REVIEW: Disorder

10 09 2016

Disorder 2016 posterAt its best, Alice Winocour’s “Disorder” functions as a more elemental spin on the political conspiracy thriller. Matthias Schoenaerts’ Vincent, a recently discharged Army member, takes on a gig as private security detail at the opulent estate of a Lebanese businessman and his wife, Diane Kruger’s Jessie. Everyone comes to learn the true nature of his enterprise, however, by the threats he attracts when leaving for business.

Winocour can be aggravatingly vague about the identity of the menace facing them, very nearly arriving at the point where ambiguity crosses over into ambivalence. The film stays afloat thanks to the strong character work by Schoenaerts, whose difficulties with hearing hobble his effectiveness as a guard and even emasculate him as a person. The actor’s portraits of fragile masculine performance can sometimes carry a lot of sulking swagger – “Rust and Bone,” “A Bigger Splash” – but his angst in “Disorder” feels truly rooted in Vincent’s PTSD.

Winocour works in Vincent’s aural deficits into the very grammar of the film, playing with both white noise and utter sonic clarity. Ironically enough, Vincent gets tipped off to the shady dealings by overhearing a conversation at a party that seems to indicate these wealthy elites are putting their fingers on the scale of democracy. While details of their nefarious negotiations remain willfully obscured, at least Winocour is willing to engage with the issues of veteran stability and the omnipresence of our surveillance and security state. “Disorder” leaves us with a chilling reminder of the extent to which violence paradoxically secures peace – and how comfortable we are living with this oft-hidden reality once it makes itself known. B-2stars

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REVIEW: A Bigger Splash

22 05 2016

ABS_1Sheet_27x40_MECH_03.04.16_FIN11.indd“Interesting.” It’s the catch-all phrase for critics and reviewers, simultaneously meaning everything and nothing.

The word is often used in place of legitimate commentary, an adjective appended to an observation meant to prove the writer has two eyes but not two minutes to unpack the greater meaning of something. It’s a judgment with no value system to back it up.

When used before a comma and a negating conjunction, the word grants faint acknowledgement to what others might perceive as a strength – only to obliterate that argument to shreds.

Now, having said all that, “A Bigger Splash” is ever an interesting movie. The term here is not applied liberally or lazily. The entire film, from David Kajganich’s script to Luca Guadagnino’s direction, falls perfectly into the realm of the “interesting.” They play with stock melodramatic character types, the exotic European travel subgenre and plot developments both predictable and borderline outlandish. Their slight revisions draw attention and intrigue, sure, but they never come close to shock and awe.

It’s just … interesting. Enough to justify the retelling of a familiar type of erotic quadrangle – and expend the efforts of four in-demand actors to do so. Enough to cohere the romance, the suspense, the quiet political backdrop and the behind-the-scenes of rock ‘n’ roll – albeit not without some creaky tonal swings. Enough to draw out engagement and entertainment. Just maybe not enough to drive anything home.

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REVIEW: The Danish Girl

23 12 2015

In spite of the crusade by presidential candidate Donald Trump and his so-called “silent majority,” I still care about political correctness to the extent that it preserves the basic dignity of threatened groups. (Overreach is a separate conversation, however.) Words and language are powerful tools because they serves as outward reflections of inner ideas and beliefs. How society talks about a person as a part of the group with which they identify is important.

One such group that rightfully points out inadequacies in our vernacular is the transgender community. Many activists seek nothing less than the implosion of gender-based assumptions in the way we speak, a prospect as liberating for some people as it is uncomfortable for others. Every time it forces me to pause a little longer before speaking, I use that time to remind myself that these are above all people who just want the same respect to live their lives as any other person in society.

I try to stay on top of the latest developments in acceptable language – so this could be out of date – but the last I checked, it was a dubious practice to link anatomy to gender. (If this is no longer true, I welcome someone politely educating me.) Gender is a social construct, which may or may not correspond to a person’s biologically determined sex.

Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl” arrives in the heightened era of trans visibility; 2015 alone brought cultural prominence to Caitlyn Jenner, “Tangerine” and “Transparent.” The film tells the story of Eddie Redmayne’s transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, formerly Einar Wagener, as she seeks a then-radical surgery to remove the male organ that ties her to the sex she was given at birth. For someone so ahead of her time, it strikes me as rather ironic that the movie telling her story seems so behind its own time. Its assumptions surrounding gender and sexuality feel only slightly progressed from the 1930s setting.

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REVIEW: Far from the Madding Crowd

28 06 2015

All period films should feel as urgent as Thomas Vinterberg’s “Far from the Madding Crowd.”  Though the story might take place in Victorian England, none of the characters ever feel preserved in amber.  This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel illuminates present-day issues faced by women as they seek agency and independence through a heroine, Carey Mulligan’s Batsheba Everdene, who bristles with the norms of her time.

You would think, in the 140 years since the novel’s publication, that the world has progressed some in respecting the dignity of women.  But alas, two chauvinists sitting next to me served as a potent reminder of just how necessary this story continues to be.  In their eyes, any decision Batsheba made that did not lead her down a path of submission or domesticity evinced that she was a reckless whore.

