REVIEW: The Dressmaker

1 10 2016

the-dressmaker“I’m back, you bastards,” declares Kate Winslet’s Tilly Dunnage upon arriving back in her home town at the outset of “The Dressmaker.” It’s a fitting start for a movie that revels unapologetically in camp, from dialogue to literal barn-burning events (and perhaps even too far with Hugo Weaving’s sheriff with a flair for drag). And had the film stuck to its true colors, the whole thing might have held together.

But it doesn’t, largely due to writer/director Jocelyn Morehouse’s insistence on trying to play parts of the movie like a straight drama. At one point, Tilly and company watch Billy Wilder’s classic “Sunset Boulevard,” a film where Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond hams up the screen to set up a tragic turn. Trying to draw any kind of parallel to “The Dressmaker” to that iconic work only highlights just how far short it falls. Tilly is all smolder and swagger with a faint whiff of armchair psychologizing hat stems from a clichéd tragic misunderstanding in her past.

When this larger than life figure begins to show cracks in her facade, the turn just doesn’t feel right. The score may swell dramatically to signal legitimate dramatic intentions, yet “The Dressmaker” sends such mixed signals that prove baffling to decode. How can it really mourn a freak death in one scene and then humorously inflict a debilitating injury within five minutes? And then, soon after, another death meant to provide catharsis?

The film is fine when Winslet is allowed to revel in vengeance like “Django Unchained.” Watching her seethe while settling old grudges provides some modest pleasure. When the complexity comes in through the slow doling of new developments regarding the incident that drove her out of town, however, “The Dressmaker” falters. C / 2stars

REVIEW: A Tale of Love and Darkness

30 09 2016

A Tale of Love and Darkness posterI knew nothing about Amos Oz’s life or work before seeing “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” an adaptation of his autobiography that also serves as Natalie Portman’s directorial debut. In the absence of that knowledge, I was able to see the mechanics of a standard biopic as they grind out familiar beats. It was not a pretty sight.

The film centers around Oz’s childhood, far before he became the man Wikipedia claims is regarded as Israel’s greatest living writer. His father Arieh (Gilad Kahana) is an etymology wonk, constantly pointing out connections in disparate Hebrew words. His mother Fania (Portman), on the other hand, is an amateur bedtime parable teller. Most of the stories are shaded by pessimism from her own experiences escaping the decimation of Europe in the anti-Semitic early decades of the 20th century.

The protagonist of the story is quite clearly Oz – it’s an older version of himself that provides the framing device for the film, and he whose experiences form the majority of the action depicted on screen. Yet Fania’s struggles pull a considerable amount of attention away from his development, particularly in the back stretch of the film when she becomes struck by a mysterious illness. While Portman auditions for a Sylvia Plath character, Oz becomes a passive figure in his own life. And without his agency, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” can provide scant justification for why to tell his story in the first place. C / 2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 29, 2016)

29 09 2016

polytechnique posterLong before there was Columbine, Virginia Tech or Newtown, there was the 1989 massacre at the École Polytechnique in Montreal. Unknown to many (myself included), a shooter opened fire in an engineering school and shot 28 people, killing 14. His rationale recalls that of the 2014 shooter in Santa Barbara: an angry, entitled rage against the feminist ideology that threatens his comfortable dominance.

Denis Villeneuve’s “Polytechnique,” a feature-length reenactment of the events that transpired, makes a worthy exploration into the complex web of issues raised in this shooting. The film correctly places the shooter’s mentality into a larger cultural pattern of misogyny and male hegemony. Words and attitudes do the same damage to the mind and spirit that bullets do to the body.

For example, the masculine supremacist attitudes of the shooter are echoed by an interviewer at one point. When Valérie (Karine Vanasse) goes to apply for an internship in mechanical engineering, the man at the other side of the table register his surprise. It’s harder to raise a family when choosing mechanical over civil engineering, he reminds her. None of this explains the killer. But it does contextualize him.

