REVIEW: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

20 11 2016

It’s good to be back in the Potterverse. While I might resist some of the revisionist history and postscripts of my beloved characters, a tangential outing like “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” hits the sweet spot. It’s clear that J.K. Rowling, who serves here as both screenwriter and producer, has more to explore and say about the magical world she created. Even if the roadmap to the supposedly five-part series she plans has not yet emerged, this first film makes for a fun, thoughtful outing.

The sheer presence of gentle ginger Eddie Redmayne alone, vocal in his bashful disappointment over not being cast as a Weasley, provides two hours of joy. The role of magical zoologist Newt Scamander is finely calibrated to match his unique star power: slightly awkward, modestly fumbling, overwhelmingly good-hearted. He serves as both our guide to a host of creatures never introduced to us by Hagrid and an outsider observing the operations of the American wizarding community.

Scamander arrives at Ellis Island with a suitcase full of living organisms and a mission to return some of them to their natural habitats. However, a series of chance encounters with a No-Maj (American speak for “Muggle”) gets him caught up in the geopolitical realities of the United States. Scamander becomes the unwitting companion to the rogue auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), who dedicates herself to finding a magical disturbance among the No-Maj that threatens to disrupt the Americans’ carefully guarded segregation of the two communities. Quite often, Scamander’s beasts get loose and make a mess out of an already precarious situation, and therein lies the enjoyment. He can always, somehow, wrangle control.

It will be interesting to see how, as the series progresses, Rowling deals with the political undertones introduced here. “Fantastic Beasts” strays away from the obvious allegory of franchises like “X-Men,” perhaps at the expense of glossing over or trivializing the issues. In this introduction, she introduces a group of puritanical recluses called “Second-Salemers” who call for a new purge of the magical community and a dark perversion of wizardry in Europe that Americans deny will wash up on their shores. It appears she will have plenty to pull from, both in ’30s history and contemporary society, in making these themes relevant. B+3stars

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REVIEW: We Need To Talk About Kevin

13 06 2016

We Need To Talk About KevinI have somewhat a shameful bad habit as a critic – sometimes, I cannot bring myself to write about the movies that transfix my senses and command my thoughts. Look through my pages of reviews and see the scores of films at the top of the list – “Shame,” “Spring Breakers, “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “The Big Short” – all without a formal review. It feels mostly rooted in a desire not to demystify the experience combined with a feebleness before the work. What good can my words really do in the face of such a colossus of art?

Tonight, I sat before my editorial calendar with a big gaping hole in my schedule. Nothing new left to review, nothing old particularly pertinent to a new release. What to write about, especially given the horrendous events dominating the news? (If you read this further out from publication and June 12 is not a date branded in your memory, I wrote the sentence you are reading in the wake of the slaughter at Pulse in Orlando.) Then, I remembered one film that I have been long overdue to appraise. Roughly five years late, as a matter of fact.

If you didn’t read the title or look at the poster, that film is Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” a chilling look behind the headlines at the mother of a murderer. Of course,  a one-to-one correlation between the Orlando massacre and the killing at the center of this film is not the point. The murder weapons are different, and the family environments and the means of radicalization are likely dissimilar as well (though answers are not known now). As we enter the backstretch of this decade, I cannot shake the feeling that this film will be among its definitive works and most potent responses to the crises of our time.

The film primarily takes place in the aftermath of the carnage carried out by the titular character with frequent flashbacks to the past of Kevin (Ezra Miller) and his mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton). In such times, we cast a backward glance to determine the cause of the present. And “cause” is just a polite word for “blame.” Once we know where we can point the finger, we can shake off the act.

I come to bang out this piece with the words and sounds of countless politicians, thinkpieces and cable news segments about Orlando swirling around in my head. It’s about gun control, some say. It’s about ISIS, declare others. It’s a hate crime, a mental health issue and probably countless other causes that my mind does not have the space to store.

Yet while I respect these journalists and newspeople, I found myself turning to artists for solace and understanding. That final scene from “Milk.” Charlie Chaplin’s powerful monologue from the end of “The Great Dictator.” The big address from the end of “The King’s Speech.” (Yes, I still resent it beating “The Social Network,” but I don’t have an ice chest in place of a heart.) Heck, even the comedy news stylings of Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers. It is artists who can take one step back from the messy business of the day and attempt to bring some perspective, highlight the complexity and sometimes even restore some prudence.

