REVIEW: Café Society

7 08 2016

Woody Allen haters, whether for his personal life or his professional output, need only look at the basic plot summary of “Café Society” to turn themselves away. On its face, the film repackages one of the most unfortunate clichés propagated by his body of work.

This, of course, is the doomed love triangle where a young, sexually blooming woman is courted by two men; one is an older and more distinguished gentleman, while the other is a younger but more intellectually and romantically capable match. Such a formation often seems like Allen wants to have it both ways, where his older and younger personas form a kind of sexual yin and yang.

This risible, repetitive plot invention looms over “Café Society,” imbuing every gorgeous frame from Vittorio Storraro’s lens with a faint stench of retrograde gender politics. In that way, the film plays a role similar to that friend you know has substance issues but dispenses valuable nuggets of drunk wisdom.

Look past the love triangle and beyond the outmoded attitudes, and “Café Society” marks Woody Allen at peak nostalgic autobiography. A few of the bad elements are here, sure, but much of the beauty and torment that marks Allen’s best work is present as well. From his culturally Jewish upbringing to his loathing of Hollywood and even his bleakly optimistic outlook on life, the film feels somewhat akin to a superhero origin story.

Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements




REVIEW: Now You See Me 2

10 06 2016

Can two rabbits come out of the same metaphorical hat? Or two tricks from the same sleeve? Jon M. Chu’s “Now You See Me 2” does not really attempt such a feat. Rather than make a straightforward sequel to the 2013 magician caper, it goes in a totally new direction – essentially functioning like an “Ocean’s 11” style heist film. This entertains, sure, but it feels like a betrayal of the series’ core conceits.

The more interesting change from predecessor to sequel, however, is the transition of target for the magicians-cum-social crusaders known as the Four Horsemen. In the first film, their Robin Hood act harnessed the populist rage of the Occupy movement and used their cunning to get back at financiers who profited off the recession. Now, they face down a titan of technology with tyrannical aspirations of acquiring a chip that can surveil and sabotage any network on Earth. (On a pedantic note, it’s somewhat disappointing – yet maybe somewhat admirable – that the businessman is played by Daniel Radcliffe and no meta magic jokes are made around his appearance.)

Like “Spectre” last year, “Now You See Me 2” dives headfirst into Snowden-era debates over digital privacy. It only offers real commentary about the freedom from being seen in its conclusion, another predictably drawn-out labyrinthine affair. The film is primarily focused on the thrill; perhaps as it should be. When highly focused, as in an extended sequence showing the slight-of-hand of the disappearing card trick, it rightly claims the descriptor of “magical.”

But more often, it’s a lot of back-and-forth banter between the bickering magicians. The new presence of Lizzy Caplan’s enchantress Lula, a one-note annoying chatterbox with an aggravating infatuation for Dave Franco’s Jack Wilder, makes the interactions chafe a little more than before. Their dynamics feel like a potential deleted storyline from 2009’s “The Proposal,” the only other writing credit from “Now You See Me 2” scripter Pete Chiarelli. His sensibility coexists somewhat uneasily with writer Ed Solomon – the only credited writer returning from the original – whose previous work includes buddy action flicks like “Men in Black” and “Charlie’s Angels.” Their tag team gives the film a little bit of everything, just not a whole lot of consistency. C+ / 2stars





REVIEW: Louder Than Bombs

8 05 2016

Louder than Bombs

It feels quite fitting that Joachim Trier’s “Louder Than Bombs” features voiceover narration comes from all different characters. The writer/director frequently harbors novelistic ambitions in his work, and this feels like a stab at the ambitious multi-tongued narrations of Faulkner. Yet in trying to swing for the fences, Trier really just demonstrates how thin a grasp he has on the differences between literature and cinema.

Granted, this device is partly excused by the fact that the story has no real protagonist. Because “Louder Than Bombs” is a story about loss, it’s somewhat fitting that the center of the film is a departed character. The narrative is one of absence, not about presence. Such a choice comes with a cost, however. Trier’s film feels largely empty. Where one would normally find a heart, there is little more than stale air.

