REVIEW: Kubo and the Two Strings

13 01 2017

It brings me no joy to make categorical distinctions like this … but I just don’t think the storytelling of Laika Entertainment is just not for me. First “Coraline,” then “ParaNorman, ” and now “Kubo and the Two Strings” have all left me grasping at straws and wanting for more. Dazzling and creative as their animation might look, the narratives and the emotions never have much of a hook.

Travis Knight’s film boasts a fairly common hero’s journey-style narrative, as the scrappy titular character goes on a search for magic armor that will fend off the evil spirits that hunt him down. Turns out, Kubo belongs to a fraught family tree where his main pursuers are actually his grandfather the Moon King (voice of Ralph Fiennes) and his aunts, the Sariatu Sisters (voice of Rooney Mara). Along the way, he must band together with allies who have been reincarnated as animals – his mother as a monkey (voice of Charlize Theron) and a beetle with a connection to Kubo’s deceased father (voice of Matthew McConaughey).

I’d rather not go too much into plot summary, which is admittedly all I have in the absence of any strong feelings one way or the other. To blather on and on about how impressive the stop-motion animation was can serve no good. These are admittedly among the hardest reviews to write: the ones where I just felt entirely neutral. Especially when everyone else seems to love it, but that’s reacting to reactions rather than the movie. Guess I’ll just continue in my position on the outside looking in at Laika love. C+2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 12, 2017)

12 01 2017

it-felt-like-loveAs anyone who has taken an introductory-level film theory class can tell you, the camera is not just an object. It is an organism (most commonly referred to as the eye) responsive to the impulses and instincts of the person who wields it. The majority of current cinema reflects a male gaze, and the emphasis on diversifying talent sadly does not seem to be taking strides – a new report released this week shows that female filmmakers lost ground in 2016.

But outside the mainstream, there are some voices and visions who need to be amplified. One such talent is writer/director Eliza Hittman, whose feature debut “It Felt Like Love” only recently came to my attention as I did research on filmmakers presenting their newest films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s a shame that this film got buried because Hittman’s work, my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is nothing less than transporting. She picks us up from wherever we are and puts us in the perspective of a teenage girl, Gina Piersanti’s Lila, as she tepidly steps into her role as a sexual being.

The roughly 8o minutes of the film are devoted more to Lila’s feelings than they are to any one thing that happens to her. Hittman masters conveying a female gaze, the way girls process the pleasures and pains of looking at an object and feeling rapt with emotion. There’s a special attention to the tactility of puppy love, a need to touch constantly as a display of infatuation. Lila’s tongue lacks the language that bodies trade in so fluently, and she frequently trips trying to express herself. But as she tries to impress her female friends and woo her male peers, we don’t need those words to tell the story of her anguish and confusion. We see the world through her eyes and eventually come to share in the emotions with her.

REVIEW: Live by Night

11 01 2017

A few years ago, some lawmakers courted controversy by hyping themselves up for a debt ceiling showdown with a scene from Ben Affleck’s “The Town.” In the clip shown, a character flatly states, “I need your help. I can’t tell you what it is. You can never ask me about it later. And we’re going to hurt some people.” When asked for comment, Affleck was easily able to brush it off as willful misreading; no one could accuse his film of making a pure glorification of criminal enterprise.

Yet if someone were to do a hype session with a scene from Affleck’s latest film “Live by Night” – using what scene, I have no idea – the same dodging maneuver would not be so easy. This Florida-set, Prohibition-era gangster tale feels like less of a movie and more of a fantasy realized with tens of millions of Warner Bros. dollars. Though a novel by Dennis Lehane may form its backbone, make no mistake that the only shape the film takes is the splattered vomit of its directors influences all over the screen.

One could invent an “Affleck Homage” Bingo game to liven up the experience of watching the jumbled mess. One scene might be a clear nod to Gordon Willis’ photography in “The Godfather” with heavy shadows and amber/sepia lighting. Another, a Steadicam journey through a hotel’s back corridors similar to the notorious “GoodFellas” tracking shot. But all the hat tips are masking Affleck’s true fascination in “Live by Night” – himself.

Don’t be fooled by the lack of a gratuitous shirtless shot that led to chuckles both in “The Town” and “Argo.” Affleck’s insistence on slow pushes of the camera in on his stoic face signal an obsession with the undeveloped interior life of deal-making gangster Joe Coughlin. The world around him, which involves a show of force by the KKK, proves far more interesting. Yet Affleck would rather dwell in a tormented state of displaced Boston accents, ethnic conflicts and a scenario where what we now consider to be “white people” could be victims of persecution and discrimination.

At least it’s not all bad – he pretty much gives Chris Messina, playing Coughlin’s portly henchman Dion Bartolo, free range to unleash the full range of his charm and humor. It doesn’t exactly work within the rest of “Live by Night,” but given that so little else works in the film … maybe the film should have been just all Chris Messina. C2stars

REVIEW: Don’t Breathe

10 01 2017

What separates Fede Alvarez’s “Don’t Breathe” from a standard-issue horror flick? Technical proficiency, primarily. It’s hard to watch the film and not be aware of the way sound, image and camera movement are being used to produce an aura of fear and dread. But therein lies the issue with its effectiveness: I was so cognizant of the ways in which I was being manipulated that I could never fully let the atmosphere overtake me.

At this level of critical distance, it’s easy to see the film for what it is: an average heist film, a run-of-the-mill haunted house flick and a mediocre final girl narrative. Said survivor Rocky (Jane Levy) is among a band of robbers in Detroit who preys on easy targets to make some cash. It’s a classic case of doing the wrong thing for a noble reason since Rocky’s ultimate goal is to escape from a horrible family situation – her mom’s boyfriend has a swastika tattooed on his hand – with her much younger sister.

