REVIEW: Enough Said

8 04 2015

One day after work in London, I had a few hours to kill before a dinner engagement and decided to spend them seeing “Enough Said.”  The auditorium was the size of some houses’ living room, so any obnoxious behavior was sure to stand out even more than usual.  So, of course, I found myself laughing hysterically nearly the entire duration of the film and thus the butt of a number of glares.

I was not the only person having a great time, but I certainly seemed to enjoy the film more than most people in the audience.  (Maybe the humor was culturally specific?)  “Enough Said” does feature one of my favorite comediennes, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, turning in some of her funniest and most humane work to date.

It’s a common phrase regarding comic actors that they could make reading the phone book a laugh riot.  But I am convinced that Louis-Dreyfus could just look at a phone book and have me in stitches.  Her expressions and reactions practically constitute a second text of the film, and it only serves to enhance the richness of emotion and humor in writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s script.

“Enough Said” may be a little slight compared with some of the heftier, more thematically complex works of the filmmaker like 2006’s “Friends with Money” or 2010’s “Please Give.”  Nonetheless, her film delights with the familiarity and recognition.  Her characters feel less like symbols or stand-ins for big ideas and more like real people.  As a result, the comedy derives from everyday, mundane occurrences, and it allows the film to really hit a nerve.

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REVIEW: The Drop

17 09 2014

In nearly every film appearance over the past five years, Tom Hardy has established himself as a man’s man.  Be it through delivering brutal beatings in “Bronson,” “Warrior,” and “The Dark Knight Rises” or by providing a portrait of masculinity both polished (“Inception“) and rugged (“Lawless“), he’s been a paradigm of behavioral virility.

In “The Drop,” however, Hardy tries on a different persona: a mild-mannered, soft-spoken simpleton.  When juxtaposed with all his previous films – even “This Means War” – the contrast is jarring enough to grab some attention.  As Bob Saginowski, the bartender unwittingly drawn into a robbery of dirty money from his establishment, Hardy is still effective even in his quietude.

All the shenanigans that follow don’t really give Hardy much of a chance to show any range in this newly subdued register.  He gets a quasi-romantic arc with Noomi Rapace’s Nadia, who really feels like little more than the means to introduce the film’s primary antagonist, Matthias Schoenarts’ Eric Deeds.  Bob does manage to draw some sympathy, though, by adopting and caring for a beaten pitbull that seems to have sauntered out of a Sarah McLachlan SPCA commercial.

But beyond its leading man, “The Drop” has very little to offer that we have not already seen countless times (not to mention better).  Director Michael R. Roskam does not seem to inflect the action with any stakes, so it subsequently comes across as low intensity.  Though it runs a slender hour and 45 minutes, the film feels substantially longer.

Perhaps fans of James Gandolfini, who appears in his last on-screen role here as Bob’s business partner, will want the action to drag on so they can maintain the illusion that he is still with us. He gives a good performance, to be clear.  Yet I found myself asking the same question as when I left “A Most Wanted Man,” which will be Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last non-“Hunger Games” role: is this really the movie on which a great actor would want to go out?  Just another ho-hum, forgettable mob thriller?  C+2stars





REVIEW: Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

17 07 2014

Elaine StritchJust last weekend, I curled up in bed with my laptop to watch “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” on Netflix.  I found myself pleasantly entertained, but in the midst of an onslaught of new releases, I didn’t have a chance to bang out a quick review.  Then, I was checking the news at work this morning and saw the sad news that Elaine Stritch had passed away at the age of 89.

Suddenly, a review the documentary that had her at its center felt like the most important thing for me to write.  Though I may have to write in a different tense about Stritch’s life now, her legacy lives on and will certainly never be forgotten.  “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” gives Stritch the proper bow for her twilight years, and fans of an old era of Broadway stars will no doubt find it rousing.

