REVIEW: The Glass Castle

12 08 2017

There’s a strain of thought currently dominating the conversation around class in America, and it finds best expression in J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” To loosely sum it up, the argument is that rural white Americans possess a kind of misunderstood nobility that’s mistaken for a lack of sophistication by outsiders. When given a ladder to success rather than treated with scorn, these working-class whites can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s film adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ searingly personal memoir “The Glass Castle,” thankfully, flies in the face of all that hogwash. Without providing any kind of sociological lecture on structural poverty, he and co-writer Andrew Lanham poke at something profound in their portrayal of some unconventional (and, yes, dangerous) parenting tactics. The ideals of freedom, independence and self-reliance, so baked into the American psyche, are inventions of a wealthy class of men for other landed men. When followed by people without resources and social standing, it can lead to dangerous ends.

One of the first times we see Jeannette’s father Rex, played with usual spitfire intensity by Woody Harrelson, he’s going on a screed against the professional class of doctors for trying to wield their knowledge as a tool to extort hard-working people into paying for expensive treatment. They need to treat young Jeannette for a burn. She received that burn because she had to feed herself while her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) painted, and her dress caught fire on the stove. It’s a moment of pure negligence and irresponsibility in the Walls family. Yet Rex successfully convinces himself that the real issue is not their lack of oversight; instead, it’s the judgment from a class that deems themselves superior when his parenting style is simply an expression of his American values. Sometimes that comes with collateral damage, and he’s willing to live with that.

An older Rex seen later in the film goes on a similar rant about Reaganite economics, though certainly without naming the source. He picks the booming Wall Street financiers as the target of his rage, seemingly because they reap tremendous profits without producing anything tangible to put out in the world. Rex fails to realize, however, that all his tough talk of hard labor rooted in self-determination is rooted in an empty promise. The big dreams for his family, most obviously manifested in the quixotic fantasy “glass castle” he tells Jeannette he will build, will never come to pass so long as they remain mired in poverty.

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REVIEW: Free Fire

17 04 2017

SXSW Film Festival

Ben Wheatley is not the kind of director to slowly ease you into the milieu of the world he creates. He simply plunges you into the deep end with piranhas, primarily through the use of stylized and highly specific situational dialogue. “Free Fire” does not wait for you to catch up. The loquacious characters simply start spitting out Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump’s words at a mile-a-minute pace, as they naturally would. You either start running or get left in its dust.

The only time Wheatley slows down is not for our sake. It’s to commemorate the first bullet fired of what must be thousands over the course of the film. In suspended animation, we watch it travel and have a moment to consider its impact. Then the full playground game breaks out between two rival Boston gangs in an arms deal, and it becomes absolute pandemonium.

Wheatley uses the film’s singular warehouse location to its absolute fullest, utilizing it like an adult jungle gym occupied by men (and Brie Larson’s Justine) who showed up in what looks like costumes for a trashy ’70s party. Every move to advance around the space requires at least four bullets, and the gunfire eventually immobilizes every participant one limb at a time. Towards the end, Justine relies on a firearm to serve as a combined cane and replacement appendage. Yes, “Free Fire” is that kind of movie.

It’s also a film that leaves behind little but empty bullet cases. Enjoyable though it may be to watch these bumbling gangsters unleash load after load on each other to period tunes (executive producer Martin Scorsese must have lent his personal jukebox), those pleasures prove fleeting. “Free Fire” unyokes the hysteria of Wheatley’s last film, “High-Rise,” from any form of social commentary. This is a very different movie with no pretensions of intellectual depth, yet even adjusting for the difference, it still fires a few blanks. B /





REVIEW: Kong: Skull Island

7 03 2017

“Am I the story of the Negro in America?” asks a German major in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” as he tries to guess the name written on a card affixed to his forehead in a bar game. He gets a resounding “no” after running through a series of questions that could just as easily describe the importation of slaves. But he quickly pivots and rattles off, “Well, then, I must be King Kong.”

Traditionally in cinema – and fiction as a whole – our monsters mean something. They reflect the deep fears and anxieties of a society, ones that might not obviously rear their heads but can find vicarious expression through metaphor and transitive representation. In 1933’s version of “King Kong,” Tarantino saw a deeply symbolic tale about race in America. It’s too bad that “Kong: Skull Island,” the latest spin on the giant ape, arrives at a time of no racial tension and the complete absolution of prejudice based on ancestral origin. (Ha.)

