REVIEW: Hail, Caesar!

8 02 2016

Hail CaesarThe kind of auteurism favored by most today places a high priority on repeated patterns and frameworks within a director’s body of work. I, however, tend to prefer filmmakers who can produce a consistency of mood, tone and experience without ever allowing themselves to be easily pinned down. There is perhaps no better example of this than Joel and Ethan Coen, the writing, directing and editing duo who can bounce across genres and budget sizes without skipping a beat.

Audiences most recognize the Coen Brothers for their trademark deadpan wit, with perhaps a little more emphasis on the “dead” part. They may well hold court as America’s greatest living ironists. In fact, their gifts in this realm are so well established that just seeing their names on a film imbues the proceedings with dramatic irony. Anyone who knows the Coens and their tendencies likely recognizes that the journey of the characters will not be determined by their own actions so much as it will be guided by their cosmic fate.

The brothers’ latest outing, “Hail, Caesar!,” bears many of their hallmarks. The dry humor begins with protagonist Edward Mannix (Josh Brolin) doing his best efforts at a confessional and scarcely lets up for an hour and 45 minutes. But underneath all the laughter, a very serious undercurrent of sacrifice, redemption and salvation runs resolutely. More than ever, the poker-faced Coen Brothers are tough to read. Mind you, these are the guys who got an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2000 for turning Homer’s “The Odyssey” into “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – and have claimed for 15 years now that they have not read the source text.

Where a gag ends and profundity begins provides the primary friction in “Hail, Caesar!” Their very interconnected nature seems to be the point of the film itself, and finding that point of intersection proves to be a joyous puzzle. It begins in each episodic scene as Mannix, studio head at Capitol Pictures, puts out fire after fire on the backlot for his pampered stars. This structure allows the Coens to dabble in the Golden Age of westerns, sword-and-sandals epics and musicals in both the Busby Berkley and Gene Kelly style. To call these a love letter to post-WWII Hollywood feels a little strong, but to declare it a satire or lampooning of the era’s excesses hardly feels appropriate either.

Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements




REVIEW: The Hateful Eight

9 01 2016

Snappy dialogue and intricately planned-out scenes put Quentin Tarantino on the map as a generation-defining talent, so it sure is nice to see him once again embracing that spirit in his eighth film, “The Hateful Eight.” After the bloated, mangled mess of “Django Unchained,” operating within his usual wheelhouse of tension ratcheting conversations and raucous bloodshed feels more welcome than usual.

In many ways, however, “The Hateful Eight” is somewhat of an anomaly in Tarantino’s canon. Sure, it bears the usual stamps of expressive language, scrambled chronology and unapologetic gore, but he appears to eschew his favored postmodern pastiche in favor of a more classical vibe.

This proclivity appears most obviously in his selection of music. Apart from “Kill Bill,” Tarantino has never commissioned a composer to score his films. Repurposing aural cues from other films or cultural products has served as a thread running throughout his filmography, reinforcing Tarantino’s DJ-like position as director. He blends, appropriates and remixes to unify and synthesize disparate styles and genres into something entirely new.

Tarantino does not abandon this approach completely in “The Hateful Eight,” although the majority of the sonic landscape in the film comes from a brand new Ennio Morricone score. The very musician whose compositions Tarantino has deployed to great effect in each of his films made this millennia gets to express himself on his own terms. Morricone grants the production a heightened level of prestige and legitimacy with his participation, allowing it a certain measure of independence. “The Hateful Eight” does not rely on referencing other films to imbue the proceedings with meaning. Rather, Tarantino casts his gaze inwards toward the dark, beating heart of his own work.

Read the rest of this entry »





F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 14, 2014)

14 11 2014

In 2006, I only knew Channing Tatum from playing man-candy roles in teen films like “She’s The Man” and “Step Up.”  But had I been paying attention, I would have noticed that he was also in a smaller indie film called “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.”  Tatum showed such skill and promise as a dramatically compelling and emotionally potent actor; it is such a shame that it has taken eight years for someone like Bennett Miller to convert that potential in “Foxcatcher.”

