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: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

22 08 2016

Brief Interviews with Hideous MenSay what you want about John Krasinski’s directorial debut, an adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s book “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” but you cannot say the film does not fulfill its title. At just 80 minutes, it is brief. The film consists primarily of interviews of males conducted by conducted by graduate student Sarah Quinn (Julianne Nicholson). And for the most part, they are, in fact, rather hideous.

These men are not murderers and rapists; they are mostly just average schmoes with the potential for violence and misconduct lurking underneath their civilized veneers. All Sarah has to do is poke a tiny hole with her questioning, and it opens up their insides to reveal startlingly primal forces at the wheel of the decision-making process. While Nicholson does a fine job with her probing, it’s hard to shake the sense that most of the heavy-hitting investigation comes from Wallace as a writer – not from her as a character.

Krasinski’s first outing as a director seems primarily focused with letting the words shine and the performances breathe. (Two very important tasks, mind you!) He treats Wallace’s prose with the sanctity of a theatrical director regarding the words of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, which might explain why so much of “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” feels like filmed theater. It’s a show I’d want to see, though – particularly one centered around Krasinski’s own character in the film, Ryan. He delivers a powerful nine-minute monologue that deserves to serve as the climax of an entire film about his character, not just a mere episode in a collection of vignettes.

But “Brief Interviews from Hideous Men” comes from a collection of Wallace’s short stories, and the film retains that sense of brevity. Like many an episodic narrative, it practically invites being judged and weighed as a collection of parts rather than their sum. Some portions work; others drag. Some interviews enlighten; others preach to the choir. All of brief, for better or for worse. B-2stars

REVIEW: Alex of Venice

27 03 2016

Alex of VeniceAlex of Venice” is the filmic version of the kind of “sad comedy” that thrives on a basic cable or streaming service. Perhaps, after binging five hours, it would feel like a satisfying, whole portrait of a woman rocked by the twin disasters of her marriage dissolving and the health of her father deteriorating. But it’s really just the first two episodes.

We get a decent idea about who Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Alex is as a person, though we never get the kind of deep dive that a filmic character study normally provides. There is something quietly courageous and inspiring about her tenacity through all the responsibilities she must juggle. As mother, daughter/caretaker and de facto head of house, Alex barely has time to do her job as provider. She does not just have one of those bogus movie jobs either; Alex is waist-deep in trying a major environmental case.

Director Chris Messina has worked with a number of great female talents in his time – Nora Ephron, Gia Coppola and quite extensively with Mindy Kaling on television’s “The Mindy Project.” It’s clear that he wants to replicate their earnestness in addressing what it means to be a woman in today’s world. But good intentions are not enough to salvage this undercooked, underdeveloped script from Jessica Goldberg, Katie Nehra and Justin Shilton. “Alex of Venice” feels halfway onto something good. Too bad it stops so short of its potential. C+2stars

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: Manglehorn

26 04 2015

ManglehornRiverRun International Film Festival

Since hitting what most people would deem rock-bottom with the twofer of “Your Highness” and “The Sitter” in 2011, director David Gordon Green has rebounded with a tediously artful movie in “Prince Avalanche” and an intermittently brilliant movie in “Joe.”  His third film in the recovery, “Manglehorn,” falls somewhere in between those two poles.

Green, working with Al Pacino, gives the legendary actor what Bill Murray got in last year’s “St. Vincent” – a tender character study that highlights segments of the heart normally hidden from public view.  Although, to call “Manglehorn” a study implies something more academic than what actually appears on screen.  Paul Logan’s script runs in episodic circles, entertaining but sometimes a little enraging.

As the film chugs along, the film slowly parses out details about Pacino’s titular character and the past that looms largely and invisibly over his every action.  The small-town Texas locksmith, after a life full of disappointing and being disappointed by the people closest to him, attunes himself more to the needs of his beloved feline friend than any human around him.  He goes through his days pensively and mechanically as a gruff, “Birdman“-esque narration illuminates his inner thought process.

