REVIEW: The Dinner

3 05 2017

I’ve racked my brain for days. Still, I cannot find a scenario in which the same person who masterfully threaded the seven-character Bob Dylan opus “I’m Not There” could also write something as clunky as “The Dinner.” Pardon this casual dismissal, but just … woooof.

Oren Moverman’s film is a cheap knockoff of “Carnage” – both Yasmina Reza’s play and Roman Polanski’s cinematic adaptation – as it gathers wealthy individuals to gnaw at each other over the sins of their children. That film wasn’t even anything to write home about, but it at least found a claustrophobic consistency and stuck to it. Moverman hacks away at any building tension between the two couples by frequently cutting away with flashbacks and expository scenes.

Even when Moverman does center the action on the open loathing between a successful politician (Richard Gere) and his cynical brother (Steve Coogan), “The Dinner” falls flat. They don’t sound like people. They talk like characters. Every bloviating pontification reeks of unrealistic grandiloquence. I don’t buy that this manner of speaking is some kind of class marker, either. Moverman just cannot find the humanity in the people he puts on screen.

When evaluating films, director David Fincher says he operates on the following logic: “First I’m looking for the technical. Then the believable. Then the connection.” Moverman’s film never makes it past the first criterion. C-

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REVIEW: Christine

18 10 2016

christineSundance Film Festival

If “Nightcrawler” had a spiritual prequel, Antonio Campos’ “Christine” might fit the bill. This true story of 1970s news anchor Christine Chubbuck, played with masterful precision by Rebecca Hall, hinges on the maddening descent of local television into the “if it bleeds, it leads” culture. The downward spiral of Christine’s profession matches her own personal crisis as internal demons wrest influence away from her sanity.

Rebecca Hall, most likely known to audiences for bit parts in films like “Iron Man 3” or her memorable supporting turn in “The Town,” finally gets to shine like the talent Woody Allen recognized when he cast her as the lead in 2008’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Though Christine’s notorious final on-air stunt has come to define her in the public memory, Hall’s performance finds her deep, troubled humanity and recreates it to devastating effect.

Christine tries to make a name for herself doing positive human interest stories with the verve of a true filmmaker, positioning herself against the grain of exploitative pulp. We know it’s a losing battle, and for the most part, so does she. Both the character and the audience alike are caught in a mutual death pact of dramatic irony, sensing the tragic end ahead but unable to turn away or turn the tide. Watching Christine’s unease mount in everything from an ill-fated romance with more successful co-anchor George Ryan (Michael C. Hall) to decaying relationship with the mother (J. Smith-Cameron) that still houses her provides the true motor of the film. Individual events matter less than the escalating paranoia, both real and imagined.

Director Antonio Campos resists easy sympathy for Christine, making her neither martyr, victim or antihero. She is a vividly realized person to us, but she is also someone whose narrative we experience through the moderation of a screen. As such, he often adds distance to her within the composition of a shot, photographing her through another video inside the frame. “Christine” treads this tricky line between sympathy and alienation with remarkable exactitude, just as it balances personal dissatisfaction against cultural sensationalism. A-3halfstars





REVIEW: The BFG

28 06 2016

The BFG PosterThink back to your favorite Spielberg movie. How did it open?

Jaws” began with the shark taking its first victim. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” had our hero creeping through the forest towards an unknown bounty. “E.T” started with the titular creature evading the authorities for the first time. “Saving Private Ryan” plunges us into war with the immersive, innovative D-Day sequence. Many chide the director for choosing stories that wrap up neatly and morally, but he certainly knows how to kick things off with a bang.

So given this penchant for great beginnings, it feels more than a little disorienting when Spielberg’s latest directorial outing, “The BFG,” opens on a relative whimper. The first fifteen minutes operate as an introduction to our two main characters, young London orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and the towering “Big Friendly Giant” colloquially known as the BFG (the personage of Mark Rylance). Yet in that period, scarcely nothing comes to light about them.

