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.

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REVIEW: Fury

4 11 2014

FuryThe “war is hell” thesis argued by David Ayer’s “Fury” is certainly nothing new under the sun.  But as the amount of viewers with personal connection to warfare dwindles daily, cinema must continue to provide this myth-making service to provide those images for our culture.  Ayer’s film serves as a reminder of the sacrifices that soldiers make as well as the brutality to which they are exposed on a consistent basis.

“Fury” begins at the end of the journey in 1945 Germany for a tank division under the leadership of Brad Pitt’s Don “Wardaddy” Collier, an equally red-blooded but less caricatured version of Aldo Raine from “Inglourious Basterds.” He commands a group of men who have all been visibly demoralized by fighting the inhumanity of the Nazis, particularly Shia LaBeouf’s world-weary Boyd “Bible” Swan.  His sobering nihilism marks the first clean break the actor has made from his goofy Louis Stevens persona, which has been an unwelcome legacy looming over all his work.

After one of their drivers is gunned down, the unit receives an unwelcome replacement in Logan Lerman’s green, babyfaced Norman Ellison.  Prior to stepping in the tank, his only experience of World War II had been from behind a typewriter doing clerical work.  Norman becomes the entry point into “Fury” as well as its emotional core, two roles that Lerman performs astutely.

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REVIEWS: Nymphomaniac, Vols. I and II

8 07 2014

Nymphomaniac

There was understandably a lot of talk surrounding the alleged pornographic content of Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac,” a two-part, four hour opus on human sexuality.  It got plenty of coverage online – thank you, always horny Internet users who fall for the first click-bait title about sex – and I honestly was never quite sure if the actors were participating in live acts or not.

But I sat through the entire film (albeit in two sittings) and hardly found the explicit content to be the most off-putting thing about it.

In fact, it rather made sense for a movie like this to show sexuality so openly since it is literally about all the complications and eccentricities of the libido.  That doesn’t make it easy to watch, nor does it make portraying sex acts artistic.  It does, however, give them some sense of place (unlike the rather unnecessarily extended scenes in “Blue is the Warmest Color“).

No, what made “Nymphomaniac” tough to watch and downright insufferable at times is Von Trier’s seemingly never-ending supply of pretentious commentary.  He structures the film as a conversation about the travails of sex addict Joe, played with dogged dedication by Charlotte Gainsbourg, with professor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard).  As they walk through her life, each provides intellectual commentary on the very nature of sexuality.

Von Trier clearly has a lot to say, and his appraisals can be quite enlightening.  Yet he writes the film in such a haughty, overblown tone that it can’t help but get quite aggravating at a certain point.  Von Trier supplies endless metaphors and then unpacks them completely rather than letting us explore them.  The experience of “Nymphomaniac” is akin to locking yourself in a room for four hours with Von Trier, who greets you from his ivory tower mentality with the exhortation, “sit down and let me educate you about sex because I know everything about it!”

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REVIEW: The Company You Keep

27 04 2013

There are all sorts of cinematic experiences you can have these days when going to the movies.  Sometimes, as was the case with Robert Redford’s “The Company You Keep,” I felt like I was mostly just following the events unfold as opposed to actively watching the film.  Sure, I was taking it in, but it reminds me of the experience of reading SparkNotes or a Wikipedia summary – not exactly engaging or satisfying, in other words.

Redford appears to be angling to win the SAG ensemble award on paper with this cast of Oscar winners, nominees, and Shia LaBeouf.  Though with this A(ARP)vengers of ’70s and ’80s greats assembled, you’d think the drama would not be so turgid and lifeless.  It’s stiff and uninteresting as both a journalistic crusade as well as a fugitive thriller.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized this had all the potential to be “All The President’s Men” meets “The Fugitive.”  Both those movies had tension, though, and Redford can’t even manufacture it synthetically with a Cliff Martinez (“Drive,” “Contagion“) score.  The characters also lacked depth, both in terms of emotional development as well as decent dialogue for them to say.  Everyone speaks in self-righteous platitudes in “The Company You Keep,” making for some rather excruciating confrontations.

