REVIEW: The Night Before

22 12 2015

If anyone is skeptical that our culture may be reaching a saturation of Christmas narratives, Jonathan Levine’s “The Night Before” ought to dispel that last shred of doubt. The film, co-written with Seth Rogen’s creative partners Evan Goldberg, Ariel Shaffir and Kyle Hunter, is a loving ode to just how much Americans love their holiday movies. The film pays homage to everything from “Home Alone” to “Elf” and even “Die Hard” during a crazy Christmas Eve shared by three old friends.

The Christmas movie appreciation leaks into the very fabric of the script, a half-baked attempt at making a stoner version of Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol.” (And with a bit of “It’s A Wonderful Life” as a cherry on top, to boot.) Only, instead of following one character, “The Night Before” splinters into three separate narratives bundled together.

The film follows Seth Rogen’s soon-to-be new father Isaac, Anthony Mackie’s recently famed pro quarterback Chris and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hapless musician Ethan on what could be their last Yuletide celebration … and not just because each is lucky to survive the shenanigans. Each guy gets their hilarious moments with a very game supporting cast, especially Isaac’s unnaturally supportive expectant wife Betsy (Jillian Bell), streetwise bandit Rebecca (Ilana Glazer), Ethan’s straight-shooting ex Diana (Lizzy Caplan) as well as Sarah, a character so Mindy Kaling-esque she had to be played by Mindy Kaling.

The film plays to the strengths of its ensemble so well that it becomes hard to spite the movie providing little more than the good time such a cast portends. “The Night Before” does not add up to more than the sum of its parts, mostly because the fragmented narrative never quite coheres by the end. It’s good for a laugh, but those hoping for a new adult holiday classic to play after the kids go to bed should probably just go for a repeat viewing of “Bad Santa.” B2halfstars





REVIEW: Freeheld

19 10 2015

FreeheldFreeheld” is the most unfortunate of contradictions.  This weepie issues drama about the dark age known as 2002 wants to applaud all progress achieved in the past decade for LGBT Americans.  Yet when it comes time for the film’s chief characters, partners Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), to show affection after securing a domestic partnership, their kiss literally makes no noise.

Director Peter Sollett and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner love having a good round of self-congratulatory outrage and inspiration for lesbian couples like Laurel and Stacie.  They just don’t really care for gays as people all that much.  If they did, they might realize that the battle against discrimination and stigmatization is not over just because of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Obergefell v. Hodges.

“Freeheld,” perhaps from bad storytelling but also likely because of bad marketing, wants to insert itself in the debate on marriage equality.  This might make the film appear more “timely,” sure, but it is completely incorrect.  Laurel and Stacie’s battle was never about marriage.  It was about equality under the law, even though their legal union was the 21st century equivalent of “separate but equal.”  To redirect the righteous outrage of a woman who fought for her rights even on her deathbed for pure opportunism feels disgraceful to her memory.

Laurel remained closeted as an occupational hazard on the New Jersey police force, fearing that any strain of moral indecency would only enhance the sexism she already faced.  But once stricken with late-stage cancer, she risks backlash in order to secure the transfer of her pension to Stacie.  The law covers domestic partnerships, yet that does not stop her county’s board of freeholders from refusing her request.

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REVIEW: 99 Homes

22 01 2015

Telluride Film Festival

In 2002, President George W. Bush declared, “Here in America, if you own a home, you’re realizing the American Dream.”  Six years later, that unbridled spirit of homeownership at all costs led to a bubble of subprime mortgages bursting and contributing to the tanking of the nation’s economy.  This time of panic and crisis brought about pain for many hard-working Americans, and it also provides the foundation for writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s gripping look into the dark heart of capitalism, “99 Homes.”

Over five years years ago, George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham arrived on screens to inform blue-collar workers they were out of a job in Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air.”  A similar task falls to Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash, the protagonist of “99 Homes,” who enforces evictions in working-class Florida neighborhoods.  Bingham, however, could stay detached from the plight of the newly unemployed; Dennis can receive no such comfort.  Before becoming the man doing the evicting, he and his family were the evicted.

99 Homes

In order to provide for his son Connor and mother Lynn (Laura Dern), Dennis turns to the very person responsible for putting them in dire economic straits: the vile, e-cigarette smoking realtor Rick Carver (Michael Shannon).  While everyone suffers, his business booms, and Dennis is willing to sell his soul to his persecutor if it means putting food on the table.  Sure, he shares in some of the profits.  But, at the end of the day, Dennis heads back to the same kind of cheap motel to which he banishes countless other families.

Through Dennis, Bahrani brilliantly illustrates the sociological concept of false consciousness.  He buys into Carver’s policies and slowly deludes himself into believing he is of a higher class standing.  Carver, an unabashed believer that America only bails out winners like himself, takes the spoils and leaves workers like Dennis with the scraps.  Advancing out of their precarious position is merely an illusion.

