REVIEW: Daddy Longlegs

21 05 2017

Josh and Benny Safdie were not the first people to assume verité-style camerawork guaranteed emotional authenticity, nor will they be the last. But their Cassavetes clone “Daddy Longlegs” might just be the film that made me far too aware of how low-budget filmmakers can hollow out techniques just as easily as their studio counterparts.

The Safdie brothers obtain a remarkable quality of naturalism that pervades their shaky camera and grainy look … but in service of what? The filmmakers are so focused on the how that they lose sight of the what. “Daddy Longlegs” tells the story of a deadbeat dad that essentially amounts to little more than a cross between the first act of “Kramer vs. Kramer” (pre-Dustin Hoffman’s redemption) and “Blue Valentine.” He’s a mess to the point of being a danger for his two young children, but he does love them! That’s true in both the first frame and the last.

The film feels less like a character study and more of a chain of cringe-worthy events that further convince us of his complete lack of qualifications to be a parent. Narrative journeys are not a mandatory feature of cinema, and the stasis of a character often speaks just as loudly as a drastic evolution. But given the self-conscious naturalism the Safdies work so hard to obtain, it’s a shame that “Daddy Longlegs” amounts to little more than the latest variation on a familiar stock character. B-





REVIEW: Alien: Covenant

13 05 2017

Comparisons are inevitable when it comes to long-standing movie franchises, particularly when they tell standalone stories. More than, less than, greater than, better than … “Alien: Covenant” is all over the map as it relates to the other films in the series, particularly the 1979 original and Ridley Scott’s last outing with the xenomorphs, 2012’s “Prometheus.”

The film boasts two obvious strengths. The first and most obvious is its fidelity to the body horror of “Alien,” moving away from the more restrained suspense and action-style trappings of its predecessor. “Alien: Covenant” is unabashedly trying to scare us, and it works – especially given the airborne alien pathogen that quickly infects the Covenant crew. You know, in case the tactile terror of the usual entry wasn’t frightening enough.

Screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper also endow the film with a keen sense of cosmological curiosity. “Prometheus” dabbled in issues of faith through the character of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, a devout Christian forced to confront her notions of God in the wake of both scientific discoveries and the cruelty of nature. Though there’s one overtly religious character in “Alien: Covenant,” Billy Crudup’s Captain Oram, the existential questions are more deeply rooted in the story than just one character’s experience. The film locates something more terrifying than chest-bursting extraterrestrial life: artificial intelligence with a God complex and an intent to create (and thus destroy).

*mild spoilers after the break – continue at your own risk*

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REVIEW: Jackie

10 12 2016

jackieNew York Film Festival

Biopics are for the fans. No matter how revisionist the narrative or inventive the form, the genre exists to privilege the audience over the subject. Instead of learning facts from a biography or textbook (but more likely Wikipedia), the biopic lures us in with a promise of approximated intimacy. It strips away the mythology built around a figure to make them more human to us.

This approach makes sense for certain subjects in narrative film, particularly those who audiences can observe with relatively little pre-existing baggage. If we know but an accomplishment here and a footnote there, a film does not have to override our assumptions. Instead, it can provide a frame of reference for us, establishing the structure by which we judge a person. (If this sounds too abstract, picture recent successful examples like “The Social Network” or “American Splendor.”)

But what about those biopics who must confront the enduring legacy of figures who loom so large in our imaginations before the first frame appears? In recent years, filmmakers have resurrected presidents, actors, musicians, inventors and more who continue to occupy space in our heads. The dominant approach has been to ignore the patina of notoriety surrounding them, opting instead to focus on our shared humanity.

These films so often fail because they forget something that Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie” does not. The mythology informs the humanity for these people. At a certain point, knowing that you lead a life that could one day be recounted in a biopic seeps into every fiber of your being. It’s not enough to go back to a time, either in childhood or pre-fame, that can connect us with them. By virtue of receiving this kind of treatment, they are different people. We all have some sense that we are performing for an audience in our daily lives, but these icons must wear their public face so much that it ultimately seeps into the consciousness of their private face.

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Social Scientists Behaving Badly (REVIEWS: The Stanford Prison Experiment and Experimenter)

24 12 2015

The Stanford Prison ExperimentIn my first semester of college, I took an introductory sociology class on a whim and wound up loving it so much that I added fifteen additional hours to my schedule to make it my second major. Ironically, in my final semester of college, two infamous experiments in the field of social science that captivated me in that first class made their way to the big screen.

