REVIEW: La La Land

24 12 2016

Houston Cinema Arts Festival

Richard Dyer, perhaps the most important modern academic writer on the cinematic musical, divided the genre into three camps. The first two, backstage and the more “escapist” variety, fashion their musical numbers as set apart from the main narrative. These song and dance sequences are very obviously a performative or fantasy space – a separate reality.

But the third, which he dubbed the “utopian” musical, featured a more porous exchange between sequences of the mundane and the melodic. These musical numbers are a heightened version of the reality we see in scenes with regular dialogue and blocking. The choreography and the chants add emphasis to mood and tone rather than simply carry water for plot and character development.

If the extended explanation did not already make it clear, Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” falls into this utopian musical category. When Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian and Emma Stone’s Mia move together, it’s pure bliss. The camerawork of Linus Sandgren captures them in long, fluid takes demonstrating the beauty of their synchronicity in the same way the staccato editing of Chazelle’s “Whiplash” conveyed the violence of drumming. While both actors can spar like Old Hollywood stars and emote like their contemporaries, their feelings are always better expressed in footwork and tentative croons.

Many classic musicals had to use dancing as a metaphor for sex given the strict censorship codes of the time. No such limitation exists to keep Gosling and Stone apart, but Chazelle’s insistence on adhering to the representational language of these films opens up “La La Land” to speak in a highly formalistic manner. It’s a bold choice to wed the film’s crowd pleasing elements to a borderline avant-garde aesthetic, but the elements harmonize quite nicely.

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REVIEW: Digging for Fire

1 09 2015

Digging for FireAs writer/director Joe Swanberg wanders the corridors of marital discontent in his latest film, “Digging for Fire,” I could not help but wonder if this is what Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” would look like when refracted through the lens of low-budget indie cinema.  Over the course of a weekend spent apart, previously unknown rifts and fault lines appear between Tim (Jake Johnson, also a co-writer on the film) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) while they amble and converse freely.

Each’s journey appears cross-cut with the other’s, and the spouses might as well be occupying entirely different films.  Tim hangs out to drink beers and smoke pot with his buddies – one of whom arrives with a young woman on each arm – but proves unable to put his mind at ease about some suspicious bones he spotted in the yard.  Lee, meanwhile, drifts between scenes and choose mostly to let the words of others trigger her thought process.  He is aggressively verbose in expressing his own frustrations; she reacts to hearing those from others.

At moments, “Digging for Fire” shows real insight into the listlessness of marriage and parenting.  Johnson feels especially at home since he gets to speak (presumptively) dialogue he helped write.  When Tim expresses his frustrations and anxieties, they clearly come from someplace personal and resonate accordingly.  For all those looking to use art to deal with their own life, try to model this to avoid self-indulgence.

Swanberg, though, sometimes gets carried away by his posse of ever-ready actor pals.  Since his movies shoot so quickly and efficiently, it makes sense that these stars want a chance to flex their muscles in between the paycheck gigs.  In this case, the ensemble of comedians and dramatists alike can detract attention from what might have played more effectively as a tighter two-hander.  Between the screen time allotted to Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Mike Birbiglia, and Anna Kendrick, “Digging for Fire” can sometimes feel like a party at the Swanbergs for which he provided a loose plot and great camerawork.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Kill the Messenger

20 03 2015

Michael Cuesta’s “Kill the Messenger” plays like an “All the President’s Men” for an era of the lone eagle rather than the journalistic tag team.  Jeremy Renner stars as muckraking journalist Gary Webb, a reporter who uncovers a 1980s CIA conspiracy that use the smuggling of crack cocaine into the U.S. as a front to launder weapons into Central America.  In essence, poor American communities are collateral damage to freedom fighting operations.

The first half features him uncovering the story, and the second half follows the fallout after publication.  Unlike Woodward and Bernstein, who had the backing of the Washington Post, Webb just wrote for a small outlet out of San Jose that lacked the resources or the confidence to stand with the controversial piece.  The CIA, of course, sought to discredit the story, and archival footage shows how the mainstream media ran with their smear campaign.

