REVIEW: Song to Song

28 03 2017

If life is a song, as narration from Rooney Mara’s Faye in “Song to Song” suggests, then rest assured that writer/director Terrence Malick is following the spasmodic tune in his own head with dogged determination. In what appears to be the final feature film made in his post-“The Tree of Life” productivity period, the cinema’s philosopher laureate continues to push himself further into avant-garde, non-narrative forms of storytelling. This latest work might be the definitive achievement of the bunch as Malick probes and roves more than he presumes and pronounces, making the spirit of the film match his intellectually curious aesthetic.

Not one to slow down in his seventies, Malick expands the scope of his deeply interior characterizations to encompass an entire ensemble. His past films normally only allow audiences entry to a select few characters’ headspace through pensive narration. In “Song to Song,” that applies to aspiring musicians Faye and BV (Ryan Gosling) as well as teacher-turned-waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman) dragged into their orbit.

Each of these three tries to follow their motivating forces – love, art, protection – by trusting their instincts. Yet these often decisions lead them back to a sinister music producer Cook, played with a primate-like ferocity by Michael Fassbender. He’s commercialism incarnate, simultaneously abhorrent and alluring. Cook provides, but he also demands. When the impulse to love crosses into lust, he’s there to cash in.

“Song to Song” hums by on the inclination of Malick’s emotional logic, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera (seemingly unresponsive to the laws of gravity) there to capture his vision in all its grimy intimacy. He’s not big on traditional beauty here; long lens shots flatten out the images, and jump cuts within the same scene provide a jarring jolt to the mundane. But there’s something more honest about the ever-searching indeterminacy of the film. Malick seems less fixated on answers and more interested in simply tracing the development of a musical movement. The end result is far from melodic, though that matters not. For all the seeking and yearning in the story and the form itself, the free-flowing riff makes for a perfect means of expression. B+

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REVIEW: Jackie

10 12 2016

jackieNew York Film Festival

Biopics are for the fans. No matter how revisionist the narrative or inventive the form, the genre exists to privilege the audience over the subject. Instead of learning facts from a biography or textbook (but more likely Wikipedia), the biopic lures us in with a promise of approximated intimacy. It strips away the mythology built around a figure to make them more human to us.

This approach makes sense for certain subjects in narrative film, particularly those who audiences can observe with relatively little pre-existing baggage. If we know but an accomplishment here and a footnote there, a film does not have to override our assumptions. Instead, it can provide a frame of reference for us, establishing the structure by which we judge a person. (If this sounds too abstract, picture recent successful examples like “The Social Network” or “American Splendor.”)

But what about those biopics who must confront the enduring legacy of figures who loom so large in our imaginations before the first frame appears? In recent years, filmmakers have resurrected presidents, actors, musicians, inventors and more who continue to occupy space in our heads. The dominant approach has been to ignore the patina of notoriety surrounding them, opting instead to focus on our shared humanity.

These films so often fail because they forget something that Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie” does not. The mythology informs the humanity for these people. At a certain point, knowing that you lead a life that could one day be recounted in a biopic seeps into every fiber of your being. It’s not enough to go back to a time, either in childhood or pre-fame, that can connect us with them. By virtue of receiving this kind of treatment, they are different people. We all have some sense that we are performing for an audience in our daily lives, but these icons must wear their public face so much that it ultimately seeps into the consciousness of their private face.

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REVIEW: A Tale of Love and Darkness

30 09 2016

A Tale of Love and Darkness posterI knew nothing about Amos Oz’s life or work before seeing “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” an adaptation of his autobiography that also serves as Natalie Portman’s directorial debut. In the absence of that knowledge, I was able to see the mechanics of a standard biopic as they grind out familiar beats. It was not a pretty sight.

The film centers around Oz’s childhood, far before he became the man Wikipedia claims is regarded as Israel’s greatest living writer. His father Arieh (Gilad Kahana) is an etymology wonk, constantly pointing out connections in disparate Hebrew words. His mother Fania (Portman), on the other hand, is an amateur bedtime parable teller. Most of the stories are shaded by pessimism from her own experiences escaping the decimation of Europe in the anti-Semitic early decades of the 20th century.

