F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 11, 2016)

11 02 2016

I’ve made watching writer/director Richard Curtis’ “Love Actually” into somewhat of a December pastime, returning each year to remind myself that love is all around us, we are all perfect to someone and many more lessons. I should probably do the same with his latest film “About Time,” a love story that with less breadth but far more depth.

I don’t quite know or understand how the film got so overlooked when Universal released it in November 2013. (I was in London at the time, where the film was released earlier to a more solid commercial reception.) But this is Curtis at his most profound, offering not just a solid romantic yarn but a legitimately valuable guide on how to maximize happiness through life. Maybe in making it my “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” I can will myself into heeding his advice more.

The film begins with a somewhat trite, if not completely hackneyed, premise: time travel. That tired plot device feels fresh when appropriated here by Curtis, who is far more interested in humanity than any of the mechanics. The men of the Lake family possess, somehow, the ability to travel back in time to places they have already been. Bill Nighy’s patriarch passes this information along to son Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) on his 21st birthday and allows him to decide how best to deploy the gift.

Tim, who at the time has relatively few graces with the opposite sex, chooses to focus on love. Ultimately, it leads him to pin down the perfect woman for him, Rachel McAdams’ Mary. While his courtship of her is sweet and entertaining, the traditional romantic arc only forms a portion of “About Time.” Curtis goes far beyond the traditional stopping point of the first kiss, the wedding or the birth of a child, examining the manifold pains and pleasures of everyday adult life. “Happily ever after” rarely feels as earned or sincere as it does here.

The film confronts some of the core tenets of how we find contentment and satisfaction in life by offering a look at how someone with boundless time might approach them. By walking in Tim’s shoes for two hours, we get the chance to view time travel not as a means of correcting the past or preventing a future. Rather, we can see how this fanciful premise might allow us to enrich and enjoy the present.

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REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

20 12 2015

J.J. Abrams is perhaps the chief nostalgist of our time, and he often executes this fascination with such panache that we might as well call him a classicist. The reverence he pays to the films that inspired his own work serves to elevate those movies to a higher cultural plateau. And, as if anyone had not noticed the influence of “Star Wars” on a generation of moviegoers, they have definitive proof in the second relaunch of the franchise, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Abrams, working with original trilogy writer Lawrence Kasdan, finds that sweet spot between paying homage to the old and forging ahead with the new. The film’s action is primarily driven by two new heroes – the orphan girl Rey (Daisy Ridley) soon to discover extraordinary powers and ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) who gains a conscience after witnessing the slaughter of innocence. They go up against a new sinister antagonist in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who works in tandem with the eerily fascist politician General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).

Yet for all these new characters, there are also the old ones there in supporting roles – Han Solo, Luke and Leia Skywalker, Chewbacca, C3PO and R2D2 are all back. John Williams’ score livens up the film. The Millennium Falcon is back. Heck, Abrams even maintains the distinctive wipes and editing transitions from the original Lucas films. Anyone who feared drastic change in the series with the passing of the reins ought to be more than reassured by “The Force Awakens.”

The coexistence of the old and the new provides every bit as much tension as the plot, which I will continue to avoid discussing in any depth lest I reveal a spoiler. (I kept my head in the sand as much as possible regarding “Star Wars” news in order to experience the film with as fresh of eyes as possible, and it paid off.) Yet even with Rey and Finn as the primary engines of action in “The Force Awakens,” the film feels practically like a mirror image of the original 1977 “Star Wars.” This was no doubt intentional, I assume, but the amount of bowing Abrams performs before the mythology of the franchise keeps his film from standing as tall as it could.

Certainly future installments in the new “Star Wars” will go deeper and bolder, making an even greater case for the series’ relevance and importance. For now, though, this served its purpose to reawaken the vanguard of longtime fans and excite a new generation. I must say, I am on board for what comes next. B+3stars





REVIEW: Brooklyn

18 11 2015

BrooklynSincerity has gone out of style in the world of adult filmmaking, perhaps as a sort of defense mechanism against the ever encroaching threat of extinction. (That’s just speculation on my part, though.) So it always feels refreshing when a film like “Brooklyn,” triumphant in its emotionality and lack of irony, manages to break through the cracks. The film’s combination of a pure heart and gorgeous craftsmanship produces an experience that lifts the soul.

