REVIEW: The Finest Hours

18 07 2016

There’s something odd about Disney’s “The Finest Hours.”

This ’50s-set high-seas rescue does everything it can to recreate that era in the filmmaking. Director Craig Gillespie operates at a more methodical, easygoing pace in land-bound scenes. Period detail is all there, even down to the sound of the time as composer Carter Burwell provides a similarly moody post-war ambiance that he endowed to last year’s “Carol.” Heck, they even filled the role of Coast Guard crewman Bernie Webber with Chris Pine, the rare working actor today who can comfortably assume the style and mannerisms of a golden age Hollywood studio star.

And yet, “The Finest Hours” is the kind of disaster caper only possible to achieve at this level in the 21st century with computer graphics. The films of the 1950s – even the epics – were limited by the technology available at the time and bolstered by a grounded grandiosity. Seeing is believing here when technicians can show, in great detail, the destructive storm and waves that strand a vessel off the coast of Massachusetts. When the filmmakers try some of the more magical elements of a bygone period, such as suggesting a quasi-spiritual connection of Bernie’s sea navigation to his romantic interest’s journey on the open road, it falls completely flat.

“The Finest Hours” is a film caught between two styles of moviemaking and two schools of thinking. Gillespie and company can never quite figure out how to resolve this tension from the beginning, and as a result, the film sinks before it even has the chance to doggy-paddle.  C2stars

REVIEW: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

17 07 2016

Hunt for the WilderpeopleWriter/director Taika Waititi pulls off a rare feat with his film “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” – recreating an adolescent mindset without simultaneously infantilizing the audience. (No wonder Marvel wants him in their filmmaking stables.)

The movie adequately reflects the kind of “me against the world” headspace of troubled foster child Ricky (the riotous Julian Dennison) as he makes a last ditch stop with a rural-dwelling husband and wife before potentially ending up in juvy. Surprisingly, he ends up quite taken with the doting “aunt” Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and stoic “uncle” Hec (Sam Neill), so much so that he flees into the wilderness when extenuating circumstances lead child services to come back and collect him. Out here, “The Kings of Summer”-style, Ricky’s journey reconstitutes those who want to capture him as cartoonish villains and Hec, his reluctant forest companion, as a veritable folk hero.

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” gets more mileage out of its central conceit than the director’s last film, “What We Do in the Shadows,” because Waititi leans into the absurdity rather than grounding it in reality. The larger-than-life humor of Ricky especially, but also the scenarios he imagines, really calls for the embrace of the ridiculous he provides. The film often glides by on charm over inventiveness or ingenuity, which is often just fine so long as Ricky’s potty mouth is running full speed. B / 2halfstars

REVIEW: Tickled

16 07 2016

TickledThe World Wide Web has been around now for roughly a quarter-century, which means that we’re probably about ready to start looking back to the technology’s early days for lessons pertinent to its present and future. Much in the same way that Ondi Timoner’s 2009 documentary “We Live in Public” provided scary context for the phenomena of social media, David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s “Tickled” gives an early window into a new Internet dilemma: revenge porn.

Farrier, primarily a celebrity and entertainment journalist in New Zealand before the film, began the project like a typical human interest story. He stumbled upon bizarre videos of “competitive endurance tickling” and began making some preliminary inquiries into this unreported world. His questions are met with homophobia (striking, given how homoerotic the all-male videos appear) as well as threatened legal action, both of which only pique his interest.

Along with co-director Reeve, these Kiwis journey to America to take on the deep-pocketed bullies who will stop at nothing to halt their investigative eyes. Farrier and Reeve dig for the truth in the dark shadows of Hollywood, the economically scourged heartland of Michigan, the fetishistic corners of Florida and ultimately the privileged buttresses of New York privilege. From the veritable Wild, Wild West of the Internet of the late ’90s to the video-saturated web of today, they cut through layers of smoke screens and cash-padded baloney to reveal the scary truth about these “tickle cells.” The less you know before seeing “Tickled,” the better. That way, you can react both vocally and viscerally. B+ / 3stars

REVIEW: Central Intelligence

15 07 2016

Rawson Marshall Thurber’s “Central Intelligence” takes a tried and true premise – a mistaken identity thriller in the vein of Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” – and finds a way to make it just mildly entertaining. The director’s past films, “DodgeBall” and “We’re The Millers,” were pretty straightforward comedies. As he ventures into the realm of the action-infused comedy, Thurber never quite finds the grooves and rhythms of this hybrid genre.

