REVIEW: Wonder Woman

31 05 2017

“You expect the battle to be fair. It will never be fair!” exhorts Robin Wright’s Amazonian mentor to her trainee, Gal Gadot’s warrior princess in “Wonder Woman.” It’s tempting from an early point to view the film through a purely ideological standpoint, and cues like this almost seem to encourage it.

While writing this review, butt-hurt “men’s rights activists” (yes, those concerns are so imaginary they deserve to be put in quotations) are still complaining on Twitter about woman-only screenings of this film. The urge to lacerate prejudice through cultural consumption as if we were casting a ballot to vote is an alluring, but ultimately empty, one. Praising the disjointed “Ghostbusters” like a dutiful gesture of feminist solidarity really solved all our issues in 2016, right?!

The underlying hope of these actions is to foster a world where “Wonder Woman” will no longer be the most expensive film ever directed by a woman or the only major superhero film with a female protagonist; instead, it will be just one of many. So let’s start acting like it today by treating the film as what it can become, not merely what it means in the deeply politicized 2017 environment into which it is released. As the great critic Pauline Kael remarked, critics too often praise “movies that are ‘worthwhile,’ that make a ‘contribution’ —’serious’ messagy movies. This often involves […] the praise in good movies of what was worst in them.”

So if you’ll pardon my existential opening, I’ll spare you another analysis about how progressive (or not) the gender dynamics are, whether or not director Patty Jenkins’ gender might “influence” the way certain scenes play out and if certain on-screen moments carry feminist undertones from off-screen drama. It was hard to squint past these things and just see the movie because, as a film writer, firebrands like this can so often be reduced to multiple start-points to an ideological thinkpiece. But there is some there there, so to speak, in “Wonder Woman.”

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REVIEW: Anomalisa

13 01 2016

AnomalisaI have often thought of writing a screenplay, taking a Woody Allen-like approach of stashing all the ideas away in case one of them seems relevant or worth pursuing later. Different germs of ideas reach different stages of development, and often when I consider putting fingers to keyboard, my mind drifts to a Charlie Kaufman script. I think about a “Being John Malkovich” or “Adaptation” and wonder why bother writing when it would doubtfully reach the tremendous heights he scales.

Kaufman’s scripts possess levels of depth that might as well be subterranean. His genius of self-awareness and reflexivity consistently put other writers to shame. So I was taken aback when his latest effort, the stop-motion animated “Anomalisa,” marked something radically different. It was simple.

Most of the film’s complexity comes from the manipulation of the 3D-printed puppets, not from Kaufman’s script. “Anomalisa,” which he co-directed with Duke Johnson, tells a fairly conventional story of one man’s isolation and how an affectionate connection can melt the layers of ice around the heart. When stated as a logline like that, the premise sounds rather like a familiarly dull British dramedy. But Kaufman has a unique angle on it, one better left for each viewer to discover. Don’t read about it before, if at all possible.

Kaufman gradually reveals the central conceit that makes the film special, and then unleashes a tidal wave of sincerity and emotional honesty from lonely business lecturer Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis) and Lisa Hesselman (voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh), the woman whose voice penetrates his soul. The rapport they share feels so authentic, which causes some intentional cognitive dissonance as their bodies are not human.

But once Kaufman comes out in the open with the train of thought powering “Anomalisa,” fans of his work may wonder where the twist comes into play. For a subversive writer who nearly always delights in blowing up storytelling conventions, such a straightforward story with just one major revelation of authorial intent seems strange. Perhaps knowledge of his prior scripts even serves an impediment to fully experiencing “Anomalisa” as viewers would otherwise have no reason to doubt its earnestness and purity. The final product is truly sweet and fulfilling – though whether something this quaint really merited years of Kaufman’s attention is another subject altogether. B+3stars





REVIEW: Macbeth

13 12 2015

MacbethRoger Ebert once famously quipped, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” This maxim seems to apply doubly so to Justin Kurzel’s take on the Scottish Play, William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

Scripters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso take five acts from the Bard and condense them to under two hours on screen. Though no film need overstay its welcome, these screenwriters seem a little too eager to abridge the rich source material. Part of the experience of “Macbeth” is being able to observe the gradual changes in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as the quest for power corrodes their souls. With fewer opportunities to see that conflict play out, it follows that their journeys feel a little less complete.

