REVIEW: Central Intelligence

15 07 2016

Rawson Marshall Thurber’s “Central Intelligence” takes a tried and true premise – a mistaken identity thriller in the vein of Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” – and finds a way to make it just mildly entertaining. The director’s past films, “DodgeBall” and “We’re The Millers,” were pretty straightforward comedies. As he ventures into the realm of the action-infused comedy, Thurber never quite finds the grooves and rhythms of this hybrid genre.

Thankfully, he gets some relief from the dynamic chemistry of the film’s leading men – two high school classmates on very opposite trajectories headed towards their 20-year reunion. Kevin Hart’s Calvin Joyner was the all-around stud that everyone loved and wanted to emulate; now, he flounders behind a desk as an accountant with dwindling prospects for advancement. Dwayne Johnson’s Bob Stone went through high school as Robbie Weirdicht, an affable but friendless face in the crowd relentlessly taunted for having more to love; now, he is “Jason Bourne with jorts.”

Though Calvin was not well-acquainted with Bob in his glory days, he agrees to meet up with him for drinks before the reunion and unwittingly gets drawn into a case of international espionage. The stakes and the object in question do not seem to matter so much (classic MacGuffin) as the constant back and forth between who Calvin can trust – Bob or the CIA agents (led by Amy Ryan) who tote real guns and badges. The changes in allegiance keep “Central Intelligence” on its toes, something that serves it well when gags land lightly or moments for emotional resonance lack power. Hart and Johnson compliment each other nicely, with the former playing more grounded and the latter doing a more ridiculous persona than normal. The talents of both actors, however, feel underserved here. C+2stars

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REVIEW: Louder Than Bombs

8 05 2016

Louder than Bombs

It feels quite fitting that Joachim Trier’s “Louder Than Bombs” features voiceover narration comes from all different characters. The writer/director frequently harbors novelistic ambitions in his work, and this feels like a stab at the ambitious multi-tongued narrations of Faulkner. Yet in trying to swing for the fences, Trier really just demonstrates how thin a grasp he has on the differences between literature and cinema.

Granted, this device is partly excused by the fact that the story has no real protagonist. Because “Louder Than Bombs” is a story about loss, it’s somewhat fitting that the center of the film is a departed character. The narrative is one of absence, not about presence. Such a choice comes with a cost, however. Trier’s film feels largely empty. Where one would normally find a heart, there is little more than stale air.

As the family of acclaimed war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) picks up the shards left by her sudden departure, Trier seems to consciously avoid the clichés of similar movies. The widowed father (Gabriel Byrne) resists becoming emotionally absent; the eldest son (Jesse Eisenberg) remains cooly distant; the younger son (Devin Druid) feigns normalcy. Yet avoiding banality does not guarantee quality. It is not enough to merely remove the bad if it is not replaced with something else good. And Trier has little of substance to offer.

“Louder Than Bombs” plays like the kind of film made by someone who has seen movies and read books about grief but has never really experienced it – or at the very least, has never really come to terms with it. Be it in the performances, the tone or the content, every moment feels motivated by the art being imposed onto the events rather than the emotion that ought to flow from them. People grieve singularly, to be sure, and it is not for anyone to say how it should or should not be done. But Trier’s choice to stand so far outside the messy, complicated reality of mourning and rebuilding provides scant insight into the very thing he seeks to depict. C+ / 2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 19, 2015)

19 11 2015

Jack Goes BoatingAs I watched the climax of “The Hunger Games” series, my mind drifted away from the action on screen thanks to the presence of a fairly blatantly digitized Philip Seymour Hoffman. The resemblance was uncanny, sure, but everything about his facial expressions and mannerisms were wrong.

These pixels, as directed by someone behind a computer, went for obvious. Hoffman never went for what was expected. He always mined the ugliest parts of the soul and dredged up compellingly raw responses.

