REVIEW: Miss Sloane

9 12 2016

“Lobbying is about foresight,” observes Jessica Chastain’s high-powered Washington lobbyist Liz Sloane at the outset of “Miss Sloane.” It’s a statement she delivers in direct address to the camera, practically breaking the fourth wall. Such a revelation recalls a magician movie like “The Prestige” or “Now You See Me” more than a garden-variety political thriller.

Indeed, the intrigue in “Miss Sloane” plays like an inside-the-Beltway tale of congressional arm-twisting, fundraising wizardry and reality manipulation through the media. We’re very well aware of the fact that the movie is working one step ahead of us, that another shoe is always ready to drop in the next scene. For those willing to accept that each conclusion will be overturned by a future development, the film plays like a snappy tale of intrigue.

While the heightened political gamesmanship can lead the film to some hammy acting and some soapbox script moments, “Miss Sloane” is a remarkably grounded film about the cost of principles in the sludge of the system. Chastain’s Sloane is a remarkable figure – a pro-business conservative with a George W. Bush photo on her mantle who, for a complex web of reasons, decides to take on a challenging job lobbying for common-sense gun safety measures. With a Blackberry as her third hand, she chips away at the Senate deadlock on the issue until she very nearly fractures it.

Chastain is one of the industry’s most vocal feminist activists, now working behind the scenes to put the stories about women she wants to see into the culture. “Miss Sloane” is probably her most successful work to date in this regard (perhaps excepting “Zero Dark Thirty“). The film portrays an environment controlled by crusty old white men and the effect it has on limiting the roles available to women and tailoring the expectations they set for themselves. There’s no need to declare “FEMINIST” in bold letters, much less #ImWithHer. The understanding of gender is baked into every scene of Jonathan Perera’s script.

That extends to Sloane’s final speech, a contemporary Capra monologue that coats American idealism in the appropriate cynicism of the moment. Gone are the innocent outsiders of old affecting change by holding onto their flyover-state romanticism. Instead, the film suggests, we might need someone entrenched in the slime of the Hill to bring about the will of the people. In which case, the fits of Sorkin-esque shine in “Miss Sloane” make perfect sense. B+3stars





REVIEW: The Martian

24 10 2015

Since he burst onto the scene with 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon usually seems to play some version of that titular character. He’s had many a memorable movie and role in his decades-long career, but they almost inevitably come from the same mold of a loud, often brash man’s man. Damon might be one of the best at his particular brand of swagger, though it comes at the cost of getting caught up in an individual creation of his.

That changes for Damon with “The Martian,” a movie that reminds us of his star power since he’s tasked with essentially carrying it all on his shoulders.  While boasting a terrific ensemble, the heart of the story is a one-man show. Damon’s Mark Watney, a NASA botanist on a manned mission to Mars, gets stranded on the red planet after being presumed dead in a dust storm by the rest of his crew.

Like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” or James Franco in “127 Hours,” Damon rises to the occasion of keeping things moving and interesting with no one to act opposite. This challenge actually brings out the best in Damon, as a matter of fact. For an actor who often draws strength from being the most powerful person in a given scene, not having anyone to beat makes him turn inwards. The result is one of his most heartfelt, moving performances to date.

While he focuses on survival, all of NASA works tirelessly on Watney’s rescue. This goes far beyond his fellow astronauts, led by Jessica Chastain’s steely yet humane Captain Lewis. Entire new spacecrafts must be built and engineered, which brings out the best in both jet propulsion lab head head Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) and Donald Glover’s young astrodynamicist Rich Purnell. (Yes, Childish Gambino.)  China also gets involved in the humanitarian mission, making sure that NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and PR head Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) earn their salaries.

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REVIEW: Crimson Peak

17 10 2015

Crimson Peak” presents an unfortunate irony for most reviewers like myself.  The movie is essentially what we clamor for day in and day out: the chance for a great auteur like Guillermo del Toro to work on a sprawling canvas with a large budget of $55 million.  Yet, at the end of the day, the end product feels lacking in substance.  So how to respond?

