REVIEW: Demolition

8 04 2016

DemolitionDirector Jean-Marc Vallée might not receive an editing credit on his latest film, “Demolition,” but his fingerprints are as visible in the rhythm as they were in “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild.” (Vallée was credited under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy for the two films, which he also directed.) In many ways, the effort feels like the closing of a loose thematic and visual trilogy for him. Each film replicates the emotional landscape of a character who gets shaken up by the realization of their own mortality and thus makes a drastic course correction in their own life.

For Jake Gyllenhaal’s Davis Mitchell, that abrupt discovery comes about when his wife dies tragically in a car accident – while he, in the passenger seat, escapes virtually untouched from the wreck. The cliché that normally follows such a traumatic event is the overwrought, grief-stricken husband schtick. “Demolition” goes in the opposite direction. Davis feels absolutely nothing. That’s not to say he feels hatred of his late wife or excitement over her passing (a la “About Schmidt” or, heaven forbid, “Dirty Grandpa“). He’s just numb.

Vallée does not shy away from the challenge of portraying such entropy and attempts to replicate that sensation of feeling desensitized and unresponsive to all the cues that one’s surroundings can throw. In “Demolition,” that looks a lot like destroying the “scene” as it is commonly known. Shots bleed into each other, but they also break off mid-thought and even jump wildly to a tangent. Each successive time Vallée has employed this impressionistic style, it becomes less a service to the story and more of a replacement for it. In other words, reactions likely vary based on feelings towards the character or story.

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REVIEW: Wild

26 11 2014

WildTelluride Film Festival

On the page, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild” is nothing particularly noteworthy.  While she tells her story of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with raw honesty, the book is often little more than a hybrid of “Eat Pray Love” and “Into the Wild” that insists on its own importance.  The grueling odyssey is enlightening into the evolution of her psyche, though it usually achieves such an effect by excessive elucidation.

On the big screen, however, “Wild” is an altogether different beast.  In fact, it is better.  The book fell into the hands of a caring filmmaking team that sees the cinema in Strayed’s tale.  The collaboration of star Reese Witherspoon, screenwriter Nick Hornby, and editor/director Jean-Marc Vallée yields a wholly gratifying film experience because each uses their own set of talents to draw out the soul of the book.

Hornby is among the rare breed of writers who can balance the role of humorist and humanist.  Whether in his own novels or adapting someone else’s words for the screen, as he did in 2009 with “An Education,” Hornby’s stories percolate with snappy wit and superb characterization.  Here, almost all of that skill goes into the development of Cheryl, whose 1,100 mile solo hike virtually makes for a one-woman show.

The dearth of conversational opportunities hardly proves daunting for Hornby, who ensures the film flows effortlessly and entertainingly.  There is the obvious and occasional recourse to flashback to break up the monotony of her trek, sure, yet these glimpses from the past do not drive the narrative.  In fact, these scenes are among the least effective in “Wild” because they are never quite clear as to why Cheryl decides to take off on this foolish quest in the first place.  The past provides the background for the character, just not necessarily the journey.

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Telluride Film Festival Diary, Day 3

31 08 2014

8:30 A.M.: Up early to talk with Mike Leigh and then hit up one of my most anticipated films of the festival –  the Marion Cotillard-starring “Two Days, One Night.”

11:30 A.M.: Floored by “Two Days, One Night.” A fascinating look at the internal tussle between self-interest and self-sacrifice. Now headed to the noon panel!

1:00 P.M.: Ugh, nothing worse than having to leave an incredible panel that featured Jon Stewart, Gael Garcia Bernal, Bennett Miller (director of “Moneyball” and “Foxcatcher”), and Jean-Marc Vallee (director of “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild”). But now I’m about to see an obscure silent film with live accompaniment, which is certainly a cool thing. Even if the movie is a dud, it is certainly a unique experience to cross off the cinematic bucket list.

5:30 P.M.: Well, the silent film was a pretty neat thing to see. I was not entirely in the right mindset to watch that kind of a film, so I didn’t necessarily engage with it on a level I’d hoped.