As the family of acclaimed war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) picks up the shards left by her sudden departure, Trier seems to consciously avoid the clichés of similar movies. The widowed father (Gabriel Byrne) resists becoming emotionally absent; the eldest son (Jesse Eisenberg) remains cooly distant; the younger son (Devin Druid) feigns normalcy. Yet avoiding banality does not guarantee quality. It is not enough to merely remove the bad if it is not replaced with something else good. And Trier has little of substance to offer.

“Louder Than Bombs” plays like the kind of film made by someone who has seen movies and read books about grief but has never really experienced it – or at the very least, has never really come to terms with it. Be it in the performances, the tone or the content, every moment feels motivated by the art being imposed onto the events rather than the emotion that ought to flow from them. People grieve singularly, to be sure, and it is not for anyone to say how it should or should not be done. But Trier’s choice to stand so far outside the messy, complicated reality of mourning and rebuilding provides scant insight into the very thing he seeks to depict. C+ / 2stars





REVIEW: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

29 03 2016

I miss Christopher Nolan. Never mind that it has been less than four years since his final Batman film and fewer than 18 months since his most recent directorial effort, “Interstellar.” He understood that the scope of a sprawling comic book movie could be an epic canvas for ambitious thematic and aesthetic content, not just an excuse for bombast and branding.

He has, inexplicably, turned over the keys to the kingdom to Zack Snyder, a director full of sound and fury that signifies nothing. He has an eye and a knack for style, to give him some credit, but Snyder never deploys it in use of a story or an idea. He’s all showmanship for its own sake – surfaces above substance, declaration over development.

As if 2013’s “Man of Steel” was not nauseating enough, he arrives with an “Avengers”-ified sequel in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” It’s roughly the cinematic equivalent of Kim Kardashian’s “Break the Internet” magazine cover. Call it “Break the Box Office,” if you will, as it’s already crushing at the box office this year. The film is practically incoherent and only gets more pointless and frustrating with each new turn. With each successive insipid development, the experience is as numbing as it is infuriating.

Snyder is more concerned that we notice the giant CGI pearls snapped at the murder of Bruce Wayne’s mother than providing context or rationale for this universe in which the film takes place. So two superheroes, Batman and Superman, have been living across the water from each other … and that was not worth mentioning in “Man of Steel?” While it’s nice that the film does not waste time rehashing an origin story, clearly Ben Affleck’s Batman is much different than Christian Bale’s. He’s more overtly villainous and cynical – but why?

Perhaps these questions might have been answered in the many scenes left on the cutting room floor. These crucial contextual bits are more important than ever as they could give the franchise a headwind as it launches a bevy of spinoffs and sequels. Marvel movies are bearable because their brain trust actually cares about their characters. They might ultimately succumb to formulaic plots, sure, but they at least understand that audiences want to get attached to these larger-than-life figures. Come and forget the action, stay and remember the characters.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: The End of the Tour

16 08 2015

The End of the TourThe celebrity interview in fiction is something that often gets fetishized, probably because it is so frequently fantasized.  I have done a few myself, and it can be tough not to get carried away just by breathing the rarefied air of a talented artist.  Rationalize the experience away as journalism, but that does not do justice to the nature of the interview.

It’s a transaction.  An exchange of goods disguised as an exchange of words.  A delicate dance. Chuck Klosterman, in his excellent book “Eating the Dinosaur,” offered a deft explanation of just how these performances work.  “The result (when things go well),” he wrote, “is a dynamic, adversarial, semi-real conversation.”

The End of the Tour” makes a movie out of a journalistic conversation for the ages, a battle of wits on a more even playing field than usual.  Jesse Eisenberg plays David Lipsky, a minimally successful novelist who pays the bills for his aspirations of fiction writing by penning non-fictional articles for Rolling Stone. Somehow, he convinces his boss to let him go on assignment to profile another writer, the first time the magazine dares to feature a wordsmith in over a decade.

Lipsky’s subject is no average writer, though. He tags along with David Foster Wallace, played by Jason Segel, at the last stop of his 1996 book tour for “Infinite Jest,” a thousand-page tome that reaps hyperbolic praise and adulation. After publishing such a novel, a kind of literary legend status extended to very few authors looms on the horizon.

