REVIEW: War on Everyone

4 02 2017

war-on-everyoneWar on Everyone” is writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s second film involving politically incorrect and raucous law enforcement agents. If this could become some kind of series … sign me up!

The beer-guzzling, coke-snorting duo of officers Terry (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob (Michael Peña) wheel around Albuquerque framing perps and taking names. Their genius lies in getting away with the unethical deeds they so fondly commit. The stumbling blocks come from their frequent ineptitude and inflated sense of power. The team finally meets something resembling their match when they try ripping off a strip-club manager whose power extends far deeper than anticipated.

I watched the ’80s classic “48 HRS” a few months ago and have to imagine that the Skarsgård-Peña pairing has to be somewhat akin to the sensation of watching Nolte-Murphy. The two actors always match each other in self-deprecation and pithy dialogue, lighting up the screen at every opportunity. McDonagh utilizes their commitment to wonderful effect in “War on Everyone” as he toes the line on some touchy subject matter without ever overstepping the boundaries. There’s a sense in a lot of raunchy comedies these days that these lines only exist for their crossing, irregardless of who gets hurt by doing so. McDonagh makes this off-color humor work with in the parameters established for his irreverent characters, and the taboos bend without breaking. B+3stars

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REVIEW: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

21 08 2015

The Diary of a Teenage GirlPeople like myself willing to live and let live when it comes to the unconventional relationship between Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn may experience a bit of cognitive dissonance while watching “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”  (Or those who condemn the aforementioned relationship may have an entirely different reaction and feel the same inconsistency of ideology I felt.)

Marielle Heller’s film, adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, tells a story of sexual pleasure and liberation first achieved by a 15-year-old through statutory rape by her stepfather figure.  Reason it away all you want so it sits well in your stomach – it was the 1970s, it was San Francisco, the initiator of the acts are not always clear. But at the end of the day, the ongoing physical relationship meets the criteria for criminal prosecution in the United States.

I usually prefer not to check my morals at the theater door, largely because such an act is why the world gets parties inanely styled after reprehensible behavior in films like “Fight Club,” “Project X,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”  So, keeping that in mind, I often found it tough to get on board with the message of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”  Is this kind of borderline exploitative relationship actually supposed to be liberating?

The film gets away with some of this questionable mindset by framing the film within the subjectivity of its protagonist, Bel Powley’s Minnie. At such a young age, of course she views any sort of sexual content as exciting and pleasurable no matter how transgressive it might be.  “I guess this makes me an adult now,” she proclaims into a tape recorder after losing her virginity, making it perfectly clear that she widely overestimates her own maturity.  As carnal relations continue with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe, played by Alexander Skarsgard, we see just how quick she is to conflate sex and love.

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REVIEW: The Giver

15 08 2014

The GiverIf there was any doubt that we’re reaching the point of supersaturation with dystopian YA adaptations, “The Giver” confirms that the tipping point has arrived.  I get that life in post-recessional America doesn’t exactly inspire hope, be you a teenager or an adult.  But I doubt real life could be any worse than escaping into this derivative and, often times, outright laughable film.

I first read the film’s source material, Lois Lowry’s Newberry-winning novel that is now a staple of middle school English curricula, as an impressionable 12-year-old in 2005.  At the time, the post-“Harry Potter” adolescent fiction boom had not begun to tarnish the newly bolstered reputation of writing aimed for emerging readers (not even the “Twilight” series had been published).  YA was neither a dirty word nor a marketing buzzword then; it was just my demographic.

Lowry’s book might have been relatively short, but it sure packed a punch.  “The Giver” can serve a crucial function in the escalation of material for language arts, providing a key stepping stone towards more weighty adult literature.  If you can place yourself in the position of a teenager, the dialectical push and pull between order and chaos as well as pain and pleasure are actually quite thought-provoking.

Yet no matter how deeply one might have regarded the thematic content of the novel, it’s entirely possible to discredit “The Giver” as little more than a compilation of shallow marketing hooks for a cookie-cutter dystopian YA film.  The very premise of the story loses sophistication and nuance as it’s forced to fit the mold made popular by “The Hunger Games.”  What made Lowry’s story special is largely discarded in favor the conventional, leaving behind a film that’s a shadow of its literary incarnation.

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REVIEW: The East

23 07 2013

In 2012, I wrote a piece for a class entitled “Bad Apples Up on Top” that looked at trends in cinematic portrayals of corporations and wealth in the wake of the Great Recession.  If I were to update that post in 2013, “The East” would definitely mandate the addition of a new paragraph.  Along with films like “The Bling Ring,” “Arbitrage,” and even “The Purge,” writer/director Zal Batmanglij and co-writer/star Brit Marling tap into a growing sense of militarism towards the rich and powerful.

