F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 10, 2017)

10 08 2017

Adaptation” it most certainly is not, but Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths” makes for a most entertaining meta-movie. This specific genre derives its pleasures by baking the creation of the movie into the very fabric of the story itself; the fact that everything was narrativized is not merely a fact slapped on at the conclusion. Some artists smuggle these meta-movies into existence under the guise of something like a heist flick (Christopher Nolan’s “Inception“) or a con artist caper (Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom“), though many in their purest form simply revolve around filmmakers struggling to create.

That’s the case for McDonagh’s meta-movie, my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” In many ways, “Seven Psychopaths” feels like a self-interrogation (perhaps after surveying his prior film “In Bruges”). His leading man, Colin Farrell’s Marty, is a screenwriter struggling to pen his latest script conveniently titled – you guessed it – “Seven Psychopaths.” As he drolly puts it, “I’ve got the title, just not the psychopaths.”

Marty wants to write a film about violent people without succumbing the soul-sucking carnage that plagues many films about such subjects. He wants it all to mean something, not just become a violent shoot-’em-up. Ultimately, Marty gets more than he bargained for when a friend draws him into a Los Angeles gang dispute over … a Shih Tzu. The anodyne object of conflict points out the inherent absurdity of the criminal underworld without fully discounting the grotesqueness of their deeds.

I first watched “Seven Psychopaths” on video in 2013 and found myself rather unenthused by it. (The original grade I bestowed upon it was a C.) With McDonagh’s next directorial outing “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” about to make landfall on the film festival circuit, something compelled me to give it a second chance – and judging by its inclusion in this column, you can assume I’m glad I did. McDonagh grants us a dryly humorous window into the writing process, which also means clueing us into his knowledge of audience expectations for what’s to come. This feat is a tricky one to pull off without drowning in self-awareness, and he does it with a good amount of dexterity.





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: Laggies

15 11 2014

LaggiesTwo years ago, I placed my money on Lynn Shelton to lead the charge of brining the mumblecore movement to the mainstream.  After seeing “Laggies,” however, I may want to switch my bet to Joe Swanberg.

That is not to imply Shelton’s latest feature indicates a decline in the quality of her output; “Laggies” is certainly a recovery since she sputtered last year with the deservedly little-seen “Touchy Feely.”  Moreover, it is probably her most accessible (or marketable) film to date.  But in order to achieve that, Shelton has not adapted or modified the movement from which she arose.  She has essentially dispersed of it all together.

The only part of “Laggies” that remains in the mumblecore tradition is its protagonist, Keira Knightley’s Megan.  She’s a spiritual cousin of Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha and Lena Dunham’s Aura from “Tiny Furniture,” a confused and commitment-phobic upper-middle-class millennial twentysomething ambling haplessly through the best years of her life.  She clearly does not love her boyfriend (Mark Webber, yet she lacks the decisiveness to reject his advances towards marriage.  She invested in post-graduate education, but she prefers the lack of responsibility that comes from sign-twirling for her father (Jeff Garlin).

Knightley nails the generational milieu of indirection and indecision, so it is too bad that the rest of “Laggies” could not be nearly as interesting as her.  Shelton, working from a screenplay by Andrea Seigel, steers the film quickly into the realm of standard-issue chick flicks and rom-coms.  Once she lays the cards on the table, it becomes pretty clear where the film will go – although I did hold out hope that there might be a subversive or original twist to spruce things up a bit.

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REVIEW: The Way Way Back

4 08 2013

Two years ago, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash stood on stage at the Academy Awards behind Alexander Payne as he delivered the majority of their acceptance speech for writing “The Descendants.” While Payne waxed poetic to millions of people, Faxon and Rash drew the attention of the cameramen through a bizarre stunt – mocking Angelina Jolie’s flaunting of her flawless leg as it protruded out of her dress that very night.

As soon as I saw that, I thought to myself that they must have provided the humor in “The Descendants,” and the tragedy and drama came courtesy of Alexander Payne. But after seeing Faxon and Rash’s directorial debut “The Way Way Back,” which they also wrote together, I’m not so sure my assumption was correct. The dynamic duo crafted a truly heartfelt and genuine film that is equal parts uproarious comedy and poignant drama. Not a moment in the movie feels false as everything hits home just by being honest.

The film might not be the most original as it is a fairly typical entry into the coming-of-age sub genre. The protagonist, Duncan, is a shy turtle of a 14-year-old boy headed for a summer at the beach with his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her new jerk of a boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Both of them struggle to fit into Trent’s pre-existing world, although Pam has no escape. Duncan manages to find a surrogate family for the summer at the Water Wizz water park under the tutelage of the quick-witted Owen (Sam Rockwell).

