REVIEW: Café Society

7 08 2016

Woody Allen haters, whether for his personal life or his professional output, need only look at the basic plot summary of “Café Society” to turn themselves away. On its face, the film repackages one of the most unfortunate clichés propagated by his body of work.

This, of course, is the doomed love triangle where a young, sexually blooming woman is courted by two men; one is an older and more distinguished gentleman, while the other is a younger but more intellectually and romantically capable match. Such a formation often seems like Allen wants to have it both ways, where his older and younger personas form a kind of sexual yin and yang.

This risible, repetitive plot invention looms over “Café Society,” imbuing every gorgeous frame from Vittorio Storraro’s lens with a faint stench of retrograde gender politics. In that way, the film plays a role similar to that friend you know has substance issues but dispenses valuable nuggets of drunk wisdom.

Look past the love triangle and beyond the outmoded attitudes, and “Café Society” marks Woody Allen at peak nostalgic autobiography. A few of the bad elements are here, sure, but much of the beauty and torment that marks Allen’s best work is present as well. From his culturally Jewish upbringing to his loathing of Hollywood and even his bleakly optimistic outlook on life, the film feels somewhat akin to a superhero origin story.

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REVIEW: The Shallows

3 07 2016

When the greatest stretch of plausibility in a film from “Unknown” and “Non-Stop” director Jaume Collet-Serra is that a picturesque beach is supposed to double for dumpy Galveston, TX, that’s a pretty big victory for moviegoers.

Collet-Serra’s latest outing, “The Shallows,” finds tense thrills at the intersection of maritime horror from “Jaws” and an improbably stranded adventurer similar to James Franco’s Aaron Ralston in “127 Hours.” Blake Lively’s Nancy, a recent med-school dropout, heads out to the secluded Mexican beachside site from a beloved picture of her recently departed mother. All the factors are in play for her to end up in a pickle: inability to speak Spanish, isolation, distance from communication technology and, of course, just plain naïveté.

Getting to Nancy’s stranding from shore is a necessary evil, though Collet-Serra makes it more exciting than it needs to be with some well-shot surfing scenes. He really takes it to the next level once the shark in the water reveals itself as a menace who will not let any human escape his feeding grounds without drawing blood.

Spielberg or Boyle this is not, but clever shot choice and editing make “The Shallows” exciting and taut throughout. Notably, Collet-Serra chooses to convey the terror of one key attack not through explicit depiction of blood and gore but rather through a close-up on Blake Lively’s startled, petrified face. He’s also quite attuned to the way technologies from smartphones to GoPros take people out of their surroundings and immerse them into the digital realm. Yet nothing compares to pulse-pounding moments where Nancy must go inside her own head and then summarily execute the latest unlikely effort to ensure her survival. B+3stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 3, 2016)

3 03 2016

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Robin Wright has become an iconic ice queen thanks to her role as Claire Underwood on “House of Cards;” if looks could kill, a glance from her character would bring down Elsa’s entire crystal castle on someone. Wright has been in the industry for over three decades now, enchanting audiences in films from “The Princess Bride” to “Forrest Gump,” yet her talents only now feel sufficiently realized as she nears 50.

But away from her projects that capture the public imagination, Wright quietly turns in great performances on much smaller scales. One such film is Rebecca Miller’s “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,” a gentle yet stirring feminist drama that showcases the full range of Wright’s talents. She shines as a wife coming to the realization of the many ways in which she is held hostage by domesticity. While Miller’s might not bring the aesthetic rigor of Todd Haynes to the so-called “women’s picture,” her keen understanding of how societal roles constrain female freedoms more than earns it the honor of my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

In many ways, Wright’s titular Pippa Lee is a very similar character to Claire Underwood. Both are women defined by ambition that we can sense but never see, and their faces will never truly express their deepest desires. The key difference comes from what goes on underneath those belying facades. Claire looks to seize power at all cost. Pippa just wants to know freedom outside the titles of “daughter,” “wife” and “mother” in which she has dwelled her entire life.

“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” begins with Wright’s character coming to the realization that she no longer wishes to maintain all the charades to keep the plates spinning in her life. With an aging older husband (Alan Arkin) settling into a senior living facility, she finally has some breathing room to evaluate what she wants in life – not just what she needs. Miller also traces back her history, showing how the young Pippa (Blake Lively) learned the limited avenues available to women in American society. The primary influence, of course, was her mother Suky (Maria Bello), a flighty housewife always pretending to star in an idyllic commercial.

