REVIEW: Unforgettable

26 04 2017

For the better part of a decade, Katherine Heigl has struggled to shake off a reputation of being disagreeable. Much of this stems from a 2007 interview about “Knocked Up” where she chided the film’s supposed sexist treatment of female characters. (Inner publicist note: had she just waited and made the comment in retrospect, it’s likely no one would have found it controversial.) But ever since, many in the culture have projected their worst ideas about outspoken women onto her. She often wears the dreaded label of “unlikable.”

After countless attempts to correct the narrative by starring in sunny rom-coms, network television procedurals and a few indies, Heigl finally leans into the bad rap as the villain of “Unforgettable.” In Denise Di Novi’s domestic thriller, she plays Tessa Connover, the eerie ex-wife who torments her former flame’s new dame, Rosario Dawson’s Julia Banks. The film’s twist on the catfight genre is that Julia herself is not purely a victim or object of terror. She’s a survivor of domestic abuse dealing with lingering distress of her own.

Tessa plays manipulative mind games behind a placid exterior, though in Heigl’s hands, it often comes across as wooden. For these films to successfully scare, there needs to be some element of mystery behind the machinations of menace. Tessa is essentially an open book; in Heigl’s defense, the obvious broadcasting of her character’s motivations and actions is also a fault at the script level. But just as she could have spoken up and changed things with “Knocked Up,” Heigl could have added some mystery to her performance to strengthen the film. Tessa is her way of winking at the audience and admitting she knows what they think of her. Little in “Unforgettable” makes a compelling case for why people should change their minds. C+

F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 14, 2016)

14 07 2016

It’s practically inevitable that the culture and thinking I absorb eventually seeps into my writing. But this week offered one of the best chances for application ever.

I’m about halfway through Chuck Klosterman’s “But What If We’re Wrong?” This collection of cultural criticism applies a futuristic lens to the present day, removing our contemporary moorings from the equation and attempting to predict how later generations will see us. One big thesis is fairly depressing: most culture gets forgotten, and often what lasts cannot be appreciated in its own time. A group of people must find something in the work that its original audience was not able to see or fully grasp.

Not even thinking about the potential connection to the book, I watched 2001’s “Josie and the Pussycats” this week. For whatever reason, I have been on a bit of a late ’90s-early ’00s culture kick recently, so this felt like a natural thing to finally see. And wow, was I in for a surprise. This choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” has an additional sense of urgency thanks to Klosterman’s writing. 15 years after its release, we need to start reappraising the movie and appreciating it as an eerily prescient and wickedly smart comedy.

I was eight years old when the film was released, so I can do only the most basic reconstruction of the 2001 moviegoer. But I can imagine just how easy it would be to mistake “Josie and the Pussycats” for the kind of mindless schlock it mercilessly mocks. Just read the Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus, presumptively from the theatrical release: “This live-action update of ‘Josie and the Pussycats’ offers up bubbly, fluffy fun, but the constant appearance of product placements seems rather hypocritical.”

Even in the decade or so since this film hit screens, Americans are seemingly more aware of the consumerism in which our culture is so heavily steeped. It’s hard to imagine anyone saying with a straight face nowadays that “Josie and the Pussycats” is an endorsement of this relentless corporate bludgeoning; after all, we have endured the rise of Kardashianism as well as the reality show non-commercial product spotlights that surged as traditional advertising fell. And need any further proof of how insidious this ideology is? Don’t forget what George W. Bush told Americans to do in the wake of 9/11, just six months after the film was released – go shopping.

Writer/director duo Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan wisely chose to steep their modern Josie and the Pussycats story in this culture because, after all, rock has become more an empty signifier than a vital musical movement. It is dominated and controlled more by elites and executives than the people from whom it traditionally arose. This acknowledgement of a sad reality makes the traditional “behind the music” tale more than rote repetition of a cliché; it exposes the corporate logic behind that narrative becoming a cliché. When record companies can pre-package starlets into familiar stories, it dumbs down their consumers and allows them to slip in some more subliminal messages to purchase other goods.

This kind of cynical, conspiratorial thinking might have seemed far-fetched in 2001. Sadly – or perhaps encouragingly, depending on your vantage point – it feels oddly plausible in 2016. And if you have any doubt, pay attention to the record executive Wyatt Frame, played by Alan Cumming, and his frequent fourth wall-breaking winks to the audience. It’s a look that says, “you hate this, but you know you’ll be buying Starbucks later today because of this.” There are signs for hope that our society has latched onto some of the thinking espoused by “Josie and the Pussycats.” But is it too late to reverse the cultural direction that relegated this film to the sidelines of discussion for so long?

REVIEW: Top Five

22 12 2014

Too bad for “Top Five” that the title “The Interview” was already claimed for 2014.  Chris Rock’s film, a starring vehicle which he also wrote and directed, gets its narrative motor from a day-long conversation between his character Andre Allen and the probing New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) for a newspaper profile.

