REVIEW: Disorder

10 09 2016

Disorder 2016 posterAt its best, Alice Winocour’s “Disorder” functions as a more elemental spin on the political conspiracy thriller. Matthias Schoenaerts’ Vincent, a recently discharged Army member, takes on a gig as private security detail at the opulent estate of a Lebanese businessman and his wife, Diane Kruger’s Jessie. Everyone comes to learn the true nature of his enterprise, however, by the threats he attracts when leaving for business.

Winocour can be aggravatingly vague about the identity of the menace facing them, very nearly arriving at the point where ambiguity crosses over into ambivalence. The film stays afloat thanks to the strong character work by Schoenaerts, whose difficulties with hearing hobble his effectiveness as a guard and even emasculate him as a person. The actor’s portraits of fragile masculine performance can sometimes carry a lot of sulking swagger – “Rust and Bone,” “A Bigger Splash” – but his angst in “Disorder” feels truly rooted in Vincent’s PTSD.

Winocour works in Vincent’s aural deficits into the very grammar of the film, playing with both white noise and utter sonic clarity. Ironically enough, Vincent gets tipped off to the shady dealings by overhearing a conversation at a party that seems to indicate these wealthy elites are putting their fingers on the scale of democracy. While details of their nefarious negotiations remain willfully obscured, at least Winocour is willing to engage with the issues of veteran stability and the omnipresence of our surveillance and security state. “Disorder” leaves us with a chilling reminder of the extent to which violence paradoxically secures peace – and how comfortable we are living with this oft-hidden reality once it makes itself known. B-2stars

REVIEW: Get a Job

9 09 2016

get-a-jobDylan Kidd’s “Get a Job” shot in 2012 but did not see release until 2016 – a four-year gap that did not serve the film well. Rather than an imperfect snapshot of its moment, the “comedy” now plays like a period piece of the recent past. This story of recent college graduates’ rocky entrance into the professional world appears completely oblivious to the kind of pain present in the post-recession economic landscape.

Miles Teller’s Will Davis heads to what he thinks is the first day of work at LA Weekly after years of “building [his] brand” … only to find himself shuffled out the door unceremoniously. In what could play as an “Up in the Air”-style ironic twist (which would have been perfect given the presence of Anna Kendrick), he ends up putting his filmic skills to work creating video résumés at an executive placement firm. Sign of the times? Not really, mostly just a setting where his creative millennial mindset can clash with the stodgy virtues of the company.

The job really only starts to take a topical turn when Will’s dad, Roger (Bryan Cranston), begins to require their services. Despite being a thirty year company man, Roger finds himself looking for a new line of work at the same time as his son. Again, Kidd has another opportunity for topicality through a character displaced in an economy that values ruthless efficiency over loyalty. Still … nothing.

“Get a Job” has a wide ensemble, too, each with their own occupational hazards. Will’s girlfriend Jillian (Kendrick) takes on a position at stalwart P&G that seems sure to launch her career into the corporate stratosphere – until it doesn’t. He also shares a pad with three other pals, each of which trod fairly traditional routes: finance (Brandon T. Jackson’s Luke), education (Nicholas Braun’s Charlie) and start-ups (Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s Ethan). Kidd fashions them as a “Knocked Up” gang of harmless manchildren existing irrespective of time, but their activities suggest that they are really just schlubby stoners who can barely be bothered to turn off their video games.

The message imparted through their turbulent launches into the “real world” is neither timeless nor timely. Perhaps that is par for the course from a film that shrugs off any responsibility to say anything about the world we inhabit. The milieu of “Get a Job” is one where characters can barely achieve any professional success and still sit around slacking off and dreaming big in a cushy bungalow. The characters suggest a celebration of the millennial mindset while the plot gives it a rebuke. Kidd doesn’t send mixed messages, though. Just incoherent, half-baked ones. C2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 8, 2016)

8 09 2016

year-of-the-dogAs someone who lives with two canine companions, I can certainly sympathize with Molly Shannon’s Peggy in “Year of the Dog.” Relationships with humans are tough. How dare they do this, but they actually want something in return from us. They make demands of our time and thought. Dogs like Peggy’s beloved Pencil simply live to please us, offering love and affection no matter our mood or deeds that day.

But, as every child in a film about a dog knows, we almost always outlive our dogs. Peggy faces this lesson sooner than expected when Pencil gets into some toxic chemicals and cannot be saved by a veteran. What comes next for someone who puts all her eggs into the basket of her beloved animal makes for quite a melancholy comedy from writer/director Mike White.

