REVIEW: Made in Dagenham

14 06 2017

You don’t have to like every movie you agree with, and you don’t have to dislike every movie you disagree with. In fact, some of the most interesting film watching experiences come from wrestling with feelings that result from this dissonance. (The latter of the two options is far more challenging, though, in my opinion.)

Made in Dagenham” is a classic example of that first type of cinema, a message movie that reaffirms many basic beliefs about social progress. As working-class sewing machine operators in suburban London fight for equal pay, led by Sally Hawkins’ plucky Rita O’Grady, the film invites us to applaud the struggles and advances towards ending sexism. It asks relatively little of us, instead reassuring us with the familiar storyline of white women saving the world – and doing little to motivate us to continue closing the gender pay gap.

The film has great performances to spare and proves amusing, even rousing, entertainment. But it never challenges, nor does it provoke. “Made in Dagenham” plays into the notion that the arc of history bends towards justice because of the efforts of our ancestors. It does little to incite the next generation to continue exerting force to keep the shape of that bend. C+





REVIEW: Godzilla

8 06 2014

GodzillaIn 2010, Gareth Edwards unleashed the ultra-low budget flick “Monsters” on the world.  It was a striking debut, and it also wound up serving as an audition tape for the job of reenergizing the “Godzilla” franchise.  Indeed, if there was anyone to scoop up from the world of independent cinema for large-scale filmmaking, Edwards seemed like a natural due to the way he emphasized human relationships over flashy computer graphics.

Sadly, what ultimately hits the screen in “Godzilla” is something far more in the mold of Marvel than Edwards’ own “Monsters.”  The plot structure resembles the paradigm perpetuated by films like “The Avengers;” I’d like to call this formula “30-40-50.”  The first 30 minutes of the film introduce us briefly to the characters and cap off with an inciting event that sets up a climactic clash with an opposing villainous force.  The next 40 minutes vamp up to this giant conclusion, showing the various heroes and their preparations.  And it all caps off with 50 minutes of destructions, explosions, collapsing buildings … you know the drill.

The scariest part of “Godzilla” is not the monster; it’s realizing how quickly the art of screenwriting has transmuted into an engineered science.  It favors empty computer graphics over real suspense and rewarding characterization.  Edwards’ penchant for thrilling action goes woefully underutilized as he settles to provide a standard entry in the genre “Monsters” so ably defies.  He gets to be somewhat ironic on occasion but never subtle.

Actors can often rescue movies that sag under the weight of a bloated effects budget, but no such salvation is available for “Godzilla.”  Here, Bryan Cranston is forced to play a Walter White-lite variety and acclaimed actresses such as Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, and Juliette Binoche are relegated to serve perfunctory roles on the sidelines.  But don’t worry, Aaron Taylor-Johnson fruitlessly channels Mark Wahlberg trying to save the day, an archetype he’s ill-equipped to play.

But hey, who needs actors when you can watch a giant lizard destroy the Golden Gate Bridge and the rest of San Francisco?  Not like we got to see it terrorized in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”  Or the “Star Trek” movies.  (Heck, even the animated “Monsters vs. Aliens” got in on the action.)  Sure, it’s probably more extensive here in “Godzilla,” but it all just feels so familiar and generic.  No better way to sit through the threat of near-apocalyptic extinction than comfortably numb, right?  C+2stars





REVIEW: Blue Jasmine

12 08 2013

Woody Allen’s latest feature shows our most prolific filmmaker access a side of his writing seldom seen: dark and unsparingly grim tragedy.  I’ve seen all of his 48 films, and perhaps not since 1992’s “Husbands and Wives” has he taken such a bleak and hard-hitting look at the demons we battle and the struggles we face.  His “Blue Jasmine” is a modern “A Streetcar Named Desire” mixed in a cocktail with the Bernie Madoff scandal and washed down with a toxic mixture of alcohol and antidepressants.

It’s no stone-faced drama like “Match Point,” though.  There are still plenty of laughs to be had here, although they definitely don’t resemble the kind of humor you’d find in Allen’s early farces like “Bananas.”  Nor do they even take the shape of the clever wit of “Annie Hall” or even “Midnight in Paris.”  In “Blue Jasmine,” we chuckle as we cringe.  Almost all of our laughs are muffled as they come while we grit our teeth.

That’s because his protagonist, Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine (formerly Jeanette, but that name wasn’t exciting enough), is slowly charting her own way to another complete mental breakdown.  She suffered her first one after her husband’s vast fraudulent financial empire collapses, leaving her penniless to fend for herself in the world.  Lost and not placated by her Xanax, she journeys cross-country to San Francisco to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in the hopes of getting back on her feet.

But Jasmine quickly finds that she’s woefully underprepared to enter the workforce since she has no degree, dropping out of Boston University with a year left to marry Hal (Alec Baldwin).  Despite offers from Ginger’s circle of friends to help her find secretarial or wage labor, Jasmine remains defiant, unable to accept the reality that she is no longer among the privileged Park Avenue lot.  Her half-hearted effort to come to terms with her new social standing leads to clashes with her eventual employer, Michael Stuhlbarg’s genial dentist Dr. Flicker, and Ginger’s boyfriend, Bobby Cannavale’s unabashedly honest Chili.