Having less Shakespearean verse tossed around plays to the strengths of Kurzel, a director whose films thrive on mood and ambiance. In both “Macbeth” and his debut, 2012’s “The Snowtown Murders,” collaborations with director of photography Adam Arkapaw have set brooding, haunting tones from expertly calibrated shots. Here, they focus on the landscape of the Scottish Highlands and how effortlessly it dwarves the characters who pass through it. At the very least, this helps differentiate his take on “Macbeth” from anything one could see on the stage, shrinking actors to mere cogs in the cosmos.

Unfortunately, he never quite finds a cinematic language that makes Shakespeare’s soliloquies feel as natural as the countryside vistas. Try as he might, Kurzel still remains at a bit of a loss as to how to present long stretches of uninterrupted dialogue, a convention audiences have decided to accept when framed inside a proscenium arch. The challenge has escaped many filmmakers, so he’s in good company. Fortunately, Kurzel has two incredible actors in Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard to deliver the dialogue and distract from any staginess.

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REVIEW: The Fifth Estate

8 09 2015

Ripping the story from the headlines seems to be the most compelling action in “The Fifth Estate,” a fictionalization of WikiLeaks’ history from director Bill Condon and writer Josh Singer.   The film feels irrelevant in the wake of Alex Gibney’s documentary “We Steal Secrets,” a more thrilling and intelligent treatment of these people and ideas that does not even have to resort to fictionalization or melodrama.

The film begins modestly (ha!) with a brief history of worldwide communications, from hieroglyphs to Guttenberg’s printing press all the way to the iPad newsstand.  Then, it proceeds to cut between the WikiLeaks team led by anarchist Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the U.S. government’s response to their destabilizing revelations.

It might have been better off just focusing on its titular estate rather than including subplots involving the second (government) and fourth (press) estates; the tension between the old guard of reporting at institutions like The Guardian and the WikiLeaks “hacktivist” style of citizen journalism feels like a topic for an entirely different film.  Sure, this is an excuse to bring in an ensemble of supporting characters portrayed by talented actors like Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Mackie, Peter Capaldi, and David Thewlis, these accomplished thespians are unable to do much to elevate the material.

As Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg take steps to increase worldwide transparency, their tendency to think more about the information and less about the people leads to conflict.  Plenty of innocent people are taken as collateral damage by WikiLeaks, and their servers offer flimsy protection for the whistleblowers who dare to release sensitive information.  Assange’s personality gets in the way of the story he pushes – a worry that seems to inspire caution in the next major leaker, Edward Snowden, as shown in Laura Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour.”

Condon uneasily balances Singer’s script that cannot decide whether to focus on who they are or what they did.  For the former, at least Cumberbatch nails Assange’s vocal cadences.  For the latter, though, “The Fifth Estate” cannot even turn one of the most important events of the decade into compelling cinema. Even with one of the newest tricks in the book, adding an M83 song for dramatic impact, the action falls flat.

When the film awkwardly acknowledges its own shortcomings in its odd finale, it feels almost like the creative team saying sorry.  Apology accepted, I guess?  C2stars





REVIEW: The Theory of Everything

1 12 2014

‘Tis the season when phenomenal performances occur in decently passable films, and “The Theory of Everything” has arrived to fit that bill.   The movie is little more than a stage for a stunning physical transformation by Eddie Redmayne and a formidable emotional turn by Felicity Jones.  Their work shines particularly brightly because the film does not present anything else nearly as remarkable as them.  And actually, this hardly proves bothersome.

Director James Marsh and writer Anthony McCarten certainly provide admirable mood and story, respectively, to bring Jane and Stephen Hawking’s life and love to the screen.  They manage to pull off “The Theory of Everything” as a two-hander, giving both characters roughly proportionate screen time and development.  Normally, this kind of tale makes the woman subordinate to the man, reducing her to little more than a support system for her partner.  (Ahem, “The King’s Speech.”)