Renner is potent and forceful as the leading man of the film, clinging to his ethics and pride when all else around him seems to fail.  “Kill the Messenger” thrives because of his righteous anger.  His work also receives bolstering from a tremendous supporting cast with solid turns from character actors like Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, and Michael Kenneth Williams.

I can scarcely think of a critique for “Kill the Messenger,” except maybe the fact that it lacks an X-factor to take it from very good to great.  Still, Cuesta turns Peter Landesman’s tightly wound script into an entertaining, enthralling watch.  I can’t complain about that at all.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Men, Women & Children

16 12 2014

In 2009, Jason Reitman added a potent subplot to his film “Up in the Air” that dealt with some of the alienation people feel in a depersonalized, technology-laden society.  Five years later, he arrives with “Men, Women & Children,” a dark and moody spiritual cousin to his masterpiece.  It goes beyond the obvious stating that people live text message to text message or email to email.  Underneath it all, they are clearly living orgasm to orgasm.

Reitman finds a new writing partner, Erin Cressida Wilson, to adapt Chad Kultgen’s novel, which is perhaps the only truly honest novel about the realities of living in a digitally mediated society.  The story follows a group of teenagers and their parents, each age group struggling with the temptations of carnality made available at their fingertips.  They all seek intimacy, a rarity in a sea of screen addicts, yet cannot seems to escape their enmeshed existence in the World Wide Web.

It seems as if Reitman, likely by commercial imperatives, had to pull some punches and soften the impact of his film.  How blistering can an excoriation of an Internet pornography obsessed society be if those toxic images are never shown?  How shameful can sexual deviance feel if the acts themselves are artfully avoided?  Reitman did not have to go full NC-17 to make an effective film on this topic, and “Men, Women & Children” suffers from his cautious moves.

Still, the message gets across pretty clearly, provided the audience can put down their iPhones for two hours to listen to it. For once, the youth are neither a fountain of hope nor a convenient object for blame; they are just exploring normal curiosities in the same way that their chief role models did.  In fact, the adults of “Men, Women & Children” are every bit as clueless and juvenile in cyberspace as their kids.  Society is all in this battle together, and no one is above it because it brings out the worst in everyone.

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REVIEW: Touchy Feely

5 08 2013

Touchy FeelyHow ironic that director Lynn Shelton should begin to lose her touch in the film “Touchy Feely,” a film about people who literally touch for a living.

All the seemingly effortless perceptiveness into our very humanity in Shelton’s prior two films “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister” have eluded her grasp in her latest feature.  “Touchy Feely” is a mess, unfocused and unorganized from the get-go.  Shelton writes plenty of interestingly odd characters, but they ultimately offer us nothing to take home and apply to our own lives because we can’t identify with them.

The film jumps from emotional non-sequitur to emotional non-sequitur as everyone seems to act in only the most bizarre and irrational ways possible.  Whether it’s taking ecstasy, forcing their significant other to strip in a bathroom at their place of business (only to then walk out), or going to an experimental massage therapist to improve their dentistry, Shelton’s got the sheer unpredictability of human nature cornered.  The problem is, however, that none of these quirks add up to anything – nor do they highlight anything about what it means to be alive, or in love, or a productive member of society.

The actors could have turned “Touchy Feely” into their showcase by picking up the slack from Shelton’s script, but they wind up falling into the same humdrum, forgettable pattern of the film.  Rosemarie DeWitt’s erratic Abby shows nowhere near the vitality and inner life of her titular bride in “Rachel Getting Married,” and Ellen Page just plays Juno on downers.  Not even Allison Janney could breathe any fresh air into the film.

On a final sad note, I was really hoping this would be a breakout role for Josh Pais, a stalwart character actor who first caught my eye as a cantankerous Harlem teacher in “Music of the Heart” when I was seven years old.  He’s been popping up in movies and TV shows for years, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing him.  But his role in “Touchy Feely,” a deadbeat dentist, was a droning monotone. Hopefully he gets another shot at a big part like this again; I just hope this wasn’t the first time a casting agent saw him on screen.  C-1halfstars





REVIEW: Promised Land

23 01 2013

Gus Van Sant has called “Promised Land” his attempt at Capra, which is a noble thing to aim for – and it has certainly been largely MIA in today’s cinema.  But his film is hardly “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a truly inspiring extolling of the virtues of the common American.  Even when you factor in adjusting the tale for our grayer, more morally relativistic culture, it still falls well short.