But what kind of monster is Kong in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film? At first, the behemoth primate seems to be something between a colonialist allegory given the backdrop of the Vietnam War and a cautionary tale for human overreach in a technology-heavy era. The longer the film goes on, the more these aspects reveal themselves as clear offshoots of Vogt-Roberts’ key touchstones, “Apocalypse Now” and “Jurassic Park.” Then the real question of “Kong: Skull Island” arises. Is it worse if the filmmaking team (which includes four credited writers) have an undercooked meaning of the monster … or if there’s just no meaning at all?

We get the answer – it’s the latter of the two options – in a post-credits zinger. No spoilers about the contents of the scene, but Warner Bros. deliberately robs King Kong of any allegorical meaning to strip him down to pure commercialism. He’s now just another branded property, another franchise toy who can be trotted out in any number of series without being weighed down by cultural baggage. The ape who loomed large in the American imagination is now just another large CGI creation in a veritable zoo created by the VFX wizards that be. The whole film amounts to a less neon-bathed “Avatar,” a creature feature full of empty spectacle (and even less politicization).

Kong’s presence in the film is practically nonexistent, too. That includes implied appearances, a method to which Spielberg acolyte Vogt-Roberts fondly makes homage. The majority of “Kong: Skull Island” consists of a ragtag band of people who have been in too many action movies (Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman) and those whose careers could use an action movie (Brie Larson, Thomas Mann, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell) trying to make it to the top of a mountain for rescue after a military mission goes south. Their journey has its enjoyable moments, but who really buys a ticket to a King Kong movie for pithy banter between photojournalists and cagey war veterans? B-





REVIEW: Tanner Hall

17 02 2016

Tanner HallWithin the walls of any boarding school, there are many stories that can be told. Tatiana von Fürstenberg and Francesca Gregorini’s “Tanner Hall” chooses to tell far too many of them.

There’s the bookish Fernanda, played by Rooney Mara, who sees her fragilely constructed milieu disrupted by the arrival of an old friend, the spontaneous rabble-rouser Victoria (Georgia King). She’s also flirting with an older, married Gio (Tom Everett Scott).

Then, there’s Brie Larson’s Kate, a charismatic troublemaker who loves to tease their dorm room advisor, Mr. Middlewood (Chris Kattan). That eventually turns into all-out advances on him, exploiting his sexually frustrated marriage with his aggressive wife (Amy Sedaris).

Perhaps if a single story thread had gotten the full-length feature consideration, “Tanner Hall” might have more pop to it. But with all crammed into 90 minutes, each character gets short shrift. Every part of the film feels unsatisfying and underdeveloped.

The chief fascination of “Tanner Hall” now is how the film presages the rise of Mara and Larson, with each giving performances that so neatly represent the actresses they have matured to become. Mara is every bit as pensive and withdrawn as she is in a film like “Carol,” while Larson remains a ball of energy and charm. C-1halfstars





REVIEW: Room

17 11 2015

It’s easy to think the most impressive cinematic achievements are the ones that transport us to new worlds of an artist’s creation. (Case in point: “Star Wars.”) But there is something to be said for those films that can take the familiar and make it feel new and radically different. I speak not of freshly presenting plot points but rather an entire way of seeing, and Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” achieves such a feat.

The film assumes the perspective of five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) as he gains self-awareness of his place in the world. Problem is, that world is extremely socially constructed by his mother, Brie Larson’s “Ma.” She, assumed disappeared and dead, is held captive inside a shed by a vile man who eventually impregnates her. Rather than explain their dire situation to Jack, Ma decides to teach him that their room is the entirety of the world.

The tiny space, instead of feeling claustrophobic, seems limitless when filtered through a childlike curiosity and innocence. As he begins to make sense of the world around him, it inspires us to think deeply about the small assumptions make about our surroundings on a daily basis.

Emma Donoghue adapted “Room” from her own novel of the same name, and it is told by Jack in the first person. For over 300 pages, the depth and breadth of his observational eye forges quite the bond between reader and character over time. In a way, it almost does not feel fair to expect a movie to match that scope in just two short hours. Abrahamson and Donoghue do a wonderful job translating the story to the screen, though something may feel lost – or at least somewhat less substantial – to those who know the book.

Even so, everyone should expect to be bowled over by stunning performances from Tremblay and Larson. The way each struggles to assert the primacy of their own needs while caring for the other proves compelling and often gut-wrenching. This is particularly true for Larson’s Ma, who has no choice but to wrestle with the darkest of her feelings and impulse in captivity. After five years of such intensive, performative positivity, living an untruth takes its toll. “Room” celebrates when her selflessness wins out but never judges her for needing some personal space – a tricky balance beautifully managed by all involved. B+3stars





REVIEW: Digging for Fire

1 09 2015

Digging for FireAs writer/director Joe Swanberg wanders the corridors of marital discontent in his latest film, “Digging for Fire,” I could not help but wonder if this is what Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” would look like when refracted through the lens of low-budget indie cinema.  Over the course of a weekend spent apart, previously unknown rifts and fault lines appear between Tim (Jake Johnson, also a co-writer on the film) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) while they amble and converse freely.

