F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 20, 2015)

20 08 2015

Lily Tomlin won the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, yet she somehow still feels underappreciated. Or maybe that’s just because she kept a low profile after the peak of her stardom in the 1970s and was known mostly to members of my generation as the voice of Ms. Frizzle on “The Magic School Bus.” But thanks to perfectly tailored roles in Netflix’s “Grace & Frankie” and the new film “Grandma,” Tomlin definitely seems poised for a major moment once again.

But Tomlin’s career is not necessarily being “rescued.”  In fact, some of her best work has come from the slow and steady decades between her peaks of public interest.  Case in point: “I Heart Huckabees,” the film that landed David O. Russell in director jail after he went for Tomlin’s jugular on set.  In spite of that tension, the movie still turned out alright – even if I did not immediately recognize it on first viewing five years ago.

Russell has gained a reputation for stylish, quirky films with his so-called “reinvention” trilogy that began with 2010’s “The Fighter.”  But that idiosyncratic spirit certainly existed before then, and “I Heart Huckabees” might mark its most vibrant display.  Working with co-writer Jeff Baena, Russell crafts a so-called “existential comedy” that mines philosophy and ontology for laughs that might make Woody Allen green with envy.  As such, it merits my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Beneath all the hilarious intellectual banter lies a very simple story about a man, Jason Schwartzman’s Albert Markovski, an environmental activist who just wants to know what it’s all about.  “It,” of course, is the very meaning of life itself.  After a series of odd coincidences, he turns to a pair of existential detectives, Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin’s husband and wife team Bernard and Vivian Jaffe.  This duo claims that they can – with enough field research – determine how everything in Albert’s life connects.  They set out to find his place in the grand plan of the universe, optimistically sure that such a thing exists.

But after a while, Albert falls prey to the Jaffe’s nemesis and ideological counterpart, Isabelle Huppert’s Caterine Vauban. She offers similar services but with the nihilistic assertion that nothing relates to anything.  The longer Bernard and Vivian take to complete their assessment of Albert’s life, the more appealing Caterine’s services look.

Albert’s quest for self-knowledge gets complicated by others who seek out the detectives’ services, such as Mark Wahlberg’s Tommy Corn, a firefighter who can chew anyone’s ear off with his views on the harmfulness of petroleum.  Russell has utilized Wahlberg in three films now, and this is certainly his most ingenious performance among the trio.  While the actor is notorious for his authentic off-screen anger and street cred, Russell funnels those traits into a hilariously exaggerated character professing a hyper-verbal righteous indignation.  For Wahlberg, often more likely to rely on the swagger of his body than the power of his words, the performance feels revelatory (and perhaps indicative of even more untapped potential).

The quirky crew does not end there, with Jude Law also in the mix as Brad Stand, a corporate executive at the company Huckabees determined to take Albert down by figuring out the meaning of his own life.  Naomi Watts’ Dawn Campbell, Brad’s girlfriend and the star of Huckabees’ ad campaign, gets thrown in for good measure too.  Both are slightly minor players but still players nonetheless.

Russell throws some really dense, cerebral concepts out there in “I Heart Huckabees” – and at the lightning-fast speed of his dialogue, no less.  But so long as you can keep up, the film proves a rewarding, stimulating experience with something to say about the equilibrium between pragmatism and pessimism that we need to get through the day.





REVIEW: The Overnight

8 07 2015

The OvernightSome films revel in pushing boundaries and norms to expose the ridiculousness of those limitations.  Others, like “The Overnight,” simply dance on these taboos to milk them for cheap laughs.

Writer/director Patrick Brice is far too amused by impressionistic paintings of anal orifices, marijuana-induced hazes, and exaggerated prosthetic penises to interrogate the shackles of monogamy and parenthood.  (You get the feeling that Brice probably laughs until it hurts at the final scene of “Boogie Nights.”)  As a night of friendship blooming between two adult couples slowly devolves into something resembling a swingers party, it’s hard not to feel as uncomfortable as the guests played by Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling.

The end does ultimately show that the evening is a bit of a fantasy, one that can only take place while the kids are safely tucked away in bed.  But if Brice wanted to take this angle on the story, why not go all out with “Hangover“-style antics?  Something feels disingenuous about a tale concerning the loss of inhibitions and release of pent-up desires that is itself holding back something.

