F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 7, 2016)

7 04 2016

IdiocracyA new subgenre of criticism seems to have spouted up in the past few months eager to find things in culture and society to blame for the rise of Donald Trump. To be fair, I too have given him consideration on my site, but it has taken on the tenor of looking at things that might explain his popularity rather than directly cause it. A look back at the cinema of the ’00s shows various prescient takes on the underlying issues in America that have recently bubbled to the surface: xenophobia, nationalism, authoritarianism, and anti-intellectualism.

Few distill these into a frightening, humorous essence as well as Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy,” however. This comedy played as ridiculous when it was released in 2006; its studio, 20th Century Fox, regarded it as such and unceremoniously dumped it in theaters with no fanfare. But in the decade since, it becomes less and less like an imagined portrait of America and more like a plausible future. Such eerily insight, roughly as it might be presented, makes it a fitting selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

To say too much about how “Idiocracy” hits the nail on the head would only ruin its considerable pleasures for those yet to experience the film. Judge remarkably shied away from the easy targets of the time, choosing to satirize some less obvious culprits in the dumbing down of the country. He digs into demographic trends in population and education level to find the fault lines in society. He examines the cumulative effect of the “infotainment” dominating the news media. He takes corporate influence over the government to its logical extreme.

For Luke Wilson’s Corporal “Average Joe” Bauers, a man chosen for cryogenic freezing then unceremoniously forgotten for 500 years, this strange world of 2505 seems completely foreign. Yet even from a vantage point just 10 years ahead of when Joe gets frozen, this dysfunctional America hardly seems implausible. There are almost too many ideas packed into the running time of “Idiocracy,” so many that each issue gets a slightly cursory examination. If only Judge had the budget or the time of, say, a miniseries to really unpack his social critique. Sequel, anyone?





REVIEW: Concussion

21 12 2015

Peter Landesman’s “Concussion” is barely good enough to avoid a pun about the film causing its own kind of head trauma. It is not successful enough, however, to avoid one about the film’s facts and message hitting with unnecessarily blunt force.

Even though the message of this sports-related film rings depressing (rather than the usual uplift), “Concussion” can not avoid the temptations of the genre’s heavy-handed filmmaking. Like many a tale of this ilk, the film features an unlikely protagonist who must persevere against intense obstacles and opposition. Here, that person is not a player but a doctor, Will Smith’s Bennet Omalu. This Nigerian immigrant, perhaps more educated than an average bucket full of American citizens, lets his intellectual curiosity lead him to the discovery of a particular brain condition endemic to one group of men: ex-football players.

When Omalu breaks it down in the parlance that comes most naturally to him – science – the issue proves quite captivating. Framing the game of football as a series of shocks that the human body was not built to absorb makes his case strong. But when “Concussion” frames his struggle as one against a shadowy, monolithically evil NFL, the film falls completely flat. The silencing by commissioner Roger Goodell and the rest of the league probably happened, if I had to conjecture based on Goodell’s rather reckless actions over the past few seasons. Yet even as someone staunchly opposed to the league’s head honcho, the film comes off like a half-baked, crackpot conspiracy theory.

When a two-dimensional character goes up against a one-dimensional enemy, no one wins. Not the film. Not the issue. And certainly not the audience. C+2stars





REVIEW: The Skeleton Twins

30 09 2014

The Skeleton TwinsCasting Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, two recent products churned out by the “Saturday Night Live” star-making factory, definitely leads to a certain set of expectations about what antics should follow.  So when “The Skeleton Twins” begins with two very serious suicide attempts by its leads, who play long-estranged siblings, all assumptions fly right out the window.

Yet that’s only where the reversals begin since co-writer and director Craig Johnson refuses to let his film devolve into angst-ridden or melodramatic clichés.  He charts a tricky tonal course but manages to navigate it seamlessly.  “The Skeleton Twins” is thus hard to categorize since it so effortlessly defies the normally clean-cut division between comedy and drama.

To label it a dramedy seems to miss the mark, too.  The serious and the sardonic do not merely coexist in “The Skeleton Twins;” they are interwoven to the point of being nearly indistinguishable.  The film’s closest blood relative might be 2007’s “The Savages,” which also concerned two acerbic siblings trading barbs over grave family issues.  Johnson finds humor not merely a relief to the film’s drama but rather a means for exploring its repercussions more thoroughly.