Granted, this was not too daunting of a task given that the source material is a book by Jane not solely about his illness and ingenuity but about their life together.  McCarten wisely keeps her story a central component of the film.  She is more than just the opposite that attracts him once, marries him, and then sits quietly on the sidelines as he acquires his own goals.  Jane is a person with flaws and ambitions in her own right, and by allowing her struggles equal credence, “The Theory of Everything” gives her both agency and weight in the overarching narrative.

As Stephen pursues his equation to encompass relativity and quantum mechanics, Jane is putting in the labor to achieve her own theory of everything.  She wants to serve as a wife and mother as well as attain her Ph.D. in Spanish medieval poetry.  She seeks not only to give love but also to receive it, and the latter becomes a source of compelling tension when Steven’s condition deteriorates to critical levels.  Jones shines in these later scenes, illustrating Jane’s good-hearted attempts to maintain a cheery caretaker’s facade.  Behind it all, though, Jane clearly yearns for the kinds of affection which her husband can no longer supply.

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REVIEW: The Zero Theorem

17 08 2014

The Zero TheoremLondon Film Festival, 2013

Terry Gilliam’s “The Zero Theorem” is the kind of film that raises so many important and intriguing questions that it’s entirely possible to forget some of them along the journey.  This oblique tale, bordering at times on the absurd, stuns with the sheer density of the thematic issues that Pat Rushin’s screenplay can pack into 100 minutes.

The film grapples with conundrums as timeless as the meaning of life, the nature of happiness, and the imminence of death and nothingness.  At the same time, “The Zero Theorem” also has its finger on the pulse of many modern malaises, such as screen addiction, the fading appeal of observable reality in relation to virtual reality, and the electronic mediation of human connection.

We explore these through the work of a computer programmer known as Q, played by Christoph Waltz, as he attempts to solve humanity’s conundrums.  In a change of pace from the two silver-tongued Tarantino characters that won him a pair of Oscars, Waltz sits back and delivers a largely reactive performance.  As he attempts to unlock the zero theorem and get to the core of human existence, Q doesn’t instigate events so much as he lets them happen.  Because we’re less focused on a conventional narrative, “The Zero Theorem” can easily delve into the realm of the existential and philosophical.

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REVIEW: Anonymous

28 04 2013

I know I’m always calling for directors to expand their horizons and try different kinds of movies to see if any surprising realizations result.  So I really hope this doesn’t come off as hypocritical, but Roland Emmerich should really just stick to apocalyptic disaster movies like “Independence Day” and “2012.”

I applaud the director for trying a conspiracy theory flick that actually plays like – gasp – drama, something that would appear to be totally out of his wheelhouse.  It’s far bolder a choice than, say, Michael Bay, whose “Pain and Gain” literally just appears to be a micro version of “Transformers” without those pesky anthropomorphic robots.  But now that we’ve found out that Emmerich is not capable of meeting the demands of something this serious, he should just go back to blowing up culturally iconic landmarks with his regular gusto.

Anonymous,” an exploration of the not-so-hotly debated question of Shakespeare’s authorship of his famous plays is pretty much a failure from the get-go.  I couldn’t keep up with any of the characters, which is a problem in a movie with many of them.  The relationships were fuzzy, and on top of that, alliances and allegiances were never clear.  For a movie on a human scale, these are basic necessities that need to be established.

Sometimes I zone out when watching movies but can pick up enough context to still follow the basic plot and direction of the film.  Such was not the case with “Anonymous,” surprising in a cast that included Rhys Ifans, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, and Oscar-winner Vanessa Redgrave.

I just thought it was a big, fat messy ink blot of a movie.  However, I bear no animosity for Roland Emmerich attempting to do something out of the ordinary.  There are many things “Anonymous” is not, although perhaps the only positive thing on that list is that the movie bears little to no resemblance to “2012.”  C-1halfstars