21 12 2016

When it comes to making movies for children, simplicity is your friend. In the case of Illumination Entertainment’s “Sing,” however, animators must have just decided to meet the times and deliver a scattered mess of characters in need of Adderall and concision. There’s genuine heart and sweetness in Garth Jenning’s film, but it gets choked out of the equation in favor of more songs, more gags, more scenes, more … everything.

There’s really no need to stuff in another animal, another backstory, another musical number. We already know what’s going on from the get-go because “Sing” is not a particularly complicated film. Koala bear Buster Moon (voice of Matthew McConaughey) is a man after many of our own hearts – inspired by art at a young age, he doggedly and even naively sets course to be a booster and patron in the community. When his theater falls on hard times, he holds auditions for a singing contest to spotlight the unsung stars of the town.

While he struggles to pay the rent and keep the lights on, his contestants engage in battles of their own. Yet among the handful of singers, each given about equal screen time, there are really only two issues – nerves and family expectations. Be it the dedicated domestic engineer Rosita (Reese Witherspoon’s plucky pig Rosita), the shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly), or the bank robber-cum-closet crooner Johnny (Taron Egerton’s gorilla Johnny), the conflicts all bleed into each other. By their final numbers, there’s no surprise or jubilation because we know these animals as nothing more than familiar character dilemmas. With our attention spread so thin between them, there’s no connection built up, either.

If anything, “Sing” feels like an animated television series retrofitted into a feature-length film. Well, actually … maybe that’s the motivation after all. Even so, that doesn’t change the fact that this is an uninspiring pilot episode. C+2stars

REVIEW: Hot Pursuit

25 09 2015

The easy insult to hurl at “Hot Pursuit” is that of a hot mess – because you know how us writers love wordplay, especially in movie titles that seem to invite clever barbs.  But in this case, such a label fails to describe what really goes wrong.

A hot mess implies there is something interesting or oddly compelling in its failure.  Anne Fletcher’s film could not be farther from that.  Within minutes, it becomes obvious that everyone involved just wants to play it safe.  And that makes for one wickedly boring 87 minute pursuit of mediocrity.

“Hot Pursuit” pits the formidable talents of Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara against each other but fails to realize either of their potential.  Vergara, as often seems to be the case, gets reduced to her looks and her naturally thick accent.  She plays Daniella Riva, the widow of a drug lord, who agrees to testify in a case against a kingpin.  But when her police transport goes haywire, she gets stuck with Witherspoon’s straight-laced cop Rose Cooper.

To get a frame of reference on Rose, imagine Tracy Flick levels of Type A behavior without all the self-confidence and a thick, put-on fake Texan accent.  (As a native Southern belle, Witherspoon could have just used her regular vocal cadence and no one would have batted an eyelid.)  I can see how maybe the star’s entourage thought “Hot Pursuit” might make for an interesting career move since Rose is a veritable man repeller.  For Witherspoon, who so often plays heroines forced to choose between two men, perhaps this character marks her attempt at subverting her own image?

She should just stick to “Wild,” though, as “Hot Pursuit” offers her nothing but a tired, predictable premise and one-note jokes.  The comedic pairing with Vergara yields disappointingly little heat.  For a fraction of the price tag, they could have just gone on talk shows together and gotten more laughs.  C2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 29, 2015)

29 01 2015

FreewayI would count myself a big fan of actress Reese Witherspoon (see my personal anecdotes on my middle school crush in Random Factoids #49 and #88), yet I somehow managed to only learn of the existence of “Freeway” in 2015.  This film stars a younger Witherspoon as Vanessa Lutz, the daughter of a prostitute who has to do and say some unmentionables in the name of self-preservation and survival in a gritty urban environment.  She goes to prison, not to visit a client like Elle Woods but actually as an inmate.

This 1996 oddity might not fit Witherspoon’s squeaky-clean sweet Southern belle image, but it certainly gives her something out of the ordinary.  This modern retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale is a peculiar burst of energy from writer/director Matthew Bright, who has since done relatively little of note.  But his debut feature is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because it never holds back in its peculiar assessment of American culture as seen from the vantage point of its underbelly.

