REVIEW: Life

1 06 2016

LifeLife” gets its title from the now-shuttered magazine which featured iconic pictures of actor James Dean shot by photographer Dennis Stock. It’s clever wordplay, sure, but not necessarily indicative of the film’s actual content. The better moniker for Luke Davies’ screenplay might have been “Fame,” or “Success.”

Those are the two biggest burdens weighing on the two subjects of the film. Dane DeHaan’s James Dean prepares to go supernova with the impending release of “East of Eden” and his forthcoming casting in “Rebel Without A Cause.” He wants recognition and validation but gets spooked by the fame that will likely dovetail receiving such plaudits.

Robert Pattinson’s Dennis Stock, meanwhile, frequently attempts to remain calm amidst his nervousness and insecurities. He has talent but is unsure if the gatekeepers will accept and allow it to blossom into art, so he settles on James Dean as a subject – someone on the cusp of stardom but not yet fully blossomed. This drive has wide ranging echoes in Pattinson’s own career as he seeks to shed the skin of the “Twilight” series.

“Life” also feels like a meta commentary for its director, Anton Corbijn. About midway through the film, Dean comes to realize that photography says as much about the person behind the camera as it does the subject in front, even when supposedly capturing non-fictional moments. Corbijn, who was himself a photographer before entering the word of fictional feature filmmaking, seems to exert a strong biographical pull on the relationship between the two men.

It’s a shame that the film feels more about events and charted course than exploring thematic threads and character interiors. There was likely a version of “Life” as revealing and honest as “The End of the Tour,” another 2015 release about the push and pull between journalists and artists. But as it stands, the film feels like an interesting but unfulfilled biography of a telling period in Dean’s life. It sinks or swims based on DeHaan’s portrayal of the actor. While he does nail the mannerisms and general aura of Dean, the vocal cadences always serve as a reminder that this is a performative interpretation. B-2stars

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 22, 2015)

22 01 2015

The Sundance Film Festival arrives, like clockwork, at the beginning of each year to inject a fresh bit of hope into our outlook for the upcoming year in film.  While we tire of the year’s awards season crop, the system begins to harvest its plants to bloom over the months to come.  The festival is great at providing two specific kinds of films: discoveries of major new talents from completely out of the blue, and surprising indie turns from well-known stars.  (Without said talent, the films would never be able to receive any financing.)

“Kill Your Darlings” falls into the latter camp.  This 2013 film was a big step in Daniel Radcliffe’s career reinvention – or at least a full-fledged turn of the page – from only being recognized as Harry Potter.  He stars as a young Allen Ginsberg, far before “Howl” brought the beat poet into censorship as well as the national spotlight.

John Krokidas’ debut feature is so much more than just a showcase for Radcliffe’s talent, though.  It is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because it tells a compelling, human story that just happens to be about a renowned poet.  His script, co-written with Austin Bunn, never veers into the realm of becoming a portrait gallery for the nascent counterculture movement.  Sure, there are appearances by William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), but the script never loses sight of who they are as people.

“Kill Your Darlings” does not feel the need for reverence to the towering legacy of a figure, an advantage the film is able to possess in part because it takes place before Ginsberg and his pals went supernova.  The plot begins with a young Ginsberg entering Columbia in 1943, where he quickly bristles with the established order and the canonized poets.  Radcliffe’s performance teems with self-discovery and fully realizes the awakening of an artist; perhaps there is a meta connection responsible for

Yet Radcliffe is not even the movie’s scene-stealing performer.  That honor goes to Dane DeHaan, star of “Chronicle” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” who has really begun to build a formidable résumé.  He plays livewire Lucien Carr, an obstreperous rebel.  He takes Ginsberg from a student merely curious about the iconoclasm of Walt Whitman into a full bohemian beatnik.  Lucien also lures him into a love triangle with an older outsider, Michael C. Hall’s David Kammerer, that turns bloody and forces Ginsberg to make a tough ethical decision.

“Kill Your Darlings” is part biopic, part drama, part thriller, and part exploration of an artistic movement’s birth pangs.  All these elements cohere marvelously into one wholly satisfying film.  It is one heck of a debut for Krokidas, and it makes a great case for Radcliffe and DeHaan to receive some meaty roles in the feature.





REVIEW: Life After Beth

13 12 2014

Life After BethAs the executives at Lifetime have now discovered with their ingenious “Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever,” Aubrey Plaza is today’s most lovable curmudgeon.  Her dourly misanthropic attitude paradoxically lights up any scene in which she appears.  “Life After Beth” is to Plaza what “Maleficent” was to Angelina Jolie – an ode to a certain defining essence.

Plaza’s Beth starts off the film dead, then all of a sudden is inexplicably walking around among the living.  This comes much to the confused delight of her devastated former boyfriend Zach, played by Dane DeHaan.  Tasked with playing the straight man in a “Ruby Sparks” style romance, where the girl is undead instead of imaginary, DeHaan opts for strung-out angst to contrast Plaza’s snarky charm.

Their strange reunion starts off under the guise of a comedy, which makes a great deal of sense given that Plaza’s pop cultural presence has been mostly relegated to “Parks and Recreation.” (That’s mainly because no one saw the undeservedly underseen “Safety Not Guaranteed” and no one knew who she was when she appeared in 2009’s “Funny People.”)  But all of a sudden, and without any real reason, “Life After Beth” shifts gears to become an action film.  Nothing ever hints at the fact that it will eventually morph into “World War Z.”