We see that Sophie lurks around her orphanage unhappily in the wee hours of the morning. We can discern that the BFG quietly lurks around the streets of London, performing some unspecified action. It’s likely Sophie has sensed his presence before, and “The BFG” merely begins on the night in which they first make contact. But in order to sell her wonder and fear – or his menace – something else is needed. The first 10 pages of Melissa Matheson’s script might well have slipped out upon delivery to Spielberg. It just does not feel complete.

Without this base-level emotional entry point, “The BFG” must be experienced through the events rather than the characters. In this case, that might not be such a good thing. The film is probably Spielberg’s most sparsely plotted work since his first feature gig, 1971’s “Duel” (or, if you really want to dig deep in his archives, the most thinly plotted since the short film that provided the name for his production company, “Amblin'”). Most, if not all, of his movies thrive on a constant forward momentum that propels characters through physical, emotional and supernatural perils. “The BFG” mostly boils down to a spunky young girl exploring a new world with a timid, lovable giant who speaks as if his lines were spat out like a bad Google Translate result.

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REVIEW: The Gift

23 11 2015

The GiftThere is nothing explicitly wrong, so to speak, with being a throwback to a type of movie that does not get made much anymore. Such is the case with “The Gift,” written and directed by Joel Edgerton, a film that harkens back to Adrian Lyne-style thrillers like “Fatal Attraction.” The setup is practically identical, even, with an outsider posing a threat to a young professional couple.

In “The Gift,” however, the menace is not the temptation of sexual gratification in the future but the looming specter of the past. Jason Bateman’s Simon finds himself and his wife, Rebecca Hall’s Robyn, pestered by his old high school classmate Gordo (Edgerton – in front of the camera as well). The annoyance goes far beyond the social awkwardness Gordo tends to exhibit, and it draws Robyn’s curiosity to answer the question why exactly her husband just wants this guy to go away.

Her quest for clarity provides some decent thrills as it also invites an escalation of creepy defensiveness from both men. Yet, in equal measure, “The Gift” also manages to feel so … expected. Why Edgerton brings out these somewhat dusty genre tropes remains a bit perplexing. This style of thriller is not yet so outmoded that other filmmakers should be paying loving homage, so that motive does not feel right. He’s neither in conversation with the conventions nor revising them.

Perhaps, for his feature debut, Edgerton just wanted to go with something that generally tends to work. Hard to blame him for choosing safety, though it’s a somewhat disappointing start as a director for a man who makes such riveting choices as an actor. B-2stars





REVIEW: Transcendence

8 11 2014

As Christopher Nolan’s director of photography, Wally Pfister has lensed some of the most iconic images of recent cinematic history.  Be it the field of lightbulbs in “The Prestige,” the stairwell in “Inception,” or practically any image in “The Dark Knight,” he certainly knows how to captivate with the visual language of film.

Transcendence” finds Pfister behind the camera calling the shots, not merely setting them up, for the first time.  While no ultimate judgment should be rendered on a filmmaker after just one feature, Pfister might not want to give up his day job as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer just yet.  His debut is a start-to-finish mess, mostly because of its almost incoherently assembled script.

The film begins rather simply and intelligibly with Johnny Depp’s Dr. Will Caster, a scientist attempting to create a fully sentient computer, getting assassinated by a radical anti-technology group R.I.F.T.  But once he dies and his consciousness is uploaded into a computer, “Transcendence” shatters into fragments.  Only Caster’s wife (Rebecca Hall) stays loyal; meanwhile, the rest of the supporting cast spreads out into multiple subplots that divide attention and diminish effectiveness.

Caster’s research companion Max (Paul Bettany) defects to join R.I.F.T. under the leadership of Bree (Kate Mara).  The G-men of the FBI (Cillian Murpy, Morgan Freeman) are also making moves of their own to stop the supercomputer.  Meanwhile, Caster’s digital brain grows stronger by the minute … so be very afraid, because technology is scary!