Both premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, garnered respectable reviews and picked up distribution from heavy-hitting indie distributors. Though I’m reviewing them in tandem because the opportunity was too good to pass up, that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment” depicts a study in which professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) threw college students looking for a little extra cash into a staged environment deemed unethical by most in his field. The assignment was simple: in a lab-created prison, each received an assignment of prisoner or guard which they were to act out. To say they began to take these roles a little bit too seriously is the understatement of the century as harmless animosity spirals out of control into actual violence.

At one point during the experiment, a colleague interrogates Zimbardo and asks him what independent variable he was measuring – that is, what change he was hoping to observe in his study. Zimbardo does not have an answer, and it’s hard not to feel like the movie is similarly grasping at straws when it comes to what exactly the experiment was trying to examine. Beyond mere power relations and the willingness of humans to commit atrocities against each other, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” does little to illuminate the intellectual concepts that make its titular event worth studying to this day.

It abandons academia for entertainment which, admittedly, it does a very good job of providing. Though audiences may not feel the film’s ideas piercing their brain, they will likely feel the emotional impact of the solid turns from this extraordinary cast. People will no doubt look at “The Stanford Prison Experiment” like people today look at “The Outsiders,” seeing strong performances from rising male actors. If you haven’t already, remember these names – Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano, Jack Kilmer, Thomas Mann, Johnny Simmons, Logan Miller, Keir Gilchrist, Ki Hong Lee – because it will not be the last you hear from them.

ExperimenterAlvarez would have done well to lean on the findings from the subject of Michael Almereyda’s “Experimenter,” Stanley Milgram. A social psychologist working at Yale in the 1960s, Milgram sought answers to how ordinary German people became complicit in the Nazi machine. In other words, he sought to find in science and data what Hannah Arendt described in theory as “the banality of evil.”

Almereyda’s film puts a heavy emphasis on process, using large chunks of the film’s beginning to detail just how Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) went about obtaining his – pun fully intended – shocking findings. He meticulously devised an experiment in which an unsuspecting person would be asked to administer escalating electric shocks to someone else. No matter the pain that other person seemed to endure, the subject with the power to dole out the shock almost always continued if given the instruction to do so from an authority figure in the room.

Notoriously, Milgram was so horrified by the levels of obedience he found in America that he decided against testing his hypotheses in Germany. He controlled for any number of factors – the proximity of the person receiving the shock, the proximity of the authority figure in the experiment, even removing the subject from the setting of an academic laboratory. He got the same results nearly every time.

As a film, “Experimenter” loses a little luster with its less interesting forays into Milgram’s personal life and some didacticism. Milgram frequently breaks the fourth wall to go deeper into his findings, somewhat similarly to Frank Underwood in “House of Cards.” It starts off weird but eventually becomes normalized. Plus, Almereyda does plenty of showing the experiment that a little bit of telling to make sure no one misses the point feels fine.

But as a work about my other passion, social sciences, “Experimenter” reminds me of what I loved about the discipline. It celebrates the questioning of underlying assumptions we hold about social arrangements and then putting them to the test. I only wish it was around to show in a class or two when I was still in college. Hint to professors: this would make for a great Friday activity!

The Stanford Prison ExperimentB2halfstars
ExperimenterB+3stars





REVIEW: Blood Ties

22 06 2014

Blood TiesCannes Film Festival – Out of Competition, 2013

It’s clear from the beginning of “Blood Ties” that Guillaume Canet’s English-language feature debut is a Scorsese-lite New York ensemble drama.  Still, to so successfully channel a modern master right out of the gate is pretty impressive.  While Canet’s direction is hardly novel, he always keeps the film fun and compelling.

His ’70s saga follows the exploits of the two Pierzynski brothers squaring off on opposite sides of the law, Chris (Clive Owen) the criminal and Frank (Billy Crudup) the cop.  If the premise sounds familiar, well, it is.  In fact, the film is co-written by Canet with the help of James Gray, who himself wrote/directed a very similar tale of fraternal opposition called “We Own the Night” back in 2007.