Garfield

If this sounds pessimistic, Bahrani earns the right with his intellectual depth.  “99 Homes” also wisely focuses on characters whose very livelihoods are in jeopardy because of the financial crisis.  Most films that have tried to grapple with the effects of the recession – “The Company Men,” “Margin Call,” “Arbitrage,” “Blue Jasmine” – only dare to assume the perspective of the upper-class descending to the middle-class.  Dennis and his family are not worrying about losing the Porsche or selling off the jewelry.  If they descend any lower, it is outright poverty and destitution.

Stemming from this standpoint, the stakes feel appropriately extreme enough both to feel deeply and contemplate thoroughly.  Bahrani often scores the film with tense, thriller-like music, and it works exceptionally well.  If the lives hanging in the balance and the severity of the moral compromises being made do not merit an increasing heart rate, nothing does.

99 Homes

If the film feels exaggerated and over the top, the financial crisis was an absolute nightmare for many families that felt borderline apocalyptic, so grandiosity is justifiable.  If it feels like a preachy morality play, at least Bahrani has his heart and mind in the right place.  He understands that the home is a symbol of heritage, inheritance, legacy, and personal pride.

Yet “99 Homes” communicates something more important.  The home itself is not the American Dream.  It is the well-being of the people inside of the home.  A-3halfstars





Telluride Film Festival Diary, Day 2

30 08 2014

9:15 A.M.  Good morning from Telluride!  Looks like today is going to be an action-packed day of moviegoing and talking with filmmakers.  I had to be up for a discussion at the ripe hour of 7:15 A.M. today, which was just as much fun as a barrel of monkeys!

This morning’s festivities kick off with a screening of Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” which won the Best Actor prize at Cannes this year.  While you wait for my reaction, perhaps you’d like to see some of my pictures that I’ve been taking?!

12:15 P.M.: I’m at a panel right now that includes…

Mike Leigh
Wim Wenders
Werner Herzog
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Francis Ford Coppola
Ethan Hawke
Walter Murch

HOLY CRAP.

Also, “Mr. Turner” was quite good, too.

3:27 P.M.: So, where to begin on the past three hours. Getting to be in conversation with Francis Ford Coppola for an hour was insane. Hearing from the insanely normal and approachable Xavier Dolan was neat, too. Although it’s pretty hard to top getting to meet Leonard Maltin, whose movie guides were always on my bookshelf growing up. I told him how much those meant to me, and he was clearly very humbled to hear those words. Then we got to talk about film criticism for a few minutes … simply incredible.

3:45 P.M.: Not going to lie, I’m not the most excited for our next selection, some 40 year old German film called “Baal.” I should go in with more of an open mind, but knowing that I’m in here and “Foxcatcher” is out there…

9:45 P.M.: So “Baal” was awful and basically a waste of my time, as predicted. Then essentially none of my student group got into “The Imitation Game,” despite the fact that we were supposedly guaranteed seats more or less. Guess I’ll have to catch this flick that’s being hotly tipped for Oscars on Monday … add it to the list with “Foxcatcher.”

Bennett Miller, Channing Tatum, and Steve Carell

Bennett Miller, Channing Tatum, and Steve Carell

So now I’m in line for Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” a film starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon that premiered to acclaim in Venice this week. Of course, there was a free outdoor screening of “Foxcatcher” that just had to overlap with this screening by 15 minutes. But no, I guess I’ll just have to keep hanging…

P.S. – Celebrity sightings today include Laura Linney (just chilling solo outside a theater) as well as Steve Carell and Channing Tatum outside the “Foxcatcher” screening.

10:28 P.M.: Laura Dern spotted at “99 Homes.”

1:13 A.M.:  Back in bed still reflecting on and reeling from “99 Homes.”  Not that I don’t want to immediately post a review (because I could probably cobble my thoughts together now), but I desperately need some sleep and have a rare chance to get two full cycles.  Good evening (though it’s doubtful anyone is reading this live)!





REVIEW: Man of Steel

20 07 2013

Look, it’s a bird!  No, it’s a plane!  Worse, it’s Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” a bomb of heroic proportions torpedoing its way towards a multiplex near you to steal 2 1/2 hours of your life and $10 of your money.  How this could have been touched by moviemaking Midas himself, Christopher Nolan, truly escapes me.

I personally saw nothing horrendously wrong with Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns,” though I haven’t seen it since 2006 (a fact that may ultimately speak loudest to its quality).  However, I can point out a number of gaping flaws in “Man of Steel.”  It’s one thing to leave a movie nonplussed but another entirely to be angry.  If you hadn’t already guessed, I was the latter upon leaving this film.

Most issues seemed to spring from the lackluster story.  The film takes on the practically futile task of humanizing Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El, an invincible being.  He’s always had an identification problem because, well, how many of us can relate to someone who is essentially perfect?  (I’ll speak for myself and say that I certainly cannot.)  While the drama of Clark’s grappling with his power is relatively compelling, it’s told only in brief flashbacks.

