F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 29, 2016)

29 12 2016

night-on-earthMy apologies to whichever friend or professor enlightened me with the following observation; I have to give credit because it is not my own. There’s a reason why so many heated, important conversations take place in cars. The automotive space is an inescapable one for its passengers, but the tableau where all seats face forward also allows confrontations to occur with an excuse to avoid eye contact.

Before HBO’s notorious “Taxicab Confessions” explored the taxi as a conversational space, there was Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth.” This astutely observed and wryly humane dark comedy is an international omnibus exploring the unexpected connections that can be made across the divide between passenger and operator. The circumstances and the outcomes change with each successive city and set of characters, but the joy of observation remains unchanged throughout my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

The segments of “Night on Earth” could easily have just amounted to a filmed version of a screenwriting challenge. (I recall one film school application I looked at requiring multiple scenes taking place in an elevator.) A shared setting may unite the vignettes, though little else does. Jarmusch begins in Los Angeles where Gena Rowlands’ wealthy passenger Victoria Snelling can never quite understand the aspirations of her driver, Winona Ryder’s Corky, to become a mechanic. He ends in Helsinki, where three ruffians allow themselves to be moved deeply by the plight of their driver. And just before that, a segment in Rome pits Roberto Benigni’s sexually frustrated cabbie against a horrified Catholic priest in a comedy reminiscent of early Woody Allen.

There’s no grand statement or thesis here. If there was, it would certainly be secondary to just taking in “Night on Earth” beat by beat with these characters. Both the journeys and the destinations are fascinating and surprising in equal measure.





REVIEW: Star Trek

1 11 2016

Is there a 101 class in film schools yet on franchise filmmaking or reboots? Because if so, I sincerely hope that J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” is assigned viewing. With the exception of perhaps Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy, there is no movie that has better relaunched a dormant (or, at the very least, stagnant) series. In one fail swoop, Abrams as well as writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman find ample reason to excite long-time fans and create new acolytes, all while providing motivation for revival beyond just profit margins.

In the seven years since this new “Star Trek” hit theaters, there have been no shortage of brand extensions and series relaunches – most of which struggle to take off due to paying excessive fan service with nostalgic callbacks. Sure, Abrams gives plenty here. The trademark pings of the intergalactic communication, the strategic peripheral views of the starship and the reappearance of a favorite character played by the same beloved actor are all enough to sate the casual fans of the classic television or film series.

“Star Trek” takes flight, however, because Abrams uses the show’s legacy as a kickstart into a bold new future, not an albatross to keep trotting in previously grazed circles. Utilizing an ingenious narrative gambit that sidesteps the original show’s chronology without erasing or ignoring it, the series gained the ability to boldly go wherever themes could lead it. The standard passion-reason dialectic between Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Spock is introduced from the get-go, and they don’t waste a second exploring its consequences.

But it doesn’t take a mechanical analysis of how Abrams guides decades of mythology to work in his favor to show “Star Trek” works. The proof is in the pudding; the film succeeds because it is just plain well-made. The characters are fun and fully developed. The action is coherent and engaging. The story flows effortlessly while also requiring some of our brainpower. The stakes are high, giving appropriate weight to a topic like genocide. (That may seem like a no-brainer, but plenty of movies have made light of it.) And, perhaps most importantly, this “Star Trek” recreates that first introduction to this universe of diplomacy and conflict.  A4stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 3, 2016)

3 03 2016

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Robin Wright has become an iconic ice queen thanks to her role as Claire Underwood on “House of Cards;” if looks could kill, a glance from her character would bring down Elsa’s entire crystal castle on someone. Wright has been in the industry for over three decades now, enchanting audiences in films from “The Princess Bride” to “Forrest Gump,” yet her talents only now feel sufficiently realized as she nears 50.

But away from her projects that capture the public imagination, Wright quietly turns in great performances on much smaller scales. One such film is Rebecca Miller’s “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,” a gentle yet stirring feminist drama that showcases the full range of Wright’s talents. She shines as a wife coming to the realization of the many ways in which she is held hostage by domesticity. While Miller’s might not bring the aesthetic rigor of Todd Haynes to the so-called “women’s picture,” her keen understanding of how societal roles constrain female freedoms more than earns it the honor of my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

In many ways, Wright’s titular Pippa Lee is a very similar character to Claire Underwood. Both are women defined by ambition that we can sense but never see, and their faces will never truly express their deepest desires. The key difference comes from what goes on underneath those belying facades. Claire looks to seize power at all cost. Pippa just wants to know freedom outside the titles of “daughter,” “wife” and “mother” in which she has dwelled her entire life.

“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” begins with Wright’s character coming to the realization that she no longer wishes to maintain all the charades to keep the plates spinning in her life. With an aging older husband (Alan Arkin) settling into a senior living facility, she finally has some breathing room to evaluate what she wants in life – not just what she needs. Miller also traces back her history, showing how the young Pippa (Blake Lively) learned the limited avenues available to women in American society. The primary influence, of course, was her mother Suky (Maria Bello), a flighty housewife always pretending to star in an idyllic commercial.