Marling’s Sarah infiltrates the titular anarchist group for the government, attempting to protect her firm’s corporate clients from The East’s attacks.  She quickly finds that blurred lines are not just the things of scintillating Robin Thicke summer singles; moral complexities abound everywhere.  Sarah quickly finds herself wondering if she’s working for the right side in this game – if such a side exists.

The East, as savage as their attacks might be, are not your average criminals.  They want to hold executives’ feet to the fire and jolt them out of complicity, forcing them to feel the pain they inflict on others.  Their jams are highly symbolic, coordinated by members of The East to send a powerful message to the corporations and the public as well.

While all this ambiguity and relativism is fascinating, “The East” is a film that is great at raising questions but not particularly good at answering them.  Films don’t have to force-feed you their message, nor do they have to make them patently obvious.  But Batmanglij and Marling should not have wasted their time bringing up issues they were not prepared to, or incapable of, resolving.  If you don’t stand for anything, it’s entirely possible you could wind up standing for nothing.

“The East” poises itself for a killer finale, yet it brings up far more than it’s prepared to wrap up.  As a result, the film feels like a bunch of stumper interview questions loosely wrangled together into a story.  It’s interesting enough, but “The East” gives us fairly little new evidence with which to reinterpret these ethical quandaries.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: What Maisie Knew

22 06 2013

Dramatizations of divorce from “Kramer vs. Kramer” to “Mrs. Doubtfire” to “A Separation” have been echoing the same message for years: though the process may be messy and sticky for the parents, the ultimate losers are the children.  “What Maisie Knew,” the latest entry into this canon, tries to offer something similar.  Largely shot from the eye level of its titular tyke, the film conveys successfully just how ugly and catty dissolving a marriage really gets.

Yet at the heart of “What Maisie Knew,” there’s a cruel irony that kept nagging at me as the film dragged on.  The movie scolds parents who forget about the children in the process of sorting out their issues, but “What Maisie Knew” does not practice what it preaches.  Like Julianne Moore’s hopelessly selfish mother Susanna and Steve Coogan’s ill-equipped workaholic father Beale, the filmmakers ultimately lose Maisie’s story and centrality.

By the second half of the film, Maisie is no longer the protagonist; she’s merely a means to an end.  Taking center stage is Alexander Skarsgard’s Lincoln, Susanna’s boyfriend who quickly gets thrust into the role of husband and stepfather, and Joanna Vanderham’s Margo, a former babysitter at the root of the divorce itself.  These two adults are interesting enough, to be sure, but I didn’t want to watch their story.

I came to watch Maisie and see how divorce affects poor, innocent children.  Newcomer Onata Aprile does a wonderful job eliciting sympathy and bringing emotion to her role.  It’s no Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” but it’s still impressive.  Wallis was given the ability to carry her film, though, and the risk paid off in spades.  “What Maisie Knew” doubts its lead, and it’s a mediocre film at best because of its shaky confidence and erratic focus.  C+ / 2stars





REVIEW: Melancholia

13 03 2012

It’s a shame “Melancholia” lasts more than eight minutes.

The movie’s prologue is absolutely stunning.  Writer/director Lars von Trier evokes a strong emotional response with his use of stunning imagery and an evocative score from Tristan und Isolde.  The gorgeous shots, drifting slowly across the screen, are like a walk through an art gallery of film.

But the opening of “Melancholia” is so good that it’s almost too good.  It purveys basically the entirety of the movie, even giving away the movie’s big ending.  So in essence, once you’ve seen the beginning, you’ve seen it all.

So when von Trier starts using words to communicate a message, the movie ceases to be very effective.  The first half’s naturalism just hits flat note after flat note.  The wedding of Kirsten Dunst’s wildly depressed Justine is an utter disaster, and her moodiness is painful to watch.  It’s supposed to be beguiling us into figuring out her every whim, but instead it just makes Justine unsympathetic and a pain to watch.  Excuse me for totally ceasing to care about an hour through the movie.

Then the movie’s second half descends into the bizarre as a planet, Melancholia, begins a collision course into the earth.  While Jack Bauer – I mean, Kiefer Sutherland, and his wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) begin to panic, Justine is calm as a cucumber, uniquely suited to face the crisis because of her condition.  “Melancholia” seems to be trying to enact those how would you spend the last hours of your life fantasies, but they are hardly illuminating save for the manic depressants in the crowd.

So perhaps the best way to view “Melancholia” is as a short film.  The movie’s opening is where von Trier’s artistry shines the brightest.  If you want to wait around for another two hours for genital mutilation or a remark sympathizing with Nazis, you will just waste your time.  The movie is not all that far-fetched; add in some robots and the plot would work as a Michael Bay movie.  B-