REVIEW: The Discovery

3 04 2017

Sundance Film Festival

I was a bit peeved to learn that Netflix owned the rights to Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery after I had blown a portion of my precious ticket allotment to see the film at the festival. Most people will experience this film from the comforts of their own living room. That’s their loss.

McDowell’s follow-up to his audacious debut, 2014’s “The One I Love,” works from a similarly complex setup. Robert Redford’s Thomas Harber discovers proof of an afterlife, leading masses of people worldwide to commit suicide to get there. A few years later, his son Will (Jason Segel) navigates a “Children of Men“­­-like world so substantially depleted of human energy that a hashtag campaign using #nomoresuicides and #discoverlife exists. Against his better judgment, he ends up in a position to probe the boundaries of his father’s finding and expose some potentially unsavory truths about what really lies there.

Will also encounters the suicidal Isla, played by Rooney Mara in what might be the closest thing she ever plays to Clementine Kruczynski, which substantially deepens his knowledge of rapidly changing attitudes. We get out of this world what we put into it, and neglecting our imperfect existence in favor of some distant fantasy can only lead to ruin. Locating meaning in death rather than in life leads people in strange directions, such as the cult-like estate that the elder Harber establishes.

It was nice to know, too, that audiences still respond to the shock of suicide. Too bad that Netflix can’t include the audible gasps of a stunned Sundance crowd at many moments in “The Discovery” as some kind of supplemental audio track. McDowell makes perfectly clear that human life matters in the film. Sharing and reaffirming that feeling with others just serves to emphasize it all the more. B+

NOTE: A portion of this review ran as a part of my coverage of the Sundance Film Festival for Movie Mezzanine.

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REVIEW: Pete’s Dragon

14 08 2016

Disney has been trading on easy callbacks to their animated classics for the past half-decade or so, using new technologies to reiterate their well-established old stories. This style is valid, sure, but largely empty. From “Alice in Wonderland” to “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” the Mouse House shortchanges the creation of childhood memories by pandering to adults (or at least older) viewers who already have such experiences.

With “Pete’s Dragon,” however, the studio takes a step in the right direction. Co-writer and director David Lowery, working with one of Disney’s lesser known archival properties, makes a more poignant homage to the iconic French short “The Red Balloon” than to the original 1977 film. It’s a glimpse of what these remakes can be when unyoked from nostalgia and blatant commercial pandering.

Lowery brings an elegant simplicity to this fairytale-like story involving a hairy green CGI dragon and the wilderness-dwelling orphan named Pete (Oakes Fegley) with a unique ability to corral the giant mythical creature. When a plucky park ranger, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Grace, stumbles upon Pete during a routine walkthrough, the discovery transforms his life by bringing him in contact with people once again.

But the beginnings of Pete’s reintegration into polite society also raises the possibility that others might find the dragon – and they might not possess the same magnanimity of spirit as Grace. When the dragon ultimately does become known to the small Pacific Northwestern town, his mysterious intent instantly divides the community into those who fear the unknown and those who have faith in its goodness.

“Pete’s Dragon” soars towards its powerful close as Lowery and writing partner Toby Halbrooks celebrate our capacity for belief. This ability need not be tethered to some childlike wonder; rather, it is an inherent quality accessible to anyone should they choose to do so. The film’s folksy, plucky spirit only underscores the authenticity of this yarn about listening, learning and loving. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

2 05 2016

At its core, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is very much a political thriller. The film concluded production around the time of the Edward Snowden leaks, so any correlation between the two would have been primarily atmospheric in the editing bay. But the nods of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to the kind of political unrest and institutional mistrust of the 1970s feels totally applicable to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s SHIELD and Hydra, themselves proxies for the present day surveillance state.

The good news for audiences is that this kind of smart throwback is attached to a Marvel movie. The bad news, though, is that the movie still has to be a “Marvel movie.”

Every time the film starts developing its ideas or delving into the ramifications, it has to start hitting the predictable comic book movie beats. The need to have a big action set piece every 25-30 minutes ultimately becomes oppressive and counterproductive to the film’s intelligent ambitions. Though the sequel bears the subtitle “Civil War,” the name seems as applicable to that film’s content as it does to the form of “The Winter Soldier.”

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo struggle against the Marvel formula to interesting and more thoroughly entertaining effects. They fail to break the mold, however. The real auteur of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Kevin Feige, the company’s president. What is commercial will likely continue to prevail over what is artistic or iconoclastic. Looking at the numbers, sadly, can anyone blame him? B-2stars





REVIEW: A Walk in the Woods

5 02 2016

In this media-saturated age, most of us go out of our way to avoid watching commercials. So it says something that during “A Walk in the Woods,” I found myself wishing I was watching a commercial. Specifically the Nick Offerman REI one slyly embedded into the film as “plot” but is merely product placement.