These hauntingly quiet moments allow “Manglehorn” to stand apart from the crowd of films featuring Pacino and other graying actors.  For an actor most known for violent outbursts (“SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND,” anyone?) or quiet fury (the final shot of “The Godfather Part II” comes to mind), a seldom-seen side of a septuagenarian makes for a satisfying sight.

Pacino soars not just in these silent soliloquies but also in vulnerable scenes with Holly Hunter’s romantic prospect Dawn and Manglehorn’s estranged son Jacob, played by Chris Messina.  Even amidst the sometimes discursive mess of the movie, Green still maintains tone and character with a fairly firm grip.  B2halfstars


21 01 2015

CakeJennifer Aniston stars in “Cake” as Claire Bennett, a woman struggling with chronic pain following a tragic automotive accident.  The poster and production stills almost completely hide it, but she sports a deep and instantly noticeable scar on her face stemming from the traumatic event.

And, per usual in an indie drama, the emotional scars run far deeper.  She attends group therapy as well as physical rehabilitation only to undo their progress in a toxic cocktail of booze and painkillers.  Claire further masks her agony through biting, sardonic wisecracks, deflecting anyone from exposing her pressing need for help.

It would be wrong to assign the character sole responsibility for her continuing struggles; the maelstrom of physical and emotional pain presents a tough obstacle for even the strongest individual to overcome.  Claire’s self-destructive tendencies do not disqualify her from receiving sympathy, either, yet the movie’s myopic focus on her pity party feels … well, pitiful.

Not to discredit or downplay her anguish, but Claire is a wealthy, white Angeleno living comfortably in unexplained luxury.  Her inability to function in society, shockingly, never seems to raise doubts about the continuance of her lifestyle.  She never seems to worry about having the funds to procure pain pills in Tijuana, and she never entertains the possibility of a world without the invaluable assistance of her inexplicably loyal Hispanic maid and driver Silvana (Oscar nominee Adrianna Barraza).

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REVIEW: 28 Hotel Rooms

8 11 2012

There are times when “28 Hotel Rooms” feels like all too familiar of a movie.  The fragmented narrative, giving us a glance into the lives of a man and a woman (Chris Messina and Marin Ireland) when they rendez-vous at a hotel for a tryst, recalls 2011’s “One Day.”  The audience is left to fill in what happens between scenes A and B, sometimes rewarding but often just frustrating.

And most of Messina and Ireland’s conversations might have been ripped out of a Woody Allen movie from the 1980s where a man and a woman are madly and passionately in love … but are married to someone else.  The body and heart are willing, but their soul lacks the determination to do anything.  Again, at times, it provides a unique look into contemporary stasis in the face of decisive moments.  But at others, it just feels like lazy writing.

So what makes “28 Hotel Rooms” worth a watch?  Well, there’s the acting.  Marin Ireland, an emerging star, does a fine job, but she’s dwarfed by her co-star. I’ve been a big fan of Chris Messina for several years now because he has always delivered in supporting roles such as a distraught adoptive father in “Away We Go,” a supportive husband in “Julie & Julia,” and a charming love interest in “Celeste and Jesse Forever.”

Over the past summer, I finally called on Hollywood to bump him up to lead status, particularly after totally stealing the otherwise forgettable “Ruby Sparks.”  His audition tape just came in the form of “28 Hotel Rooms.”

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1 11 2012

Every year, one movie speaks to a sense of now.  Whether intentionally (“Up in the Air“) or unintentionally (“The Artist“), their messages resonate with current concerns and taps powerfully into the zeitgeist.

I highly doubt that any movie in 2012 comes along and captures that spirit better than “Argo,” and if it does … then I’ll have to upload a picture of myself with a foot in my mouth to my Facebook page.  Some of the similarities to the current times could not have been foreseen, and no one wanted to foresee the tragic loss of four Americans to an attack on an overseas embassy.

Regardless, it happened, and it makes sure the immaculately constructed and taut opening that depicts the siege of the embassy in Tehran is viewed through an entirely different lens.  We think not only of the people trying to escape a volatile 1979 Iran but also of Ambassador Steven and his slain colleagues.  The painful coexistence of the now with the then is deeply unsettling, and it sets the tone for a movie that entertainingly and thrillingly historicizes the contemporary.

