REVIEW: Marjorie Prime

18 08 2017

Jon Hamm is just sitting on the couch when Michael Almereyda’s “Marjorie Prime” begins. There’s something wooden about him in an intentionally uncanny valley kind of way, like an automaton Don Draper. As it turns out, he’s a hologram of Marjorie’s deceased husband Walter – kept at a much riper age than her current 86 years young.

Walter simultaneously assists in the psychological comforting of a fraying Marjorie (Lois Smith) and assuaging of guilt for her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins). They must still tend to her physically, of course, but Walter can perform some heavy emotional lifting to ease their burden. Among the science-fiction genre, this speculative future looks like it could be closer to fact. With a population of Baby Boomers quickly graying, the promise of AI could free their offspring from providing extensive care through the ultimate act of outsourcing.

The twist in “Marjorie Prime,” though, is that Walter is only as good as Marjorie allows him to be. His technology depends on her willing disclosure of memories, which may not even be entirely accurate. At many points in the film, it’s unclear whether Walter is wrong or if Marjorie’s own mind has failed her.

Most of these tricky contradictions come from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Jordan Harrison which Almereyda adapts into little more than filmed theater. “Marjorie Prime” plods along patiently with the deliberate pacing of a stage show but sorely lacking the human connection normally provided by live actors moving through a space. On screen, the main value of Almereyda’s film seems to be the democratization of the ideas contained within the play through the mass medium of cinema. The over-literalization brought to the text through the magic of cinema removes some of the abstraction, and thus some of the mystique. C+

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REVIEW: Baby Driver

12 07 2017

I saw Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” twice in the span of a month and fixated primarily on how it functioned as a new take on the movie musical. (If you want my full thoughts on that aspect, check out my piece on Little White Lies – I do far more heavy lifting with the film there.) It is that, but like any great movie, it’s so much more.

It’s a kickass action flick where, for once, the terms “balletic” and “choreographed” are not critical hyperbole but apt, justified descriptions. Wright’s tightly edited escapes, whether by car or by foot, fall in lockstep with their musical inspirations as they play diegetically through the headphones of Ansel Elgort’s titular driver. Is this what it felt like to watch the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence in “Apocalypse Now” back in the 1970s? “Baby Driver” is a giddy rush of cinephilia as Wright treats us to impeccable execution of a bold gambit.

It’s a film about how we relate to culture and to each other. Baby, an archetypal stoic stalwart, suffers from ailments both emotional (still traumatized from being orphaned in a tragic car crash) and physical (tinnitus leaves his ears constantly ringing). As such, he’s never one to communicate in a straightforward fashion. He signs with his deaf foster father. He pulls dialogue from the snippets of movies he sees on TV. He times his vehicular getaways to the music on his iPod (and one with a clickwheel, to boot). He’s more likely to block people out with his headphones and cheap sunglasses than let anyone in – until, of course, he catches a few bars from diner waitress Debra (Lily James).

I could sit here and bang out another few paragraphs trying to convince you of how much “Baby Driver” has to offer. But that might make you feel obliged to sit here and read my words, which will only serve to rob you of the experience of discovering the film’s ecstasy for yourself. There’s probably something you’ll find that did not even occur to me, and the film will motivate you to do so. Wright provides the perfect blend of originality, dazzling technical craft and emotionally invested storytelling to inspire a deeper dive into his movie’s pleasures. A-





REVIEW: The Congress

19 07 2014

The CongressAri Folman’s “The Congress” certainly cannot be faulted for any lack of ambition.  The director has fiddled with some seemingly unthinkable products in the past. “Waltz with Bashir,” after all, seems like an oxymoron (an animated documentary?!).

In that film, he used animation to explore questions of personal memory and conscience in the wake of a decades-old conflict between Israel and Lebanon.  Here, he’s shifted his focus westward to Hollywood.  Folman places his finger on the pulse of some very real anxieties in the City of Angels: motion capture replacing real actors, lingering fears of digitization, and the commoditization of celebrity, to name a few.

To explore these, he makes us of actress Robin Wright to play a fictionalized version of herself.  In “The Congress,” she’s an actress standing on the precipice of obscurity (the film was shot before “House of Cards” sparked a career revival) faced with a decision to sell her persona to the studios for digital “sampling.”

Folman’s commentary enters the realm of the satirical on many an occasion, recalling a justifiably little-seen film “Antiviral” where fans would inject themselves with viruses from stars to experience them further.  “The Congress” similarly follows its beginning concept, which doesn’t seem entirely out of the realm of possibility, logically into absurdity.  Along the way, Folman doesn’t hesitate to dole out copious amounts of shame to both the business that condones these developments as well as the public that consumes them.

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REVIEW: Friends with Kids

22 12 2012

The title “Friends with Kids” sounds an awful lot like “Friends with Benefits,” the 2011 Justin Timberlake-Mila Kunis sex-friends comedy. Though the two differentiate themselves over the course of their respective films, they actually share quite a bit in common.