In a cast that includes Shia LaBeouf, Dianne Wiest, Chazz Palminteri, Rosario Dawson, and Robert Downey, Jr., Tatum is easily the standout.  “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” not solely for his performance, however.  Dito Montiel, adapting his own memoir for his screenwriting/directing debut, creates a deeply personal film out of his experiences that shakes up stuffy literature-on-screen conventions.

The action is split between the 1980s and the 2000s as the character Dito (played by LaBeouf and Downey, Jr.) comes to terms with his upbringing in Queens.  As a teen, he begins with a vague sense of yearning to move away from the gritty environment of Astoria, and the events of the film further solidify his need for escape.  “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” does not pass extreme judgment on the other characters, though; Montiel operates from behind the scenes out of respect for the figures of his past and refuses to let them become violent, delinquent archetypes of teen gang members.

Tatum’s character, Dito’s violent but admirably loyal companion Antonio, is defined less by what he does than who he is.  This makes him arguably more fascinating than Dito himself, who clearly achieves his aims of getting out since he narrates from decades later; Tatum captures this unpredictability to gripping effect.  Montiel’s direction matches this mercuriality, playing with form and self-awareness and discovering some intriguing (if not always extremely successful) results.  His “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” finds fresh variation on familiar themes and stories – not to mention one talent who is only now receiving appropriate roles.





REVIEW: Foxcatcher

12 11 2014

FoxcatcherTelluride Film Festival

In the opening minutes of “Foxcatcher,” a quietly quotidian montage details the routine of Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz, a wrestler living and training modestly in spite of winning gold at the 1984 Olympic Games.  The sequence concludes with him stepping behind a podium to address a less than captivated audience of elementary school students, and he begins with the line, “I want to talk about America.”

This opening remark appears to be a harbinger portending a film where director Bennett Miller will talk at us about America.  Ramming any sort of message down our throats, however, seems the last thing on Miller’s mind.  The deliberately paced and masterfully moody “Foxcatcher” provides a trove of discussion-worthy material about the dark underbelly of the world’s most powerful nation.  What Miller actually wants is to talk with us about America.

Miller works deftly within the framework of E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s script, which itself feels beholden to no convention or genre. They slowly parse out information on the characters of the film, providing disturbing details and abnormal actions that do not lend themselves to easy explanation. “Foxcatcher” thrives on small moments that do not seem incredibly consequential as they occur, though their cumulative effect is quite the knockout.

The film crafted by Miller is not one of conventional capital-A “Acting.” It’s performance as being, not as much doing. While the talented trifecta of Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo still has plenty of events to live out, they function best as the shiniest components of a larger tonal machine. Miller expertly employs them to highlight the sinister undercurrents running beneath the eerie, brooding surface of “Foxcatcher.”

His proclivity for cutaways and long-held takes has a tendency to turn the characters into specimens, but such an approach also solicits active examination.  The film’s co-leads, Tatum and Carell, each carry themselves in an unconventional, magnified manner that invites peering past their appearances.  What lurks beneath are truly tormented men, each seeking a symbolic meaning system to bring them fulfillment.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: 22 Jump Street

11 06 2014

The archetypal model for the comedy sequel can be summed up in one line from “The Hangover Part II,” perhaps one of the most disparaged to date: “It happened again.”  Comedies, for whatever reason, seem to recycle their material with a particularly accelerated velocity.

22 Jump Street” essentially takes the model of the sequels to “The Hangover” but makes it not just tolerable but also enjoyable by injecting a level of self-awareness akin to only “This is The End.”  The framework of Michael Bacall’s script, co-written with Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman (with story by Jonah Hill), merely inverts “21 Jump Street” and swaps out college for high school.

This time, Channing Tatum’s Jenko gets to ride atop the social order of Metro City State, immediately accepted by the jocks and gaining an inroad for the all-important fraternity bid.  Jonah Hill’s Schmidt, on the other hand, gets caught up in tricky collegiate sexual politics and experiences the isolation that often comes with being transplanted into a sprawling campus. And more or less, the events play out just like they did in high school.

