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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F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 14, 2013)

14 06 2013

Looking for the ultimate counter-programming this summer?  Heaven knows Hollywood is giving us plenty of comic book films this summer, be it a new Iron Man or a rebooted Superman.  But while those films may feature a man of steel, they certainly don’t feature a man who’s real in the same way that comic book film “American Splendor” does.

Imagine a comic book adaptation where a Woody Allen type (only with even more self-loathing) was the superhero.  Well, Paul Giamatti’s Harvey Pekar is hardly super … or a hero.  He’s just a protagonist, the main character of his life trying to live to fight another day.  Writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini find the herculean struggle in these everyday battles and draw them out in appropriately stylized ways.

Why “American Splendor” is my pick for “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” however, is not necessarily because it’s an alternative/indie comic book movie.  Make no mistake about it, this is no “Kick-Ass.”  Berman and Pulcini are incredibly dexterous filmmakers who find clever ways to blur conventional lines in cinema.  Their film is both documentary and narrative, both animated and live-action.

That’s right, the film toggles between different modes of storytelling.  If it sounds weird, it looks and feels just right.  In fact, I think it’s the only way “American Splendor” could have been adapted.  Conventional technique could never pin down such an unconventional person and character like Harvey Pekar.  The multi-pronged approach works on so many levels, all of which I won’t attempt to pin down in a brief review.

But while it experiments with the form in exciting ways, it never forgets what Harvey Pekar said so brilliantly through his “American Splendor” comics for years.  At the end of the day, it’s all about the story of life.  We all have to live it, and everyone has issues that make them want to scream.  “American Splendor,” with emotional potency to spare, makes Harvey’s journey a vivid and infinitely relatable one.  He’s the comic book protagonist we need (but probably don’t deserve).


10 10 2012

It’s been well over a year since “Win Win” hit theaters, and I’ve somehow managed to avoid writing a review.  It was my favorite movie of 2011, and I’ve seen it no less than five times.  Why the wait?  I think I admire Thomas McCarthy mastery far too much to shame it with words that don’t accurately describe just how stirringly brilliant this movie is and how strongly it resonated with me.

I don’t even think it’s hyperbolic in the slightest to say that if Frank Capra were making movies today, they would look a whole lot like “Win Win.”  Light-hearted while tackling serious themes and always celebrating the decency of the average American, McCarthy captures all the buoyancy of the old classic comedies but doesn’t fall into a trap of idealistic naïveté.  The writer/director finally strikes gold after “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor” just barely missed the mark.  (He did co-write “Up” as well, which is as close to pitch-perfect emotionally as you can get.)  This movie, for my money, puts him in the highest echelon of modern humanist filmmakers alongside Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman.

McCarthy’s film, much like Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” is one distinctly of its time but also for all times.  “Win Win” shows how the specific money crunch resulting from the recession can cause us to commit immoral deeds, but it’s also a more general parable about weathering hard times by standing firm in our convictions.  The movie never feels like a morality play, though, because McCarthy never preaches.  He just tells a story by truthfully depicting human emotion and conscience.  That’s where the best drama always comes from, and the conflict that plays out is so compelling because we never doubt its authenticity.

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REVIEW: Cosmopolis

16 08 2012

Woah, woah, woah, slow down, there! What on earth did you just say? What could that possibly mean? Why should I care at all?

Such are the questions that will inevitably be invoked by anyone watching David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis.”  While a billionaire driving around the streets of New York in a limousine amidst massive social upheaval certainly packs a timely, relevant thematic punch, you can’t puzzle over the film’s deeper meaning because it’s so difficult to get past the first layer: the dialogue!  I’ve even read another book by Don DeLillo, author of the novel “Cosmopolis” from which the film was adapted, and I found the way the characters talked to be absolutely infuriating.