Then we had student Q&A sessions with the Dardennes (who directed “Two Days, One Night”) and Morten Tyldum (who directed “The Imitation Game,” which I did even get to see). I told the French-speaking Dardennes bonjour, which was sadly all the interaction I had with them. I had a great question for them, but I didn’t get called on. The conversation with Tyldum was surprisingly interesting, considering that none of us saw the film.

Now, on to “Dancing Arabs,” an Israeli-Palestinian film that I know absolutely nothing about. And sometimes, that’s not a bad thing.

8:45 P.M.: GOT INTO “FOXCATCHER.” Festival = made. And James Gray, the director of my favorite 2014 film “The Immigrant,” is sitting two rows behind me!

Also, I ran into Ramin Bahrani, the director of “99 Homes,” while in line for the bathroom today. I told him how much I enjoyed the film, and he replied in astonishment that I was able to stay awake. I also chatted him up about Winston-Salem, where he filmed a short that played before the presentation last night. Pretty cool stuff!

Oh, and “Dancing Arabs” was mediocre, in case you were wondering.

12:11 A.M.:  Back from “Foxcatcher.”  What a cerebral, brooding film.  Definitely going to spend some time in deliberation on this one.  Reminds me of how I felt emerging from “The Master.”

Anyways, tomorrow is the day when the festival reprograms the films that had lots of turnaways – so wish me luck as I attempt to catch “Rosewater” and “Wild.”  So now I’m going to try to finish the book of the latter … which I doubt will happen.





REVIEW: Dallas Buyers Club

24 08 2014

It’s tempting to look at the flashy physical transformations of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto for “Dallas Buyers Club” and assume that the film’s allure lies solely on the surface.  (Not helping matters were the heaps of attention and awards for the actors while the below-the-line talent went virtually unrecognized.)  Director Jean-Marc Vallée actually does deliver a film, however, with a surprisingly deep amount of care in its crafting.

We first meet McConaughey’s tough-talking Texas cowboy Ron Woodruff as he womanizes, a scene which feels all too typical.  Yet pay attention to the way the sequence is spliced together, both visually and aurally, and you may notice how simply and effectively Vallée foreshadows Woodruff’s impending HIV diagnosis.  These flourishes, subtle as they may be, go a long way to prevent “Dallas Buyers Club” from hokey Oscar bait.

Flashy though their work may be, the beauty of McConaughey and Leto’s performances also comes from these smaller moments.  While it’s easy to marvel about how gaunt Leto appears or how seamlessly he disappears into AIDS-stricken trans woman Rayon, he’s at his most impactful when breaking down in tears over fretting imminent death.  The same goes for McConaughey, who gets to slowly peel away layers of calloused toughness to reveal humanity and empathy.

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REVIEW: The Young Victoria

1 09 2013

The Young VictoriaI know I’ve never been a fan of Victorian-era England costume dramas … or really 19th century tales of the royal or luxurious (see my less than thrilled response to “Bright Star” and my outright repudiation of “Anna Karenina“).  But believe it or not, I had actually been meaning to see “The Young Victoria” for quite some time now.  And it was not just to check the box off some virtual film bucket list; I think I genuinely wanted to watch it.  Going to London for the semester finally gave me the impetus to do so.

And after about 15 minutes, I was reminded of why I normally don’t care for these kinds of movies.  “The Young Victoria” has very little to offer save a spirited but hardly redeeming performance by Emily Blunt.  I’ve been a fan of the actress since she stole the darkest portions of my heart as the brutally sardonic Emily in “The Devil Wears Prada,” but the role is just one in a string that doesn’t recapture her triumphant entrance onto the Hollywood scene.  (It’s not even her best since then –  that would be her performance in “Your Sister’s Sister.”)

Jean-Marc Vallée’s film is a rather turgid spectacle of costumes and set design.  It has remarkably little drama, perhaps due to the rather strange narrative arc designed by screenwriter Julian Fellowes.  I’d argue the film’s emotional climax comes at about the 30-minute mark, and everything else afterwards feels like falling action.  Queen Victoria’s romance with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) takes up the majority of the film, but there’s never any passion or tension being stirred up.  When the end finally rolls around, “The Young Victoria” just feels like a rather anti-climatic waste.  C2stars