Rather than using her period of mourning to deepen or enrich her relationship with neighbors, coworkers or family members, Peggy entrenches herself even further into animal advocacy and obsession. She becomes a vegan, brings home abused shelter dogs by the carful to save them from euthanasia and even “adopts” farm animals in lieu of holiday gifts. It’s decidedly odd turn of events, yet Molly Shannon resists playing her character as some kind of lunatic. The performance resembles a quieter, more mellow version of her notorious “Saturday Night Live” characters – all of their insecurities without all the theatricality to mask the wounds.

“Year of the Dog” is my choice for “F.I.L.M. of the Week” not only because of Shannon’s raw performance but also because of where Mike White takes it. While he shows compassion for everyone, White is not afraid to steer the film into dark and bittersweet territory. He is unafraid to suggest that Peggy might not need the human connections we expect her to develop over the course of the film. She might just need the certainty of her own convictions and the courage to follow the path she thinks will bring her the happiness she seeks.

REVIEW: Cameraperson

7 09 2016

camerapersonSXSW Film Festival

Towards the outset of Kirsten Johnson’s “Cameraperson,” we see a beautiful shot of a raging storm in Missouri – and then hear a sneeze out of frame. This is a clip repurposed from the raw footage of another documentary for which Johnson shot footage, though it’s the kind of moment that never makes the final cut of a documentary. Non-fiction films might reference the presence of a director hovering outside the scene, molding our perceptions after the fact, but they rarely acknowledge the cameraperson who makes innumerable important decisions in the moment that contribute to our notion of reality.

When writers describe cinema, we often filter it through the lens of auteur theory – that pie-in-the-sky idea which puts faith in the genius and willpower of a single visionary artist whose indelible stamp appears in every aspect of the film. But if the director is the brain of a given project, they need hands to execute their vision in a collaborative medium. Johnson, in her role as cameraperson and director of photography for nearly a quarter-century in documentary filmmaking, serves as those hands. This boundary-defying filmic memoir achieves the impossible by both isolating her technical contributions and illuminating her own artistry as the authoritative presence capturing moments as they unfold.

Johnson’s impeccable non-fiction Rolodex features Laura Poitras, Kirby Dick and more, all of which granted her permission to reshape the raw footage from their completed documentaries into this new, living interrogation of the role of the cameraperson. On occasion, the scenes reflect back on the directors themselves, showing who views her as an artist and who sees her as a mere technician (*COUGH* Michael Moore). But the majority of “Cameraperson” shows how we can apply to Johnson the language traditionally reserved to describe the body of work of a director.

Through the gentle flow of scenes edited to a thematic rhythm, we come to learn how Johnson’s subject position as a woman, a mother weighs on what she shoots and doesn’t. We begin to notice emerging themes, such as the placid and straightforward presentation of sites where atrocities occurred. We see, through the juxtaposition of her own childhood prayers with prayers at a mosque, how she relates to subjects on different continents. We witness her evolution as an artist, observing how she comes to makes the call on how to portray a subject – impressionistically, or with standard establishing shots.

In reclaiming the previously shot footage to tell her own story, Johnson also comes in control of sound and montage. While we come to know her by the images she captures, we also come to realize that no craftsman or artist on a film works in a vacuum. Any great work of filmed art represents the sum of the efforts of its many collaborative elements. “Cameraperson” is more than just an autobiography. It’s an ontological document of the cinema itself. A-3halfstars

REVIEW: Other People

6 09 2016

other-peopleSundance Film Festival

Chris Kelly’s “Other People” was the first film I saw at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016. Had it also been the only film I saw, I think I could have left Park City feeling wholly satisfied.

This personal, deeply felt tale about a struggling writer (Jesse Plemons’ David) who comes home to take care of his cancer-stricken mother (Molly Shannon’s Joanne) contains everything people have come to expect from a quote-unquote “Sundance movie.” It’s a dramedy with real heart, surprising performances from a vast ensemble and a little something to say about the constant battle to claim one’s identity. David, an openly gay twenty-something who still has yet to receive approval from his stern father (Bradley Whitford’s Norman), marks a refreshing change of representation. He’s allowed to be defined by something other than his sexuality without denying him romance.

But “Other People” goes beyond delivering the expected. It reminds you why we love these kinds of movies to begin with, why we’re willing to sit through countless half-baked similar films to get one this moving.

You will marvel at how much the people in this film bear a resemblance to someone in your own life. You will feel that you lived a year with this bereaved family, not just watched scenes about them for under 100 minutes. And shockingly, you will come to like – and probably cry to – Train’s “Drops of Jupiter.” Not just during the movie, either. Let’s just say you heard it at the gym. It might make you emotional there. (What, who? Me? Was that me?)