The protagonist of the story is quite clearly Oz – it’s an older version of himself that provides the framing device for the film, and he whose experiences form the majority of the action depicted on screen. Yet Fania’s struggles pull a considerable amount of attention away from his development, particularly in the back stretch of the film when she becomes struck by a mysterious illness. While Portman auditions for a Sylvia Plath character, Oz becomes a passive figure in his own life. And without his agency, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” can provide scant justification for why to tell his story in the first place. C / 2stars





REVIEW: Jane Got a Gun

6 05 2016

Jane Got A GunReally, truly and sincerely – I cannot think of a recent movie that I watched with more dispassion or disinterest than “Jane Got a Gun.”

The film, whose three-year journey to the audiences involved a revolving door of exiting talent along with the dramatic bankruptcy of its distributor, endured more than most. Yet in spite of (or, more likely, because of) this off-screen fracas, nothing remotely cinematic emerged. It feels like watching the motions of a western with no actual genre feeling. The wheels of time move, so the machinations of plot are there, but nothing really seems to happen. It’s mobile paralysis, if you will.

I generally tend to abide by Roger Ebert’s dogma when critiquing movies that suggests (as paraphrased by Wesley Morris) judging a movie against the best version of itself. All I can say is that the world is a worse place for not having the version of “Jane Got a Gun” directed by Lynne Ramsay, the wunderkind who summoned one of Tilda Swinton’s greatest performances in “We Need To Talk About Kevin.” Far more intriguing than watching any scene in the film directed by Gavin O’Connor (director of insipid MMA drama “Warrior”) was imagining how Ramsay might have approached the same situation.

I wondered how she might have gotten a more multifacted portrayal of the titular protagonist out of Portman. (Fun fact: this would have been the first feature-length film for Natalie Portman under a female director. So, yeah, go look up #HireTheseWomen.) I pondered how her impressionistic style could have livened up what otherwise feels like direct-to-DVD western fare. Surely whatever kind of uncommercial art film Ramsay was concocting could have made more money than this hastily assembled version of “Jane Got a Gun.” C-1halfstars





REVIEW: Knight of Cups

22 03 2016

Knight of CupsWith “Knight of Cups,” wunderkind Terrence Malick frees himself even further from a plot-based cinema than he had in art-house darling “The Tree of Life” and head-scratcher “To the Wonder.” In many ways, it is refreshing to see him further embrace the kind of elliptical, free-floating style that he seems to dabble in more and more with each film. At last, he has devised something from his footage that feels fully and truly avant-garde, where the motif is the basic building block of understanding rather than events in the story.

If “The Tree of Life” was Malick’s version of the Gospel, then “Knight of Cups” is his most vividly realized visual Psalm. Everyone consistently seems to acknowledge or call upon the divine, a presence they can sense but onto whom they never fully latch. This anguished yearning even changes Malick’s most recognizable visual device – the close-up of the hand running through some sort of greenery. In “Knight of Cups,” characters stretch out their hands yet reach for air as if to make it palpable to no avail. Rather than connect with God through the earth, as plenty an ethereal Malick character has done, these empty Hollywood types grasp at straws.

Beyond some of the blatant religious symbolism, it’s hard to tell where purposeful planning ends and happy accidents captured by the lithe camera of Emmanuel Lubezki begin. A shot of three men arguing on a roof that is interrupted by both a plane and a helicopter flying overhead – which the camera tilts up to capture – cannot be pre-visualized, right? As beautiful as his floating mobile shots can be, they often capture levels of acting on par with a commercial for a local car dealership. (This is especially prevalent in the film’s big house party scene, which improbably features Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio and Nick Kroll among the more high-minded likes of Antonio Banderas and Jason Clarke.)

There are plenty of mixed Biblical metaphors, too. Malick seems to dance around between Cain & Abel, Sodom & Gomorrah and more along with plenty of other admonishments of licentious behavior. The false angel presiding over the simulacra known as Las Vegas pretty much says it all. But ultimately, the “what” feels less important than the “how,” the form and experience more relevant than the content or comprehension.

