REVIEW: The Little Hours

25 06 2017

Raunchy comedies set in a distant past always run the risk of relying too heavily on anachronistic humor. (Cough, “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”) The humor that arises from performers in period garb rattling off profanities or talking in the present-day vernacular is the definition of low-hanging fruit.

Jeff Baena’s “The Little Hours” tends to lean on this dissonance to generate comedy. Aubrey Plaza dropping F-bombs in a nun’s habit is inherently pretty darn funny. Whether it leans too heavily on the ahistorical humor is up to the individual viewer – I found it a little overloaded – but thankfully it’s not the only trick Baena has up his sleeve.

The film’s story, adapted from the Medieval novella “The Decameron,” finds laughs from sending up the era’s sexual repression and religious rigor. Three naughty nuns (Plaza, Alison Brie and scene-stealer Kate Micucci) toil away in their convent under the watchful eye of John C. Reilly’s Father Tommasso, lamenting their inability to act on certain desires. Luckily, Dave Franco’s chesty handyman Massetto arrives to light their flames.

This feudal Rudolph Valentino escapes one manor, where as servant he beds the master’s wife, and gets smuggled into the nunnery pretending to be a deaf mute. Thinking him unable to hear them, the sisters let loose with some of their wildest sexual fantasies – some of which they consummate to his delight and horror. “The Little Hours” is certainly a one-of-a-kind sex comedy, worth seeing for its brazenness alone and worth staying for Fred Armisen’s Bishop Bartolomeo, who arrives at the end to scold them all with a poker-faced gall. B





REVIEW: Kong: Skull Island

7 03 2017

“Am I the story of the Negro in America?” asks a German major in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” as he tries to guess the name written on a card affixed to his forehead in a bar game. He gets a resounding “no” after running through a series of questions that could just as easily describe the importation of slaves. But he quickly pivots and rattles off, “Well, then, I must be King Kong.”

Traditionally in cinema – and fiction as a whole – our monsters mean something. They reflect the deep fears and anxieties of a society, ones that might not obviously rear their heads but can find vicarious expression through metaphor and transitive representation. In 1933’s version of “King Kong,” Tarantino saw a deeply symbolic tale about race in America. It’s too bad that “Kong: Skull Island,” the latest spin on the giant ape, arrives at a time of no racial tension and the complete absolution of prejudice based on ancestral origin. (Ha.)

But what kind of monster is Kong in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film? At first, the behemoth primate seems to be something between a colonialist allegory given the backdrop of the Vietnam War and a cautionary tale for human overreach in a technology-heavy era. The longer the film goes on, the more these aspects reveal themselves as clear offshoots of Vogt-Roberts’ key touchstones, “Apocalypse Now” and “Jurassic Park.” Then the real question of “Kong: Skull Island” arises. Is it worse if the filmmaking team (which includes four credited writers) have an undercooked meaning of the monster … or if there’s just no meaning at all?

We get the answer – it’s the latter of the two options – in a post-credits zinger. No spoilers about the contents of the scene, but Warner Bros. deliberately robs King Kong of any allegorical meaning to strip him down to pure commercialism. He’s now just another branded property, another franchise toy who can be trotted out in any number of series without being weighed down by cultural baggage. The ape who loomed large in the American imagination is now just another large CGI creation in a veritable zoo created by the VFX wizards that be. The whole film amounts to a less neon-bathed “Avatar,” a creature feature full of empty spectacle (and even less politicization).

Kong’s presence in the film is practically nonexistent, too. That includes implied appearances, a method to which Spielberg acolyte Vogt-Roberts fondly makes homage. The majority of “Kong: Skull Island” consists of a ragtag band of people who have been in too many action movies (Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman) and those whose careers could use an action movie (Brie Larson, Thomas Mann, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell) trying to make it to the top of a mountain for rescue after a military mission goes south. Their journey has its enjoyable moments, but who really buys a ticket to a King Kong movie for pithy banter between photojournalists and cagey war veterans? B-





REVIEW: Sing

21 12 2016

When it comes to making movies for children, simplicity is your friend. In the case of Illumination Entertainment’s “Sing,” however, animators must have just decided to meet the times and deliver a scattered mess of characters in need of Adderall and concision. There’s genuine heart and sweetness in Garth Jenning’s film, but it gets choked out of the equation in favor of more songs, more gags, more scenes, more … everything.