Director John Crowley takes an unabashedly classical approach to telling the story of Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis, an Irish immigrant to New York in the 1950s. “Brooklyn” may look and feel like a film made in that time period, but it never falls back on retrograde worldviews or attitudes. Screenwriter Nick Hornby simply takes Colm Tóibín’s novel and allows it to soar as a tender tale of a young woman finding her voice and her home – two things with obvious relevance today.

Eilis leaves behind her widowed mother and unmarried older sister in small town Ireland not out of any great desire to start a new life. In fact, the arrangements for her to live and work in the heavily Irish concentrated Brooklyn get made almost entirely by others. Faced with the choice between an unsatisfying present and an uncertain future, Eilis lets her family nudge her towards taking the fork in the road.

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REVIEW: Ex Machina

3 05 2015

Ex MachinaEx Machina,” from writer/director Alex Garland, marks yet another fascinating entry into the technophobic science-fiction genre – or, at the very least, the film has a skeptical stance towards the beneficence of technical advances.  Over the course of a week, Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb must determine whether a robot, Alicia Vikander’s Ava, can pass the Turing Test.  (For those who skipped “The Imitation Game,” that exam measures whether an artificially intelligent being can pass for a human.)

The deceptively simple set-up gets more complicated when factoring in Ava’s creator, Oscar Isaac’s Nathan.  An irascible genius in the mold of Mark Zuckerberg (at least how “The Social Network” portrayed him) crossed with the unsettling articulation of Nurse Ratched from “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” Nathan has little regard for standard operation procedure or tradition decorum.  He handpicks Caleb to administer the test under unorthodox conditions as well as tight supervision.

Given all these factors, “Ex Machina” becomes highly unnerving once events start taking a turn for the unexpected.  Not since Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” five years ago has a film made me so distrusting of every character’s motives or uncertain of whether an event was actually happening.  Remarkably, Garland achieves this terror with little more than the basic building blocks of cinema: tight editing, controlled and sparse staging, crisp camerawork.

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REVIEW: Frank

17 06 2014

Los Angeles Film Festival

Early on in Lenny Abrahamson’s “Frank,” Domhnall Gleeson’s character Jon poses a question that might as well be on behalf of the audience: what’s the deal with the paper-mache head that Michael Fassbender’s Frank won’t take off?  Scoot McNairy’s Don, who has been working in a band with Frank for many years, tries to explain but ultimately admits, “You’re just going to have to go with this.”

The same mantra could apply to the rest of the film, where Abrahamson and screenwriter Jon Ronson string us along for a bizarre ride that offers very little explanation for itself.  It sometimes teeters on the verge of being a Dadaist piece, but it mostly just fizzles with forced quirkiness that never connects.  The scattershot tone of the piece makes it a real head-scratcher, too.

Frank

“Frank” is not without its amusing moments, nor is it an entirely meandering film.  At times, it feels like an ultra indie-fied version of “Almost Famous” as Jon attempts to be taken seriously by Frank’s bonkers band.  He takes over for a keyboardist who attempts to drown himself, presumptively because he is so frustrated with the unnecessarily rigorous creative process Frank demands.  I’ll stop short of saying I wished I could be in his position, being carted off in an ambulance rather than being forced to endure the whims of the giant head, but it’s overall pretty brutal.

I think many of the issues I had with “Frank” arose from the relatively minor progression of the plot.  It’s not a film carried by the characters; they all feel as if they’ve escaped from some “Saturday Night Live” skit mocking the esoteric kinds of hipster bands that play at Coachella.  (Not kidding, one song in the film sung by Maggie Gyllenhaal begins, “I want to marry a lighthouse keeper.”)

The performances aren’t particularly strong either, not even from Fassbender.  We don’t get to see him emote underneath the mask, which just made me realize how crucial his face is to conveying the inner turmoil of characters.  His nondescript body movements don’t communicate well in “Frank” either, and I found my thoughts drifting to ponder whether it was in fact Fassbender at all.

I don’t want to spoil the film, but there is brief confirmation that the Oscar-nominated actor did film a scene for the film.  Though a part of me does have to wonder if maybe the real joke of “Frank” is pulling a fast one on its audience by putting someone else under the big head.  It would certainly be in line with the odd sense of humor that pervades the rest of the film.  C2stars