Why on earth Christian Bale’s movie mogul lothario needs six different women to reach a point of self-actualization and reckoning with his family tragedy seems beside the point. So long as one can place themselves in the right frame of mind, the abstract delve into his world proves quite immersive, immediate and impactful. B+3stars





REVIEW: Your Highness

11 10 2011

OK, don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy immature humor.  And I can be very amused and moved by James Franco.  And I love Danny McBride.  If you’ve read this site at all in the past year, then you know that I REALLY love Natalie Portman.  But man, oh man, did I hate “Your Highness!”

Every aspect of this movie reeks of an imbecilic juvenility, from the ridiculous high-concept to its poor execution.  The whole idea of the movie seems to have stemmed from McBride watching “A Knight’s Tale” when he was just a little too baked.  I’m sure with enough marijuana in your system, the idea of combining the raunchy comedy with the medieval epic sounded awesome.  Heck, it even sounded kind of funny in a synopsis and in a trailer.

But somewhere between McBride’s brain and my laptop screen, whatever connection “Your Highness” had to comedy was lost.  Instead, what I wasted $4 on iTunes for was a comedy in name only, something so void of laughter that I couldn’t even be amused or endeared by its ridiculous vulgarity.  The lack of effort put into the movie was apparent from the first scene when McBride broke his accent no less than five times, and the movie just continued to deteriorate from there.

I’m sorry, but Danny McBride just being Danny McBride isn’t funny; he needs a good script to make him that way.  I’m sorry, but James Franco playing dumb just doesn’t work when he’s done “Pineapple Express” already (and “127 Hours” too).  I’m sorry, but Natalie Portman, between this and “No Strings Attached” in 2011, should really just stay out of comedy altogether.  And I’m really sorry, Hollywood comedy gurus, but you can’t just whip out the phallus of a Minotaur for an easy laugh.  Believe it or not, you actually have to try.  Sorry to be the latest bearer of bad news.  D+ / 





REVIEW: No Strings Attached

23 07 2011

It’s pretty unfair that “No Strings Attached” was the first sex friends movie of 2011.  Simply by the calendar, it automatically made “Friends with Benefits” the other movie, the rip-off that people would avoid on principle.  Too bad, as the Natalie Portman-Ashton Kutcher combination is inferior to Justin and Mila’s tryst in just about every way.

Not even judging it against its doppleganger, it still disappoints, falling at the low end of the already low romantic comedy spectrum.  Kutcher and Portman have such an awkward chemistry that unfailingly feels fake and manufactured.  Their two acting backgrounds – he from “Punk’d” and “Dude, Where’s My Car,” she from working with Luc Besson, Mike Nichols, and Darren Aronofsky (not to mention her Harvard education) – make them a mismatch from the get-go.  Their incompatibility makes the inevitability of their relationship’s end just that much more unbearable.

Portman as doctor Emma and Kutcher as TV writer Adam make for strange bedfellows, quite literally.  Their relationship hardly qualifies as friendly before having sex, and how they wind up starting their casual affair makes even less sense.  Everyone surrounding them is just as brutal, including his father dating an old ex-girlfriend (Kevin Kline), his encouraging friends (Ludacris among others), and her flat and useless colleagues (Greta Gerwig and the very funny Mindy Kaling, undeservedly wasted here).  It’s an unfortunate blemish on Portman’s otherwise very impressive résumé, and perhaps the film’s reception will give her more caution in her selection of comedy films from now on.  As for Ivan Reitman, the family mojo has clearly shifted to Jason as this is clearly not the same filmmaker who made classic comedies like “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters.”

Turns out you can’t have sex without falling love in an American romantic comedy … who knew?!  In case Hollywood hasn’t hammered this into your head enough over the past decade, the studio executives gave you TWO movies this year that literally say it to your face.  So if you don’t want reruns of a rerun, choose “Friends with Benefits” because it will actually make you laugh on the way to its predictable conclusion.  “No Strings Attached,” on the other hand, will bore you with its unconvincing romance and bland melodrama.  C- /