F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 24, 2015)

24 09 2015

The epithet of “morality play” gets tossed around a lot when describing issues-based dramas – and usually in a negative connotation.  How dare a movie tell us what to believe, the undertone of their phrase rings out.  (Side note: these are often the same people who cry outrage when a film does not line up perfectly with their own worldview…)

But I believe the term can, and should, be applied positively to a movie if it offers provocative, challenging commentary on an ethical question.  Sam Raimi’s 1998 film “A Simple Plan,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” offers just such an experience.  Before he offered the be-all and end-all nugget of wisdom in “Spider-Man” – Uncle Ben’s “with great power comes great responsibility” – Raimi got down in the mud with human greed.  It should come as no surprise that we often fail to live up to that infamous aforementioned maxim.

“A Simple Plan” concerns morality in the aftermath of three buddies discovering a downed plane with $4 million inside.  The trio lives in rural Minnesota where the “rich” one of the bunch, Bill Paxton’s Hank Mitchell, works as a clerk at a feed mill.  Needless to say, they could all use some extra money and are willing to contemplate the dubious decision of keeping the cash.

As they debate the right course of action, their back-and-forth tussle somewhat resembles the expressive dialogue one might find in a play.  But never does the film take on the aura of superiority that one might associate with a preaching, instructive morality play.

So what differentiates it from the pack?  Credit director Sam Raimi, who smartly emphasizes the noir-like complexity in aspects of the story’s surprising turns.  Scripter Scott B. Smith also finds a simplicity in their internal tussles that resembles a parable, like the duffel bag of money is some kind of forbidden fruit that disrupts a moral universe.  These two sensibilities may sound clashing, but they harmonize masterfully in “A Simple Plan” – no doubt aided by the performances of Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as Jacob, Hank’s less educated sibling who harbors reserves of both resentment and nobility.

REVIEW: Nightcrawler

2 11 2014

NightcrawlerThese days, it seems like a lot to ask for a movie to seriously tackle one topic with the requisite depth to provide satisfaction.  On that criterion, “Nightcrawler” more than succeeds with its blistering critique of the media.  Writer/director Dan Gilroy takes our present “if it bleeds, it leads” local news culture and absolutely skewers it, exposing the obvious immorality caused by its hunger for profits and ratings.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom quickly moves from amateur to aesthete in his documentation of Los Angeles’ grisly, gory violence.  With each new recording, he learns how to best appeal to Nina Romina, Rene Russo’s particularly desperate station manager at KWLA.  She seeks footage akin to “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut” in order to jolt the station’s jittery suburbanite watchers, and Lou is eager to provide that material irrespective of any sense of ethics or decency.

This savage criticism alone would satisfy, yet shockingly, Gilroy is not satisfied with setting his aim on just that target.  Somehow, he manages to use “Nightcrawler” as a vessel for exploring a second major topic: extreme careerism.  The media is also a business where it takes more than whetting a certain appetite to advance oneself.  More than talent, it requires the marketing of oneself to a point where the line between self-promotion and shameless whoring disappears.

Though this Juvenalian satire happens to be moored to an excoriation of broadcast media, “Nightcrawler” could really be about anybody searching for lucrative employment in the business world today.  Gilroy writes Lou Bloom as the desperate post-recessional job seeker followed logically (and sociopathically) into absurdity.  Essentially, he gives us a Joel Osteen for the religion of capitalism, preaching the gospel according to LinkedIn.

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REVIEW: Edge of Tomorrow

7 06 2014

It would have been all too easy to write off “Edge of Tomorrow” with a few jokes about familiarity.  Given the nature of its plot, which involves Tom Cruise’s character doomed to relive the same day until he can defeat an invading alien force, I would not have been surprised if I felt a frustration tantamount to his character.  That is to say, I expected to feel like I was caught reliving a hackneyed story until I reached the point of insanity.

But to my surprise, director Doug Liman finds a way to make “Edge of Tomorrow” feel fresh and exciting even though it isn’t reinventing the blockbuster wheel.  It takes the film a little while to find its footing after a sped-through expository opening sequence and a fairly standard beginning of the time travel process.  Once Emily Blunt enters the picture as a gritty soldier who once suffered a similar “Groundhog Day”-esque affliction, though, things start to get a little more intriguing.

That’s mainly due to the smart script by Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning writer of “The Usual Suspects,” with the help of Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, who penned Liman’s underrated “Fair Game.”  While their screenplay might not be nearly as cerebral as Duncan Jones’ superb 2011 time travel thriller “Source Code,” it certainly shows the signs of real effort to be clever.  They avoid falling into obvious traps of the sub-genre and find some nice moments for Cruise and Blunt to play on the path less traveled.