Otherwise, the film is as rough and unpleasant a slog as I imagine walking the Appalachian Trail would be. “A Walk in the Woods” repurposes “Wild” for the AARP crowd, giving the aging Baby Boomers played by Robert Redford and Nick Nolte a chance to hit the trails for one big mettle-proving hurrah. Redford’s Bill Bryson is a travel writer yet to explore his home country, while Nolte’s Stephen Katz is the one acquaintance he could snag to tag along.

Neither the estranged quasi-friends nor the difficulty of nature angle prove exciting in the film. In fact, their toughest battle with nature is so blatantly shot against a green-screen that it throws the authenticity of the entire film into question. It’s all predictable banter, predictable challenges and predictable outcomes. If people criticize actors like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino for taking bad comedy roles to pay the bills in their twilight years, “A Walk in the Woods” demonstrates that they ought to include Redford and Nolte when casting stones. C2stars





REVIEW: Truth

16 11 2015

TruthHere’s something that generally serves as harbinger for an undeveloped movie: if a movie has to say its title multiple times to continually telegraph its themes. Bonus points if said theme is also the film’s title.

Truth” is obsessed with, well, the truth and asking questions as it pertains to journalistic inquiry. James Vanderbilt’s film follows a “60 Minutes” squad led by Cate Blanchett’s Mary Mapes as they dig deeper into then-President George W. Bush’s dubious military record. Their investigation appears to uncover preferential treatment that kept him out of Vietnam.

However, that finding comes under intense scrutiny after a document’s authenticity cannot be proven. The fallout ultimately claims the position of longtime CBS evening news anchor Dan Rather, played unconvincingly by the great Robert Redford. Needless to say, this is pretty much a nightmare for the newsroom, yet somehow writer/director Vanderbilt tries to spin some shades of gray from it.

The argument, so it seems, is that Bush somehow deserved to be caught and that Mapes had every right to question him without airtight facts. I can only assume he wagers that the world would be better had Bush not been re-elected, journalistic ethics be damned. He has an “All the President’s Men”-level faith in the power of reporters to bring down a president with none of the respect for the rigorous procedures that allow them to speak truth to power.

What could have been a cautionary tale about confirmation bias – the interpretation of information to suit the narrative in one’s head – essentially just tries to turn Mapes into some kind of martyr. Blanchett does her best to sell this angle, mixing and matching elements from her performances in “Blue Jasmine” and “Notes on a Scandal” to make it work. But even she cannot transcend the victimization complex that plagues her character on the page, so the net result of “Truth” ends up being negative for the fourth estate. B-2stars





Oscar Moment: 2013 Pre-Fall Festival Predictions

27 08 2013

Well, folks, the time is here to talk about Oscar season.  The Venice Film Festival kicks off tomorrow, and suddenly it won’t be taboo to talk about what might be competing for the Academy Awards.

Just to show you how much things change over the course of the fall, last year I predicted “The Master” to win Best Picture at this time – and it wound up not being nominated.  I was close for Best Director and Best Actor, though, ranking Ang Lee and Daniel Day-Lewis my #2 pick in their respective categories.  Jennifer Lawrence was not remotely on my radar, but my projected winner Quvenzhané Wallis did manage to get a nomination!  I got the movie right for Best Supporting Actor, but picked Leonardo DiCaprio instead of Christoph Waltz as the “Django Unchained” cast member to hoist the Oscar.  And I, like everyone else, saw Anne Hathaway’s win coming from the moment the first “Les Misérables” trailer hit the web.

So what will surprise us this year?  And what will disappoint?  Here’s my first draft at a year in Oscar forecasting.

Best Picture

  1. American Hustle (trailer)
  2. 12 Years a Slave (trailer)
  3. Foxcatcher
  4. August: Osage County (trailer)
  5. Gravity (trailer)
  6. The Monuments Men (trailer)
  7. Her (trailer)
  8. Inside Llewyn Davis (trailer)
  9. Labor Day
  10. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (trailer)

American HustleThere seems to be no clear frontrunner a la “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” or “War Horse” for 2013.  So I’m just going to gander it’s a dues-paying year.  It seems like David O. Russell, after two straight Best Picture-Best Director nominations for “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” is now on the fast track to win someday.  So why not 2013 with “American Hustle?”  A glitzy period drama that looks to provide action, comedy, and drama looks pretty good on paper to me.

Another film I could see making a charge at the prize is Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave.”  Despite all the talent involved in this film, I think it might still be an underdog given that McQueen’s previous two films have not received a single Oscar nomination.  Then again, Tom Hooper was a relative novice when he directed “The King’s Speech,” and we know how that story ends.