Lynne Ramsay brings a variety of perspectives, techniques and approaches to adapt Lionel Shriver’s epistolary novel into cinematic terms. She finds a pulsing, urgent narrative throughline to carry the patiently doled out details of Eva’s suffering on the page. What Ramsay assembles in “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is truly the gold standard among films that dare to delve into the cycle of violence that rips apart communities. We can see its destructive ends, but the multiplicity of factors that culminated in such an act form too great a web to untangle. That does not stop her from pointing out each thread.

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Social Scientists Behaving Badly (REVIEWS: The Stanford Prison Experiment and Experimenter)

24 12 2015

The Stanford Prison ExperimentIn my first semester of college, I took an introductory sociology class on a whim and wound up loving it so much that I added fifteen additional hours to my schedule to make it my second major. Ironically, in my final semester of college, two infamous experiments in the field of social science that captivated me in that first class made their way to the big screen.

Both premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, garnered respectable reviews and picked up distribution from heavy-hitting indie distributors. Though I’m reviewing them in tandem because the opportunity was too good to pass up, that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment” depicts a study in which professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) threw college students looking for a little extra cash into a staged environment deemed unethical by most in his field. The assignment was simple: in a lab-created prison, each received an assignment of prisoner or guard which they were to act out. To say they began to take these roles a little bit too seriously is the understatement of the century as harmless animosity spirals out of control into actual violence.

At one point during the experiment, a colleague interrogates Zimbardo and asks him what independent variable he was measuring – that is, what change he was hoping to observe in his study. Zimbardo does not have an answer, and it’s hard not to feel like the movie is similarly grasping at straws when it comes to what exactly the experiment was trying to examine. Beyond mere power relations and the willingness of humans to commit atrocities against each other, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” does little to illuminate the intellectual concepts that make its titular event worth studying to this day.

It abandons academia for entertainment which, admittedly, it does a very good job of providing. Though audiences may not feel the film’s ideas piercing their brain, they will likely feel the emotional impact of the solid turns from this extraordinary cast. People will no doubt look at “The Stanford Prison Experiment” like people today look at “The Outsiders,” seeing strong performances from rising male actors. If you haven’t already, remember these names – Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano, Jack Kilmer, Thomas Mann, Johnny Simmons, Logan Miller, Keir Gilchrist, Ki Hong Lee – because it will not be the last you hear from them.

ExperimenterAlvarez would have done well to lean on the findings from the subject of Michael Almereyda’s “Experimenter,” Stanley Milgram. A social psychologist working at Yale in the 1960s, Milgram sought answers to how ordinary German people became complicit in the Nazi machine. In other words, he sought to find in science and data what Hannah Arendt described in theory as “the banality of evil.”

Almereyda’s film puts a heavy emphasis on process, using large chunks of the film’s beginning to detail just how Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) went about obtaining his – pun fully intended – shocking findings. He meticulously devised an experiment in which an unsuspecting person would be asked to administer escalating electric shocks to someone else. No matter the pain that other person seemed to endure, the subject with the power to dole out the shock almost always continued if given the instruction to do so from an authority figure in the room.

Notoriously, Milgram was so horrified by the levels of obedience he found in America that he decided against testing his hypotheses in Germany. He controlled for any number of factors – the proximity of the person receiving the shock, the proximity of the authority figure in the experiment, even removing the subject from the setting of an academic laboratory. He got the same results nearly every time.

As a film, “Experimenter” loses a little luster with its less interesting forays into Milgram’s personal life and some didacticism. Milgram frequently breaks the fourth wall to go deeper into his findings, somewhat similarly to Frank Underwood in “House of Cards.” It starts off weird but eventually becomes normalized. Plus, Almereyda does plenty of showing the experiment that a little bit of telling to make sure no one misses the point feels fine.

But as a work about my other passion, social sciences, “Experimenter” reminds me of what I loved about the discipline. It celebrates the questioning of underlying assumptions we hold about social arrangements and then putting them to the test. I only wish it was around to show in a class or two when I was still in college. Hint to professors: this would make for a great Friday activity!

The Stanford Prison ExperimentB2halfstars
ExperimenterB+3stars





REVIEW: Trainwreck

4 08 2015

Trainwreck PosterAt roughly the midpoint of “Trainwreck,” writer Amy Schumer sets up a remarkable parallel between two scenes at the same baby shower.  The character Amy, played by Schumer herself, has to endure a brutal game of “Skeletons in the Closet” where posh young mothers spill dark secrets … that actually reveal themselves as pathetically and predictably tame.