Still, within the relatively uninspired chain of events, the cast finds ways to spruce up the proceedings.  Scott and Schilling make for a convincing everyman and woman, reacting like every sane person would to the escalating oddity of their hosts.  Jason Schwartzman, most widely recognized as the mouthpiece for quirky Wes Anderson dialogue, also adds a great deal of fun to “The Overnight” with his articulate, confident eccentricity.  Unlike the stilted, clearly scripted cadences of his most frequent collaborator, Brice gives Schwartzman dialogue that actually sounds like it could come from an actual human being.  And that makes his character all the more hilarious and exciting to watch.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Big Eyes

27 12 2014

Big Eyes

Director Tim Burton (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Dark Shadows“) is accustomed to working on canvases larger than life.  But in his latest directorial outing “Big Eyes,” he has a hard time creating an environment that feels true to life.  The film is the rare Burton picture not set in any realm of fantasy or imagination, and he feels uncomfortable in the domain of average human beings.

His response to every question that arose in production, it seems, was to opt for exaggeration.  “Big Eyes” has the tense spousal dynamic of “The Color Purple” where the exploitation in the marriage is artistic rather than sexual.  Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) aspires to be a renowned and revered artist yet cannot achieve such status with his own paintings.  Thus, he claims the resonantly kitschy big-eyed paintings of his wife Margaret (Amy Adams) for his own and forces her into a glorified form of indentured servitude.

Burton uses a narrator to constantly remind the audience that this all happened “back then” as if the whole thing were some kind of fairy tale.  Yet “Big Eyes,” sadly, derives its strength from the nagging sensation that this could just as easily be happening in 2014.  The kind of cultural diminution and symbolic rape committed in the film is still endemic in today’s society, but Burton seems content with hermetically sealing it in some kind of dolled-up past.

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REVIEW: Listen Up Philip

30 10 2014

Listen Up PhilipIf you were to put a gun to my head (but I hope you wouldn’t) and asked me to a name a novelistic film, I would most likely offer up “The Place Beyond the Pines.”  The rich detail provided in the hundreds of pages of text is usually translated into cinematic terms through depth and immensity of scope.  This is far from representative of all the capabilities of the novel, however.

Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip” might lack a sprawling canvas of time, yet it feels perhaps more novelistic than any film in recent memory.  It not only captures the content of the writing style, but it also manages to somehow resemble the form itself.  Perry’s consistent employment of voiceover to verbally elucidate the internal worlds of his characters as they trod a frustrating journey of self-actualization makes the experience of viewing akin to curling up with a book on the couch.

To be fair, “Listen Up Philip” is not quite a page-turner in the same way as a novel like “Gone Girl.”  If I was reading the story at my own pace, as opposed to having it told to me for an hour and 45 minutes, I don’t think I would be in any huge rush to see it through to the bitter end.  (Emphasis on bitter for this snarky scowler of a story.)  But the replication and simulation of the prosaic absorption process within a condensed period is certainly a worthwhile use of time.

And while the story is not even particularly innovative or enjoyable, Perry definitely aligns the nature of his plot with the tenor of his form.  It seems only logical that an ingeniously written and self-aware film would follow the misadventures of an ingenious and very self-aware writer.  Perry’s protagonist Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is Woody Allen meets Whit Stillman distilled into an entitled millennial novelist.  A semi-successful writer releasing his second book, Philip is forced to deal with the fallout from the clashes of his elephantine ego in both personal and professional settings.

Schwartzman, given the unjustly rare chance to take center stage, provides a potent mix of pretentious pedantry and embraceable anxiety.  Thankfully, though, the film also provides nuance and detail to the ensemble surrounding Philip.  This allows Elisabeth Moss and Jonathan Pryce to deliver rich performances as Philip’s exasperated girlfriend and his overeager older mentor, respectively.

“Listen Up Philip” takes all the grandiosity normally imbued in the passage of time in novelistic cinema and transfers it to the characters.  Letting personalities propel the proceedings is certainly nothing groundbreaking in independent film, but achieving it in this manner is definitely a less common treat.  B+3stars





REVIEW: The Grand Budapest Hotel

3 06 2014

Just so we’re clear: I have no problems with auteurism.  For those of you who just saw a French word and panicked, I’m referring to a school of film criticism that looks for recurring patterns throughout the work of an artist (usually the director).  It can often be a very interesting lens through which to analyze a set of films, and auteurism has the ability to shine a light on filmmakers outside of the general circles of critical acclaim.

