REVIEW: Hacksaw Ridge

2 11 2016

There are a few actors that can exude an old Hollywood vibe in their performances, but it took me a little while in”Hacksaw Ridge” to figure out what exactly it was about Andrew Garfield that emanated such classicism. Then it hit me: it’s his ability to listen. To be present.

As Desmond Doss, a pacifist and conscientious objector who enlists for World War II knowing he cannot pick up a weapon, Garfield is gentility incarnate. With his eyes wide open, the earnestness of the devoted, sabbath-honoring Seventh Day Adventist shines radiantly through. Garfield always takes in more than he takes from a scene. Any given scene is not merely a scene in a biography but an opportunity for his character to learn, lead and love.

Doss’ insistence on a black and white moral universe where violence can never be justified is echoed by director Mel Gibson. He creates a space where the full-throated defense of ideals and veneration of courageous men can glisten without the slightest sense of irony. This World War II movie feels cut from the same cloth as those made by the men who actually fought in it – or can at least remember it. “Hacksaw Ridge” is vintage Hollywood combat manned by one of the few actors who could have prospered in the period.

Yet the tribute to Doss’ nonviolent tenets gets severely undercut by the battle scenes, which luxuriate in gore to a disturbing extent. With different (read: non-heroic strings) music or context, soldiers getting shot through the head or immolated could play as broad comedy. If this carnage is meant to complicated Doss’ worldview or draw a stark contrast between belief and reality, it plays too broad and strays too far from the issue at hand.

This caricatured, simplistic portrayal of the conflict – one that holds the lives of Japanese opponents in shockingly little regard – is directly at odds with the deeply human and contoured portrait of Doss. His miraculous rescues and genuine valor still receive ample, deserved praise. But the fact that Gibson drags this rich character down into the muck with his shallow depiction of war does regrettably tinge the triumph. B2halfstars

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 25, 2016)

25 08 2016

ThumbsuckerMuch of Mike Mills’ “Thumbsucker” treads fairly standard young adult coming of age territory. Lou Pucci’s Justin Cobb, the protagonist whose titular habit serves an effective metaphor for his juvenility, must undergo familiar trials that provide him confidence and self-worth. He has to learn public speaking skills and romantic graces with a decidedly modern twist – Justin has just added medication for his recently diagnosed ADHD that totally transforms his personality.

But there’s something more to “Thumbsucker” that makes it my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” Mills, working from a novel by Walter Kirn, does not stop the coming of age with Justin. As it turns out, his emotionally stilted parents have plenty of growing up to do in their own right. The film is just as much about their own slow maturation process as their son’s.

Vincent D’Onofrio’s Mike insists that Justin refer to his parents by their first names since the terms “mom and dad” make him feel old. He serves as the manager of a large sporting goods store while still nursing bitterness and resentment over a knee injury that thwarted his football career. His family serves as a daily reminder of what his life is not.

Meanwhile, his wife, Tilda Swinton’s Audrey, handles all the love and affection for their two kids. She’s genuinely curious and attuned to Justin’s issues. But Audrey cannot shake a girlish fascination with a soap opera actor Matt Schramm. The infatuation reaches levels that embarrass her children; they do not think she would literally cheat on their father, though she is not exactly quick to dismiss the possibility of her fantasy.

“Thumbsucker” shows everyone fumbling through this thing called life together in their own way, and that even includes Justin’s zany, hypnosis obsessed dentist Perry Lyman (played by none other than Keanu Reeves). With over a decade of distance since release, it feels very reflective of a mid-2000s suburban malaise that already feels like a time capsule. Mills is earnest in his explorations of what causes people’s unshakeable, throbbing sensation of vague discontent with their current situation. The sincerity goes a long way in making these unsatisfied characters ones that are worth spending time with to probe their pain.





REVIEW: Delivery Man

1 03 2015

A headline on The Onion anticipating the release of “The Internship” says everything that needs to be said about the present state of Vince Vaughn’s career: “‘The Internship’ Poised To Be Biggest Comedy Of 2005.”

