F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 27, 2017)

27 04 2017

For whatever reason, I found James Gray’s “Two Lovers” cold, remote and distant on first watch. Perhaps it was just too close to the release of the director’s film “The Immigrant,” my favorite film of 2014 (and potentially the decade). I knew to expect classical-style melodrama yet still found myself desperately searching for an access point that I couldn’t locate.

I don’t know what changed between then and now – more familiarity with Gray’s reference points, better understanding of melodrama, knowing the plot, general life experience – but I’d now easily put “Two Lovers” in “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory. The passion, disappointment and affection lurk beneath the surface of the film, not always palpable but constantly dictating the limited choices of the characters. Watching the film a second time opened my eyes to the straightjackets of expectation they all inhabit – and how difficult embracing another person must be with arms tied.

Joaquin Phoenix’s quiet, subdued Leonard Kraditor is not the lightning rod of easy sympathy in the way Marion Cotillard’s Ewa was in “The Immigrant.” For heaven’s sake, the beginning of the movie shows him moving back in with his parents after encountering a setback in his mental health. This gives them the excuse to propose the closest 21st century equivalent of an arranged marriage with the daughter of a business partner, shy but stable Sandra (Vinessa Shaw). Of course, this comes at the same time Leonard meets fellow building tenant Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a shaky yet spunky woman who draws a more carnal reaction from him. She’s a bit of a mess between a drug habit and an ongoing affair with her philandering coworker; Leonard pursues her all the same.

“Two Lovers” centers around the push and pull between the two competing impulses in Leonard’s life, most notably personified in the two women. Though desire and feeling are so often kept repressed in the film, I found myself inexorably drawn into the dramatized reality. Gray locates the tragedy in the common man’s story, a daunting feat that would ring as pretentious if it failed. It doesn’t, and “Two Lovers” emanates with Gray’s wisdom of the complexities of human behaviors and relationships.





REVIEW: Iron Man 3

18 06 2013

History will look back at the summer of 2013 and remember most of all the precipitous decline of the “Hangover” series.  However, there’s another franchise that has brought me disappointment this summer as well.

In the summer of 2008, I was over the moon for Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man,” so much so that I rushed out on opening night for the disappointing “Iron Man 2.”  By the time Tony Stark suited up for “The Avengers,” I really could have cared less.

Perhaps it’s most telling that the way I saw Shane Black’s “Iron Man 3” was on a Thursday afternoon when a combination of rain and wind knocked out my Wi-Fi.  Otherwise, I would have been content to sit in bed and watch a movie on Netflix.  But the big event film of the summer, the $175 million dollar opener that was second-best ever, to me was just another movie.

It was really just a box to check.  Since I’d invested 4 hours in Tony Stark’s story already (6 if you count “The Avengers”), I figured I probably ought to finish it.  And seeing a film out of misplaced obligation instead of real desire isn’t necessarily the most fulfilling feeling.

“Iron Man 3,” all in all, was entertaining.  It could have been a lot worse, and it was an improvement from its predecessor.  But it’s such a stark decline from the first installment that being more bad than good can hardly be considered a victory.

The visuals are good, although that ending sequence seemed to be more or less lifted from the lackluster summer 2010 bust “The A-Team” and Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin.”  The story manages to move along at a decent clip without ever boring too much, yet it lacks the effortless engagement encouraged by the original film.

The biggest difference, though, is Robert Downey Jr., who moved from being the series’ X-factor to its hidden liability.  His Tony Stark began as an endearingly sardonic character whose spiny personality could be accepted as just the inability to look at life seriously.  Over the course of the series, the scribes have tried to harden Stark to hide the fact that Downey Jr. had grown smugly complacent to the point of disdaining the other characters.  The darker, somber tone hasn’t worked because, well, Jon Favreau and Shane Black are not Christopher Nolan.

I’ve also felt that Downey Jr. has disdained the audience as well, as if every icy quip is played with the subtext of “I’m making millions of dollars for being the jerk you can’t be.”  While “Iron Man 3” seems to say goodbye to Tony Stark (or at least Robert Downey Jr. playing him), it’s not a good riddance.  But I’m certainly not choked up or even upset.  Not at this level of mediocrity.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Contagion

3 01 2012

While talking to a friend who was on the fence about seeing “Contagion,” I threw out the following selling point without really even thinking: “It’s a Steven Soderbergh movie.”  Then I recoiled for a second and actually thought about what that meant.  Granted, I haven’t seen his watershed indie “Sex, Lies & Videotape,” but when I look back at his filmography, I wouldn’t label many of them directorial triumphs.  “The Informant!” succeeds mostly because of Matt Damon, “Erin Brockovich” is 100% Julia Roberts, and the slickness of the “Ocean’s” series is what made them popular.  “Traffic” is, I suppose, although I don’t think I would recommend that.