Chelsea happens to catch Andre, a successful comedian struggling for credibility as a dramatic actor, on a particularly stressful day.  Not only is it the opening day of his new film about a Haitian slave rebellion, which resembles “12 Years a Slave” more than “Django Unchained,” but it is also the weekend of his marriage to a Kardashian-style Bravo reality star (Gabrielle Union).  That much pressure all at once is about enough to make him relapse into the alcoholism he has controlled for years.

Rather than chew out his publicist for such horrific planning, Andre responds to the stacked schedule by baring his soul in responses to Chelsea (in a manner similar to Rock’s own refreshing candor on the “Top Five” press tour).  He rambles on about moments both somber and hilarious from his career, and Rock usually captures the back-and-forth in a two-shot.  This character arrangement, perfect for verbal volleying like in “Before Midnight,” allows the simultaneous enjoyment of Andre’s outrageous delivery and Chelsea’s often dumbfounded reaction.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 14, 2014)

14 11 2014

In 2006, I only knew Channing Tatum from playing man-candy roles in teen films like “She’s The Man” and “Step Up.”  But had I been paying attention, I would have noticed that he was also in a smaller indie film called “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.”  Tatum showed such skill and promise as a dramatically compelling and emotionally potent actor; it is such a shame that it has taken eight years for someone like Bennett Miller to convert that potential in “Foxcatcher.”

In a cast that includes Shia LaBeouf, Dianne Wiest, Chazz Palminteri, Rosario Dawson, and Robert Downey, Jr., Tatum is easily the standout.  “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” not solely for his performance, however.  Dito Montiel, adapting his own memoir for his screenwriting/directing debut, creates a deeply personal film out of his experiences that shakes up stuffy literature-on-screen conventions.

The action is split between the 1980s and the 2000s as the character Dito (played by LaBeouf and Downey, Jr.) comes to terms with his upbringing in Queens.  As a teen, he begins with a vague sense of yearning to move away from the gritty environment of Astoria, and the events of the film further solidify his need for escape.  “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” does not pass extreme judgment on the other characters, though; Montiel operates from behind the scenes out of respect for the figures of his past and refuses to let them become violent, delinquent archetypes of teen gang members.

Tatum’s character, Dito’s violent but admirably loyal companion Antonio, is defined less by what he does than who he is.  This makes him arguably more fascinating than Dito himself, who clearly achieves his aims of getting out since he narrates from decades later; Tatum captures this unpredictability to gripping effect.  Montiel’s direction matches this mercuriality, playing with form and self-awareness and discovering some intriguing (if not always extremely successful) results.  His “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” finds fresh variation on familiar themes and stories – not to mention one talent who is only now receiving appropriate roles.

REVIEW: Gimme Shelter

26 01 2014

Gimme ShelterFor a brief interlude in “Gimme Shelter,” James Earl Jones appears as a hospital chaplain.  You read that right: the James Earl Jones, no confusion such as there might be with the directors named Paul Anderson (Paul Thomas made “The Master” while Paul W.S. made the “Resident Evil” franchise).  We’re talking the James Earl Jones with the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award.

Jones’ inclusion in the film’s cast is one of many touches director Ronald Krauss adds to “Gimme Shelter” to increase its credibility and reach.  A name like Jones lends prestige to a project, and a star like Vanessa Hudgens has the potential to open up an audience of younger viewers that a film about teenage homelessness and pregnancy might not have otherwise.

But all these flourishes meant to endow legitimacy to “Gimme Shelter” only serve to emphasize the disparity between its ambitions and what it is actually capable of achieving.  Though it aims for the nitty-gritty reality of contemporary homelessness, Krauss is really only working with a Lifetime movie-quality script.

Moreover, the drama falls consistently flat.  It’s really a shame as I don’t think Krauss and his cast were truly attempting to turn real-life struggle into pure kitsch.  Hudgens certainly cares for her character Apple, transforming herself physically and accessing some very dark emotional places to convey some searing pain.  But neither she or Ann Dowd (on a career upswing after her fantastic turn in “Compliance“), who plays the saintly Kathy DiFiore with grace, can escape the mire of the cliché-riddled script.

The campy drama detracts from the real problems that “Gimme Shelter” raises.  But issues dramas should do more than just portray a tough subject; they ought to call us to action.  And rather than compel me to immediately help the homeless, the film just drove me to laugh at Vanessa Hudgens trying to outact James Earl Jones from her hospital bed.  She’s the best thing about the movie, to be sure, but that does not mean she can take down Darth Vader and Mufasa.  C2stars

REVIEW: Trance

24 07 2013

TranceFor movies with labyrinthine plots, such as “Inception” or “Shutter Island,” rigorous structural complexities come with a necessary prerequisite: a desire to care and piece together a million-piece jigsaw moving at a mile per minute.  If we aren’t engaged in the story, the pieces will just sit on the coffee table forever.

