REVIEW: Patriots Day

15 04 2017

The narrative elements of “Patriots Day” show Peter Berg at the top of his game. As a film that recreates the terror of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the frenzied search to catch the perpetrators, it’s every bit as taught and harrowing as “Lone Survivor.” Critique ideology all you want – and I had my fair share of issues with the comforting yet alarming deployment of the surveillance state – but objectively speaking, Berg and his technicians know how to edit for maximum tension around an event whose outcome we already know.

Now, you might have noticed that I specified “narrative elements.” That was intentional. “Patriots Day” ends on a lengthy postscript of talking-head style documentary footage with survivors of the bombing. It’s stirring, sure, but it left me wondering – why not just make a non-fiction film? The appetite for documentaries exists now thanks to platforms like Netflix and HBO.

In “Patriots Day,” fictionalization began to feel like trivialization. If the words of real people are powerful enough to end a film, they ought to be powerful enough to sustain a film. Why does Berg think we need Mark Wahlberg sermonizing from the back of a truck bed over sappy, inspiring music to care about the heroism of Boston’s finest? Why does he feel the need to compress the valiant actions of several police officers into one composite, Teddy Saunders, for Mark Wahlberg to play?

Berg tries to have it both ways in the film, leaning on both the authenticity of the survivors’ pain while also shoehorning reality into a convenient narrative device about one police officer who cracks open the case with a hobbled leg. (At times, his lickety-split reactions don’t even make logical sense!) If recent yanked from the headlines stories are going to continue to serve as fodder for cinema, we need to have a larger debate about how filmmakers can and cannot rely on actual participants. B+

Advertisements




REVIEW: The Accountant

11 02 2017

In big-budget cinema these days, I’m looking to get a lot of bang for my buck. So are most Americans, many of whom are far more inclined than I am to browse for a better option on Netflix. Whatever Gavin O’Connor does in “The Accountant” gives me plenty of bang, but the noise comes from lots of big bullets being fired indiscriminately from a sniper rifle.

The film, written by Bill Dubuque, smashes several movies into one. There’s the Jason Bourne-like super assassin narrative, which is the one you sell during sports games. Then there’s the bit about an autistic wunderkind, Ben Affleck’s Christian Wolff, uneasily assimilating into corporate America, which can be emphasized to select audiences to give the film an appearance of thematic heft. And don’t forget an awkward platonic romance subplot between said autistic man and his fumbling co-worker, Anna Kendrick’s Dana Cummings, for … wait, who exactly cares about this aspect?

All of these aspects compete for airtime in “The Accountant” with the latest Greengrass ripoff winning out most often. Whatever extra intrigue that Wolff’s condition might add to the film gets nullified by Affleck’s weak acting, which treats autism like an affect that turns on and off when convenient. The connective tissue of this closet killer to a larger scheme of financial malaise is weak, too, spoiling any chance for a sideshow to serve as pleasant diversion.

In fact, the only thing that O’Connor does manage to do well is advertise. “The Accountant” might represent the most elaborate promo for a Ford F-150 I’ve ever seen. If any clips of these scenes of Wolff driving were posted on social media, I should hope they were tagged with #ad or #sponsoredcontent. C2stars





REVIEW: Zootopia

29 02 2016

ZootopiaTalking animals, a town whose title mashes up “zoo” and “utopia,” the Disney brand – all good signs for an evening of escape away from the madness of the world around us that seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, right? Actually, wrong. “Zootopia,” the latest in-house effort from the Mouse House, actually feels more plugged into contemporary problems than many “issues” movies manufactured during prestige season.

Given the escalation of the American presidential election even in the past month, writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston could not have imagined how relevant the message of their script would become when they started writing back in 2013. The titular city of “Zootopia” is a metropolis of the animal kingdom and a hotbed of diversity, like New York City or Houston. Predatory animals like tigers and foxes have learned to live in harmony with their former prey like rabbits and sheep due to the evolution and adaptation of their culture.

