REVIEW: Trespass Against Us

2 04 2017

No law dictates that every movie about rural-based robbers must be compared to “Hell or High Water,” but it’s going to be a tempting comparison from hereon out given the way that film seamlessly connected geographic isolation with the self-defeating act. Director Adam Smith and writer Alastair Simmons try something similar with the dwellers of a secluded Irish mobile-home compound in “Trespass Against Us” to mixed effect. It’s passable as a crime thriller but genuinely compelling as the story of one father’s struggle.

That delinquent dad is Michael Fassbender’s Chad Cutler, the most put-together offspring of patriarch Colby (Brendan Gleeson), a Jim Jones-type who inspires a religiously-tinged devotion from his kin. Chad has entered the family trade of larceny, though with significant hesitation due in part to pressure from his wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal) to provide some semblance of normality for their two young kids. She wants stability, both in his profession and their living quarters.

There’s no grand moment of conscience for Chad in “Trespass Against Us.” He would rather find some way to please both masters in his life by continuing with extralegal measures away from the Cutler shantytown. But given the escalation of activity demanded by Colby, such a grand bargain becomes exceedingly elusive. Fassbender gives the movie real weight as he ponders which side of the divide Chad would like to fall. It’s a more repressed, bottled-up version of the characters he typically animates, and the more internalized portrayal works for Chad, a man who projects authority without really ever experiencing much autonomy. Discovering who he is proves the greater draw than what he does. B

REVIEW: Live by Night

11 01 2017

A few years ago, some lawmakers courted controversy by hyping themselves up for a debt ceiling showdown with a scene from Ben Affleck’s “The Town.” In the clip shown, a character flatly states, “I need your help. I can’t tell you what it is. You can never ask me about it later. And we’re going to hurt some people.” When asked for comment, Affleck was easily able to brush it off as willful misreading; no one could accuse his film of making a pure glorification of criminal enterprise.

Yet if someone were to do a hype session with a scene from Affleck’s latest film “Live by Night” – using what scene, I have no idea – the same dodging maneuver would not be so easy. This Florida-set, Prohibition-era gangster tale feels like less of a movie and more of a fantasy realized with tens of millions of Warner Bros. dollars. Though a novel by Dennis Lehane may form its backbone, make no mistake that the only shape the film takes is the splattered vomit of its directors influences all over the screen.

One could invent an “Affleck Homage” Bingo game to liven up the experience of watching the jumbled mess. One scene might be a clear nod to Gordon Willis’ photography in “The Godfather” with heavy shadows and amber/sepia lighting. Another, a Steadicam journey through a hotel’s back corridors similar to the notorious “GoodFellas” tracking shot. But all the hat tips are masking Affleck’s true fascination in “Live by Night” – himself.

Don’t be fooled by the lack of a gratuitous shirtless shot that led to chuckles both in “The Town” and “Argo.” Affleck’s insistence on slow pushes of the camera in on his stoic face signal an obsession with the undeveloped interior life of deal-making gangster Joe Coughlin. The world around him, which involves a show of force by the KKK, proves far more interesting. Yet Affleck would rather dwell in a tormented state of displaced Boston accents, ethnic conflicts and a scenario where what we now consider to be “white people” could be victims of persecution and discrimination.

At least it’s not all bad – he pretty much gives Chris Messina, playing Coughlin’s portly henchman Dion Bartolo, free range to unleash the full range of his charm and humor. It doesn’t exactly work within the rest of “Live by Night,” but given that so little else works in the film … maybe the film should have been just all Chris Messina. C2stars

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: 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: Calvary

7 08 2014

Summer 2012 has been uncommonly rife with spiritual themes, from “The Immigrant” to “I Origins” and even “Wish I Was Here” all delving into faith issues on a personal scale.  Writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” expands even further, taking a look at the institutional level of religion through his protagonist, the unconventional Catholic priest Father James (Brendan Gleeson).

McDonagh imbues James with a unique brand of wisdom, partially due to his unusual path to the priesthood.  Father James was a normal man who even fathered a child, only finding his way into the cassock after the death of his wife left him reeling.  This background in the realm of the worldly leads him to be a more patient, understanding paternal figure for the small Irish town he oversees.

Such purity of intent makes him a perfect target for one villager, who comes to confession in the first scene of “Calvary” announcing his plans to make Father James a sort of sacrificial lamb.  This mysterious man, who was repeatedly sexually abused by a Catholic priest as a child, seeks the blood of an innocent man to atone for the sins perpetrated against him.