Witherspoon quickly asserts her pluckiness in “Freeway,” chaining up her social worker in order to seek refuge from her long-last grandmother.  On the way, however, she gets drawn into the clutches of the conniving serial killer Bob Wolverton.  Keifer Sutherland plays his wolf not as big and bad, but rather as eerily unsettling and deceptively meek.  (That was basically the mold of the ’90s murderer, so it makes sense.)

Somewhere on the path to grandmother’s house, “Freeway” changes up the script.  The film’s Little Red takes a step into the big leagues by gaining a welcome sense of agency, taking the film on an unexpected detour into courtrooms, prisons, and a trial by media.  The changes ought to prompt some stimulating discussion about what is and is not still relevant from the old tale.  By transplanting Little Red Riding Hood into modern society, rather than simply tweaking her story in a mythic milieu like “Into the Woods,” “Freeway” invites a freer dialogue.

Interestingly, when I went back to read reviews from the time of release, most critics reacted to the film as a satire.  “Freeway” still maintains a sense of exaggeration, sure, but it has lost a bit of shock after years of reality TV highlighting such unique specimens as Honey Boo-Boo, the Jersey Shore, and the Duck Dynasty family.  Nearly two decades after its Sundance premiere, though, its gentle mockery of the strange corners of America still entertains and excites.  Much of the film’s bite today comes from Witherspoon, who once again seems willing to explore these rough edges of her persona in “Wild” and beyond.

REVIEW: Water for Elephants

6 01 2015

I read Sara Gruen’s acclaimed best-selling novel “Water for Elephants” at the zenith of its popularity and found myself rather underwhelmed.  (What self-respecting novel gives only the most cursory explanation of its title?)  Francis Lawrence’s cinematic adaptation did little to change my opinion.  His “Water for Elephants” is pleasant and watchable, which is about all it has to offer.

In the film, Robert Pattinson stars as Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student whose life takes a screeching detour when his parents both die during his last exam.  Saddled not only with his own grief but also with their debts, he opts for a somewhat cliched escape route by joining the circus.  He stows away and quickly moves up from shoveling horse droppings to taking care of the show’s star animals.

He quickly discovers that his humane veterinary practices have little use in the profit-hungry Banzini Brothers circus, run by the shrewd but cruel August (Christoph Waltz).  As if that is not enough to make him worry about both occupational and personal security, Jacob finds himself smitten for the boss’s wife, star performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).   Romantic rivalry quickly runs cold as Jacob’s arrival quickly accelerates the dismembering of Marlena and August’s already fragile relationship.

Lawrence prefers to leave the tensions at a standstill rather than letting them progress towards their boiling point.  As a result, “Water for Elephants” often feels flat and unexciting.  At the very least, when the sparks fail to fly at the clashing of the three leads, the environment is always believable and interesting.  The film does a nice job romanticizing the elegant, balletic movement of the circus performance as well as the extravagant moveable architecture of the spectacle.

In a sense, it adds to the story a visual element that has to remain imaginary when experienced on the page.  Too bad Witherspoon, Waltz, and Pattinson could not add more flavor with their characters.  C+2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 5, 2014)

5 12 2014

“The Man in the Moon” is a film that boasts many milestones.  Sadly, it is the last film of director Robert Mulligan, an accomplished (if not heavily rewarded) filmmaker whose credits include “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  On a lighter note, however, it is the debut film of Reese Witherspoon.

Her first performance comes not as some thankless supporting role but rather fortuitously as the lead in a very rare female coming-of-age story.  As Dani, a fiery 14-year-old experiencing a romantic awakening in 1950s rural Louisiana, Witherspoon gets some meaty material to chew on.  She spits sharp-tongued sass and wears her passionate emotions on her sleeve, foreshadowing two decades worth of memorable characters.

But “The Man in the Moon” is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” not simply for the novelty of seeing a pint-sized Elle Woods.  The movie actually holds up quite well as a whole, providing a rather stirring emotional journey.  (Don’t believe me?  Lena Dunham and Jimmy Fallon both count themselves as fans, even raving at length about it.)  Obvious, unabashed melodrama rarely works this well.

Mulligan supplies the film with plenty of corny underscoring and heightened sentimentality, which complements some of the plot developments that feel ripped out of a soap opera.  Yet these elements hardly stifle the satisfaction of watching “The Man in the Moon.”  It captures an innocence and purity of spirit that can supersede the banalities.

