REVIEW: 21 Years: Richard Linklater

5 04 2016

21 Years Richard LinklaterWhen the folks assembling the Criterion Collection edition of “Boyhood” go scouting for bonus features (and apparently this is happening), I hope they include Michael Dunaway and Tara Wood’s documentary “21 Years: Richard Linklater.” Such is really the best location for an anecdotal and borderline hagiographic tribute to the perennially underappreciated director.

The directors do not necessarily cast his work in a new light or uncover latent themes running through his filmography. “21 Years” is simply a magnificent feting of Linklater as told by the people who love him the most, both collaborators and contemporaries. Linklater is noticeably absent from the proceedings, talked about but never speaking for himself.

But even without a particularly revelatory angle, Dunaway and Wood still find ways to delight, amuse and enlighten with “21 Years.” Want to know how Linklater gets such natural sounding dialogue while also maintaining a high degree of precision? Let his actors tell you an amusing story about how they got cooly chided for veering off script. Curious about Linklater’s casting instincts? Listen to Anthony Rapp or Zac Efron recount how the director believed in them when they did not necessarily believe in themselves.

The portrait sketched is one of a gentle, unassuming yet visionary artist. So maybe with a little more vision, “21 Years: Richard Linklater” would be the celebratory toast he deserves. But even absent that, it’s a worthy explainer and salute that would be all too perfect directly before or after one of the director’s masterpieces. B2halfstars

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REVIEW: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

1 03 2016

There is no requirement that a war film – or a film set in a war – grapple existentially or philosophically with that conflict. But, at the very least, it should at least make for more than just wallpaper for another narrative. Such is the case in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” based on Kim Barker’s memoir about her experiences covering the dog days of the American presence in Afghanistan.

Very few people – except maybe a few U.S. senators – go to fictionalized accounts of wartime stories and expect the level of historical discourse that might accompany a documentary. (Looking for a great one about Afghanistan? Find “Restrepo” or “The Oath” online.) A certain level of simplification is expected, if not practically mandated to connect with moviegoers who might not know the locations of Iraq and Afghanistan on a globe. It’s not that “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” fails at providing context, like Michael Bay’s “13 Hours,” that proves so bothersome. It’s that the film doesn’t even try.

Were it not for the occasional gunshots and explosions, one could easily mistake the war zone of Afghanistan for any oppressive third-world country. Tina Fey’s protagonist Kim Barker bops around the “Ka-bubble” of Kabul less in search of a hard-hitting story and more in search of herself. She takes the wartime correspondent position in America’s Forgotten War as a means of rescuing herself from becoming forgotten as well. Facing a midlife crisis from her dead-end relationship and desk-bound career, she hops on the plane to Afghanistan with the same gusto of Elizabeth Gilbert in “Eat Pray Love.”

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REVIEW: Our Brand Is Crisis

21 02 2016

Admittedly, the circumstances under which I saw David Gordon Green’s “Our Brand Is Crisis” might have exerted a particularly strong influence on my reaction. Had I gone to see it in theaters back in October, I could have done so with the luxury of writing off the candidacy of Donald Trump as a political sideshow. But now, watching at home in mid-February, that farce has become a force in American democracy with undeniable ramifications for our country.

“Our Brand Is Crisis” was conceptualized, shot and likely finished before the Trump phenomenon came about, so I do not wish to imply in any way that the film paved the way for such a demagogue. But given how few people saw it theatrically, most viewers will encounter the film with the presence or specter of the Donald firmly planted in the public consciousness. Cultural products may not substantially shape our society, but they can reflect its values in intentional or unexpected ways. “Our Brand Is Crisis” feels like a film in the latter camp.

Sandra Bullock stars as as political strategist “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a character who is the polar opposite of Trump in many ways. She is a for-hire, behind-the-scenes operative, obsessively focused on the minutiae of getting her candidates into first place. Mixing intellectual prowess with practical problem-solving, Jane in her zone is truly a force to be reckoned with. For that precise reason, the campaign for a struggling Bolivian presidential contender brings her off the sidelines and out of retirement.

