REVIEW: Imperium

15 08 2017

“We all create a narrative based on what we think is important,” Toni Collette’s FBI official Angela Zamparo suggests at the start of “Imperium.” She’s begging her colleague, Daniel Radcliffe’s sheepish bookworm agent Nate Foster, to broaden his mindset about what constitutes a clear threat to American security. That involves ditching a predilection for radical Islamic terrorism to focus his attention on a burgeoning threat to the country: white supremacist violence.

Based on some evidence suggesting a chemical bomb on the scale of Oklahoma City, Angela sends Nate deep into the hate-filled clutches of these neo-Nazi groups armed with little more than a buzzcut, knowledge gained from a white nationalist reading list and his own intuition. Oh, and she gives him pointers here and there from Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” to relate to some of the most frightening skinheads circling the gutter of society. How’s that for espionage? The film provides a consistently engaging, if never full engrossing, thrill ride down the drain.

Nate’s main target is a talk radio host of the Alex Jones variety, Tracy Letts’ #WhiteGenocide conspiracy peddling crackpot Dallas Wolf, to get to the center of the underground chemicals network. He’s a shady character who inspires some truly violent, hateful figures. But the scariest person in “Imperium” is the buttoned-up Gerry Conway, a family man who can weave racist talking points into everyday dialogue with shocking casualness. He might not embrace the full scope of fascism, but Gerry’s embrace of white nationalist ideals in spite of his apparent intelligence ought to give us all chills. White supremacy does not always come decked out in a swastika. Sometimes, it looks like your neighbor in his button-down shirt and gentle smile. B

REVIEW: The Lovers

4 06 2017

Azazel Jacobs often structures the narrative arc of his film “The Lovers” as a series of couplets. Husband and wife Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) are each seeing other people, but our first glimpse of their affairs isn’t exactly of romantic enchantment. Still, we can sense the affection through non-verbal communication: the gestures, the body language, the glances.

Once Jacobs cuts to a domestic scene, we see why they find such a thrill in partners who can express themselves more surreptitiously. For Michael and Mary, words have become purely transactional. They are merely vessels for information that they need to maintain their measly, unhappy existence.

What we’re not picking up from them, we gather from Mandy Hoffman’s score. Her vibrant symphony of strings dramatically emphasizes each mundane moment, providing an ironic contrast to Jacobs’ pitch-perfect minimalism. It’s up to the music to span the chasm between our expectations for the romantic comedy and the reality of the miserabilist marital drama.

For a time, that distance closes as Michael and Mary rekindle their flame in the midst of escalating pressures from their romantic partners to disband their official union. Just as neither admits they see someone, neither is willing to engage in overtly romantic gestures. Instead, their coded spousal jargon becomes irresistibly tantric to each other. Consider “The Lovers” an art-house spin on Nancy Meyers’ “It’s Complicated.”

Jacobs never lets us get too intimate with Michael and Mary; for example, a series of flirtatious texts they exchange are completely hidden from our view. Standard cinematic technique would normally dictate us seeing some glimpse of the screen. But it’s only fitting that we should not be privy to the kind of nuanced, internalized communication that can only be built after decades of matrimony. When the tiniest break occurs that might provide clue to their thoughts, such as the tiniest pulling back of Mary’s head by Winger, Jacobs is there to catch and convey it. This granularity, when juxtaposed with the grandiosity of the genre he insists on maintaining, makes for a uniquely delectable take on marital ennui. A-

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

REVIEW: Indignation

29 07 2016

IndignationSundance Film Festival

When it comes to films surrounding schooling periods, a certain set of general guiding principles undergirds nearly story. High school movies are about the competing impulse of individuation and socialization, finding oneself while also navigating the locker-lined corridors of the pecking order. College movies primarily center on free expression and discovery, like a trial run for adulthood with few of the responsibilities or consequences.

2016 has a pretty stellar roster of college movies between “Everybody Wants Some” and “Neighbors 2” – but a bit of a black sheep with James Schamus’ “Indignation.” The film, adapted from a novel of the same name by Philip Roth, follows university-bound protagonist Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) as he puts his hand to the plow in his studies. He scorns social contact, even from like-minded individuals such as the school’s Jewish fraternity that comes to earnestly recruit him. Marcus comes to school a skeptic and a deep religious doubter, two positions in which he only entrenches himself further upon arrival.

Whether the position comes from Schamus or Roth, it matters not – “Indignation” indulges Marcus’ cynicism rather than interrogating it or demonstrating the philosophy’s value. Vindication comes cheaply as the puritanical hypocrisy of the school administration, chiefly Tracy Letts’ Dean Caudwell, tries to clamp down on his rebellious streak. Marcus begins to see the same values in his own family, whose middle-class emphasis on diligence and industriousness leads them to disapprove of his budding relationship with the haunted yet wealthy Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon).

