REVIEW: Captain Fantastic

3 08 2016

Most movies about adventures into the wilderness center around the themes of getting in touch with one’s primal instincts or returning to some sense of balance with nature. Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic” is not most movies, though.

Viggo Mortensen’s Ben Cash raises his family of six children to live in harmony with the environment to an extent, but this is far from the traditional feral child model. They live in somewhat of a liberal arts experiment taken to a logical extreme where, removed from the supposed silliness of socially constructed rules and traditions, Ben can provide the kids with an environment of pure rationality and intelligence in which to develop. We’re talking people who celebrate Noam Chomsky Day over Christmas, people.

Ben’s ascetic cult of authenticity, cast as a utopia, may well be a vision of the world in a not-too-distant future should the slow march of progress continue in its current direction. While “Captain Fantastic” does often assume the posture of defending the inherent virtues of the idea, Ross hardly lets Ben off easy. What Ben might envision as a microcosm of a perfectible society also looks a lot like a more rustic version of the ivory tower mentality. A portion of America has let their rationality drive them into enclaves of self-selected intellectual peers, where cognitive gifts fan the flames of their own egos rather than stoking necessary social change.

Mortensen’s performance comes to embody the tough realization of the film. As he confronts the passing of his wife and the grief of his family, Ben’s plain-spoken literalism creates more problems than it solves. Years in the wilderness indoctrinating his children with the intelligence of textbooks has left him blinded to the need for emotional intelligence and empathy in the wake of tragedy. Despite some real quirks in his character, Mortensen keeps an impressively even keel as he slowly comes to realize the impracticality of many principles to which he has dedicated his life.

“Captain Fantastic” does not implode Ben’s self-confidence all at once. The film erodes it gradually to devastating effect. Ross favors slowly peeling off the band-aid that covers decades of resentment, equivocation and hurt. The process stings for everyone involved, characters and audience. But expression is ultimately more valuable than repression, and something tells me that Ben could find a philosopher to cite in regards to why that is so. B+3stars

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REVIEW: 5 to 7

19 06 2016

5 to 7It’s going to be weird to start talking about Anton Yelchin in the past tense, but here goes … deep breath.

Among the many roles I wish Yelchin had the opportunity to play, the nebbish Woody Allen surrogate shot to the top of the list the moment I saw the beautiful, magical “5 t0 7.” The actor captures all the confusion and frustration over unpleasant romantic configurations without all the nerve-inducing anxiety of someone like Jesse Eisenberg. His leading man type was the perfectly agreeable mix between matinee idol and real person.

Unlike an Allen protagonist, however, Yelchin’s Brian Bloom is a hopeless monogamist who cannot fathom the bohemian open relationship held by the object of his desire, Bérénice Marlohe’s Arielle. She’s married to a French diplomat with whom she shares two beautiful children, but between the hours of 5 and 7 P.M., she has the freedom to carry out her own romantic pursuits. That she can be so steadfastly committed to her marriage but cavalier in her affairs baffles Brian to no end.

Better yet, the relationship status marks only the surface level of differences between the two lovers explored by writer/director Victor Levin. Age, social strata and success markers provide friction to complicate the passion. Brian struggles to gain traction in the insular New York publishing world, while Arielle’s standing as the wife of an established community leader lends an air of comfort to her every action. In many ways,”5 to 7″ inverts the romantic cliché of the knight in shining armor saving the damsel in distress by having Arielle pull Brian upwards professionally.

The subtext might be nice to examine in a review, but the real pleasures of “5 to 7” come from simply taking in the film’s gently paced, wonderfully measured charms. Levin never hurries a scene, always allowing information and emotion to spring naturally from the dialogue and blocking. While clocking in at only 97 minutes, the film feels like spending years with these characters. Watching them endure the growing pains of a relationship with the additional complications of not subscribing to typical social norms makes for a delightfully witty and sincere journey. B+3stars





REVIEW: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

16 01 2011

I have no problem with Hollywood approaching the 2008 financial collapse; look no further than my “A” for Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job.”  But it’s a slippery slope to walk on, and Oliver Stone’s slanted “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” does a total face-plant as its blatantly pointed activism destroys any legitimacy the movie might have.  Compared to Ferguson’s fascinating investigation and research, Stone’s allegory is a cowardly and vicious attack on the system of greed that the original film highlighted in 1987.

There was no reason to resurrect Michael Douglas’ Oscar-winning character Gordon Gekko at all, and Stone’s haste to use him as an instrument in unleashing a tirade against Wall Street renders his transformation senseless.  In the first film, he was a slimy representation of greed and excess, and an antagonist meant to be deplored.  Yet in 2010, he has been conveniently reassigned to the voice of the writer and his liberal sensibilities.  No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, this move just doesn’t work under the basic conventions of storytelling.