As Dani pursues her first love, her older farmhand neighbor Court (Jason London), something always rings beautifully true.  The film understands both the joy of discovering shared affection as well as the pain of uncovering competing attractions, bundling them all together into one touching package.  I just wish I was around in 1991 to see this when it came out, if only so I could have called that Reese Witherspoon was headed for stardom.  Perhaps the only bigger slam dunk for success from a teenage acting debut was Natalie Portman in “The Professional.”

REVIEW: The Good Lie

2 12 2014

The Good LieThe poster for “The Good Lie” features the film’s subjects, three Lost Boys of the Sudan, collectively assuming the same amount of space as Reese Witherspoon’s glistening face.  This ratio, shockingly, does not apply to screen time.  Despite needing the Oscar-winner’s clout to sell the film, Witherspoon and the rest of the American characters (including Corey Stoll from “House of Cards”) are firmly peripheral figures.

The only thing “The Good Lie” shares with “The Blind Side,” another tale of black triumph over a devastating history, is an executive producer.  The film’s story, as crafted by screenwriter Margaret Nagle, casts the white American characters less as enablers of black progress and more as an impediment to it.  Witherspoon’s Carrie, an employment counselor, and host Pamela (Sarah Baker) do not lack in good intentions; they are just not particularly well-equipped to meet the complex needs of the Sudanese refugees.

Director Phillipe Falardeau does not shy away from depicting what exactly the Lost Boys Mamere, Jeremiah, and Paul have fled.  “The Good Lie” spends a good thirty minutes driving home the horrors of the Sudanese war, showing everything from the slaughter of a village to the grueling walk on which a pack of surviving children have to embark to find safety.  Falaradeau never reduces their harrowing journey to saccharine tragedy, largely because the barbarism speaks for itself.  The sight of a dead child and turgid bodies floating down a river requires no supplementary cue to inspire shock and sadness.

While they may not face imminent threats to their survival after their rescue, the refugees still face hardships at the hands of an unfeeling system.  An inane regulation prohibits their sister Abital from living with the Lost Boys, and they are not made aware of this until airport authorities enforce their painful separation.  And as if the bureaucracy they must encounter to correct it was not unfeeling enough, the Lost Boys encounter employer after employer with no respect for the incredible pain they have suffered.

“The Good Lie” is the rare film that grants displaced people agency in the overcoming of their circumstances.  The Lost Boys can claim responsibility for their own success, owing little to self-serving whites with a savior complex.  When they tell Carrie at one point that her fighting on their behalf is unnecessary because it is not her war, a statement that resonates powerfully on behalf of marginalized communities.  Unfortunately, the narrative sputters out too much in the third act to allow the movie to have the same effect.  B-2stars


26 11 2014

WildTelluride Film Festival

On the page, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild” is nothing particularly noteworthy.  While she tells her story of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with raw honesty, the book is often little more than a hybrid of “Eat Pray Love” and “Into the Wild” that insists on its own importance.  The grueling odyssey is enlightening into the evolution of her psyche, though it usually achieves such an effect by excessive elucidation.

On the big screen, however, “Wild” is an altogether different beast.  In fact, it is better.  The book fell into the hands of a caring filmmaking team that sees the cinema in Strayed’s tale.  The collaboration of star Reese Witherspoon, screenwriter Nick Hornby, and editor/director Jean-Marc Vallée yields a wholly gratifying film experience because each uses their own set of talents to draw out the soul of the book.

Hornby is among the rare breed of writers who can balance the role of humorist and humanist.  Whether in his own novels or adapting someone else’s words for the screen, as he did in 2009 with “An Education,” Hornby’s stories percolate with snappy wit and superb characterization.  Here, almost all of that skill goes into the development of Cheryl, whose 1,100 mile solo hike virtually makes for a one-woman show.

The dearth of conversational opportunities hardly proves daunting for Hornby, who ensures the film flows effortlessly and entertainingly.  There is the obvious and occasional recourse to flashback to break up the monotony of her trek, sure, yet these glimpses from the past do not drive the narrative.  In fact, these scenes are among the least effective in “Wild” because they are never quite clear as to why Cheryl decides to take off on this foolish quest in the first place.  The past provides the background for the character, just not necessarily the journey.

Read the rest of this entry »