Credit is due to Liman as well for finding creative ways to present and re-present events that have to be repeated.  It’s often beat into filmmakers to show something rather than tell it.  Liman finds a two-handed approach to work just fine, however, and “Edge of Tomorrow” feels invigoratingly as a result since each section feels a little different from the one before it.

This does contribute to making the film slightly uneven, but even so, it’s one of the better big-budget blockbusters I’ve seen in a while.  If there was one I had to sit through again and again, there could be worse than this.  Like Cruise’s character in the film, I could probably find new ways to improve it each time though.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Haywire

4 12 2012

There was a decent chunk at the beginning of “Haywire” when I was totally drawn in not by anything in the script or the story … but by Steven Soderbergh’s unique visual sensibilities.  And all of a sudden, it actually begin to sink in that the director actually intends to retire from the craft of cinema and what a loss that could be to the film community.

Soderbergh’s canon of films ranges from the heist films of the “Oceans” series to the zany genre-bending intrigue tale of “The Informant!” to immensely moving biopics like “Erin Brockovich” to hyperlink cinema like “Traffic” to tense thrillers like “Contagion” and even into strange experimentation with whatever the heck “The Girlfriend Experience” was supposed to be.  (Oh, and he also oversaw some movie about magic where Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey showed their butts.)

In just this one sequence where the protagonist of “Haywire,” played to dull effect by MMA fighter  non-actress Gina Carano,” escapes from her captors, there are flashes of almost all of his different movies.  They share a similar rhythm and vibe, achieved in a perfect harmony of cinematography, editing, and sound.  It’s truly remarkable that across so many genres and types of filmmaking, something feels like it’s coming from a single mind.

Now just because he has unified conventions doesn’t mean that they always work or redeem an otherwise poor movie.  Such is the case for “Haywire,” an action thriller that does some clever presentation and narrative organizing to brush up a conventional narrative.  Perhaps the medium is the message for Soderbergh, and his mere repackaging of familiar elements is the point in and of itself.  But the film just always feels like an all-too familiar experience.

Soderbergh does succeed in making it slick (for the ladies, he did get the eye candy of Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum for brief scenes) and subversively political, though.  Yet these victories seem small while watching and seem even smaller in retrospect.  Watch some of Soderbergh’s elegant sequences that have the grace of a ballerina on YouTube some day and skip “Haywire.”  It doesn’t go fully, well, haywire … but there’s got to be some new cinematic voice or story you can use your 90 minutes to hear and see.  C+

F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 12, 2010)

12 03 2010

The “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is Kathryn Bigelow’s “Near Dark.”  Rather than present a conventional review, I simply want to leave you with a “top 10 list” as to why you should watch this movie.

  1. For any of you who cheered on Kathryn Bigelow to Oscar gold a few days ago but had no idea what she had directed other than “The Hurt Locker,” you need to see “Near Dark.”  This is one of her earliest movies, and it’s a totally different experience than her most recent directorial effort.  Nevertheless, it showcases her excellent directorial prowess.
  2. Tired of the “Twilight” vampires and Stephenie Meyer’s romanticization of the blood-sucking creatures who haunt the night, also known as vampires?  “Near Dark” is the antidote to your woes.  It bears a few plot similarities (and I can unfortunately say this from experience because I read the book – DO NOT JUDGE ME), but you won’t see any tender moments in the fields here.  Bigelow makes the vampires fearsome creatures who burn in the sunlight and look disheveled and dirty.  Forget Team Edward, I’m on Team Bigelow.
  3. But for those of you that like “Twilight,” you should know that a remake of this movie was planned yet cancelled in the wake of the release of the vampire juggernaut.
  4. Bigelow superimposes the vampire story over the backdrop of a western town, and she mingles the two genres in ingenious ways.
  5. Need someone with better acting chops than Robert Pattinson playing your vampire?  Does Bill Paxton suffice?  He is the most recognizable actor that “Near Dark” has to offer, but each of the other vampires are equally as terrifying.
  6. If you want something that will capture your attention, just wait until the vampires go hunting for some food in a biker bar.  Bigelow builds the tension beautifully just like she did in “The Hurt Locker.”
  7. It was made in 1987, so it’s got some awesome 80isms about it.  Just  that generally awesome vibe that an 80s movie has is the best thing “Near Dark” has going for it.
  8. Almost the whole movie features the score of a German synth pop band.  It’s a serious movie, so try not to let it distract you too much.  But enjoy it, even laugh at it if you feel so compelled.
  9. And while we are on the subject of the ’80s, enjoy some of the special effects towards the end.  They match the quality of “Avatar” at their most brilliant moments (did you pick up on my sarcasm?)
  10. If you are just looking for an enjoyable moviegoing experience that offers you thrills, chills, drama, and maybe some comedy at the expense of the movie itself, then “Near Dark” is a pick that will suit you.  It veers toward the predictable at times, but who really cares?  It’s from the 80’s!!