So a Soderbergh movie with a cast of eight Oscar nominees (so many that two didn’t even make the poster) had no shot at being a director’s movie … or so I thought.  Surprisingly, this is a movie where Steven Soderbergh is the biggest and most brightly shining of all the stars.  He’s in total control of this vehicle, setting the mood from the first frame and then keeping it an even-keeled movie even when Scott Z. Burns’ script goes a little haywire.

In a time where hyperlink cinema has become a hackneyed plot device, Soderbergh, one of the pioneers of the style with “Traffic,” reminds us why it’s even around in the first place.  These stories can be linked across countries because technology and globalization has made us linked into a common destiny. Yet in the decade since “Traffic,” several events have linked us as well: 9/11 and various disease threats, such as SARS and the swine flu scare.  A thin thread of paranoia connects us all, and Soderbergh gently reveals to us that this link exists in the opening stages of the film.  And then he proceeds to vibrate that thread at pulse-pounding frequencies with his unflinching realism to then make sure we feel that uncomfortable pit in our stomach every single second of the film.

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“Country Strong” Poll Results

13 01 2011

Gwyneth Paltrow gets to host “SNL” this weekend, and once that’s over, talk around “Country Strong” will die forever.  It has put up lackluster numbers at the box office, only grossing $7.5 million in its opening weekend.  Surprisingly, Screen Gems chose to open it in less than 1,500 theaters, something that drove down numbers.

The reviews have been pretty poor, too, and I’m no exception.  Last week, I wrote:

“Unintentionally hilarious … it’s ridiculously melodramatic and populated with four stock characters who go through alarmingly little growth throughout the movie.  [There’s] no reason to care …”

It seemed like a good idea for Paltrow to be in contention for Best Actress given that rehabbed characters often make for flashy performances.  You all seemed to think bite the bait as well judging by the poll results.  3 voters thought Paltrow could get nominated, while only one detractor thought she wouldn’t.  If the I‘s have it, I’ll eat my hat in two weeks.





REVIEW: Country Strong

8 01 2011

Unintentionally hilarious, “Country Strong” is a wannabe rehash of “Crazy Heart,” “Walk the Line,” and “Dreamgirls.”  It’s ridiculously melodramatic and populated with four stock characters who go through alarmingly little growth throughout the movie.  With no reason to care, it’s easy to kick back and enjoy some surprisingly classy country music.  That means there’s none of that soulless pop-country blend that Taylor Swift has pushed into the mainstream; it’s the country music you’ll hear in the saloons and bars in the heart of America.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Kelly Canter plays a shamed superstar country singer pulled out of rehab early by her demanding husband and manager James, played by Tim McGraw.  Neither are in love with each other anymore, as Kelly has her eye on small-time singer Beau (Garrett Hedlund) and James goes after the much younger Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a beauty queen turned country-pop star who seems to be a Taylor Swift parody in herself.  As you can imagine, the two upstart country singers Beau and Chiles, whose relationship begins rocky, ultimately find each other in love.

I’m not going to give the movie the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the humor; I assume it was really poorly made and acted.  Denim-clad Paltrow is pretty dreadful when it comes to playing the rehabbing drunk apparently based on Britney Spears, tripping over cliches just like the movie itself.  She could have taken a few notes from Anne Hathaway in “Rachel Getting Married,” who totally nailed the confusion and disillusionment of the not-quite-rehabbed woman.  McGraw is fine playing a tough guy, and Hedlund feels natural on stage and behind the mic.  Leighton Meester, on the other hand, is comedic dynamite – which is probably attributable to her sub-par acting skills.  Funny, I thought she would have really picked up some great technique on “Gossip Girl.”

As long as you aren’t looking for a story or acting, you’ll enjoy the first hour and a half of “Country Strong.”  It’s corny, campy fun in country style.  But beware of the world’s worst ending, so bungled and poorly written that it derails the entire experience and leaves you with a bitter taste in your mouth at the end.  It’s almost like in an effort to avoid predictability, they chose the most bizarre ending even though it didn’t fit with the movie’s tone or events.  So, in order to get the optimal experience out of a crummy movie, stop watching “Country Strong” after Kelly’s big concert in Dallas.  Make your own ending to the movie and just be satisfied with the dumb melodrama.  C





Oscar Moment: “Country Strong”

26 11 2010

“Country Strong” is Middle America bait, combining country music and rehabbed alcoholic singers a la “Crazy Heart” with a spunky heroine with a down-home charm a la “The Blind Side.”  Coincidentally, both of those movies featured leading performances that won Oscars in 2009.  So are we looking at a similar trajectory for Gwyneth Paltrow, the movie’s leading lady?