Ever since that comedy went supernova in the summer of 2005, Vaughn has been spinning his wheels playing the same tall, loud-mouthed, fast-talking brash character.  “Delivery Man,” where he plays a man vacillating between whether or not to reveal his identity to the 533 children his sperm fathered, is no different from any other Vaughn film of the past 8 years.

Sure, I got a few laughs out of the endeavor.  Vince Vaughn is a gifted comedian, and he can usually provide some funny moments so long as the script isn’t a total nightmare (cough, “The Watch“).  But it’s an effort of increasing futility for him to hope lightning strikes the same place twice while he does the “Wedding Crashers” schtick yet again.  He misses the chance to delve deeper into the drama of “Delivery Man,” which could have been a fertile ground for an interesting character study.

Vaughn has not even managed to do anything subversive with his iconic persona.  Save a bit part in Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild,” all he’s done since 2005 are broad comedies cast from the same mold.  At least Owen Wilson has expanded his repertoire, continuing to collaborate with Wes Anderson (with whom he shared an Oscar nomination for “The Royal Tenenbaums“) as well as working with Woody Allen, Peter Bogdanovich, and Paul Thomas Anderson.  Wilson has had projects like “Hall Pass” too, but at least he’s making an effort to diversify.

And the fact that he’s eclipsed in “Delivery Man” by rising comedic star Chris Pratt marks the surest sign that Vaughn’s allure is fading fast.  Pratt plays a bozo on “Parks and Recreation,” but he’s also put in surprising turns in “Moneyball” and “Zero Dark Thirty” that may have led to his casting in a very different role for Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.”  Vaughn is surrounded by examples of how to branch out, yet he remains defiantly himself.

So get ready to toss his next film in the pile of the forgettable with “Delivery Man.”  And “The Internship.”  And “The Dilemma.”  And “Couples Retreat.”  And “The Break-Up.”  Banality loves company.  C2stars





REVIEW: The Internship

26 07 2013

Strangely enough, the best moment of “The Internship” was not a big laugh; it was a dramatic exchange of dialogue.  While such moments in comedic films are often clichéd and forced, this one really hit the money.

As Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn’s imbecillic man-children talk a bunch of bull, their much younger intern teammates set them straight by explaining to them how much is riding on this summer gig.  In a particularly haunting line, one of them declares that the American Dream is virtually dead to their generation.

As someone who has suffered through / paid my dues at / enjoyed a number of internships myself, this scene hit very close to home.  But if I wanted to be slightly depressed about my future, I would have just watched “Frances Ha” or the second season of Lena Dunham’s “Girls” again.  I came to “The Internship” to be entertained, and I left rather disappointed by its (hopefully unintentional) humorlessness.

Though I’m not a huge  fan of Wilson and Vaughn’s last collaboration, 2005’s “Wedding Crashers,” I certainly did not expect their comedic prowess to depreciate to the point where I only let out a few mild giggles over the course of two hours.  Just about every gag falls short, although none ever hit cringe-worthy levels.

“The Internship” is, more or less, a retooling of the “Legally Blonde” story for modern men.  Unhappy in their current position, Billy and Nick drastically change career paths and head to an internship at Google.  While initially their foreignness to the field makes them obvious neophytes, they take some hard knocks that force them to grow.  Yet in the end, it’s those undervalued skills they entered with that allow them to achieve success.

I enjoy a movie like “Legally Blonde” because Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods is an inspiring figure, learning that she is capable of things she never imagined simply by trusting her own intuitions and wiles.  I find “The Internship” more than a little sad when it declares with no detectable sense of irony that we too can get an entry level position like Billy and Nick in our forties, so long as we work hard and can fall back on basic skills.  Though perhaps for that very reason, Shawn Levy has made an emblematic film of our wretched economy in post-recessional America.  C2stars





REVIEW: The Watch

30 07 2012

The post-Spielberg generation of fanboy filmmakers has a few things to learn.  I’m talking about the boys who grew up thinking that Indiana Jones is the slickest hero ever, E.T. is the most benevolent force in the universe, and the alien coming out of John Hurt’s chest in “Alien” is the scariest thing in the world.  They’re coming of age now, and their paying homage to their myth-maker.