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REVIEW: Celeste and Jesse Forever

9 09 2012

I won’t lie: I’m a little ready for the post-“(500) Days of Summer” boom of quirky romantic comedies to die down or at least start getting somewhat original again.  Not that Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg don’t make an infinitely watchable semi-couple in “Celeste and Jesse Forever.”  And believe me, I would much rather a movie buck the genre conventions than accept them completely.

But part of the charm of Marc Webb’s movie back in 2009 was that the anti-romantic comedy was not entire subgenre; it was just one movie that dared to be real.  Now, lack of formula has started to feel like a formula in and of itself.  This reactionary spirit is now starting to inspire that same thing that galvanized it to react in the first place: fatigue.

I have a feeling that perhaps the viewing climate for “Celeste and Jesse Forever” may be the reason why my reaction to the film was not quite as rapturous.  To be sure, Rashida Jones’ script, co-written with Will McCormack, of two best friends who get married and then have to separate to regain their friendship is well-developed and acutely perceptive about the nature of romance.  It’s even accompanied by surprisingly effective direction from Lee Toland Krieger, who uses the camera for powerful emotional impact in a way that humbly doesn’t draw too much attention to itself.

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REVIEW: Ruby Sparks

3 08 2012

My second review on this site was for a movie I was quite high on three years ago, “(500) Days of Summer,” and remain a big fan of to this day.  Back then, it was the little indie that could, a summer sleeper that provided a smile and welcome relief to canned romantic comedies like “The Ugly Truth,” and a nice reminder of the acting prowess of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.  Then, it went mainstream, said the slightly bitter pseudo-hipster with a sigh.

Never could I have imagined that Marc Webb’s film could have been so influential.  Beyond just elevating Joseph Gordon-Levitt into major leading man status and turning Zooey Deschanel into the modern ideal of the “manic pixie dream girl,” the film made quirky a cool and acceptable facet for the genre.  “Ruby Sparks,” the sophomore film from the people that gave us the middling “Little Miss Sunshine,” attempts to dovetail the success of “(500) Days of Summer” by virtually replicating its emotional ride.

To be fair, “Ruby Sparks,” written by its star Zoe Kazan, is probably quite a bit smarter than its rom-com relative.  However, the film’s charms are far too easy to resist, namely because Kazan is a poor man’s Zooey Deschanel and Paul Dano is just a poor excuse for an actor in general.  They can sell the film on an intellectual level, but neither is particularly good at making us care.  Had it been Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel in the highly-strung emotional climax, I’m convinced I would have been riveted and moved.  Instead, I just sat there pursing my lips like Miranda Priestly.

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22 01 2011

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again for good measure: I absolutely DREAD writing reviews for middle-of-the-road movies like “Devil.”  I didn’t hate it, so there’s no reason to rip it to shreds – and besides, I think M. Night Shyamalan took enough of a beating in 2010 with “The Last Airbender.”  But at the same time, I didn’t really like it either, so there’s no aspect of the movie I can praise – not the acting, writing, directing, or production values.  In essence, there’s nothing to talk about!

Yet being a movie reviewer, and you being a reader willing to go this far into a review, I’m obligated to give you at least three paragraphs about the movie.  So what is there to write now?  I could talk about the plot, which is stale and laughable but at least gets in and out in roughly 75 minutes.  5 people trapped in an elevator, 1 is probably the devil.  Who could it be?  You’ll find out if you watch the movie, but don’t expect any sort of terror, horror, or suspense in getting there.

The claustrophobia of being stuck in an elevator isn’t exactly present as the movie frequently cuts back to the control room, where a skeptic and religious fanatic debate the events going on with a battered police officer (Chris Messina).  It’s packed with enough corny horror entertainment to keep you awake, but not enough to really keep you engaged.  In other words, don’t plan a movie night around “Devil.”  Plan to fold the laundry or do an hour of Facebooking.  C+