Read the rest of this entry »





Random Factoid #577

14 07 2015

There’s rumors, in the Twittersphere… (to quote the great “21 Jump Street“)

…that people are angry with Jesse Eisenberg.  The Oscar nominee for “The Social Network” – and villain of next spring’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” – was quoted saying something about Comic-Con that upset quite a few folks.  Here, to the best of my knowledge, are those remarks in context, courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter:

“It is like being screamed at by thousands of people. I don’t know what the experience is throughout history, probably some kind of genocide. I can’t think of anything that’s equivalent.”

IMG_0998 I would like to add some further context simply to explain Jesse Eisenberg, not Comic-Con.

“The Social Network” is one of my all-time favorite movies, so I have always been curious – naturally – to meet its star in person.  Almost two years ago at the 2013 London Film Festival, I got the chance.

I got a ticket to the gala screening of his film “Night Moves” (which wasn’t great but will almost assuredly be better than any movie Zack Snyder could ever concoct) and happened to be strolling around Leicester Square on my way to the theater when I noticed Eisenberg making his way down a line of fans to sign autographs.  Naturally, I jumped in.

Now, I’ve gotten the chance to interact with quite a few actors in my day, a fact I cite not to brag but to let you know that I speak with some mild authority when I say that Eisenberg moved particularly slowly down his wall of admirers.  He looked down towards the ground and made only the most meager of efforts to interact with the person in front of him.  Eisenberg signed whatever piece of paper a fan handed him but clearly ignored whatever praise they might heap on him.  In a mechanical fashion, he would mutter, “thank you so much,” essentially without being prompted.

IMG_1014(Seriously, I am not bitter about this, but when Eisenberg got to me, my Sharpie ran out of ink.  Rather than wait, he just moved on to the next person.)

I tell this story to let the film blog world know that Jesse Eisenberg is probably the most shy, introverted celebrity I have ever come across.  He sees fame as a negative externality of his acting prowess, not a reward for it.  I think his nightmares probably involve Facebook coming to life.

So if you are someone who regards Comic-Con as hallowed ground, just try to see it through his eyes.  All that attention, scrutiny, and adoration must feel so overwhelming, perhaps embarrassing, to Eisenberg.  Or think of it from the opposite extreme – Comic-Con for Jesse Eisenberg is what zero likes on Instagram is to Kim Kardashian.





REVIEW: Night Moves

2 09 2014

Night MovesLondon Film Festival, 2013

Kelly Reichardt’s ecoterrorist drama “Night Moves” starts off with all the right moves.  As she details the steps that a group of activists take to blow up a hydroelectric dam, the film holds us with the firm grip of a well-crafted procedural.  Reichardt never has to resort to the usual arsenal of cinematic tricks to create suspense because it arises organically from her laser-like focus on presenting the reality of the scene.

The film’s style works at first because we get a sense of who the characters are based on the way they act and react.  There’s no clunky exposition to give us an abundance of background information on them, yet these three resolute and very different figures just seem to make sense as they plot towards their bold action.

That’s largely due to the actors filling the nuances left by Reichardt’s script.  Jesse Eisenberg (yet again) plays the silent and bitterly angry type well, but “Night Moves” is more exciting for its surprising performances.  Dakota Fanning as a zealous untested college dropout and Peter Sarsgaard as a confident but somewhat shady ex-Marine make far more compelling characters because we aren’t sure the depths they can reach.

Once their planning is done and the deed is carried out (notice I didn’t say how successfully), the three split ways.  This occurs between a third and half of the way through the film, a rather odd structure given that we expect blowing up the dam to be the climax.  The unexpected plot development portends an exciting departure when it begins, but “Night Moves” sadly becomes an entirely different movie afterwards.

Reichardt, so ably steering clear of genre cliches at the start of the film, sets a course straight into them at the back half.  As the three characters struggle with guilt, responsibility, and many other feelings, “Night Moves” assumes the tenor of formulaic melodrama. Though this conventional chapter of the story ultimately caps off with a surprising plot development, the familiar waters taint the powerful experience of riding through such uncharted ones.  B2halfstars