REVIEW: The Glass Castle

12 08 2017

There’s a strain of thought currently dominating the conversation around class in America, and it finds best expression in J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” To loosely sum it up, the argument is that rural white Americans possess a kind of misunderstood nobility that’s mistaken for a lack of sophistication by outsiders. When given a ladder to success rather than treated with scorn, these working-class whites can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s film adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ searingly personal memoir “The Glass Castle,” thankfully, flies in the face of all that hogwash. Without providing any kind of sociological lecture on structural poverty, he and co-writer Andrew Lanham poke at something profound in their portrayal of some unconventional (and, yes, dangerous) parenting tactics. The ideals of freedom, independence and self-reliance, so baked into the American psyche, are inventions of a wealthy class of men for other landed men. When followed by people without resources and social standing, it can lead to dangerous ends.

One of the first times we see Jeannette’s father Rex, played with usual spitfire intensity by Woody Harrelson, he’s going on a screed against the professional class of doctors for trying to wield their knowledge as a tool to extort hard-working people into paying for expensive treatment. They need to treat young Jeannette for a burn. She received that burn because she had to feed herself while her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) painted, and her dress caught fire on the stove. It’s a moment of pure negligence and irresponsibility in the Walls family. Yet Rex successfully convinces himself that the real issue is not their lack of oversight; instead, it’s the judgment from a class that deems themselves superior when his parenting style is simply an expression of his American values. Sometimes that comes with collateral damage, and he’s willing to live with that.

An older Rex seen later in the film goes on a similar rant about Reaganite economics, though certainly without naming the source. He picks the booming Wall Street financiers as the target of his rage, seemingly because they reap tremendous profits without producing anything tangible to put out in the world. Rex fails to realize, however, that all his tough talk of hard labor rooted in self-determination is rooted in an empty promise. The big dreams for his family, most obviously manifested in the quixotic fantasy “glass castle” he tells Jeannette he will build, will never come to pass so long as they remain mired in poverty.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 10, 2017)

10 08 2017

Adaptation” it most certainly is not, but Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths” makes for a most entertaining meta-movie. This specific genre derives its pleasures by baking the creation of the movie into the very fabric of the story itself; the fact that everything was narrativized is not merely a fact slapped on at the conclusion. Some artists smuggle these meta-movies into existence under the guise of something like a heist flick (Christopher Nolan’s “Inception“) or a con artist caper (Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom“), though many in their purest form simply revolve around filmmakers struggling to create.

That’s the case for McDonagh’s meta-movie, my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” In many ways, “Seven Psychopaths” feels like a self-interrogation (perhaps after surveying his prior film “In Bruges”). His leading man, Colin Farrell’s Marty, is a screenwriter struggling to pen his latest script conveniently titled – you guessed it – “Seven Psychopaths.” As he drolly puts it, “I’ve got the title, just not the psychopaths.”

Marty wants to write a film about violent people without succumbing the soul-sucking carnage that plagues many films about such subjects. He wants it all to mean something, not just become a violent shoot-’em-up. Ultimately, Marty gets more than he bargained for when a friend draws him into a Los Angeles gang dispute over … a Shih Tzu. The anodyne object of conflict points out the inherent absurdity of the criminal underworld without fully discounting the grotesqueness of their deeds.

I first watched “Seven Psychopaths” on video in 2013 and found myself rather unenthused by it. (The original grade I bestowed upon it was a C.) With McDonagh’s next directorial outing “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” about to make landfall on the film festival circuit, something compelled me to give it a second chance – and judging by its inclusion in this column, you can assume I’m glad I did. McDonagh grants us a dryly humorous window into the writing process, which also means clueing us into his knowledge of audience expectations for what’s to come. This feat is a tricky one to pull off without drowning in self-awareness, and he does it with a good amount of dexterity.





REVIEW: War for the Planet of the Apes

16 07 2017

Though its title may lead you to believe otherwise, Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes” shows precious little war. There are extended action sequences, but nothing rises to the level of a full battle. This is not a war movie, at least not in the traditional sense in which audiences are conditioned to perceive one. It’s not about the fights; rather, it’s about what we seek to preserve by fighting them in the first place.