Previous Best Director nominees Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher”), George Clooney (“The Monuments Men”), Spike Jonze (“Her”), the Coen Brothers (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), and Jason Reitman (“Labor Day”) all look to get in the Best Picture race.  Based on their pedigree alone, I’m predicting nominations for these five films.  All are sight unseen, save “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which I have seen and can attest is the kind of well-made film that will score with the Academy.

I guess I could include Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” in this clump, since the film’s director is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and editor.  But that film gets a Best Picture nomination, in my mind, because it belongs in a class with “Avatar,” “Hugo,” and “Life of Pi” – technical masterpieces directed by renowned talents.

As for “August: Osage County,” that play is so well-written that it would take a first-class hack job for it not to be a Best Picture nominee.  We’re talking a play that will go next to Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in the American dramatic literature canon, people.

And to round out the top 10, I picked Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” I’m not entirely sold on it, but it could make a surprise run for Best Picture.  It could also fizzle with awards voters.  Who knows?  Clearly not I.

Best Director

  1. David O. Russell, “American Hustle”
  2. Bennett Miller, “Foxcatcher”
  3. Steve McQueen, “12 Years A Slave”
  4. Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity”
  5. Spike Jonze, “Her”

FoxcatcherAs I said, I’m projecting Russell to go all the way in 2013.

Past nominee Bennett Miller could give him a run for his money, although he was overlooked for his work on 2011 Best Picture nominee “Moneyball.”  Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron should score their first Best Director nominations (which is a shame).

And since Spike Jonze scored a lone Best Director nomination for “Being John Malkovich” back in 1999, I don’t think it’s out of the question to see him score a second nomination for his work on “Her.”  It certainly appears to be daring … and the director’s branch showed they were willing to go out on a limb last year with nominees Benh Zeitlin and Michael Haneke.

Best Actor

  1. Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
  2. Joaquin Phoenix, “Her”
  3. Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years A Slave”
  4. Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”
  5. Robert Redford, “All Is Lost”

McConaugheyBig, baity performances have won out here for the past decade, essentially.  So I’d say the frontrunner has to be Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club.”  His comeback narrative is appealing, and the fact that he lost a ton of weight helps.

That being said, I wouldn’t count out Joaquin Phoenix for “Her.”  If he could get nominated for a polarizing film like “The Master,” perhaps there’s more respect for Phoenix in the Academy than most people recognize.  He’s been nominated three times now, and I think it’s only a matter of time before he wins.

Chiwetel Ejiofor could easily supplant McConaughey as the bait performance to beat here.  A frontrunner will be cemented by the time both films debut at Toronto.

Breakout performer Oscar Isaac ought to score a nod here for “Inside Llewyn Davis.”  I don’t see how he can be overlooked if the movie is a hit with the Academy.

And keep an eye out for Robert Redford here.  He gives an incredible, virtually wordless performance in “All Is Lost” that will not be forgotten.  The Hollywood legend hasn’t been nominated for his acting in over 40 years, and the one Oscar sitting on his mantle is for directing.  Might it be his time in the sun?

Best Actress

  1. Amy Adams, “American Hustle”
  2. Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
  3. Naomi Watts, “Diana”
  4. Kate Winslet, “Labor Day”
  5. Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks”

Amy AdamsPlease, Academy, make this Amy Adams’ year!  She’s been nominated four times already in Best Supporting Actress.  Now that she’s playing with the big girls in Best Actress, maybe it’s just time to give her the darned trophy already.

Woody Allen hasn’t directed a woman to a leading actress win since Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall” – perhaps Cate Blanchett’s turn in “Blue Jasmine” can break the dry spell?  I think she’s a sure bet for a nomination, but another win is unlikely since Blanchett has won in the past decade.

Or maybe it’s Naomi Watts’ turn after coming up short for last year’s “The Impossible.”  If the Academy loves this two-time nominee, an uncanny performance as Princess Diana would be a good time to give it to her.

Kate Winslet has been nominated for six Oscars and has won one.  So why would the love stop now?  In her first notable screen performance since winning for 2008’s “The Reader,” she could rack up nomination number 7 and be well on her way to becoming the Meryl Streep of her generation.

Speaking of Meryl Streep, I could be making a mistake by not including her here.  She would definitely crack my top 5, but I’m hearing that she’ll be campaigned in supporting.  So for now, that fifth slot goes to Emma Thompson for the breezy “Saving Mr. Banks.”

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Michael Fassbender, “12 Years A Slave”
  2. Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”
  3. Daniel Bruhl, “Rush”
  4. Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher”
  5. Tom Hanks, “Saving Mr. Banks”

FassbenderGo big or go home.  After being snubbed for his incredible work in “Shame,” I predict the Academy will right its wrongs and reward Michael Fassbender with an Oscar for “12 Years A Slave.”  I really hope I’m right.

