REVIEW: Straight Outta Compton

13 08 2015

Straight Outta Compton” arrives a year (almost to the day) after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson police officer, and protesters screaming “black lives matter” are disrupting both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates on the stump.  In terms of timing, the movie got lucky as America fortunately received repeated exposure to just what kind of unfortunate force the boys and blue could mete out with relative impunity.  Yes, people clapped at the first beat of their controversial anthem “F-ck The Police.”

The film charts the rise of rap group N.W.A. (that’s N-s With Attitude, for those unaware of the acronym) from the streets of Los Angeles’ Compton neighborhood to music superstardom.  The main distinction of their origin story from the run-of-the-mill music biopic is their repeated clashes with the neighborhood police force, which refuses to acknowledge any difference between them and deadbeat dads or drug dealers.  The mere sight of black skin seems to trigger fear and a sense of entitlement to exert oppressive control.

The first half of “Straight Outta Compton” features as many brutal run-ins with the police as it does rousing rap numbers.  Perhaps most strikingly, the groups’ worst harasser is black himself.  Writers Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman recognize that the problem breaks down beyond mere racial fault lines; there are discriminatory attitudes and unchecked powers among the police that need to be reigned in to a sensible level.

Towards the end of where the narrative stops, the ’90s most notorious flare-up with police, the Rodney King beating, comes into frame.  But the savage attack, unexplainable acquittal, and subsequent riots never quite tie in with the same zeitgeist expressed by N.W.A. in their truth-telling rhymes.  The event plays out like little more than a marker in time, something in the background to ensure the audience remains aware that the years are 1991 and 1992.  Rather than building to a glorious conclusion about the need for change then and now, “Straight Outta Compton” just cruises by and observes the rubble after the rumble.

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REVIEW: Love & Mercy

7 06 2015

Love and MercyStruggle is an inevitable, unavoidable part of creating art and living life.  But in Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy,” an unconventional two-panel biopic of Beach Boys lead singer Brian Wilson, struggle is practically the whole story.  Rather than running through his entire life, writers Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner take a pair of cross-sections featuring Wilson’s breakthroughs and breakdowns.

The 1960s Wilson, as played by Paul Dano, struggles to break his band out of their disingenuous surfer boy marketing gimmick.  To do so, he sets out to create a record that will redefine the capabilities of rock and make The Beatles quiver.  Observing Wilson hard at work fine-tuning the iconic tracks of the Pet Sounds album, which includes such staples as “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” provides an undeniably joyous sonic rush.  (It was almost enough to make me forget I was watching Paul Dano.)

Fast-forward to the 1980s, and a middle-aged and overmedicated Wilson is now played by John Cusack.   The lights are on, but the person at home is hard to pin down.  “Love & Mercy” might be the first time since “Being John Malkovich” that Cusack does not play some variation of himself, and it proves devastating to watch a helpless soul squirm under the oppressive thumb of exploitative psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, angry as ever).  Thanks to some tender love and assistance from the kindly soul of Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter, played by an absolutely ethereal Elizabeth Banks, Wilson finally manages to get some relief.

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REVIEW: Parkland

22 11 2014

The JFK assassination drama “Parkland” comes courtesy of Tom Hanks, who was dubbed America’s “history maker” by Time.  Sounds like a legitimate enough credential to qualify the film, since, after all, Hanks is one of the people behind widely acclaimed HBO series like “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.”

But “Parkland” falls short of the prestige of such premium cable programming, instead feeling more in the vein of another History Channel special attempting to cash in on mourn the passing of our slain leader.  Everything about Peter Landesman’s film seems of low production value, a quality that shows when accompanied by such acclaimed actors as Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver, and Paul Giamatti.

The movie follows a wide variety of supporting characters who found their lives changed by the shocking events in Dallas on November 22, 1963.  “Parkland” includes everything from Abraham Zapruder (Giamatti) filming his notorious home movie at the scene, to the medics trying to save Kennedy’s life (Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden), and even Lee Harvey Oswald’s wacky mother (Weaver) in this broad catchall of perspectives left out of most history books.  Most get ignored for a reason: they are secondary narratives

Perhaps if each story received feature-length treatment, they would provide some sense of satisfaction.  But “Parkland” can only dip a toe into a single narrative with its prevailing approach breadth over depth, and it gives a distinct impression of shallowness.  Landesman’s film can really only excite and enlighten in the rare expertly realized moment: the second when the hospital crew realizes the gravity of their task, the efforts to fit Kennedy’s casket on board Air Force One, the first glimpse of the Zapruder film.  C2stars





REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

5 08 2014

When Marc Webb was announced as the next director to helm the “Spider-Man” series, more than a few eyebrows were raised (including my own).  With only “(500) Days of Summer” under his belt, Webb seemed like an odd figure to entrust with a multi-million dollar franchise.  While that film showed a true creative mind at work, its exuberant eclecticism was not an obvious fit for a series that had been rather somber under the guidance of Sam Raimi.