Everyone speaks in non-sequiturs, and no one ever seems to say exactly what they mean or have any sense of urgency.  At times, the dialogue even seems to delve into absurdism – where nothing relates to anything.  The film’s structure, in addition, jumps from conversation to conversation with very little explanation.  One second, Robert Pattinson’s Eric Packer is discussing the intricacies of global currency with Shiner (Jay Baruchel) … and then a quick cut to the next scene where he’s having sex with his art dealer (Juliette Binoche) – all in the limousine!

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REVIEW: Rock of Ages

20 06 2012

Rock of Ages” – the movie too bad to be true.  This horrendous piece of schlock that profanes the movie musical as we know it is thankfully self-consciously corny.  The invitation to laugh at the film’s ridiculousness begins in the first minute when Julianne Hough’s archetypical naive Oklahoman good girl, Sherrie Christian, breaks out in song on the bus to Los Angeles, only to be quickly accompanied by the rest of the passengers.  Surely this movie can’t be for real, you immediately think.

Oh, but it only gets better … er, worse.  The movie quickly runs through the hard rock anthems of the ’80s as if it were selling you a TIME Life boxed set.  Except rather than hearing the original raspy-voiced rockers, we get to hear them sung by actors whose only pipes are situated firmly in their trailer.  Aside from Julianne Hough, a vocal virtuoso, all the decent singers are relegated to bit parts.  Ultimately, that’s not worth getting too upset about since Mary J. Blige and Catherine Zeta-Jones both overact their ridiculous caricatures so much that it negates their singing talents.

No, instead, we are treated to hear Alec Baldwin’s dreadful attempts to belt and Tom Cruise murder three halfway-decent songs as the stuporous superstar Stacee Jaxx.  (I’m just going to throw out my theory that he had a voice double – his singing voice sounded NOTHING like his speaking voice.)  I’m not terribly offended by his performance.  After all, being a child of the ’90s means that these songs hold no sentimental or nostalgic value for me, although I did like “Wanted Dead or Alive” before Cruise tried to sing it.  However, clearly no one learned anything from the Pierce Brosnan-“Mamma Mia!” fiasco, and what could have been an amusing cameo gets stretched out into an obnoxiously long Jack Sparrow impersonation.

Really, the problem with Stacee Jaxx is the same problem with “Rock of Ages” on the whole.  They start out amusing in their lunacy and prove worth a few good laughs.  But it just goes on far too long, just trying to find any excuse to throw another ’80s song into the mix for the soundtrack.  There comes a point where using one random off-the-cuff remark to cue a lavish musical number just becomes plain stupid, and it quickly wears out whatever good will you had in the beginning.  The longer it goes on, the more you begin to realize that “Rock of Ages” loses its chance to proclaim itself so bad it’s good.  Instead, it becomes so bad that it’s bearable.  C

REVIEW: The Ides of March

8 10 2011

George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” makes plenty of references to the brokenness of the American political system, something you can observe by merely turning on the news nowadays.  But perhaps the most problematic indicator of the nation’s shortcomings is how easily the film can be read as a black comedy.  Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov’s script is chock full of cruel ironies, many of which are veiled references to various political scandals.  And the very liberal Clooney is all too happy to throw Bill Clinton, and to some extent, Barack Obama, under the bus.

In an era where Congressmen send lewd pictures over Twitter, governors have foreign mistresses, and presidents act improperly with interns, is it possible that we’ve become so desensitized to scandal that we have just accepted that the system will fail us?  “The Ides of March,” with its grandiose plot of political intrigue, seems to imply yes by the lengths it has to go to shock us.  And in 2011, when public opinion seems to have turned against the establishment, this may be the movie people watch in the future to see American disillusionment and the failure of Obama’s hope and change rhetoric.

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REVIEW: The Hangover Part II

31 05 2011

I’ve harped on Hollywood relentlessly for relying so heavily on formula to churn out movies, and this summer looks to be a barrage of cliches and banalities.  If, according to these criteria, any other movie this summer is worse than “The Hangover Part II,” I will be shocked.  From the opening scene, virtually identical to the first film’s, it’s clear that the sequel will cling to the exact same structure that made its predecessor a $277 million surprise smash.