Both begin with a ridiculous premise: here, it’s the idea that two people can have sex once, procreate, and be parents without forming any sort of emotional connection to each other. It’s an idea that Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt) hatch one night after seeing how miserable their once happily married friends become when they have kids. And those same friends, like us in the audience, laugh at their foolishness and know it can only lead to disaster.

Their friends, by the way, are essentially a “Bridesmaids” reunion 15 years early for their People shoot. Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm are Ben and Missy, a sex-crazed couple whose kids take a toll on their marriage. And on the more reasonable end, Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd are a couple coping with the same issues but on a more authentic scale. All that’s missing is some Wilson Phillips (and perhaps a little defecating in sinks just for fun).

Yet just about every time you think it’s going down the path to predictability or genre, Westfeldt surprisingly turns the tables on you. She’s written a very thoughtful movie in “Friends with Kids,” one that makes some insightful revelations about marriage and parenthood. Though Jason and Julie move on to other people – him Megan Fox’s Broadway dancer Mary Jane, her Edward Burns’ family man Kurt – they find each other and their real feelings through those people. It might seem slightly cliched, but with all the laughs and the honesty, I didn’t really mind. B+ / 3stars





REVIEW: Howl

2 08 2011

If you yearn for an alternative to the tired narrative structure of Hollywood films but want it without all the puzzling avant-garde vibes of a Terence Malick movie, perhaps “Howl” is a good pick for you.  It’s experimental but stays largely within comfortable confines, shifting between various storylines tied together by Allen Ginsberg’s poem in a fairly standard non-linear format.  The movie is overall not as provocative or engaging as it should be, but it does make give some interesting background on the discontent of the Beat Generation while also giving a portrait of a very interesting thinker.

Ginsberg is full of a cryptic intelligence and a paradoxically reserved openness thanks to a brilliant portrayal by the new millenium’s Renaissance man James Franco.  Behind the cigarette smoke and tucked away behind the Ray-Ban lenses is a fully understood man, even if Franco doesn’t want to grant us full access to his mind.  Call it the anti-“127 Hours” because rather than letting it all out in a furious display of emotion, he gets to do a slow reveal characterized by a careful restraint.

That doesn’t keep us from appreciating his portrait of Ginsberg.  Much like he convinced us we were watching Aron Ralston and not James Franco, he gets lost in Allen Ginsberg, fully absorbing his strange vocal cadences while reading “Howl” and picking up his easy-going, laid-back mannerisms that also exhibit the pain he has experienced in the interview portion of the movie.  It’s amazing what Franco can do when he sets his mind on acting because when he isn’t fully engaged in the movie, his boredom pulsates beyond the screen.

“Howl” is more than just the James Franco show, though, and it does more in 80 minutes than many movies do in two hours.  The ambitious film, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (two documentarians instrumental to making Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” work), tackles not only Allen Ginsberg but his effect on literature and American culture by also showing the obscenity trial surrounding the controversial poem that is totally separate from Franco’s Ginsberg.  This section asks us to challenge where obscenity overlaps with art, a question that still plagues us today.  What the two produce in their first narrative film is hardly a groundbreaking or game-changing film, but the experiment is hardly a failed one.  If you want an introduction to Ginsberg’s enigmatic poem that will provide you some valuable insight into what exactly he meant – and what his work meant for society as a whole.  B / 





REVIEW: The Town

3 11 2010

Crime dramas are nothing new in Hollywood.  We see them year after year, mostly from some unproven director trying to be Martin Scorsese.  In “The Town,” Ben Affleck manages to distinguish himself from this crowd.  While he’s still no Scorsese, his second directorial feature is entertaining and effective because his message is clear from the beginning, and he executes it with precision and bravura.

With an impressive ensemble armed with Bostonian accents, the saga of family and criminality adapted from Chuck Hogan’s “Prince of Thieves” lights up the screen.  The movie opens with a bank robbery so marvelously orchestrated it could be symphonic that sets up the movie’s two storylines: the hunters and the hunted.

Don Draper – pardon me, Jon Hamm – leads the FBI’s investigation into the robbery.  Looking to make an example out of the expert criminals, they specifically focus on Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), the manager taken hostage and subsequently released by the group on their exit.

Evading capture, Doug MacRay (Affleck) is the leader of a band of Charlestown robbers-for-hire forever at the mercy of Fergie the florist (Pete Postlethwaite), the neighborhood’s kingpin of crime.  He and his brother Jem (Jeremy Renner) have known nothing other than this life, unable to escape the legacy of their now-imprisoned father (Chris Cooper).  Doug is looking for the much sought-after “last job,” the one heist that can successfully put at end to his criminal career.