If it felt like an ambitious endeavor in pursuit of a singular vision that just never quite finds its footing, I might be inclined to judge it more kindly.  While del Toro’s exercise in merging the Gothic romance with haunted house horror is interesting, “Crimson Peak” does not derive its strength from such a union.  In fact, most of the film’s memorable moments come from well-placed homages to classics like “Psycho” and “The Shining.”

del Toro’s immaculate eye for costume and design keep “Crimson Peak” stunning to look at, even if the events that unfold in this milieu are boring enough to encourage some shut-eye.  The film shows its hand far too early as two eerily close British siblings, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), arrive in Buffalo, NY, to seek a capital injection.  Thomas conveniently falls for the main financier’s daughter, Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing, and takes her back to their family estate known as Allerdale Hall.

“Crimson Peak” manages to elicit the odd thrill or chill here and there, but a moment where the Sharpes are seen plotting some unknown scheme towards the beginning of the film robs the experience of suspense.  There is not nearly enough heat between Hiddleston and Wasikowska to enliven the stale romantic beats they are doomed to hit.  Only Jessica Chastain, in a delightfully demented turn, manages to really excite when the final act finally allows her to come unhinged.

She’s almost too good for the movie.  While it’s hard to fault her for wanting to collaborate with a director like Guillermo del Toro, I can’t help but wish all this wrath was channeled into a more exciting work.  C+ / 2stars





REVIEW: A Most Violent Year

23 01 2015

A Most Violent YearThe twelve months referred to in the title of “A Most Violent Year” are those of 1981, a period that saw an unprecedented spike in crime within the boroughs of New York City.  This illegality is not the story of the film, though; it is merely an intriguing backdrop for the saga of Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales as he attempts to expand his property holdings in order to become a more competitive player in the heating oil business.  All the world seems to be operating without regard to law or ethics, and it practically invites him to abandon moral high ground.

Abel clings stubbornly to his principles, refusing to arm his trucks even when they get held up and robbed.  The film rarely mentions this, but Abel is an immigrant from Colombia who married into a leadership role in the company.  While mostly masks the traces of his accent, the effect of his heritage is present in every decision he makes.  Abel realizes how far he has come, as well as how far he has to tumble with just a single prideful misstep.

Isaac makes this deliberative stoicism absolutely riveting, coloring Abel with shades of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone from “The Godfather” series.  He knows when the character is weak, when he is strong, and, most importantly, when he has absolutely no idea why any of it is worth the trouble.  It’s one of the beautiful ironies of “A Most Violent Year” that Isaac seems so in control of Abel, yet each passing scene in the film slowly strips away the illusion of control of his destiny from the character.

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REVIEW: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

29 12 2014

Eleanor RigbyThe basic premise of writer/director Ned Benson’s “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” to be clear, is nothing particularly special.  James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain star as Connor Ludlow and Eleanor Rigby, respectively, a married couple in New York City hitting a devastating rough patch after a miscarriage.  Each deals with the tragedy in their own way, and Benson gives each story a feature’s length to develop.

Meant for consumption as one, “Him” follows Connor as he attempts to shake off the funk by throwing himself into his work for external validation while “Her” takes Eleanor’s point of view as she searches for greater meaning through introspection and education.  By isolating rather than integrating Connor and Eleanor’s journey, Benson makes perspective and subjectivity the prime focus of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.”

(Note: I did not bother to watch the streamlined edit that intercuts their stories, subtitled “Them,” because it seemed to defeat the purpose of the unconventional style.)

Students of narrative will relish this schismatic storytelling, analyzing what can be gleaned from one section that cannot be discerned in another.  Scenes shared by the former couple lend themselves to entirely different interpretations depending on the amount of information at hand on approach.  Integral figures in one person’s life are entirely irrelevant or nonexistent in that of the other.  Benson inquisitively asks how much can anyone know about others when trapped to see the world only through their own eyes, a question with strongly felt reverberations.

By all accounts, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” serves as a reminder that everyone has their own narrative.  Even the entrance (or exit) of a spouse does not create a shared story.  As important as that person is, they are merely another character in a grander arc.  Benson’s shedding of illusions surrounding coupling allows for a rich, nuanced portrayal of individual identity reclaimed and reasserted.

As such, “Him” and “Her” are both successful features as independent entities, not merely as half of a whole or only as an object for juxtaposition.  McAvoy commands his section by seizing the day and rallying to action to keep himself afloat; he is also bolstered by a strong dramatic turn from Bill Hader as a coworker and companion.  Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain proves irresistibly compelling as she mines the deepest recesses of her psyche for any kind of redemptive discovery.  In their contrast, Benson finds a beautifully dissonant harmony.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Interstellar

9 11 2014

“We were meant to be explorers, pioneers – not caretakers,” utters Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper towards the start of “Interstellar.”  This declaration is true not only for the world of the film but also of its filmmaker, the inimitable Christopher Nolan.  As if exploring the deepest corners of the mind with “Inception” or redefining an entire cinematic genre with “The Dark Knight” was not enough, he has now flung his vision and ambition into the farthest reaches of space and time.

