REVIEW: How I Live Now

19 02 2016

How I Live NowPlot-wise, not a lot separates Kevin MacDonald’s “How I Live Now” from prestige film “Atonement.” (And yes, going beyond the fact that both feature Saoirse Ronan.) The two films feature the discovery of young, passionate love that gets torn asunder by global warfare. Rather than follow the male into battle, both choose to focus primarily on the female experience on the outskirts of the conflict, where they pine for the restoration of a harmonious world.

But execution and tone set them apart. “How I Live Now” takes place in a nondescript, undeveloped dystopian present-day that erupts into World War III, and it feels more like a bad plot device than any meaningful social commentary. The film is based on a YA novel by Meg Rosoff, and MacDonald struggles to transcend those origins – try as he might to make it more adult with a more tense R-rating.

Ronan gives it her all, too, as protagonist Daisy, a constantly put-out teen who finds meaning in romance with George MacKay’s Eddie after being unceremoniously shipped across the sea to the U.K. But even acting the heck out of her character does not change the fact that Daisy is a whiny, angst-ridden adolescent whose idea of real love is fantasizing about Eddie’s shirtless torso. It may be tough for her to be a young person in a world forcing her to grow up and face the ugliness of humanity. However, it is probably tougher for “How I Live Now” being a teen movie and trying to parade around as a tale for adults. B-2stars

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REVIEW: Brooklyn

18 11 2015

BrooklynSincerity has gone out of style in the world of adult filmmaking, perhaps as a sort of defense mechanism against the ever encroaching threat of extinction. (That’s just speculation on my part, though.) So it always feels refreshing when a film like “Brooklyn,” triumphant in its emotionality and lack of irony, manages to break through the cracks. The film’s combination of a pure heart and gorgeous craftsmanship produces an experience that lifts the soul.

Director John Crowley takes an unabashedly classical approach to telling the story of Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis, an Irish immigrant to New York in the 1950s. “Brooklyn” may look and feel like a film made in that time period, but it never falls back on retrograde worldviews or attitudes. Screenwriter Nick Hornby simply takes Colm Tóibín’s novel and allows it to soar as a tender tale of a young woman finding her voice and her home – two things with obvious relevance today.

Eilis leaves behind her widowed mother and unmarried older sister in small town Ireland not out of any great desire to start a new life. In fact, the arrangements for her to live and work in the heavily Irish concentrated Brooklyn get made almost entirely by others. Faced with the choice between an unsatisfying present and an uncertain future, Eilis lets her family nudge her towards taking the fork in the road.

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LISTFUL THINKING: 10 British Actors Who Would Have CRUSHED Harry Potter

12 05 2015

With Eddie Redmayne now in official talks for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a spinoff of the “Harry Potter” series, I figured now was as good a time as ever to turn a long-gestating list into a published post.  (This has been a note in my iPhone for almost four years now!)

It is easy to forget that the “Harry Potter” series, among its many accomplishments, offered fine roles to a number of talented British thespians.  Pooled together, the cast has amassed 31 Oscar nominations – a number that seems mightly low when you consider the names who graced the eight films.  Kenneth Branagh.  Julie Christie.  Gary Oldman.  Ralph Fiennes.  Maggie Smith.  Emma Thompson.  (Alan Rickman is not included because he has somehow never been nominated for an Oscar.)

Recently, a number of stars have expressed remorse that they were not a part of the series.  Martin Freeman got sad about it with Jimmy Fallon…

…while Eddie Redmayne briefly lamented it before launching into a hilarious story about bombing his audition for “The Hobbit” films.

Redmayne on HP

But just because it did not happen for Redmayne does not mean I cannot imagine a few recastings that incorporates some more talented British actors.  Maybe some roles will have to make cameos in the new trilogy, after all!  And, heaven forbid, Warner Bros. might actually reboot the original books one day.

So, as the title of the list suggests, here are 10 British actors overlooked by the “Harry Potter” casting directors and the roles they could have played brilliantly.

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REVIEW: Lost River

1 05 2015

Lost RiverRyan Gosling’s directorial debut, “Lost River,” opens with a crooning Americana theme (“In the Still of the Night”) playing over alternating images of alternating suburban decency and urban decay in Detroit.  It might be the strongest sequence in the entire film – and definitely the most lucidly realized.

Gosling clearly aims for David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn (the DNA of disastrous “Only God Forgives” is obvious) but winds up in borderline nonsensical territory.  He has beautiful visuals and haunting soundscapes yet no discernible theme or thesis underlying the film.  “Incoherent” might be a little strong to describe the experience, but the images have the cohesion of a two-day-old bandage and the logical progression of a Tumblr feed.

“Lost River” also falters by introducing an aspect of magical realism into the proceedings.  Given that whatever semblance of a plot the film possesses takes place in a very real city of ruins, the ambience feels contradictory.  This reliance on mood becomes first obvious, then annoying, since it has to essentially replace story in the film.

The narrative is also rather fragmented, seemingly two short films layered over each other.  They have an obvious familial connection, as the protagonists are a mother and her son, but they go in wildly different directions.  Christina Hendrick’s matriarch Billy goes to work at a Club Silencio-esque joint to repay a loan, while young Bones (Ian de Caestecker) faces down a neighborhood criminal overlord Bully (Matt Smith) to protect his love interest, Rat (Saoirse Ronan).  Their struggles are supposedly illuminating the subconscious of the ghost town they inhabit, although I found them mostly illustrating the vacuous expanses of hipsterism.  C2stars





REVIEW: Hanna

1 10 2013

When the score is the best part of a movie, you know it’s going to be a doozy.  Although to be fair, the score for “Hanna” is composed by The Chemical Brothers – and it is wicked awesome.  If you are a big runner or just like really energetic music to motivate you for whatever life throws your way, then pick up the soundtrack immediately!