It’s a pity that he only got one chance to step behind the camera because it really showed a more sensitive, tender side than we ever saw from him. “Jack Goes Boating,” the directorial debut of Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a film of simplicity. Yet in the absence of complication comes a rushing of heart in this wonderfully touching love story.

Hoffman stars as Jack, a socially awkward but good-natured limousine driver. He’s not necessarily looking for romance, but his co-worker Clyde (John Ortiz) tries to set him up with someone. That person is Amy Ryan’s Connie, a similarly sweet woman who stands as her own greatest obstacle. (Meanwhile, little does Clyde know that trying to facilitate one relationship will put the one with his wife under duress.)

Don’t expect fireworks or cinematic bravura from “Jack Goes Boating,” but anticipate feeling unexpectedly moved as these two battered souls make their best attempt at love. Hoffman and Ryan are wholly affecting as they struggle to overcome their own personalities to make the impression and connection they so desire. It’s a real shame we did not get to see more of this vulnerable, lovable and embraceable Philip Seymour Hoffman in his all too brief lifetime.





REVIEW: Bridge of Spies

18 10 2015

Bridge of SpiesI’m young enough that I cannot remember a time when director Steven Spielberg’s name was not synonymous with cinematic excellence at the highest echelon. I am also of the age that I have never been able to experience the kind of film that earned him such a reputation in any manner other than through the lens of retrospection.

That is, until “Bridge of Spies” came along, the first Spielberg effort since 2005’s “Munich” that serves as an adequate calling card for a generation-defining artist.  Making the sort of mid-range budget ($40 million) adult drama that have all but gone the way of the dinosaur, he issues a strong reminder that his formidable skills should not be undervalued or underestimated.

It’s fitting, then, that this film should star Tom Hanks, another already minted national treasure whose cultural footprint often dwarfs the power of his work. While both director and actor could easily coast on their merits, neither does in “Bridge of Spies.” The film operates at an impeccably high level of craft and precision because Hanks and Spielberg flex their muscles so potently.  Calling it a return to form feels wrong since neither has precipitously declined, but this is clearly them at peak performance.

Hanks plays William Donovan, an idealistic Brooklyn lawyer given the thankless task of providing legal counsel in a sham trial meant as a PR play.  His client is Mark Rylance’s Rudolf Abel, a suspected Soviet spy captured at the peak of Cold War mania.  Donovan’s task recalls the central case in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and it’s a good thing that Hanks can channel Atticus Finch (pre-racism) so deftly.

Only a few actors could pull off this unironic, unashamed portrait of the nobility all Americans like to believe is woven into our national fabric.  Hanks, with his steady hand and calm resolve, makes a better case for the Constitution’s guiding light than anyone currently in public office.  In fact, many of them could learn a thing or two from Donovan regarding Edward Snowden, the Middle East, and immigration.

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REVIEW: Breathe In

8 12 2014

Breathe InWriter/director Drake Doremus’ “Breathe In” begins with obvious symbols abounding: a carefully curated family photoshoot, a tower of Jenga blocks, the copy of Jane Eyre lying about.  If you cannot predict what will happen the Reynolds’ take in an English exchange student, Felicity Jones’ inquisitive but indeterminate Sophie, then your high school english teacher owes you an apology.

Doremus, thankfully, does not just lay all the sexual tension out on the table from the outset.  Instead, there is a gradual, more lifelike build in Sophie’s burgeoning attraction to her host father, Guy Pearce’s Keith.  This restraint provides some reason to stay attuned to the story, which is otherwise too clichéd to draw us into Sophie’s psychology.  (And thankfully, Jones looks quite a bit older than high school age, thus eliminating any vibes of their relationship resembling something dangerously close to statutory rape.)

Sophie’s tale, that of a British girl who comes to live with a family in New York for a semester only to find her peers superficial and self-involved, just never feels particularly compelling.  All these scenes really seem to highlight is that Sophie possesses a wisdom beyond her years, an attribute highly accentuated by another highly perspicacious performance from Felicity Jones.