Thankfully, he gets some relief from the dynamic chemistry of the film’s leading men – two high school classmates on very opposite trajectories headed towards their 20-year reunion. Kevin Hart’s Calvin Joyner was the all-around stud that everyone loved and wanted to emulate; now, he flounders behind a desk as an accountant with dwindling prospects for advancement. Dwayne Johnson’s Bob Stone went through high school as Robbie Weirdicht, an affable but friendless face in the crowd relentlessly taunted for having more to love; now, he is “Jason Bourne with jorts.”

Though Calvin was not well-acquainted with Bob in his glory days, he agrees to meet up with him for drinks before the reunion and unwittingly gets drawn into a case of international espionage. The stakes and the object in question do not seem to matter so much (classic MacGuffin) as the constant back and forth between who Calvin can trust – Bob or the CIA agents (led by Amy Ryan) who tote real guns and badges. The changes in allegiance keep “Central Intelligence” on its toes, something that serves it well when gags land lightly or moments for emotional resonance lack power. Hart and Johnson compliment each other nicely, with the former playing more grounded and the latter doing a more ridiculous persona than normal. The talents of both actors, however, feel underserved here. C+2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 14, 2016)

14 07 2016

It’s practically inevitable that the culture and thinking I absorb eventually seeps into my writing. But this week offered one of the best chances for application ever.

I’m about halfway through Chuck Klosterman’s “But What If We’re Wrong?” This collection of cultural criticism applies a futuristic lens to the present day, removing our contemporary moorings from the equation and attempting to predict how later generations will see us. One big thesis is fairly depressing: most culture gets forgotten, and often what lasts cannot be appreciated in its own time. A group of people must find something in the work that its original audience was not able to see or fully grasp.

Not even thinking about the potential connection to the book, I watched 2001’s “Josie and the Pussycats” this week. For whatever reason, I have been on a bit of a late ’90s-early ’00s culture kick recently, so this felt like a natural thing to finally see. And wow, was I in for a surprise. This choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” has an additional sense of urgency thanks to Klosterman’s writing. 15 years after its release, we need to start reappraising the movie and appreciating it as an eerily prescient and wickedly smart comedy.

I was eight years old when the film was released, so I can do only the most basic reconstruction of the 2001 moviegoer. But I can imagine just how easy it would be to mistake “Josie and the Pussycats” for the kind of mindless schlock it mercilessly mocks. Just read the Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus, presumptively from the theatrical release: “This live-action update of ‘Josie and the Pussycats’ offers up bubbly, fluffy fun, but the constant appearance of product placements seems rather hypocritical.”

Even in the decade or so since this film hit screens, Americans are seemingly more aware of the consumerism in which our culture is so heavily steeped. It’s hard to imagine anyone saying with a straight face nowadays that “Josie and the Pussycats” is an endorsement of this relentless corporate bludgeoning; after all, we have endured the rise of Kardashianism as well as the reality show non-commercial product spotlights that surged as traditional advertising fell. And need any further proof of how insidious this ideology is? Don’t forget what George W. Bush told Americans to do in the wake of 9/11, just six months after the film was released – go shopping.

Writer/director duo Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan wisely chose to steep their modern Josie and the Pussycats story in this culture because, after all, rock has become more an empty signifier than a vital musical movement. It is dominated and controlled more by elites and executives than the people from whom it traditionally arose. This acknowledgement of a sad reality makes the traditional “behind the music” tale more than rote repetition of a cliché; it exposes the corporate logic behind that narrative becoming a cliché. When record companies can pre-package starlets into familiar stories, it dumbs down their consumers and allows them to slip in some more subliminal messages to purchase other goods.