Chances are, that soundtrack will be the only lasting impression “Hanna” leaves on the world.  It’s an action-thriller with a tinge of conspiratorial intrigue that comes up just short of everything it hopes to achieve.  Sure, there’s some cool cinematography and neat editing, but everything feels a little more awesome when it’s set to The Chemical Brothers.

No coincidence the movie comes from director Joe Wright, whose career could be summed up in one word: almost.  “Pride and Prejudice” almost worked as a moving Austen adaptation.  “Atonement” almost worked as a sweeping epic of love and forgiveness.  “The Soloist” almost worked as a touching biopic and an exposé of the plight of the Los Angeles homeless.  Jumping ahead, “Anna Karenina” almost worked as an innovative approach to the oft-adapted Tolstoy novel.

In “Hanna,” Wright crafts an ultra-stylish film that’s fun to look at yet falters on an emotional level.  It’s a nuts-and-bolts construction, not a heart-and-soul one.  Pity, because with some care and attention towards the performances and actors, there could have been one heck of a turn from Saoirse Ronan as the titular character.  Ditto Cate Blanchett, the Oscar-winner who could knock any role out of the park.

But as such, “Hanna” is really just there for neat smoke-and-mirrors type of stuff and some nice selections from The Chemical Brothers.  Check out the amazing club sequence from “Black Swan” if you want to hear their beats put to a worthy and compelling scene that will truly haunt you.  C2stars





REVIEW: Violet & Daisy

11 06 2013

Geoffrey Fletcher’s jump from writing the Oscar-winning “Precious” to penning and directing “Violet & Daisy” is hardly a logical one.  How someone goes from something so raw and emotionally moving to a film so austere and oblique is a career move I doubt I would be bold enough to make.  Though I’d prefer that Fletcher stick to his much-lauded strengths, I am all for artists diversifying and taking risks.

His “Violet & Daisy” is certainly a very interesting film from a stylistic standpoint, blending together everything from French New Wave technique to an almost Tarantino-esque sense of stilted reality.  The story, meanwhile, is fairly simple, mostly involving the two titular assassins (played by Saoirse Ronan and Alexis Bledel) trying to decide whether or not to whack Tony Soprano himself (James Gandolfini’s Michael).  Consider it the film art version of any great action movie conversational stand-off.

But while the style drew me in, it also took me out of the movie.  Fletcher’s characters speak very ear-catching dialogue and head into compelling situations.  Yet the sort of detachment that comes with the aesthetic led me to feel a cold distance from the action.  That was likely the intent, but I felt that it also downplayed the importance of Fletcher’s script.  The drama doesn’t hit home, and “Violet & Daisy” really can’t connect when it matters most.

It’s still a more or less entertaining and interesting watch, though.  I just don’t think I would ever want to watch it again.  And I’d only recommend it to someone else if they were a particular kind of viewer in a particular kind of mood.  But I also don’t tend to embrace movies in the mold of “Violet & Daisy,” so perhaps it’s best that I was nonplussed by it.  B-2stars





REVIEW: The Way Back

5 07 2011

Long, grueling journeys requiring great endurance can make for great cinema.  Peter Weir, the director of the fantastic Best Picture nominated “Master & Commander,” does a great job portraying the struggle of man against a hostile environment in “The Way Back.”  However, following on the coattails of 2008’s “Defiance,” the Edward Zwick helmed film about survival in the Polish forests after World War II, the movie feels like it’s treading tired ground.

Sometimes movies are all about the timing, not just in regards to what’s on the screen but also in regards to when it comes on the screen.  “Defiance” took a genre that can be a really hard watch and made it a rewarding and meaningful in a way that I hadn’t seen in quite some time.  I didn’t judge “The Way Back” right out of the gate, but given that it too followed an eclectic group of people escaping a totalitarianist regime in the 1940s and fleeing into the forests, the comparison was inevitable.  In the end, they just feel too similar – and I only want to watch “Defiance” once.  Like a “Schindler’s List,” these movies show human beings dropped to sickening lows to survive.  While good ultimately triumphs, the journey there is so painful that I rarely want to relive it.

So perhaps if “The Way Back” was a 2007 release, I would respond much more positively to it.  Weir’s film is certainly not without its merits, however.  It boasts two very nice performances from Ed Harris and Saoirse Ronan, although Jim Sturgess and Colin Farrell just didn’t really do much for me.  The below-the-line elements are superb, including some captivating cinematography and marvelous makeup work that was very much deserving of the Oscar nomination that it received.

The script is also nicely done and captures the triumph of the human spirit and will over any obstacle.  However, Weir’s insistance on filming on such a grand scale hampers the movie, making it slower and more prolonged.  We end up feeling less because he wants to give us so much more.  “The Way Back” can’t be on an epic level with a movie like “Master & Commander” because it has to rejoice in the little moments of human strength and dignity that can be found trudging through the wilderness.  Given that the movie was based on a true story, I probably should have felt a lot happier that they triumphed, but dealing with such subject matter is difficult.  I’m not going to pretend like I could have done any better making the movie.  B /