F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 10, 2017)

10 08 2017

Adaptation” it most certainly is not, but Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths” makes for a most entertaining meta-movie. This specific genre derives its pleasures by baking the creation of the movie into the very fabric of the story itself; the fact that everything was narrativized is not merely a fact slapped on at the conclusion. Some artists smuggle these meta-movies into existence under the guise of something like a heist flick (Christopher Nolan’s “Inception“) or a con artist caper (Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom“), though many in their purest form simply revolve around filmmakers struggling to create.

That’s the case for McDonagh’s meta-movie, my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” In many ways, “Seven Psychopaths” feels like a self-interrogation (perhaps after surveying his prior film “In Bruges”). His leading man, Colin Farrell’s Marty, is a screenwriter struggling to pen his latest script conveniently titled – you guessed it – “Seven Psychopaths.” As he drolly puts it, “I’ve got the title, just not the psychopaths.”

Marty wants to write a film about violent people without succumbing the soul-sucking carnage that plagues many films about such subjects. He wants it all to mean something, not just become a violent shoot-’em-up. Ultimately, Marty gets more than he bargained for when a friend draws him into a Los Angeles gang dispute over … a Shih Tzu. The anodyne object of conflict points out the inherent absurdity of the criminal underworld without fully discounting the grotesqueness of their deeds.

I first watched “Seven Psychopaths” on video in 2013 and found myself rather unenthused by it. (The original grade I bestowed upon it was a C.) With McDonagh’s next directorial outing “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” about to make landfall on the film festival circuit, something compelled me to give it a second chance – and judging by its inclusion in this column, you can assume I’m glad I did. McDonagh grants us a dryly humorous window into the writing process, which also means clueing us into his knowledge of audience expectations for what’s to come. This feat is a tricky one to pull off without drowning in self-awareness, and he does it with a good amount of dexterity.

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REVIEW: The Beguiled

2 07 2017

I’m accustomed to having strong reactions to Sofia Coppola’s films, both positively (“The Virgin Suicides,” “The Bling Ring“) and negatively (“Lost in Translation,” “Somewhere“). So perhaps the most shocking part of her latest work, “The Beguiled,” was how ambivalent I felt towards it. Most moments landed, others didn’t … but nothing really had much magnitude.

I can attribute some of this to my subject position as the viewer; “The Beguiled” is not a movie for me as a male. And that’s ok! There are no shortage of movies that indulge my viewpoint and gaze. (Like, basically all of them.)

After finding and rescuing Colin Farrell’s “blue belly” Corporal McBurney in the Virginia woods, a group of Confederacy-supporting women residing in a schoolhouse must toe the delicate line between rehabilitation and accommodation. Is he their prisoner? Guest? Somewhere in between? Everyone from the matron Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) to the more withdrawn instructor Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and even the eldest student, the precociously flirtatious Alicia (Elle Fanning), must draw the line for herself.

Coppola opts for a studied minimalism in “The Beguiled,” emphasizing the natural surroundings of the estate rather than any lavish decoration or dress. Most of the film focuses on the very thin veneer of southern gentility covering over the women’s pent-up sexual desires. The presence of a man, even the enemy, is enough to stir up some strange sensations not normally experienced in a single-sex environment.

At times, Coppola does let the libidinous activities overpower the psychodrama; it’s as if her characters slowly become little more than their sensual stirrings. And approaching the story with little first-hand experience of Southern culture, the coastal-based Coppola does tend to exoticize their particular strain of desire. But I’m happy to watch her explore these women’s impulses. They deserve treatment as subjects of erotic fantasy, not merely its objects. B





REVIEW: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

20 11 2016

It’s good to be back in the Potterverse. While I might resist some of the revisionist history and postscripts of my beloved characters, a tangential outing like “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” hits the sweet spot. It’s clear that J.K. Rowling, who serves here as both screenwriter and producer, has more to explore and say about the magical world she created. Even if the roadmap to the supposedly five-part series she plans has not yet emerged, this first film makes for a fun, thoughtful outing.

The sheer presence of gentle ginger Eddie Redmayne alone, vocal in his bashful disappointment over not being cast as a Weasley, provides two hours of joy. The role of magical zoologist Newt Scamander is finely calibrated to match his unique star power: slightly awkward, modestly fumbling, overwhelmingly good-hearted. He serves as both our guide to a host of creatures never introduced to us by Hagrid and an outsider observing the operations of the American wizarding community.

Scamander arrives at Ellis Island with a suitcase full of living organisms and a mission to return some of them to their natural habitats. However, a series of chance encounters with a No-Maj (American speak for “Muggle”) gets him caught up in the geopolitical realities of the United States. Scamander becomes the unwitting companion to the rogue auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), who dedicates herself to finding a magical disturbance among the No-Maj that threatens to disrupt the Americans’ carefully guarded segregation of the two communities. Quite often, Scamander’s beasts get loose and make a mess out of an already precarious situation, and therein lies the enjoyment. He can always, somehow, wrangle control.

It will be interesting to see how, as the series progresses, Rowling deals with the political undertones introduced here. “Fantastic Beasts” strays away from the obvious allegory of franchises like “X-Men,” perhaps at the expense of glossing over or trivializing the issues. In this introduction, she introduces a group of puritanical recluses called “Second-Salemers” who call for a new purge of the magical community and a dark perversion of wizardry in Europe that Americans deny will wash up on their shores. It appears she will have plenty to pull from, both in ’30s history and contemporary society, in making these themes relevant. B+3stars





REVIEW: The Lobster

29 05 2016

The LobsterAt the risk of sounding perilously similar to Rep. Louie Gohmert, who recently suggested gays should be left out of space colonies since they cannot reproduce, there are important biological and social reasons why human beings should pair off. The simplest argument, of course, concerns reproduction and the continuation of our species. But bountiful research also suggests the tremendous drawbacks of living life in isolation – depression, poor health, low communal ties, and so on.

