REVIEW: Christine

18 10 2016

christineSundance Film Festival

If “Nightcrawler” had a spiritual prequel, Antonio Campos’ “Christine” might fit the bill. This true story of 1970s news anchor Christine Chubbuck, played with masterful precision by Rebecca Hall, hinges on the maddening descent of local television into the “if it bleeds, it leads” culture. The downward spiral of Christine’s profession matches her own personal crisis as internal demons wrest influence away from her sanity.

Rebecca Hall, most likely known to audiences for bit parts in films like “Iron Man 3” or her memorable supporting turn in “The Town,” finally gets to shine like the talent Woody Allen recognized when he cast her as the lead in 2008’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Though Christine’s notorious final on-air stunt has come to define her in the public memory, Hall’s performance finds her deep, troubled humanity and recreates it to devastating effect.

Christine tries to make a name for herself doing positive human interest stories with the verve of a true filmmaker, positioning herself against the grain of exploitative pulp. We know it’s a losing battle, and for the most part, so does she. Both the character and the audience alike are caught in a mutual death pact of dramatic irony, sensing the tragic end ahead but unable to turn away or turn the tide. Watching Christine’s unease mount in everything from an ill-fated romance with more successful co-anchor George Ryan (Michael C. Hall) to decaying relationship with the mother (J. Smith-Cameron) that still houses her provides the true motor of the film. Individual events matter less than the escalating paranoia, both real and imagined.

Director Antonio Campos resists easy sympathy for Christine, making her neither martyr, victim or antihero. She is a vividly realized person to us, but she is also someone whose narrative we experience through the moderation of a screen. As such, he often adds distance to her within the composition of a shot, photographing her through another video inside the frame. “Christine” treads this tricky line between sympathy and alienation with remarkable exactitude, just as it balances personal dissatisfaction against cultural sensationalism. A-3halfstars

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REVIEW: The Boss

6 04 2016

Picture this: a highly successful businessperson, who augments the public’s perception of their wealth by doubling as a skilled entertainer, needs to bounce back after suffering some public humiliation.

This person enters a field knowing little about the profession but finds a way to prosper by exploiting complacency, deriding rivals with unwarranted personal attacks and even inciting violence.

The captain of industry boasts about cruel implementation of shrewd business tactics and remains unfazed when compared to totalitarian rulers.

(Oh, and this individual’s distinctively styled hair never gets dented.)

Did I just describe Donald Trump or Michelle Darnell, the lead character of the new film “The Boss” played by Melissa McCarthy?

The two larger-than-life figures share quite a few similarities, though McCarthy (along with co-writers Ben Falcone and Steve Mallory) could not possibly have known that her burlesqued portrayal of a corporate mogul would hit the marketplace at the same time as an equal ludicrous figure marched towards the nomination of a major political party. Literally, production ended on “The Boss” two weeks before Trump made the infamous escalator announcement. The ill-fated timing of its release makes it play like an inverse of “Zootopia,” this year’s most fortuitous arrival.

The odd parallel here and there between the fictional and the absurd business tycoon is not necessarily bothersome. And, in the interest of fairness, Donald Trump did not spend five months in jail for insider trading like Michelle Darnell. But a line feels crossed when she declares, “We’re participating in the American Dream!”

Out of context, this might seem harmless. However, Darnell utters it right before an all-out brawl takes place between her group of entrepreneurial thugs and the Girl Scout-like troop from which they disaffiliated. How can one find humor in the perversion of the American Dream on screen when a demagogue is ushering in a national nightmare in reality? Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dicator” showed that comedy had a definite place in a time of bullying leaders, though it ought to contain some confrontational element if it is to be anything more than a diversion. “The Boss” comes across as oblivious in regards to the implications of its dull satire.

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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