In some ways, the similarity is frustrating, but it also rings true to life itself.  I’m approaching my senior year in college, and I’ve learned that the same narratives that I thought people had outgrown in high school have tended to repeat themselves.  We all rush so quickly to the next stage of our lives that the reflection necessary to gain maturity seems lost sometimes.

That’s probably not what the filmmakers of “22 Jump Street” had in mind, especially given all their winks and nods to the very nature of the events taking place in a movie – in particular a sequel.  This meta humor is quite clever, and the tongue-in-cheek sensibility pervading the film makes the shameless repetition worth another spin.

Yet while this newfangled irony gives the film some justification for existing, it ultimately does not power the movie.  That job is still carried out by the strengths of the 2012 reboot: the spot-on portrayals of social orders, the nuanced dialogue, and the relationship between the leads.  Rather than going bigger or broader like “The Hangover” series, “22 Jump Street” dives deeper into its own world and pulls out rich observations.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Side Effects

21 08 2013

Steven Soderbergh may have saved the best for last with his supposed final theatrical release, the chillingly cerebral “Side Effects.”  A successful re-teaming with “Contagion” scribe Scott Z. Burns, the film recreates all the unnerving hysteria of the 2011 apocalyptic thriller on a much more micro scale.  Soderbergh, acting as his own editor and cinematographer (under false names), creates a cooly fluorescent-bulb lit environment in which a crazy tale of criminal insanity can realistically unfold.

In this setting, Burns’ cat-and-mouse tale takes on an eerie and haunting dimension. His script is full of unexpected twists and turns, rife with crossed alliances and false appearances, and topped off with plenty of intrigue from the fields of psychiatry and pharmaceuticals.  His “Side Effects” starts off thoroughly convincing us it’s one kind of movie … and then pulls the rug out from underneath us, ultimately leaving us with a surprisingly different end result.

The suspense is amplified by a finely-tuned cast of performers, led by a viciously versatile turn from Rooney Mara.  Her character, the moody Emily Taylor, is a character playing multiple games simultaneously.  She’s mad, moody, depressed, longing, conniving, and manipulative – often all at once.  Mara commands the screen with the same force as she did in her Oscar-nominated role in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” although it’s a more quietly resolute performance that adds another layer of tension to an already taut film.

Read the rest of this entry »





LISTFUL THINKING: 2012 Superlatives

1 01 2013

New Year’s Day always marks a very interesting balancing act, reflecting on the old while also ringing in the new.  So while people are still thinking about 2012, let me offer up the first annual Superlatives post for the films of 2012.  I’ve already weighed in with the best and worst 10 of 2012, but what about the other 80 movies of the year?  What about the performances?  What about all sorts of other things?  This is the post where I get all sorts of stuff floating in my mind out there.

For the sake of review, I’ll go ahead and re-list my 10 best and worst of 2012.

Top 10 of 2012

10 Best of 2012: “21 Jump Street,” “Argo,” “Hitchcock,” “Killing Them Softly,” “Looper,” “Bernie,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Misérables,” “The Master,” “The Queen of Versailles

Prometheus

Honorable Mentions: “Rust and Bone,” “Prometheus,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “End of Watch,” “Holy Motors

Worst 10 of 2012

10 Worst of 2012: “The Grey,” “The Bourne Legacy,” “John Carter,” “Gone,” “The Vow,” “Killer Joe,” “The Paperboy,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” “The Watch,” “Casa De Mi Padre

pitchperfect2

Honorable Mentions: “Pitch Perfect,” “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” “First Position,” “Keep the Lights On,” “Being Flynn

10 More 2012 Releases I Still Need to See: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “The Impossible,” “Promised Land,” “The Intouchables,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Hyde Park on Hudson,” “Not Fade Away,” “Smashed,” “The House I Live In,” “Searching for Sugar Man”