The promise of this pluralism attracts optimistic young bunny Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin. Never one to let her size or species discourage her unbridled enthusiasm for justice, she defies the odds to become the first rabbit cop in Zootopia. The average family film would simply let Hopps flounder for a bit and eventually find her footing by tapping into some inner strength. With all due respect to the charms of “Wreck-It Ralph” or “Frozen,” the lessons of “Zootopia” go much deeper. They examine the very tenets that form the (now seemingly shaky) foundations of our society.

Read the rest of this entry »





F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 8, 2015)

8 01 2015

Now that Paul Rudd has officially debuted as Ant-Man, I expect that we’ll soon have to start referring to him as “Marvel’s Paul Rudd.”  Plenty of clueless fanboys will totally think of Rudd as the next Chris Pratt, a comedian that the comic-book magnate picks up from relative obscurity and turns into a bonafide action star.  And I will be sad.

But then, I will wipe away my tears and watch another one of Rudd’s hilarious comedies.  I will think of the time he and I shared a brief word in London, and I will remind myself of how his affable characters appear to accurately reflect his genial real-life personality.  I will remind myself that he is the perfect choice to play me in the movie of my life no matter what career move he makes next (although BuzzFeed recently told me that Benedict Cumberbatch would play me, another choice that suits me fine).

And finally, I will watch one of his comedies that stand head and shoulders above nearly all the other mainstream output.  For the most part, Rudd chooses projects with smarter wit and keener insight than the usual macho lineup of flatulence, misogyny, and homophobia.  Perhaps chief among these is 2009’s “I Love You, Man,” the bromantic comedy that serves as my selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  (Yes, I am fully aware this is hardly independent or little-known, although it certainly deserves to be more widely known.)

Rudd, rather than erecting a cool facade, plays his character Peter Klaven as unashamedly dorky and unabashedly earnest.  Though he means well, Peter often stumbles over his own nicety into the verbal equivalent of a pratfall.  The film begins with the happiest moment in his life: proposing to his girlfriend, Zooey (Rashida Jones).  After the initial bliss dissipates, however, things get awkward as Peter seems unable to provide enough groomsmen to match Zooey’s seven bridesmaids.  In fact, he does not even really have a potential best man.

Rather than disappoint his beautiful bride-to-be, and apparently unwilling to suck it up and ask either his father (J.K. Simmons) or brother (Andy Samberg), Peter goes on the hunt for a male best friend.  After a series of hilarious misunderstandings, he comes across Jason Segel’s palatably absurd Sidney Fife, a friendly bachelor that stumbles into one of Peter’s open houses while scouting prospects for a wealthy divorcée.  They hit it off immediately, easily finding conversation topics and mutual interests.

Sidney and Peter’s friendship is purely platonic, yet writer/director John Hamburg replicates the experience of watching a romantic comedy.  We get the beginning stage of figuring out tastes as well as boundaries; we see the way that they bring fulfillment to each other’s lives; we have the classic blow-up fight that turns into a dissolution of an amicable partnership.  As “I Love You, Man” progresses, it exposes the parallels between forging friendships and romantic relationships as well as the absurdities inherent in both.

Peter and Sidney are not just the average dudebro BFFs – they are types to explore and investigate the very nature of human connection.  Although, in the hands of talented actors like Rudd and Segel, they are also fully fledged people that I’d love to slap the bass with any day.





REVIEW: Men, Women & Children

16 12 2014

In 2009, Jason Reitman added a potent subplot to his film “Up in the Air” that dealt with some of the alienation people feel in a depersonalized, technology-laden society.  Five years later, he arrives with “Men, Women & Children,” a dark and moody spiritual cousin to his masterpiece.  It goes beyond the obvious stating that people live text message to text message or email to email.  Underneath it all, they are clearly living orgasm to orgasm.

