REVIEW: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

10 05 2017

Let’s have a little thought experiment, shall we? Think of an action movie in the last decade or so that you enjoyed. Say, “The Bourne Ultimatum” or “The Lord of the Rings” franchise. How would you like to see that movie … but medieval?!

That’s pretty much the gambit on which Guy Ritchie stakes his entire film “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” Observers of the director know to expect a certain cheekiness and self-awareness from the rebellious Brit. But here, Ritchie crosses a line. He’s self-aware to an almost Seth MacFarlane-esque self-referential point.

His “Game of Thrones” fan fiction film doubles down on all the worst qualities of his “Sherlock Holmes” films and discards most of the team chemistry that made them great. Ritchie has always been one to show the strings, making you aware of his stylistic baubles every time he brandishes them. Given his post-modern, ironic sensibilities, the aesthetic butts heads with anything set before the mid-20th century. The effect is always one of removal from the film itself, reminding us of the dissonance between the subject and its presentation.

His take on the Camelot myth, pitting a paranoid King Herod-like Vortigern (Jude Law) against a messianic sword-wielding Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), brings little to the round table other than zippy editing and flashy VFX. Hunnam does little to liven up “King Arthur” as well; he looks more likely to be headed to a rugged Scotland-themed GQ shoot than into serious battle. But I don’t mean to reduce the film to mere appearances in order to dismiss it. Let me put it simply: this is the same superhero origin story of dead parents and internal power struggles we’ve been forced to endure for about 15 years now. But medieval. C





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 20, 2015)

20 08 2015

Lily Tomlin won the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, yet she somehow still feels underappreciated. Or maybe that’s just because she kept a low profile after the peak of her stardom in the 1970s and was known mostly to members of my generation as the voice of Ms. Frizzle on “The Magic School Bus.” But thanks to perfectly tailored roles in Netflix’s “Grace & Frankie” and the new film “Grandma,” Tomlin definitely seems poised for a major moment once again.

But Tomlin’s career is not necessarily being “rescued.”  In fact, some of her best work has come from the slow and steady decades between her peaks of public interest.  Case in point: “I Heart Huckabees,” the film that landed David O. Russell in director jail after he went for Tomlin’s jugular on set.  In spite of that tension, the movie still turned out alright – even if I did not immediately recognize it on first viewing five years ago.

Russell has gained a reputation for stylish, quirky films with his so-called “reinvention” trilogy that began with 2010’s “The Fighter.”  But that idiosyncratic spirit certainly existed before then, and “I Heart Huckabees” might mark its most vibrant display.  Working with co-writer Jeff Baena, Russell crafts a so-called “existential comedy” that mines philosophy and ontology for laughs that might make Woody Allen green with envy.  As such, it merits my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Beneath all the hilarious intellectual banter lies a very simple story about a man, Jason Schwartzman’s Albert Markovski, an environmental activist who just wants to know what it’s all about.  “It,” of course, is the very meaning of life itself.  After a series of odd coincidences, he turns to a pair of existential detectives, Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin’s husband and wife team Bernard and Vivian Jaffe.  This duo claims that they can – with enough field research – determine how everything in Albert’s life connects.  They set out to find his place in the grand plan of the universe, optimistically sure that such a thing exists.

But after a while, Albert falls prey to the Jaffe’s nemesis and ideological counterpart, Isabelle Huppert’s Caterine Vauban. She offers similar services but with the nihilistic assertion that nothing relates to anything.  The longer Bernard and Vivian take to complete their assessment of Albert’s life, the more appealing Caterine’s services look.

Albert’s quest for self-knowledge gets complicated by others who seek out the detectives’ services, such as Mark Wahlberg’s Tommy Corn, a firefighter who can chew anyone’s ear off with his views on the harmfulness of petroleum.  Russell has utilized Wahlberg in three films now, and this is certainly his most ingenious performance among the trio.  While the actor is notorious for his authentic off-screen anger and street cred, Russell funnels those traits into a hilariously exaggerated character professing a hyper-verbal righteous indignation.  For Wahlberg, often more likely to rely on the swagger of his body than the power of his words, the performance feels revelatory (and perhaps indicative of even more untapped potential).

The quirky crew does not end there, with Jude Law also in the mix as Brad Stand, a corporate executive at the company Huckabees determined to take Albert down by figuring out the meaning of his own life.  Naomi Watts’ Dawn Campbell, Brad’s girlfriend and the star of Huckabees’ ad campaign, gets thrown in for good measure too.  Both are slightly minor players but still players nonetheless.

Russell throws some really dense, cerebral concepts out there in “I Heart Huckabees” – and at the lightning-fast speed of his dialogue, no less.  But so long as you can keep up, the film proves a rewarding, stimulating experience with something to say about the equilibrium between pragmatism and pessimism that we need to get through the day.





REVIEW: Spy

6 06 2015

Prior to “Spy,” Melissa McCarthy was one lumbering burlesque of a physical performance away from entering Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell territory.  This land, beyond typecasting, is a dump of sneering self-parody churned out at breakneck speed.  After breakout success in “Bridesmaids,” roles in “Identity Thief” and “Tammy” reduced her to little more than a one-dimensional punchline (not to mention a bit of a punching bag as well).

Thankfully, maestro Paul Feig arrives with Susan Cooper, a part that provides a well-timed reminder of McCarthy’s remarkable comic agility and versatility.  As an unlikely secret agent tracking down a rogue nuclear weapon on the black market, Susan often has to shift gears into new – and often unflattering – identities on the fly.  While playing a character who goes from shy and sheepish to brash and outspoken within a matter of minutes, McCarthy never appears anything less than completely confident.

