REVIEW: Laggies

15 11 2014

LaggiesTwo years ago, I placed my money on Lynn Shelton to lead the charge of brining the mumblecore movement to the mainstream.  After seeing “Laggies,” however, I may want to switch my bet to Joe Swanberg.

That is not to imply Shelton’s latest feature indicates a decline in the quality of her output; “Laggies” is certainly a recovery since she sputtered last year with the deservedly little-seen “Touchy Feely.”  Moreover, it is probably her most accessible (or marketable) film to date.  But in order to achieve that, Shelton has not adapted or modified the movement from which she arose.  She has essentially dispersed of it all together.

The only part of “Laggies” that remains in the mumblecore tradition is its protagonist, Keira Knightley’s Megan.  She’s a spiritual cousin of Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha and Lena Dunham’s Aura from “Tiny Furniture,” a confused and commitment-phobic upper-middle-class millennial twentysomething ambling haplessly through the best years of her life.  She clearly does not love her boyfriend (Mark Webber, yet she lacks the decisiveness to reject his advances towards marriage.  She invested in post-graduate education, but she prefers the lack of responsibility that comes from sign-twirling for her father (Jeff Garlin).

Knightley nails the generational milieu of indirection and indecision, so it is too bad that the rest of “Laggies” could not be nearly as interesting as her.  Shelton, working from a screenplay by Andrea Seigel, steers the film quickly into the realm of standard-issue chick flicks and rom-coms.  Once she lays the cards on the table, it becomes pretty clear where the film will go – although I did hold out hope that there might be a subversive or original twist to spruce things up a bit.

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REVIEW: Carrie

19 08 2014

In terms of iconic decades-old horror movies, Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” probably ranks just beside Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”  The 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel gave the world an unforgettable image – prom queen Carrie White soaked in blood – that most people recognize whether or not they actually saw the movie.

De Palma’s film has stood the test of time, however, not just on the stickiness of its imagery.  His take on “Carrie” is frighteningly well-made from a technical perspective, fusing eerie cinematography with a chillingly removed edit.  Not to mention, it is perhaps one of the best examples of fusing the ’70s “New Hollywood” spirit with the emerging commercial blockbuster.

So judging from the enduring strength of the original, there really appeared to be no reason for Kimberly Peirce’s remake of “Carrie” to come along 37 years later.  Thankfully, the film is not an overly reverent retread that matches its original nearly shot-for-shot.  But even so, this “Carrie” is a shadow of its former self that never quite successfully justifies its own existence.

Original “Carrie” screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen updates the story effectively with co-writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, taking into account factors like the rise of the Moral Majority as well as the sad phenomenon of cyberbullying.  In a way, it’s sobering to see how little change there has been in the high school experience for poor Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz).  She is kept woefully uninformed about the real world by her fanatically religious mother Margaret (Julianne Moore) and is thus tormented by her peers for her naïveté.

Moretz’s performance brings all the tenderness from her work as a lonely teenage vampire in “Let Me In,” really allowing us to feel sympathy for poor Carrie.  And in stark opposition, Julianne Moore’s inspiredly demented work makes us absolutely despise Margaret.  (Also notable among the acting corps is Ansel Elgort of “The Fault in Our Stars” making a great screen debut as a popular classmate of Carrie’s who jokingly asks her to prom.)

Though the acting is good, it’s not enough to overpower the lackluster filmmaking.  Pierce relies far too heavily on CGI effects to provide the horror, and they feel particularly uninspired with their low intensity.  Without the unconventional, unpredictable filmmaking impulses of De Palma coursing through the veins of this “Carrie,” the film lacks greatly intensity and excitement.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Let Me In

29 04 2013

It’s rare to see a horror movie made with as much artistry as Matt Reeves’ “Let Me In,” and I think it’s all the more haunting because of that.  The film focuses on developing a hostile environment over cheap screams, a move that pays off in spades over the course of the film.

Believe it or not, the blood-sucking adolescent vampire Abby (the omnipresent Chloe Moretz) is hardly the most menacing villain of the film.  That dubious honor would belong to the bullies, who make life a living hell for the shrimpy but sweet 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee of “The Road“) for no other reason than the fact that he’s an easy target.  And they aren’t just name-callers or lunch money-stealers; they want to inflict potentially life-threatening pain.  Maybe they are a little excessive, but after all, movies are a heightened reality!

The ravenous Abby inspires the unassuming Owen to fight back against his tormentors, and indeed he does.  But she also teaches him a thing or two about friendship and love, which seems to innocuously bloom between the two outcasts.  It’s this rose amongst a bed of thorns that gives “Let Me In” such a peculiar warmth and comfort amongst the bluntly portrayed horrors of Abby’s bloodlust.

All the while, there’s a peculiar undercurrent of Ronald Reagan and all that he has come to represent running throughout the film, an interesting setting change by Reeves.  It’s easy to tell he has a real vision for the movie and tender compassion for its characters.  That makes a difference in a horror movie, where everyone seems written only for the purpose of dying.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Dark Shadows

2 10 2012

I’ve been critical of Tim Burton’s artistic choices over the past decade or so, taking material already marked with an inexorable aesthetic and cultural stamp to put a slight Burton refinishing on the top.  With the exception of “Big Fish” (and “Corpse Bride,” I guess – but that movie was just atrocious), the last 15 years have been one big long commercial for a peculiar visionary, a selling out and a selling of the soul.

