F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 3, 2016)

3 03 2016

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Robin Wright has become an iconic ice queen thanks to her role as Claire Underwood on “House of Cards;” if looks could kill, a glance from her character would bring down Elsa’s entire crystal castle on someone. Wright has been in the industry for over three decades now, enchanting audiences in films from “The Princess Bride” to “Forrest Gump,” yet her talents only now feel sufficiently realized as she nears 50.

But away from her projects that capture the public imagination, Wright quietly turns in great performances on much smaller scales. One such film is Rebecca Miller’s “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,” a gentle yet stirring feminist drama that showcases the full range of Wright’s talents. She shines as a wife coming to the realization of the many ways in which she is held hostage by domesticity. While Miller’s might not bring the aesthetic rigor of Todd Haynes to the so-called “women’s picture,” her keen understanding of how societal roles constrain female freedoms more than earns it the honor of my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

In many ways, Wright’s titular Pippa Lee is a very similar character to Claire Underwood. Both are women defined by ambition that we can sense but never see, and their faces will never truly express their deepest desires. The key difference comes from what goes on underneath those belying facades. Claire looks to seize power at all cost. Pippa just wants to know freedom outside the titles of “daughter,” “wife” and “mother” in which she has dwelled her entire life.

“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” begins with Wright’s character coming to the realization that she no longer wishes to maintain all the charades to keep the plates spinning in her life. With an aging older husband (Alan Arkin) settling into a senior living facility, she finally has some breathing room to evaluate what she wants in life – not just what she needs. Miller also traces back her history, showing how the young Pippa (Blake Lively) learned the limited avenues available to women in American society. The primary influence, of course, was her mother Suky (Maria Bello), a flighty housewife always pretending to star in an idyllic commercial.

To watch Miller’s film is to be moved by Pippa’s journey towards self-actualization, yet pure emotional outpouring is not the entire modus operandi. Miller also illuminates the narrow categorizations into which we sort women by demonstrating the judgment they face for daring to step outside of them. Empathy is part of the equation. A broadened worldview is the larger takeaway.

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REVIEW: Prisoners

19 09 2015

Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” possesses a remarkable precision in nearly every aspect of its execution.  It is palpable in the mood, the performances, the script from Aaron Guzikowski, and especially the photography by Roger Deakins.  As the abduction of two children forces a father (Hugh Jackman) to extreme measures of extracting vengeance, the film patiently and methodically follows his descent into an inhumanity on par with his daughter’s abductor.

At times, Villeneuve’s realization of this unraveling feels so airtight that it comes across almost as stifling and constrictive.  Somehow, the film feels like it needs to breathe.  Yet on further inspection, that is not the case.  Villeneuve knows exactly how much oxygen “Prisoners” needs to survive and refuses to dole out any more of it than is necessary to give each scene a pulse.  This makes his film burn not only slowly but also consistently, illuminating the depravity of cruelty to children with its steadfast flame.

His exactitude directly counters the nature of the narrative, a complicated ethical story with neither an easy outlet for sympathy nor a character that lends his or herself to identification.  The closest figure offered for a connection is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, whose adherence to rationality and order makes him the most level-headed presence in “Prisoners.”  He retains a rather detached perspective on the case of the missing girls rather than allowing himself to succumb to the levels of hysteria from the grieving families.  If everyone else in the film yells, Loki speaks in a whisper.

In a way, that soft-spoken approach makes for the only major flaw of “Prisoners” that I could find.  The film’s audio mix is all over the board; the sound goes in and out, then up and down.  I watched it twice at home on two different television sets, but the problem persisted.  I often had to rewind and jack up the volume to catch a line of dialogue muttered under someone’s breath.  This sotto voce technique makes the film chillingly clinical – so make sure you can hear it in all of its complexities.  B+ / 3stars





REVIEW: Abduction

28 02 2013

A lot of people were looking to “Abduction” as a test of whether Taylor Lautner could carry a movie on his own.  Away from the comforts of the “Twilight” saga where Lautner could just rip off his shirt and no one seemed to mind, would he be a viable action star?  Or is Lautner nothing more than a set of good-looking abs, destined to have girls drooling on Tumblr for all of eternity?