Oh, and you will weep. GOSH, did I weep during the screening. The crowd at the post-show Q&A I attended essentially posed no questions. It just featured people who tearfully ran through stories of their own tragic losses and how “Other People” resonated with them. Had I been able to gain composure amidst the veritable lake of tears surrounding my chair, I likely would have done the same.

I saw the film just days after losing a friend my own age – just 23 – to the same kind of cancer that afflicts Joanne. I remained stoic in the days following her passing, almost in disbelief that she just wasn’t here anymore. “Other People” played a crucial, cathartic role in helping me finally feel what happened. The film gave me a space in which I could work through the conflicting sets of emotions and make sense of what seems so unfair and yet so inevitable. While I could write impersonally about Kelly’s work and describe some kind of generalized viewer, it does a disservice to experiencing the film. This affected me because these tragedies affect us.

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REVIEW: Bad Moms

5 09 2016

We’re at a cultural moment where parents are more stressed and confused than ever as they try to prepare children for a newly competitive world while also imparting the requisite cultural norms necessary for survival. (Never mind having any time for their own personal happiness and satisfaction.) It’s the perfect time for a movie like Jon Lucas and Scott Moore’s “Bad Moms” to come along and assure audiences that there is still value in just being a good, decent person. If only it were a little bit funnier, the film would be a cultural touchstone for generations to come.

Lucas and Moore’s background writing “The Hangover” shows as the film’s key trio bears a striking resemblance to the Wolfpack. Mila Kunis’ Amy has her act most together but struggles to find satisfaction amidst the demands placed on her by a louse of a husband (think Bradley Cooper’s Phil Wenneck). Kristen Bell’s Kiki is a meek, sexually naive mother of four who mistakes her ignorance for happiness (see Ed Helms’ Stu Price). Kathryn Hahn’s single swinger Carla proves a wild card in any scenario (sounds like Zach Galifianakis’ Alan Garner).

As they fight back against societal pressures to maintain the image of perfection, enthusiasm and optimism, these moms’ antics are more likely to spark discussion groups in sociology seminars than set social media ablaze with a killer line. Their candid conversations, easily more memorable than their Top 40-scored romps of bad behavior, are notable for the way the women speak to each other. They speak less as characters or friends and more as field workers looking for answers to research questions about modern motherhood.

Never fear, humor-seekers: Lucas and Moore always provide a joke line as a response. But “Bad Moms” doesn’t need a sequel so much as it needs a sitcom. In that format, the creators might really be able to delve into the issues that so clearly concern them without succumbing to the pressure for a giant comedic set piece on such a consistent basis. B-2stars

REVIEW: Under the Gun

3 09 2016

Under the GunAnyone amendable to hearing other sides in the gun safety debate probably knows a lot of the basic talking points in Stephanie Soechtig’s “Under the Gun.” Especially considering that the film is narrated by newscaster Katie Couric, the documentary feels like a cobbled-together series of the news reports we must endure following the latest mass shooting. Some new aspect of the struggle to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous men comes to light based on the circumstances of the murder and/or murderer.

The film runs through many established talking points and issues of contention readily established in the national conversation – background checks, mental health, stymied research – in its first half. When Soechtig and Couric finally introduce some more novel concepts towards its close, “Under the Gun” has already created a lull from a familiar rhythm. It tries to score more points, perhaps at the cost of making them all effectively.

Still, the loophole allowing anyone to buy a gun if their background check cannot clear in 72 hours, or the fact that the ATF can only inspect a gun dealer once per year, or that 5% of bad apple dealers sell 90% of the guns responsible for firearm deaths ought to rattle a few cages.

As always, with each problem raised, the common sense solution appears so simple yet so frustratingly out of reach. “Under the Gun” is not about the vilification of gun owners, instead focusing its anger on lobbying class and the corporate interests of gun manufacturing that hold the entire nation hostage. At the end of the day, so much of the continued pain in this country comes from the NRA acting on behalf of these industrialists and peddling misguided fear of government arms seizure to their members – most of which support obvious safety measures.

“Under the Gun” does struggle with an uneasy give and take between anger at the enablers of the malefactors and the sympathy for the families left devastated by these senseless killings. Yet even so, the film is highly literate and competent in the kind of premium cable documentary activism that has become so prevalent in the streaming era. Now the question is whether this changes the right hearts and minds. B2halfstars