REVIEW: Café Society

7 08 2016

Woody Allen haters, whether for his personal life or his professional output, need only look at the basic plot summary of “Café Society” to turn themselves away. On its face, the film repackages one of the most unfortunate clichés propagated by his body of work.

This, of course, is the doomed love triangle where a young, sexually blooming woman is courted by two men; one is an older and more distinguished gentleman, while the other is a younger but more intellectually and romantically capable match. Such a formation often seems like Allen wants to have it both ways, where his older and younger personas form a kind of sexual yin and yang.

This risible, repetitive plot invention looms over “Café Society,” imbuing every gorgeous frame from Vittorio Storraro’s lens with a faint stench of retrograde gender politics. In that way, the film plays a role similar to that friend you know has substance issues but dispenses valuable nuggets of drunk wisdom.

Look past the love triangle and beyond the outmoded attitudes, and “Café Society” marks Woody Allen at peak nostalgic autobiography. A few of the bad elements are here, sure, but much of the beauty and torment that marks Allen’s best work is present as well. From his culturally Jewish upbringing to his loathing of Hollywood and even his bleakly optimistic outlook on life, the film feels somewhat akin to a superhero origin story.

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REVIEW: Black Mass

15 09 2015

A movie like “Black Mass” is essentially the cinematic calendar whispering, “Winter is coming.”  It’s a gentle reminder that we are inching ever closer to a glut of prestige dramas filling screens across the country but that the best is still yet to come.  (Of course, if you read this in 2016, the last paragraph probably means nothing.)

Director Scott Cooper’s film works fine as a tiding over of sorts.  Most 2015 films so far that have provided this level of drama were low budget indies, and anything with this amount of violent bloodshed must have been a giant franchise flick.  “Black Mass,” made from a well-structured script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, boasts a thrilling experience packaged in some remarkable production values.  It all just feels so Scorsese lite.

And for the most part, that made for an entirely satisfactory evening at the movies.  I got a film that was perfectly good.  It just never approached greatness.

The marketing of “Black Mass” makes the film look like The Johnny Depp Show, and to a certain extent, it is.  Anyone who slithers around a film with such amphibian-like eyes and a Donald Trump combover just naturally draws attention, even when not playing a notorious gangster like James “Whitey” Bulger.  But, at heart, Bulger is just a boy from South Boston (“Southie”) trying to rule its biggest business – organized crime – by any means necessary.

That involves cutting a strange deal with a former childhood acquaintance, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).  According to Connolly, Southie is the only place where kids go from playing cops and robbers in the schoolyards to playing it on the streets, and he gets into Bulger’s racket just like some sort of game.  As a part of their deal, Bulger goes on the Bureau’s books as an informant yet essentially gets carte blanche to take out his competition.

Depp might get the more ostensibly interesting character to play, and he certainly plays up just how intimidating and downright creepy a figure Bulger truly was.  But its Edgerton who steals the show, essentially playing a Beantown rendition of Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso from “American Hustle.”  Connolly is the inside man who gets played like a harp by a key asset meant to bring him professional glory.  What motivates him to continue helping Bulger even when the jig seems up proves the heaviest and most complex part of “Black Mass,” and it certainly kept weighing on me after the film ended.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Ant-Man

23 08 2015

Ant-ManAnt-Man,” the final piece in Marvel’s so-called “Phase Two” of their Cinematic Universe, invites us all to do what I have done for the past five years: not to take any of this too seriously.  With the constantly winking and self-effacing charm of Paul Rudd (and co-writer Adam McKay), the best Marvel movie in years is ironically the one that spits in the face of what the studio signifies.

This is the first film from the comic book behemoth since the original “Iron Man” back in 2008 that feels entirely sufficient as a film in its own right, not just a placeholder for the next super-sized sequel.  Granted, some of that might be a response to its iffy economic viability at the green-lighting stage of the process (and some concerns over authorship following the departure of writer/director Edgar Wright and his screenwriting partner Joe Cornish). Nonetheless, “Ant-Man” earns a second installment by virtue of its tongue-in-cheek spirit and fun sense of scale.

