Thursday, December 31, 2015

"Goodnight Mommy": Predictability Doesn't Destroy the Tension

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

If a film’s big twist ending fails to deliver, does that automatically negate all the good will that led up to that twist?  That’s what I found myself asking as I watched the final moments of Austrian horror flick Goodnight Mommy.  I had guessed the movie’s big surprise ending within the first five minutes of screen time, and the film never really did a whole lot to disavow that assumption.  But that did not keep me from enjoying the film anyway.  So why is that?

Well, I think it at least partially has to do with the film’s rather novel set-up.  A pair of twins, Elias and Lukas, begin to notice that their mother has been acting strangely ever since her recent car accident.  Her face is bandaged up, her behavior is erratic and decidedly more mean-spirited than they remember, and strangest of all, she only gives Elias any food or acknowledges his presence.  The twins suspect that this woman isn’t really their mother and start to devise a plan to torture the truth out of her.

Now, I’m sure that some of you were able to guess the big twist just from that summary, especially if you are familiar with a few particular major films from around the turn of the century.  The suspicion that the mother is not who she says she is isn’t ever all that convincing, but seeing how she interacts with her children and how they interact with each other is still pretty intriguing, especially considering that their interactions with the outside world are confined to a few specific instances.  This is a slow burner to be sure, and though it has a tendency to drag on for short stretches, Goodnight Mommy seems much more interested in letting us stew over whether our suspicions of the twist ending are correct, rather than trying to shock us with a big reveal.

It’s also pretty subtle when it finally arrives at the child-torturing-parent stuff that acts as the film’s main selling point.  It’s easy to picture an American version of this film resorting to the most gaudy and over-the-top special effects to make its audience feel they’ve got their money’s worth in blood.  However, this Austrian flick is content to let the horror of the situation sit pretty much in reality, without visual extremes beyond piss-stained sheets and only-as-necessary blood.  The biggest impact is psychological, as the twins, particularly Elias, try to come to grips with harming someone they love, or at least someone they believe is impersonating someone they love.  It smacks of a child’s limited grasp of consequence, which makes the film tense not only for the situation itself, but because the twins don’t seem able to stop the train wreck of problems their actions have begun to build up to.

That said, it still feels pretty unsatisfying when the big climactic reveal at the end of the film doesn’t carry the weight it feels like it ought to.  But that shouldn’t discount the feelings the film evokes while getting there.  The twist ending is based upon a what is now a cliché, but the avenue by which it gets there is still disturbingly satisfying to watch, putting a new spin on the creepy child trope of popular horror fiction.  Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a new classic of modern horror among the ilk of It Follows or The Babadook, it still works pretty well for what it is aiming for.  Give this one a look, particularly if you don’t mind subtitles.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"Bone Tomahawk": Talented Direction Marred By Blatant Racism

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Bone Tomahawk is pretty bizarre piece of film-making, and not in the usual way that one might think.  It isn’t so much that this film is stylistically constructed or so incredibly bad as to be baffling, but it takes on the strange task of telling a story that is functionally a Western, yet attempts to infuse a horror element in the last quarter of the film that feels tonally disparate from everything leading up to that point.  It’s a strange combination of elements that doesn’t quite gel for a number of reasons, the most glaring of which is apparent from the synopsis.

This is the story of four men who must travel across the frontier on a rescue mission.  Their town had been raided by a tribe of cannibalistic Native Americans who had abducted three of the locals as feeding stock.  The sheriff (Kurt Russell), his back-up deputy, a local Indian-killing enthusiast, and the injured husband of a taken woman make their way across the plains, necessarily finding ways to get along amidst differing viewpoints.

The obvious issue to take with this set-up is the extremely racist portrayal of indigenous peoples in this film.  It’s a play on an old savage archetype that has since passed into antiquity in respectable cinema, but the film tries to circumvent this by making the people seem inhuman in build and mannerisms, being entirely without a spoken language.  There is even a scene wherein a “respectable” Native American goes out of his way to explain that these cannibals are not representative of indigenous tribes as a whole, but this rings pretty hollow when the basic plot construction consists of four White men saving a White woman from a horde of non-White racial scary-otypes.  The attempted horror angle in the final quarter of the film not only feels tonally dissonant from the previous scenes of character building, but it also acts as a pretty transparent attempt to remove the humanity from an enemy whose inherent personhood raises incredibly problematic subtext.