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Oscar Moment: “The Town”

18 08 2010

Since posting my September preview, comments have poured in speculating about Ben Affleck’s latest directorial venture, “The Town.”  Most people have compared it to his first film, “Gone Baby Gone.”  But is that a good thing?

“Gone Baby Gone” has a 94% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but the only traction it gained during awards season was for Amy Ryan’s powerful supporting performance.  There are a few assorted nods to Ben Affleck’s skill on his first film, but nothing distinguishing him in a category with every other movie.  It’s worth noting that while Ryan was a critics’ association favorite, she didn’t win the Globe, SAG, or Oscar.

So are we just looking at one impressive performance from “The Town” to keep it in contention?  It has a nice cast including Golden Globe winner Jon Hamm, Golden Globe nominee Rebecca Hall, Oscar nominees Jeremy Renner and Pete Postlethwhaite, Oscar winner Chris Cooper, and Affleck himself (oh, and Blake Lively for looks).

I’d say if there were a potentially nomination-worthy performance from the bunch, it would probably be from either Hamm for crossing over from the small screen well or Renner for another good work.  If the Academy really loves him and wants to make him a marquee name, another nomination would surely help.  Nominations in consecutive years aren’t uncommon and really telling of Academy tastes.  Over the past decade, the only people to have pulled it off are Penelope Cruz, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Renee Zellweger, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Johnny Depp.  Only the latter doesn’t have a nice golden statue resting on their mantle.

But I think the biggest question about “The Town” is the one no one can answer as of yet because no one has seen it.  Is it a bona fide Best Picture contender?

Really, the trailer is a muddled mess and just watching it did not sell me on this being one of the ten best movies of the year.  We are resting on the laurels of the people involved to call it an awards prospect.  Would I be writing this if the movie were directed by Antoine Fuqua and starred Matthew Morrison from “Glee?”

Here are my reservations about calling this a contender for the big prize.  We’ve seen studios roll out Oscar hopefuls in September, seeing if they gain enough footing in the awards race.  They reserve the big guns for November and December, and any movie that disappoints in those release slots dooms the studio.  So these mixed-bag candidates often find a home in early fall.  Usually, the movies are either action or drama with the starpower on (and perhaps off) the screen to generate buzz provided that the movie is any good.

These movies generally don’t fare well.  Here are those movies, listed for your convenience by year:

2009

  • Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant” with Matt Damon received fairly warm reviews.  It only musters two Golden Globe nominations. (released by Warner Bros.)

2008

  • Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies” starring Oscar winner Russell Crowe and nominee Leonardo DiCaprio receives middling reviews, clearly disappointing the high expectations associated with such names. (released by Warner Bros.)
  • “Flash of Genius” starring Greg Kinnear makes virtually no money, receives average reviews, and can’t even get a campaign push. (released by Universal)
  • Spike Lee’s “Miracle at St. Anna” receives terrible reviews and no awards come its way.  Maybe it was the 160 minute runtime… (released by Touchstone)

2007

  • “American Gangster,” released at the very beginning of November, has huge expectations with Ridley Scott as director and Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe pitted against each other.  Box office was great, reviews were pretty good, but the buzz just didn’t sustain.  Despite receiving nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor and the Golden Globes, the only attention it received after that was for Ruby Dee, who won the SAG and was nominated for an Oscar. (released by Universal)
  • “Rendition,” an ensemble drama about the Middle East starring Oscar winners Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin, and Reese Witherspoon as well as nominee Jake Gylenhaal, can’t even clear $10 million at the box office.  And with mixed reviews, that kind of cash doesn’t fly. (released by New Line)
  • “We Own the Night” with Mark Wahlberg and Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t ignite the box office or excite the critics.  It did not have an awards season. (released by Sony)
  • “The Kingdom,” a thriller with Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner set in Saudi Arabia, didn’t perform well with either critics or audiences.  No awards followed.  (released by Universal)
  • “3:10 to Yuma,” a remake of a popular 1950s Western with Oscar winner Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, does very well with critics and average with audiences.  It received a surprise Best Ensemble nod from the SAG and was discussed as a potential surprise Best Picture nominee.  Ultimately, it only wound up with two technical nominations. (released by Lionsgate)

In tone, “The Town” appears to resemble “Body of Lies,” “The Kingdom,” and “American Gangster” more than any others listed above.  Only the latter of those had any success in awards season.  Affleck’s latest and “The American,” George Clooney’s latest that I’ll discuss in next week’s column, are the two September wild cards.

“The Departed,” a cop drama like “The Town,” won Best Picture in 2006, and Warner Bros. wants to remind us of that.  With a name like Martin Scorsese behind the movie, though, all buzz is instantly legitimate.  There is no speculation like there is for a Ben Affleck movie.

So, folks, are we looking at a fall flop?  Or a contender?

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Supporting Actor (Jeremy Renner)

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Jon Hamm), Best Adapted Screenplay