Pearce gets a somewhat more interesting story to work with.  His Keith is a frustratedly immobile cellist who has never been able to achieve the recognition for which he yearns.  Instead of playing in a symphony, he is relegated to teaching at a high school in order to support his family.  Sophie offers him the opportunity to fulfill his desires, not his responsibilities, and his internal vacillation is much more fascinating because it carries those high stakes.  Unlike the rest of “Breathe In,” Pearce’s performance proves quite subtly effective.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Birdman

29 08 2014

Telluride Film Festival

I hardly think it counts as a spoiler anymore to say that “Birdman” (sometimes also credited with the title “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”) is edited to make the majority of the film appears as if there are not edits.  This does not, however, mean the film is intended to give us the illusion of unbroken action.  Breaks in time and space are quite clear, yet the effect of the long take remains.

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, as he would now have us call him, achieves the herculean feat of collapsing a timeline of roughly a few weeks into pure continuity.  He’s less interested in continuous action as he is a continuous feeling or sensation, an invigorating break from the oneupmanship that seems to come baked in with long-held takes.

Waiting for a cut or edit in a shot is like waiting for pent-up tension to be relieved, an indulgence Iñárritu refuses to grant.  (Leave it to the man who gave us the debilitatingly bleak “Biutiful” to make us writhe.)  “Birdman” follows Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson, a former blockbuster superhero star, attempting to win back his legacy in a flashy Broadway play.  He has struggles aplenty, both with his inner demons and the cast of characters around him, and the film certainly does not shy away from trying to replicate his anxiety in the viewing audience.

This is not just pure sadistic filmmaking, though; Iñárritu’s chosen form matches the content of the story quite nicely.  The film feels consistently restless and anxious, and not just because of the consistent drumming the underscores the proceedings.  These sensations are contributed to and complimented by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography.

After his work on “Children of Men,” “The Tree of Life,” and “Gravity,” it’s a wonder Lubezki had any surprises left in store.  “Birdman” may very well be his most accomplished  cinematic ballet to date, though.  There’s an art and a purpose to every position occupied or every shot length employed.  Pulling off some of these constantly kinetic scenes must have required some intensely detailed blocking with Iñárritu and the cast, but the level of difficulty makes itself apparent without screaming for attention.

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REVIEW: Devil’s Knot

4 06 2014

DVL00056INTH_DEVIL'S-KNOT.inddThe miscarriage of justice in the case of the West Memphis Three, a group of Satanist wrongfully convicted of murdering young children in rural Arkansas, has received plenty of attention from non-fiction filmmakers.  Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have created the “Paradise Lost” trilogy about their case; the final film netted them an Oscar nomination.  And if that wasn’t enough, Academy Award nominee Amy Berg made her own documentary on the subject, “West of Memphis,” to great acclaim.

Now I love a good documentary, and judging from the occasional surprise mainstream crossover hit like “Blackfish,” most audiences aren’t opposed to them either.  Yet there’s only a limited audience that those films can reach, sadly, due to some inherent bias people seem to possess against non-fiction filmmaking.  If you take a look at the list of highest-grossing documentaries, no one is reaching wide audiences unless they are Michael Moore, a pop star, or a cute animal.

I don’t doubt the good intentions behind the filmmaking team of “Devil’s Knot,” a narrativized account of the events in the case.  If you tell the story as a legal thriller with Oscar winners like Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, it has the potential to reach an entirely different crowd of people that would never stop to watch a true-life procedural.

It’s a real shame, then, that Atom Egoyan’s film fails to connect on just about every level.  His feckless direction leaves “Devil’s Knot” not a tonal mess but downright confusing.  Reducing a subject that has received nearly seven hours of coverage from the “Paradise Lost” films alone into a two hour feature is a lofty task, and Egoyan never figures out an effective method of intelligibly conveying the facts and events.  (Not to mention, there are still enough questions lingering in the case to fill another film.)

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