REVIEW: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

22 08 2016

Brief Interviews with Hideous MenSay what you want about John Krasinski’s directorial debut, an adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s book “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” but you cannot say the film does not fulfill its title. At just 80 minutes, it is brief. The film consists primarily of interviews of males conducted by conducted by graduate student Sarah Quinn (Julianne Nicholson). And for the most part, they are, in fact, rather hideous.

These men are not murderers and rapists; they are mostly just average schmoes with the potential for violence and misconduct lurking underneath their civilized veneers. All Sarah has to do is poke a tiny hole with her questioning, and it opens up their insides to reveal startlingly primal forces at the wheel of the decision-making process. While Nicholson does a fine job with her probing, it’s hard to shake the sense that most of the heavy-hitting investigation comes from Wallace as a writer – not from her as a character.

Krasinski’s first outing as a director seems primarily focused with letting the words shine and the performances breathe. (Two very important tasks, mind you!) He treats Wallace’s prose with the sanctity of a theatrical director regarding the words of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, which might explain why so much of “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” feels like filmed theater. It’s a show I’d want to see, though – particularly one centered around Krasinski’s own character in the film, Ryan. He delivers a powerful nine-minute monologue that deserves to serve as the climax of an entire film about his character, not just a mere episode in a collection of vignettes.

But “Brief Interviews from Hideous Men” comes from a collection of Wallace’s short stories, and the film retains that sense of brevity. Like many an episodic narrative, it practically invites being judged and weighed as a collection of parts rather than their sum. Some portions work; others drag. Some interviews enlighten; others preach to the choir. All of brief, for better or for worse. B-2stars

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REVIEW: Warcraft

8 06 2016

A few years ago, I spent some weeks studying abroad in Argentina. I knew enough Spanish to converse and survive, though not nearly enough to where I could fully understand Spanish-language programming. On occasion, however, I would watch shows on television with my host mom that had no English subtitles.

Those shows made more sense than Duncan Jones’ “Warcraft.”

The film begins with an ominous prologue, foregrounding the conflict ahead by pointing to a period in time where humans and orcs became enemies. Then, speed ahead to the present day in “Warcraft,” and it feels like being dropped in part four of a series. Familiar scenes, discernible settings and recognizable powers abound, but none of them come with any kind of context or explanation.

In many ways, “Warcraft” is the antithesis of Jones’ last film, “Source Code” – a work of that disappearing breed of mid-range budgeted original sci-fi. That 2011 film derives from a high concept, and once again, he chooses to dole out precious little exposition to explain the world. Yet viewers could catch on because it was rooted in humanity and character. There was something intrinsic to pull us in.

“Warcraft” comes with no such hook, instead leaving in the cold those without an extensive knowledge of the MMORPG.  At least it kicked me off early, leaving me to watch a fast-moving carousel coming unhinged by the second. (Seriously, this makes M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender” look like a paragon of narrative cohesion.) The film feels less like a movie and more like a YouTube playlist shuffling through deleted scenes of “Avatar,” “John Carter” and “The Hobbit.” While the effects – particularly motion-capture – look impressive, they mean jack squat with internal logic entirely absent.

All the money and technical wizardry on display is quite literally in service of nothing. Why spend $160 million on a spectacle of a fantasy film when production value is all that separates it from a direct-to-Redbox “Lord of the Rings” knockoff? The filmmaking team might as well have just pretended “Warcraft” took place in Middle Earth since they can never satisfactorily explain the tribes and the conflicts of this world.

Truly, the only people who can eke out a small victory from the film are the live-action performers such as Travis Fimmel, Ben Schnetzre, Dominic Cooper and Paula Patton. At least Universal’s marketing focused on the computer-generated creatures. They might be able to escape “Warcraft” relatively unscathed by what would otherwise by a substantial blemish on their careers. Everyone else, likely (and sadly) including Jones, is probably not so lucky. D-1star





REVIEW: The Devil’s Double

13 08 2011

Major props have to go to Dominic Cooper in “The Devil’s Double” for taking the performance to 11.  In dual roles as Uday Hussein, the psychotically incorrigible son of Saddam, and his level-headed body double Latif Yahia, Cooper proves himself to be significantly more than just a pretty face for those who know him as little more than the cocky sidekick in “An Education” and the guy who can barely muster the effort to put on a shirt but is still lucky enough to land Amanda Seyfried in “Mamma Mia.”  He plays Uday with a balls-to-the-wall lack of restraint, a risky move that can be communicated as a sort of foolish ridiculousness to the audience in the hands of an unskilled actor.

But against all odds (and my own personal expectations), it doesn’t come off that way at all.  Cooper’s performance as Uday as a man of excess simply emulates the excess surrounding him in the form of gilded palaces, Rolex-laden closets, and harem garden pools.  Anywhere else, this demented sexually devious, trigger-happy scion would be wildly out of place.  Yet against this backdrop, Cooper soars and scares with his rabid intensity, neither chewing scenery or fading idly into it.

As Latif, the mild-mannered lookalike forced into servitude for Uday, Cooper offers a simple performance that doesn’t dazzle but feels more spectacular thanks to its juxtaposition in the same movie with the crazed madman.  It’s a showcase of range for Cooper; concerns that we won’t be able to distinguish the two practically indistinguishable characters from each other evaporates almost instantly as Cooper establishes a firm foundation for both characters and then layers a colossus on top of it.

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REVIEW: Captain America: The First Avenger

21 07 2011

The bookend of a four comic book/superhero summer, “Captain America: The First Avenger” was given the onerous responsibility to keep audiences from succumbing to genre fatigue.  Luckily, it’s one of the better of these four – but that’s not saying much given this summer.  Joe Johnston’s take on the classic character actually gets some of the basics right, having the narrative storyline that “Thor” lacked and the decent visuals that “Green Lantern” didn’t bother to have.

But just because it’s an improvement doesn’t necessarily means it good, especially taking into account how poor the aforementioned movies were.  “Captain America” is barely bearable, so middling and nondescript that you can’t help but wonder how smashing “The Avengers” could possibly be with all these sub-par buildup movies.  If it’s lucky, it will be equal to the sum of its parts – and Chris Evans and company do about as little to fix the existing Marvel deficit as the President and Congress are doing to fix our national deficit.

Evans has remarkably little charisma despite being devilishly (albeit guiltily) entertaining in the “Fantastic Four” series, neither as a CGI-enhanced shrimp nor as a P90X-enhanced “Men’s Health” cover model prototype.  Playing Steve Rogers, selected to become the superhuman Captain America thanks to his tenacity in the face of bullying, he never really gives us a reason to get invested in the movie – something crucial for a lackluster summer blockbuster in need of some distinguishing feature.  He hits one note the whole movie: dull.  At least in most action movies, the main guy seems to be enjoying kicking butt … and Captain America gets to fight Nazis in World War II!  What more could an action hero ask for?!

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