REVIEW: The Lobster

29 05 2016

The LobsterAt the risk of sounding perilously similar to Rep. Louie Gohmert, who recently suggested gays should be left out of space colonies since they cannot reproduce, there are important biological and social reasons why human beings should pair off. The simplest argument, of course, concerns reproduction and the continuation of our species. But bountiful research also suggests the tremendous drawbacks of living life in isolation – depression, poor health, low communal ties, and so on.

Writers Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou never tip their hand about what led up to the society they create in The Lobster,” though one imagines it likely involves some of the factors listed above. In their milieu, anyone without a life partner gets politely sent off to a hotel where they must find a match within 45 days – or face becoming transformed into the animal of their choice. Love, in other words, has been stripped of all romance and reduced to little more than social utility.

As public demonstrations from the manager (Olivia Colman) remind guests of why couples represent the ideal human arrangement, highly regulated activities nudge them towards identifying a partner with some shared characteristic over which they can begin a life together. Pretensions of status, class or wealth cannot cloud the decision, either. This total institution strips away individuality by forcing all participants to adhere to a simple, drab uniform by their gender.

The protagonist served to us, Colin Farrell’s David, serves as a guide through the many possibilities of this ecosystem. Some choose to throw themselves at anyone in the hopes of identifying someone equally as desperate. Others face public punishment for finding pleasure with themselves. A few brave souls are willing to stake their future on a lie in order to leave the hotel.

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REVIEW: In the Heart of the Sea

1 05 2016

“Do the stories only exist to make us respect the seas?” This utterance from Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) kicks off “In the Heart of the Sea,” a two-hour riff on the inspiration of Moby Dick by Ron Howard.  The film shot in the fall of 2013, began test screening in the summer of 2014 for a planned release in spring of 2015 – only to be pushed back for a late winter 2015 opening. In those two years to tinker with the raw materials, apparently no one thought it was worth saving the project from playing like a book report run through an Instagram filter.

These kind of high intensity, high prestige dramas are normally prime territory for Ron Howard, whom I affectionately dubbed the king of the “Sunday afternoon on TNT movie” upon the release of “Rush” in 2013. He has dabbled in bringing other decades and centuries to life before, each time bringing a sense of specificity and thematic relevance. “In the Heart of the Sea,” on the other hand, feels synthetic through and through. The effect of shooting on a backlot or in front of a green-screen seeps into every frame of the film, constantly highlighting the artifice underlining this human survival drama.

As if that were not enough, the film suffers from many other predictable flaws that have become a common refrain. The nearly 30 minutes of exposition – a full quarter of the film – bog down “In the Heart of the Sea” from the get-go. When it finally does leave the port, screenwriter Charles Leavitt never commits to making the journey primarily a visual effects spectacle about the hunt for the whale or a survival drama. The two coexist unsteadily in the finished film.

Chris Hemsworth, too, proves ill-equipped to correct the course with his performance. His stardom essentially stems from the hammer with which Marvel equips him and the magazine headlines that followed. As of yet, Hemsworth has yet to really pass muster as a serious leading man. Hopefully audiences will soon see acting chops the size of his biceps. C / 2stars





REVIEW: The Danish Girl

23 12 2015

In spite of the crusade by presidential candidate Donald Trump and his so-called “silent majority,” I still care about political correctness to the extent that it preserves the basic dignity of threatened groups. (Overreach is a separate conversation, however.) Words and language are powerful tools because they serves as outward reflections of inner ideas and beliefs. How society talks about a person as a part of the group with which they identify is important.

One such group that rightfully points out inadequacies in our vernacular is the transgender community. Many activists seek nothing less than the implosion of gender-based assumptions in the way we speak, a prospect as liberating for some people as it is uncomfortable for others. Every time it forces me to pause a little longer before speaking, I use that time to remind myself that these are above all people who just want the same respect to live their lives as any other person in society.

I try to stay on top of the latest developments in acceptable language – so this could be out of date – but the last I checked, it was a dubious practice to link anatomy to gender. (If this is no longer true, I welcome someone politely educating me.) Gender is a social construct, which may or may not correspond to a person’s biologically determined sex.

Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl” arrives in the heightened era of trans visibility; 2015 alone brought cultural prominence to Caitlyn Jenner, “Tangerine” and “Transparent.” The film tells the story of Eddie Redmayne’s transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, formerly Einar Wagener, as she seeks a then-radical surgery to remove the male organ that ties her to the sex she was given at birth. For someone so ahead of her time, it strikes me as rather ironic that the movie telling her story seems so behind its own time. Its assumptions surrounding gender and sexuality feel only slightly progressed from the 1930s setting.

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REVIEW: Spectre

15 11 2015

Sam Mendes made a great Bond film with writers John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade in “Skyfall” because they embraced a tricky opposition between the past and the future.  Could the unabashedly old-fashioned spy James Bond survive in a more gritty, grey world without sacrificing his core identity? They found that the answer was yes by striking a balance between these two forces vying for the soul of 007.

