REVIEW: Queen of Earth

6 12 2015

Queen of EarthAlex Ross Perry’s latest film, “Queen of Earth,” recalls the work of filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavettes in its visual style. Yet in its dialogue and story, the film feels a bit like Chekov’s stab at a psychological thriller.

In fact, I got a bit of déjà vu to Woody Allen’s “September,” a chamber drama set in a rustic retreat. The setting is similar in “Queen of Earth” – a lake house, populated by a smug set of unabashedly spoiled thirty-somethings. The majority of the film’s ninety minutes are devoted to the verbal shanking that occurs between two frenemies, Katherine Waterston’s Virginia and Elisabeth Moss’ Catherine. The latter of the two takes it a little rougher and begins to suffer a bit of a crack up.

Thankfully, Moss and Waterston are talented enough thespians to make these fights interesting. Perry, who penned indelible one-liners for his previous features “The Color Wheel” and “Listen Up Philip,” paints in almost humorously broad strokes here. His general, vague dialogue makes their conflict feel rather lacking in depth. Furthermore, it feels at odds with his aesthetic tools of choice, which heavily rely on close-ups of their faces to carry the drama.

While this might be a step forward for Perry as an artist, it seems to have come at the cost of his memorable, believable characters. Hopefully he can find a way to better marry the two sensibilities moving forward. B- / 2stars

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REVIEW: Truth

16 11 2015

TruthHere’s something that generally serves as harbinger for an undeveloped movie: if a movie has to say its title multiple times to continually telegraph its themes. Bonus points if said theme is also the film’s title.

Truth” is obsessed with, well, the truth and asking questions as it pertains to journalistic inquiry. James Vanderbilt’s film follows a “60 Minutes” squad led by Cate Blanchett’s Mary Mapes as they dig deeper into then-President George W. Bush’s dubious military record. Their investigation appears to uncover preferential treatment that kept him out of Vietnam.

However, that finding comes under intense scrutiny after a document’s authenticity cannot be proven. The fallout ultimately claims the position of longtime CBS evening news anchor Dan Rather, played unconvincingly by the great Robert Redford. Needless to say, this is pretty much a nightmare for the newsroom, yet somehow writer/director Vanderbilt tries to spin some shades of gray from it.

The argument, so it seems, is that Bush somehow deserved to be caught and that Mapes had every right to question him without airtight facts. I can only assume he wagers that the world would be better had Bush not been re-elected, journalistic ethics be damned. He has an “All the President’s Men”-level faith in the power of reporters to bring down a president with none of the respect for the rigorous procedures that allow them to speak truth to power.

What could have been a cautionary tale about confirmation bias – the interpretation of information to suit the narrative in one’s head – essentially just tries to turn Mapes into some kind of martyr. Blanchett does her best to sell this angle, mixing and matching elements from her performances in “Blue Jasmine” and “Notes on a Scandal” to make it work. But even she cannot transcend the victimization complex that plagues her character on the page, so the net result of “Truth” ends up being negative for the fourth estate. B-2stars





REVIEW: High-Rise

27 10 2015

Fantastic Fest

If Ben Wheatley’s achievement in High-Rise were likened to anything, it might have to be juggling fire.  Not merely content to cautiously play with fire, he lights a few torches and tosses them back and forth into the air.  Having perfect form seems almost beside the point as execution gets subjugated by the power of sheer ambition.  The mere ability to keep so many dangerous objects in orbit without self-immolating inspires wonder.

Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise

Wheatley’s cinematic iteration of J.G. Ballard’s novel, adapted for the screen by his wife Amy Jump, is the kind of filmmaking so outlandish and ballsy that it might even be illegal in some parts. The film lingered in development hell for four decades but arrives at the perfect time both socially and artistically.  For a story that deals heavily with class conflict and economic inequality, High-Rise has only become more topical with each passing year.  Furthermore, all its idiosyncrasies make Wheatley’s gonzo style a perfect match of director with material.

The film uses its titular structure, a Brutalist skyscraper containing all the necessary supplies for a self-sustaining community, as a microcosm of our stratified social strata.  But where many stories obliquely commenting on the de facto arrangements that organize our world opt for obvious allegory, Wheatley finds a more satisfying film by exploring the realm of the metaphorical.  Not everything in High-Rise corresponds directly to a recognizable counterpart in the real world, which allows Wheatley the ability to operate at higher levels of ambiguity.

Elisabeth Moss and Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise

Over the course of nearly two hours, the film takes its audience on a thrill ride akin to the Tower of Terror at Disneyland as it goes back and forth between the Caligula-esque exploits of the top floors’ wealthy residents and the grunge of the working class who dwell towards the bottom.  The closest thing the film has to an entry point is Tom Hiddleston’s Robert Laing, a doctor who seems to fall somewhere between the two divisions.

Laing is more often witness to the proceedings than an active participant in the war that breaks out, yet in a way, that makes him all the more ideal to experience the escalating absurdity through.  Calling him a blank slate does a disservice to Hiddleston’s captivating performance, though he does serve that function ins some part.

When someone roasts a dog or bludgeons their enemy with a BAFTA trophy – both of which happen in ­High-Rise – there is something rather refreshing about not being told precisely how to feel.  Many events that take place come with no obvious response, and Wheatley allows us the chance to react as we feel appropriate.  But be it laughter, fear, shock or disgust, our mouths are wide open in awe regardless.  And since the ideas come flying fast and furious, with a new thought arriving before the last one has a chance to settle in, there is simply no choice but to see High-Rise again. B+3stars





REVIEW: Listen Up Philip

30 10 2014

Listen Up PhilipIf you were to put a gun to my head (but I hope you wouldn’t) and asked me to a name a novelistic film, I would most likely offer up “The Place Beyond the Pines.”  The rich detail provided in the hundreds of pages of text is usually translated into cinematic terms through depth and immensity of scope.  This is far from representative of all the capabilities of the novel, however.

Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip” might lack a sprawling canvas of time, yet it feels perhaps more novelistic than any film in recent memory.  It not only captures the content of the writing style, but it also manages to somehow resemble the form itself.  Perry’s consistent employment of voiceover to verbally elucidate the internal worlds of his characters as they trod a frustrating journey of self-actualization makes the experience of viewing akin to curling up with a book on the couch.

To be fair, “Listen Up Philip” is not quite a page-turner in the same way as a novel like “Gone Girl.”  If I was reading the story at my own pace, as opposed to having it told to me for an hour and 45 minutes, I don’t think I would be in any huge rush to see it through to the bitter end.  (Emphasis on bitter for this snarky scowler of a story.)  But the replication and simulation of the prosaic absorption process within a condensed period is certainly a worthwhile use of time.

And while the story is not even particularly innovative or enjoyable, Perry definitely aligns the nature of his plot with the tenor of his form.  It seems only logical that an ingeniously written and self-aware film would follow the misadventures of an ingenious and very self-aware writer.  Perry’s protagonist Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is Woody Allen meets Whit Stillman distilled into an entitled millennial novelist.  A semi-successful writer releasing his second book, Philip is forced to deal with the fallout from the clashes of his elephantine ego in both personal and professional settings.

Schwartzman, given the unjustly rare chance to take center stage, provides a potent mix of pretentious pedantry and embraceable anxiety.  Thankfully, though, the film also provides nuance and detail to the ensemble surrounding Philip.  This allows Elisabeth Moss and Jonathan Pryce to deliver rich performances as Philip’s exasperated girlfriend and his overeager older mentor, respectively.

“Listen Up Philip” takes all the grandiosity normally imbued in the passage of time in novelistic cinema and transfers it to the characters.  Letting personalities propel the proceedings is certainly nothing groundbreaking in independent film, but achieving it in this manner is definitely a less common treat.  B+3stars





REVIEW: The One I Love

23 08 2014

The One I LoveIt is not uncommon to see movies tackling troubled relationships, as human relationships and conflict are often two crucial building blocks of any great story.  “The One I Love” puts a couple on the verge, Mark Duplass’ Ethan and Elisabeth Moss’ Sophie, front and center from the very first scene.  We see them at a therapy session, only to be sent off immediately by their headshrinker (Ted Danson) to a secluded locale that has apparently worked wonders on other couples.

Yet after about the first ten minutes of the movie, all that we think we know goes flying out the door in Justin Lader’s ingenious script.  Writing any specifics about the premise might spoil all the fun of “The One I Love,” but think of it as all the dimension-defying surreality of “Alice In Wonderland” without the exaggerated acid trip.  In other words, there’s no way you could possibly mistake this movie for the 2009 Vince Vaughn comedy “Couples Retreat.”

The alluringly unique magical realism of the story also comes with a relatively fresh take on issues long debated in relationship movies, such as the things people look for in a relationship and the benefits they expect to derive from it.  The revelations of “The One I Love” may not be earth-shattering, but at least they feel profoundly felt thanks to the committed performances of Duplass and Moss.  The two actors play deceptively tricky characters, and they navigate every turn with brilliant poise.

Director Charlie McDowell, on the other hand, does not necessarily hit every note correctly in his feature debut.  “The One I Love” often jumps around in search of a genre, usually vacillating between a intimate, two-hander domestic drama and a suspenseful micro-thriller.  Lader’s script thankfully lends itself to some abruptly jarring shifts, and the lack of tonal unity winds up coming aiding the film’s unpredictability on a moment-by-moment basis.

Though I doubt any major studio would ever go this far out on a limb with a big project, “The One I Love” offers a fascinating example of a fairly conventional setup being executed brilliantly through a refreshingly unconventional script.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Get Him to the Greek

10 06 2010

Some movies really do need to come with a health warning.  “Get Him to the Greek,” for instance, should inform all moviegoers that that it packs enough laughs in under two hours to make you hurt all over.  Along with the usual beautiful gut-wrenching pain, the comedy is so potent that it can hit you as high as the throat.

For a year now, we have been waiting for a movie as hilarious as the runaway smash hit “The Hangover,” and that movie has finally arrived.  I’ll even be as bold to say that upon repeat viewings, “Get Him to the Greek” could prove to be better.  And I’m not being sensational to grab attention or to wind up on the DVD case; I think I laughed harder, louder, and more consistently.

“Get Him to the Greek” is a spin-off of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and it manages to make the movie that introduced us Aldous Snow look like the ugly step-cousin in every way.  It’s infinitely funnier; the characters are more interesting; the plot is more absorbing.  I didn’t think Brand was all that funny in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” but now it’s clear that the emotional aspect of the movie weighed him down.  Here, he is unleashed and immature as ever.  And it’s an absolute riot.

Brand and Jonah Hill, who plays young record label employee Aaron Green, are the “Odd Couple” for a new generation.  A pairing such as theirs might be labeled a “comic man-straight man routine,” but the movie neither fits those labels nor feels like a routine.  Both get the chance to side-splittingly hilarious, and it absolutely works.  As much as I expected Brand to run away with the movie, Hill gets some of the best laughs of the movie as he tries to adjust to the crazy antics of the rockstar he’s attempting to control.

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