I’m not even a big fan of “Edward Scissorhands” or “Ed Wood,” Burton’s two most acclaimed movies that are renowned mainly for their originality and peculiar personality.  So calling “Dark Shadows” a return to form isn’t exactly the phrase I’m looking for, because it still falls into the typical Burton pitfalls.  But it’s a flash of vintage Burton, a film with winning personality and a sharp sense of macabre humor.

That’s largely due to the fact that he draws a fantastic performance out of his choice surrogate, Johnny Depp, whose been acting in a bit of a fog for the past decade.  He’s not the first superstar who’s fallen victim to becoming a great imitator of himself, and he certainly won’t be the last.  Save perhaps Sweeney Todd, we’ve been seeing 50 shades of Jack Sparrow for movie after movie, and that’s really selling Depp short.  His delivery is deliciously deadpan, his period acting totally self-assured in “Dark Shadows,” and that alone makes for a surprising amount of fun.

Depp’s baroque sensibilities as Barnabas Collins, a wealthy heir in the early United States turned immortal vampire, are uproarious when juxtaposed with the 1970s in which he reawakens.  Burton’s version of the decade, a gloriously campy nostalgic pop song, is a fantastic character in and of itself.  It serves as a marvelous foil to Barnabas, unaware of just how different the times have become (and how at times they can be eerily similar).

The script does Depp and the decade a disservice by being clunky, unfocused, and a bit too dragged out.  It inundates us with an ensemble – including the siren who bit Barnabas turned business rival of the Collins family (Eva Green), an austere matriarch (Michelle Pfeiffer), a moody daughter (the ubiquitous Chloe Moretz), and of course Helena Bonham Carter as … um, Helena Bonham Carter – that are never quite sure of how they fit into the story.  That’s particularly true of the governess Victoria Winters (newcomer Bella Heathcote), who begins the film as a lynchpin of the plot only to disappear for nearly the entire movie.  (But don’t worry, she’s back for the climax!)

I would not go as far as to call the screenplay a mere stringing together of events that holds the funny moments together, but those moments are what make the movie memorable and entertaining.  Burton has still yet to make a truly great movie in my estimation, but the man sure can direct some riotous scenes.  B





REVIEW: Hugo

10 01 2012

It’s slightly disingenuous to make a film all about the magic of the movies and then have little to offer itself in the way of enchantment, but that’s what Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” is – take it or leave it.  His ode to the pioneering days of cinema, when trailblazers like the Lumière Brothers began making movies and Georges Méliès invented special effects, is definitely heartfelt and powerful enough to awaken plenty of latent nostalgia.  However, his movie serves as a better tribute to their genius than it does as an equally majestic film deserving to stand alongside them in the annals of history.

What I left the theater being nostalgic for was “Goodfellas” and “The Departed” and “Gangs of New York.”  While I certainly admire Scorsese for taking on a radically different project, and good for Paramount to give him $150 million to realize this passion of his, I missed the bullet-riddled, F-bomb filled director that I’ve come to love.  It’s a very finely crafted movie, clearly the work of an expert like Scorsese.  All of the below-the-line elements are as good as ever with his usual suspects – editor Thelma Schoonmaker, costume designer Sandy Powell, production designer Dante Ferretti, and cinematographer Robert Richardson – returning to whisk us away to a train station in 1930s Paris with astounding precision.

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REVIEW: Kick-Ass

2 08 2010

I can’t think of many titles that describe their movies so aptly as this one. “Kick-Ass,” the R-rated superhero movie that indirectly spoofs “Watchmen,” hits us with a one-two punch of comedy and action. The punch is pretty much a knockout.

It’s devilish fun when the action is as outrageous as the comedy. The movie follows Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a teenaged New York geek who unleashes his inner fanboy in a way that would make everyone at the comic book store pee themselves with envy. He decides to rise above the common crowd and become a superhero, despite having no actual powers and few confrontational skills. Still, he holds onto the hope that a fancy scuba suit and a cool name, Kick-Ass, will scare off his opponents. But at first, as one of his rivals points out, he should be called “Ass-Kicked” because that’s the only thing that really happens to him.

As entertaining as the adventures of Kick-Ass can be, it’s the other heroes who steal the show. They should really call the movie “Hit Girl” because we’re always waiting for that precocious child vigilante with a foul mouth and impressive combat ability to return to the screen. It’s hard to tell where most of her allure comes from: actress Chloe Moretz or the script. Moretz has shown skill playing adult characters written for kids to play in “(500) Days of Summer,” and she really seems to get how to make them read. The sheer absurdity of hearing the words come out of her mouth is a comedic masterstroke.

“Kick-Ass” also marks a semi-comeback for Nicolas Cage, at least in my book, who has been getting a bad rep for all the abysmal action and horror movies he has been doing recently. When you have an Oscar, it’s OK to branch out and try other genres, but Cage has strayed far from the nest. One more flop and he could have been a laughing stock. “Kick-Ass,” however, was an excellent choice for the actor. It’s a crowd-pleaser, sure, but it requires him to act. He took a supporting role as Big Daddy, father and shaper of Hit Girl, and it shows off the crossover appeal Cage has. The part allows him to be funny as well as an action star, and there’s even room for him to deal with little bit of real human drama.

Matthew Vaughn does a great job directing the riot that is “Kick-Ass,” never taking himself or the material too seriously. One can only wonder how he will handle the “X-Men” franchise, which has an entirely different tone and involves people with real powers. Hopefully he can bring the same fun he brought to this movie, just leaving the farcical stuff on the side.  He directs a superb movie, but the fact that it devolves into “The Chloe Moretz Show” so easily might raise a tiny red flag in your mind.  A flag so tiny, in fact, that you might forget to realize it’s there while you’re laughing so hard.  B+ /