That being said, the dots of Danny Boyle’s “Trance” will forever remain unconnected for me.  It’s a convoluted mess that seems to lack a lot of basic cohesiveness.  I was so unconvinced of its self-assuredness and basic integrity that I don’t want to take the effort to figure out if it’s even worth decrypting.

I’m surprised because I consider myself a big Danny Boyle fan, particularly “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” both of which moved me in profound ways.  He’s definitely still got it together stylistically, as “Trance” is an impressively edited trip of a film.  But a bunch of nice cuts don’t mean much if they don’t start creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

What’s ultimately assembled before our eyes is a brash bombardment of sound and fury, gaudy to the point of tastelessness.  As James McAvoy’s Simon undergoes hypnotherapy with Rosario Dawson’s Elizabeth, we’re flung down a rabbit hole of bent reality with no investment in the characters or the action.  Sound like a journey worth taking?

Boyle and screenwriter try to overcompensate with bombast, including a rather unnecessary and irrelevant flaunting of Dawson’s genitalia (and then they just throw in some James McAvoy nudity at the end just for fun).  The erotic skin show actually sums up so much of what’s wrong with “Trance” in the first place.  It’s an exclamation point to get your attention, which then reminds us that there was actually no sentence that preceded it.  While I’d like to trust Boyle, his film does not make a strong enough case for its audience to go in and clean up his mess themselves.  C2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (October 7, 2011)

7 10 2011

I don’t quite know what inspired me to watch “25th Hour” recently, but I’m certainly glad that I did.  Spike Lee’s 2002 film about the heavy weight of the past and the future that we carry around in the present got little attention at the time, but over time, it has gained some passionate backers, namely Roger Ebert.  That inspired me to check the movie out, and while I don’t think it’s one of my favorites of the decade, it’s good enough to qualify as a “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

David Benioff’s script captures a day of solemn importance in the life of Montgomery “Monty” Brogan, played with typical excellence by Edward Norton.  We follow Monty in the last 24 hours before he must head up to prison to serve a 7 year sentence for dealing drugs.  He is remorseful for his past, apprehensive for his future, and filled with anger and hatred in the moment.  As he spends a day in a sort of purgatory state, we see the uneasy state of his relationships with his friends (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper) and girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) as they all offer a sort of false optimism.

While this story is quite limited, what makes “25th Hour” such an interesting film (and one that I suspect will be increasingly viewed as a reference for future generations) is how poetically Spike Lee juxtaposes Monty’s biography with the larger tale of society, here post-9/11 New York City.  After the film’s prologue, Lee rolls the opening credits over various takes of the two bright beams of light shining to the heavens from Ground Zero.  Much like Monty, the site is a reminder of the emptiness of that day, while the lights represent a brighter future that can still be rebuilt once the ashes are removed.

In perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, Lee employs a sort of Allen Ginsberg-meets-NWA rhythmic lyricism to express the pent-up rage that many New Yorkers felt in the wake of the tragedy.  It’s an unsettling, no-holds-barred diatribe against the city and everyone in it, and a man like Monty about to lose everything is the perfect person to deliver it.  Yet “25th Hour” is not just a movie of anger; indeed, Lee, ever the New York filmmaker, makes his movie an admiring tribute to the city’s strength and perseverance.  Even as Monty heads off to the pen, there’s a smiling child on the bus in the next lane willing to smile at him.

REVIEW: Unstoppable

19 06 2011

Unstoppable” is easily one of the best action films I’ve seen in a long time, and every filmmaker should be taking notes from Tony Scott here.  He takes a story that we all know very well – the worst case scenario coming to fruition – and makes it exciting again.  Scott keeps the movie paced as fast as the runaway train in the title and keeps us drawn in for the whole ride.  It’s solid entertainment done totally right, and even though it doesn’t engage the brain, it compensates by putting a pit in your stomach and keeping your heart racing throughout.

Thanks to the perfect storm of errors, a freight train carrying dangerous chemicals is barreling out of control towards Stanton, Pennsylvnia.  There are only two men who can stop it: old-timer Frank Barnes (the unbeatable Denzel Washington) and his trainee, new hire Will Colson (Chris Pine).  The two men, very different in their attitudes and approaches, must come together and grapple with the big issues of duty and death in order to save a hundred thousand lives.

Even without the movie being inspired by true events, we would already feel the inevitability of the ending.  Yet Scott’s high-octane cinema of adrenaline never lets up, still making us hold on to our seats until the exciting conclusion.  While we wait, he dazzles us with incredible aesthetics, which we can still appreciate even though they aren’t being thrown in our face like an Oscars “For Your Consideration” ad.  The film’s editing, cinematography, and sound are just as much responsible for the thrill ride of
“Unstoppable” as Washington or Pine.  By the time the credits roll, you’ll wonder why all action movies couldn’t have such impeccable production values and firm direction.  B+ /