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REVIEW: Submarine

3 07 2011

While sitting in “Submarine,” a coming-of-age dramedy import from our Welsh friends across the pond, there were moments when I thought I was going to give the movie unequivocal praise.  It had the eye-catching look and the quirky feel of a Wes Anderson film.  With its simple, geometric shots, clean editing, and eccentric characters navigating through some hilariously mundane situations, it could be the long lost foreign cousin of “Rushmore” (or a very flattering imitation).

And coming out of high school, I definitely felt that Craig Roberts’ protagonist Oliver Tate, despite our cultural differences, was one of the freshest portrayals of the confusion and the jumble of feelings that is growing up.  With his anthropological observations on the high school food chain and the social sphere in general crackling with wit, he reminds us how out of touch the cinematic visions of this age really are.  His quest to lose his virginity for a variety of underlying social factors is absolutely hysterical without ever losing touch with reality or authenticity.

But as the film shifts gears from this burst of postpubescent energy, this submarine begins to sink.  The emotions become more reserved, and the film’s energy goes along with it.  I can understand the cinematic reasons for the tonal shift: it doesn’t seem appropriate to have the same pop when dealing with the failing marriage of his parents (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) and the potentially terminal illness of his girlfriend’s mother.  On the other hand, there is a way to convey those emotions without losing the joie de vivre that was so vibrant in the beginning.

Considering that “Submarine” is the directorial debut of Richard Ayoade, I’ll just chalk up some of the tonal problems and the resultant tinges of boredom to being rookie mistakes.  But I will echo the critical consensus – look for great things from this director in the future.  Once he gets a few more films under his belt, the things Ayoade can do so brilliantly will shine brightly.  B- / 





Oscar Moment: “Made in Dagenham”

22 10 2010

“Made in Dagenham” could fill a whole lot of quotas at this year’s Oscars.

To start off, it’s British.  Secondly, it’s British.  Oh yeah, and did I mention it’s British?

There’s always interest when it comes to our friends across the pond as a second “British Invasion” is beginning to sway the Academy in a different direction.   And they sure do love recognizing their own movies, even if they aren’t very good (cough, “The Reader”).  If you can’t tell by the accents, “Made in Dagenham” is a VERY British movie, even enhancing its anglophilic capabilities by chronicling a period of social history in the United Kingdom.

Which brings me to my next point: it’s about women’s rights!  Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) leads a strike of sewing workers to fight for equal pay for all sexes.  This true story of trying to end discrimination by gender is even told with a touch of comedy to keep it from devolving into “Norma Rae.”  What’s not for the Academy to like?

I’ve thrown out a lot of possibilities for a so-called “The Blind Side” slot.  It pains me to think that such a thing exists, but we have to consider inspirational and heartwarming movies a threat no matter how cheesy they may be.  I’ve suggested that “Conviction” and “Secretariat” both have qualities that make them a threat in a similar way, and you can add in “Made in Dagenham” to that list as well.  After the movie bowed at Toronto, Kris Tapley of In Contention stated that “the story is exactly the sort of underdog tale that can make an awards dent, especially in a field of 10.”

If it turns out to be a crowd-pleaser, even if just to a smaller crowd, this could easily be nominated when you take into account that it has pretty solid reviews.  I see a close parallel in “An Education” – a light British drama with a dynamite leading turn.  Sally Hawkins, two years removed from a snub for Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” is back and blazing in this role.  Some have compared her to Sally Field, who won an Oscar in 1979 for her role in “Norma Rae” as the titular union organizer.  Women’s rights activists have done well in Best Actress (see Charlize Theron in 2005 for “North Country”), a category that likes to celebrate strong women.  The big concern is that she may not have the prestige to break into a tight field of five this year.

But according to most professional prognosticators, the movie’s biggest acting asset is Miranda Richardson, who plays the fiery Barbara Castle.  In the same article as reference above, Kris Tapley said this of Richardson:

“Miranda Richardson may finally nail down the Oscar win many of us have desperately wanted to see her wrangle for years.  If nothing else she’s on a clear track for a nomination.  The actress is on fire as Barbara Castle, the Labor party Baroness who bravely threw her weight behind female Ford factory workers demanding equal pay in an unfair system, and at a time when it was raging against a fierce tide to do so.  The supporting actress category is ripe for the taking this year and Richardson’s is exactly the kind of commanding, bold, yet humorous turn voters love to recognize.”

In a Best Supporting Actress category that is as unshaped as a slab of clay, Richardson could swoop down and steal the momentum – because no one else has yet!  Mo’Nique got the buzz from Sundance last year and never let go; Richardson could do the same (albeit 10 months afterwards).

There are plenty of other outside possibilities for the movie, including a potential second Best Supporting Actress bid for Rosamund Pike (which seems likely if the movie goes huge) and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Bob Hoskins (more likely than Pike, although Bill Murray for “Get Low” is more likely to take his slot).  It will be much easier to tell what we can expect in the middle of November when the movie is released; its success in awards season will rely quite a bit on the reception it receives here.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Actress (Hawkins), Best Supporting Actress (Richardson)

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Supporting Actor (Hoskins), Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Original Song