Caesar (once again masterfully brought to life by Andy Serkis) and his band of apes that believe in their right to receive dignified treatment find themselves in an asymmetrical fight with the humans. The original intelligent inhabiters of earth, backed into a corner after the Simian Flu decimates their kind, do not exactly take kindly to sharing their planet with another sentient species. The apes are fighting a war of ideals – for peace, unity and solidarity. The humans are fighting a war of extermination, one where the only measure of victory is the complete degradation and eradication of their opponent.

As a viewer in 2017, I could not help but see parallels between the ape-human conflict and the current war against ISIS. The men who pervert Islam’s tenets can claim a win on their battleground when their actions force the western world to abandon their principles. If we choose to fight as they fight, responding to barbarity with inhumanity, we cede to their strategy and expose our own hollowness.

But as “War for the Planet of the Apes” drew on (and it does so perhaps more than it should), it became clear to me that Reeves had far more on his mind with the film than just the conflict du jour. This entire iteration of the franchise smartly avoids tying itself entirely to the events surrounding its making. Indeed, recent rewatches of 2011’s “Rise” and 2014’s “Dawn” already indicate the series’ malleability to the whims of the present; both films feel as if they refer to something entirely separate from what they did upon release. The “War” of Reeves’ film is not a war but all wars. It’s a rap sheet against human atrocity justified by armed conflict from, one could argue, biblical times to our contemporary ones.

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REVIEW: Wilson

27 03 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Somehow, despite it being my most anticipated film of Sundance, I wound up at the second screening of Craig Johnson’s “Wilson” while virtually everyone else I knew got tickets to the premiere. More than one person cautioned me that Woody Harrelson’s eponymous character, based on graphic artist Daniel Clowes’ creation, was so intensely dyspeptic that he was basically unlikable.

Now, to be clear, I often love unlikable characters. And when I sat down to watch the film, I did not find Wilson difficult to watch or enjoy. In fact, his particular brand of thorniness was quite a welcome contemporary spin on the garden-variety curmudgeon. In typical Harrelson fashion, the character is a foul-mouthed prankster determined never to take a moment too seriously or treat a person with full respect. But Wilson is something different. As he repels nearly everyone with whom he makes contact, he also tries to cure them of the modern malaise of isolation. Whether in the form of phones, technology or a hermetic bubble of their own choosing, Wilson violates arbitrary decorum to highlight the absurdity of our perpetual estrangement.

I read Clowes’ graphic novel over a year ago anticipating a 2016 Sundance bow for “Wilson” (full disclosure: I am well acquainted with the film’s director), and my faint recollection of the text relies on a simple joke structure where Wilson reacts with predictable atrophy at whatever situation thrown at him. Clowes’ script for the film, which included some input by Johnson, takes the character in a much more interesting direction. It’s similarly episodic, though the narrative quest of reuniting with his estranged wife Pippi (Laura Dern) to track down his previously assumed aborted daughter Claire (Isabella Amara) does provide “Wilson” with some structure.

The differentiating factor is that Wilson himself feels much freer and open as a character, which in turn makes his exploits far more interesting to observe. In Harrelson’s hands, he’s more than just a human incarnation of Oscar the Grouch. Wilson has some inner joy, some of which simply manifests itself in caustic comments that make others uncomfortable. Johnson and Clowes create a world in which everyone else is far too comfortable, perhaps even complacent, that they need Wilson to shake them out of their stillness. Watching the disruption proves quite entertaining. B+





REVIEW: The Edge of Seventeen

14 12 2016

“I’m going to kill myself,” proudly proclaims the protagonist of “The Edge of Seventeen,” Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine Franklin … as her first line. At such an early stage in the story, it’s hard to tell whether we should take her literally or seriously. By the end of the film, however, we get our answer: neither.

Pardon the brief soapbox moment, but teenage depression and even suicide are not matters purely relegated to the realm of fiction. I’ve known people who struggled after a tragic loss like Nadine’s (her beloved father at age 13), taken pain medications and seen therapists. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen a fair share who took their own life.

These are real issues that rarely get honest depictions on-screen, and writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig might have been wise to lean into them. Instead, Nadine is a character who gets all the narrative benefits of an outwardly depressed character while “The Edge of Seventeen” on the whole skirts responsibility for dealing with the seriousness of the problem. Craig bends over backwards to make sure we know that she’s not like regular teenagers, she’s a justifiably angsty teenager! Yet once it becomes clear that she really needs professional help, the film makes it all too easy for one kind act to lead to a personal revelation that turns back time.