With all that’s going on these days, an old home-grown terrorist and a young maverick journalist in the era of print media’s growing obsolescence should be a no-brainer for fascinating conflict and thought-provoking meditations on the world we live in.  But it just goes to show the even with the company Redford keeps – Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, and Susan Sarandon – you can’t just throw acclaimed actors and actresses in a pot and expect it to boil.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Lawless

21 05 2012

Cannes Film Festival

Every year, the studios with any self-respect release a film or so between August or October meant to fill a very small hole in the market: respectable films that aren’t quite Oscar contenders but have more brains than your average popcorn flick. Occasionally, one of these will break away and compete in awards season (“Moneyball,” to name one from last year), but more often than not, they just gain respect and claims at the bottom of a few year-end underrated lists (“Contagion,” to take another 2011 example). There’s nothing wrong with this middle except for just like in politics, where it is more popular to go to extremes than be a moderate, such products are hard to bundle and sell if an audience does not know exactly what it will be getting.

Lawless,” John Hillcoat’s drama set in Prohibition-era Virginia countryside, fills such a groove. It does not quite have the overall package to compete for Oscar gold, but it’s hardly a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. It has flaws, particularly in the insipid first act weighted down by exposition; however, when the film kicks into high gear, it provides a riveting ride.

While I haven’t been a big fan of Shia LaBeouf since “Even Stevens,” which I can now continue to argue is his most accomplished work to date, “Lawless” gets bolstered by a number of supporting performances that should garner the actors some much overdue recognition. Surprisingly, one of these tour de forces is not given by Jessica Chastain, cinema’s new “it girl.”  She’s fine, don’t get me wrong, but Chastain and Mia Wasikowska seem only relevant to the film for marketing purposes, token females to help reach another quadrant.

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REVIEW: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

28 06 2011

 

Oh, Michael Bay, what on earth are we going to do with you?  The director’s latest venture, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” reminds me why I use his name metonymically to represent all that is wrong with modern Hollywood filmmaking.  I have come to believe that the director’s ambition is to make movies akin to hitting your head against a wall: that is, both should be experiences to kill a massive amount of brain cells.

To call the movie thinly plotted is a vast overstatement; it’s a jumble of events that gives Bay an excuse to blow stuff up.  In fact, using the word plot is insulting to the craft of writing.  If there was any sort of story to the movie, I couldn’t make it out amidst the deafening noisiness.  All I picked up on was some sort of Apollo 11 conspiracy that brings back more villainous Decepticons, thus allowing Bay to unleash the Autobots to fight them for prolonged periods of time while Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky runs around like he just escaped from an insane asylum and the new Megan Fox, Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whitley, stands there looking hot while managing to still have a perfectly unscathed face amidst the disaster around her.

It’s hard to believe now that this series used to be good.  The first “Transformers,” which came out four years ago, was a fun mix of action, humor, and excitement.  Since it did so well at the box office, Bay seems to have assumed it was only because of the action and dialed down every other aspect of the series to make the one non-stop.  I don’t mind watching buildings explode or bullets fly, but it gets old when you get pounded by it ceaselessly.  For this reason, the first sequel “Revenge of the Fallen” was a total disaster and one of the worst movies released in 2009.

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REVIEW: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

16 01 2011

I have no problem with Hollywood approaching the 2008 financial collapse; look no further than my “A” for Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job.”  But it’s a slippery slope to walk on, and Oliver Stone’s slanted “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” does a total face-plant as its blatantly pointed activism destroys any legitimacy the movie might have.  Compared to Ferguson’s fascinating investigation and research, Stone’s allegory is a cowardly and vicious attack on the system of greed that the original film highlighted in 1987.

There was no reason to resurrect Michael Douglas’ Oscar-winning character Gordon Gekko at all, and Stone’s haste to use him as an instrument in unleashing a tirade against Wall Street renders his transformation senseless.  In the first film, he was a slimy representation of greed and excess, and an antagonist meant to be deplored.  Yet in 2010, he has been conveniently reassigned to the voice of the writer and his liberal sensibilities.  No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, this move just doesn’t work under the basic conventions of storytelling.

The movie’s main plot is mostly independent of Gekko, tying him in through a broken relationship with his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan).  She’s engaged to Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a young upstart banker who gets caught up in the idea of creating something from nothing that he ultimately winds up without anything.  After the suicide of his mentor, he finds himself reeling and very lost.

Sure, it has its entertaining moments, but the whole movie just reeks of a misplaced sense of political vindication.  Stone doesn’t challenge, inform, or educate, and there’s nothing left for the audience to ponder.  The deranged manifesto that is “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is just a series of thinly veiled pot-shots on everyone involved in the financial meltdown, less based on the facts than on the opinions and convictions of its hardly neutral filmmakers.  C-