REVIEW: The East

23 07 2013

In 2012, I wrote a piece for a class entitled “Bad Apples Up on Top” that looked at trends in cinematic portrayals of corporations and wealth in the wake of the Great Recession.  If I were to update that post in 2013, “The East” would definitely mandate the addition of a new paragraph.  Along with films like “The Bling Ring,” “Arbitrage,” and even “The Purge,” writer/director Zal Batmanglij and co-writer/star Brit Marling tap into a growing sense of militarism towards the rich and powerful.

Marling’s Sarah infiltrates the titular anarchist group for the government, attempting to protect her firm’s corporate clients from The East’s attacks.  She quickly finds that blurred lines are not just the things of scintillating Robin Thicke summer singles; moral complexities abound everywhere.  Sarah quickly finds herself wondering if she’s working for the right side in this game – if such a side exists.

The East, as savage as their attacks might be, are not your average criminals.  They want to hold executives’ feet to the fire and jolt them out of complicity, forcing them to feel the pain they inflict on others.  Their jams are highly symbolic, coordinated by members of The East to send a powerful message to the corporations and the public as well.

While all this ambiguity and relativism is fascinating, “The East” is a film that is great at raising questions but not particularly good at answering them.  Films don’t have to force-feed you their message, nor do they have to make them patently obvious.  But Batmanglij and Marling should not have wasted their time bringing up issues they were not prepared to, or incapable of, resolving.  If you don’t stand for anything, it’s entirely possible you could wind up standing for nothing.

“The East” poises itself for a killer finale, yet it brings up far more than it’s prepared to wrap up.  As a result, the film feels like a bunch of stumper interview questions loosely wrangled together into a story.  It’s interesting enough, but “The East” gives us fairly little new evidence with which to reinterpret these ethical quandaries.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Friends with Benefits

22 07 2011

It’s time for a movie to come along that changes the romantic comedy genre for better and for always (or at least reverses the way it’s heading at the present moment). A movie willing to avoid the sappiness and the cliched, predictable genre tropes. A movie willing to be a little bit sneaky and subversive in its delivery of what the audience wants from the genre. A movie that gets to the heart of what the genre is supposed to be – truthful, believable romance with some observations on the tricky thing that is love with some humor sprinkled on top.

Friends with Benefits” is not that movie, although it desperately wants to be. It gets some points for trying, though. It takes some good pot shots at the genre through the very clever usage of a fake romantic comedy starring Rashida Jones and Jason Segel inside the movie, and levels some very accurate criticism of them that will no doubt have audiences nodding along with Timberlake and Kunis’ sex pals.

But like so many of the recent onslaught of meta movies, it winds up devolving into the very thing it scorns. It wants all the benefits of self-awareness but none of the responsibilities, which here would include being creative and providing an alternative to the laughable aspects of the genre that it constantly lampoons. To use a sports metaphor, it has the swing but not the followthrough. It boldly goes where few romantic comedies will go and then backs away when honesty and ingenuity is asked of it.

However, it’s nice (for once) to see the movies giving us some indication they realize how RIDICULOUS the romantic comedy has become. Even though “Friends with Benefits” eventually subscribes to the formulaic rules of the genre straight from the textbook, I’ll take a movie with squandered potential over one with no potential any day. Not that it makes it any less disappointing, but the movie sort of gives us a wink and a nudge when it crosses over to the dark side. It’s almost as if director Will Gluck (last year’s excellent “Easy A“) is so apologetic for selling out that he all but superimposes the text “I’M SORRY” over the closing scene.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 19, 2010)

19 11 2010

Looking for a warm Thanksgiving-themed movie to watch while the turkey is in the oven?  Take a bite out of the delectable comedy “Pieces of April,” my timely pick for “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  I watched the movie back in March because of Patricia Clarkson’s Oscar-nominated supporting role, but there’s so much more to love about the movie than her.  I’ve been an enthusiastic fan for quite some time now, and I held back posting about it until now, when the timing seems right.

Think about, we get a plethora of Christmas movies but no love for Thanksgiving?  By the time November rolls around, all the stores are already decorated to sell Christmas gear, XM Radio has already started their Christmas station again, and the retailers start to post their holiday sale information.  There’s so much to celebrate about Thanksgiving, one of the few holidays we have left that isn’t heavily commercialized.  So for all those who think that Thanksgiving is just the day before Black Friday, step away from the wallet and sit on the couch and watch “Pieces of April.”