His “Interstellar” is not limited by dimensions nor encumbered by gravity.  It defies time and space entirely.  It is at once poetic and narrative.  It is a calculated work of science that also operates from a profound emotional level, wedding Kubrickian formalism to Spielbergian sentimentalism.  And most importantly, it inspires wonder and awe.

This is why, at least in Christopher Nolan’s lifetime, the movie theater experience will not perish.  His cinema is bold, immersive, and ultimately transcendent.  He goes beyond capturing an image or a feeling for what it is, showing the majesty it can embody and convey.  When at his calibrated best, Nolan can invoke not only a visceral reaction but also a spiritual one.

He is the undeniable myth maker of our time.  If that does not prompt loyal adherence, it should, at the bare minimum, command admiration and respect.  No one else working with this massive a budget is coming anywhere close to approximating Nolan’s scope or verve.  “Interstellar” is the latest shining star in his cinematic universe, and it shines brightly as a paradigm of balancing artistry and authorship along with accessibility and avant-gardism.

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Live Blogging the 2012 Golden Globes!

13 01 2013

10:00 P.M.  For those of you keeping track at home, “Les Misérables” ruled the Golden Globes tonight with 3 wins!  “Django Unchained” and “Argo” also won two trophies.  “Amour,” “Brave,” “Life of Pi,” “Lincoln,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Skyfall,” and “Zero Dark Thirty” each won a single award.

10:00 P.M.  HFPA awkwardly and unintentionally flips the bird to AMPAS tonight…

9:58 P.M.  BEST PICTURE – DRAMA: “ARGO

ARGO

9:52 P.M.  Unexpectedly humorous speech from Day-Lewis.  Although I laughed much harder at how most of the back of the room gave him a standing ovation … and NO ONE up front did.  Awkward…

9:50 P.M. BEST ACTOR – DRAMA: DANIEL DAY-LEWIS, “LINCOLN

Lincoln

9:50 P.M.  What a beautiful speech, Chastain looked truly humbled and honored.  To the Oscars we go, hopefully!  (Hey HFPA, didn’t appreciate your shot of the audience where we could see you all flashing “WRAP UP.”)

9:48 P.M. BEST ACTRESS – DRAMA: JESSICA CHASTAIN, “ZERO DARK THIRTY

Zero Dark Thirty

9:41 P.M.  Adorable Anne Hathaway stealing the microphone quickly to do a few more thanks and then tightly hugging Amanda Seyfried.

9:40 P.M. BEST PICTURE – MUSICAL/COMEDY: LES MISERABLES

Les Miserables (2)

9:39 P.M.  Jeremy Renner bleeped…

9:34 P.M.  What a charming acceptance speech, and so much love for his wife!  Maybe he can beat Daniel Day-Lewis?!

9:32 P.M.  BEST ACTOR – MUSICAL/COMEDY: HUGH JACKMAN, “LES MISERABLES

Les Miserables

9:22 P.M.  They talked about actors, and then the category was Best TV Series – Musical/Comedy?  At least it was “Girls!”

9:18 P.M.  Take that, Academy!  Standing ovation for snubbed Ben Affleck!

9:18 P.M. BEST DIRECTOR: BEN AFFLECK, “ARGO

Argo

9:11 P.M.  What on earth did Jodie Foster just say?  Seriously, my TV audio went out in what I assume was a bleep.

9:04 P.M.  OK, people, time for you to go watch “The Beaver.”  It has Mel Gibson, sure, but it also has Jennifer Lawrence!

The Beaver

8:59 P.M.  “Taylor Swift, stay away from Michael J. Fox’s son!” – Tina Fey, who needs to be on this telecast far more

8:53 P.M.  Lena Dunham may have won the Golden Globe, but Tina Fey got to wait with J.Lo and Amy Poehler got awfully close to George Clooney.  It’s debatable who the overall winner really was tonight.

8:51 P.M.  Hooray for Lena – NOT Lisa, Aziz – Dunham!  Go watch “Tiny Furniture!”

8:50 P.M.  Aziz Ansari being carried by Jason Bateman … fantastic.