The quick answer to that is no, and “Abduction” is an abysmal movie that struggles to be so bad that it’s good at times.  The ridiculous romance, the half-baked plot, and the characteristic Lautner sporadic shirtlessness definitely provide some fun moments of unintended laughter.

And most people pinned the failure of “Abduction” on Lautner.  That’s not fair.  Everyone else in this movie was just as bad.

Looking at you, Lily Collins.  My goodness gracious, she grated on my last nerve.  Maybe with enough training in an acting studio and not in a gym, Lautner could be a half-decent actor one day in the way that Channing Tatum surprised us all in “21 Jump Street.”  I don’t know that I have the same hope for Collins.

I’ll hold back on some extremely harsh words for her, but know that she tried really hard to put on her big girl panties.  However, Collins just falls face first into the pavement, and no one bothered to tell her that her face is busted up and she’s bleeding everywhere (in a strictly hypothetical sense, I mean).

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SAVE YOURSELF from “The Company Men”

24 03 2012

It must be tough to make a movie about unemployment after “Up in the Air.”  After Jason Reitman’s film so ingeniously brought employees who had actually been downsized in front of the camera to tell their stories, it felt to me like there was no other way to ever achieve the same candid honesty.  I can imagine writer/director John Wells, who had to premiere his film “The Company Men” at Sundance only a month after Reitman’s hit theaters, probably muttered a few expletives under his breath when he realized he had to compete with it.

Yes, it does portray in pretty clear detail the effects of the 2008 financial collapse on the hard-working employee, but did it really pick the right protagonist?  Granted I really don’t care for Ben Affleck unless he’s behind the camera, yet his Bobby Walker is suffering a crisis of luxury, not one of necessity.  Is that the story of the recession?  Tears shed over selling the Porsche and spousal fights over the country club membership.  You would think that having to move back in with his parents temporarily was equivalent to moving below the poverty line.

When it’s not indulging us with the sob stories of siblings sharing beds (when the children who were really affected by the recession were sleeping on the floor), it’s giving us another indictment of post-too big to fail corporate America a la “Margin Call” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”  We get it, Hollywood, you think the corporate world is full of sleazes like Jim Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) who will actually say he works for the shareholders and not for the good of his employees.  The man can’t even muster up any sympathy when one of his longest-tenured staffers commits the most clichéd act of desperation in film!

Depression is a sentiment a movie needs to earn to be justified, and “The Company Men” ultimately just wallows in self-pity rather than putting its stark depiction of a catastrophic time in American history to good use.  When a protagonist seriously considers underemployment as a long-term alternative, then I start to question a film’s social compass.  Yes, psychological satisfaction is important from your vocation … but does it balance with the intrinsic disappointment from not realizing your own sense of worth and potential?  Such a decline in our guiding philosophy might be one of the sadder aspects of the recession.





REVIEW: Grown Ups

19 07 2010

In “Grown Ups,” Adam Sandler and friends have three stages: childish, adolescently juvenile, and grown up.

When they are childish, the movie is old and trite.  We’ve seen all the bathroom humor, boob humor, fat humor, hot girl humor, and racial humor Sandler can throw at us.  It was funny in the ’90s whenever movies like “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore” were rocking the comedy scene.  But Sandler hasn’t changed his game much since then, and it’s time to move on from the silly and stupid just to get a quick laugh.  In fact, I usually just groan now.

When they are adolescently juvenile, the movie takes flight.  I assume that a lot of this is outside the lines, improvisational stuff.  I felt like I was watching them brainstorming one-liners for SNL in the writer’s room.  It’s like they are reaching out and including us in these creative sessions as they just rattle off joke after joke.  They have some clever wordplay and witty situations when they are at this level, and it’s where they should dwell more often.

When they are grown up, the movie is corny and laughable.  There’s that obligatory “oh, we’ve been joking the whole time, let’s grow up quickly and have a lesson” scene towards the end that derails all the comedic momentum the movie built up.  And this one is so bad and so out of place I can only hope Sandler and pals meant it to play off as a giant joke.

