REVIEW: The Edge of Seventeen

14 12 2016

“I’m going to kill myself,” proudly proclaims the protagonist of “The Edge of Seventeen,” Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine Franklin … as her first line. At such an early stage in the story, it’s hard to tell whether we should take her literally or seriously. By the end of the film, however, we get our answer: neither.

Pardon the brief soapbox moment, but teenage depression and even suicide are not matters purely relegated to the realm of fiction. I’ve known people who struggled after a tragic loss like Nadine’s (her beloved father at age 13), taken pain medications and seen therapists. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen a fair share who took their own life.

These are real issues that rarely get honest depictions on-screen, and writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig might have been wise to lean into them. Instead, Nadine is a character who gets all the narrative benefits of an outwardly depressed character while “The Edge of Seventeen” on the whole skirts responsibility for dealing with the seriousness of the problem. Craig bends over backwards to make sure we know that she’s not like regular teenagers, she’s a justifiably angsty teenager! Yet once it becomes clear that she really needs professional help, the film makes it all too easy for one kind act to lead to a personal revelation that turns back time.

It’s really too bad that “The Edge of Seventeen” lacks the teeth in its bite because Craig is unapologetic in making Nadine one of the meanest main characters in recent memory. She is incapable of leaving a conversation that she has not “won,” and if she cannot achieve victory on the strength of her own arguments, Nadine will kamikaze by lobbing a vicious insult. Around the point when she defeatedly declares, “I have to spend the rest of my life with myself,” I realized that she is essentially Anna Kendrick’s Twitter feed personified – just with double the self-loathing and half the self-aware charm.

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REVIEW: Pitch Perfect 2

16 06 2015

While I was a repeat listener of the “Pitch Perfect” soundtrack, I most certainly had no desire to return to the film itself.  In my (admittedly harsh) review of the first film, I dubbed it “a comedy that inspires more groans than laughs and thinks it has a whole lot more insightful things to say about growing up than it actually does.”

So color me surprised to count myself a fan of “Pitch Perfect 2,” the rare Hollywood sequel that actually learns the correct lessons from the success of the original.  The music is tighter and catchier than before; the message, more potent and impactful.  The characters, too, are more relatable and hilarious the second time around.

Writer Kay Cannon, returning to script the series’ follow-up, cuts down the “aca-nnoying” pun humor to much more reasonable levels and finds great hilarity in just having the Barden Bellas interact with each other.  At times, she does this to the point of fault, as the many subplots of “Pitch Perfect 2” often overpower the main narrative of the group trying to regain their former glory after an ignominious display at the Kennedy Center.

That preoccupation with the personal hardly does harm to the movie, though, as these scenes are the highlight of the film.  Watching Anna Kendrick’s Beca attempting the tricky balance of professional exploration at a music company with her duties to the Bellas rings so true, and it also gives the actress a chance to showcase her vibrant range of emotions beyond the scowl she was limited to in the first “Pitch Perfect.”  Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy is another undeniable highlight, given a hysterical romantic arc with Adam DeVine’s Bumper; the two play off each other with remarkable comic intuition.

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REVIEW: The Homesman

29 11 2014

The HomesmanHistorically speaking, the Western has not been the most hospitable type of movie to the female gender. This philosophical statement from the genre’s patron saint, John Wayne, pretty much says it all: “I stick to simple themes. Love. Hate. No nuances. I stay away from psychoanalyst’s couch scenes. Couches are good for one thing.”

Writer/director Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman” provides an interesting rejoinder to that legacy of rugged masculinity through its protagonist, Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy.  She is a gritty, hard-working single farmer in the Nebraska Territory who still maintains a sense of empathy and caring.  So, in other words, she balances traits that are socially gendered for both sexes.

She also initiates her own destiny rather than waiting around for someone else to save her, boldly proposing marriage to other landowners in order to consolidate property.  Unsurprisingly, in the 19th century just as today, men greet such a woman with suspicion.  And their favorite word to describe Cuddy?  Bossy, the very word for girls that outspoken feminist Sheryl Sandberg wants to ban.

Cuddy’s resolve certainly stands out not only for the film’s phylum but also within the movie itself, as women are otherwise made victims of rape or cruelly objectified by men.  This message is undeniably worthwhile, yet little else about “The Homesman” is.   The film is a meandering mess that no amount of advocacy can fully redeem.

