REVIEW: Rules Don’t Apply

15 11 2016

rules-dont-applyPoor Warren Beatty. The man has been trying to make a passion project about Howard Hughes for the better part of four decades. The film faced significant challenges, including 2004’s biopic collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio that nabbed double-digit Oscar nominations.

12 years later, Beatty’s “Rules Don’t Apply” finally makes it to the big screen only to have the misfortune of opening in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory. The timing doesn’t exactly feel right for a mostly breezy, old-fashioned tale about an eccentric and potentially deranged billionaire who wants to control women’s bodies and limit their personal freedoms. (A remark where a young actress declares, “I think Howard Hughes should be president, there’s no one else like him” is sure to inspire some nervous laughter.) To be clear, none of this is Beatty’s fault. He has no control over the circumstances under which his movie gets released.

But he did have control over what kind of movie he made. Beyond the unfortunate parallels to the man dominating global news headlines, “Rules Don’t Apply” is not a film built for the long haul – it is certainly not the kind of project that clearly evinces forty years of thought and development. After all that time, it feels like Beatty should have figured out the story’s protagonist – Hughes, his latest starlet prospect Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), or the married company driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) who falls for her against his better judgement. The film plays out as a series of loosely connected, scarcely progressing scenes involving these characters – nothing more.

Of the key trio, only Ehrenreich’s Forbes is a character deserving of his own film. Beatty plays Hughes as a slave to his obsessive-compulsive disorder, turning his neuroses into a joking psychosis. Collins, meanwhile, dashes through her lines with such speed that she delivers them without seeming to understand what any of them mean. Or, at the very least, she doesn’t feel them with any strong sense of purpose.

Ehrenreich, meanwhile, recalls the unflappability and easygoing cool of a ’90s Leonardo DiCaprio. As a corporate pawn torn between his show business attraction and his familial commitments, Forbes is the only person in “Rules Don’t Apply” whose path does not seem predestined. Too bad that Beatty did not line up the heft of the movie fully behind him. C-1halfstars

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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





F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 7, 2012)

7 12 2012

The election has been over a month.

Let that sink in. I know the last thing you want to do now that the nasty rhetoric and half-truths have ceased, and you have finally begun to realize that life can exist without vicious campaign ads.  But since the political system has churned out another major crisis with the fiscal cliff, it seems that Alexander Payne’s 1999 film “Election,” a micro look at the American electoral system will never get old.  In fact, it seems to have only gotten more and more timely – and that should scare you.

Though Alexander Payne’s last two movies have won him Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay, I would still argue “Election” is his finest script.  It works remarkably well as both a human story and an allegory for bigger things like American democracy and morality.  And after a few viewings, you start to see how brilliantly and subversively he uses American iconography to poke at the problems corroding the foundation of our great nation.

While many have lamented Payne’s insistence of voice-over in films that might not need it (such as “The Descendants“), his twisted employment of archetypical characters with a whole lot hidden under the surface really makes their narration yield some surprising revelations.  It allows us to penetrate deep into the characters beyond the functions they believe they should be functioning at Carver High School.  Not to mention, Payne writes stream-of-consciousness dialogue with a fantastic accuracy and hilarity.

By all means, the president of the student body should easily by Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick.  She’s the epitome of high school perfect and has worked her butt off to be the most qualified (or at least ensures she’s the most passionate) for the office.  But there’s also something incredibly annoying about her quest, and her teacher, Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister, is on a mission to stop it.  As the faculty adviser for student government, he still believes it can do good – he just doesn’t want Tracy to be the one to get credit for it.

Rather than let her run for the office unopposed, Mr. McAllister manipulates popular football player Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to challenge Tracy.  He’s rich, handsome, and an absolute moron.  But they both get more than they bargained for when Paul’s frustrated closeted lesbian sister, the frumpy Tammy, decides to run out of revenge.  Her platform of anarchy, pointing out how stupid student government elections really are, catches on with the Carver High students … and what ensues as the three duke it out for the presidency is absolutely hysterical madness.