Bathsheba never aligns herself as opposed to the institution of marriage; at one point, she memorably remarks that she would be a bride if she didn’t have to get a husband.  Her needs are rather peculiar due to a unique set of circumstances that grants her ownership of a sizable portion of land in the English countryside.  Rather than surrender the property to an able-bodied man, Bathsheba possesses enough self-confidence to run the farm herself.

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REVIEW: The Drop

17 09 2014

In nearly every film appearance over the past five years, Tom Hardy has established himself as a man’s man.  Be it through delivering brutal beatings in “Bronson,” “Warrior,” and “The Dark Knight Rises” or by providing a portrait of masculinity both polished (“Inception“) and rugged (“Lawless“), he’s been a paradigm of behavioral virility.

In “The Drop,” however, Hardy tries on a different persona: a mild-mannered, soft-spoken simpleton.  When juxtaposed with all his previous films – even “This Means War” – the contrast is jarring enough to grab some attention.  As Bob Saginowski, the bartender unwittingly drawn into a robbery of dirty money from his establishment, Hardy is still effective even in his quietude.

All the shenanigans that follow don’t really give Hardy much of a chance to show any range in this newly subdued register.  He gets a quasi-romantic arc with Noomi Rapace’s Nadia, who really feels like little more than the means to introduce the film’s primary antagonist, Matthias Schoenarts’ Eric Deeds.  Bob does manage to draw some sympathy, though, by adopting and caring for a beaten pitbull that seems to have sauntered out of a Sarah McLachlan SPCA commercial.

But beyond its leading man, “The Drop” has very little to offer that we have not already seen countless times (not to mention better).  Director Michael R. Roskam does not seem to inflect the action with any stakes, so it subsequently comes across as low intensity.  Though it runs a slender hour and 45 minutes, the film feels substantially longer.

Perhaps fans of James Gandolfini, who appears in his last on-screen role here as Bob’s business partner, will want the action to drag on so they can maintain the illusion that he is still with us. He gives a good performance, to be clear.  Yet I found myself asking the same question as when I left “A Most Wanted Man,” which will be Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last non-“Hunger Games” role: is this really the movie on which a great actor would want to go out?  Just another ho-hum, forgettable mob thriller?  C+2stars





REVIEW: Bullhead

16 09 2014

BullheadWhen I sat down to write this review, it had been roughly two months since I sat down and watched “Bullhead.”  Even in spite of the relatively small window – sometimes I’ll shamefully go much longer from viewing to writing – I found that I remembered fairly little about the film.  Perhaps that’s telling as to the kind of film this is: not terrible, but also not particularly memorable.

“Bullhead” does boast a ferocious leading turn by Matthias Schoenarts that makes the film ultimately worthwhile.  Though the Belgian actor has since impressed in films such as “Rust and Bone” and “Blood Ties,” this is by far Schoenarts’ best foot forward.

As Jacky Vanmarsenille, a farmer with masculinity issues abounding due to an unfortunate childhood incident, Schoenarts is a bull with massive pent-up rage he’s trying to unleash.  All he needs is someone to throw a red cape in front of his face.  Yet he performance isn’t all brute force and physicality; director Michael R. Roskam often poignantly captures the brooding soul inside Jacky with close-ups.

Beyond its towering leading performance, however, “Bullhead” struggles to offer little more than the ordinary.  The film has a relatively simple agrarian story that gets convoluted by poor character definition.  Its narrative is also further clouded by unclear ethnic tensions between the Belgians and Flemish, which might be more clear in its native country but came across as confounding to this particular American viewer.

So unless you really love gorgeous establishing shots or feel an insatiable urge to see every Schoenarts performance in case he becomes the next Michael Fassbender, there’s no reason to check out “Bullhead.”  It’s not entirely bull—- (think of the most common phrase involving the word bull), but Roskam certainly misses the bullseye.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Blood Ties

22 06 2014

Blood TiesCannes Film Festival – Out of Competition, 2013

It’s clear from the beginning of “Blood Ties” that Guillaume Canet’s English-language feature debut is a Scorsese-lite New York ensemble drama.  Still, to so successfully channel a modern master right out of the gate is pretty impressive.  While Canet’s direction is hardly novel, he always keeps the film fun and compelling.

His ’70s saga follows the exploits of the two Pierzynski brothers squaring off on opposite sides of the law, Chris (Clive Owen) the criminal and Frank (Billy Crudup) the cop.  If the premise sounds familiar, well, it is.  In fact, the film is co-written by Canet with the help of James Gray, who himself wrote/directed a very similar tale of fraternal opposition called “We Own the Night” back in 2007.

Yet even though it felt like I knew these characters from other movies, they still thrilled me.  Gray, a consummate crafter of familial tension, completely nails the tricky dynamics between Chris and Frank.  They have always been pitted against each other, so a natural rivalry has been fostered between them.  Yet underneath it all, there’s the undeniable pull of – wait for it – blood ties that every so often overpowers all else.

Clive Owen is once again dastardly convincing in a brutish role, recalling his gripping performance in “Inside Man.”  However, it’s Billy Crudup who really carries the movie with a quiet strength.  He never really got a role to showcase all the talent he showed in “Almost Famous,” and now, 14 years later, Crudup arrives again with a bang. Read the rest of this entry »