And the unfortunate thing is that this film isn’t even entirely devoid of decent qualities.  The four male leads are all well-acted and have recognizable personas and characters arcs that don’t feel like shallow archetypes.  The script relies on witty banter and character tension to carry the dialogue in ways that don’t feel dissimilar to a Tarantino film.  And director S. Craig Zahler has a definite eye for extended scenes, allowing painful and uncomfortable moments to play out in their near entirety to communicate character struggles to the audience.

However, despite the talent that is clearly behind the camera, Zahler is also the writer of this inherently problematic story that, while functional structurally and entertaining at moments, is offensive by its very conception due to its use of Native Americans as an antiquated plot device, and even worse, as horror movie monsters.  It may offer platitudes and bend over backwards to assure you that that isn’t what you are watching, as it’s anachronistically progressive characters may consistently convey, but I think the film doth protest too much.  Zahler may have a future career in directing, but this is a pretty offensive first outing for someone so clearly talented.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

"Queen of Earth": A Portrayal of Feminism Through Madness

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Alex Ross Perry is an interesting dark humorist of the independent cinema scene, as evidenced quite clearly by last year’s Listen Up Philip.  He was very literary sensibilities that haven’t really been popular since old Hollywood, where star power was more important than it ever would be after and the best films were remembered for their performances more than anything else.  Though humor isn’t absent from Perry’s latest endeavor, to call Queen of Earth a comedy would be somewhat a stretch, as this film is less evocative of Perry’s acerbic wit as it is of his ability to coax a brilliant performance from Elizabeth Moss, who for once lets go of the subtle nuances of her characters to delve deep into psychological peril.

Two friends, Catharine (Moss) and Ginny (Katherine Waterston), take their yearly trip to a cabin in the woods in order to escape from the stresses of their everyday lives.  The previous year, Catharine had brought along her boyfriend as Ginny was going through a difficult break-up, leaving Ginny to deal with her depression alone.  This year, Catharine has similarly lost her romantic interest, but also has lost her embezzling father to prison and thus is in a similar situation when Ginny brings along her romantic interest, Rich (Patrick Fugit).

What’s interesting about this scenario is that Catharine’s character is perhaps one of the most feminist portrayals of the madwoman trope ever put to film.  Moss’s performance is reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman’s body of work, with the same kinds of creepy infantilization and incoherent murmurs interspersed with nonsensical laughter.  However, Catherine’s madness is a metaphor for something more than pure hysteria, as she is a woman conditioned to need the support of a man in order to remain functional.  It becomes apparent that her father sheltered her from the world with wealth, thereby fostering a dependent personality that needs dominant masculinity present in order to maintain a personal identity.  Similarly, the flashbacks to her past relationship show her as completely co-dependent and in denial of such co-dependency when an embittered Ginny points it out.  Catherine may be psychologically weak, but her weakness is understandable based on her conditioning to believe that men need to define her role in life, and her inability to cope is a direct result of that male manipulation.

As fantastic as this portrayal is, though, the film is not without its faults.  There is a late scene where Catharine and Ginny throw a party for no discernable reason, and the only purpose is to stage a hackneyed everyone-attacking-me delusion for Catharine.  Furthermore, there are times when Ginny’s presence seems entirely superfluous, especially since her character exists primarily as a grounded foil for Catharine’s insanity.  Ginny is supposed to represent how Catharine could have developed had her upbringing not emotionally crippled her, but she feels irrelevant when Moss sells Catharine’s struggle so effectively.

If you’re looking for something below the radar this Oscar season, Queen of Earth is a pretty great alternative to the accolades and fanfare of the next few months.  It won’t be getting any awards, but it certainly deserves to garner a fan following.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