Meanwhile, Amy’s boyfriend, Bill Hader’s Aaron Conners, recounts details of the many athletes he has helped rehabilitate in his sports medicine practice.  He rattles of name after name to the same awe-struck reaction from a crowd of unfamiliar men … until he drops the name Alex Rodriguez.  Among this set of New Yorkers, this blasphemy inspires a sudden outburst of profanity.  But then, Aaron goes back to some more agreeable athletes, and the peanut gallery resumes the standard call-and-response.

These scenes, juxtaposed as they are, communicate a central tenet of “Trainwreck.”  Both genders, when taking cultural stereotypes of gender to the extreme ends of their performance, deserve mockery for their folly.  (This also includes John Cena, who briefly appears as Amy’s bodybuilding boyfriend who talks about the gym like many women talk about the nail salon.)  Schumer’s feminist intervention into the romantic comedy genre aims to level the playing field for men and women, not by putting the latter on any kind of pedestal but through suggesting the common humanity that unites them.

Her on-screen persona in “Trainwreck” arrives at the perfect moment, a time where many female characters are either monotonically strong or practically invisible and silent.  The “approachable” Amy, as her boss (played by a bronzed Tilda Swinton) condescendingly deems her, is a romantic comedy heroine cut from the cloth of contemporary society.  The hard-drinking, truth-telling, free-wheeling character benefits from the assertiveness in romance that women gained through the sexual revolution, yet she also pushes up against the lingering constraints left unconquered by that unfinished movement.  Amy also embodies the spirit of a generation scared to death of commitment, an era when the only thing scarier than the sea of possibilities is the choice to settle on one of them.

She meets her match in Aaron, an equally plain-spoken person who falls for Amy as she profiles him for the men’s magazine S’nuff.  The big difference, though, is that he possesses self-confidence where she shields her insecurities with self-deprecation.  Aaron, notably, never becomes a human incarnation of a “Mr. Wonderful” doll.  While exceedingly nice and admirable, Amy exposes a few of the buttons he might not like people pushing.

“Trainwreck” does not place Amy in the position of damsel in distress, nor does it make her some kind of prize for winning once tamed.  Amy’s impetus to change, although partially spurred by Aaron, seems to derive from an internal desire to stop numbing herself to the world.  And even in her triumphs (including the grand finale), Schumer always makes sure her Amy still shows some amusing, endearing flaws.  She is allowed to have flawed, circular logic, and it does not mean she is crazy; it just means we embrace her all the more.

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LISTFUL THINKING: 2012 Superlatives

1 01 2013

New Year’s Day always marks a very interesting balancing act, reflecting on the old while also ringing in the new.  So while people are still thinking about 2012, let me offer up the first annual Superlatives post for the films of 2012.  I’ve already weighed in with the best and worst 10 of 2012, but what about the other 80 movies of the year?  What about the performances?  What about all sorts of other things?  This is the post where I get all sorts of stuff floating in my mind out there.

For the sake of review, I’ll go ahead and re-list my 10 best and worst of 2012.

Top 10 of 2012

10 Best of 2012: “21 Jump Street,” “Argo,” “Hitchcock,” “Killing Them Softly,” “Looper,” “Bernie,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Misérables,” “The Master,” “The Queen of Versailles

Prometheus

Honorable Mentions: “Rust and Bone,” “Prometheus,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “End of Watch,” “Holy Motors

Worst 10 of 2012

10 Worst of 2012: “The Grey,” “The Bourne Legacy,” “John Carter,” “Gone,” “The Vow,” “Killer Joe,” “The Paperboy,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” “The Watch,” “Casa De Mi Padre

pitchperfect2

Honorable Mentions: “Pitch Perfect,” “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” “First Position,” “Keep the Lights On,” “Being Flynn

10 More 2012 Releases I Still Need to See: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “The Impossible,” “Promised Land,” “The Intouchables,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Hyde Park on Hudson,” “Not Fade Away,” “Smashed,” “The House I Live In,” “Searching for Sugar Man”

Vanellope

5 Most Surprising Movies of 2012: “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Bernie,” “End of Watch,” “Hitchcock,” “21 Jump Street

Denzel Washington in Flight

5 Most Disappointing Movies of 2012: “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Django Unchained,” “Lincoln,” “Flight,” “The Bourne Legacy

Bachelorette

10 Most Forgettable Movies of 2012 (in alphabetical order): “Bachelorette,” “Hysteria,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “Lola Versus,” “Man on a Ledge,” “Men in Black III,” “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” “Take This Waltz,” “Trouble with the Curve

Silver Linings Playbook

5 Most Rewatchable Movies of 2012: “21 Jump Street,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Argo,” “Ted

Lincoln

5 Movies of 2012 I’m Glad I Saw But Will Never Watch Again: “Lincoln,” “Amour,” “The Invisible War,” “Compliance,” “ReGeneration

