REVIEW: Battle of the Sexes

1 10 2017

Toronto International Film Festival

NOTE: Since I reviewed this film for a bigger outlet, I can’t really reprint the review in its entirety. From now on, when I’ve given a film a proper review elsewhere, I’ll use this space to expand upon certain elements that might not have made their way into the full review.

Battle of the Sexes

One aspect of “Battle of the Sexes” getting lost amidst the gendered 2016 election comparisons is the film’s queer storyline. It was important that Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King was a woman facing Steve Carell’s misogynist Bobby Riggs, but as the 1973 public did not know, it was important that she was a queer woman. King was living a lie to herself and her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) because the world was simply not ready to accept a prominent lesbian athlete. (It’s used against King by one of her pious teammates as blackmail, another sad reminder that not every woman abides by the tenets of feminism.)

As I wrote in my full review, “It’s important ‘Battle of the Sexes’ included Marilyn [King’s lover, played by Andrea Riseborough] – to reduce her role or eliminate her altogether would have been nothing short of erasure.” But while their love story might not function smoothly as a romantic subplot, it does open a window into the quiet dignity of a still very underground LGBT community. (Most notable among them is Alan Cumming as Cuthbert ‘Ted’ Tinling, the women’s costumer.) In particular, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris pick up on the incognito communication they use to keep each other safe and covered. These observations are perceptive, and they seem like just nice moments until a surprisingly walloping emotional coda that I dare not spoil consummates them into something more.

Also, Sarah Silverman should only play sleazy promoters/publicists moving forward. Between this and “Popstar,” she’s found her perfect type. B+

Read my full review on Slashfilm.

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REVIEW: La La Land

24 12 2016

Houston Cinema Arts Festival

Richard Dyer, perhaps the most important modern academic writer on the cinematic musical, divided the genre into three camps. The first two, backstage and the more “escapist” variety, fashion their musical numbers as set apart from the main narrative. These song and dance sequences are very obviously a performative or fantasy space – a separate reality.

But the third, which he dubbed the “utopian” musical, featured a more porous exchange between sequences of the mundane and the melodic. These musical numbers are a heightened version of the reality we see in scenes with regular dialogue and blocking. The choreography and the chants add emphasis to mood and tone rather than simply carry water for plot and character development.

If the extended explanation did not already make it clear, Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” falls into this utopian musical category. When Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian and Emma Stone’s Mia move together, it’s pure bliss. The camerawork of Linus Sandgren captures them in long, fluid takes demonstrating the beauty of their synchronicity in the same way the staccato editing of Chazelle’s “Whiplash” conveyed the violence of drumming. While both actors can spar like Old Hollywood stars and emote like their contemporaries, their feelings are always better expressed in footwork and tentative croons.

Many classic musicals had to use dancing as a metaphor for sex given the strict censorship codes of the time. No such limitation exists to keep Gosling and Stone apart, but Chazelle’s insistence on adhering to the representational language of these films opens up “La La Land” to speak in a highly formalistic manner. It’s a bold choice to wed the film’s crowd pleasing elements to a borderline avant-garde aesthetic, but the elements harmonize quite nicely.

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REVIEW: Irrational Man

27 07 2015

Irrational ManThe summer of 2015 will likely go down in the record books as one that saw long overdue leaps and bounds for women in cinema.  They fought back against the patriarchy in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” ruled the roost in comedy with the one-two punch of “Spy” and “Trainwreck,” and the girl power in front of (as well as behind) the camera in “Pitch Perfect 2” made for the most overperforming sequel of the summer.  Even the two highest-grossers, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Jurassic World,” could not escape harsh scrutiny for the way they treated their leading ladies.

Apparently, Woody Allen did not get the memo.  The legendary writer and director deposits ideas as they come in a shoebox, often returning there for inspiration at a later date. His annual feature for 2015, “Irrational Man,” could not be a more inopportune grab from the pile.  Coming at a time where people finally expect female characters to resemble fully-fleshed people, his writing feels hopelessly retrograde and outdated.

The dynamic between his two leads feels quite familiar to anyone even slightly versed in Allen’s work.  At the center lies a man of conventional looks yet unconventional smarts, a role played here by Joaquin Phoenix as Abe Lucas.  His performance thankfully resists the easy temptation to resemble a Woody Allen caricature; Phoenix appears as if he is still emerging from the haze of “I’m Still Here.”  His depressive, alcoholic philosophy professor also looks about seven months pregnant, to boot.

In the universe according to Woody Allen, such a brilliant intellect should naturally draw the interest of women – young, attractive, nubile ones in particular.  Emma Stone assumes this part in “Irrational Man,” and no amount of her charm or grace can effectively mask just how one-dimensional her character Jill really is.  Allen makes it so her mind singularly focuses on Abe and only provides her the range of good-natured academic interest in Abe to full romantic pursuit.  Reconciling the fact that this character comes from the same writer who gifted us “Annie Hall” and “Blue Jasmine” proves a tough task.