To watch Miller’s film is to be moved by Pippa’s journey towards self-actualization, yet pure emotional outpouring is not the entire modus operandi. Miller also illuminates the narrow categorizations into which we sort women by demonstrating the judgment they face for daring to step outside of them. Empathy is part of the equation. A broadened worldview is the larger takeaway.





REVIEW: Savages

1 08 2012

I’m not one to say that a movie HAS to be made a certain way or in a certain style. Having said that, movies about drug trafficking, drug cartels, and drug violence should really be done in a raw, gritty fashion.  That’s the standard, be it Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” or television’s “Breaking Bad.”  The style and the content really work in perfect harmony.

And it’s a standard for a reason.  Oliver Stone, ever the belligerent iconoclast, feels no need for such formalities.  He’s begging for attention as usual in his latest feature effort “Savages,” a film that’s about two drug growers in a ménage à trois with a girl who winds up being used as a pawn against them, although it’s really just about Oliver Stone.  His insistence on making curious directorial choices often makes the film feel like a tasteless, hair-brained Tarantino flick.

His insistence on savagely graphic violence aestheticizes slaughterings, tortures, and killings to the point where it seems to serve only Stone’s eye.  One particular scene goes way too far; it’s a disgusting sight to behold and really doesn’t have much to say about the morality of violence.  Scorsese-esque, this is not.

And if the violence doesn’t make “Savages” unwatchable for you, then maybe the acting will.  Blake Lively, taking a page from the Kristen Stewart playbook, grunts, moans, and brays her way through a juicy role that could have been memorable in the hands of someone like Elizabeth Olsen or Rooney Mara.  Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch as leading men in a love triangle (that Stone presents with some homoerotic undertones) are passable, but Kitsch really should find a role where he can channel the emotional honesty he brought to Tim Riggins on television’s “Friday Night Lights.”

Stone also finds a way to turn Oscar nominees John Travolta and Salma Hayek and winner Benicio del Toro into caricatures, particularly Hayek, whose thick accent is played for comedy.  It’s a shame that “Savages” is hijacked by its director to flaunt the peculiarities of his own mind.  The story, a caper of duplicity and cannabis, is actually quite captivating.  But to Oliver Stone, it’s merely a canvas onto which he can make his “Bonnie & Clyde.”  In the hands of a director who respects the source material enough to subvert and subdue their own tendencies if they were not suited for the story, “Savages” could have easily been something very special.  C+





REVIEW: Green Lantern

20 06 2011

The old adage traditionally goes “money can’t buy you happiness,” but in respect to the latest Hollywood comic book adaptation, “Green Lantern,” money can’t buy you quality. The higher the pedestal, the harder the fall, and with a $200 million price tag, this movie lands a hard face plant.  Even with Ryan Reynolds turning in one of the better superhero performances in recent memory, the movie’s unimaginative script and laughable special effects render it one step short of unbearable.

The first movie in any hopeful series has to do a lot of introductions, and the hero has to earn his stripes.  But here, the exposition just made me want to howl with laughter because of its corniness, and they even brought in Geoffrey Rush to do some of the narration to make it sound serious!  The whole universe they set up feels like some rejected, half-baked idea for a Disney Channel series with its Sectors of the universe, the wise sages known as Guardians, and the intergalactic police force called the Green Lantern Corps.

Hal Jordan (Reynolds) is the lucky human who gets to join their ranks thanks to being “chosen” by the green light after another Green Lantern crash-lands on Earth.  Cocky, rule-breaking, and daredevil Jordan has his work cut out for him as the Green Lanterns draw their power from the green light of will, while the menacing Parallax (and his new convert Hector Hammond, Peter Sarsgaard’s mad scientist with a nasty receding hairline) draws his power from the yellow light of fear.  He must learn to use willpower to overcome fear by using the power of imagination – which makes it all the more ironic that the movie’s big theme copies that of the poorly received “Spider-Man 3.”  Clearly it’s not Jordan who needs the green light; it’s the people who wrote the script.

