REVIEW: Wonder Woman

31 05 2017

“You expect the battle to be fair. It will never be fair!” exhorts Robin Wright’s Amazonian mentor to her trainee, Gal Gadot’s warrior princess in “Wonder Woman.” It’s tempting from an early point to view the film through a purely ideological standpoint, and cues like this almost seem to encourage it.

While writing this review, butt-hurt “men’s rights activists” (yes, those concerns are so imaginary they deserve to be put in quotations) are still complaining on Twitter about woman-only screenings of this film. The urge to lacerate prejudice through cultural consumption as if we were casting a ballot to vote is an alluring, but ultimately empty, one. Praising the disjointed “Ghostbusters” like a dutiful gesture of feminist solidarity really solved all our issues in 2016, right?!

The underlying hope of these actions is to foster a world where “Wonder Woman” will no longer be the most expensive film ever directed by a woman or the only major superhero film with a female protagonist; instead, it will be just one of many. So let’s start acting like it today by treating the film as what it can become, not merely what it means in the deeply politicized 2017 environment into which it is released. As the great critic Pauline Kael remarked, critics too often praise “movies that are ‘worthwhile,’ that make a ‘contribution’ —’serious’ messagy movies. This often involves […] the praise in good movies of what was worst in them.”

So if you’ll pardon my existential opening, I’ll spare you another analysis about how progressive (or not) the gender dynamics are, whether or not director Patty Jenkins’ gender might “influence” the way certain scenes play out and if certain on-screen moments carry feminist undertones from off-screen drama. It was hard to squint past these things and just see the movie because, as a film writer, firebrands like this can so often be reduced to multiple start-points to an ideological thinkpiece. But there is some there there, so to speak, in “Wonder Woman.”

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 3, 2016)

3 03 2016

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Robin Wright has become an iconic ice queen thanks to her role as Claire Underwood on “House of Cards;” if looks could kill, a glance from her character would bring down Elsa’s entire crystal castle on someone. Wright has been in the industry for over three decades now, enchanting audiences in films from “The Princess Bride” to “Forrest Gump,” yet her talents only now feel sufficiently realized as she nears 50.

But away from her projects that capture the public imagination, Wright quietly turns in great performances on much smaller scales. One such film is Rebecca Miller’s “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,” a gentle yet stirring feminist drama that showcases the full range of Wright’s talents. She shines as a wife coming to the realization of the many ways in which she is held hostage by domesticity. While Miller’s might not bring the aesthetic rigor of Todd Haynes to the so-called “women’s picture,” her keen understanding of how societal roles constrain female freedoms more than earns it the honor of my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

In many ways, Wright’s titular Pippa Lee is a very similar character to Claire Underwood. Both are women defined by ambition that we can sense but never see, and their faces will never truly express their deepest desires. The key difference comes from what goes on underneath those belying facades. Claire looks to seize power at all cost. Pippa just wants to know freedom outside the titles of “daughter,” “wife” and “mother” in which she has dwelled her entire life.

“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” begins with Wright’s character coming to the realization that she no longer wishes to maintain all the charades to keep the plates spinning in her life. With an aging older husband (Alan Arkin) settling into a senior living facility, she finally has some breathing room to evaluate what she wants in life – not just what she needs. Miller also traces back her history, showing how the young Pippa (Blake Lively) learned the limited avenues available to women in American society. The primary influence, of course, was her mother Suky (Maria Bello), a flighty housewife always pretending to star in an idyllic commercial.

To watch Miller’s film is to be moved by Pippa’s journey towards self-actualization, yet pure emotional outpouring is not the entire modus operandi. Miller also illuminates the narrow categorizations into which we sort women by demonstrating the judgment they face for daring to step outside of them. Empathy is part of the equation. A broadened worldview is the larger takeaway.





REVIEW: Everest

16 09 2015

EverestTowards the end of the lengthy expository section of “Everest,” journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) asks the question on everyone’s mind: “Why Everest?”  The film recounts a harrowing climb under the tutelage of mountain guide Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), who leads a group that does not necessarily look a typical band of sport climbers.  Knowing what exactly motivates them to reach the planet’s highest peak is a reasonable thing for an audience to wonder.

In this one moment perfectly set up for characters to bare their souls – the writer makes for a reasonable excuse to pose such an inquiry – “Everest” pretty much whiffs.  When accomplished scripters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy cannot deliver on an obvious occasion to answer what deeper meaning this mountain has, it cannot help but disappoint.