Writers Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou never tip their hand about what led up to the society they create in The Lobster,” though one imagines it likely involves some of the factors listed above. In their milieu, anyone without a life partner gets politely sent off to a hotel where they must find a match within 45 days – or face becoming transformed into the animal of their choice. Love, in other words, has been stripped of all romance and reduced to little more than social utility.

As public demonstrations from the manager (Olivia Colman) remind guests of why couples represent the ideal human arrangement, highly regulated activities nudge them towards identifying a partner with some shared characteristic over which they can begin a life together. Pretensions of status, class or wealth cannot cloud the decision, either. This total institution strips away individuality by forcing all participants to adhere to a simple, drab uniform by their gender.

The protagonist served to us, Colin Farrell’s David, serves as a guide through the many possibilities of this ecosystem. Some choose to throw themselves at anyone in the hopes of identifying someone equally as desperate. Others face public punishment for finding pleasure with themselves. A few brave souls are willing to stake their future on a lie in order to leave the hotel.

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REVIEW: Saving Mr. Banks

9 01 2014

I’m a firm believer in the magical power of cinema, in case you hadn’t figured it out by the fact that I take the time to write this blog. Few films, however, have really shown the true enchantment of the movies on screen. Recently, the dancing scene in “The Artist” and the storyboard scene in “Argo” have illustrated it well.

Now, add to that list the scene in “Saving Mr. Banks” where Emma Thompson’s P.L. Travers gives herself over to the undeniable charm of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” a song being written for the film adaptation of her “Mary Poppins” books. The curmudgeonly writer shoots down idea after idea from the composing team of the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) and writer Don DeGradi (Bradley Whitford). Yet when they play the tune for her, we get to watch Travers’ heart melt before our eyes. They all dance and sing with such passionate mirth that I found myself moved to the brink of tears.

The film presents the captivating narrative of how Travers came to Hollywood in order to maintain the artistic integrity of her books from the kitsch of Walt Disney, an American icon fittingly portrayed Tom Hanks. She scoffs at any attempt to make the film have the saccharine appeal of his other movies: no singing, no animation, and Mary Poppins is not to be sweet.

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REVIEW: Total Recall

2 08 2012

I was fully strapped into the 2012 remake of “Total Recall” – which, by the way, is probably the first of many frightening remakes of ’90s films that will make me feel old and nostalgic – for the first two acts.  It was working a bullet-riddled “Inception” or “Shutter Island” angle, and I was preparing for a climax that had a cerebral twist on the average adrenaline rush.

Well, I waited in vain.  While people tend to blame Christopher Nolan for the sorry state of action films that are not in the “Batman” franchise, he’s hardly the most influential figure in the genre these days.  Few try to emulate his dark twist on the familiar because even an ambitious failure requires some ambition and effort.  The Nolan-inspired blockbusters are still few and far between.

“Total Recall” winds up in the Michael Bay category of action flick, adhering to his “there’s nothing like a good destruction scene” principle.  Every time Len Wiseman’s movie seems to be taking a turn towards the intelligent or the thoughtful, someone starts getting chased, someone fires a gun, or something just gets blown towards the heavens.  It’s not quite as bad in the beginning as you attempt to puzzle out whether Colin Farrell’s Douglas Quaid is just a normal man thrown into extraordinary circumstances like a Hitchcock hero … or a cold-blooded mercenary brainwashed into believing he’s average like Liam Neeson in last year’s dull thriller “Unknown.”

But in the end, Wiseman decides that it’s better to just blow people up rather than provide answers or catharsis.  Who needs to tie up storylines when you can just sever their heads instead?  Moreover, who needs to blow our minds with a statement on the subjectivity of reality when you can blow our minds and some buildings with pyrotechnics? As such, “Total Recall” makes for an intellectually unfulfilled experience.  Though on the bright side, he does give us the ridiculously awesome Kate Beckinsale as the best female gunslinger since Chloe Moretz’s Hit Girl in “Kick-Ass.”  Her unstoppable ruthlessness is as hilarious as it awesome … well, probably more on the hilarious side since her hair manages to stay so perfect even as she gets the snot kicked out of her.  B-





REVIEW: Horrible Bosses

6 07 2011

We are now inhabiting the post-“Hangover” world, and in case you needed any proof that studios are looking to locate the success gene in the hit comedy’s DNA, I submit “Horrible Bosses” as evidence.  It really shouldn’t surprise you; it’s a page straight from the television networks’ playbook.  As soon as Fox premiered “American Idol,” every network wanted a singing competition.  After ABC had a big hit with “Dancing with the Stars,” every network suddenly had a dancing show.  We live in a culture of thinly veiled rip-offs that barely bother to disguise their ever-so-slight variations from the original success story.

The good news for Seth Gordon and the “Horrible Bosses” team is that, at least at this moment, I still find the formula amusing and funny.  The next movie shamelessly pressed from the “Hangover” mold, however, will probably not be in my good graces, so at least they got the timing right on this one.  But the fact that some movie other than the sequel has tried using a similar blueprint for high cash and laugh returns signals a foreboding era in comedy.  (Then again, I said the same thing last summer about “Iron Man 2” being the first of many “The Dark Knight” rip-offs, and nothing seems to have materialized there.)

The film invites these comparisons by using what may be the most recognizable aspect of “The Hangover” for laughs – the Wolfpack.  From now on, any comedy that has a ragtag alliance of three thirtysomething guys will inevitably have to be measured against the ridiculously high standard set by Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis.  Unfair?  Probably.  Justified?  Definitely.

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