The band gets back together for “Spectre” (plus an additional writer in Jez Butterworth, architect of many a frustrating script in the past two years) and finds themselves preoccupied by the same kind of debate. This time, instead of the fear of age leading to obsolescence, the anxiety stems from post-Snowden malaise.

When a government has the ability to do its dirty work with drones and collect information on all its citizens through their devices, who needs human intelligence likes James Bond? This question is being seriously debated outside the world of the movie, and kudos to “Spectre” for not ignoring the elephant in the room. But the way Mendes and the writers choose to resolve the tension feels rather disappointing.

They use this threat as an excuse to retreat to some of the most outdated aspects of the character. Womanizing abounds as Bond pity romances a grieving widow to extract a key plot point. And Bond’s reward for neutralizing a key opponent? The “Bond girl,” Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, immediately feels the need to let him take her to bed. Simply put, there is a way to let James Bond be the ultimate man that does not require denying women agency. “Spectre” does not care to find that way as “Casino Royale” did, justifying lazy misogyny because of a rather facile challenge to Bond’s relevancy.

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REVIEW: Suffragette

9 11 2015

SuffragetteSuffragette” feels somewhat like the cinema’s equivalent of getting a flu shot. It’s a necessary boost of social consciousness that is good for the way it keeps the world honest. But is it fun or enjoyable, something worth looking forward to? Ehh.

Sarah Gavron’s direction gives some urgency to the century-old tale of British women gaining the right to vote that might otherwise reek of mothballs. The film does not need its scrolling list of dates for women’s suffrage worldwide before the credits to convey this. Good filmmaking renders fact recitation dull at worst, unnecessary at best.

Though Gavron’s frequent use of shaky-camera as a shorthand for intense moment is rather uninspired, “Suffragette” feels appropriately militaristic and angry given its subject. She conveys this most effectively when Abi Morgan’s script focuses on the women’s suffrage movement and the splintering divisions within its ranks. Some prefer a more aggressive, confrontational approach; others, however, support playing the politics of respectability to eventually curry enough favor for their right to vote.

Thankfully, the world seems in agreement that women should have the right to determine their own destiny by casting a vote at the ballot box. Yet these sections that specifically examine the challenges of organizing social action prove so compelling because they are applicable to plenty of modern movements, be it LGBTQ rights, Occupy Wall Street, or Black Lives Matter. At times, “Suffragette” even recalls “Selma” in the way it presents a fascinatingly nuanced but generalizable portrayal of organizing collective civil disobedience.

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REVIEW: Lilting

14 12 2014

LiltingWriter/director Hong Khaou’s “Lilting” deals with two stories.  The first involves Ben Whishaw’s Richard as he and his lover Kai (Andrew Leung) prepare to reveal their relationship to Kai’s extremely conservative unadjusted immigrant mother Junn (Chang Pei-Pei).  The second follows Ben as he attempts to care for Junn in spite of her objections.

The missing link between these two threads is Kai’s unfortunate death in a traffic accident.  It takes a while to discern a gap in time between them, and even when it does become clear, Khaou does not delineate particularly well between past and present.  “Lilting” jerks around without direction, simply portraying events without ever really making them add up to anything substantial.

The film aims for tenderness in its portrayal of love and affection, but it winds up treading too lightly to have any impact.   With its static characters and lifeless plot, the 91 minutes of “Lilting” are a depressing chore with no payoff for the pain.

At least “Blue Valentine” and “Revolutionary Road” had a grand statement to make about relationships to justify their bleakness.   “Lilting” just has banalities and boredom to offer.  The only audience for this movie is (hopefully) Ben Whishaw fans who feel the need to see his entire filmography – for better or for worse – when he gets the roles, and thus the stardom, he deserves.  C1halfstars





REVIEW: The Zero Theorem

17 08 2014

The Zero TheoremLondon Film Festival, 2013

Terry Gilliam’s “The Zero Theorem” is the kind of film that raises so many important and intriguing questions that it’s entirely possible to forget some of them along the journey.  This oblique tale, bordering at times on the absurd, stuns with the sheer density of the thematic issues that Pat Rushin’s screenplay can pack into 100 minutes.

The film grapples with conundrums as timeless as the meaning of life, the nature of happiness, and the imminence of death and nothingness.  At the same time, “The Zero Theorem” also has its finger on the pulse of many modern malaises, such as screen addiction, the fading appeal of observable reality in relation to virtual reality, and the electronic mediation of human connection.

We explore these through the work of a computer programmer known as Q, played by Christoph Waltz, as he attempts to solve humanity’s conundrums.  In a change of pace from the two silver-tongued Tarantino characters that won him a pair of Oscars, Waltz sits back and delivers a largely reactive performance.  As he attempts to unlock the zero theorem and get to the core of human existence, Q doesn’t instigate events so much as he lets them happen.  Because we’re less focused on a conventional narrative, “The Zero Theorem” can easily delve into the realm of the existential and philosophical.

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