McDonagh doesn’t shy away from looking into the effects of priests’ sexual misconduct, both for the victim and for the church at large.  In that respect, “Calvary” goes quite a bit deeper than 2008’s “Doubt,” although that’s not necessarily a fair apples-to-apples comparison.  (The latter film takes place when the scandals were only just beginning to enter public consciousness, while “Calvary” takes place in the present.)

Sadly, McDonagh doesn’t always play to the strengths of the story and character.  The opening scene would appear to indicate that the film will follow Father James as he deals with this threat on his life.  Yet for the most part, “Calvary” just provides a rather episodic snapshot of his odd bunch of parishioners.

The film is still interesting in these portions, largely because of Gleeson’s nuanced, deeply felt performance and the wide variety of interactions he can have over the course of a week.  But the large bulk of “Calvary” does not seem to be pushing the action towards its inevitable conclusion, making the film feel a little unfocused and meandering in the process.  McDonagh’s finale arrives with a bang, though it could have been a sonic boom had the whole plot been building behind it.  B2halfstars

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: Safe House

3 03 2012

We all know Denzel Washington is an outstanding actor.  Most of us know that the same could not be said for Ryan Reynolds.  (For those that refute this, ask yourselves whether you are in love with his physique or his performances.)  “Safe House” amounts to little more than a “Bourne”-lite adventure reaffirming these virtually self-evident conclusions.

The adventure takes us to South Africa, where the dullness of Matt Weston’s (Reynolds) humdrum job supervising a CIA safe house has begun to take a psychological toll as he feels stuck and unable to move up the institutional ladder.  This would be an Occupy-friendly film if only Reynolds were complaining about not having a job; later, the film delves into a new favorite action movie trope that would also have the vagrants of Zuccotti Park licking their chops: THE GOVERNMENT IS CORRUPT!  All of them!  Just working the government destroys your soul and taints your brain!  I get it, Hollywood, you love 1968 and want to keep the spirit of skepticism and distrust of institutions alive … but that was four decades ago and the schtick is getting a little old.  Maybe it’s time for a new target.

But the monotony of his vocation gets suddenly broken when a captured criminal is brought it – young Cornel West!  Just kidding, Denzel Washington’s rogue CIA agent Tobin Frost only looks like him.  The difference between the scholar and the character is that Frost is much better at getting people to see things his way.  As the latest Hannibal Lecter knock-off, Frost is hardly as frightening as might be expected, but Washington’s calm portrayal certainly makes him an eerie wild-card and a ticking time bomb.

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What To Look Forward To: “Green Zone”

4 11 2009

A scant five days after the best movies of 2009 are crowned at the Academy Awards, a movie will be released that could have been among those.  “Green Zone” was slated for release this year, but the decision was made to push it back to 2010.  This was probably for financial reasons as so many great movies get lost in the heap during the month of December, and this year has taught us that a movie can make a nice chunk of change in the early months of the year.

“Green Zone” reunites the versatile Matt Damon, who at the time of release could be fresh off an Oscar win or nomination for either “The Informant!” or “Invictus,” with Paul Greengrass, director of the final two installments of the Bourne trilogy.  But Greengrass is capable of making something other than an epic action movie; he was nominated for Best Director at the Academy awards in 2006 for his work on “United 93.”  Damon’s character Roy Miller is a U.S. Army officer in the volatile Green Zone region, the center of international presence in Baghdad, who discovers that the CIA is working directly in opposition to his efforts to remove terrorist leaders.  In order to do what he feels is the greater good, he goes rogue.  Featuring an ensemble cast including Brendan Gleeson, Jason Isaacs, and Oscar nominees Greg Kinnear and Amy Ryan, “Green Zone” can hopefully provide awards-level entertainment in the fairly barren winter months.

However, the movie being set in Iraq could hamper the film’s receipts.  There has yet to be any bonanza made off a movie set in the Middle East, and only recently has their been a movie, “The Hurt Locker,” that has opened to widespread critical acclaim (although I loved “The Kingdom” … never have I felt so patriotic).  That movie focused more on characters and not on action, and if the same applies to “Green Zone,” it should do fine.  Universal put out two trailers for the movie this week.  The domestic trailer makes it look more like the “Bourne” movies with plenty of action, while the international trailer focuses more on the plot.  I embedded the international trailer here because if you have read this blog at all, you know my main concern is story.  A side note/quick pondering, does this mean that Universal thinks that Americans only want action and no plot?  Whatever the case may be for “Green Zone,” I’m sold.