To watch Miller’s film is to be moved by Pippa’s journey towards self-actualization, yet pure emotional outpouring is not the entire modus operandi. Miller also illuminates the narrow categorizations into which we sort women by demonstrating the judgment they face for daring to step outside of them. Empathy is part of the equation. A broadened worldview is the larger takeaway.





Social Scientists Behaving Badly (REVIEWS: The Stanford Prison Experiment and Experimenter)

24 12 2015

The Stanford Prison ExperimentIn my first semester of college, I took an introductory sociology class on a whim and wound up loving it so much that I added fifteen additional hours to my schedule to make it my second major. Ironically, in my final semester of college, two infamous experiments in the field of social science that captivated me in that first class made their way to the big screen.

Both premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, garnered respectable reviews and picked up distribution from heavy-hitting indie distributors. Though I’m reviewing them in tandem because the opportunity was too good to pass up, that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment” depicts a study in which professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) threw college students looking for a little extra cash into a staged environment deemed unethical by most in his field. The assignment was simple: in a lab-created prison, each received an assignment of prisoner or guard which they were to act out. To say they began to take these roles a little bit too seriously is the understatement of the century as harmless animosity spirals out of control into actual violence.

At one point during the experiment, a colleague interrogates Zimbardo and asks him what independent variable he was measuring – that is, what change he was hoping to observe in his study. Zimbardo does not have an answer, and it’s hard not to feel like the movie is similarly grasping at straws when it comes to what exactly the experiment was trying to examine. Beyond mere power relations and the willingness of humans to commit atrocities against each other, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” does little to illuminate the intellectual concepts that make its titular event worth studying to this day.

It abandons academia for entertainment which, admittedly, it does a very good job of providing. Though audiences may not feel the film’s ideas piercing their brain, they will likely feel the emotional impact of the solid turns from this extraordinary cast. People will no doubt look at “The Stanford Prison Experiment” like people today look at “The Outsiders,” seeing strong performances from rising male actors. If you haven’t already, remember these names – Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano, Jack Kilmer, Thomas Mann, Johnny Simmons, Logan Miller, Keir Gilchrist, Ki Hong Lee – because it will not be the last you hear from them.

ExperimenterAlvarez would have done well to lean on the findings from the subject of Michael Almereyda’s “Experimenter,” Stanley Milgram. A social psychologist working at Yale in the 1960s, Milgram sought answers to how ordinary German people became complicit in the Nazi machine. In other words, he sought to find in science and data what Hannah Arendt described in theory as “the banality of evil.”

Almereyda’s film puts a heavy emphasis on process, using large chunks of the film’s beginning to detail just how Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) went about obtaining his – pun fully intended – shocking findings. He meticulously devised an experiment in which an unsuspecting person would be asked to administer escalating electric shocks to someone else. No matter the pain that other person seemed to endure, the subject with the power to dole out the shock almost always continued if given the instruction to do so from an authority figure in the room.

Notoriously, Milgram was so horrified by the levels of obedience he found in America that he decided against testing his hypotheses in Germany. He controlled for any number of factors – the proximity of the person receiving the shock, the proximity of the authority figure in the experiment, even removing the subject from the setting of an academic laboratory. He got the same results nearly every time.

As a film, “Experimenter” loses a little luster with its less interesting forays into Milgram’s personal life and some didacticism. Milgram frequently breaks the fourth wall to go deeper into his findings, somewhat similarly to Frank Underwood in “House of Cards.” It starts off weird but eventually becomes normalized. Plus, Almereyda does plenty of showing the experiment that a little bit of telling to make sure no one misses the point feels fine.

But as a work about my other passion, social sciences, “Experimenter” reminds me of what I loved about the discipline. It celebrates the questioning of underlying assumptions we hold about social arrangements and then putting them to the test. I only wish it was around to show in a class or two when I was still in college. Hint to professors: this would make for a great Friday activity!

The Stanford Prison ExperimentB2halfstars
ExperimenterB+3stars





REVIEW: The Iceman

20 04 2013

RiverRun International Film Festival

The Iceman” is everything you would expect from a period gangster film like  “GoodFellas,” only with none of the rush of excitement and energy you get from Scorsese’s classic.  Director Ariel Vromen’s color-by-numbers genre pic is the epitome of middling, average entertainment.  Its full-fledged adoption of tropes led me to think less about “The Iceman” itself and more about where I might have seen that scene play out before.

Usually gangster movies are propelled by strong characterization, particularly the protagonist.  “The Iceman” settles for lazy caricaturization where everyone just plays out the stereotypes, including Michael Shannon as the titular assassin Richard Kuklinski.  Over three decades in organized crime, he takes over 100 lives … all while his beautiful wife Deborah, played by Winona Ryder, doesn’t age a day!

Shannon is a magnetic performer, particularly playing troubled and unstable characters like John Givings in “Revolutionary Road” or Curtis LaForche in “Take Shelter.”  His work in “The Iceman” can’t hold a candle to these prior tour de forces, largely because Kuklinski is so poorly written that I doubt Jack Nicholson could make it work.