"Carol": Finally, A Great Lesbian Romance

Now In Theaters
For whatever reason, the film industry has never done well with lesbian romance.  Whether it is a film built explicitly on an exploitative premise (My Summer of Love) or one made with passion but with a deficiency of talent (Itty Bitty Titty Committee), lesbians just seem underrepresented with quality motion pictures even within the niche area of gay and lesbian targeted romances.  Even films with mainstream notoriety such as Blue Is The Warmest Color turn out remarkably disappointing when actually scrutinized as more than a representation of on-screen diversity.  Fortunately, Carol does not disappoint; it is a great love story that hinges entirely on the nuanced performances of its cast, particularly its two leads.
Therese (Rooney Mara) is working as a toy store clerk in 1952 when from across the store she notices a striking woman whom we will later come to know as Carol (Cate Blanchett).  The two women have obvious chemistry from the start, and minor interactions begin to build toward something more as a friendship and eventual romance blossom.  This results in Therese finding her own assertive voice and finding an undiscovered confidence through her newfound sexuality, yet Carol isn’t simply a catalyst for Therese’s development.  Carol is in the middle of a strained divorce with her husband that threatens to alienate her relationship with her young daughter if her husband can convince the court that, as a sexual deviant, she is unfit to parent.
As far as the romance itself is concerned, the portrayal is spot-on, a slow burn that feels like the natural development of a relationship.  Mara and Blanchett will deservedly be recognized as two of this year’s best actresses, as the body language they exhibit with one another is not only subtle but immediately communicative, as it well should be considering that the time period in which their characters live does not allow for open sexual flirtation with members of the same sex.  Mara in particular does an excellent job of portraying a subtle insecurity befitting of one who is finding new emotions alien to her but is scared to voice those concerns, and Blanchett is equally fascinating as a woman who has to decide between being true to herself and suppressing her identity in order to have a relationship with her child.
The portrayal of men in this film is also astoundingly complex, as Carol’s husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and Therese’s boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) are far from the stock abuse caricatures they could have been in a lesser film.  Richard is the personification of the nice guy trope, the man who thinks that his careful celibate courtship of Therese will one day reward him with marriage and sexual intimacy; he doesn’t have bad intentions, but his view of women as people is certainly skewed so as to perceive them as prizes for kindness.  Similarly, Harge is completely dumbstruck by the possibility that Carol could reject his love for that of, not another man, but women, making him entirely insecure in his ability to control his life and raise his child.  Though the men of this film might be called villains for this instigation of the film’s conflicts, they aren’t one-dimensional and are sympathetic in their lack of education and context in seeing lesbian relationships as legitimate.
Even without all the extravagance of the film’s setting and the commentary on the social perception of lesbian identity, Carol would excel as a beautifully told romance, the kind that could never be emulated by the mindless portrayal of beautiful people kissing in the rain seen in any Nicholas Sparks production.  This is a story of interesting characters navigating treacherous waters together in order to find a way to make love work in a time and place that is openly hostile to them doing so, but without one single villainous entity on which to blame that hostility.  I think I’ve been using the phrase “best of the year” too often as of late (because this is an AMAZING year for movies), but this film is definitely among my favorites this year.  I just have to think long and hard about its competition to tell if it breaks into my top ten.

Monday, December 21, 2015

"Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation": Fresh and Frivolous

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Mission: Impossible holds a very unique position in the modern cinema landscape.  It is the rare franchise (only just now rivaled by the return of Mad Max) that has almost no pretentions to continuity, nor does it really seem invested in world-building, over-arching narrative, or even developing its minimal cast of returning characters.  Over the past two decades, Mission: Impossible has evolved into a test kitchen for directors wishing to get their feet wet in American action cinema, whether it be John Woo attempting to translate his Hong Kong sensibilities in part two, J.J. Abrams taking his first stab at directing for the big screen for part three, or Pixar’s Brad Bird venturing into the realms of live action for the first time in 2011’s Ghost Protocol.  Now with installment five, Rouge Nation (thankfully continuing to buck the trend of numbering this franchise that requires no homework to feel caught up with the current installment), Christopher McQuarrie takes the helm for what is another great installment in a franchise that is somehow only getting better with age.

The plots of these films are pretty damn formulaic, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t get into specifics.  Ethan Hunt (played by a gracefully aging Tom Cruise) is a secret agent for the Impossible Mission Force, a small team of secret agents tasked with taking down urgent threats to world security.  The quirk this time around is that there is now an evil group of spies known as The Syndicate, who want a technological MacGuffin for reasons because who cares, that’s not why you watch a Mission: Impossible movie.  This film, like most of the M:I franchise before it, is all about the action setpieces, and this one surely delivers.

Tom Cruise is game as ever to be the director’s punching bag, putting himself in actually dangerous situations for that ever-important take.  His character is smug and as two-dimensional as ever, but much like in Edge of Tomorrow (also co-written by McQuarrie), it’s just fun to watch Tom Cruise hurt at the whims of the script.  However, keeping with a growing trend in Hollywood, Cruise is joined by a competent female agent, played by Rebecca Ferguson.  What’s great about the inclusion of her character is that she doesn’t rely on Cruise or any other male cast member for self-definition, but is a fully realized character in her own right that kicks ass, which isn’t to say that she is terribly well developed, but only well developed as the rest of the male action figures McQuarrie positions for his setpieces.