It’s really too bad that “The Edge of Seventeen” lacks the teeth in its bite because Craig is unapologetic in making Nadine one of the meanest main characters in recent memory. She is incapable of leaving a conversation that she has not “won,” and if she cannot achieve victory on the strength of her own arguments, Nadine will kamikaze by lobbing a vicious insult. Around the point when she defeatedly declares, “I have to spend the rest of my life with myself,” I realized that she is essentially Anna Kendrick’s Twitter feed personified – just with double the self-loathing and half the self-aware charm.

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REVIEW: Now You See Me 2

10 06 2016

Can two rabbits come out of the same metaphorical hat? Or two tricks from the same sleeve? Jon M. Chu’s “Now You See Me 2” does not really attempt such a feat. Rather than make a straightforward sequel to the 2013 magician caper, it goes in a totally new direction – essentially functioning like an “Ocean’s 11” style heist film. This entertains, sure, but it feels like a betrayal of the series’ core conceits.

The more interesting change from predecessor to sequel, however, is the transition of target for the magicians-cum-social crusaders known as the Four Horsemen. In the first film, their Robin Hood act harnessed the populist rage of the Occupy movement and used their cunning to get back at financiers who profited off the recession. Now, they face down a titan of technology with tyrannical aspirations of acquiring a chip that can surveil and sabotage any network on Earth. (On a pedantic note, it’s somewhat disappointing – yet maybe somewhat admirable – that the businessman is played by Daniel Radcliffe and no meta magic jokes are made around his appearance.)

Like “Spectre” last year, “Now You See Me 2” dives headfirst into Snowden-era debates over digital privacy. It only offers real commentary about the freedom from being seen in its conclusion, another predictably drawn-out labyrinthine affair. The film is primarily focused on the thrill; perhaps as it should be. When highly focused, as in an extended sequence showing the slight-of-hand of the disappearing card trick, it rightly claims the descriptor of “magical.”

But more often, it’s a lot of back-and-forth banter between the bickering magicians. The new presence of Lizzy Caplan’s enchantress Lula, a one-note annoying chatterbox with an aggravating infatuation for Dave Franco’s Jack Wilder, makes the interactions chafe a little more than before. Their dynamics feel like a potential deleted storyline from 2009’s “The Proposal,” the only other writing credit from “Now You See Me 2” scripter Pete Chiarelli. His sensibility coexists somewhat uneasily with writer Ed Solomon – the only credited writer returning from the original – whose previous work includes buddy action flicks like “Men in Black” and “Charlie’s Angels.” Their tag team gives the film a little bit of everything, just not a whole lot of consistency. C+ / 2stars





REVIEW: Triple 9

7 03 2016

John Hillcoat’s “Triple 9” makes for quintessential tough cinema – and in more ways than one. It’s hard-edged in content as a brutal crime plot breaks out in the Atlanta underworld but also somewhat tough in form; Matt Cook’s screenplay proves challenging to follow as more than broad strokes on many occasions. The sprawling tale of interwoven cops, criminals and robbers weaves a complicated web of characters.

Yet while the lack of numerous balls juggled during “Triple 9” are somewhat of a liability, they also become a strength when events take a brutally ironic turn in the second half. The film becomes almost like a classic piece of Russian literature with its cruel reversals of fate, though Cook somewhat overloads the dramatic irony by having characters mull over the impossible “coincidence” time and again. With lightly sketched characters, they become less like people and more akin to pieces to form an allegory about humanity as a whole.

Even without much in the way of characterization, the actors still shine through, namely Casey Affleck as the film’s de facto moral center, officer Chris Allen. (Others, like Aaron Paul and Kate Winslet, play up glorified caricatures.) Meanwhile, editor Dylan Tichenor, the man who cut masterpieces as varied as “Boogie Nights” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” provides excellent tension as Allen falls into the crosshairs of cops who serve the local Russian mafia bosses. The two of them almost manage to turn the film into a Coen-esque spin on a tale like “The Departed.” But even a watered-down version of that idyllic fantasy film would be worth watching – as “Triple 9” is, too. B2halfstars