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REVIEW: Hateship Loveship

13 08 2014

Hateship LoveshipCraig Johnson, director of the upcoming Kristen Wiig vehicle “The Skeleton Twins,” remarked that even in her funniest moments, there’s a certain sadness to the characters Wiig portrayed.  I had never really thought of the comedienne in such a way, so I scoured YouTube to examine her work through such a lens.  Sure enough, the undercurrent is there in everything from her bit part in “Knocked Up” to her infamous Penelope sketches from “Saturday Night Live.”

In “Hateship Loveship,” we can see what’s left when you drain all the humor out of Wiig – and, as it turns out, it’s quite a morose sight.  She plays her character, Johanna Perry, with all the quietude of a church mouse.  Such restraint turns out to be devastatingly effective in creating a believable woman who is so passive that she practically lacks a personality altogether.

Sadly, the film veers off into such unbelievable directions – particularly in its second half – that it undermines the potential for Wiig’s performance to be a major breakthrough.  The premise of “Hateship Loveship” starts off with promise: Johanna moves into the home of an aging man (Nick Nolte) to be his caretaker and gets catfished by his granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld) in a rather mean-spirited prank.  Yet right when the film seems ready to veer into the realm of the tragic, it takes an unexpected turn.

After this rather shocking development, “Hateship Loveship” seems rather detached from reality.  Characters’ motivations seem hardly plausible, casting a shadow of doubt over the entire film.  The tone gets rather wonky, too.  It’s a pity that director Liza Johnson didn’t model her helming on the restraint and good judgment that Wiig brought to her character.  C2stars





REVIEW: Begin Again

2 07 2014

Begin AgainJohn Carney’s “Begin Again” was first screened for audiences under the title “Can A Song Save Your Life?”  An interesting question, to be sure, but perhaps not the right one … or at least not the one preoccupying most viewers.  Their biggest question is (or ought to be), can these songs save this movie?

The answer is, well, not exactly.  “Begin Again” flaunts some pleasant ditties, including a few from Maroon 5’s Adam Levine (great for boosting soundtrack sales) and several from the surprisingly smooth pipes of Keira Kinghtley.  But they are rather breezy and generic tunes, not quite the game-changing classics Carney and his film make them out to be.

While I’m not a music critic (and do not intend to masquerade as one), I do feel that I can comment on how the tracks are incorporated into the film with relative authority.  And in “Begin Again,” the songs play out rather like music videos, with the one exception of Knightley’s strikingly beautiful opening number about isolation in the Big Apple.  Furthermore, they never reveal anything about the characters participating in their creation (see the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” for a masterclass).

These songs reflect the larger issue with “Begin Again,” which is that it provides a surface-level treatment of just about everything it touches.  Carney occasionally proffers a profound musing on music, both its art and its commerce, but never really explores them fully.

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REVIEW: True Grit

5 01 2011

I haven’t seen the 1969 John Wayne “True Grit,” so I can’t really put the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” into that context or perspective.  What I can do, however, is look at it as just another one of their movies that just happens to be a second film adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel.  As it turns out, the movie fits in perfectly with all the rest of the Coen canon.  After some of their high-brow humor hit a sour note for me, I’m glad to see them return to form in the kind of movie they are best cut out to make.

Everything moviegoers have come to love in the directing duo over the last quarter-century is on full display in “True Grit.”  The nihilism, the bleakness, the dark humor, the biting dialogue, the crazy and three-dimensional characters are all there in full force.  While it may not be the high point for the Coens, the movie is definitely an exclamation point on their careers thus far.

The truest grit of the movie belongs to 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a tenacious Southern girl who can talk fast enough to make your head spin around, drive one heck of a bargain, and make your jaw drop with her rugged tenacity.  She’s looking for a way to avenge her father’s murderer, the lawless drunk Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).  Mattie looks to a U.S. Marshal that fits a similar description, the unreliable, uncomely Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).