Yet even though it felt like I knew these characters from other movies, they still thrilled me.  Gray, a consummate crafter of familial tension, completely nails the tricky dynamics between Chris and Frank.  They have always been pitted against each other, so a natural rivalry has been fostered between them.  Yet underneath it all, there’s the undeniable pull of – wait for it – blood ties that every so often overpowers all else.

Clive Owen is once again dastardly convincing in a brutish role, recalling his gripping performance in “Inside Man.”  However, it’s Billy Crudup who really carries the movie with a quiet strength.  He never really got a role to showcase all the talent he showed in “Almost Famous,” and now, 14 years later, Crudup arrives again with a bang. Read the rest of this entry »





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 20, 2010)

20 08 2010

It’s the one-year anniversary of the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column!  I thought the best way to celebrate that milestone would be by featuring one of my-all time favorites, “Almost Famous.”  It’s not exactly little known given its pretty devoted following and its awards season haul, which included an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and a Golden Globe for Best Picture.  Although it was criminally snubbed by the Academy for a shot at the top prize, it is still more than worth your time.

The movie, written by director Cameron Crowe, is semi-autobiographical.  As a teenager, he wrote for Rolling Stone and had the pleasure of touring with bands like Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Jealous, anyone?

Young William Miller (Patrick Fugit) discovers music after his rebellious sister (Zooey Deschanel) flees the tyrannical reign of their mother, the strict fundamentalist Elaine, played with brilliant propriety by Frances McDormand.  As a young boy, Elaine thought her son to be so smart that she moved him up two grades in school, thus socially crippling him.  His sister leaves behind a giant record collection, and William’s obsession with music begins.

Not unlike myself, he begins writing about his passion.  We differentiate, however, in the fact that William’s work gets picked up by Rolling Stone.  The industry-leading magazine asks him to follow Stillwater, an up-and-coming rock band, on their tour and write an article on them.  He meets an interesting crowd aside from the band, who are always skeptical of his intentions, particularly lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee).

The most intriguing figure by far and away is the so-called Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), whose name, age, and intentions are always clouded in mystery.  Penny is a different kind of groupie, offering herself to help the band more as a muse to inspire artistic inspiration than to satisfy lustful desires.  She and William, both in their teen years, form a very interesting relationship while on the road.  Hudson, only 21 at the time of the movie’s release, gives an absolutely masterful performance, and her virtuoso turn is only made more astonishing by her age.

But the movie’s real heart and soul comes from William’s friendship with guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup).  It is he who teaches the young journalist to enjoy the ride and love every minute of being able to do what you love.  Indeed, we watch “Almost Famous” with the same sense of wide-eyed wonder of William on the road, and the movie is an exciting experience that inspires our own fantasies of living out a childhood dream.  Even if that doesn’t involve music, Crowe’s true masterstroke will still be able to delight your latent aspirations.





REVIEW: Eat Pray Love

12 08 2010

The big tagline advertised for “Eat Pray Love” is “let yourself go.”  Indeed, as millions of readers across America have discovered, Elizabeth Gilbert (played here by Julia Roberts, who looks every bit as good as she did 20 years ago in “Pretty Woman”) did just that after she couldn’t find fulfillment in her everyday life.  Her publisher allows her to spend a year traveling to Italy, India, and Bali as she attempts to discover how to forgive her past while finding happiness for the future.

Ryan Murphy’s film adaptation of Gilbert’s memoir, however, doesn’t do itself the favor of following the author’s lead.  Rather than letting itself go, it keeps all its emotions bundled up inside.  There are some definite moments of profound revelation that are wonderful to watch, but the movie comes off as feeling rather cold.

We get to smile on occasion; there is a laugh every once in a while, but we sit through the majority of 130 minutes with a stoic stone-faced look.  Even as Gilbert eats delicious food and falls in love, the movie still keeps a melancholy and vaguely plaintive tone, which really puts a damper on how much we are able to enjoy ourselves.  That’s not to say the movie is off-putting because Gilbert spent a great deal of her year in solemn reflection.  Murphy just doesn’t indulge us often to share in her moments of bliss.

People who have read the book tell me that Elizabeth Gilbert has a wonderful sense of humor and a compellingly entertaining voice.  It’s a near impossible cinematic feat to lift both of those off the page and onto the screen, and the script, written by Murphy and Jennifer Salt, doesn’t seem to do her writing talents justice.

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