And Kuklinski is the best written character of the bunch, I might add.  It could also be bad casting, but cameo appearances by James Franco as a pornographer and Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski’s brother were truly bizarre and out of place.  Roy Demeo, Ray Liotta’s character, proves the actor is more than willing to become his own worst imitator.  And I can’t even go there with Chris Evans, Captain America himself, as Robert Pronge, the shaggy-haired and cold-blooded ice cream man, or David Schwimmer as moustache-laden hitman Josh Rosenthal.

Without a compelling character at its center, why even bother watching a movie?  Particularly one that is so largely based around relationships?  I’d recommend not watching “The Iceman” and instead popping in “GoodFellas” or “Pulp Fiction” again.  Moreover, the film’s ability to delude itself into believing its own importance made me yearn for another gangster movie, “Analyze This,” where the same types of characters mix and mingle.  Only instead of being played for drama as in “The Iceman,” it’s played for laughs.  C2stars





Know Your Nominees: “Black Swan”

29 01 2011

The Oscars are a great cultural conversation for all to participate in, but it’s all too easy to only have surface knowledge of the nominees.  It’s all too easy to know “Black Swan” as the ballet movie, “The Fighter” as the boxing movie, and “The Social Network” as the Facebook movie.  But don’t you want to know more and stun your friends with your knowledge of the movies in the weeks leading up to the awards and ultimately during the broadcast itself?

That’s what my KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series hopes to do.  Every three days, I’ll feature ten interesting facts about the ten Best Picture nominees of 2010 that would be fascinating to pepper into any conversation.  My hope is that you will come away with an enhanced appreciation of the movies but also enjoy learning strange and interesting things about them.

So, as we proceed in alphabetical order, the logical starting place is “Black Swan.”

For all the acclaim “Black Swan” is receiving now, it seems silly that anyone WOULDN’T want to pour money into making the movie.  Yet according to director Darren Aronfosky, the movie was a surprisingly hard sell to production companies even with Natalie Portman and the rest of the cast all lined up.  When financing finally lined up, Aronofsky was forced to make the movie on $15 million, which was $10 million less than what he had hoped to have.  This meant a streamlined shooting schedule; for example, each act of the “Swan Lake” ballet shown at the end of the movie was shot in one day.

Maybe you’ve heard the mutterings that “Black Swan” was once the same movie as “The Wrestler.”  They are true. Director Darren Aronofsky brought it up once, and ever since, he’s been carefully clarifying exactly what he meant by that.  The movies originated out of the same idea: two performers whose craft drives them to physical and emotional extremes.  The end results are entirely different, but the two work together nicely as companion pieces.

A lot has been made of Nina’s sanity in the movie.  Is she ever sane?  When does she lose her mind?  Darren Aronofsky, in an interview with Cinema Blend said that “the only time she’s normal is right at the beginning of the film when she’s dancing before the demon shows up. That very first shot, she’s clear.”

We’ve all heard about Natalie Portman’s year of training to get ready for the role of Nina Sayers.  You’ve probably heard that she worked five hours a day doing swimming and ballet for eleven months and then a shocking eight hours a day in the final month.  She lost over 20 pounds practically starving herself to slim down.  But ballerinas have a long, lanky physique that’s hard to simply tone into.  So how did Portman overcome this challenge?  She had people pull on her arms and legs every day to stretch her out!

There was more to Natalie Portman’s physical commitment to “Black Swan” than her training.  While filming the movie, Portman broke a rib during a lift.  The film’s tight budget meant no on-screen doctor to help her, and the tight filming schedule didn’t exactly allow for much recovery time.  So how did they work around it?  They simply readjusted the lift.

And there’s even more commitment on Natalie Portman’s part than just physically embodying a ballerina.  She has been attached to “Black Swan” since 2000 when she met Darren Aronofsky in Times Square and said she wanted in on the project.   She claims Aronofsky had most of the movie laid out then.  Many other members of the crew have been committed to the movie for multiple years as well.

Did you see Winona Ryder in “Black Swan” and go “Woah, haven’t seen her in a while!”  According to Darren Aronofsky, Ryder was cast in the role of Beth because it echoes her career.  The “metacasting,” as he calls it, was crucial because the audience would likely feel more impacted by Beth if someone largely at the same point in their artistic life was playing her.

The movie could have been impossible to make as the acting qualifications were just as vital to the movie as the ability to dance ballet were.  Luckily, Natalie Portman took ballet from age 4 to 13, ultimately stopping to pursue only her acting career.  Thus, when she was needed to tap back into her ballet skills to prepare for “Black Swan,” the groundwork was already laid.

What was the hardest part of the movie to get right?  According to the choreographer, it was Natalie Portman’s undulating arms at the end of the movie that gave them such a hard time.

In case you haven’t heard, Portman is pregnant and engaged to Benjamin Millepied.  He was the film’s choreographer, and the two met on set.  Millepied also had a role in the film as pretty much the only male other than Vincent Cassel to speak in the movie – the lead dancer that drops Portman on opening night.  Portman referenced an ironic line he’s asked in the movie – “Would you f*** that girl?”

Check back on February 1 as the KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series continues with “The Fighter.”





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-