We saw the first extreme homage in last summer’s “Super 8,” J.J. Abrams’ pleasant trip down ’80s memory lane that ultimately rips off more than it can chew.  Now, one of the members of The Lonely Island, Akiva Schaffer, is here to give us his Spielberg tribute with “The Watch.”  It’s less of a carbon copy and more tongue-in-cheek parody, but that still doesn’t make its rancid treatment of Spielberg’s hallowed material any less acceptable.

Even without its frequent invocation of the action-movie deity, “The Watch” would still have disappointed on comedic standards.  When I say I didn’t laugh once, I mean it.  No exaggeration.  I did smirk on one occasion, though: a cameo appearance by Andy Samberg.

It’s a failure from concept for writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, whose résumés include the uproarious “Superbad” and the gut-wrenchingly hilarious “Pineapple Express.”  Unless that concept was to replicate the experience of being waterboarded, in which case congratulations are in order.  It’s time to screen this movie for the President, I’m sure he needs some new enhanced interrogation techniques at Guantanamo (which is still open despite his first day in office pledge).

“Got protection,” the film’s slogan asks.  So I’d like to ask you to protect yourself and not see “The Watch.”  Some movies you can’t unwatch.  You can’t get that time back.

Protect yourself from yet another Ben Stiller uptight straight-man grating on your last nerve; let’s be real, that one was already getting dated back in 2004’s “Along Came Polly.”  Protect yourself from the latest iteration of the Vince Vaughn sassily obstreperous man-child.  Protect yourself from a reprisal of Jonah Hill’s disturbed character from “Cyrus” that is reborn here totally humorless.  Protect yourself from the self’-conscious tokenism casting of Richard Ayoade, which ultimately devolves into outright racism.  To use the obvious pun, don’t watch “The Watch.”  Pop “E.T.” into the DVD player for a twentieth viewing.  D





REVIEW: The Dilemma

12 01 2011

The whole premise of deciding whether or not to tell a friend that their wife is cheating on them sounds like something that would make a good episode of “Full House” or “Everybody Loves Raymond.”  The whole thought process is something perfectly suited to sustain a 22-minute sitcom episode.  However, “The Dilemma” takes that setup and stretches it out to nearly two hours, and all it does is prolong the pain.

Ronny (Vince Vaughn) catches Geneva (Winona Ryder) two-timing her husband and his best friend Nick (Kevin James).  Unsure of whether to meddle or not, he weighs his options carefully but finds physical pain instead of answers and decisions.  The choice is harder to make since the two buddies are business partners under a great deal of stress to deliver big and Ronny is also wrestling with proposing to his girlfiend Beth (Jennifer Connelly).

The longer he delays, the harder it gets to make the decision.  It ultimately results in all four parties revealing and uncovering long-held secrets, which are of course nothing surprising or profound to viewers.  For this reason, “The Dilemma” is quite a bit darker and more solemn than most comedies hitting theaters nowadays.  Perhaps the strange tone is what attracted Ron Howard to direct the film, an Academy Award winner with a curious fascination at having a versatile resumé.  He’s much better at directing such unremarkable and controlled period pieces, where he’s actually capable of making a decent connection with the audience, than he is at directing comedy.

Both Vaughn and James bring a game face to the movie, but their physical and vocal humor is ultimately stifled by an artificial layer of dramatic importance and a poor script.  They get into it, sure, yet they are undermined by either poor dialogue or ridiculous situations.  It’s like these two dynamite comedic forces are trapped in sitcom reruns and aren’t sure whether to escape or adjust their acting style.  The duo desperately needs to return to the R-rated comedy genre which is perfectly able to harness their energy and turn it into side-splitting laughter.  (And, for that matter, Channing Tatum needs to leave acting altogether and just go back to modeling.)