Like anything in life, the theory has a dark underbelly, and to me, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” represents the perils of auteurism run rampant.  The film is Wes Anderson’s “Django Unchained,” in the sense that it represents a moment of stasis in the progression of a great director.  Anderson is now more than a director; essentially, he’s a brand, expected by customers to deliver a certain consistency of product.

Put into the position of becoming a cinematic McDonald’s, Anderson takes the easy way out by providing an assembly-line reproduction of what he has already created to great admiration.  “The Grand Budapest Hotel” feels like a less vibrant remake of a film he’s already made – or, perhaps more accurately, it feels like all of them at once.  Despite being set in a semi-fictionalized interwar Central Europe, the world Anderson portrays seems reassembled from pieces of “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” and even “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Even more than Anderson’s last feature-length cinematic outing in 2012, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” takes his telltale stylistic flourishes and puts them to an exponential degree.  Every other take in the film had to be a tracking shot, so it seemed.  The cameos and other miscellaneous odd appearances by acclaimed thespians is now less of an amusing diversion and more of a distracting parade.  The off-beat characters feel less like quirky people and more like paper dolls traipsing around in the elegant house Anderson created for their frolicking delight.

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REVIEW: Saving Mr. Banks

9 01 2014

I’m a firm believer in the magical power of cinema, in case you hadn’t figured it out by the fact that I take the time to write this blog. Few films, however, have really shown the true enchantment of the movies on screen. Recently, the dancing scene in “The Artist” and the storyboard scene in “Argo” have illustrated it well.

Now, add to that list the scene in “Saving Mr. Banks” where Emma Thompson’s P.L. Travers gives herself over to the undeniable charm of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” a song being written for the film adaptation of her “Mary Poppins” books. The curmudgeonly writer shoots down idea after idea from the composing team of the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) and writer Don DeGradi (Bradley Whitford). Yet when they play the tune for her, we get to watch Travers’ heart melt before our eyes. They all dance and sing with such passionate mirth that I found myself moved to the brink of tears.

The film presents the captivating narrative of how Travers came to Hollywood in order to maintain the artistic integrity of her books from the kitsch of Walt Disney, an American icon fittingly portrayed Tom Hanks. She scoffs at any attempt to make the film have the saccharine appeal of his other movies: no singing, no animation, and Mary Poppins is not to be sweet.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 27, 2010)

27 08 2010

Comedy Week kicks off here on the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” series with a look at “Shopgirl,” an inspiredly funny adaptation of Steve Martin’s novella that is also tinged with a fair amount of melancholic reflection.  The movie takes a look at an unassuming girl entering the urban jungle of Los Angeles to find herself confronted with a choice between two very different relationships with two polar opposite men.

Mirabelle (Claire Danes) didn’t expect much when she moved from Vermont to LA and began working the glove counter at Saks.  Yet suddenly, she is faced with some very big problems, namely love.  Unsure of what it is, how to find it, or how to recognize it, she sits back passively waiting for it to come to her.

Sure enough it does come, although in two very different forms.  First, she meets Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman).  He’s a bumbling fool with no set of social skills, but he does have the best of intentions and all of his heart to offer Mirabelle.

Second, she meets Ray Porter (Steve Martin).  Unlike Jeremy, he’s a smooth operator who always does things with class.  Despite being music older than Mirabelle, they both find themselves falling for each other.  He’s a very wealthy entrepreneur with all of his wallet to share with her, buying her first fitted dress.  Yet he often feels a little too distant, hiding away parts of himself.

“Shopgirl” is everything a romantic comedy should be, scorning formula to provide a thought-provoking rumination on love in the modern world.  In the context of these two relationships, Mirabelle is searching for love although unsure of what shape or form it will take.  The movie doesn’t hold back and is willing to delve deep into the psychological ruin of not finding love.  But it’s precisely because it goes there that there’s just an irresistible charm about this movie.  Even when the going gets rough for Mirabelle, we still feel light as a feather.