This kind of cynical, conspiratorial thinking might have seemed far-fetched in 2001. Sadly – or perhaps encouragingly, depending on your vantage point – it feels oddly plausible in 2016. And if you have any doubt, pay attention to the record executive Wyatt Frame, played by Alan Cumming, and his frequent fourth wall-breaking winks to the audience. It’s a look that says, “you hate this, but you know you’ll be buying Starbucks later today because of this.” There are signs for hope that our society has latched onto some of the thinking espoused by “Josie and the Pussycats.” But is it too late to reverse the cultural direction that relegated this film to the sidelines of discussion for so long?

REVIEW: The Measure of a Man

13 07 2016

The Measure of a ManBuzz words like globalizationrecession or underemployment are never spoken in Stephane Brizé’s “The Measure of a Man.” But even without saying as much, the film might make for one of the most powerful statements about the new world economy, one that has quickly displaced older middle-class laborers and given them little hope for recovery and readjustment.

Through Vincent Lindon’s passive, stoic everyman Thierry Taugourdeau, we can see the forces of this corporate climate. Since Thierry takes relatively few actions of his own, Brizé isolates and elucidates the ways in which he is acted upon by the system. There’s a marked contrast between the manner of his layoff, done however brutally in person with a human touch, and the frustrating process of getting hired elsewhere, carried out over Skype by people who remain faceless to the audience.

After time passes – apparently several months, which Brizé effortlessly elides – Thierry winds up in an entirely different profession altogether. No longer is he contributing physical products to the market with his labor. Thierry instead takes a job in security at a supermarket, creating nothing and simply protecting the financial interests of those perpetuating a system in which he must flail to stay above water.

Further, his surveillance efforts cover not only the customers but also the company’s own employees. Each group provides their own unique challenges in approaching and reprimanding, though confronting his colleagues requires an exceptional level of composure. Thierry understands the impulses that lead them to cut corners, and it leads to conflict. That conflict does not take place in the narrative, however, in a way that might push him towards an explosive plot point or climax. It simply occurs in his psyche, torn between what provides for his family and what is just.

Brizé does not turn this strife into an opportunity to push an agenda with “The Measure of a Man.” The film first and foremost observes, understands and empathizes as it exposes just how fragile the foundations are for the modern working class. And, by implication, he challenges us to ask ourselves if we are comfortable with this arrangement as a society. B+3stars

REVIEW: Ghostbusters

12 07 2016

While watching Paul Feig’s take on “Ghostbusters” (splitting hairs over remake vs. reboot just doesn’t feel worth it), I often felt like I needed to keep a tally chart. In one column, the header would read “one for progress;” the other, “one for fan service.”

One for progress: women are scientific masterminds and ingenious problem solvers. Chris Hemsworth’s secretary Kevin fills the traditional role of the dumb blonde objectified by the protagonists (with aplomb, I might add). The human villain is a socially isolated white male with a bone to pick. Welcome to 2016.

One for fan service: these newfangled characters are locked into hitting most of the same plot beats as the original film. Better than today’s hackneyed franchise origin stories, I suppose. Welcome back to 1984.

One for progress: acknowledging the differences between 1984 and 2016. With the rise of the Internet, computer graphics and the larger conspiracy culture, the Ghostbusters and the paranormal apparitions they hunt would be all too easily laughed off today. Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold reimagine the team successfully in a world that is more incredulous than ever – yet also more terrified of the random and the unexplained.

One for fan service: just giving us the ghosts we already know anyways. Feig brings back all the most familiar ghosts from the Marshmallow Man to the green slime monster. The latter even gets a female companion. Neither the characters nor the effects used to bring them to life feel particularly new, exciting or terrifying. I cannot put myself in the shows of a 1984 moviegoer, but this 2016 viewer saw a whole lot of bright blue light beams that look a whole lot like the ones in basically every other action movie these days.

Quick break from the rhetorical device, in case you’re getting tired … One for I don’t know who: fart jokes and a lame “your mama” line. Really? Did they throw those in the mix just in case the “Ghostbusters” bros who made the film’s trailer the most disliked in YouTube history actually decided to show up?

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming!

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