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

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REVIEW: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

21 08 2015

The Diary of a Teenage GirlPeople like myself willing to live and let live when it comes to the unconventional relationship between Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn may experience a bit of cognitive dissonance while watching “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”  (Or those who condemn the aforementioned relationship may have an entirely different reaction and feel the same inconsistency of ideology I felt.)

Marielle Heller’s film, adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, tells a story of sexual pleasure and liberation first achieved by a 15-year-old through statutory rape by her stepfather figure.  Reason it away all you want so it sits well in your stomach – it was the 1970s, it was San Francisco, the initiator of the acts are not always clear. But at the end of the day, the ongoing physical relationship meets the criteria for criminal prosecution in the United States.

I usually prefer not to check my morals at the theater door, largely because such an act is why the world gets parties inanely styled after reprehensible behavior in films like “Fight Club,” “Project X,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”  So, keeping that in mind, I often found it tough to get on board with the message of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”  Is this kind of borderline exploitative relationship actually supposed to be liberating?

The film gets away with some of this questionable mindset by framing the film within the subjectivity of its protagonist, Bel Powley’s Minnie. At such a young age, of course she views any sort of sexual content as exciting and pleasurable no matter how transgressive it might be.  “I guess this makes me an adult now,” she proclaims into a tape recorder after losing her virginity, making it perfectly clear that she widely overestimates her own maturity.  As carnal relations continue with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe, played by Alexander Skarsgard, we see just how quick she is to conflate sex and love.

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REVIEW: White Bird in a Blizzard

27 09 2014

White Bird in a BlizzardGregg Araki’s “White Bird in a Blizzard” begins with the interesting premise of hybridizing two familiar generic forms, the missing person thriller and the adolescent sexual flowering drama.  The body of Eva Green’s Eve Connor disappears mysteriously while her 17-year-old daughter Kat (Shailene Woodley) “was becoming nothing but [her] body.”

Though the blend starts off curiously, it eventually just feels blandly noncommittal.  The film lacks a clear, purposeful narrative through-line to propel it forward.  It progresses largely on the basis of “here are scenes of things that happen to Kat,” an assuredly unsatisfying way to watch a film.

The wishy-washy, always vacillating plot of “White Bird in a Blizzard” is certainly not helped by the fact the leading actress has already explored its central issues.  We’ve seen Woodley deal with family trouble ensuing from an absent mother in “The Descendants,” and we’ve watched her carnal awakenings in both “The Fault in Our Stars” and “The Spectacular Now.”

Woodley still has intermittent flashes of inspired breakthrough, which is a testament to just how talented of a performer she truly is.  Making a put-out teen watchable on its fourth reheat is certainly an achievement.  But “White Bird in a Blizzard” could mark the moment where she started to find brick walls where she once found niches in her archetypical adolescent.  I fear that the film’s lasting legacy will not be that Woodley revealed intimate parts of her soul but rather that she bared intimate parts of her body.

If that’s what Shailene Woodley needs to grow into an adult performer, then the film is certainly not a waste.  But I can’t help but think “White Bird in a Blizzard” does not serve anyone else particularly well, especially not its screenwriter and director Gregg Araki.  His work as a pioneer of New Queer Cinema broke boundaries; yet here, turning in a much more mainstream product, Araki seems lost and leaves a rather indistinct stamp as an artist.  C+ / 2stars





REVIEW: They Came Together

5 07 2014

They Came TogetherGenres naturally go through cycles, and right now, the romantic comedy is in a bit of a slump.  When I started writing this blog nearly five years ago, it was riding high with smash hits like “The Proposal” and “The Ugly Truth.”  If you look at the market now, there hasn’t really been a rom-com hit since 2011’s “Crazy Stupid Love,” largely because those kinds of movies just aren’t being made.

Why exactly they have gone out of fashion so dramatically is anyone’s guess.  It’s likely a combination of many factors, but two films point out some of the reasons why no one is rushing to finance “28 Dresses.”  Back in 2009, “(500) Days of Summer” took a revisionist angle on the genre, pointing out many romantic comedy conventions that needed to be reworked in order to be more in touch with the audience.

And now, in 2014, “They Came Together” marks the point where the genre’s hallmarks are so recognizable that they can be mercilessly sent up in an unrelenting satire.  David Wain, the great mind behind “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Role Models,” dismantles the romantic comedy with confidence and pinpoint accuracy.