In contrast to those who have handled the franchise before him, McQuarrie seems to lack a distinctive voice as a director in this installment, but instead remixes motifs and themes from previous entries, whether it be Woo’s operatic interpretation of the battle between dual moralities, Abram’s insistence on a personal dimension that is here realized as camaraderie between the agents, or Bird’s pulse-pounding philosophy of action scenes melting into one another to keep the tension high.  This installment easily goes down as the second best of the franchise, but only because it must live in the shadow of the non-stop frantic pacing of Ghost Protocol.  This is a frivolous summer blockbuster that doesn’t really belong on anyone’s top ten list this year, yet it knows what it is and tries to be the best version of a frivolous summer blockbuster that it can be.  This is definitely worth your time.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens": Snooty and Goon Collaboration

Now In Theaters

You can see my review for the biggest film event of the year over on Snooty and Goon's podcast HERE!  May the Force be with you.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

"The Big Short": Documentary Through Dramatization

Now In Theaters
The Big Short is a pretty bizarre beast of a film, but this is one of those rare instances where immense risk really pays off.  Directed and co-written by Adam McKay, whose previous feature filmography is almost exclusively Will Ferrell collaborations such as Anchorman and Step Brothers, The Big Short is an entirely different sort of comedy, founded on real world events and variations on real people.  Based on a nonfiction book by the same name, McKay focuses his lens on the financial crisis of 2007 and those who had the foresight to predict the collapse of the world economy.  It is with this film that McKay proves himself an incredibly versatile comedy director who can make pointed social commentary as well as screwball popcorn flicks.

The film is shot in pseudo-documentary style, following the experiences of five Wall Street players who, through various means and methods, were able to put together the pieces that foreshadowed the collapse of the housing market and with it the entire American banking industry.  To get into the particulars of the narrative would be an exercise in futility as it would ultimately become a lecture on economic theory and the roles those who manipulated the system played within it.  However, for what is at its core an exceedingly well-produced piece of edutainment, the film is never dull or tedious to sit through.

This is due to excellent comedic direction that is geared toward simultaneously making you laugh and making you angry at the situations being presented.  Complex banking jargon is explained in cutaway sequences of celebrities in innocuous situations explaining the shockingly simple concepts underlying the terminology, which is both silly and necessarily informative.  Meanwhile, the cast of main characters is perpetually shocked by the idiocy of those within the banking sector, whose own greed blinds them to the consequences of their manipulative lending practices.  Intermixed with the handheld, slightly out of focus shots are fourth wall-shattering asides that serve to point out exactly how fucked up a given situation is.

If the film has one major problem, it’s that some of the pieces of the story don’t feel all that interconnected.  Of the film’s four interweaving plotlines, only two ever directly interact, and even then protagonists Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling never actually share a frame together, leading me to speculate that their dialogue was spliced together in post-production.  This fragmentary approach fits decently well with the documentary aesthetic the film has going for it, but it still feels a bit odd considering that some characters never have fully realized arcs or have much of a narrative purpose beyond further demonstrating just how deep the rabbit hole of corruption goes.

But narrative isn’t really the point here.  Adam McKay is a gifted comic director who is obviously outraged at the lack of consequence the banking industry received in the fallout of the economic collapse, so he used those talents to make a film that would reach the greatest number of people: not a documentary, but a comic dramatization of the events that affected the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.  McKay has managed to make a film of people talking about stocks and bonds not only informative, but wickedly funny, and that is no small feat.  I may not count this film as one of the best of 2015, but I would certainly count it as one of the most important.  This is necessary viewing for anyone and everyone.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

"The Danish Girl": Sympathy Masquerading as Empathy

Now In Theaters
I think I need to start this review with the disclaimer that The Danish Girl could have been a much worse film than it ended up being.  I’ve been nervous about the production of this film ever since I found out that director Tom Hooper, a director notorious for making films geared specifically to pander to award season sensibilities, had cast Eddie Redmayne to star as the titular transgender woman Lili Elbe, immediately after Redmayne gained fame and infamy for his problematic portrayal of Steven Hawking in last year’s The Theory of Everything.  This raised warning bells that the film was going to be yet another vehicle designed for Redmayne to pull in nominations for portraying a disadvantaged group that would have been better served by having their own voices represented.  And that’s largely what has happened here, though I can’t really fault the film for what appear to be noble intentions in portraying the transgender experience, despite how misguided and unfortunate the portrayal turned out to be.