It’s pretty sad for any movie when its legacy will ultimately be not what’s on film, but the fuss over an unsavory epithet for homosexuals in the trailer will likely be the only thing worth remembering about the movie in the years to come.  Ron Howard and Universal gave us a conversation topic in October 2010, yet in January 2011, they didn’t follow up by delivering a quality movie.  By the time you escape from the tepid grasp of “The Dilemma,” you’ll feel as if you’ve watched a highlight reel of failed jokes and cringe-worthy moments.  C-





Random Factoid #446

17 10 2010

Hollywood has an interesting dilemma on its hands.

It’s hardly news to anyone who follows film news that the trailer for Ron Howard’s “The Dilemma” has come under heavy fire for using a phrase that might be offensive to some.  For those who didn’t see the trailer attached to “The Social Network,” here it is:

“Electric cars are gay. I mean, not homosexual, but my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay.”

Within a week, the GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) was demanding that the trailer be removed from theaters.  This came as a shock to the studio, according to The Los Angeles Times, who “not only tested the trailer with rank-and-file moviegoers but also submitted it to a number of gay rights watchdog groups. According to Universal, no one complained.”

I’ll admit that I was a little surprised to hear the word in a trailer at a PG-13 movie, but considering all the jokes I had heard in R-rated movies, I wasn’t shocked.  I’ve read plenty of satire and seen plenty of comedic movies and plays to know that writers have to have no mercy if they must resort to insulting.  Everyone is fair game, although sometimes there are some low blows.  Compared to the some of the pejoratives thrown around in R-rated movies nowadays, the joke from “The Dilemma” falls somewhere between a low blow and mild name-calling.

I guess the biggest thing about the whole dilemma here is the fact that this is a trailer, not a movie.  People who might be offended by the word could avoid a movie that used it if they were well-informed; they could get totally blindsided by it when the trailer just plays before another movie they want to see.  The fact that GLAAD is insisting that Universal take the joke out of the movie seems a little ridiculous.  It’s not just that I’m a huge proponent of free speech, but they are picking the wrong movie to go after if they want to make a serious change in the way writers toss around terms describing homosexuals.

If their long-term goal is to get the word out of the vernacular as a synonym for stupid, they should have gone full throttle on the offensive against “The Hangover.”  Yes, the word gay has come to take on a despicable meaning, but so has lame.  How many times do we use that word and not realize that it is making fun of mentally challenged people?  And there’s never any uproar when you hear lame used in a movie.

But the fact that Vaughn’s line acknowledges that they don’t mean to make homosexuals the butt of the joke should make this a little bit less of a hot-button issue.  It’s wrong that the other context exists, but it’s a heck of a lot better than just throwing the word out there and making fun of homosexuals.  Compared to “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and the banter between Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen calling each other gay based on things that they like, this is child’s play.

Of course, I have to take into account the recent suicides linked to homophobic bullying.  This trailer could send the wrong message to those willing to interpret the nature of the joke in a certain way.  The suicides have lent the joke some very dark undertones, ones that weren’t intended to be there, but now they are very present.  Given the nature of the times, perhaps it is for the better that the line was removed.  The unfortunate events cannot be changed, but Universal may have played a part in preventing some further grief and distress.

Had these events not occurred, I would be in support of keeping the joke in the trailer and in the film because it would be hypocritical to grant one group immunity from comedic effects.

As Patrick Goldstein of The Los Angeles Times said, “Comedy is a lot like free speech — sometimes you have to hold your nose to support it. If you don’t stick up for the flimsiest kind of humor, then you can’t protect the most important kind either.”  This whole situation is a hard one to take a stance on, but there is a way to handle this that can preserve the integrity of all people and comedy.

I mean no disrespect towards GLAAD or Universal with this post, and I hope that I have treated this sensitive subject with the care and respect it is due.  I have nothing but sympathy towards all those affected by the suicides, and I sincerely regret any pain that the trailer for “The Dilemma” might have caused.  In these sensitive times, I hope I have provided a commentary based in reason and a response not heightened by the hysteria of the current events.