The whole mess, which goes on for nearly two hours, is full of plot holes and ridiculous implausibilities (flying next to the sun?) that make it even more laughable.  But the icing on the cake is the movie’s visual effects, which are honestly the WORST that I’ve seen in a blockbuster made this millenium.  When Jordan harnesses the green energy and transforms, he looks so fake that it’s hard to take him seriously.  It’s made worse by the fact that his eyes are sloppily changed blue, making him look borderline possessed (not to mention that it does jack squat to protect his identity).  And don’t even get me started on those Guardians; they look like the offspring of trolls bred with Smurfs.

Truly, Reynolds deserves better than this.  He may be the “Sexiest Man Alive,” but he’s also out to prove that he’s more than just a pretty face.  He puts a lot of soul into this character, giving Jordan some depth and emotion, yet he’s stifled by a terrible movie that is unintentionally more like “Bridesmaids” than “Thor.”  Reynolds is a star here, but he can’t shine bright enough to overpower the ugly light that is “Green Lantern.”  From a critical perspective, it’s a big, fat red light for this movie.  C- / 





What to Look Forward to In … October 2009

29 08 2009

We give the movie industry late August and all of September to recover from the busy summer season, but in October, it starts to kick it into gear again.  Unfortunately, my most anticipated movie in October, Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” was pushed back to February.  But the month still puts forth several great movies for all tastes.

October 2

This week, I can promise you that I will be throwing my money not at a new release, but at the re-release of two staples of my childhood.  “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” will hit theaters again for a few weeks.  1 ticket.  2 movies. 3-D.  Need I say more?

The week also gives us “The Invention of Lying,” which could be a sleeper comedy hit. The movie stars Ricky Gervais, who was the lead of the British version of “The Office.” Around this time last year, he starred in “Ghost Town,” a comedy with a heart that you need to go rent now, that was dismissed by audiences. I have high hopes for his latest, in which he plays a man who tells the world’s first lie on an alternate Earth. He continues to wield the power to suit his own selfish needs. The movie also features Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, and the always funny Tina Fey.

And not to mention, the week delivers Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, “Whip It.” The movie stars the irresistible Ellen Page (“Juno”) as Bliss, a teenager weary of the beauty pageants that she is forced into by her parents. One day, she discovers the world of roller derby and she finds the happiness that she has been so desperately seeking. The movie boasts a hilarious supporting cast including Kristen Wiig (“SNL”), Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden, and Barrymore herself.

And it just keeps getting better.  The Coen Brothers (“No Country for Old Men”) are back with their latest feature, “A Serious Man;” they also wrote the original screenplay.  The movie seems to be a big risk.  It features no marquee names other than the Coens themselves. The trailer is cryptic, giving no indication of what to expect from the movie. I don’t mind an aura of mystique, but this is an aura of confusion. The movie is being marketed as a dark comedy, and I pray that it is the polar opposite of the Coens’ last foray into the genre, “Burn After Reading,” which I didn’t find funny at all. The movie starts in limited release and then will slowly expand from New York and Los Angeles.

The other major release of the week is “Zombieland,” a horror-comedy with Woody Harrelson.

October 9

The only exciting movie hitting theaters across the country this weekend is “Couples Retreat.”  A comedy centered around four couples at a luxurious tropical resort that is revealed to be a marriage therapy clinic, it appears to provide something for everyone.  It has pretty women (Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis) AND funny guys (Jason Bateman, Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau).  The movie is the directorial debut of Ralph Billingsley, best known for playing Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” and the screenplay is written by Vaughn and Favreau.  Hopefully it can provide some good laughs in a season usually replete of hilarious comedies.

Opening in limited release is “An Education,” a movie that has been garnering massive Oscar buzz for months now.  Most of it has centered on the breakout performance of lead actress Carey Mulligan.  In the movie, she stars as Jenny, a 17-year-old in 1960s England who is set on going to Oxford.  However, an older gentleman (Peter Sarsgaard) comes along and sweeps her off of her feet, introducing her to a lifestyle that she immediately loves.  But reality bites, and Jenny is left at a crucial crossroads.  The movie has also generated buzz around supporting actors Alfred Molina and Rosamund Pike (the red-haired villain of “Die Another Day”).  Raves are also flying in for the screenplay, written by author Nick Hornby, writer of “About a Boy” and “Fever Pitch.”  And with the 10 nominees for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, many people say it has a good chance of claiming one of the ten.

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