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REVIEW: Cowboys & Aliens

27 07 2011

From the very beginning of Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens,” a very uneasy unevenness settles on the screen.  The movie feels torn between whether to be an alien invasion movie that happens to be set in 1870s New Mexico or a Western movie where the villains happen to be aliens.  Rather than make an executive decision and splice the genres, Favreau settles for an unhappy medium, vacillating back and forth between which of the two he’d rather use for the particular scene.  The resultant jumble is just that, a movie that haphazardly joins various elements from both genres to create a bitter hodgepodge that barely satisfies on basic entertainment levels.

The film basically glides by plotlessly for nearly two hours, floating on the very thin premise that feels like an infantile idea to begin.  Combining cowboys and aliens sounds like a game played by a five-year-old when his mom throws the “Star Wars” toys in the Lincoln Logs bin.  It might be fun for a little while as the two clash, but we eventually come to the realization that the novelty can’t sustain, much like that child probably would as well.

The kids-at-heart writing this story, otherwise known as the guys who gave you such wide-ranging projects as “Star Trek,” “Transformers,” the television show “Lost,” “Children of Men,” “Iron Man,” and the unforgettable classic “Kung Pow: Enter The Fist,” have the attention span of that five-year-old child.  They fail to take the movie anywhere worthwhile past the original jolt of imagination that inspired them to combine the two worlds in the first place.  Once they get the whole thing assembled and need to get the plot rolling, they abandon it to play with Legos and leave the movie going on autopilot.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 15, 2011)

15 07 2011

With the final installment of “Harry Potter” now in theaters, millions of Americans will see Snape’s finest hour, which wouldn’t be nearly as compelling without the incredible talent of Alan Rickman behind Rowling’s well-crafted character.  His creepiness and eeriness for the past decade in the role has introduced him to a whole new audience, few of whom know him as the nefarious Hans Gruber for “Die Hard.”  However, the role that even fewer recognize him for – and everyone should – is his hilarious turn in “Galaxy Quest,” a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek satire on the “Star Trek” show and fan base.  It’s been a favorite of mine since I was seven, and now is the perfect time to feature it as my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Rickman plays Alexander Dane, a peeved British supporting actor in the “Galaxy Quest” television series whose character happens to have some unfortunate gills on his skull.  He and the rest of the cast, which includes the hilarious Sigourney Weaver as the show’s sex appeal, are at the mercy of their drunk leading man, Tim Allen’s Jason Nesmith, when it comes to maintaining their show’s cult appeal.  Doing a great Shatner rip-off, Allen so nails the fame-crazed has-been that we so love to lampoon – and thankfully, Rickman and Weaver are there every step of the way to give him a light slap when necessary.

But one fateful day, the cast of “Galaxy Quest” gets drawn into the universe that they only knew on studio lots.  The actors find themselves totally hopeless in the face of actual peril but must exude some aura of control to keep the Thermian aliens under the impression that they know what they’re doing.  Their quest through strange worlds in space gives a new meaning to science-fiction and acting for all aboard.

It doesn’t matter if you are a Trekkie or not, whether you are a crazily obsessed fan of something or just know someone who is, you will totally be able to laugh along with “Galaxy Quest.”  It sends up obsession and taking anything too seriously to hilarious effect.  Not to mention it holds up exceptionally well on repeat viewings!





REVIEW: Conviction

14 11 2010

There’s something noticeably missing from “Conviction,” Fox Searchlight’s annual super Oscar bait entry: emotion.

The movie has a fascinating premise at its core as Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) works tirelessly over the course of two decades to acquit her innocent brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) of his murder conviction, putting herself through law school while raising a family at the same time.  His case is solved quite simply by DNA evidence pulled from the crime scene and getting the witnesses to testify to their intimidation by a crooked female police officer (Melissa Leo).

The struggle against the law manages to keep us interested for two hours, but the way the story is told by screenwriter Gray and interpreted by the actors fails to compel us.  The movie feels like a first draft, lacking any sort of refinement or polish.  I found it particularly alarming that director Tony Goldwyn felt content with the performances of Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell given their history of powerful performances.

Both actors are in low gear, offering work that seems void of any sort of emotion or care.  It feels like they are doing their first read-through of the script and simply reading the words for the first time, not stopping to look into subtext or the true intents of their characters.  Even when the movie tries the typical heart-warming moment, Swank and Rockwell don’t even seem to be trying to convey any sort of feeling.  The movie’s chain of events moves, but we as an audience are not moved.  It’s interesting to see the story of Betty Anne Waters, but since Swank doesn’t seem to find it as such, maybe you’ll find more interest in checking your e-mails or Facebook while following along with the plot.  C