Pfister is not even able to translate this technophobia into any memorable images to at least portray visually what the story is unable to communicate narratively.  He begins “Transcendence” with a shot of broken cell phones lying around, practically begging to be considered a zeitgeist film.  But of all the sentiments Pfister invokes, not one of them comes even remotely close to resembling the film’s titular sensation.  He certainly knows how to make noise, but hopefully in his next film, Pfister will actually have something interesting to say.  C-1halfstars





REVIEW: Iron Man 3

18 06 2013

History will look back at the summer of 2013 and remember most of all the precipitous decline of the “Hangover” series.  However, there’s another franchise that has brought me disappointment this summer as well.

In the summer of 2008, I was over the moon for Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man,” so much so that I rushed out on opening night for the disappointing “Iron Man 2.”  By the time Tony Stark suited up for “The Avengers,” I really could have cared less.

Perhaps it’s most telling that the way I saw Shane Black’s “Iron Man 3” was on a Thursday afternoon when a combination of rain and wind knocked out my Wi-Fi.  Otherwise, I would have been content to sit in bed and watch a movie on Netflix.  But the big event film of the summer, the $175 million dollar opener that was second-best ever, to me was just another movie.

It was really just a box to check.  Since I’d invested 4 hours in Tony Stark’s story already (6 if you count “The Avengers”), I figured I probably ought to finish it.  And seeing a film out of misplaced obligation instead of real desire isn’t necessarily the most fulfilling feeling.

“Iron Man 3,” all in all, was entertaining.  It could have been a lot worse, and it was an improvement from its predecessor.  But it’s such a stark decline from the first installment that being more bad than good can hardly be considered a victory.

The visuals are good, although that ending sequence seemed to be more or less lifted from the lackluster summer 2010 bust “The A-Team” and Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin.”  The story manages to move along at a decent clip without ever boring too much, yet it lacks the effortless engagement encouraged by the original film.

The biggest difference, though, is Robert Downey Jr., who moved from being the series’ X-factor to its hidden liability.  His Tony Stark began as an endearingly sardonic character whose spiny personality could be accepted as just the inability to look at life seriously.  Over the course of the series, the scribes have tried to harden Stark to hide the fact that Downey Jr. had grown smugly complacent to the point of disdaining the other characters.  The darker, somber tone hasn’t worked because, well, Jon Favreau and Shane Black are not Christopher Nolan.

I’ve also felt that Downey Jr. has disdained the audience as well, as if every icy quip is played with the subtext of “I’m making millions of dollars for being the jerk you can’t be.”  While “Iron Man 3” seems to say goodbye to Tony Stark (or at least Robert Downey Jr. playing him), it’s not a good riddance.  But I’m certainly not choked up or even upset.  Not at this level of mediocrity.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Everything Must Go

23 08 2011

I’m not quite sure who thought of casting Will Ferrell as the beleaguered everyman in the recessionary fable “Everything Must Go,” but the choice actually ends up working in unexpectedly pleasant ways.  It’s the perfect kind of art imitating life, one where the movie reflects the mindset of the actor and provides insight into their mindset.  It doesn’t distract from the story or the performance but makes for an interesting conversation point after the film stops rolling.  It gives us a glimpse of humanity itself as we can feel the juncture of character and actor in a non-invasive way, and with a movie like this celebrating the inherent decency of people in trying times, you couldn’t ask for much more.

Ferrell is definitely coming to one of those junctures in his career where things haven’t been going well, and they could soon balloon out of control if he doesn’t start making better movies.  The quality has gone down, and the audiences have been coming less and less.  Similarly, many Americans are finding themselves at a life juncture where things have gone from bad to worse thanks to the economy, and things could continue to go downhill.  Ferrell finds this connection with the audience and forms an easy rapport with them, despite playing a somewhat unlikable slob reeling from the world’s worst day.

If you think a double feature of “Semi-Pro” and “Land of the Lost” is agonizing, try losing your job and getting kicked out of the house by your wife in a matter of hours.  Now that’s pain.  Ferrell’s Nicholas Halsey is forced to face a new life, one where all of his possessions can be enumerated on the front lawn.  At first, he laments the hard times by kicking back in a La-Z Boy with can after can of PBR.

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