Bradley Cooper, given the villain role in “American Hustle,” could capitalize on a year of goodwill after a nomination from “Silver Linings Playbook.”  He’s probably a safer pick, but I’m not interested in safe at this point.

After last year’s category was dominated by previous winners, I’m going to predict two more first-time nominees in this category: Daniel Bruhl for “Rush,” whose performance has been touted since Cannes, and Steve Carell for “Foxcatcher,” a darker role for the comedic actor.

And then I’ll predict Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks” because that proposition just sounds too good to pass up for Academy voters.

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Oprah Winfrey, “The Butler”
  2. Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”
  3. Octavia Spencer, “Fruitvale Station”
  4. Cameron Diaz, “The Counselor”
  5. Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”

OprahHonestly, this category is such a toss-up at this point, so I’m forced to pick the only person with buzz at the moment: Oprah Winfrey for “The Butler.”  Beyond her, my confidence ends.  If the Weinstein Company had announced what Meryl Streep will be campaigned in, I’d feel confident picking her in whatever category they chose.  Right now, I’m going with supporting.

I thought Octavia Spencer was the best part of “Fruitvale Station,” but her part may be too small or too soon after her win for “The Help.”

Cameron Diaz looks like an intriguing femme fatale in “The Counselor,” but that movie could flop so hardcore that she’s rendered a non-factor this season.  With no festival appearances slated, the film does not appear to be a serious threat for anything.  Diaz has been pretty quiet lately, but let’s not forget she had a string of acclaimed roles from 1998 to 2002 that gave her 4 Golden Globe nominations and 3 SAG Award nominations.

And as for that last slot, I figured I might as well throw in Jennifer Lawrence for “American Hustle.”  Everyone loves J.Law, and I think enough people will like “American Hustle” to give her a victory lap after last year’s win.

Best Original Screenplay

  1. American Hustle
  2. Inside Llewyn Davis
  3. Blue Jasmine
  4. Her
  5. Gravity

Inside Llewyn DavisDavid O. Russell is a two-time writing nominee?  Check for “American Hustle.”

The Coen Brothers are five-time writing nominees with two wins?  Check for “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Woody Allen has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay a whopping 15 times, and “Blue Jasmine” does not suck.  Check.

Spike Jonze is an acclaimed original figure in Hollywood?  Check for “Her,” but with some reluctance as “The Master” was snubbed last year for the clichéd “Flight.”

Alfonso Cuaron is a two-time writing nominee, but his latest film “Gravity” might be a lot more impressive on the screen than it is on the page.  Perhaps he will wow us once again and make us regret ever doubting him … so I’ll predict “Gravity” to take the final slot here.  But “Black Swan” missed here, so originality isn’t everything in the Best Original Screenplay category.

Best Adapted Screenplay

  1. 12 Years A Slave
  2. Foxcatcher
  3. The Monuments Men
  4. August: Osage County
  5. Before Midnight

It would be foolish of me not to predict a lot of Best Picture nominees here, which traditionally dominate the Best Adapted Screenplay category.  But don’t count out “Before Midnight,” whose predecessor scored a nomination back in 2004 in this category.  The series, and this installment in particular, has gotten a lot of positive press.  I don’t think the writers will forget about this one.

What do you think?  Who is the one to beat in 2013?  Sound off!





REVIEW: The Company You Keep

27 04 2013

There are all sorts of cinematic experiences you can have these days when going to the movies.  Sometimes, as was the case with Robert Redford’s “The Company You Keep,” I felt like I was mostly just following the events unfold as opposed to actively watching the film.  Sure, I was taking it in, but it reminds me of the experience of reading SparkNotes or a Wikipedia summary – not exactly engaging or satisfying, in other words.

Redford appears to be angling to win the SAG ensemble award on paper with this cast of Oscar winners, nominees, and Shia LaBeouf.  Though with this A(ARP)vengers of ’70s and ’80s greats assembled, you’d think the drama would not be so turgid and lifeless.  It’s stiff and uninteresting as both a journalistic crusade as well as a fugitive thriller.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized this had all the potential to be “All The President’s Men” meets “The Fugitive.”  Both those movies had tension, though, and Redford can’t even manufacture it synthetically with a Cliff Martinez (“Drive,” “Contagion“) score.  The characters also lacked depth, both in terms of emotional development as well as decent dialogue for them to say.  Everyone speaks in self-righteous platitudes in “The Company You Keep,” making for some rather excruciating confrontations.

With all that’s going on these days, an old home-grown terrorist and a young maverick journalist in the era of print media’s growing obsolescence should be a no-brainer for fascinating conflict and thought-provoking meditations on the world we live in.  But it just goes to show the even with the company Redford keeps – Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, and Susan Sarandon – you can’t just throw acclaimed actors and actresses in a pot and expect it to boil.  C+2stars