8:47 P.M.  BEST ANIMATED FILM: “BRAVE

Brave

8:46 P.M.  What on earth did that introduction have to do with Best Animated Film?

8:45 P.M.  Goodness gracious, Sacha Baron Cohen is drunk…

8:39 P.M.  4 Golden Globes for Claire Danes in her career.  She’s halfway to Meryl Streep!

8:35 P.M.  BEST FOREIGN FILM: “AMOUR

Amour

8:27 P.M.  “Best Picture nominee ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen‘” just sounds so wrong.

8:25 P.M.  Really, Golden Globes?  Tarantino for screenplay?  Not OK with that. “Inglourious Basterds” blows “Django Unchained” out of the water.  And the speech was a total MESS.  Someone was overserved…

8:23 P.M. BEST SCREENPLAY: QUENTIN TARANTINO, “DJANGO UNCHAINED

Django

8:18 P.M.  Give us more time with Anne Hathaway’s acceptance speech – we love her!

8:15 P.M. BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: ANNE HATHAWAY, “LES MISERABLES

Anne Hathaway

8:07 P.M.  Yes, JLaw, to answer the question you were so desperately trying to ask during that speech, OF COURSE we can be best friends!

8:07 P.M.  “Does this say ‘I beat Meryl?'” – Jennifer Lawrence

8:06 P.M.  BEST ACTRESS – MUSICAL/COMEDY: JENNIFER LAWRENCE, “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

Jennifer Lawrence

8:04 P.M.  The sad thing is, Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig are saying what a lot of Americans are to their television sets right now.  Wondering what this “Silver Linings Playbook” thing is and cursing them for not nominating “The Avengers.”

8:02 P.M.  Nice abs, Kristen Wiig.

7:59 P.M.  Clinton introducing “Lincoln.”  Oscar for Best Picture is now in the bag, in case it wasn’t already.

7:58 P.M.  Really, Bill Clinton?!  What?!

7:55 P.M.  Tina Fey and Amy Poehler going and impersonating the absent celebrities is PRICELESS.

7:49 P.M.  Looks like we need more Grammy-winners to come freshen up film awards.

7:48 P.M. BEST ORIGINAL SONG: SKYFALL, “SKYFALL

Skyfall

7:45 P.M. BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: MYCHAEL DANNA, “LIFE OF PI

Life of Pi

7:42 P.M.  Woah, real Tony Mendez!

Argo

7:36 P.M.  Awkward teleprompter flub with Salma Hayek and Paul Rudd … hooray for “Homeland!”  Don’t understand why they present Best TV Series – Drama before Best Actress in a TV Drama?!

7:33 P.M.  Wow, now “Homeland” is set to dominate the Golden Globes too after Emmys domination.  Weird not to hear Damian Lewis speak in his gruff American accent!

7:32 P.M.  Didn’t get to see much from the red carpet, but from what I can tell … Jessica Chastain wins.  Just as she did at the Oscars last year.  Ehh, didn’t really get to look closely enough.  She’s gorgeous, sure, but the dress wasn’t that great.

Jessica Chastain

7:30 P.M.  “Call Me Maybe” needs to be left in 2012, HFPA lady.

7:23 P.M.  Don’t sing again, Catherine Zeta-Jones, unless it’s “Chicago.”  Thanks.  That line of “Do You Hear The People Sing?” was awful.

7:21 P.M.  If “Game Change” had been released in theaters, Julianne Moore would be in contention for Best Actress.  Think about it…

7:18 P.M. Hooray for “Game Change!”   One of the better movies I saw this year in any format!

7:12 P.M.  C’mon, Professor McGonagall.  It’s one thing not to do press for yourself – but not showing up to receive the inevitable award?!

7:10 P.M.  Please, Academy, you’ve already awarded Christoph Waltz for literally the same performance.  And oh, here goes Waltz again with the poetic metaphors in his speeches.

7:10 P.M. BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: CHRISTOPH WALTZ, “DJANGO UNCHAINED

Django

7:08 P.M.  “This 70th anniversary celebration.”  OK.  Glad Tina and Amy mentioned that!

7:03 P.M.  “When it comes to torture, I trust the lady who spent 3 years married to James Cameron.” – Amy Poehler, much to the amusement of Jessica Chastain (who was DYING laughing)

7:02 P.M.  Already loving the Tina and amy combo.  Same humor, just with less bite!

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