REVIEW: Manchester by the Sea

12 12 2016

manchester-by-the-seaEarlier this year, Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” concluded an earnest moment of connection (slight spoilers – as much as that movie can be spoiled) with the protagonist, Blake Jenner’s Jake Bradford, describing his college essay’s reinterpretation of the Greek myth of Sisyphus. In his mind, the Sisyphean task of rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down, was not merely cosmic punishment. His eternal recurrence was instead an unintended cosmic gift that gives him a chance to find meaning and purpose.

No such solace or comfort can be found in the more straightforward Sisyphean tale told by Kenneth Lonergan in “Manchester by the Sea.” We meet his central character, Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, going through a series of repetitive toils in his work as an apartment complex’s janitor. Going from unit to unit, he fixes problems that residents could either fix themselves or avoid entirely. When not waiting hand and foot on tenants, Lee shovels the snow off the walkway to his basement dwelling, and the snow never seems to stay clear.

Lee Chandler is a modern Sisyphus of Massachusetts, a fate made even more distressing because he appears to have resigned himself to it. His percolating wit and acerbic banter with the people he must serve indicates an intellect far superior than the average sanitation engineer. If there is any upside to this situation, Lee willingly blinds himself to it.

As time passes and tragedy strikes the Chandler family tree with the young death of Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), we come to possess a deeper understanding of Lee’s self-imposed exile. He is the ultimate embodiment of Catholic guilt, responding to a perceived lack of divine justice against a life-changing mistake by taking the role of punisher away from a seemingly absent authority. He enters into an existence of almost complete asceticism, not because he hopes to earn redemption but because he wishes never to escape the burden of his misdeeds.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Jason Bourne

1 08 2016

As the Hollywood star machine continues to run on empty, feeding in no-name indie stars hungry for a career boost that can increase their international value to fund passion projects, we probably have to get used to a new cliché known as the “distinguished gray.” These films are third, fourth or maybe even fifth installments of long-running – primarily action – franchises which would rather turn the age of their leading men into a pivotal plot point than invest the energy to recast, reboot or otherwise retool the series. (And yes, I say men because seniority is generally a negative attribute for women over 40.)

Jason Bourne” ditches whatever the heck Jeremy Renner’s spinoff was and resurrects the titular character with Matt Damon, now pushing 46 and not attempting to hide those light streaks of hair near his ears. He’s in hardbody shape, though more out of necessity for the character and less out of an unspoken invocation to gawk at his figure. Bourne seems more tired and weary than his formerly spry, curious demeanor in the original trilogy.

In a sense, can anyone blame him? In this iteration of “Jason Bourne,” the world outside the frame seems to weigh heavier on the proceedings than ever before. The CIA must deal not only with the post-Snowden scrutiny of their surveillance behemoth but also with the whims of capricious Silicon Valley tech magnates, whose often radical views pushing for a more open society pose a threat to the agency’s very existence. No wonder Bourne seems content to bare-knuckle box in the sandy outskirts of Athens like Daniel Craig’s James Bond luxuriated in womanizing and heavy drinking in “Skyfall.”

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: The Martian

24 10 2015

Since he burst onto the scene with 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon usually seems to play some version of that titular character. He’s had many a memorable movie and role in his decades-long career, but they almost inevitably come from the same mold of a loud, often brash man’s man. Damon might be one of the best at his particular brand of swagger, though it comes at the cost of getting caught up in an individual creation of his.

That changes for Damon with “The Martian,” a movie that reminds us of his star power since he’s tasked with essentially carrying it all on his shoulders.  While boasting a terrific ensemble, the heart of the story is a one-man show. Damon’s Mark Watney, a NASA botanist on a manned mission to Mars, gets stranded on the red planet after being presumed dead in a dust storm by the rest of his crew.

Like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” or James Franco in “127 Hours,” Damon rises to the occasion of keeping things moving and interesting with no one to act opposite. This challenge actually brings out the best in Damon, as a matter of fact. For an actor who often draws strength from being the most powerful person in a given scene, not having anyone to beat makes him turn inwards. The result is one of his most heartfelt, moving performances to date.

While he focuses on survival, all of NASA works tirelessly on Watney’s rescue. This goes far beyond his fellow astronauts, led by Jessica Chastain’s steely yet humane Captain Lewis. Entire new spacecrafts must be built and engineered, which brings out the best in both jet propulsion lab head head Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) and Donald Glover’s young astrodynamicist Rich Purnell. (Yes, Childish Gambino.)  China also gets involved in the humanitarian mission, making sure that NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and PR head Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) earn their salaries.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Elysium

2 03 2015

In April 2014, I started watching “Elysium” when I observed that it had arrived in my library. I grimaced my way through roughly 45 minutes and either fell asleep or became unavoidably detained. Then I just never got around to picking it back up again and wound up having to return the disc in order to avoid facing a fine.

I kept telling myself that I needed to pick it up just to finish it for the sole purpose of formulating some coherent thoughts to write a review. This internal conversation continued for nearly an entire year inside my head until, finally, I decided to give it another go since “District 9” writer/director Neill Blomkamp would soon unleash “Chappie” on theaters everywhere.

In short, I regret this decision.

The most interesting aspect of “Elysium” is how on earth something so violently anti-capitalist, anti-1% managed to find funding in the first place. Sure, some of these movies do manage to get through, but they are usually independently financed and then released without the help of a major studio. They also seem to temper their rage, at least enough to prevent the enterprise from seeming like an all-out vilification of the wealthy.