“Promised Land” aims for pro-small town goodness but winds up being mostly anti-corporate.  Matt Damon and John Krasinski, both the stars and writers of the film, spend most of their efforts vilifying the businessmen.  The homely townspeople, on the other hand, merely speak in vaguely familiar talking points that make them really only function for the sake of the narrative.

And I think that’s a lost opportunity for the movie to really make a great case against natural gas fracking.  As Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb postulated in “Inception,” positive emotion trumps the negative every time.  Maybe if we cared more for the well-being this tiny agrarian Pennsylvania town, we would come out of the movie and call our Congressman.  But all that Damon and Krasinski convince us is that businessmen are vile leeches who will go to any lengths possible to suck all the natural gas out of the ground – with as much cost to the environment as necessary to provide little cost to them.

Eventually, I believe we will look back at “Promised Land” as an interesting relic in the ongoing saga of the United States’ quest for energy independence and climate control.  The film lands at a critical nexus in our culture, where it makes sense to revive the economy and decrease our dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels by fracking the natural gas underneath our own soil.  Yet the process is so unrefined at the moment that it can cause vast environmental damage.  You know, just never mind what it does to social capital because Damon and Krasinski are only seeing green – the color of money and the color of the environment.

But they make a mild and familiar argument within a generic framework to convey their message.  Perhaps their passion would have been best channeled into a documentary.  Although non-fiction films rarely reach large audiences, those movies can be as polemical as they want because that’s often what they are designed to be.  (For an example of how they could have frightened you with the horrifying truth, look to “Gasland.”)  What they settled on in “Promised Land” just feels like preaching to the converted; I don’t think it has the narrative or emotional strength to create any new believers.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Your Sister’s Sister

7 10 2012

All too often, small-scale indie comedies fall into the “coulda been a contenduh” category.  They have great potential to succeed, but like Greek tragic heroes, all have some kind of flaw that prevents them from achievement of their goals.

I’d feel bad beginning my first sentence of a generally positive review with unfortunately because that could give an impression that I thought unfavorably of the movie … but unfortunately, Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister” makes one of the most common indie comedy mistakes: resorting to mainstream conventions.  For the first two acts, the movie feels fresh and incisive like a Woody Allen movie from the 1970s.

The humor flows so naturally from Mark Duplass and Rosemarie DeWitt, who play Jack and Hannah, two dilapidated souls seeking comfort in solitude in a quiet lakeside retreat.  Neither realize the other will be there, though, resulting in some initial awkwardness (as is the territory these types of movies generally tend to dwell in).  Then, they start peeling back the layers of each other’s facades, revealing all sorts of startling truths about each other.  And as they start to connect emotionally (as well as become more and more intoxicated), a physical connection just seems to occur naturally.

Then Iris, played by the gorgeous Emily Blunt, arrives … and introduces utter chaos into the house.  She is Hannah’s sister and Mark’s best friend, thus rendering their romantic evening a subject unable to be broached.  The two new friends, having seen each other laid bare, now have to sort out their true feelings while masquerading as something they aren’t.  Shelton lays out some fascinating conditions for which the drama can unfold, but then she rapidly shifts gears.

In the third act, as the characters begin to really grapple with what has gone on, “Your Sister’s Sister” takes the easy way out.  It relies on dumb montages and hokey, hyperbolic monologues to get Hannah, Mark, and Iris out of their conundrum.  I can’t tell if the ending is just lazy or if it was directed by someone entirely different.

It satisfies, sure, but it doesn’t soar like the rest of the film.  Shelton concludes it far too cleanly to be consistent with the tone of the rest of “Your Sister’s Sister.”  Let messy people dwell in their messiness.  It’s more authentic that way.  B