Since Thanksgiving is a holiday about family, it makes sense that this a movie all about family, both the ones we are forced to be a part of and the ones we make ourselves.  April (Katie Holmes, pre-Tom and Suri madness) is the twenty-something rebel living in New York to maintain a distance from her dysfunctional family, but welcomes them to her tiny apartment for Thanksgiving dinner, potentially the last for her mother Joy (Clarkson), embittered by her breast cancer diagnosis.  The movie follows both sides as they think they have the hardest part of the deal: April actually attempting to cook a turkey and her family making the journey from suburbia.

Each encounter difficulties, with April’s oven breaking and Joy’s negativity forcing them to take some trite and unnecessary delays.  However, April finds that her cooking struggles force her to interact with her neighbors, with whom she had never associated before.  She finds that she can actually be friends with these people, and that’s what makes “Pieces of April” such a great movie for such a great holiday: it’s all about the relationships, both appreciating the ones you have and being open to making new ones.

REVIEW: Shutter Island

27 02 2010

Shutter Island” is director Martin Scorsese’s first movie since he floored the Academy (as well as one semi-notable movie blogger) with “The Departed,” which only serves to set the bar sky-high to clear.  It would take another modern classic to surpass “The Departed,” and this isn’t that.  However, this is high-octane, heart-pumping Hollywood entertainment that delivers the chills and thrills.

Keep in mind, though, this is Scorsese we are talking about here.  “Shutter Island” is no Michael Bay movie.  It succeeds largely because of that unique Scorsese vision which has been the driving force behind two of my all-time favorite movies.  It’s important to know that he isn’t trying to make a “Taxi Driver” out of Dennis Lehane’s novel; this is an homage to the classic horror films of Hitchcock and the like.  If you get déjà vu at all, it will probably more to “The Shining” than to “GoodFellas.”

The movie explores the line between insanity and reality as two federal marshals (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) investigate the disappearance of a patient at an asylum.  As Teddy Daniels’ (DiCaprio) observations progress, we come to two important realizations.  The first is that Teddy has something more on his mind than merely investigating a missing patient.  The second, and by far the most important, is that there is something more than just lingering seasickness affecting Teddy’s mind.

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What To Look Forward To in … February 2010

7 01 2010

We’re still in some hazy territory in the month of February, but the new decade looks to give this month some much needed energy.  Fueled by two movies originally scheduled for release in 2009, I might actually drop a good amount of change at the movies in February (not just on repeat viewings of Oscar nominees).

February 5

Put “The Notebook” in front of anything and you are guaranteed a flock of screaming girls coming with boyfriends in tow.  Put wildly popular model/actor Channing Tatum in the poster and you can add some more girls aside from the hopeless romantics.  “Dear John” has just that: a super sweet story from author Nicholas Sparks and girl eye candy Tatum.  Thankfully for the guys, the filmmakers cast Amanda Seyfried (“Jennifer’s Body”), who isn’t so bad on the eyes either.

I’m a little weary to endorse “From Paris with Love,” another John Travolta villain movie.  He’s only good at playing subtle ones (“Pulp Fiction”) with the exception of “Face/Off.”  2009’s “The Taking of Pelham 123” was a disaster mainly because of Travolta and his villainy established only by constantly dropping the F-bomb.  Potential redemption here?  I’ll need positive word of mouth before I watch Travolta go evil again.

February 12

“Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief” is the name given to the film adaptation of Rick Riordan’s kids novel “The Lightning Thief.” Clearly Fox is setting up a franchise with the title, and they picked the right place to stake the claim. I read the book in seventh grade, and it is the real deal. I even got a chance to have lunch with the author, Riordan, who is one of the neatest people I have ever met. Whether they ruin it or not is yet to be known, but the movie is being helmed by Chris Columbus, the man who got the “Harry Potter” series flying. That has to count for something.

If Pierce Brosnan isn’t a big enough star to draw you to the aforementioned movie, you should find solace in “Valentine’s Day,” which features just about every romantic comedy actor ever. Literally, I can’t even list all of the stars of the movie here. The post would just be too darn big. Garry Marshall, director of “Pretty Woman” and “The Princess Diaries,” is in charge here, so I find some comfort in that. But if the movie flops, this will be a high-profile disappointment.

Sorry girls, the werewolf in “The Wolfman” is not played by Taylor Lautner. Academy Award-winning actor Benicio del Toro metamorphasizes in Victorian England into the hairy beast when the moon is ripe.  This werewolf is not based on cheeky teen lit but on the 1941 horror classic.  And this adaptation is rated R for “bloody horror violence and gore.”  Get ready for some intense clawing.

