REVIEW: I Origins

21 07 2014

I OriginsThe flaws of writer/director Mike Cahill’s “I Origins” have become more apparent as I have thought about the movie more in retrospect.  But remarkably, this awareness has not led me to think lesser of the product as a whole.  I still find the film’s aspirations noble, and Cahill manages to achieve his objectives even while stumbling (unlike his prior feature, “Another Earth,” which tripped out of the gate and never recovered).

The film is rather disjointed, feeling like two separate movies conjoined in the editing room – similar to Stanley Kubrick’s assemblage of “Full Metal Jacket.”  The first half of “I Origins” follows Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) as he attempts to disprove God with his studies of the human eye while romancing the free-spirited and spiritually inclined Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey).  In this section, Cahill’s dialogue is extremely overwrought and overwritten, yet it does manage to communicate the themes of the piece with great cogency.

After a mid-film climax that ultimately proves to be the apex of the entire story, “I Origins” forks off in an entirely different direction as the possibility of spiritual phenomena such as reincarnation.  This segment is quieter and more understated, perhaps leaving some things unsaid that ought to have been spoken.  In spite of those shortcomings, though, Cahill manages to ensnare us in a largely open-ended cosmic mystery.

The end does come rather abruptly, almost as if a projectionist had forgotten to show the last reel of the film (to use an illustration from a now bygone era).  Still, “I Origins” feels more or less complete even without a conventional resolution.  The film’s nearly two-hour runtime flew by – faster than most entertaining trifles being mass produced on the studio assembly line, I’d like to add.  In that period, Cahill raises a great deal of intriguing questions about tough subjects and discusses them with a fairly satisfying thoroughness.  B+3stars

REVIEW: The East

23 07 2013

In 2012, I wrote a piece for a class entitled “Bad Apples Up on Top” that looked at trends in cinematic portrayals of corporations and wealth in the wake of the Great Recession.  If I were to update that post in 2013, “The East” would definitely mandate the addition of a new paragraph.  Along with films like “The Bling Ring,” “Arbitrage,” and even “The Purge,” writer/director Zal Batmanglij and co-writer/star Brit Marling tap into a growing sense of militarism towards the rich and powerful.

Marling’s Sarah infiltrates the titular anarchist group for the government, attempting to protect her firm’s corporate clients from The East’s attacks.  She quickly finds that blurred lines are not just the things of scintillating Robin Thicke summer singles; moral complexities abound everywhere.  Sarah quickly finds herself wondering if she’s working for the right side in this game – if such a side exists.

The East, as savage as their attacks might be, are not your average criminals.  They want to hold executives’ feet to the fire and jolt them out of complicity, forcing them to feel the pain they inflict on others.  Their jams are highly symbolic, coordinated by members of The East to send a powerful message to the corporations and the public as well.

While all this ambiguity and relativism is fascinating, “The East” is a film that is great at raising questions but not particularly good at answering them.  Films don’t have to force-feed you their message, nor do they have to make them patently obvious.  But Batmanglij and Marling should not have wasted their time bringing up issues they were not prepared to, or incapable of, resolving.  If you don’t stand for anything, it’s entirely possible you could wind up standing for nothing.

“The East” poises itself for a killer finale, yet it brings up far more than it’s prepared to wrap up.  As a result, the film feels like a bunch of stumper interview questions loosely wrangled together into a story.  It’s interesting enough, but “The East” gives us fairly little new evidence with which to reinterpret these ethical quandaries.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: The Company You Keep

27 04 2013

There are all sorts of cinematic experiences you can have these days when going to the movies.  Sometimes, as was the case with Robert Redford’s “The Company You Keep,” I felt like I was mostly just following the events unfold as opposed to actively watching the film.  Sure, I was taking it in, but it reminds me of the experience of reading SparkNotes or a Wikipedia summary – not exactly engaging or satisfying, in other words.

Redford appears to be angling to win the SAG ensemble award on paper with this cast of Oscar winners, nominees, and Shia LaBeouf.  Though with this A(ARP)vengers of ’70s and ’80s greats assembled, you’d think the drama would not be so turgid and lifeless.  It’s stiff and uninteresting as both a journalistic crusade as well as a fugitive thriller.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized this had all the potential to be “All The President’s Men” meets “The Fugitive.”  Both those movies had tension, though, and Redford can’t even manufacture it synthetically with a Cliff Martinez (“Drive,” “Contagion“) score.  The characters also lacked depth, both in terms of emotional development as well as decent dialogue for them to say.  Everyone speaks in self-righteous platitudes in “The Company You Keep,” making for some rather excruciating confrontations.

With all that’s going on these days, an old home-grown terrorist and a young maverick journalist in the era of print media’s growing obsolescence should be a no-brainer for fascinating conflict and thought-provoking meditations on the world we live in.  But it just goes to show the even with the company Redford keeps – Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, and Susan Sarandon – you can’t just throw acclaimed actors and actresses in a pot and expect it to boil.  C+2stars

REVIEW: Arbitrage

6 10 2012

If Adrian Lyne ever made a movie about Wall Street, I have a feeling it would look something like “Arbitrage” (OK, maybe with a little less steaminess).  Nicholas Jarecki’s debut narrative feature has high stakes, heightened emotions, and well over fifty shades of grey in every character.  It’s a world where every character is suspect and every decision deserves a screaming match debating the respective merits of the choice.