Chiemi Karasawa’s film captures some of her final years as she prepares for a swan song cabaret of Steven Sondheim’s classic tunes.  Her camera catches the infamously blunt Stritch at her most cantankerously acerbic best on many an occasion, generating quite a few great laughs.  But as Tina Fey puts it, people are willing to put up with her curmudgeonly charm because she’s so great at what she does.

Karasawa does a great job of showing Stritch’s incredible work ethic.  Even though disease and age hampered Stritch from being at full capacity, she still pushed herself to play a recurring role on “30 Rock” and give her fans one last chance to see her perform live.  The back half of “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” consists of mostly watching Stritch belt out some Broadway melodies, a delight for fans of musical theater (and likely a bore for anyone else).

The true strength of the documentary, though, is not watching Stritch’s pantless performances.  “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” is so much more than filmed theater; it’s a look at a performer confronting her own mortality.  Stritch preferred to say that she was not getting old – she was getting older, just like everyone else.  She approached the prospect of her aging with humor in public, often quoting Bette Davis’ maxim “getting old is not for sissies.”

Karasawa’s extreme close-ups, however, penetrate deeply into Stritch’s psyche and show a startling vulnerability.  These moments are nothing short of stirring as they reveal her deep fears of disappointing her audience.  Fans of Stritch will undoubtedly be moved by seeing a consummate actress let her guard down.  Playing herself was perhaps the most gripping part she ever had.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Violet & Daisy

11 06 2013

Geoffrey Fletcher’s jump from writing the Oscar-winning “Precious” to penning and directing “Violet & Daisy” is hardly a logical one.  How someone goes from something so raw and emotionally moving to a film so austere and oblique is a career move I doubt I would be bold enough to make.  Though I’d prefer that Fletcher stick to his much-lauded strengths, I am all for artists diversifying and taking risks.

His “Violet & Daisy” is certainly a very interesting film from a stylistic standpoint, blending together everything from French New Wave technique to an almost Tarantino-esque sense of stilted reality.  The story, meanwhile, is fairly simple, mostly involving the two titular assassins (played by Saoirse Ronan and Alexis Bledel) trying to decide whether or not to whack Tony Soprano himself (James Gandolfini’s Michael).  Consider it the film art version of any great action movie conversational stand-off.

But while the style drew me in, it also took me out of the movie.  Fletcher’s characters speak very ear-catching dialogue and head into compelling situations.  Yet the sort of detachment that comes with the aesthetic led me to feel a cold distance from the action.  That was likely the intent, but I felt that it also downplayed the importance of Fletcher’s script.  The drama doesn’t hit home, and “Violet & Daisy” really can’t connect when it matters most.

It’s still a more or less entertaining and interesting watch, though.  I just don’t think I would ever want to watch it again.  And I’d only recommend it to someone else if they were a particular kind of viewer in a particular kind of mood.  But I also don’t tend to embrace movies in the mold of “Violet & Daisy,” so perhaps it’s best that I was nonplussed by it.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Killing Them Softly

1 06 2012

Cannes Film Festival

A year after “Drive” took the Croisette by storm with what I saw to be an empty promise of genre revitalization, Andrew Dominik arrives with “Killing Them Softly,” a movie is the real deal for action fans. A whip-smart heist flick, Dominik seems to be channeling Stanley Kubrick with his aestheticized violence, hauntingly ironic music usage, and an emotional detachment. His film politicizes and stylizes the mob and the heist film, delivering a deliriously gory kick in the head.

The more I think about the film, the more I realize how it shouldn’t work. The character development, save James Gandolfini as a sleazy aging and boozing hitman, is minimal. The plot is familiar. The plot unfolds with relative predictability. Come on, it’s a mob movie – if you don’t know that almost everyone is gong to wind up dead, then you have some serious Scorsese to watch before you are allowed to come anywhere near “Killing Them Softly.”