From this point, there are two ways to react to the movie.  You can be disgusted by the writers’ lack of originality, scoffing at how it settles for being just a cheap imitation of the original.  You can sit there and wait for it to make even the slightest of departures from the formula – a wait that would be in vain.  It’s a carbon copy, an identical twin, you name it.

Or, as I would recommend, you can put aside this nagging concern, accept up front that you are going to be watching the same outline of a movie with slightly different jokes and situations, and just enjoy that you have another 100 minutes to spend with the Wolfpack.  I would have been content finding one-liners that I missed the first ten times in the original on HBO, but it’s kind of nice to get a scene change and a few new jokes.  It’s a sort of Faustian bargain for the viewer, but one ultimately worth making since putting Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis together in a room with a camera is guaranteed to generate some hard-core laughter.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 31, 2010)

31 12 2010

I don’t quite know how to end a year in movie reviewing … that’s a little awkward.

But want to know something more awkward?  “Man on the Moon,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  (And to close on a good note, F.I.L.M. stands for First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie.)  Perhaps awkward isn’t the right word for it, though you’ll undoubtedly feel the strange sentiment many times while watching the movie.  It’s intelligently quirky and undeniably of the oddball variety, which makes it one of the most wonderful off-color movies I’ve ever seen.

The nomadic comedian Jim Carrey has never been so at home than here as Andy Kaufman, the comedian of the ’70s and ’80s who became an incredible enigma for audiences nationwide.  His unique style was meant to be, as he called it, an “experience” for the audience meant to drum up laughs, affection, and hate.  This roller-coaster ride of emotions wasn’t exactly something that sold, and his refusal to budge from his principles made it hard for him to get many jobs on TV.

The movie, directed by two-time Academy Award-winner Milos Forman, does more than just chronicle the bizarre career of Kaufman; it attempts to resurrect the man himself.  “Man on the Moon” gives us largely the same experience that Kaufman wanted his audiences to have.  We are meant to raise an eyebrow when he stands motionless for a minute on the first episode of “Saturday Night Live” or when he reads the entire novel “The Great Gatsby” instead of doing his routine for a rowdy college crowd.  We question his alter ego, the crude and crass Tony Clifton, a fat bar-singer parody.  And then we don’t quite know what to make of a lot of it, but his refusal to conform is often hilarious and always entertaining.

As movies like “Little Fockers” tear up the box office charts but inspire groans from the audience, this may be the perfect time to watch “Man on the Moon.”  Andy Kaufman, who dared to be different, found humor in silence – and his comedy is a wacky experience that no one has ever repeated since.

REVIEW: Cold Souls

20 07 2010

Paul Giamatti is usually a pretty funny guy; his facial movements alone can illicit a few good laughs.  But not even he has the power to fill the emptiness of “Cold Souls.” Giamatti hasn’t exactly shied away from some pathetic characters in the past, and he has infused them with plenty of neuroses.  Yet for some reason, the whole act just falls flat here.

I get that the movie is a criticism of the capitalist society that we live in, and it’s one of those “intelligent satires” that aren’t exactly meant to entertain us so much as make us think.  It wouldn’t bother me so much had I not seen an excellent movie called “Being John Malkovich” that does everything that this movie so desperately wanted to do, and it does it flawlessly.

Apparently, writer/director Sophie Barthes wants us to think that soul extraction is the new therapist’s couch.  Giamatti, that is, a fictionalized version, undergoes this operation to make his work on a play easier.  He becomes disappointed at how small his soul looks in its glass container and throws a nice little fit.

And from there on out, it’s pure agony to watch Giamatti soullessly sulk around the screen, barely saying a word.  The plot collapses as there is some sort of “soul trafficking” issue going on in Russia that we are supposed to care about, but by that point, it’s so easy to just tune out everything that’s going on and be thankful you have a soul.

Strangely enough, I really enjoyed the movie whenever David Strathairn was on screen.  Too bad that was only for a few minutes.  C- /