But she and her pals meet their match when they rob a blind army veteran (Stephen Lang) whose home has its fair share of surprises. Perhaps it was my loss not to experience it as intended in the dark of a theater, but “Don’t Breathe” hardly affected my respiratory system. Alvarez clearly knows what he’s doing, though he lost me somewhat by showing what he’s doing. C+2stars

REVIEW: Miss Stevens

9 01 2017

miss-stevensThere’s something about young adults staring at each other from across the chasm of their twenties that inspires odd, imbalanced and fascinating relationships. Not enough films investigate these strange connections; Julia Hart’s “Miss Stevens” joins a league that only includes Lynn Shelton’s “Laggies,” at least to my knowledge. (I’m not counting Hannah Fidell’s “A Teacher,” primarily because of the sexual dimension present there.)

I’ve seen it a bit from both sides now, as a student and as a loose authority figure of sorts while serving as an intern in youth ministry back in college. Each party wants to impress the other, obtaining their approval and then feeling connected with an age group they secretly aspire to become. They get “older,” not old; “younger,” not young.

“Miss Stevens” understands this reciprocal exchange as it plays out between its titular character Rachel Stevens, played by Lily Rabe, and her rambunctious student Billy, played by Timothée Chalamet. The script from Hart and co-writer Jordon Horowitz understands that there is something more at play in their increasingly raw, personal interactions. Rachel and Billy are old souls (they connect over the rock band America on a car ride) trapped in younger bodies, and they come to resemble inverse images of each other. While the story might not hold up towards the end, the genuine spark in their scenes never dissipates.

On a drama trip chaperoned by Rachel, a former actress herself until a politicized moment of theatrical authenticity sidelines her, she allows herself to see more of Billy than his public-facing front and blasé reputation. Though medically diagnosed with a personality disorder, he is deemed stable enough to self-medicate – a prospect that scares Rachel thoroughly. He craves opportunities to spend time with her for attention and validation, yes. But most importantly, he seeks a more mature connection than the ones he can forge with his fellow classmates on the trip. Lili Reinhart’s prim Margot is far too focused on the thespian tasks ahead for his taste, and Anthony Quintal’s openly gay Sam (who Billy fully accepts) gets fixated on the convention’s hookup culture.

I know this character, in part because I was him to some extent. Chalamet’s instincts are superb in bringing Billy to life – being smarter than the character but never letting that on while making boneheaded decisions. He resists lazy conventions of the sullen goth propagated in teen fiction, turning Billy into a beautiful set of contradictions. He’s moody, but he smiles; it’s not far-fetched to believe that he could mature into Casey Affleck, who played the adult version of his character in “Interstellar.” B2halfstars

REVIEW: Fences

8 01 2017

The measure of a successful theatrical adaptation is often how far it can distance itself from the conventions of the stage. The underlying expectation is that untethered from the limitations of sets, the suspension of disbelief, the necessity of projection, the primacy of dialogue, and so on, only then will the play will become a film. But that logic does not explain Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” nor does it explain Denzel Washington’s “Fences.”

August Wilson’s play takes place in the family home and yard of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a ’50s-era Pittsburgh patriarch. The concentrated location makes sense logistically for the stage to minimize scenic design costs, but it also fits thematically for a story so immediately concerned with matters of domestic concern. As Troy works through his past shortcomings, his present stagnation and his future worries for his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and children, his blustering and ruminating does not really work anywhere but his house. Opening it up to other locations or breaking up his long, aimless rambling would distill and distort the very essence of “Fences.”

August Wilson is not alive to see how Denzel Washington tended to the script he left behind (though his estate likely saw to his wishes being met), but he would almost certainly be proud to see how the essence of the theatrical experience remained in tact. “Fences” keeps the power in the word and the performance, leaving many important events shaping their current woes and strife unvisualized. We don’t need flashbacks to show us what an expert line reading can tell us, both about the event and the way its ramifications still affect even the smallest of decisions in their lives.

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REVIEW: A Monster Calls

7 01 2017

A generation raised post-Spielberg’s “E.T.” has come to expect a certain amount of catharsis or salvation from stories in which an unhappy child is visited by a fantastic creature. J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls,” to its credit, resists a lot of the sentimentality and focuses largely on the pain that cannot be diminished or wiped away by some kind of paranormal visitation. If the film makes you cry, Bayona is certainly not there waiting a hug, tissue and reassurance.

Patrick Ness’ screenplay, adapted from his own novel, takes a deceptively familiar premise and finds creative ways to subvert our expectations. The young protagonist, Lewis MacDougall’s Conor, is “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man” yet forced to grapple with the rapidly progressing cancer of his mother (Felicity Jones). At the same time, he receives visitations from a giant talking tree (voice of Liam Neeson) who reads him what appears to be an instructive fairy tale.

But as the story progresses, unfolding before our eyes in creative animation, the true purpose is revealed. It’s a tragedy, not an inspirational fable, and the tree is preparing him for an inevitable loss. Conor’s resistance to the message illustrates the human capacity for deluding ourselves into comforting lies and delusions to shield ourselves from the pain of reality.

His worldview shifts from black and white to gray as well as from sensical to paradoxical over the course of the film, two journeys we commonly associate with the coming-of-age genre. But “A Monster Calls” dwells in the messiness, hurt and loss rather than glossing over it – often times at the cost of being traditionally satisfying or crowd-pleasing. The maturity suggests a film perhaps more aimed at adults looking with retrospection rather than children viewing with a forward glance. B+3stars