But perhaps Nanni Moretti, president of the Cannes jury this year, holds the key to understanding why the movie transcends so many of its obvious shortcomings. He made an off-the-cuff observation that among the competition directors this year, many “seemed more in love with their style than their character[s].” While this could have applied to any number of directors I saw at Cannes (Wes Anderson, Carlos Reygadas, David Cronenberg), it seems particularly directed at Andrew Dominik. But while Moretti meant his remark to be construed as a negative, the style of “Killing Them Softly” is so abundant that it becomes a character in and of itself, taking the place of traditional “substance.”

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 10, 2011)

10 06 2011

With “True Grit” now available to watch at home, I figure the celebration shouldn’t be just of the Western genre but of the Coen Brothers in general!  I haven’t made it through their entire filmography – don’t shoot me when I say I haven’t seen “Blood Simple” or “Barton Fink” – but I have found a gem among their movies that deserves more attention and laud.  I present “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” a quintessential example of the film noir style but still a flawless example of the Coens’ own unique filmmaking conventions.  (And for the record, I think it’s much more deserving of a Best Picture nomination than “A Serious Man.”)

Billy Bob Thornton, complete with his low and thick Southern drawl, plays the solemn and stern Californian barber Ed Crane, completely unremarkable in just about every way.  He feels emasculated and numb to the world around him, somewhat because he couldn’t serve in World War II due to his flat feet and also because he senses his wife Doris (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss Dave (James Gandolfini).  Yet the game changes a shady salesman shows up with a proposition that could make Ed a very rich man.  What ensues is a crazy, unforeseeable chain of events that pushes Ed to the brink … and he still manages to stay stolid.

“The Man Who Wasn’t There” could easily be labeled a textbook for the conventions of neo-noir, just as “Double Indemnity” could be the textbook for the original school of noir filmmaking.  The lighting and the sets really shift our moods to darkness, and the crisp, clean cinematography of Roger Deakins makes the film’s look simply irresistible.  But any fan of the Coens know that they can’t just stick to outlines or formulas, usually blending in elements of dark comedy and nihilism with any genre they tackle.  Their take on film noir is just sublime, and any fan of the directors will certainly love watching a movie that feels straight out of the 1950s but has their signature spin.





REVIEW: In the Loop

28 06 2010

I feel like I should be littering F-bombs throughout this review to keep with the tone of “In the Loop,” a movie where every other word literally was a profane one. But the language isn’t just thrown around indiscriminately. This movie is probably the best thing to happen to the F-word since its invention. Peter Capaldi and the screenwriters use it in such inventive and hilarious ways, none of which are all that irreverent.

But beyond all the profanity, there’s so much more that the Academy Award-nominated script of “In the Loop” has to offer. It’s a brilliant satire of an organization everyone loves to roast – the government. The movie shows politicians struggling over doing what is best for the country or doing what is best for their own interests. Everyone is struggling with this inner conflict, and it ultimately pushes the Britain and the United States towards a military conflict that no one really wants.

We see all sorts of government officials, from elected officials to their advisors to the interns toiling away below them. After Britain’s Minister for Internal Development Simon Foster calls war “unforeseeable,” the fiasco begins.  And once that one word flies, everyone from the Pentagon to the state department in America to Britain’s Foreign Office and Internal Devlopment is involved in a war of words.

Of the countless generals and government officials, my favorite tiny storyline was the rivalry between two twenty-something American aides, played by Anna Chlumsky and Zach Woods, both intent on destroying the other.  The Academy Award-nominated script has all the key aspects of a great screenplay: engaging dialogue to keep a well-organized plot moving. The plot shapers tie together all these plot lines in a very interesting way, although it gets a little exhausting to watch by the time the movie is over.

But the movie’s star is Peter Capaldi’s foul-mouthed enforcer Malcolm Tucker, who has a new obscenity for every time he opens his mouth. No matter what you think of the movie as a whole, it’s pretty hard not to enjoy Tucker. His unabashed speaking of his mind always makes for a good laugh, and his shameless dialogue enables his fellow actors to have their own hilarious moments by calling him out on his excessive profanity. Really, it’s Capaldi’s foul-mouthed antics that make “In the Loop” fun to watch; the satire takes a thought-provoking backseat.  B+ /