REVIEW: Cars 3

26 06 2017

LPixar, like any purveyor of family entertainment, tells stories laden with themes. They do a better job than most at letting those life lessons arise naturally from an ingeniously derived plot rather than letting the morals dictate the proceedings. For whatever reason, the “Cars” franchise has been an outlet for some of the animation studio’s most blatant sermonizing, and “Cars 3” is no different.

As champion racer Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) faces obsolescence in his sport thanks to an influx of “Moneyball“-esque stats and data, he has to take his game back to the basics. At the new racing facility, his trainer Cruz (voice of Cristela Alonzo) tries pulling some Mr. Miyagi style mind tricks on him as she eases him into their high-tech treadmills and simulators. Yet for all Cruz’s fancy techniques, Lightning shows how little she knows when taking her outside to race. There’s something to say for real-life experience as opposed to simulations of it.

But lest we think that Lightning is the pinnacle of senior sagacity, the duo eventually links up with some pals of his mentor, Doc Hudson. (Paul Newman’s character from the first film keeps appearing in so many flashbacks that you’d think he died in 2016, not 2008.) These vintage autos help Lightning realize that joy and promise lie beyond our youthful days, though they also help raise his game with some of their classic, road-tested techniques. The limitations of older generations gave them different, not less, skills, and we’d all be wiser to heed their lessons.

It’s not a radical message, and Pixar did better conveying intergenerational understanding with “Up.” Still, it’s harmless to see repeated and beneficial to remember. B

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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: Demolition

8 04 2016

DemolitionDirector Jean-Marc Vallée might not receive an editing credit on his latest film, “Demolition,” but his fingerprints are as visible in the rhythm as they were in “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild.” (Vallée was credited under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy for the two films, which he also directed.) In many ways, the effort feels like the closing of a loose thematic and visual trilogy for him. Each film replicates the emotional landscape of a character who gets shaken up by the realization of their own mortality and thus makes a drastic course correction in their own life.

For Jake Gyllenhaal’s Davis Mitchell, that abrupt discovery comes about when his wife dies tragically in a car accident – while he, in the passenger seat, escapes virtually untouched from the wreck. The cliché that normally follows such a traumatic event is the overwrought, grief-stricken husband schtick. “Demolition” goes in the opposite direction. Davis feels absolutely nothing. That’s not to say he feels hatred of his late wife or excitement over her passing (a la “About Schmidt” or, heaven forbid, “Dirty Grandpa“). He’s just numb.

Vallée does not shy away from the challenge of portraying such entropy and attempts to replicate that sensation of feeling desensitized and unresponsive to all the cues that one’s surroundings can throw. In “Demolition,” that looks a lot like destroying the “scene” as it is commonly known. Shots bleed into each other, but they also break off mid-thought and even jump wildly to a tangent. Each successive time Vallée has employed this impressionistic style, it becomes less a service to the story and more of a replacement for it. In other words, reactions likely vary based on feelings towards the character or story.

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REVIEW: August: Osage County

22 01 2014

August OsageI’m a firm believer that there are some source texts that are absolutely impossible to botch, provided they keep the main narrative intact.  Tracy Letts’ play “August: Osage County” belongs in such a category.

Many in the theatrical community already assert that it will be in the American dramatic canon along with works by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Tony Kushner.  Letts provides some of the most gripping familial tensions I’ve ever read, and it’s chock full of meaty characters in an ensemble for the ages.

John Wells’ film adaptation of “August: Osage County” brings that story to a larger audience than likely could ever be reached on one stage.  Moreover, the cast he assembles is like the kind of “one night only” extravaganza that fans can only dream about.  I’ve never seen the show live, so I can’t really speak to its theatrical power.

Letts’ words did, however, jump off the page and paint such a vivid picture in my mind that I feel as if I did.  While the film does a decent job translating the action to the realm of cinema, there still feels like a bit of raw intensity evaporated in the transfer.

That’s not to say, though, that Wells doesn’t effectively harness the power of the screen to bring a different dimension to Letts’ opus of intergenerational discord.  On a stage, you can’t key off the subtleties in an actor’s facial movements, which is one of his most clever editing tricks in “August: Osage County.”  Some theorists have labeled film a fascist form because it has the power to direct your attention towards only what it considers relevant, but the way Wells chooses to organize these massive scenes is actually quite freeing.  It ensures we do not miss crucial reactions that serve to define the arcs of the characters.

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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





SAVE YOURSELF from “The Company Men”

24 03 2012

It must be tough to make a movie about unemployment after “Up in the Air.”  After Jason Reitman’s film so ingeniously brought employees who had actually been downsized in front of the camera to tell their stories, it felt to me like there was no other way to ever achieve the same candid honesty.  I can imagine writer/director John Wells, who had to premiere his film “The Company Men” at Sundance only a month after Reitman’s hit theaters, probably muttered a few expletives under his breath when he realized he had to compete with it.

Yes, it does portray in pretty clear detail the effects of the 2008 financial collapse on the hard-working employee, but did it really pick the right protagonist?  Granted I really don’t care for Ben Affleck unless he’s behind the camera, yet his Bobby Walker is suffering a crisis of luxury, not one of necessity.  Is that the story of the recession?  Tears shed over selling the Porsche and spousal fights over the country club membership.  You would think that having to move back in with his parents temporarily was equivalent to moving below the poverty line.

When it’s not indulging us with the sob stories of siblings sharing beds (when the children who were really affected by the recession were sleeping on the floor), it’s giving us another indictment of post-too big to fail corporate America a la “Margin Call” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”  We get it, Hollywood, you think the corporate world is full of sleazes like Jim Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) who will actually say he works for the shareholders and not for the good of his employees.  The man can’t even muster up any sympathy when one of his longest-tenured staffers commits the most clichéd act of desperation in film!

Depression is a sentiment a movie needs to earn to be justified, and “The Company Men” ultimately just wallows in self-pity rather than putting its stark depiction of a catastrophic time in American history to good use.  When a protagonist seriously considers underemployment as a long-term alternative, then I start to question a film’s social compass.  Yes, psychological satisfaction is important from your vocation … but does it balance with the intrinsic disappointment from not realizing your own sense of worth and potential?  Such a decline in our guiding philosophy might be one of the sadder aspects of the recession.





REVIEW: The Muppets

20 03 2012

The allure of “The Muppets” is that Jason Segel and company, just as Jim Henson was several decades ago, are totally convinced that such a thing as innocent comedy exists and works.  The film opens with a blissfully catchy song-and-dance number, “Life’s a Happy Song,” basically consisting of every character expressing their exuberant love for life.  It’s totally absorbing and a fun toe-tapper.

Allow yourself to be transported by it and the rest of the movie, you’ll find that Segel’s Gary and Walter the Muppet can quickly make you forget about our crushing deficit, our crippled economy, our melting planet, our foreign entanglement, and just about anything else keeping you from thinking the world is great.  The song isn’t totally ignorant, though; it lays the groundwork for the conflict of the film, Gary’s friendship with Walter disturbing his romantic relationship with Mary (Amy Adams).

The rest of the movie proceeds on a similar trip of joy, re-introducing the Henson crew of Muppets to a generation that unfortunately doesn’t know them very well.  That’s a crying shame which Segel happily corrects here, capturing all the effervescence of the Muppets just like it was the 1970s and they were hosting Mark Hamill and Elton John on the show.  We find them all in strange places in the present day – Miss Piggy in Paris as a magazine editor, Gonzo selling toilets, Fozzie in a bad Muppets cover band – that all add to the hilarity for those that know them.

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