Rather than set up some cataclysmic battle of the fates where the powers of good do battle with a terrifying evil that beams a big blue light up into the sky, “Ant-Man” builds up to a fight between two men for one important thing.  This climax engages rather than numbs (as “Avengers” final acts tend to do) because it takes place on the human level where the rest of the film registers.  It also helps that the final clash is essentially the only major one in the movie, going against Marvel’s general tendency to throw in a major action set piece every 30 minutes or so to placate the thrill-seekers in the audience.

And every time it seems like “Ant-Man” is turning into a conveyer belt of Marvel tropes, Paul Rudd’s humor kicks in to disrupt the moment and make a joke at the studio’s expense. He plays on admittedly shorter leash than someone like Judd Apatow or David Wain gives him, but his sardonic wit proves a welcome reprieve of Marvel’s faux gravitas that proves suffocating in their more commercial products.

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REVIEW: Dark Places

7 08 2015

Dark PlacesDark Places,” the latest cinematic adaptation of novelist Gillian Flynn, provides a similar ride to her smash hit “Gone Girl” on a smaller and slower scale.  Satisfactory yet not sensational, it will play just fine for the shut-in cinephile looking for a modest recreation of Fincher’s phenomenal film.

Like “Gone Girl,” “Dark Places” shuffles back and forth between two timelines.  The first takes place in the present day, where Charlize Theron’s Libby Day grapples with a little bit of survivor’s remorse but far more money issues.  The second, set in 1985, depicts the infamous events that gave her fifteen minutes of fame: the slaughter of her mother and two sisters.  Her good-natured but incorrigible brother, Ben, takes the rap for the crime.

Arguably, there are more balls in play during “Dark Places.”  The present day story centers on Libby almost exclusively as she begins to question her recollection of the murders and her testimony that put Ben behind bars.  Her quest to re-examine the truth comes after honest probing – and cash bribing – by Nicholas Hoult’s Lyle, a fanatical devotee of the case’s minutiae.

Meanwhile, on the Day’s rural turf, the film follows more than just Ben (Tye Sheridan) as he gallivants between some Satanist burnouts and his ill-tempered girlfriend Diondra (Chloe Grace Moretz).  It also shows the travails of the embattled matriarch, Christina Hendricks’ Patty, as she fights tooth and nail to preserve her family’s dignity and land.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 16, 2015)

16 07 2015

COGHad I not known “C.O.G.” was based on a David Sedaris story prior to viewing the film, my reaction would probably have been less enthused.  I would have chided it for being slight and meandering, simply jumping around a bunch of mini-stories without ever settling.

But because I knew, Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “C.O.G.” made for a most enjoyable watch – enough so that it has earned my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  Humorist and essayist Sedaris (perhaps the single biggest non-film critic influence on my writing) has gifted the world with quite the treasure trove of stories to adapt for the screen, and this film marks the first out of the gate with his source material.  Alvarez, and actor Jonathan Groff as Sedaris surrogate Samuel, set the bar high for anything to follow.

Perhaps the highest praise I can lavish on “C.O.G.” is that it perfectly replicates the joy of reading Sedaris on the page.  (Yes, I said page because I’m old-fashioned and prefer the feel of paper running through my fingers.)  The sardonic wit and dry observational comedy flows effortlessly from the film’s two key architects as Samuel, fresh out of Yale, ships out to rural Oregon in order to encounter some real, salt of the earth humans.

He gets just that in his encounters with pickers at an apple orchard, factory workers, and some rather pious churchgoers.  Groff plays Samuel as a good-hearted person who cannot help but look down on the folks with whom he half-heartedly tries to integrate.  No matter the scenario, be it an unwanted advance by his affable colleague Curly (Corey Stoll) or an instructive message from devout Martha (Casey Wilson), we can see the wheels turning in his head that will eventually convert life into prose.

In some sense, the payoff is knowing that everything leads to what we see on the screen in “C.O.G.”  And given how well Alvarez keeps the observations and clever comedy in tact, it feels worth the time.