Paltrow has already hit the promotional trail in somewhat unconventional but definitely effective ways.  She guest-starred on “Glee,” singing a cover of Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You.”  Then, directly aimed at the people who will see “Country Strong,” she performed the movie’s titular track at the Country Music Awards (CMAs) in Nashville.  Here’s a clip of her singing:

Let’s not forget that Paltrow has already won Best Actress for a completely different flavor of acting (for “Shakespeare in Love” in 1998).  Her star power could power her into the race even though her only Academy friendly movie that has gotten any recognition was “The Royal Tenenbaums” back in 2001.  However, her foray into the dramatic with “Proof” landed her a Golden Globe nomination, so perhaps “Country Strong” will have that extra push to get her into the Best Actress field.  Yet even taking her competition out of the picture, I think it would be difficult for the Academy to vote her to a second win.  They realize now what a great honor their trophies are, and when someone like Hilary Swank has the same amount of wins as Meryl Streep, something’s up.

Paltrow and the movie have lost one big building block to an Oscar campaign in the Golden Globes.  The HFPA decided to place “Country Strong” in the drama category, which is much tougher to receive nominations (not to mention wins) because of the more respected field.  If the movie were placed in musical/comedy (since it features a lot of song), Paltrow would compete against Annette Bening and Sally Hawkins.  In drama, she will face Natalie Portman, Nicole Kidman, and several other talented actresses.  And for the lightweight movie, talk about a huge long shot to score a Best Picture nomination.  The only way I could see it sneaking in would be for there to magically be more than 5 nominated films.

And since this is a movie about country music, it will be a strong contender in the Best Original Song category.  There are two featured tracks in contention for the win, “Me and Tennessee” and “Coming Home.”  The rules have changed in the Best Original Song category to try to prohibit one movie from hogging all the nominations and thus vote splitting; this is why Alan Menken only chose to submit one song from “Tangled” for consideration.  If “Country Strong” wants to win this category, Screen Gems needs to pick one song to put all their horses behind.

There are 18 days between the wide release of “Country Strong” and the announcement of the 83rd Oscar nominations.  If it manages to rake in some nice box office dollars, I suspect we could be looking at a financially successful movie popular with Middle America that this year’s Academy Awards really don’t have.  It could be an enticing proposition … but it would have to make big money FAST.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Actress, Best Original Song

OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINATIONS: Best Picture





FINCHERFEST: Se7en

25 09 2010

A real review of David Fincher’s work should begin with “Se7en,” the first movie he takes full credit for.  It was a financial success in 1995 and has since become an adored movie by fans on video.  The movie currently sits at #26 on IMDb’s Top 250 movies as voted by users, and in today’s installment of Fincherfest, I will attempt to explain what has made it so endearing over the past 15 years.

I’m a big fan of “Seven,” but I hate to say that I don’t think it’s quite as good as some people think it is.  According to Lisa Schwarzbaum, overrated is a big critical no-no word; however, since this is more a look in retrospect than a review, I don’t feel quite as bad using it.

Fincher does an excellent job directing a very cerebral world of horror, and as his first real directorial effort, it’s quite impressive.  Yet overall, I wasn’t quite as affected by it as I felt I should have been.  When it comes to serial killer movies, I much prefer “The Silence of the Lambs” and “No Country for Old Men.”

Yet I acknowledge that “Seven” has a very different kind of horror.  We aren’t meant to be freaked out by the murderer John Doe (Kevin Spacey).  We never see him committing any crimes, nor does he ever give us any indication that he might flip and kill another person.  He’s just like anyone you could round up off the streets, and that makes him all the more frightening.  John Doe is like Heath Ledger’s The Joker without a makeup and without any sense of humor.  The tacit implication is that all of us have the capability to be John Doe, something quite scary to suggest and not the kind of message you want to walk away from a movie having learned.  We never see the results of the killings, inspiring the audience to imagine the murder for themselves.  Anyone who can do so has the inherent ability to be Doe.

Such a killer is the last person Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman, pre-God) wants to deal with in his waning hours on the job.  He and his replacement, Detective Mills (Brad Pitt), are drawn into the world of John Doe, who commits murders related to the Seven Deadly Sins.  Catching him requires intellect, and they delve into the classic work of Dante, Thomas Aquinas, and others to figure out his modus operandi.  The dialectic struggle between Somerset about to apathetically walk off the job and Mills eagerly awaiting his future is a fascinating backdrop to the rest of the brutal themes of the movie.

Apparently back in the ’90s, New Line Cinema advertised “Se7en” as a movie that you shouldn’t watch in the dark because that atmosphere would scare anyone to death.  I did just that, and I found the darkness to be nothing more than a fitting complement to the universe Fincher crafts.  It’s always muggy and rainy in the unidentified city where the murders take place, and the world view the movie espouses is bleaker than the weather.  According to Somerset, the world is worth fighting for, but it’s hardly a fine place.

The more you think about it, the more you realize Fincher’s challenge to our assumptions of what is good and what is evil.  The villain is defined … or is it?  Such an idea is a little unsettling to audiences, but that hasn’t kept it from being very well received.  Perhaps its forte isn’t in being a serial killer movie; the strength is in the social critique of the godlessness of society.