All comics are not created equal, as the movie shows us.  Sandler writes the best for himself, making he and his wife, played by the gorgeous and incredibly out of place Salma Hayek, the only normal ones.  Compared to him, the successful Hollywood agent, we are supposed to assume that everyone else is a loser in comparison to him.  There’s the Mr. Mom played by Chris Rock, the obese therefore butt of jokes played by Kevin James, the creepy bachelor played by David Spade, and the just plain creeper played by Rob Schneider.  Spade’s bits are stale, Rock is fair, Chris Farley’s doppleganger James is good enough not to make us yearn for the late star, and Schneider is as good as he’s ever been – which is to say that he wasn’t funny then and he’s not funny now.

So in the end, it’s that creative spark that comes from just reeling off one-liners and playing off each other that saves the movie from being a total disaster.  It’s that more refined immaturity that we don’t get nearly enough of that keeps us coming back to Sandler’s movies.  Because we don’t want Adam Sandler to grow up so much as just move on.  C /





F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 4, 2009)

4 12 2009

In honor of Jason Reitman’s third feature, “Up in the Air,” opening today, I wanted to use the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” for the first time in correlation with the release of a movie in theaters.  This week’s “F.I.L.M.” is Reitman’s first feature, “Thank You for Smoking.”  A satire that bites with the sharpness of piranha’s teeth, this look at the lobbying industry is absolutely brilliant.  I have come to expect nothing less from Reitman, but he exhibits the deftness of an old pro as a newcomer.

Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) has the gift of oratory and the art of spin, making him the perfect person to argue on behalf of the tobacco industry.  He never tries to justify himself or tobacco; he simply uses the rationale that by proving the other person wrong, you must be right.  Affectionately titled a “Merchant of Death,” he often meets for lunch with his respective counterparts in the alcohol and firearms industry (Maria Bello, David Koechner).  The film follows Nick after the announcement of a proposed Congressional measure to put a “POISON” label on all boxes of cigarettes by a peevish Vermont senator (William H. Macy).  However, Nick’s main struggle is not the label that threatens to destroy the product he promotes, but rather the struggle to balance the job he does with his requirement to be a good father to Joey, his budding adolescent son.  The film is at its best when the contrast between the two is evident: Joey has very black-and-white morals and can’t seem to understand why Nick has such grey ones in lobbying for an industry that kills millions of people each year.

Reitman also penned the screenplay, which is packed to the brim with piquant wit and exciting characters.  He also gets the best out of his actors, and the performance on celluloid matches their panache on the page.  Especially exciting to watch is Aaron Eckhart as he really gets to the core of Nick Naylor.  We really see what makes him tick, and as the story progresses, Eckhart really wrestles with his demons.  He gives us one of the most full and electrifying characters that comedy has ever seen, a true sensation.  “Thank You for Smoking” would be a crown jewel for an accomplished director, but as a first feature, Jason Reitman has set the bar extremely high for his masterpiece.  And if “Up in the Air” is as good as I hear, that bar is up in the atmosphere.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 11, 2009)

11 09 2009

The “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is “A History of Violence.”  I watched it this weekend and was absolutely blown away by it.  The movie tells the story of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a small-town diner owner who is thrust into the spotlight after killing two robbers in self-defense.  However, the attention brings several mobsters into the town, confronting Tom about a past he claims never to have lived.  This threatens to rip Tom’s family apart at the seams, leading to some shocking revelations and startling actions.

Although Tom’s story arc is the most prevalent and important, I was extremely taken by the subplot of his son, Jack, and the effect of his father’s actions on his own as he strikes back against his intimidators.  The movie presents an unwaveringly honest portrait of high school, and I admired the commitment to realism.

There is a lot to interpret in “A History of Violence,” and it is one of those great movies that lingers in your mind for days on end.  Director David Cronenberg packs a great punch with only 90 minutes, quite a remarkable feat.  The movie centers around the concept of violence (if you couldn’t deduce as much), and by neither abhorring it nor glorifying it, he leaves it up to the viewer to decide what they think about it.  I do recommend this with a disclaimer though: squeamish should stay away.  The movie features some unsettling scenes of sexuality in addition to the graphic and gory violence.

If you watch this movie because of reading about it here or have seen it already, why not comment?  Even if you don’t agree with me, I still want to hear what you think.