But she’s also not the only one hunting Chaney; Mattie also has to contend with LaBeouf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger with a voice uncannily similar to Matthew McConaughey’s and so dead-set on doing his job that he’s about as big of a joke as Matthew McConaughey.  LaBeouf and Cogburn assume they are a two-man searching party, but Mattie, insistent on seeing justice done herself, tags along much to their chagrin.  The three cross into the Indian Territory, enduring much lifeless terrain on Cheney’s trail.

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10 for ’10: Performances

30 12 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

It’s impossible to celebrate a year in film without mentioning the performances that riveted us.  Without further ado or fanfare, here are the 10 actors who reminded me of the power of their craft with their work in 2010.

Women

Amy Adams as Charlene Fleming in “The Fighter

My original review:
Adams, usually the delightfully effervescent charmer, plays gritty and unapologetic in “The Fighter” and pulls it off to Oscar-worthy standards.  She’s able to pull off just about any sort of character she takes, and the tenacious Charlene is different than anything we’ve ever seen her do before.  It’s exciting to see an actress nowadays who isn’t content with finding one adjective to act and then carve themselves a niche, and Adams is quickly proving herself one of the most versatile actresses of our day.

Reflection:
Amy Adams has wowed me in a variety of different roles, from her unassuming nun in “Doubt” to the ditzy princess in “Enchanted.”  Yet as Charlene, I think she may have hit the most beautiful note in her career so far with her heartfelt conversation with Bale’s Dickie on her front porch.  As she reflects on her life and her good intentions, it’s such a wonderful moment filled with every ounce of sincerity that she has to give.

Barbara Hershey as Erica Sayers in Black Swan

My original review:
The best of the supporting bunch [in “Black Swan”] is by far and away Hershey as the pushy and demanding stage mom.  Such roles often become stock characters; however, Hershey takes the role in frightening and invigorating new directions.

Reflection:
There wasn’t a more frightening performance this year than Hershey as Natalie Portman’s mother.  There’s a whole lot of subtext that Hershey has to act, perhaps a whole hidden backstory as director Darren Aronofsky alluded to, and that’s usually a daunting task for actors to pull off.  Hershey shows no dust from her long hiatus from acting, keeping us scared and entranced at the same time.

Julianne Moore as Jules in “The Kids Are All Right

My original review:
It’s Julianne Moore who absolutely brings down the house [in “The Kids Are All Right”].  As the more flighty, free-spirited Jules, she wins our hearts from the get-go, even if her antics only illicit groans from her other half.  The character is very complex as she begins reeling from Paul’s introduction, exploring sides of herself she didn’t know even existed.  It’s glorious to watch Moore dig deeper and deeper into her character as the movie goes on.  She’s responsible for some of the movie’s funniest moments but also for its most effective emotional scene.  Academy, take note.

Reflection:
Throughout the awards season, many pundits have thrown out that Annette Bening’s role in “The Kids Are All Right” is the character the audience is meant to sympathize with and thus makes her the better candidate for Best Actress.  Without dragging politics into it, I found Julianne Moore’s Jules the more sympathetic character and, by the end, the only one I actually cared about.  Moore has delivered so many fantastic performances, but what makes this one stand head and shoulders over the rest is her total emotional engagement in the role.  We feel her torment, her frustration, and her confusion so profoundly because of how engrossed she is in the character.  And what she puts in, we get out of the performance.

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in “Black Swan

My original review:
The star of the show is Portman, and “Black Swan” is made all the more fascinating by how Nina’s development mirrors her performance.  Much like Nina must lose herself in the role of the Swan Princess, Portman absolutely disappears into her character.  It’s a shocking and startling transformation due to Portman’s dedication to learning the craft of ballet and her impeccable acting.  The movie stands as a testament to the fact that she is one of the best emerging actresses of her generation, and her flawless showing here deserves to be minted in history alongside the greatest of all time.  Portman gives a once-in-a-lifetime performance, and to miss it would be to deny yourself the chance to see as close to perfection as is cinematically possible.

Reflection:
Perfect.  It was perfect.

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in “True Grit”

Reflection:
I have yet to review “True Grit,” but when I do, expect the highest of praise for newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.  There are very few actors that can spit out period dialogue at lightning speed with confidence, and there are probably even fewer that can do the same with the dialogue of the Coen Brothers.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do both so well, a feat that would impress me from an Academy Award-winning actress but floors me when I consider that this is a debut performer.  At such a young age, she has a complete and total mastery of her character’s deepest desires and feelings, and such a strong presence out in front of “True Grit” makes it a movie and a performance I won’t soon forget.