REVIEW: The Good Lie

2 12 2014

The Good LieThe poster for “The Good Lie” features the film’s subjects, three Lost Boys of the Sudan, collectively assuming the same amount of space as Reese Witherspoon’s glistening face.  This ratio, shockingly, does not apply to screen time.  Despite needing the Oscar-winner’s clout to sell the film, Witherspoon and the rest of the American characters (including Corey Stoll from “House of Cards”) are firmly peripheral figures.

The only thing “The Good Lie” shares with “The Blind Side,” another tale of black triumph over a devastating history, is an executive producer.  The film’s story, as crafted by screenwriter Margaret Nagle, casts the white American characters less as enablers of black progress and more as an impediment to it.  Witherspoon’s Carrie, an employment counselor, and host Pamela (Sarah Baker) do not lack in good intentions; they are just not particularly well-equipped to meet the complex needs of the Sudanese refugees.

Director Phillipe Falardeau does not shy away from depicting what exactly the Lost Boys Mamere, Jeremiah, and Paul have fled.  “The Good Lie” spends a good thirty minutes driving home the horrors of the Sudanese war, showing everything from the slaughter of a village to the grueling walk on which a pack of surviving children have to embark to find safety.  Falaradeau never reduces their harrowing journey to saccharine tragedy, largely because the barbarism speaks for itself.  The sight of a dead child and turgid bodies floating down a river requires no supplementary cue to inspire shock and sadness.

While they may not face imminent threats to their survival after their rescue, the refugees still face hardships at the hands of an unfeeling system.  An inane regulation prohibits their sister Abital from living with the Lost Boys, and they are not made aware of this until airport authorities enforce their painful separation.  And as if the bureaucracy they must encounter to correct it was not unfeeling enough, the Lost Boys encounter employer after employer with no respect for the incredible pain they have suffered.

“The Good Lie” is the rare film that grants displaced people agency in the overcoming of their circumstances.  The Lost Boys can claim responsibility for their own success, owing little to self-serving whites with a savior complex.  When they tell Carrie at one point that her fighting on their behalf is unnecessary because it is not her war, a statement that resonates powerfully on behalf of marginalized communities.  Unfortunately, the narrative sputters out too much in the third act to allow the movie to have the same effect.  B-2stars





REVIEW: This Is Where I Leave You

20 09 2014

This Is Where I Leave YouIt took me until a college intro-level theater class to realize it, but the term melodrama actually means “music drama.”  In Shawn Levy’s adaptation of the novel “This Is Where I Leave You,” he really deploys that definitional dimension to convey all the film’s emotion.

As if we couldn’t already tell that two family members alone together was going to result in clichéd conversation, Levy cues each scene up with Michael Giacchino’s gentle piano score to softly amplify the forced profundity.  Or maybe if we’re lucky, Levy will treat us to a mellow Alexei Murdoch ditty.  (The singer is employed far less effectively than he was by Sam Mendes in “Away We Go,” for the few out there who care.)

The film seems to move forward solely on the logic that everyone needs to almost cry alone with each other.  It doesn’t matter to what extent the actors can manage authenticity – usually they don’t manage at all – because it’s impossible to escape the hoary hokeyness of the directorial heavy-handedness.

“This Is Where I Leave You,” which follows a family of four estranged siblings coming back to sit shiva for their deceased father, brings a lot more under its roof than it can handle.  Levy recruited a heck of a cast but seems unsure of how to deploy them in roles that require more than easy comedy.  The film’s dialogue makes more than a few attempts at humor, yet its talented players seem to timid to explore that element.

The reserve of the cast only serves to exacerbate the awkward blending of three distinct comic stylings: the reactionary stoicism of Jason Bateman, the strung-out loquaciousness of Tina Fey, and the live wire erraticism of Adam Driver.  (As for Corey Stoll, their eldest sibling … well, every family needs one serious member).  They don’t feel like family members so much as they come across as uncommonly adept scene partners who can feign a passable relationship until someone yells cut.

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