Killing Them Softly

5 Most Underrated Movies of 2012: “Killing Them Softly,” “Les Misérables,” “Prometheus,” “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “End of Watch

The Avengers

5 Most Overrated Movies of 2012: “The Sessions,” “Lincoln,” “Django Unchained,” “Life of Pi,” “The Avengers

PSH

5 Movies That Got Better with Distance and Time: “Killing Them Softly,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Master,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Prometheus

Brave

5 Movies That Got Worse with Distance and Time: “Brave,” “Lincoln,” “Flight,” “The Sessions,” “The Dark Knight Rises

Argo

5 Movies That Felt Shorter Than Their Runtime: “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Misérables,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Argo,” “Django Unchained

Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina"

5 Movies That Felt Longer Than Their Runtime: “Lincoln,” “Anna Karenina,” “This Is 40,” “Damsels in Distress,” The Five-Year Engagement

BOTSW

Breakout Performances: Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,”  Eddie Redmayne in “Les Misérables,” Ezra Miller in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Garrett Hedlund in “On the Road,” Scoot McNairy in “Argo

Silver Linings Playbook

Breakthrough Performances: Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook,” Michael Pena in “End of Watch,” Jack Black in “Bernie,” Channing Tatum in “21 Jump Street,” Elizabeth Banks in “People Like Us

Best Exotic

Breakdown Performances: Anna Kendrick in “Pitch Perfect,” Salma Hayek in “Savages,” Tom Cruise in “Rock of Ages,” Emile Hirsch in “Killer Joe,” Dev Patel in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

frame 01021605R

Best Body of Work in 2012: (tie) Anne Hathaway in “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Les Misérables,” Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games” and “Silver Linings Playbook

The Deep Blue Sea

Worst Body of Work in 2012: (tie) Rachel Weisz in “The Bourne Legacy” and “The Deep Blue Sea,” Taylor Kitsch in “John Carter” and “Savages

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Best Heroes: Jessica Chastain as Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk in “The Avengers,” Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables

John Carter

Worst Heroes: Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Taylor Kitsch as John Carter in “John Carter,” Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross in “The Bourne Legacy

Catwoman

Best Villains: Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Russell Crowe as Javert in “Les Misérables,” Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie in “Django Unchained

Skyfall

Worst Villains: Tom Hardy as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Javier Bardem as Silva in “Skyfall,” Rhys Ifans as Lizard in “The Amazing Spider-Man

Joaquin

Best Possessed Performance: Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master

The Paperboy

Worst Possessed Performance: Nicole Kidman in “The Paperboy

Bernie

Best Comedic Performance: (tie) Jack Black in “Bernie,” Channing Tatum in “21 Jump Street

The Watch

Worst Comedic Performance: The cast of “The Watch

Uggie

Best Cameo: Uggie in “The Campaign

Ryan Reynolds

Worst Cameo: Ryan Reynolds in “Ted

Eddie Redmayne

Best Singing: Eddie Redmayne in “Les Misérables

Alec

Worst Singing: Alec Baldwin in “Rock of Ages

That’s about all I can come up with for now … may add to this later!  Happy 2013, everyone!





REVIEW: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

16 12 2012

PerksIt’s rare that a high school movie captures the full range of experiences one can have in that crucial period, and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” covers all the bases with ease.  The movie, adapted by Stephen Chbosky from his own novel, saunters at a casual mosey that allows us to take in every moment and appreciate its importance.

In a sense, it allows us to get into the character of protagonist Charlie, played wistfully by Logan Lerman.  He’s the eponymous wallflower, a passive yet perceptive observer taking it all in his freshman year rather than actively seeking to fulfill his desires.  We go from feeling sorry for him as he struggles to find acceptance on his first day of high school to quickly frustrated … because we know the easiest way to put an end to those woes!

Thankfully, Charlie stumbles into two fantastic friends before our annoyance reaches walk-out/turn-off levels.  First, there’s Patrick, an extreme extrovert who says exactly what’s on his mind no matter how inappropriate it may be.  Ezra Miller plays him with such a fantastic gusto that it’s impossible not to be drawn in by his magnetism.

Miller also sheds a tremendous light on the private shame that the very public characters struggles with: the relationship with football player Brad who won’t acknowledge the flamboyant Patrick in the halls at school.  This storyline is arguably the most compelling and dramatic of the film, especially since Miller and fellow rising star Johnny Simmons play it with such high stakes and tense emotionality.

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