Men

Christian Bale as Dickie Ecklund in The Fighter

My original review:
The knockout punch of “The Fighter” is the performance of Christian Bale, a totally authentic portrayal of a drug addict, former boxer, jealous trainer – and all simultaneously.  He doesn’t act or perform as the real life Dickie Ecklund so much as he becomes him and inhabits him.  Every twitch, every word is meticulously planned by Bale, who slimmed down from his Batman physique to play the gaunt Dickie.

Reflection:
“The Fighter” is Micky Ward’s story, but it’s Dickie Ecklund’s movie.  Bale, completely lost in the character, brings together all of his strengths to deliver what could be the quintessential performance of his career.  It shows his physical commitment, his uncompromising authenticity, and a strangely pervasive sense of heart that’s often a little rough around the edges.

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network

My original review:
Eisenberg nails all the eccentricities of the fast-talking technological wiz, and the nuances in his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg will captivate for endless viewings.

Reflection:
Who is Mark Zuckerberg?  After “The Social Network” was released, millions of people were left trying to answer the question.  Is he the savior of the Internet and the symbol of a new era, or is he the force that will inadvertently bring it down and destroy all the comforts of our former lives?  What makes this screen version of Zuckerberg so captivating is that Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t attempt to answer this question.  Eisenberg gets to the core of what he thinks is motivating Zuckerberg, going so deep that no bias or opinion can color his interpretation.  Then, he lays it all out on the screen and leaves it up to the viewer to decide who Mark Zuckerberg is.  With the magazine TIME naming the entrepreneur their person of the year, Eisenberg may have made Mark Zuckerberg the folk hero of the digital age.

Colin Firth as King George VI in “The King’s Speech

My original review:
It’s Firth’s show in the flashy role of King George, a character that must be inhabited, not just performed.  Firth nails it, getting inside every thought and stammer of the king.  He doesn’t just brush the surface as many actors playing historical figures do; he makes George vulnerable and sentimental.  Firth’s poignant performance reminds us that what we should be looking for in movies like this is heart.

Reflections:
The royal family of England always feels so distant on film, living a life filmmakers believe is so different that ours that they have to put them in an ivory tower.  Yet Colin Firth, armed with a fantastically written human being by the name of King George VI, tears their mythological status down brick by brick until his royal figure is so down to earth that he feels like an old friend.  The movie wouldn’t have been half as inspiring had Firth not brought such an enormously relatable pathos to the role.

James Franco as Aron Ralston in “127 Hours

My original review:
There’s never a dull or wasted moment to be found in the movie thanks to Franco’s sublime and enlightened performance.  While shooting on location, Boyle consistently had him act in character for 20 minutes straight and then relied on the editor to find 30 seconds to make it into the final cut.  This total immersion into Ralston’s desperation makes Franco all the more raw and moving.

Reflection:
The blasting score, fancy editing, and flashy cinematography of “127 Hours” can only go so far to make a static movie work.  It requires a dynamic actor, both heartbreaking and heartwarming, that we can stick with until the bitter end.  James Franco does just that and more as he makes pain and hope so tangible and so authentic that the movie never feels anything less than real.  If anyone ever had a doubt that we need actors more than ever, Franco’s flawless work is all that’s needed to silence any critic.

Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin in “The Social Network

My original review:
Andrew Garfield as the upright Saverin is a force to be reckoned with, a true presence throughout the movie with his very likable charm.  For just that reason, he makes it wrenching to watch the inevitable turn when Saverin gets cheated.

Reflection:
While Zuckerberg’s prickly exterior prevents us from ever liking him too much, Andrew Garfield endows Eduardo Saverin with a sharp mind, firm beliefs, and a strong moral compass, making us fall head over heels for his character.  He’s an irresistible force on the screen, the good angel resting on Zuckerberg’s right shoulder whispering in his ear to follow common wisdom.  The movie’s emotional climax wouldn’t work if we weren’t rooting for Saverin the entire time, and when he explodes with anger, you’ll want to jump in the frame and punch the jerks who wronged him.