REVIEW: Imperium

15 08 2017

“We all create a narrative based on what we think is important,” Toni Collette’s FBI official Angela Zamparo suggests at the start of “Imperium.” She’s begging her colleague, Daniel Radcliffe’s sheepish bookworm agent Nate Foster, to broaden his mindset about what constitutes a clear threat to American security. That involves ditching a predilection for radical Islamic terrorism to focus his attention on a burgeoning threat to the country: white supremacist violence.

Based on some evidence suggesting a chemical bomb on the scale of Oklahoma City, Angela sends Nate deep into the hate-filled clutches of these neo-Nazi groups armed with little more than a buzzcut, knowledge gained from a white nationalist reading list and his own intuition. Oh, and she gives him pointers here and there from Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” to relate to some of the most frightening skinheads circling the gutter of society. How’s that for espionage? The film provides a consistently engaging, if never full engrossing, thrill ride down the drain.

Nate’s main target is a talk radio host of the Alex Jones variety, Tracy Letts’ #WhiteGenocide conspiracy peddling crackpot Dallas Wolf, to get to the center of the underground chemicals network. He’s a shady character who inspires some truly violent, hateful figures. But the scariest person in “Imperium” is the buttoned-up Gerry Conway, a family man who can weave racist talking points into everyday dialogue with shocking casualness. He might not embrace the full scope of fascism, but Gerry’s embrace of white nationalist ideals in spite of his apparent intelligence ought to give us all chills. White supremacy does not always come decked out in a swastika. Sometimes, it looks like your neighbor in his button-down shirt and gentle smile. B

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REVIEW: The Glass Castle

12 08 2017

There’s a strain of thought currently dominating the conversation around class in America, and it finds best expression in J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” To loosely sum it up, the argument is that rural white Americans possess a kind of misunderstood nobility that’s mistaken for a lack of sophistication by outsiders. When given a ladder to success rather than treated with scorn, these working-class whites can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s film adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ searingly personal memoir “The Glass Castle,” thankfully, flies in the face of all that hogwash. Without providing any kind of sociological lecture on structural poverty, he and co-writer Andrew Lanham poke at something profound in their portrayal of some unconventional (and, yes, dangerous) parenting tactics. The ideals of freedom, independence and self-reliance, so baked into the American psyche, are inventions of a wealthy class of men for other landed men. When followed by people without resources and social standing, it can lead to dangerous ends.

One of the first times we see Jeannette’s father Rex, played with usual spitfire intensity by Woody Harrelson, he’s going on a screed against the professional class of doctors for trying to wield their knowledge as a tool to extort hard-working people into paying for expensive treatment. They need to treat young Jeannette for a burn. She received that burn because she had to feed herself while her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) painted, and her dress caught fire on the stove. It’s a moment of pure negligence and irresponsibility in the Walls family. Yet Rex successfully convinces himself that the real issue is not their lack of oversight; instead, it’s the judgment from a class that deems themselves superior when his parenting style is simply an expression of his American values. Sometimes that comes with collateral damage, and he’s willing to live with that.

An older Rex seen later in the film goes on a similar rant about Reaganite economics, though certainly without naming the source. He picks the booming Wall Street financiers as the target of his rage, seemingly because they reap tremendous profits without producing anything tangible to put out in the world. Rex fails to realize, however, that all his tough talk of hard labor rooted in self-determination is rooted in an empty promise. The big dreams for his family, most obviously manifested in the quixotic fantasy “glass castle” he tells Jeannette he will build, will never come to pass so long as they remain mired in poverty.

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REVIEW: Step

11 08 2017

As a part of its acquisition deal out of the Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight purchase not only Amanda Lipitz’s documentary “Step” but also the remake rights. It was a smart decision for the studio in many ways – and perhaps ultimately the best one for this inspiring story of #BlackGirlMagic involving several stepping Baltimore teens. That’s not because their journey needs fictionalization to reach a larger audience; rather, “Step” could use the freedom of narrative cinema to unlock the full reservoir of emotion contained within.

In many ways, it appears that Lipitz is putting together the pieces of a narrative already, but she’s hampered by a fidelity to reality. She bends time and chronology (mostly under the radar, given away by small details like college application deadlines or the release of Beyoncé’s “Formation”) to give her documentary a more thematic structure as opposed to a chronological one. Lipitz also ham-handedly creates a foreground/background dynamic, with the character-building training of the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women taking place on a larger canvas of the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent murder of Freddie Gray.

To watch “Step” is to at once be aware of Lipitz’s grand ambitions and unfortunate limitations. She’s envisioning spectacle but lacks the resources or the know-how to execute it. This becomes most apparent in how she shoots the step dancing competition sequences. They’re clunkily edited and shot from strange angles, yet there’s evolution over time, suggesting that Lipitz has put in the work to improve even during the course of shooting.

It’s also possible that she treats her subjects more as characters than people in the documentary. Moments like Coach Gari McIntyre’s field trip with the team to a memorial for Freddie Gray, well-intentioned though it might be, plays like the kind of inspirational perspective-altering moment in a Disney sports drama. That might not be how it happened, but it’s how the scene plays in the way Lipitz positions it. She renders figures like the school’s college counselor Paula Dofat, an indefatigable advocate who will stop at nothing to get every girl into post-secondary education, into little more than her function. There’s no curiosity about her inner life.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 10, 2017)

10 08 2017

Adaptation” it most certainly is not, but Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths” makes for a most entertaining meta-movie. This specific genre derives its pleasures by baking the creation of the movie into the very fabric of the story itself; the fact that everything was narrativized is not merely a fact slapped on at the conclusion. Some artists smuggle these meta-movies into existence under the guise of something like a heist flick (Christopher Nolan’s “Inception“) or a con artist caper (Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom“), though many in their purest form simply revolve around filmmakers struggling to create.