The romance between these two wildly different students begins, ironically, with Olivia’s performing oral sex on Marcus while his vehicle is parked in a cemetery. His genitals receive more stimulation than his mind throughout the film. And, to be quite honest, they probably receive more stimulation than the audience as well. “Indignation” has nothing pushing it forward but the fervent stagnation of its protagonist. Though one long, refreshingly theatrical-style spar between Letts and Lerman helps to break the rhythm towards the middle, the film is primarily a sterile exercise in self-satisfaction. C+2stars

REVIEW: Wiener-Dog

24 06 2016

Wiener-DogSundance Film Festival

The dachshund seems to reside among the most loved dog brands these days, no doubt due in part to how social media-friendly these pint-sized canines are. I’ve fielded a number of inquiries from friends in the past few months about the film “Wiener-Dog,” which proudly touts its four-legged star. And to each of them, I have issued a profound warning to stay away.

Writer/director Todd Solondz plays on those shared cultural feelings of fondness for wiener-dogs, and the marketing/advertising echoes such associations. But Amazon Studios and IFC just want to harness these to sell you tickets or get you to rent the movie. Solondz wields this power with a much more perverse intent. He wants to sell you a nihilistic vision of a cruel world with no sympathy or concern for even a cute dog. The wiener-dog is the vessel for drawing in the unsuspecting, the naive and the hopeful.

Most of this does not become apparent until the last of the film’s four parts (no spoilers, but stay away if animal cruelty bothers you.) Prior, “Wiener-Dog” finds some fun in its blunt, cynical assessment of life. Each section of the film, connected only by the presence of traveling dachshund Doodie, serves as a commentary on a different season of life: youth, adulthood, middle-age and, ultimately, senility. The first half, featuring lovably quirky turns from actors like Greta Gerwig and Julie Delpy, expresses Solondz’s worldview without resorting to outlandish measures.

But once the film passes its musical-filled intermission, which feels gratuitous for a 90 minute movie, things take a turn for the worse. Danny DeVito’s section about a film professor who all but gives up on life gets unbearably mopey. And when Ellen Burstyn’s Nana arrives on screen, practically in the grave, Solondz veers into a turn that feels downright mean to the audience since it is so unearned

I have my views on big existential dilemmas, and so does Todd Solondz. We can agree to disagree, as I frequently do with filmmakers, and still enjoy the work in question. I find it very hard to table my differences, however, when it comes to “Wiener-Dog.” Solondz so clearly illuminates his thoughts on the absurdity of being when he executes a shockingly beautiful pan over a heap of diarrhea or crafts a droll, deadpan line. His parting gestures abandon the nuance of his artistry in favor of shocks and screams, collapsing the film under the weight of its own pessimism. C / 2stars

REVIEW: Killer Joe

12 09 2012

Some people would say that a movie that makes you feel dirty and disgusting is an effective movie.  That may be true, because William Friedkin’s NC-17 “Killer Joe” made me want to take a shower as soon as I got home from the theater.  But just because the presentation of abhorrent material was equally abhorrent does not make the movie good, or enjoyable.

While I’ve started to reverse my thinking on Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” my original assessment seems to be applicable for Friedkin’s film.  I used such phrases as “the whole was less than the sum of its parts” and “While I can see the art […] I can’t see the clear execution of a vision.”  Other than the movie’s two shocking displays of perverse sexual behavior (which you don’t deserve to have spoiled for you in case you actually decide to watch “Killer Joe”), the film brings little else to the table.

The other hour and a half of the film is just filler to bring about the two discussion-worthy scenes.  I acknowledge that a movie that tries and succeeds to be shocking is an accomplishment.  But being shocking just for the sake of being shocking is nothing to be lauded.

A movie that exists solely to ruffle a few feathers and rattle a few cages doesn’t stick with you after the writhing and squirming in your seat.  The sordidness is ephemeral; it wears off quickly.  And once that feeling is gone, you look to see if it was justified or vindicated by the rest of the film.  Here, it is not.

The Tracy Letts’ screenplay is clunky and feel very stagey and distinctly non-cinematic.  The humor, dark and macabre, is extremely hit or miss; all the laughs come with a heaping side order of guilt.  I will give “Killer Joe” that it has two solid performances: a demonic leading turn from Matthew McConaughey in the year of his career renaissance as a sexually depraved hitman, and a delightful village idiot character played with an appropriate lack of urgency by Thomas Haden Church.  But that’s where my compliments come to a close because this movie isn’t about those things.  It’s about being knowingly repulsive for no other reason because they can be, indulgent art at its worst.  D+