Each’s journey appears cross-cut with the other’s, and the spouses might as well be occupying entirely different films.  Tim hangs out to drink beers and smoke pot with his buddies – one of whom arrives with a young woman on each arm – but proves unable to put his mind at ease about some suspicious bones he spotted in the yard.  Lee, meanwhile, drifts between scenes and choose mostly to let the words of others trigger her thought process.  He is aggressively verbose in expressing his own frustrations; she reacts to hearing those from others.

At moments, “Digging for Fire” shows real insight into the listlessness of marriage and parenting.  Johnson feels especially at home since he gets to speak (presumptively) dialogue he helped write.  When Tim expresses his frustrations and anxieties, they clearly come from someplace personal and resonate accordingly.  For all those looking to use art to deal with their own life, try to model this to avoid self-indulgence.

Swanberg, though, sometimes gets carried away by his posse of ever-ready actor pals.  Since his movies shoot so quickly and efficiently, it makes sense that these stars want a chance to flex their muscles in between the paycheck gigs.  In this case, the ensemble of comedians and dramatists alike can detract attention from what might have played more effectively as a tighter two-hander.  Between the screen time allotted to Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Mike Birbiglia, and Anna Kendrick, “Digging for Fire” can sometimes feel like a party at the Swanbergs for which he provided a loose plot and great camerawork.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Trainwreck

4 08 2015

Trainwreck PosterAt roughly the midpoint of “Trainwreck,” writer Amy Schumer sets up a remarkable parallel between two scenes at the same baby shower.  The character Amy, played by Schumer herself, has to endure a brutal game of “Skeletons in the Closet” where posh young mothers spill dark secrets … that actually reveal themselves as pathetically and predictably tame.

Meanwhile, Amy’s boyfriend, Bill Hader’s Aaron Conners, recounts details of the many athletes he has helped rehabilitate in his sports medicine practice.  He rattles of name after name to the same awe-struck reaction from a crowd of unfamiliar men … until he drops the name Alex Rodriguez.  Among this set of New Yorkers, this blasphemy inspires a sudden outburst of profanity.  But then, Aaron goes back to some more agreeable athletes, and the peanut gallery resumes the standard call-and-response.

These scenes, juxtaposed as they are, communicate a central tenet of “Trainwreck.”  Both genders, when taking cultural stereotypes of gender to the extreme ends of their performance, deserve mockery for their folly.  (This also includes John Cena, who briefly appears as Amy’s bodybuilding boyfriend who talks about the gym like many women talk about the nail salon.)  Schumer’s feminist intervention into the romantic comedy genre aims to level the playing field for men and women, not by putting the latter on any kind of pedestal but through suggesting the common humanity that unites them.

Her on-screen persona in “Trainwreck” arrives at the perfect moment, a time where many female characters are either monotonically strong or practically invisible and silent.  The “approachable” Amy, as her boss (played by a bronzed Tilda Swinton) condescendingly deems her, is a romantic comedy heroine cut from the cloth of contemporary society.  The hard-drinking, truth-telling, free-wheeling character benefits from the assertiveness in romance that women gained through the sexual revolution, yet she also pushes up against the lingering constraints left unconquered by that unfinished movement.  Amy also embodies the spirit of a generation scared to death of commitment, an era when the only thing scarier than the sea of possibilities is the choice to settle on one of them.

She meets her match in Aaron, an equally plain-spoken person who falls for Amy as she profiles him for the men’s magazine S’nuff.  The big difference, though, is that he possesses self-confidence where she shields her insecurities with self-deprecation.  Aaron, notably, never becomes a human incarnation of a “Mr. Wonderful” doll.  While exceedingly nice and admirable, Amy exposes a few of the buttons he might not like people pushing.

“Trainwreck” does not place Amy in the position of damsel in distress, nor does it make her some kind of prize for winning once tamed.  Amy’s impetus to change, although partially spurred by Aaron, seems to derive from an internal desire to stop numbing herself to the world.  And even in her triumphs (including the grand finale), Schumer always makes sure her Amy still shows some amusing, endearing flaws.  She is allowed to have flawed, circular logic, and it does not mean she is crazy; it just means we embrace her all the more.

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