Blomkamp formulates a compelling scenario for his film, a world where the rich have fled a polluted, overcrowded planet to inhabit Elysium. Here, in this literal representation of what the Greeks mythologized as a paradise for heroes, those who can afford it can frolic around a ring orbiting the earth knowing that their health is always secure. Of course, anyone who lives up in the air has to resemble a cartoonish villain, even Jodie Foster’s Defense Secretary Delacourt.

Matt Damon’s Max Da Costa, ailing from a workplace accident that left him exposed to dangerous radioactive material, leads the small proletariat revolution against those hoarding access to medical care. It might have made for a fascinating, discussion-worthy visualization of the figurative “class warfare” narrative that gets tossed around quite a bit in the political sphere. Instead, it’s a boring, derivative action flick where the only thing more simpleminded than the ideology is the violent melee.  C2stars





REVIEW: The Monuments Men

6 11 2014

The Monuments Men

On paper, “The Monuments Men” sounds like a movie that could be not only exciting entertainment but also great intellectual resonance.  The premise of the film, following a ragtag band of brothers assigned to save Europe’s greatest artworks from Hitler’s grasp, promises all the action of a World War II flick and a potent reminder of the vast importance of art.

Yet somewhere between the concept and the screen, George Clooney’s film takes its eye off the prize.  What he pulls together is rather disappointing given all the impressive elements at his disposal.  “The Monuments Men” is not necessarily a bad movie; it’s just a shockingly unsubstantial one.

Nothing really seems to propel the film forwards, leaving it suspended in a state of sustained mediocrity.  Though Clooney assembles quite the prestige cast, including Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, and Bill Murray, he rarely lets them play off each other as an ensemble.  From the outset, they split up in pairs on separate missions, inhibiting attachment and fracturing the narrative.

Obviously, a film steeped in history should try to model its narrative based on the actual events (although that rarely stops movies these days).  But there had to be some way for Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov to spice up the script without deviating too far from the facts.

Honing the focus, like picking a central character to follow with dedication, might have been helpful.  “The Monuments Men” has no shortage of amusing supporting characters yet no driving leading force.  At times, the film just feels like a series of short films and amusing moments tied together into one bland, bloated two-hour feature.  C+2stars





REVIEW: The Zero Theorem

17 08 2014

The Zero TheoremLondon Film Festival, 2013

Terry Gilliam’s “The Zero Theorem” is the kind of film that raises so many important and intriguing questions that it’s entirely possible to forget some of them along the journey.  This oblique tale, bordering at times on the absurd, stuns with the sheer density of the thematic issues that Pat Rushin’s screenplay can pack into 100 minutes.

The film grapples with conundrums as timeless as the meaning of life, the nature of happiness, and the imminence of death and nothingness.  At the same time, “The Zero Theorem” also has its finger on the pulse of many modern malaises, such as screen addiction, the fading appeal of observable reality in relation to virtual reality, and the electronic mediation of human connection.

We explore these through the work of a computer programmer known as Q, played by Christoph Waltz, as he attempts to solve humanity’s conundrums.  In a change of pace from the two silver-tongued Tarantino characters that won him a pair of Oscars, Waltz sits back and delivers a largely reactive performance.  As he attempts to unlock the zero theorem and get to the core of human existence, Q doesn’t instigate events so much as he lets them happen.  Because we’re less focused on a conventional narrative, “The Zero Theorem” can easily delve into the realm of the existential and philosophical.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Margaret

30 04 2013

MargaretIt’s hard to talk about authorial intent in “Margaret” when the studio interference on the project was so insane.  Long story short for those who don’t know: the movie was supposed to be released in 2007, but Kenneth Lonergan failed to lock in a cut to Fox Searchlight’s satisfaction.  Ultimately, they quietly dumped a version of “Margaret” into the theaters that was much shorter that Lonergan would have liked.

And indeed, what I saw in the theatrical cut (sorry, folks, did not drop the money to watch the director’s cut) was a little messy.  But for whatever reason, that didn’t bother me.  I was along for the ride with “Margaret” the whole way through, drawn in to the story by its imperfections.

There’s something very fascinating about knowing that a movie’s flaws are not something invented in your head.  And in such a realization, you can start to find the diamond in the rough by peeling away the layers of sloppiness you observe.  “Margaret” in its very journey to the screen is not about the drudgery of life but rather the painful process of art.  There’s a little bit of magic in getting to find your “Margaret” inside of what Fox Searchlight and Lonergan slapped together for us to avoid litigation.

My “Margaret” is a compelling drama of post-9/11 guilt and anger unfolding in New York City, told from the perspective of an ordinary girl, Anna Paquin’s Margaret.  On just any old day walking, she observes the death of innocence at the hands of a vast piece of machinery.  No, I’m not talking about the planes flying into the World Trade Center; I’m talking about a sweet old lady being struck and killed by a bus.

I don’t want to overload the allegory, though, but it’s impossible not to feel the legacy of the tragic day looming over all the proceedings.  On a human scale, it’s an affecting tale of a mother (J. Smith-Cameron’s powerfully acted Joan) and daughter, a teacher (Matt Damon’s earnest Mr. Aaron) and a student, as well as victims, perpetrators, and observers.  And that’s the beauty of watching the imperfect “Margaret” – doing your own internal rack focusing is not just encouraged.  It’s practically required to make sense of the events.  B+3stars