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REVIEW: Aloha

19 06 2015

Aloha posterResponding to the reactions to a film in a review is something I generally frown upon; however, I am willing to make an exception in the case of “Aloha.”  Before Sony could release any trailers or marketing materials, studio head Amy Pascal’s scathing comments about Cameron Crowe’s film hit the Internet and sealed its fate.  The film said the “goodbye” aloha before it could say the “hello” aloha.  And then, once the critics finally got ahold of the final product, the nail was in the coffin.

So when I finally got around to seeing “Aloha,” I came with unavoidably low expectations.  I did not seek to answer the question of whether it was good or bad; I just needed to know how bad.  Watching a film in that mindset makes for an entirely different experience, akin to being a child in a doctor’s office waiting for a shot with eyes clenched shut.  You know the pain will come soon but are clueless as to when.

I kept waiting for “Aloha” to come apart at the seams.  Maybe the relationship between paramilitary contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) and his spunky Air Force escort Allison Ng (Emma Stone, unconvincingly playing part-Asian) would just become a little too far-fetched.  Or perhaps Brian would wreck the marriage of his ex-flame Tracy (Rachel McAdams), leaving the life she built with her kids and husband Woody (John Krasinski) in shambles and destroying all sympathy for the characters.  Any number of plot points, from the relations with native Hawaiian tribes to an odd space mission, could easily have gone south.

Yet, against the odds, “Aloha” manages to survive its shortcomings and remain a mostly enjoyable time at the movies.  Sure, the script could have benefitted from some retooled dialogue, a few reordered or rewritten scenes for the sake of clarity, and a narrower narrative scope.  As is, though, Crowe has the basis for a charming – but not disarming – romance with a superfluous side helping of story critiquing the military-industrial complex.

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REVIEW: Birdman

29 08 2014

Telluride Film Festival

I hardly think it counts as a spoiler anymore to say that “Birdman” (sometimes also credited with the title “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”) is edited to make the majority of the film appears as if there are not edits.  This does not, however, mean the film is intended to give us the illusion of unbroken action.  Breaks in time and space are quite clear, yet the effect of the long take remains.

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, as he would now have us call him, achieves the herculean feat of collapsing a timeline of roughly a few weeks into pure continuity.  He’s less interested in continuous action as he is a continuous feeling or sensation, an invigorating break from the oneupmanship that seems to come baked in with long-held takes.

Waiting for a cut or edit in a shot is like waiting for pent-up tension to be relieved, an indulgence Iñárritu refuses to grant.  (Leave it to the man who gave us the debilitatingly bleak “Biutiful” to make us writhe.)  “Birdman” follows Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson, a former blockbuster superhero star, attempting to win back his legacy in a flashy Broadway play.  He has struggles aplenty, both with his inner demons and the cast of characters around him, and the film certainly does not shy away from trying to replicate his anxiety in the viewing audience.

This is not just pure sadistic filmmaking, though; Iñárritu’s chosen form matches the content of the story quite nicely.  The film feels consistently restless and anxious, and not just because of the consistent drumming the underscores the proceedings.  These sensations are contributed to and complimented by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography.

After his work on “Children of Men,” “The Tree of Life,” and “Gravity,” it’s a wonder Lubezki had any surprises left in store.  “Birdman” may very well be his most accomplished  cinematic ballet to date, though.  There’s an art and a purpose to every position occupied or every shot length employed.  Pulling off some of these constantly kinetic scenes must have required some intensely detailed blocking with Iñárritu and the cast, but the level of difficulty makes itself apparent without screaming for attention.

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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: Magic in the Moonlight

23 07 2014

Magic in the MoonlightAt a Cannes Film Festival press conference back in 2010, writer/director Woody Allen opined rather extensively about his views on life.  Among the misanthropic murmurs, he remarked, “I do feel that it [life] is a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience, and that the only way that you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself.”

Four years later, “Magic in the Moonlight” arrives in theaters to once again hammer home Allen’s personal philosophy as expressed in the quote above.  You know, just in case we happened to miss it in any of his other four dozen or so films.

This pessimistic fatalism goes down, however, quite palatably here because Allen casts two leads far more charming than himself: Colin Firth and Emma Stone.  Though they’re spouting lines that could make Nietzsche chuckle, the film never loses its mirthful mood thanks to the effervescence that the duo radiates.

“Magic in the Moonlight,” similar to 2009’s “Whatever Works,” has the feel of an undeveloped comedy from Allen in the ’70s.  That tenor is achieved by the nature of the concept, yet it’s also due in large part to the spell that Stone casts over it.  Allen clearly sees in her the same kind of alluring wit and personality that Diane Keaton immortalized in his films; it’s simply delightful to watch a wide-eyed Stone revel in one of his creations.

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