REVIEW: The Dressmaker

1 10 2016

the-dressmaker“I’m back, you bastards,” declares Kate Winslet’s Tilly Dunnage upon arriving back in her home town at the outset of “The Dressmaker.” It’s a fitting start for a movie that revels unapologetically in camp, from dialogue to literal barn-burning events (and perhaps even too far with Hugo Weaving’s sheriff with a flair for drag). And had the film stuck to its true colors, the whole thing might have held together.

But it doesn’t, largely due to writer/director Jocelyn Morehouse’s insistence on trying to play parts of the movie like a straight drama. At one point, Tilly and company watch Billy Wilder’s classic “Sunset Boulevard,” a film where Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond hams up the screen to set up a tragic turn. Trying to draw any kind of parallel to “The Dressmaker” to that iconic work only highlights just how far short it falls. Tilly is all smolder and swagger with a faint whiff of armchair psychologizing hat stems from a clichéd tragic misunderstanding in her past.

When this larger than life figure begins to show cracks in her facade, the turn just doesn’t feel right. The score may swell dramatically to signal legitimate dramatic intentions, yet “The Dressmaker” sends such mixed signals that prove baffling to decode. How can it really mourn a freak death in one scene and then humorously inflict a debilitating injury within five minutes? And then, soon after, another death meant to provide catharsis?

The film is fine when Winslet is allowed to revel in vengeance like “Django Unchained.” Watching her seethe while settling old grudges provides some modest pleasure. When the complexity comes in through the slow doling of new developments regarding the incident that drove her out of town, however, “The Dressmaker” falters. C / 2stars

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REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

20 11 2015

Much like the “Harry Potter” series, the final installment of “The Hunger Games” departs radically from the formula of all entries that came prior. “Mockingjay – Part 2” does not actually feature the Hunger Games themselves, the main event that involves children killing children to placate the masses of a dystopian future. Without this intense action set piece to which the story can build, everything else cannot help but feel like a bit of a letdown.

“Mockingjay,” for many fans of the series, represented the least of Suzanne Collins’ books. So, in a sense, it is not terribly surprising that “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” ends on a similarly underwhelming note. But even that is unlikely to put a damper on what will surely be one of the highest grossing films of the year; the four-year relationship Jennifer Lawrence built between viewers and her Katniss Everdeen is truly remarkable.

Without the games, “Mockingjay – Part 2” seems rather confused as to what kind of movie it wants to be. Some aspects of political semantic games and propaganda messaging remain from Part 1, primarily at the outset. These leftovers just further serve to reinforce the sense that a two-part finale was an unnecessary protraction of events.

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REVIEW: Cut Bank

17 04 2015

Cut BankIn Matt Shankman’s “Cut Bank,” a tiny town has to deal with baby’s first murder investigation.  The young Dwayne McLaren, played by Liam Hemsworth, just happens to film his girlfriend Cassandra (Teresa Palmer) when a Native American pulls out a gun and shoots a postman (Bruce Dern).  The murder threatens to unravel and disrupt a number of co-dependent facades necessary to maintain a sense of peace in the small Montana locality, apparently the coldest in the country.

These implications involve a sheriff (John Malkovich), a shop owner (Billy Bob Thornton), a strange visitor (Michael Stuhlbarg), and an eager postal inspector (Oliver Platt).  The cast is far more impressive than the characters they play, though.  With little development of their personalities and far too many cooks in the kitchen, “Cut Bank” never quite finds its center of gravity.

There’s nothing wrong with an ensemble thriller so long the filmmakers are dedicated to giving each component a fair oiling, and that is definitely not the case in “Cut Bank.”  All these mechanical flaws only find themselves amplified by the lack of conspicuous artistry to distract from the uninspired execution.  This is a pretty standard, cut-and-dry crime flick with little out of the ordinary to offer.  C2stars





REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

20 11 2014

Unlike the “Harry Potter” finale, which ran over 800 pages in length, the last installment of “The Hunger Games” probably did not necessitate a two-part cinematic conclusion.  But alas, the filmmaking team thought they could find enough action in the story, and the Lionsgate executives had confidence that they could market two films.  So now, audiences are stuck with “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1.”