His script lays bare all the subtext that most of us blindly accept when we encounter a standard genre pic, pointing out everything from the stereotypes of the characters (clumsy girl, non-threateningly masculine guy) to the role of New York City (like another character).  “They Came Together” is at its best when Wain performs his point-by-point deconstruction of all the clichés that normally trap the genre, due largely in part to how wonderfully Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler can cut up while sending up the trademarks.

“They Came Together” winds up coming slightly undone, however, by the sophomoric silliness that fills the moments that aren’t so brutally self-aware.  Wain is usually quite clever with his comedy (the notable exception being “Wanderlust“), and here, he drops to the level of Seth MacFarlane in “Family Guy” or “Ted.”  It’s funny on occasion but wildly inconsistent overall with one joke bombing and the next hitting the sweet spot.  Thankfully, it never quite stoops to the level of the movies it lambasts, but Wain might have had one of the most spectacular spoofs of all time on his hands had he just stuck to the more high-minded humor.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Man of Steel

20 07 2013

Look, it’s a bird!  No, it’s a plane!  Worse, it’s Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” a bomb of heroic proportions torpedoing its way towards a multiplex near you to steal 2 1/2 hours of your life and $10 of your money.  How this could have been touched by moviemaking Midas himself, Christopher Nolan, truly escapes me.

I personally saw nothing horrendously wrong with Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns,” though I haven’t seen it since 2006 (a fact that may ultimately speak loudest to its quality).  However, I can point out a number of gaping flaws in “Man of Steel.”  It’s one thing to leave a movie nonplussed but another entirely to be angry.  If you hadn’t already guessed, I was the latter upon leaving this film.

Most issues seemed to spring from the lackluster story.  The film takes on the practically futile task of humanizing Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El, an invincible being.  He’s always had an identification problem because, well, how many of us can relate to someone who is essentially perfect?  (I’ll speak for myself and say that I certainly cannot.)  While the drama of Clark’s grappling with his power is relatively compelling, it’s told only in brief flashbacks.

And these scenes with his adoptive parents, played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, really only serve to play into the overarching Messianic allegory of the entire film.  I’m certainly not opposed to such grand implications, but they need to be done well (such as they were in Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables“).  “Man of Steel” feels completely disingenuous, exploiting spirituality for its own gain.  If it were any more obvious about its overloaded metaphor, Henry Cavill’s Superman would be wearing the letter t across his chest.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 3, 2012)

3 08 2012

Well, if I hadn’t taken a number of hiatuses, my 100th entry in the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” series (that’s First Class, Independent Little-Known Movie, just a reminder) would have come around June or July 2011.  But a belated milestone is still a milestone, so I’m going to celebrate by writing about “Wet Hot American Summer,” perhaps one of the most underappreciated cult comedies of recent memory.  Starring just about all your favorite comedians WAY before they were famous, it’s a hilarious time capsule that surely needs to be opened if you are a fan of anyone in the massive cast!

It’s the last day of summer at a Jewish camp in Maine – in 1981, no less – so that means everyone is trying to attend to some unfinished business.  The movie juggles a ton of storylines in an hour and a half, some of which don’t work as well as others, I’ll admit.  A number of the jokes are just so stupid, you have to wonder whether you want to laugh or just cringe.

But director David Wain, who later found commercial success and critical acclaim with “Role Models,” just never lets the relentless onslaught of over-the-top, farcical comedy end.  And for that, it could make for a “Napoleon Dynamite”-style viewing trajectory: perhaps just some chuckling the first time, and then those giggles turn into full-on belly laughs as the nuances of the humor reveal themselves over multiple viewings.

It’s certainly worth watching to see the beginnings of Paul Rudd’s caustic humor, albeit slightly more hammed up, as an airheaded horndog lifeguard who can really cop an attitude.  The object of his affection, at least momentarily, is Elizabeth Banks – until he decides she tastes like hamburgers and doesn’t like her anymore.

Amy Poehler is another scene-stealer as Susie, the bossy, controlling counselor in charge of theater intending to stage a number of “Godspell” as if she were working on Broadway.  What makes her character even better, though, is that she is flanked by preppy, Lacoste-clad minion Ben at all times.  Now, Ben is played by none other than Phil Wenneck himself, Bradley Cooper.  His PR people have done a mighty great job keeping this movie on the down low … I’ll let you find out for yourself why he probably doesn’t want many people to discover this early role of his.  I think it’s absolutely hilarious, as is the rest of the movie, and I highly recommend you find out Bradley Cooper’s surprise and many other raunchy delights I didn’t even mention in this cursory overview!