None of these qualifications showed at all in his first outing with the arachnid hero, 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which slavishly recreated the hero’s mythology for the generation that didn’t see the 2002 version in theaters or in its million syndicated cable showings.  The reboot felt timidly directed by Webb, whose trepidation at approaching a new genre of filmmaking was clear.

In his second go-round, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” glimpses of his distinctive stamp on the series become a little more clear.  One scene in particular where Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker angrily puts in his earbuds and makes a map to decipher the mysterious past of his parents seems to directly parallel the sequence in “(500) Days of Summer” where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom draws a cityscape of Los Angeles.  And in one of the film’s final scenes, Webb leaves us with a hauntingly emotional denouement using no words, just powerful images and montage.

Sadly, these small pockets of artistry in the film were few and far between.  Though the film as a whole feels more confident than its predecessor, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” still suffers from the general lack of inspiration plaguing big-budget filmmaking, and especially comic book adaptations.

The screenplay is crafted this time by the Kurtzman-Orci duo that has given us some of the more ingenious popcorn flicks of the past few years (“Star Trek“) as well as some of its biggest duds (“Transformers“).  This film falls somewhere in between; it’s good enough to keep interest throughout, but we can see every plot development coming from a mile away.

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REVIEW: The Congress

19 07 2014

The CongressAri Folman’s “The Congress” certainly cannot be faulted for any lack of ambition.  The director has fiddled with some seemingly unthinkable products in the past. “Waltz with Bashir,” after all, seems like an oxymoron (an animated documentary?!).

In that film, he used animation to explore questions of personal memory and conscience in the wake of a decades-old conflict between Israel and Lebanon.  Here, he’s shifted his focus westward to Hollywood.  Folman places his finger on the pulse of some very real anxieties in the City of Angels: motion capture replacing real actors, lingering fears of digitization, and the commoditization of celebrity, to name a few.

To explore these, he makes us of actress Robin Wright to play a fictionalized version of herself.  In “The Congress,” she’s an actress standing on the precipice of obscurity (the film was shot before “House of Cards” sparked a career revival) faced with a decision to sell her persona to the studios for digital “sampling.”

Folman’s commentary enters the realm of the satirical on many an occasion, recalling a justifiably little-seen film “Antiviral” where fans would inject themselves with viruses from stars to experience them further.  “The Congress” similarly follows its beginning concept, which doesn’t seem entirely out of the realm of possibility, logically into absurdity.  Along the way, Folman doesn’t hesitate to dole out copious amounts of shame to both the business that condones these developments as well as the public that consumes them.

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REVIEW: Ernest & Celestine

16 06 2014

Ernest and CelestineIn the effort to engage in the larger cultural conversation about “important” films, I realize that it must seem like I can only appreciate a movie if it tackles topics of great thematic heft or breaks some sort of cinematic mold.  But truth be told, I love a movies like “Ernest & Celestine” just as much because it possesses a remarkable sort of magic.  It has the power to return me to a childlike sense of spectatorship, allowing me a pleasant regression to a simpler state of mind.

The film’s story is nothing particularly extraordinary, but it charms from the get-go.  The indomitably curious mouse Celestine (voiced by Mackenzie Foy) wants to know what could really be so bad about the big, scary bears of whom all mice are warned to fear.  This very nearly ends her life when she goes above ground and winds up in the clutches of the hapless bear Ernest (Forest Whitaker).  Celestine doesn’t just convince him not to eat her; she makes him a friend.

Sadly, no one else is willing to accept their unconventional relationship.  It’s unnatural and scary to both species, unwilling to budge from their present ideologies.  And yet, the bear and the mouse persevere, teaching very important lessons about acceptance and affection.  As Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.”  That’s a lesson “Ernest & Celestine” radiates with clarity as well as warmth, and I hope children from 3 to 93 everywhere take it to heart.  A- / 3halfstars





REVIEW: Saving Mr. Banks

9 01 2014

I’m a firm believer in the magical power of cinema, in case you hadn’t figured it out by the fact that I take the time to write this blog. Few films, however, have really shown the true enchantment of the movies on screen. Recently, the dancing scene in “The Artist” and the storyboard scene in “Argo” have illustrated it well.

Now, add to that list the scene in “Saving Mr. Banks” where Emma Thompson’s P.L. Travers gives herself over to the undeniable charm of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” a song being written for the film adaptation of her “Mary Poppins” books. The curmudgeonly writer shoots down idea after idea from the composing team of the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) and writer Don DeGradi (Bradley Whitford). Yet when they play the tune for her, we get to watch Travers’ heart melt before our eyes. They all dance and sing with such passionate mirth that I found myself moved to the brink of tears.

The film presents the captivating narrative of how Travers came to Hollywood in order to maintain the artistic integrity of her books from the kitsch of Walt Disney, an American icon fittingly portrayed Tom Hanks. She scoffs at any attempt to make the film have the saccharine appeal of his other movies: no singing, no animation, and Mary Poppins is not to be sweet.

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