Reitman finds a new writing partner, Erin Cressida Wilson, to adapt Chad Kultgen’s novel, which is perhaps the only truly honest novel about the realities of living in a digitally mediated society.  The story follows a group of teenagers and their parents, each age group struggling with the temptations of carnality made available at their fingertips.  They all seek intimacy, a rarity in a sea of screen addicts, yet cannot seems to escape their enmeshed existence in the World Wide Web.

It seems as if Reitman, likely by commercial imperatives, had to pull some punches and soften the impact of his film.  How blistering can an excoriation of an Internet pornography obsessed society be if those toxic images are never shown?  How shameful can sexual deviance feel if the acts themselves are artfully avoided?  Reitman did not have to go full NC-17 to make an effective film on this topic, and “Men, Women & Children” suffers from his cautious moves.

Still, the message gets across pretty clearly, provided the audience can put down their iPhones for two hours to listen to it. For once, the youth are neither a fountain of hope nor a convenient object for blame; they are just exploring normal curiosities in the same way that their chief role models did.  In fact, the adults of “Men, Women & Children” are every bit as clueless and juvenile in cyberspace as their kids.  Society is all in this battle together, and no one is above it because it brings out the worst in everyone.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Whiplash

18 11 2014

WhiplashWhile the film “Whiplash” is about drumming and jazz music, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s intense focus on the physical demands of training and competition essentially transforms art into athletics.  The story follows Miles Teller’s Andrew as he goes through the music conservatory training process, both honing his craft and advancing through the studio ranks.  Andrew aims for nothing short of becoming one of the all-time great drummers, and the quest quite literally claims blood, toil, tears, and sweat.

Chazelle’s filmmaking captures the coexisting violence and agility of drumming with the same sort of madcap, fast-paced artistry.  “Whiplash” probably has the average shot length of a Marvel film, although these fast and furious edits are actually deployed to induce a physiological effect.  Chazelle conducts a cinematic symphony in his quick cutting of extreme close-up shots, cerebrally conveying just how many moving parts have to synchronize in order to create stirring music.

“Whiplash” is hardly a concert film, however, and much of the momentum of these extended bravura sequences comes from attention to and investment in the story and characters.  Chazelle’s script keeps an even keel even with its fairly rapid succession of events, largely stemming from its streamlined attention on Andrew’s quest for musical brilliance.  (Seriously, any more obsessed and he might turn into a swan.)  Even his romantic interest, which seems like a pleasant diversion when first introduced into the film, serves its purpose in advancing Andrew’s plot arc.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Jobs

15 08 2013

Joshua Michael Stern’s “Jobs” finds itself caught between “Lincoln” and “The Social Network.”  The film teeters uncertainly on the precipice of canonization in the Spielberg/Kushner model and humanization in the Fincher/Sorkin mold.  It ultimately settles on an unhappy median, providing a portrait of Apple founder Steve Jobs that feels like laughable corporate folklore.

Just because the film’s characterization is fickle does not mean that its message is muddled.  Stern is clearly pushing an agenda to persuade his audience that Steve Jobs is the American Einstein, a visionary misunderstood in his early years.  And just like Einstein, we will not fully comprehend his genius until years after his death.  But eventually, we will come to use his name as a synonym for innovation.

Ashton Kutcher does do a half-decent job of resurrecting the essence of Steve Jobs.  The 35-year-old actor takes the icon from his college years, a barefoot braniac that seems to have escaped from a Terrence Malick film, to his introduction of the iPod as a slower sage.  At times, though, it does feel like quite a studied portrayal.  His Jobs is often much robotic imitation, opting for parroting over true personality.

Even with such faults, he’s the only thing that “Jobs” really has going for it.  Stern’s script is an overlong mess where Steve Jobs, even from his days at Reed, speaks not in sentences but in maxims that seem to be adapted from Confucian teachings.  When it delves into emotions and not just events, the drama of “Jobs” becomes quite laughable.  All in all, though, the film just feels superfluous.  Why do I need to sit through a two hour “for your consideration” ad for Steve Jobs to inducted into the pantheon of great minds when practically every computer, cell phone, and music player in my house is an Apple product?  C2stars