So, in the absence of a satisfactory answer to Krakauer’s question, I would like to pose it myself – albeit with slightly different punctuation and inflection.  Why, “Everest?”

Why, “Everest,” must you include a maudlin, manipulative score that tells us exactly how to feel when we should feel it?  Granted, at least they got Dario Marianelli, so it sounds pretty.  But as I watched the film, my mind often drifted to thinking about how much more intense and visceral the experience would be with the score for “Gravity.”  Such impressionistic sounds and frightening dissonances could make the environment seem dauntingly alien.  The music meant to represent climbing the world’s tallest mountain should not resemble the score for any old drama.

Why, “Everest,” must you stubbornly insist on just portraying things that happen to people?  As Hall’s group summits, they face treacherous weather conditions that put their lives in peril.  But the snowstorm is just a snowstorm.  The film lacks any sort of overarching structure of conflict, like man vs. nature or man vs. man, to imbue the challenges with deeper meaning in the mold of “127 Hours.”  The struggles remain in the realm of the personal, not tapping some greater sense of collective fear.  It’s danger without any sense of dread for the audience.
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REVIEW: A Most Wanted Man

27 07 2014

A Most Wanted ManDirector Anton Corbijn came into film through photography, a background which makes itself quite evident in “A Most Wanted Man.”  There’s a certain placidity and patience in the proceedings that seem to bear the mark of a photographer’s cool distance.

Corbijn’s perspective gives this adaptation of John Le Carre (the mind who gave us “The Constant Gardener” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy“) a distinct flavor, one that adds rather than detracts from the mix.  Though this spy film tackles counterterrorism, it lacks a definite endgame like “Zero Dark Thirty” had to push it along.  Instead, the focus is on the seemingly never-ending process of apprehending terrorists, not the final product of those efforts.

The calm collectedness and careful restraint of Corbijn does a great job highlighting the grimy, laborious legwork done by a Hamburg, Germany intel unit headed up by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Günther Bachmann.  He has a knack for foresight and playing the long game, two traits that put him at odds with the more impetuous, results-driven German intelligence community (not to mention the American embassy, represented by Robin Wright’s ambassador Martha Sullivan).

Bachmann quietly enters the fray to handle the curious case of a Chechen, Issa Karpov, who washes up in Hamburg and enters the city’s network of Muslim terrorist cells.  His approach is to use this refugee as a pawn to gain access to the real power players and continue working up the chain.  Along the way, Bachmann must join forces some unwilling participants, including a shady banker (Willem Dafoe’s Tommy Brue) and a lawyer who provides counsel for terrorists (Rachel McAdams’ Annabel Richter).

“A Most Wanted Man” does drag on occasion, but it’s consistently interesting thanks to the way Corbijn’s direction allows us to savor the careful maneuvers of counterintelligence chess.  While the film might be a little less ostensibly artistic than his last outing, 2010’s “The American,” Corbijn’s chosen aesthetic for the piece suits the highly-plotted story quite well.  It also allows Philip Seymour Hoffman, in what will sadly be his last leading role, to quietly show his mastery over the craft of acting one final time.  B2halfstars





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: Rampart

2 05 2013

The slogan for “Rampart,” though not on the poster I’ve embedded in this review, is “the most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on screen.”  To that, I merely laugh.

So I guess they assume we haven’t seen “Training Day.”  Or “Crash.”  Or “The Departed.”  Heck, I’d even say “Pineapple Express” and “Date Night” had more crooked cops than “Rampart.”

Sure, Woody Harrelson’s Dave Brown is working outside the law.  He’s a foul racist who uses excessive force on the regular.  By no means am I saying that I didn’t deplore his actions and conduct.  But for whatever reason, I just didn’t feel hatred welling up inside me for him.

Harrelson brought nothing new to the character that he hasn’t shown us in everything from “The People vs. Larry Flynt” to “The Messenger” to Haymitch in “The Hunger Games.”  He’s great at playing total jerks, and Brown is in a league of his own.  But there’s nothing special about this character, nothing that stands out in his repertoire.

Add that to direction from Oren Moverman that lacks any compelling action or camerawork and you’ve got one heck of a bore.  As much as I wanted to feel repulsion or loathing, all I could feel was apathy.  C2stars