The movie’s main plot is mostly independent of Gekko, tying him in through a broken relationship with his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan).  She’s engaged to Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a young upstart banker who gets caught up in the idea of creating something from nothing that he ultimately winds up without anything.  After the suicide of his mentor, he finds himself reeling and very lost.

Sure, it has its entertaining moments, but the whole movie just reeks of a misplaced sense of political vindication.  Stone doesn’t challenge, inform, or educate, and there’s nothing left for the audience to ponder.  The deranged manifesto that is “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is just a series of thinly veiled pot-shots on everyone involved in the financial meltdown, less based on the facts than on the opinions and convictions of its hardly neutral filmmakers.  C-





REVIEW: The Box

8 04 2010

There was one thing that struck me immediately when I started watching “The Box“: it’s one of the most over-directed movies I have ever seen.  It’s like the little kid who puts shaving cream on his face and thinks he is just like his dad.  With all the ominous music and long, drawn-out shots, Richard Kelly has convinced himself that he has made “The Shining.”  But he is no Stanley Kubrick, and “The Box” is no “The Shining.”  In fact, the movie dabbles its toes in so many different genres that we can never be quite sure exactly what it wants to be.

Is it a mystery?  Well, the insane predictability of the script prevents us from ever really wondering what’s going to happen.  But even if you put that aside, “The Box” is about as subtle as a shotgun in a schoolyard.  All of the symbolism (NASA?  Sartre and “No Exit?”) is so obvious that it sucks any suspense out of the movie.

Is it science-fiction?  Well, the movie works in some sci-fi elements, but they are incorporated as oddly and awkwardly as the aliens in the fourth “Indiana Jones” movie.  I would have been so happy had “The Box” just stuck to analyzing the morality and ethics of pressing a button that gives you a million dollars at the cost of a random person’s life.

Is it horror?  It so desperately wants to be, but the only thing that scared me was the scorched side of Frank Langella’s face, which looks like a half-assed Two-Face.  And even that didn’t really scare me, per se, so much as it gave me a few chills.

Is it a thriller?  Any chance I had at being “thrilled” went out the window after about 10 minutes when I realized that the sluggish pace wasn’t going to let up.  And at all the potential moments of exhilaration, I was too busy ridiculing what I had just seen.

While being none of these things, “The Box” actually manages to be quite a good comedy.  It’s pretty hard not to get a good chuckle out of Cameron Diaz’s horrendous Southern accent, which manages to make Sandra Bullock’s “The Blind Side” dialect seem completely natural.  The movie takes itself way too seriously, and that often leads to some good comedy.  The dialogue is so ridiculous that it becomes quite hilarious, particularly when Diaz delivers it.  But even as a comedy, “The Box” is still a pratfall, just like it is as any other genre.  C- /





F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 11, 2009)

11 12 2009

This week’s “F.I.L.M.” (First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie for those that need a refresher) is George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck.”  The movie follows newscaster Edward R. Murrow’s stand against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt in the 1950s.  But Clooney, the movie’s writer/director, makes the movie more than just a chronicle of events.  The movie isn’t about Murrow or McCarthy, nor is it about the Red Scare.  “Good Night, and Good Luck” is about standing up for what is right even if you are the only one.  Clooney understands the importance of these themes still today and makes a film that will be forever relevant.

The movie takes us back to a much simpler time in television.  Murrow (David Strathairn) is more than just a reporter; he is an orator with well thought-out speeches and firm opinions.  In the era where the Red Scare is at its height and blacklisting is a very present fear, Murrow dared to stand up and call out Joseph McCarthy when no one else would, knowing that he very well could become the Senator’s next victim.  Many people were not willing to take this risk with him; even more bet against him.  But Murrow was unyielding and uncompromising, and he used the power that his voice had to convey to Americans that it is not acceptable to live in a climate where we fear one another.  His forceful discourse indirectly led to the end of McCarthyism and, in this writer’s opinion, will become immortalized in the annals of American history at a level near that of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Adress.

“Good Night, and Good Luck” is for television journalism what “All The President’s Men” is for print journalism, a classic story of ethics.  But the former is packed with an extra punch: a cautionary moral tale.  A speech by Murrow in the late ’50s shown at the close of the movie is particularly haunting as he elaborates about the tremendous power of television and how we must use it to inform people, not merely to entertain and amuse.  Murrow passed away over four decades ago, but Clooney sure wants us to ponder what he would think if he turned on the cable box today.  Would he be proud of the uproars when millions of people miss “Grey’s Anatomy” so ABC can show President Obama’s speech?  Would he be proud of the fact that our news channels are so concerned with political correctness that they become lambs rather than the lions of his day, willing to call out wrong behavior with confidence?  Would he be proud to see dozens more movie channels than news channels on most televisions?  Clooney’s double gut-punch of virtue is a wake-up call that does not go out to just politicians and news anchors.  It retains meaning for people dealing with even the smallest of dishonorable conduct.  Now that is something that would make Murrow proud.