That’s the case for McDonagh’s meta-movie, my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” In many ways, “Seven Psychopaths” feels like a self-interrogation (perhaps after surveying his prior film “In Bruges”). His leading man, Colin Farrell’s Marty, is a screenwriter struggling to pen his latest script conveniently titled – you guessed it – “Seven Psychopaths.” As he drolly puts it, “I’ve got the title, just not the psychopaths.”

Marty wants to write a film about violent people without succumbing the soul-sucking carnage that plagues many films about such subjects. He wants it all to mean something, not just become a violent shoot-’em-up. Ultimately, Marty gets more than he bargained for when a friend draws him into a Los Angeles gang dispute over … a Shih Tzu. The anodyne object of conflict points out the inherent absurdity of the criminal underworld without fully discounting the grotesqueness of their deeds.

I first watched “Seven Psychopaths” on video in 2013 and found myself rather unenthused by it. (The original grade I bestowed upon it was a C.) With McDonagh’s next directorial outing “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” about to make landfall on the film festival circuit, something compelled me to give it a second chance – and judging by its inclusion in this column, you can assume I’m glad I did. McDonagh grants us a dryly humorous window into the writing process, which also means clueing us into his knowledge of audience expectations for what’s to come. This feat is a tricky one to pull off without drowning in self-awareness, and he does it with a good amount of dexterity.





REVIEW: The Boss Baby

8 08 2017

Where DreamWorks lagged behind Pixar in pathos, they often made up ground with sheer creativity (see: the “Shrek” franchise). But even recently, the boy fishing on the crescent moon has ceded that ground to the jumping lamp. Their latest effort, “The Boss Baby,” starts the battle to take it back.

This movie pushes the medium of animation to its fullest, not to create a simulation of reality but to twist it in imaginative ways. What’s the point of being able to bend the rules if you’re just going to obey the ones established in a live-action world, after all? “The Boss Baby” gives the fanciful visuals a reason to exist, too, by assuming the point of view of seven-year-old Tim. He’s a storyteller by nature, and we get to watch him weave some pretty intricate yarns about the arrival of his baby brother.

In (t)his story, that baby’s foreign nature manifests itself as a slick-talking, suit-wearing tot voiced by Alec Baldwin. Tim reacts at first with suspicion to this time-sucking new addition to the family. But after their initial confrontations, the two unite on a common goal – promoting human babies over puppies in the battle to win over the souls of young couples – and begin to bond as brothers.

The storytelling conceit is a clever way to convey a story about fraternal connection. “The Boss Baby” does not merely seek to understand Tim’s perspective on events; instead, director Tom McGrath and writer Michael McCullers assume his subjectivity fully. The concept does start to fall apart a bit as the brothers’ adventure begins to escalate – for example, does a young child really have the advanced knowledge of corporate structure trends to know to make a point about being replaced by someone younger? Still, the film delights by adopting the mantra of Mrs. Frizzle: “get messy, mistakes.” Seeing DreamWorks really gun for something special again is worth the watch. B





REVIEW: S Is For Stanley

7 08 2017

S Is For StanleyFantastic Fest

Watch “Room 237” or any video essay about Stanley Kubrick, and you’ll come away with the impression that the preternaturally gifted filmmaker is something of an automaton. His films contain such a precision that they almost seem to evince the work of an infallible creator.

Alex Infascelli’s documentary “S Is For Stanley,” on the other hand, shows a side of the director we tend not to consider as frequently: his human side. In a kind of real-life “The Devil Wears Prada” tale, the film tells the experiences of Emilio D’Alessandro, Kubrick’s personal driver for many decades. The director plucked him from the world of race-car driving in Italy to be his personal errand boy. Over the years, he performed tasks ranging from the tedious (guaranteeing candles for three years for “Barry Lyndon”) to the discomforting (getting high on secondhand smoke from Jack Nicholson on the set of “The Shining”) to the downright fascinating (interlocuting for Kubrick in the presence of great Italian director Federico Fellini).

But Emilio’s particular set of skills come most into play when Kubrick undertook the massive project of “Eyes Wide Shut,” the multi-year production that unfortunately became the director’s last. “S Is For Stanley” at times feels like it could be a glorious DVD extra on the Criterion Collection release for that film (fingers crossed it’s eventually coming), but Infascelli avoids the kind of hagiography or star worship that normally plagues similar profiles. He simply lets Emilio tell his stories, which are bound to be fascinating for any cinephile who simply wants to share his unique view of cinema history. B





REVIEW: The Call

6 08 2017

If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing an Academy Award-winning actress reduced to doing the cinematic equivalent of TV network crime procedurals, you’re in luck. Brad Anderson’s “The Call,” starring Halle Berry, exists. That’s about all you can say for it.

In the film, Berry plays 911 operator Jordan Turner, a woman who botched one call so badly that … she still keeps answering 911 calls. She should have trusted her gut because she ends up on the other line with Abigail Breslin’s Casey Welson in the process of her kidnapping. “The Call” does have its share of intense moments, to be fair, but you can see every plot twist and turn coming from a mile away. If it weren’t for the presence of someone like Halle Berry, so hell-bent on making it seem deadly serious, the film might play like a parody of these low rent thrillers. But alas, it’s the kind of soft lob up the middle that you expect.

When brushing up on the specifics of the film to write this review, I learned from the Wikipedia page that writer Richard D’Avidio originally envisioned it as a television series. This format confusion actually says a lot about the form of the finished film. “The Call” plays like a bloated pilot, something that easily has 42 minutes worth of watchable material but gets padded with filler stretching the length to merit a theatrical release. C+