And these scenes with his adoptive parents, played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, really only serve to play into the overarching Messianic allegory of the entire film.  I’m certainly not opposed to such grand implications, but they need to be done well (such as they were in Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables“).  “Man of Steel” feels completely disingenuous, exploiting spirituality for its own gain.  If it were any more obvious about its overloaded metaphor, Henry Cavill’s Superman would be wearing the letter t across his chest.

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REVIEW: The Iceman

20 04 2013

RiverRun International Film Festival

The Iceman” is everything you would expect from a period gangster film like  “GoodFellas,” only with none of the rush of excitement and energy you get from Scorsese’s classic.  Director Ariel Vromen’s color-by-numbers genre pic is the epitome of middling, average entertainment.  Its full-fledged adoption of tropes led me to think less about “The Iceman” itself and more about where I might have seen that scene play out before.

Usually gangster movies are propelled by strong characterization, particularly the protagonist.  “The Iceman” settles for lazy caricaturization where everyone just plays out the stereotypes, including Michael Shannon as the titular assassin Richard Kuklinski.  Over three decades in organized crime, he takes over 100 lives … all while his beautiful wife Deborah, played by Winona Ryder, doesn’t age a day!

Shannon is a magnetic performer, particularly playing troubled and unstable characters like John Givings in “Revolutionary Road” or Curtis LaForche in “Take Shelter.”  His work in “The Iceman” can’t hold a candle to these prior tour de forces, largely because Kuklinski is so poorly written that I doubt Jack Nicholson could make it work.

And Kuklinski is the best written character of the bunch, I might add.  It could also be bad casting, but cameo appearances by James Franco as a pornographer and Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski’s brother were truly bizarre and out of place.  Roy Demeo, Ray Liotta’s character, proves the actor is more than willing to become his own worst imitator.  And I can’t even go there with Chris Evans, Captain America himself, as Robert Pronge, the shaggy-haired and cold-blooded ice cream man, or David Schwimmer as moustache-laden hitman Josh Rosenthal.

Without a compelling character at its center, why even bother watching a movie?  Particularly one that is so largely based around relationships?  I’d recommend not watching “The Iceman” and instead popping in “GoodFellas” or “Pulp Fiction” again.  Moreover, the film’s ability to delude itself into believing its own importance made me yearn for another gangster movie, “Analyze This,” where the same types of characters mix and mingle.  Only instead of being played for drama as in “The Iceman,” it’s played for laughs.  C2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 4, 2013)

4 01 2013

The recession has manifest itself in many obvious ways in American cinema.  There has been the vilification of the rich in movies like “Arbitrage” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” excoriation of big business excess in “Tower Heist” and “Margin Call,” and glorification of the average joe worker-bee in “Win Win” and “The Company Men.”

Though “Take Shelter”, my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” does not indulge in direct tapping of the zeitgeist, perhaps it best embodies it.  In a statement posted on the film’s website, director Jeff Nichols wrote:

“I believed there was a feeling out in the world that was palpable. It was an anxiety that was very real in my life, and I had the notion it was very real in the lives of other Americans as well as other people around the world.”

This brilliant realization of such post-recessional anxieties has made his “Take Shelter” a superb film that plays timely now but I suspect will ring timeless in the future.

“Take Shelter” opens with its protagonist, Curtis, experiencing a rain of motor oil.  This is quickly revealed to be a hallucination, but it feels like a very real way to bring some internal storms to expressionistic life.  The movie’s magical realism is a perfect compliment to the beguiling veracity of Michael Shannon’s performance as Curtis, a man who puts on a brave face for his family in tough times but ultimately struggles with some very deep demons.

As these apocalyptic delusions get worse, Curtis becomes a sort of modern-day Noah (nothing like Steve Carell’s hokey character in “Evan Almighty,” I’ll have you know).  He quietly sets out to protect his wife and daughter from a cataclysmic event that apparently only he is able to recognize on the horizon.  This tension builds until he ultimately explodes in a fit of rage directed towards a community that doesn’t understand his worries.  In the hands of Shannon, these harbingers of doom sound completely righteous, almost like the words of a prophet.

Grounding the film in an unfair and unkind reality, on the other hand, is Jessica Chastain as Curtis’ loving wife Samantha.  She plays a very different kind of Madonna than her mother in “The Tree of Life,” one fiercely committed to the safety and stability of her family and doesn’t hesitate to fight for it.  She’s the heart and soul of “Take Shelter,” trying to work through Curtis’ torments with patience and level-headedness.  Sweet as can be, it really makes an impact when she snaps after Curtis puts a preventative tornado shelter in their backyard above their own daughter’s health.

All the while, Nichols punctuates the superb performances of Shannon and Chastain with sporadic bursts of nightmarish imagery.  Whether it’s a biting dog, masses of birds, or the mysterious motor oil, Nichols sets the mood for a constantly shape-shifting modern American anxiety.  No matter who watches this and when they watch it, I believe they will find something floating in the ambience of “Take Shelter” that will accurately represent their inner fears.