Unfortunately, Feig’s script for “Spy” reserves all the surprises and range for its star.  In his past collaborations with Melissa McCarthy, Feig worked with screenplays from other comediennes: Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (“Bridesmaids”) as well as Katie Dippold (“The Heat“).  When tasked with creating the humor he has to orchestrate, Feig falls into rather predictable patterns that often feel one-note.

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REVIEW: The Grand Budapest Hotel

3 06 2014

Just so we’re clear: I have no problems with auteurism.  For those of you who just saw a French word and panicked, I’m referring to a school of film criticism that looks for recurring patterns throughout the work of an artist (usually the director).  It can often be a very interesting lens through which to analyze a set of films, and auteurism has the ability to shine a light on filmmakers outside of the general circles of critical acclaim.

Like anything in life, the theory has a dark underbelly, and to me, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” represents the perils of auteurism run rampant.  The film is Wes Anderson’s “Django Unchained,” in the sense that it represents a moment of stasis in the progression of a great director.  Anderson is now more than a director; essentially, he’s a brand, expected by customers to deliver a certain consistency of product.

Put into the position of becoming a cinematic McDonald’s, Anderson takes the easy way out by providing an assembly-line reproduction of what he has already created to great admiration.  “The Grand Budapest Hotel” feels like a less vibrant remake of a film he’s already made – or, perhaps more accurately, it feels like all of them at once.  Despite being set in a semi-fictionalized interwar Central Europe, the world Anderson portrays seems reassembled from pieces of “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” and even “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Even more than Anderson’s last feature-length cinematic outing in 2012, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” takes his telltale stylistic flourishes and puts them to an exponential degree.  Every other take in the film had to be a tracking shot, so it seemed.  The cameos and other miscellaneous odd appearances by acclaimed thespians is now less of an amusing diversion and more of a distracting parade.  The off-beat characters feel less like quirky people and more like paper dolls traipsing around in the elegant house Anderson created for their frolicking delight.

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REVIEW: Side Effects

21 08 2013

Steven Soderbergh may have saved the best for last with his supposed final theatrical release, the chillingly cerebral “Side Effects.”  A successful re-teaming with “Contagion” scribe Scott Z. Burns, the film recreates all the unnerving hysteria of the 2011 apocalyptic thriller on a much more micro scale.  Soderbergh, acting as his own editor and cinematographer (under false names), creates a cooly fluorescent-bulb lit environment in which a crazy tale of criminal insanity can realistically unfold.

In this setting, Burns’ cat-and-mouse tale takes on an eerie and haunting dimension. His script is full of unexpected twists and turns, rife with crossed alliances and false appearances, and topped off with plenty of intrigue from the fields of psychiatry and pharmaceuticals.  His “Side Effects” starts off thoroughly convincing us it’s one kind of movie … and then pulls the rug out from underneath us, ultimately leaving us with a surprisingly different end result.

The suspense is amplified by a finely-tuned cast of performers, led by a viciously versatile turn from Rooney Mara.  Her character, the moody Emily Taylor, is a character playing multiple games simultaneously.  She’s mad, moody, depressed, longing, conniving, and manipulative – often all at once.  Mara commands the screen with the same force as she did in her Oscar-nominated role in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” although it’s a more quietly resolute performance that adds another layer of tension to an already taut film.

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REVIEW: Anna Karenina

25 11 2012

Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” is a cinematic version of Tolstoy’s treasure meant for people who love “Anna Karenina.”  In other words, if you haven’t read it or spent time with other film adaptations, this film will be as lost on you as it was on me.  It’s a stylized take on the classic that leaves those watching the film trying to decipher the plot in the dust.  (Recommendation: read a plot summary beforehand.)

Wright is trying to do a master class on “Anna Karenina” by doing something unconventional with the staging: that is, to literally set it on a stage.  The setting works well as a clever metaphor for Russian high society and breathes some new life into the dusty tale.  And kudos to Wright for trying to break out of his doldrums of conventionality that have led to a string of mediocre films that have fallen ever so short of success.

However, the extended metaphor is quickly revealed to be incredibly quixotic; that is, idealistic but not practical.  If you’ve ever seen a copy of Tolstoy’s book in print, you would certainly notice it’s a hefty volume that is sure to have quite a sprawling narrative.  The story of “Anna Karenina” takes us to all sorts of locales, many of which simply don’t work inside of a theatre or stage setting.

So rather than try to make it work, Wright hits us over the head with it in the first act … and then essentially discards it when no longer expedient.  With a little more thought, it could have yielded all sorts of revelations about the story.  But as it appears on screen in his final version, the metaphor is unfulfilled.

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REVIEW: Hugo

10 01 2012

It’s slightly disingenuous to make a film all about the magic of the movies and then have little to offer itself in the way of enchantment, but that’s what Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” is – take it or leave it.  His ode to the pioneering days of cinema, when trailblazers like the Lumière Brothers began making movies and Georges Méliès invented special effects, is definitely heartfelt and powerful enough to awaken plenty of latent nostalgia.  However, his movie serves as a better tribute to their genius than it does as an equally majestic film deserving to stand alongside them in the annals of history.

What I left the theater being nostalgic for was “Goodfellas” and “The Departed” and “Gangs of New York.”  While I certainly admire Scorsese for taking on a radically different project, and good for Paramount to give him $150 million to realize this passion of his, I missed the bullet-riddled, F-bomb filled director that I’ve come to love.  It’s a very finely crafted movie, clearly the work of an expert like Scorsese.  All of the below-the-line elements are as good as ever with his usual suspects – editor Thelma Schoonmaker, costume designer Sandy Powell, production designer Dante Ferretti, and cinematographer Robert Richardson – returning to whisk us away to a train station in 1930s Paris with astounding precision.

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