Though the film runs a full 30 minutes shorter than both its predecessors, it feels significantly longer.  Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (in his penultimate role) do bring an aura of prestige to the relatively calm proceedings, yet that is not enough to boost the low energy that plagues the first half of “Mockingjay.”  While there is a thrilling final rescue scene and one quasi-action sequence in the middle, the inside baseball of Panem politics occupies the majority of the two hours.

Perhaps “Mockingjay” could inspire the next generation of political publicists, a prospect simultaneously encouraging and frightening.  The film offers an introductory course to how semantics, misinformation, and outright propagandizing can be used by governments as well as social movements to recruit followers and repel criticisms.  The overarching lesson of “Mockingjay” may very well be that the camera is mightier than the sword.

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REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

1 12 2013

Hunger GamesWhen I wrote my review of the first film in “The Hunger Games” series over a year and a half ago, I couldn’t stop gushing about Gary Ross’ gritty, unsparing aesthetic.  The shaky camera and rough editing made the movie’s form brilliantly match the dark content of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of young adult novels.  But Ross is gone for the second installment, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” and his unique stylization went with him.

The absence of artistry is likely to only bother people like me who study film, however.  And while I was sad to see it go, “Catching Fire” more than compensates with a tighter focus on storytelling and fidelity to its source.  Under the steady direction of Francis Lawrence and the pen of Oscar-winning scribes Michael Arndt (‘Toy Story 3“) and Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours“), this sequel is among the rare class that manages to outdo than its predecessor.

“Catching Fire” manages to pack a remarkable amount of events into its nearly two and a half hour runtime; in fact, I had read the book a few months before seeing the movie and could hardly think of anything excised from the plot.  Yet even in spite of how much it bites off, the film never feels its length at all.  Lawrence keeps the action unfolding at a steady clip, never hurried enough to make us feel frenzied but never so drawn out that we can get bored.  (And unlike the first “Hunger Games,” I was actually excited for the next film when “Catching Fire” ended.)

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REVIEW: The Hunger Games

23 03 2012

From the very beginning of “The Hunger Games,” it is very clear that this literary adaptation has in common with “Harry Potter” only the hype surrounding their release.  While Rowling and an army of talented directors transported us to a universe accessible only in our wildest imaginations, writer/director Gary Ross shows no such inclinations in bringing Suzanne Collins’ best-seller to the big screen.  As her novel is meant to hold a mirror up to our own reality-TV saturated culture, he plants the film in an America just a little bit of social upheaval removed from our current one.

He has no interest in sweeping formalist cinematography that basks in the beauty of castles and countryside.  Ross’ style adheres more closely to the films of Danny Boyle with a kinetic desire propelling every shot; watching the struggles in the wilderness harkens more to Aron Ralston’s fight against nature in “127 Hours” than it does to anything in the Forbidden Forest.  The editing is more deliberate, too, lingering on the actors to communicate internal monologues with their eyes rather than conveying that the editor forgot to take their Ritalin.

Of course, not everything in the film looks as gritty as District 12 and as unyielding as the Arena.  The Capitol, where the rich and the elites bask, is embellished to the maximum for an especially emphasized contrast.  The men and women look like they walked out of Hunter S. Thompson’s acid trip, and their lavish makeup and attire are nothing short of ridiculous.  (So don’t be surprised if “The Hunger Games” takes home a technical Oscar or two next February.)

All of this makes Panem, a strange society born from the ashes of an America that tore itself apart, a fascinating place to build a story of triumph over the odds.  16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, volunteers to participate in the Hunger Games in place of her younger sister.  The Games require the competitive edge of an Olympic athlete in addition to the cut-throat inclinations of a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills, and it gets worse for Katniss as class bias is institutionalized in the rigid caste society of Panem.

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