A big winner at Cannes and a contender for the Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards, “A Prophet” is a foreign film that may be worth a look.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 11, 2009)

11 12 2009

This week’s “F.I.L.M.” (First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie for those that need a refresher) is George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck.”  The movie follows newscaster Edward R. Murrow’s stand against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt in the 1950s.  But Clooney, the movie’s writer/director, makes the movie more than just a chronicle of events.  The movie isn’t about Murrow or McCarthy, nor is it about the Red Scare.  “Good Night, and Good Luck” is about standing up for what is right even if you are the only one.  Clooney understands the importance of these themes still today and makes a film that will be forever relevant.

The movie takes us back to a much simpler time in television.  Murrow (David Strathairn) is more than just a reporter; he is an orator with well thought-out speeches and firm opinions.  In the era where the Red Scare is at its height and blacklisting is a very present fear, Murrow dared to stand up and call out Joseph McCarthy when no one else would, knowing that he very well could become the Senator’s next victim.  Many people were not willing to take this risk with him; even more bet against him.  But Murrow was unyielding and uncompromising, and he used the power that his voice had to convey to Americans that it is not acceptable to live in a climate where we fear one another.  His forceful discourse indirectly led to the end of McCarthyism and, in this writer’s opinion, will become immortalized in the annals of American history at a level near that of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Adress.

“Good Night, and Good Luck” is for television journalism what “All The President’s Men” is for print journalism, a classic story of ethics.  But the former is packed with an extra punch: a cautionary moral tale.  A speech by Murrow in the late ’50s shown at the close of the movie is particularly haunting as he elaborates about the tremendous power of television and how we must use it to inform people, not merely to entertain and amuse.  Murrow passed away over four decades ago, but Clooney sure wants us to ponder what he would think if he turned on the cable box today.  Would he be proud of the uproars when millions of people miss “Grey’s Anatomy” so ABC can show President Obama’s speech?  Would he be proud of the fact that our news channels are so concerned with political correctness that they become lambs rather than the lions of his day, willing to call out wrong behavior with confidence?  Would he be proud to see dozens more movie channels than news channels on most televisions?  Clooney’s double gut-punch of virtue is a wake-up call that does not go out to just politicians and news anchors.  It retains meaning for people dealing with even the smallest of dishonorable conduct.  Now that is something that would make Murrow proud.

REVIEW: Whatever Works

15 08 2009

Anyone who keeps up with this blog or knows me well can probably guess that I often identify with Woody Allen and his neurotic characters, for better or worse.  And as soon as I heard that Larry David, one of the creators of “Seinfeld” and the hilarious star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” was going to be starring in Woody’s latest, I knew they could be a scary pair.  However, David’s Boris Yelnikoff unexpectedly proves to be quite likable.  “Whatever Works,” frankly put, works for me.  It is a light, breezy comedy that doesn’t make you strung out like some of Allen’s (or David’s) other projects.  David provides the caustic quips, but a phenomenal supporting cast is equally funny.

Boris (David) is a misanthropic scholar with the belief that humans are a failed species.  He gets living proof of this when Melody (Evan Rachel Wood, “The Wrestler”) shows up on his doorstep one night.  A naïve and dim-witted down home southern girl, Melody slowly starts to melt Boris’ cold heart.  On the other hand, she also begins to randomly spurt his cynical views about life and humanity to anyone who looks at her.  As their time living together lengthens, there are of course the inevitable run-ins with Melody’s mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), who disapproves of her new lifestyle, and her firm father John (Ed Begley, Jr.).  All four characters undergo drastic and hilarious changes in the way they see and live their lives, eventually learning to simply enjoy whatever works for them.

I really cannot sing the praises of Larry David enough for making Boris so lovable despite being a suicidal misanthrope.  He stands out among the normal neurotic leads of Allen’s films.  Evan Rachel Wood is also spellbinding.  Her amazing range astounds me; she can do any movie she wants and steal the show.  The rest of the supporting cast is phenomenal, especially Patricia Clarkson as she turns from the good Southern Christian to a very artistic experimenter.

The script is Woody Allen at his best; in fact, it was written in his golden age during the 1970s.  It is delightfully witty and quite thought-provoking too.  There is good dialogue between Boris and the audience through monologues to the viewers, and I found them quite refreshing and inventive.  “Whatever Works” is a comedy to please anyone with a funny bone.  Even for those who find Allen’s movies too zany for their taste, this possesses a charm uncanny to most of his other works.  A- / 3halfstars