Though the actual killing rampage is indeed frightening, Villeneuve ensures that we fear a pathology and a set of twisted tenants far more than any isolated violence. The film’s focus on the lasting scars from the realization that such hatred can exist leaves a lingering sensation of unease. While Villeneuve might overload the metaphors on occasion (Picasso’s Guernica painting, a lecture on the dangers of entropy), the overall effect is chilling enough to make this a pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” The fact that he achieves such a sensation in a slender 70 minutes runtime only adds to the wonder.

REVIEW: Deepwater Horizon

28 09 2016

deepwater-horizonPeter Berg has a knack for directing blue collar dialogue in a convincing manner. For films like his 2013 survival drama “Lone Survivor,” such exchanges lent the film an authenticity and humanity before its Navy Seals face life-threatening trials. In Berg’s latest directorial outing, “Deepwater Horizon,” the commonplace banter feels more like a counterweight to some of the complex oil industry jargon taking place on a Gulf Coast rig.

For much of the film’s first 40 minutes, the screenplay from Matthew Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan overloads with technical terms explaining the operations on the Deepwater Horizon. And even with blatant expository scenes, they still have to dole out some more details in subtitles. It’s wasted air space in the film, which foreshadows the well-known explosion with obvious harbingers of doom. Be it an exploding Coke at the home of protagonist Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) or a BP big wig wearing a tie in the color of their worst level alarm, there’s no denying what’s coming.

Berg sets up “Deepwater Horizon” as an disaster flick, yet he fouls up some key ratios in establishing tension and connection. His energy goes disproportionately to setting up the crisis (roughly 50 minutes), which in turn makes the escape (roughly 35-40 minutes) feels like getting short changed. There’s some decent tension as wounded crew members navigate their way through a literal enactment of the burning platform metaphor, but Berg undermines it with weak characterization and pointless cutaways to Kate Hudson as Mike’s grieving wife back at home.

The film takes an interesting turn in the coda where surviving workers from the Deepwater Horizon rig are greeted in their grief by robotic crisis management professionals. Rather than seeking to ease their pain and embrace the souls who survive, BP adds a thin coat of dehumanization on top of a devastating loss of human life by locking them away from the world in anonymous hotel rooms. These scenes of the battered, tattered employees struggling to cope with the events that just occurred frustratingly dangle the potential “Deepwater Horizon” had in front of us. Were the critique of corporate malfeasance not so toothless, or were the rising action of the film built around developed characters, this lack of resolution might really sting. Instead, it just replicates the numbness of the setting. C+2stars

REVIEW: Queen of Katwe

20 09 2016

Triumphing over adversity in competitive environments is a Disney speciality, but the studio rarely pulls it off with the dignity and grace of Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe.” The film is less about dramatic reversals of fortune or epic journeys and far more concerned with how circumstances and biases can prevent such developments from taking place.

As the film’s young protagonist Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) states towards the end of the film, “I fear certain things will never change.” Yet if not for the perseverance and faith of her mentor Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), this chess prodigy might have let such doubts keep her paralyzed through inaction. He spots her incredible ability to see a whopping eight moves ahead on the board and fosters her intellectual development, a process which requires great sacrifice on his behalf.

The largest obstacle in the way of Phiona’s realization of her own potential is a surprising one – her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o). A widow forced to support several children by selling maize in the slums of Uganda, she is justifiably hesitant to authorize her daughter spending time on chess. If the pursuit of master status does not pan out, then Harriet views the loss as a frivolous waste that does nothing to prepare Phiona for making a living like her.

Portraying such a perspective presents a conundrum for Nyong’o, who is tasked with conveying both maternal grace and strict authority without coming off as a dream crusher. Her performance engages through its empathy, ultimately allowing for a fuller understanding of why she does not believe in silver bullets – be they chess championships or sugar daddies. While “Queen of Katwe” is primarily the story of Phiona’s rise in the world of chess, an equally important evolution takes place for Harriet as she analyzes her place in the world.

Nair shows that world, it should be noted, in stark detail without ever resorting to so-called “poverty porn.” Her camera, guided by Steve McQueen collaborator Sean Bobbitt, skips the grimy details and focuses more on the stratification of the two sides of Ugandan capital Kampala. Any long shot taking in Katwe also captures an urbanized, industrialized city center in the background.