Don’t get me wrong, I like when movies give themselves a sense of weight.  Sometimes to create drama, you have to do a little dramatization.  But it’s done to a bit of an extreme in “Arbitrage.”  When you hit a high note in the first third of the movie and keep at the same pitch for nearly an hour, you lose a sense of forward momentum propelling both the film’s story and the audience’s interest.  Not to mention, watching a movie so high-strung and strung out gets quite exhausting.

This exaggerated acting leads to some fine performances, especially from Richard Gere as a ruthless, conniving greedy hedge fund executive (apparently the only kind these days).  He’s slick, slippery, and seriously stupefying.  Gere’s Robert Miller is motivated by deep, dark forces, ones that the actor digs deep to wrestle with.  Dealing with the collapse of his financial house of cards and the death of his mistress at the same time tend to make someone that primal, though.

While Susan Sarandon as his scorned wife and Brit Marling as his conflicted daughter can both shout at his level, neither can match Gere’s intensity.  I just wish “Arbitrage” had toned down a little bit to stay level with Gere.  A little bit of internalizing and a little less monologuing could have done wonders for the movie.  As is, it feels like an all too familiar yell that dilutes its own message with heavy-handedness.  B

REVIEW: Sound of My Voice

3 10 2012

It’s curious that of the three films Fox Searchlight acquired at 2011’s Sundance Film Festival, two happened to star Brit Marling and two happened to be about the religious occult … and of those three, “Sound of My Voice” saw domestic release last.  It feels like a rather unfortunate afterthought after “Martha Marcy May Marlene” tantalized with its brilliant ambiguity and “Another Earth” provided a much more showy showcase for Marling.

“It’s a lonely road if a momma don’t think their child is pretty,” remarked Abileen in “The Help,” and “Sound of My Voice” sure feels like a forgotten stepchild for Fox Searchlight.  It’s evident right away from what’s on the screen.  As the leader of a strange religious movement, Brit Marling seems to be walking eggshells as she treads familiar ground as Maggie, the bizarre and disturbed leader of the cult.  She claims to be from the future – 2054, to be exact – and is allergic to everything in the current time.

Opportunistic documentary filmmakers Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) get word of Maggie’s magnetism and plan an infiltration … and a subsequent movie.  But – SHOCKER – they start to lose track of their objectivity as they grow closer to Maggie and get deeper inside the world of the cult, leading to a rift between the filmmaking (and romantic) couple.

Debut director Zal Batmanglij, who also co-wrote the film with star Brit Marling, does a half-decent job of keeping taut suspense throughout the film.  That’s largely due to the structure of their script; the content, however, is what makes the film second fiddle to “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”  The peculiarities of Maggie and the basement cult, ranging from a bizarre handshake to growing her own fruit, add nothing to the story.  Rather than drawing you in, they pull you out of the film, forcing you to wonder who the heck even thought of that.  The film leaves us to solve a puzzle without all the pieces, but it also leaves you so apathetic that it’s a puzzle you are all too happy not to extend the mental effort to solve.

That essentially concludes my “review” of the film, but before I end, I do have one more thing to say.  While I was watching the movie, I couldn’t help but giggle at the uninentional comedy of the film.  That’s nothing new for me as I often use humor as a tool to break a monotonous viewing experience, yet this was different.  The more I giggled, the more I realized that “Sound of My Voice” has some serious potential as the first major comedy to explore occult religion.

Thus, I propose a remake of “Sound of My Voice,” only this time as a comedy.  It’s the kind of movie we SHOULD be remaking: one that is perfectible, not already perfect.  So to Fox Searchlight (or whoever is looking at providing finance for the film), I will even do you the favor of casting the remake.  You’re welcome.

Amy Poehler as Maggie:

Charlie Day as Peter:

Aubrey Plaza as Lorna:

Christopher Walken as Klaus, Maggie’s old and creepy keeper:

Thank me later.  B- 

REVIEW: Another Earth

12 08 2011

Don’t let the Sundance laurel fool you – “Another Earth” is just as disposable as your average mainstream sci-fi flick nowadays.  Mike Cahill’s directorial debut, also written by he and the film’s star Brit Marling, is a disaster from its opening minutes and limps along for another hour and a half barely breathing.  To say that it wears out its welcome is quite the understatement because by the time it ends, you’ll feel like you accidentally walked into the multiplex’s sensory deprivation chamber.

Another cliched saying applicable here would be “don’t judge a movie by its trailer” since it must be for another movie, not “Another Earth.”  If you were drawn in by the intriguing premise of parallel worlds and science-fiction interplanetary travel, you are in for otherworldly disappointment.  The best thing the movie had to offer is little more than a subplot, a plot gimmick occasionally brought up in conversation but never fulfilling its enormous potential.  When the film finally cashes in on this underworked aspect in its dying breath, it feels like something we were expecting in the first reel.

The movie’s main plot, on the other hand, abandons originality and settles for a contrived tale of a woman (Marling) coping with grief.  After killing John Burroughs’ (William Mapother) wife and child in a drunken driving accident, she feels the need for catharsis by bringing herself closer to the pain that still haunts her.  Sound familiar?

I made a list of 10 movies in the past 5 years that have done it better.  But even more than that, it’s a carbon copy of last year’s “Rabbit Hole” that lost all its heart, emotion, and power in the transfer.  Nicole Kidman and company make their grief truly moving, while Brit Marling’s painfully reserved, borderline masochistic behavior combined with William Mapother’s endless moping makes for a brutal watch.  The only thing they succeed in doing is making you wish you could be transported to another earth – one where you didn’t waste your time watching this movie.  D /