Vanellope

5 Most Surprising Movies of 2012: “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Bernie,” “End of Watch,” “Hitchcock,” “21 Jump Street

Denzel Washington in Flight

5 Most Disappointing Movies of 2012: “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Django Unchained,” “Lincoln,” “Flight,” “The Bourne Legacy

Bachelorette

10 Most Forgettable Movies of 2012 (in alphabetical order): “Bachelorette,” “Hysteria,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “Lola Versus,” “Man on a Ledge,” “Men in Black III,” “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” “Take This Waltz,” “Trouble with the Curve

Silver Linings Playbook

5 Most Rewatchable Movies of 2012: “21 Jump Street,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Argo,” “Ted

Lincoln

5 Movies of 2012 I’m Glad I Saw But Will Never Watch Again: “Lincoln,” “Amour,” “The Invisible War,” “Compliance,” “ReGeneration

Killing Them Softly

5 Most Underrated Movies of 2012: “Killing Them Softly,” “Les Misérables,” “Prometheus,” “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “End of Watch

The Avengers

5 Most Overrated Movies of 2012: “The Sessions,” “Lincoln,” “Django Unchained,” “Life of Pi,” “The Avengers

PSH

5 Movies That Got Better with Distance and Time: “Killing Them Softly,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Master,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Prometheus

Brave

5 Movies That Got Worse with Distance and Time: “Brave,” “Lincoln,” “Flight,” “The Sessions,” “The Dark Knight Rises

Argo

5 Movies That Felt Shorter Than Their Runtime: “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Misérables,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Argo,” “Django Unchained

Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina"

5 Movies That Felt Longer Than Their Runtime: “Lincoln,” “Anna Karenina,” “This Is 40,” “Damsels in Distress,” The Five-Year Engagement

BOTSW

Breakout Performances: Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,”  Eddie Redmayne in “Les Misérables,” Ezra Miller in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Garrett Hedlund in “On the Road,” Scoot McNairy in “Argo

Silver Linings Playbook

Breakthrough Performances: Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook,” Michael Pena in “End of Watch,” Jack Black in “Bernie,” Channing Tatum in “21 Jump Street,” Elizabeth Banks in “People Like Us

Best Exotic

Breakdown Performances: Anna Kendrick in “Pitch Perfect,” Salma Hayek in “Savages,” Tom Cruise in “Rock of Ages,” Emile Hirsch in “Killer Joe,” Dev Patel in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

frame 01021605R

Best Body of Work in 2012: (tie) Anne Hathaway in “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Les Misérables,” Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games” and “Silver Linings Playbook

The Deep Blue Sea

Worst Body of Work in 2012: (tie) Rachel Weisz in “The Bourne Legacy” and “The Deep Blue Sea,” Taylor Kitsch in “John Carter” and “Savages

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Best Heroes: Jessica Chastain as Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk in “The Avengers,” Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables

John Carter

Worst Heroes: Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Taylor Kitsch as John Carter in “John Carter,” Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross in “The Bourne Legacy

Catwoman

Best Villains: Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Russell Crowe as Javert in “Les Misérables,” Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie in “Django Unchained

Skyfall

Worst Villains: Tom Hardy as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Javier Bardem as Silva in “Skyfall,” Rhys Ifans as Lizard in “The Amazing Spider-Man

Joaquin

Best Possessed Performance: Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master

The Paperboy

Worst Possessed Performance: Nicole Kidman in “The Paperboy

Bernie

Best Comedic Performance: (tie) Jack Black in “Bernie,” Channing Tatum in “21 Jump Street

The Watch

Worst Comedic Performance: The cast of “The Watch

Uggie

Best Cameo: Uggie in “The Campaign

Ryan Reynolds

Worst Cameo: Ryan Reynolds in “Ted

Eddie Redmayne

Best Singing: Eddie Redmayne in “Les Misérables

Alec

Worst Singing: Alec Baldwin in “Rock of Ages

That’s about all I can come up with for now … may add to this later!  Happy 2013, everyone!