Inequality, not destitution, is the real enemy in “Queen of Katwe,” and it makes for a more daunting foe. Hand someone a check, and they can hypothetically walk out of poverty. Alleviating inequality, on the other hand, requires systemic change and the devotion of resources to those given less. B+3stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 15, 2016)

15 09 2016

A few years ago in my film history class, I was assigned to watch the first half of Mark Cousins’ epic historical overview of the medium, “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.” I wound up watching the whole 15-plus hour opus and learned quite a bit about important artists whose contributions to the art form I never even knew. And I also learned that Cousins would have us recognize Paul Verhoeven as one of the major filmmakers of contemporary cinema. Seriously, he devotes a solid 10-minute paean to the subversive qualities of his studio films.

At the time, I dismissed his claim as a lot of pretension and hot air. (The temptation for critics to make a bold statement that you can see something others cannot should not be doubted.) But after watching Verhoeven’s mega-budget 1997 film “Starship Troopers,” I can start to see Cousins’ point. The action flick functions both as good entertainment and subversive social commentary, a dual capability that more than qualifies it as my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

“Starship Troopers” takes the form of a traditional war film not unlike something Hollywood would churn out around World War II. As alien invaders threaten the security of the earth, an urge to defend the planet sweeps through students in Buenos Aires. (Yes, they’re all lily-white. This was the ’90s.) Casper Van Dien’s Johnny Rico, not the brightest bulb, ends up placed on the front lines of the conflict when assigned to the Mobile Infantry. The high aptitude of his girlfriend, Denise Richards’ Carmen Ibanez, earns her a spot in the prestigious starship piloting program.

Rico and Carmen go their separate ways after enlisting, each encountering their own struggles and forging their own camaraderies. The part they play in facing down the threat of “bugs” from Klendathu are interesting, but like in many a great film, the genius comes less from what is told and more from how it is told. Verhoeven cloaks the proceedings in a transparent artificiality, embracing hammy acting as a method for exposing how cinema can glamorize war. Snippets of “news media” interspersed throughout “Starship Troopers” help drive this message home; their throwbacks to the newsreel tradition highlight how thinly veiled propaganda can transmit fascistic and bigoted ideals. More movies should try to pull off this sneaky gambit, allowing you to enjoy what you’re watching while also critiquing your watching in real time.

REVIEW: Snowden

14 09 2016

At 69 years old, Oliver Stone isn’t likely to change his filmmaking style, but a little bit of uncommon subtlety might have behooved his latest work, “Snowden.” So often is the director determined to write the first rough draft of cinematic history on a current event – Vietnam, the Bush administration, the 2008 recession – that he sacrifices insight for topicality.

His take on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden doubles as a discussion about the trade-offs between privacy and security in the digital age. When he’s not blaring the themes through dialogue in lines such as “terrorism is the excuse; it’s about economic and social control,” the talking heads trade lines that sound excerpted from TED Talks. Moreover, the dust is still settling here. Why remake Laura Poitras’ perfectly good documentary “Citizenfour” with flashbacks when the story is still unfolding?

The film’s background information on Edward Snowden, largely left out of news media discussion, does provide some intriguing context to his giant revelation. His participation in questionably legal CIA operations, bipartisan disenchantment and operational disillusionment all played a big role in leading Snowden to rendezvous with Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in June 2013. To Stone’s credit, he lets these events slowly form the character’s resolve to leak information; no one moment seems to snap him.

As Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a turn that belongs on the Wikipedia page for “uncanny valley.” He channels the familiar real-life figure in many surprising ways: a deeper voice, a less frenetic pace, a quiet resolve. The only thing that stands in his way is the repository of ideas we have about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which he automatically taps into by appearing on screen.

Between “Snowden,” “The Walk” and even going back to “Looper,” Gordon-Levitt has amassed an impressive body of work where he selflessly attempts to bring himself closer to the character, rather than the other way around. He’s busting his hump to ensure we see the role he plays as someone distinct from himself, not just some costume he puts on to slightly mask his own persona. Frequently, Gordon-Levitt’s reckoning with the character of Snowden feels more fascinating than the character himself. B2halfstars