DeHaan, in an interview with Seth Meyers, referred to the film as a “zom-com-rom-dram.”  Kudos to writer/director Jeff Baena for attempting so much, but this novel mixture proves far too many genres than “Life After Beth” can handle in its slim 90-minute runtime.  Plaza definitely does a better impersonation of the possessed demon child from “The Exorcist” than Jonah Hill in “This is The End,” which is about the extent of the compliments that can be paid to the film’s bizarre back half.

Perhaps its action-packed conclusion would feel more earned if Beth had more time to develop as a character.  But it looks like “Life After Beth” is really just going to be good for a few entertaining GIFs on a BuzzFeed list about grouchy people.  C2stars





REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

5 08 2014

When Marc Webb was announced as the next director to helm the “Spider-Man” series, more than a few eyebrows were raised (including my own).  With only “(500) Days of Summer” under his belt, Webb seemed like an odd figure to entrust with a multi-million dollar franchise.  While that film showed a true creative mind at work, its exuberant eclecticism was not an obvious fit for a series that had been rather somber under the guidance of Sam Raimi.

None of these qualifications showed at all in his first outing with the arachnid hero, 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which slavishly recreated the hero’s mythology for the generation that didn’t see the 2002 version in theaters or in its million syndicated cable showings.  The reboot felt timidly directed by Webb, whose trepidation at approaching a new genre of filmmaking was clear.

In his second go-round, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” glimpses of his distinctive stamp on the series become a little more clear.  One scene in particular where Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker angrily puts in his earbuds and makes a map to decipher the mysterious past of his parents seems to directly parallel the sequence in “(500) Days of Summer” where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom draws a cityscape of Los Angeles.  And in one of the film’s final scenes, Webb leaves us with a hauntingly emotional denouement using no words, just powerful images and montage.

Sadly, these small pockets of artistry in the film were few and far between.  Though the film as a whole feels more confident than its predecessor, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” still suffers from the general lack of inspiration plaguing big-budget filmmaking, and especially comic book adaptations.

The screenplay is crafted this time by the Kurtzman-Orci duo that has given us some of the more ingenious popcorn flicks of the past few years (“Star Trek“) as well as some of its biggest duds (“Transformers“).  This film falls somewhere in between; it’s good enough to keep interest throughout, but we can see every plot development coming from a mile away.

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REVIEW: Devil’s Knot

4 06 2014

DVL00056INTH_DEVIL'S-KNOT.inddThe miscarriage of justice in the case of the West Memphis Three, a group of Satanist wrongfully convicted of murdering young children in rural Arkansas, has received plenty of attention from non-fiction filmmakers.  Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have created the “Paradise Lost” trilogy about their case; the final film netted them an Oscar nomination.  And if that wasn’t enough, Academy Award nominee Amy Berg made her own documentary on the subject, “West of Memphis,” to great acclaim.

Now I love a good documentary, and judging from the occasional surprise mainstream crossover hit like “Blackfish,” most audiences aren’t opposed to them either.  Yet there’s only a limited audience that those films can reach, sadly, due to some inherent bias people seem to possess against non-fiction filmmaking.  If you take a look at the list of highest-grossing documentaries, no one is reaching wide audiences unless they are Michael Moore, a pop star, or a cute animal.

I don’t doubt the good intentions behind the filmmaking team of “Devil’s Knot,” a narrativized account of the events in the case.  If you tell the story as a legal thriller with Oscar winners like Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, it has the potential to reach an entirely different crowd of people that would never stop to watch a true-life procedural.

It’s a real shame, then, that Atom Egoyan’s film fails to connect on just about every level.  His feckless direction leaves “Devil’s Knot” not a tonal mess but downright confusing.  Reducing a subject that has received nearly seven hours of coverage from the “Paradise Lost” films alone into a two hour feature is a lofty task, and Egoyan never figures out an effective method of intelligibly conveying the facts and events.  (Not to mention, there are still enough questions lingering in the case to fill another film.)

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REVIEW: Chronicle

13 12 2012

Oh, found footage movies, whatever are we going to do with you?  With every new movie, you seem to reinvent your own rules.  Everyone just has to be an iconoclast, I suppose.

In “Chronicle,” the story of three teenagers magically endowed with superpowers, the camera begins as a small handheld camera documenting the mundane happenings of life.  But then the perspective widens. By the climactic fight scene, we are taking it in from every lens possible, be it a police car or a building security camera.

In a way, it makes sense for the number of cameras to grow as the magnitude of these three high schoolers’ decisions with their powers begins to affect people beyond the personal scale.  In a movie like “Project X,” the action never really expands to such a wide scope, and it feels a little odd when the cameras begin to act as such.  Yet even with a relatively justifiable reason to switch up the shooting style, “Chronicle” widens its lens at the expense of some of the intimacy that the found footage subgenre is designed to provide.  And as such, it loses the punch of an “End of Watch” or “Paranormal Activity.”

But in terms of pushing the form beyond a single camera, I don’t think anyone has done it better than director Josh Trank.  His “Chronicle” doesn’t hide behind the format as a front for lazy filmmaking.  He uses the camera to provide a naturalistic portrait of high schoolers struggling with their issues, just on an extremely heightened scale.  With close-ups and tight framing, Trank is able to pierce the psyche.

Trank is also fortunate to not only have the camera as his only weapon.  “Chronicle” also features a thoughtful screenplay by Max Landis that resists mere surface-level discussions and childish gimmickry.  He manages to make the relationships feel authentic and the events feel real even when they delve into the realm of the fantastic.

Much of the success of the film can also be credited to the trio of young actors, Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan, who establish relationships that we feel extend far beyond what we see on the screen.  They make the film feel as if we just happened to stumble into their friendship on any ordinary day … and then it just happens to turn extraordinary.  B2halfstars