But really, to compare “The Skeleton Twins” to anything at all does it a disservice.  Johnson fashions something wholeheartedly organic with his film.  It is not beholden to any pattern or formula but rather to capturing the truths of existence.  With his detailed and nuanced portraiture of the two leading characters, Milo and Maggie, Johnson allows their specific aches and struggles to illuminate those that hit closer to home.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 17, 2010)

17 12 2010

There’s no place like home for the holidays … unless its the home of your boyfriend’s overbearing family.

Such is Christmas for Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker) in the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” Thomas Bezucha’s “The Family Stone,” a winter dramedy with a perfect balance between the two genres.  It’s enjoyable to watch at any time of the year, but it has a particularly warm and loving embrace around the holiday season.  With a fantastic ensemble and pitch-perfect writing, this movie has been a favorite of mine ever since it hit theaters five years ago today.  (And yes, I was there to see it on its first showtime that day.)

It’s always tough meeting the potential in-laws, and the uptight Meredith doesn’t leave the best first impression as she tries to simultaneously be herself and be charming.  The odds are against stacked against the potential new addition to the Stone family as Amy (Rachel McAdams) has it in for her after a dinner in New York didn’t exactly endear her to the incessantly blabbering throat-clearer Meredith.  The tension is only heightened by matriarch Sybill (Diane Keaton), determined not to give her mother’s wedding ring to Everett (Dermot Mulroney) for him to put on Meredith’s finger.

Yet not everyone is determined to see her demise: the fun-loving prodigal son Ben (Luke Wilson) does his best to bring out the welcome wagon, and the ever-reasonable father Kelly (Craig T. Nelson) is determined to give her a chance.  But after a day, Meredith mixes with the Stone family like oil mixes with water, and things go haywire as the holiday spirit combines with mean spirits.  The result is a hilariously potent comedy about the importance of family, both the ones we are born into and the ones we create.

I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t mention the heavier side of the movie.  Much of what happens in “The Family Stone” is due to an unpleasant truth about the future of a member of the Stone family, and it had been quietly kept secret until Meredith arrives.  The movie is not only a comedy but also a deeply touching and heartfelt look at our families and how much we value each member of them.  Around the holidays, there’s simply nothing better than a movie that can make you laugh and cry with the people you love the most.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 27, 2009)

27 11 2009

Before I went to see “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” I wanted to get a taste of Wes Anderson’s distinct style.  So I took a friend’s recommendation and watched “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which is this week’s “F.I.L.M.” (First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie).  I am now officially smitten by the quirky, off-beat humor that people love about Anderson.  He has a very cultish, niche audience, but “The Royal Tenenbaums” managed to make a blip on the mainstream radar.  It made a respectable $52 million (attendance comparable to “The Final Destination”), won a Golden Globe for Gene Hackman’s performance, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.  But for a large group of moviegoers who haven’t experienced Wes Anderson, might I suggest renting this?  You’re really missing out if you haven’t.

The film follows a dysfunctional family that has fallen apart, mainly due to the large egos of the three extremely bright children.  Chas (Ben Stiller) is a successful enterpreneur by his early teens, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a skilled playwright who is published by high school, and Ritchie (Luke Wilson) finds great success with the game of tennis.  But for different reasons, they all wind up miserable.  Surprisingly, it is their estranged father, Royal Tenebaum (Gene Hackman) who ends this unhappy spell.  With his eccentric and often manipulative ways, he often infuriates them.  But he has a certain charm that has the power to ease the pain of disappointment and fill the gap he has left in their lives with his absence.

One thing that I particularly enjoyed about “The Royal Tenenbaums” is that I could sense Wes Anderson had as much fun making this movie as I did watching it.  He ornately concocts these bizarre characters that seem so far-fetched, yet they hit home in unexpected and delightful ways.  Anderson makes his presence felt throughout the entire movie.  You can feel it in the cinematography, consisting of deliberately framed geometric shots.  You can feel it in the soundtrack, a mix of folk and rock that really sets the atmosphere for his quirky work.  You can even feel it in the font he uses for the titles.  If you were like me, questioning what could possibly make Wes Anderson so special, watch “The Royal Tenenbaums” to be silenced and completely won over.