choose to hold it.  The inserts of leading lady Paulina García are more interesting than any acting she ever does or any storytelling that writer/director Sebastián Lelio ever attempts.

I’ll give Lelio credit for trying to explore a subject that isn’t particularly commercial, that of a 58-year-old woman’s love life.  (As Tina Fey quipped at the Golden Globes, “Meryl Streep, so brilliant in ‘August: Osage County,’ proving that there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60.”)  Furthermore, he does it with all the candor towards sexuality and nudity that makes Lena Dunham’s “Girls” such a lightning rod for controversy.

Unfortunately, García’s Gloria just isn’t a very interesting or complex character to follow.  The film is further hampered by an unclear and vague romantic conflict at its core.  Though Lelio gives the film a fun ending, the journey there is rather dreary and insipid.  García’s performance isn’t much to impress on the way, either.

Save, of course, the occasional shot of her hungover head in a purse or lying back on a couch in anguish.  But saying that’s great acting is a stretch.  Your kid can scribble lines on a page, but you wouldn’t hang it next to Jackson Pollock, would you?  Intent separates artists from average joes, and editors can manufacture that in place of an actor if need be.  C2stars


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