There’s really no need to stuff in another animal, another backstory, another musical number. We already know what’s going on from the get-go because “Sing” is not a particularly complicated film. Koala bear Buster Moon (voice of Matthew McConaughey) is a man after many of our own hearts – inspired by art at a young age, he doggedly and even naively sets course to be a booster and patron in the community. When his theater falls on hard times, he holds auditions for a singing contest to spotlight the unsung stars of the town.

While he struggles to pay the rent and keep the lights on, his contestants engage in battles of their own. Yet among the handful of singers, each given about equal screen time, there are really only two issues – nerves and family expectations. Be it the dedicated domestic engineer Rosita (Reese Witherspoon’s plucky pig Rosita), the shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly), or the bank robber-cum-closet crooner Johnny (Taron Egerton’s gorilla Johnny), the conflicts all bleed into each other. By their final numbers, there’s no surprise or jubilation because we know these animals as nothing more than familiar character dilemmas. With our attention spread so thin between them, there’s no connection built up, either.

If anything, “Sing” feels like an animated television series retrofitted into a feature-length film. Well, actually … maybe that’s the motivation after all. Even so, that doesn’t change the fact that this is an uninspiring pilot episode. C+2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 8, 2016)

8 09 2016

year-of-the-dogAs someone who lives with two canine companions, I can certainly sympathize with Molly Shannon’s Peggy in “Year of the Dog.” Relationships with humans are tough. How dare they do this, but they actually want something in return from us. They make demands of our time and thought. Dogs like Peggy’s beloved Pencil simply live to please us, offering love and affection no matter our mood or deeds that day.

But, as every child in a film about a dog knows, we almost always outlive our dogs. Peggy faces this lesson sooner than expected when Pencil gets into some toxic chemicals and cannot be saved by a veteran. What comes next for someone who puts all her eggs into the basket of her beloved animal makes for quite a melancholy comedy from writer/director Mike White.

Rather than using her period of mourning to deepen or enrich her relationship with neighbors, coworkers or family members, Peggy entrenches herself even further into animal advocacy and obsession. She becomes a vegan, brings home abused shelter dogs by the carful to save them from euthanasia and even “adopts” farm animals in lieu of holiday gifts. It’s decidedly odd turn of events, yet Molly Shannon resists playing her character as some kind of lunatic. The performance resembles a quieter, more mellow version of her notorious “Saturday Night Live” characters – all of their insecurities without all the theatricality to mask the wounds.

“Year of the Dog” is my choice for “F.I.L.M. of the Week” not only because of Shannon’s raw performance but also because of where Mike White takes it. While he shows compassion for everyone, White is not afraid to steer the film into dark and bittersweet territory. He is unafraid to suggest that Peggy might not need the human connections we expect her to develop over the course of the film. She might just need the certainty of her own convictions and the courage to follow the path she thinks will bring her the happiness she seeks.





REVIEW: We Need To Talk About Kevin

13 06 2016

We Need To Talk About KevinI have somewhat a shameful bad habit as a critic – sometimes, I cannot bring myself to write about the movies that transfix my senses and command my thoughts. Look through my pages of reviews and see the scores of films at the top of the list – “Shame,” “Spring Breakers, “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “The Big Short” – all without a formal review. It feels mostly rooted in a desire not to demystify the experience combined with a feebleness before the work. What good can my words really do in the face of such a colossus of art?

Tonight, I sat before my editorial calendar with a big gaping hole in my schedule. Nothing new left to review, nothing old particularly pertinent to a new release. What to write about, especially given the horrendous events dominating the news? (If you read this further out from publication and June 12 is not a date branded in your memory, I wrote the sentence you are reading in the wake of the slaughter at Pulse in Orlando.) Then, I remembered one film that I have been long overdue to appraise. Roughly five years late, as a matter of fact.

If you didn’t read the title or look at the poster, that film is Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” a chilling look behind the headlines at the mother of a murderer. Of course,  a one-to-one correlation between the Orlando massacre and the killing at the center of this film is not the point. The murder weapons are different, and the family environments and the means of radicalization are likely dissimilar as well (though answers are not known now). As we enter the backstretch of this decade, I cannot shake the feeling that this film will be among its definitive works and most potent responses to the crises of our time.