Who do we side with though?  Who is the “right” candidate?  Sadly, we are faced with this decision all the time.  Do we vote for the appealing, good-looking candidate even though they might not be particularly qualified?  Or the overqualified one who might rub us the wrong way?  Better yet, should we go with the person who realizes how pointless and pathetic the electoral system is?  These are just a few of the questions that keep Alexander Payne’s “Election” a truly exceptional movie, one more than worthy to be featured as the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”





REVIEW: Tower Heist

14 10 2012

I’ll set the scene for you: it was a dark and stormy Saturday night.  OK, I don’t know if it was raining, but it was the Saturday of the last weekend of spring break and no one was on campus.  Thus, it was a perfect night for a movie.  I was tired after a long day of flying on airplanes, and I really just wanted a throwaway, lowest-common-denominator type of film.  Something that was pure entertainment and would just make me smile.  Laughing wasn’t even necessary.

Tower Heist,” surprisingly, filled my need quite nicely.  Perhaps my exceptionally low expectations are making my enthusiasm a great deal larger than it actually is, though.  This isn’t a movie I intend to ever watch again, but for the one time I did watch it, the ride was decently enjoyable.   Which is really all I could have wanted from the movie.

Sure, the humor is sophomoric and stupid, and it’s a far cry from Ben Stiller’s “There’s Something About Mary,” Eddie Murphy’s “Beverly Hills Cop,” or Matthew Broderick’s “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”  But this Occupy-esque comedy does manage to deliver a few small satisfactions.  It’s a particularly great time watching Murphy, who seems alive for the first time since “Dreamgirls.”

As a con man brought in by the staff of a hotel to execute a “Mission: Impossible” type plan to rob their über-one percenter boss (Alan Alda as a thinly veiled Bernie Madoff caricature), Murphy has the best lines and the best moments.  You might even see a flash of Axel Foley peeking out from behind the levels of Hollywood hardness.  Go back to the classic comedy if you want the real deal, but “Tower Heist” will do for the moment if you’re folding laundry and it happens to be on Cinemax.  B-





F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 4, 2010)

4 06 2010

The “F.I.L.M.” (First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie – for those who needed a refresher) of the Week will return to some dark and hard-hitting material next week, but I will ease the transition from comedy to tragedy with something a little bit in between.  “You Can Count on Me,” one of the movies on my bucket list of Oscar nominees from the past decade, really grabbed my interest a few weeks ago.  It’s a smart, witty dramedy that treads on the familiar grounds of family issues but never feels contrived or recycled in the slightest.

There’s two reasons for that.  The first is Kenneth Lonergan, the film’s director and writer.  His script is insightful and sensitive, and it gives an authentic look at the ripple effect of a self-destructive brother’s return home to his distraught sister.  It lets the events play out in a way that is both touching and devastating.  We really come to know and care for these characters through their triumphs and their mistakes – and there are plenty of both.

But the second reason is the main reason for the movie’s success: leading lady Laura Linney (alliteration fully intended).  She plays emotional and tense women often, but she plays them with such conviction and strength that I can’t find it in me to be bothered by it.  Here, she uses her incredible energy to bring Sammy, the single mother and bank employee, to vibrant life.  Already collapsing under the weight of single parenthood, Sammy is forced to take on responsibility for her troubled brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) who seems to be incapable of controlling himself.  With a new boss (Matthew Broderick) at the bank, she is forced to devote herself more fully to her job.  This leaves her child (Rory Culkin) under the care and influence of Terry, who exposes him to new ideas and heightens his curiosity about his father.  Linney perfectly animates Sammy’s inner conflict: doing what is best for the two people who need her or doing what makes her happy.

But there’s more good things about “You Can Count on Me” other than its two Academy Award-nominated facets.  Mark Ruffalo delivers a fascinating and astonishing performance.  He’s always trying to do what is right, but his moral compass often leads him in the wrong direction to do it.  Matthew Broderick is comic gold as the demanding and borderline obsessive-compulsive bank manager; he is equal parts charm and repulsion, and it’s always fun to watch him.  On the surface, this may be a movie about ordinary people living ordinary lives.  But thanks to a powerful narrative and compelling characters, it really is extraordinary.