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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: Entourage

5 06 2015

In great works of narrative storytelling, an expertly crafted first line should set the tone for what lies ahead.  Whether “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” or “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice…,” these purposeful pieces of prose prepared readers properly.

The same goes for film, too.  And while the filmic brand extension of television’s “Entourage” is far from great, its creator Doug Ellin certainly knew how to kick off the movie.  As Vincent Chase’s posse approaches his supermodel-filled yacht off the coast of Ibiza, Johnny “Drama” giddily remarks, “I could jerk it before we get there!”

The whole movie resembles masturbation, a series of self-serving pleasures delivered on demand.  For an hour and 45 minutes, a pornographically extreme string of celebrity cameos decks out a contemporary “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”  Ellin reunites the entourage for an orgy of wealth, fame, and fully exposed breasts.  So, in essence, nothing changed from show to movie.

I am certainly not immune to the pleasures provided by such a film, but I have to acknowledge that such a masturbatory form of pleasure is juvenile, easy, and even a little lazy.  It’s hollow.  Ellin presents no compelling reason to resuscitate these dormant characters except to have them revel in the same debauched antics that occupied them for eight seasons (and are a mere Google search away for everyone else).

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REVIEW: Cut Bank

17 04 2015

Cut BankIn Matt Shankman’s “Cut Bank,” a tiny town has to deal with baby’s first murder investigation.  The young Dwayne McLaren, played by Liam Hemsworth, just happens to film his girlfriend Cassandra (Teresa Palmer) when a Native American pulls out a gun and shoots a postman (Bruce Dern).  The murder threatens to unravel and disrupt a number of co-dependent facades necessary to maintain a sense of peace in the small Montana locality, apparently the coldest in the country.

These implications involve a sheriff (John Malkovich), a shop owner (Billy Bob Thornton), a strange visitor (Michael Stuhlbarg), and an eager postal inspector (Oliver Platt).  The cast is far more impressive than the characters they play, though.  With little development of their personalities and far too many cooks in the kitchen, “Cut Bank” never quite finds its center of gravity.

There’s nothing wrong with an ensemble thriller so long the filmmakers are dedicated to giving each component a fair oiling, and that is definitely not the case in “Cut Bank.”  All these mechanical flaws only find themselves amplified by the lack of conspicuous artistry to distract from the uninspired execution.  This is a pretty standard, cut-and-dry crime flick with little out of the ordinary to offer.  C2stars





REVIEW: Parkland

22 11 2014

The JFK assassination drama “Parkland” comes courtesy of Tom Hanks, who was dubbed America’s “history maker” by Time.  Sounds like a legitimate enough credential to qualify the film, since, after all, Hanks is one of the people behind widely acclaimed HBO series like “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.”

But “Parkland” falls short of the prestige of such premium cable programming, instead feeling more in the vein of another History Channel special attempting to cash in on mourn the passing of our slain leader.  Everything about Peter Landesman’s film seems of low production value, a quality that shows when accompanied by such acclaimed actors as Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver, and Paul Giamatti.

The movie follows a wide variety of supporting characters who found their lives changed by the shocking events in Dallas on November 22, 1963.  “Parkland” includes everything from Abraham Zapruder (Giamatti) filming his notorious home movie at the scene, to the medics trying to save Kennedy’s life (Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden), and even Lee Harvey Oswald’s wacky mother (Weaver) in this broad catchall of perspectives left out of most history books.  Most get ignored for a reason: they are secondary narratives

Perhaps if each story received feature-length treatment, they would provide some sense of satisfaction.  But “Parkland” can only dip a toe into a single narrative with its prevailing approach breadth over depth, and it gives a distinct impression of shallowness.  Landesman’s film can really only excite and enlighten in the rare expertly realized moment: the second when the hospital crew realizes the gravity of their task, the efforts to fit Kennedy’s casket on board Air Force One, the first glimpse of the Zapruder film.  C2stars