The film primarily takes place in the aftermath of the carnage carried out by the titular character with frequent flashbacks to the past of Kevin (Ezra Miller) and his mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton). In such times, we cast a backward glance to determine the cause of the present. And “cause” is just a polite word for “blame.” Once we know where we can point the finger, we can shake off the act.

I come to bang out this piece with the words and sounds of countless politicians, thinkpieces and cable news segments about Orlando swirling around in my head. It’s about gun control, some say. It’s about ISIS, declare others. It’s a hate crime, a mental health issue and probably countless other causes that my mind does not have the space to store.

Yet while I respect these journalists and newspeople, I found myself turning to artists for solace and understanding. That final scene from “Milk.” Charlie Chaplin’s powerful monologue from the end of “The Great Dictator.” The big address from the end of “The King’s Speech.” (Yes, I still resent it beating “The Social Network,” but I don’t have an ice chest in place of a heart.) Heck, even the comedy news stylings of Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers. It is artists who can take one step back from the messy business of the day and attempt to bring some perspective, highlight the complexity and sometimes even restore some prudence.

Lynne Ramsay brings a variety of perspectives, techniques and approaches to adapt Lionel Shriver’s epistolary novel into cinematic terms. She finds a pulsing, urgent narrative throughline to carry the patiently doled out details of Eva’s suffering on the page. What Ramsay assembles in “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is truly the gold standard among films that dare to delve into the cycle of violence that rips apart communities. We can see its destructive ends, but the multiplicity of factors that culminated in such an act form too great a web to untangle. That does not stop her from pointing out each thread.

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REVIEW: The Lobster

29 05 2016

The LobsterAt the risk of sounding perilously similar to Rep. Louie Gohmert, who recently suggested gays should be left out of space colonies since they cannot reproduce, there are important biological and social reasons why human beings should pair off. The simplest argument, of course, concerns reproduction and the continuation of our species. But bountiful research also suggests the tremendous drawbacks of living life in isolation – depression, poor health, low communal ties, and so on.

Writers Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou never tip their hand about what led up to the society they create in The Lobster,” though one imagines it likely involves some of the factors listed above. In their milieu, anyone without a life partner gets politely sent off to a hotel where they must find a match within 45 days – or face becoming transformed into the animal of their choice. Love, in other words, has been stripped of all romance and reduced to little more than social utility.

As public demonstrations from the manager (Olivia Colman) remind guests of why couples represent the ideal human arrangement, highly regulated activities nudge them towards identifying a partner with some shared characteristic over which they can begin a life together. Pretensions of status, class or wealth cannot cloud the decision, either. This total institution strips away individuality by forcing all participants to adhere to a simple, drab uniform by their gender.

The protagonist served to us, Colin Farrell’s David, serves as a guide through the many possibilities of this ecosystem. Some choose to throw themselves at anyone in the hopes of identifying someone equally as desperate. Others face public punishment for finding pleasure with themselves. A few brave souls are willing to stake their future on a lie in order to leave the hotel.

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REVIEW: Entertainment

20 02 2016

EntertainmentRick Alverson’s “Entertainment” definitely has a lot to say, make no mistake. It’s nice to see a film titled after a concept that engages deeply with that idea.

Alverson sets up an interesting dialectic between two touring performers, a mime played by Tye Sheridan and a comedian played by Gregg Turkington. The former opens each show, deftly calibrating his moves to respond to the crowd and givng them their money’s worth. The latter, however, self-consciously stumbles his way through a stand-up routine that might have killed were it delivered in 1984. When it starts to bomb, the comedian often fires back at the crowd in seeming self-sabotage.

Perhaps this is the very tension between entertainment and art playing itself out in allegorical form. One comforts the audience while the other confronts them. One is harmless fun; the other, a provocative thorn. Alverson’s film definitely takes the form of the comedian, never easily indulging the whims of easy crowd-pleasing in its 100 minutes.

But as “Entertainment” wore on, the film started to feel thin on ideas. Yes, there is value in watching Turkington’s comedian slowly grow more and more agitated with audiences and wrestle with his own performance. Yet Alverson might have incited that same intellectual response from a short film, one that more tersely conveys the same ideas. Heck, it could have even wrestled with a new set of ideas about what people look for in a video of that length. B-2stars