For those unfamiliar with the life of Lili Elbe, she was a transgender woman, formerly known as famous painter Einar Wegener, who came out in the 1920s.  As portrayed in the film, what started as a flirtatious game with her wife (portrayed with a surprising degree of complexity by Alicia Vikander) turned into a desire to dress as a woman in public and ultimately led to a discovery of transgender identity that resulted in her being one of the first to receive gender reaffirming surgery.  The film tries to treat Lili’s transition with some degree of respect, but certain pauses in dialogue feel primed at Lili’s expense, perhaps unconsciously but still present all the same as supported by the laughter of those who also attended the screening.

As for the film’s portrayal of transgender identity, it is seemingly well-intentioned but viewed through the skewed perspective of the heterosexual male gaze.  The camera lingers on the female form, fetishizing femininity through “Einar’s” eyes and carrying the unsettling implication that she embraces femininity out of an overt attraction to it, not out of any sort of self-discovery.  This is further evidenced by the camera never choosing to fetishize Lili in the same way; despite the film’s supposedly progressive attitude, it never deigns to treat Lili as a woman in her own right.

She is constantly seen as a fraudulent woman, which isn’t necessarily unrealistic as to how transgender women are treated, but the film does not go to enough lengths to establish that Lili is worthy of equal dignity to cisgender women.  The possibility that Lili suffers from mental illness is perpetually brought up throughout the film, with Lili seeing multiple doctors who all try to convince her of her insanity.  Again, not unrealistic, but Lili herself refers to “Einar” as a separate identity; considering that much of the presumably cisgender audience for this film is going to be largely ignorant of the realities of transgender experience, the conflation with mental illness is going to further spread harmful misconceptions.  This is also why Redmayne is a terrible choice to portray Lili, and I don’t mean because he is a cisgender man (which, despite being problematic, makes a certain amount of sense for how this story was told).  Redmayne is most certainly a gifted mimic, able to adopt the mannerisms and affectations of others in a purely physical sense, but as an actor he is never able to create a character beyond his bland British charm.  He was never convincing as Lili; he was Eddie Redmayne in a dress, just as he was only Eddie Redmayne in a wheelchair a year ago.

I can’t fault The Danish Girl for not being a film sympathetic to transgender issues.  However, it is by no means empathetic to those issues, by which I mean it is painfully obvious that its creation was not informed by living transgender people sharing their experiences.  This is a film shackled by the misconceptions of its director, its writing team, and its cast, and those misconceptions will be spread through the uninformed cisgender audiences who may come away from the film with sympathy for transgender people, but lack the understanding to affect change in any meaningful way.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"Minions": Blatant Brand Management

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I’ve never really understood the appeal of the Minions as the pop culture icons that they have somehow become.  Despicable Me was an alright movie, but I didn’t think that it was anything especially fantastic, and the Minions, while not the worst mascot characters in children’s movie history, didn’t strike me as particularly unique in their execution.  Maybe it’s their design, which seems to click with the public as generic enough to be easily marketable, yet elastic enough to allow for different numbers of eyes and varying body heights and widths, creating the illusion of variety without actually needing to create actual characters.  More than anything, though, Minions seem to work best as a horde of slapstick comedians, and their first solo spin-off finds itself lacking in that department.

The main problem seems to stem from the fact that the story is constrained to three minions, Kevin, Stuart, and Bob.  Filling out the roles of the leader, the goofball, and the naïve child respectively, these three aren’t particularly interesting as characters.  Their babbling dialect does not allow for much in the way of character development, so the film must rely on a constantly changing plot in order to keep a frenetic pace.  What starts as a hero’s journey to seek out a new villain to serve quickly turns into serving a villain by stealing the queen’s crown, and then takes a few turns later on that never feel organic to any sort of narrative structure but seem only to set up some uninspired animated action setpieces.  Narratively, it’s a bit of a mess.

This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the film were committed to delivering some cartoon antics, but it never seems to have enough faith in its audience to allow the Minions to do their thing without an overabundance of exposition.  One of the great things about cartoons (as already demonstrated in this year’s Shawn the Sheep Movie) is that the great variety of emotive range and slapstick invulnerability of their characters can allow for a wide range of nonverbal storytelling options.  While I was never expecting a Minions movie to be entirely speechless (due to human characters and the incessant babbling of the Minions themselves), the Minions’ strength is in their clumsiness, which the film neuters with a domineering narration track in the first few scenes and constant third-party explanation of the Minion trio’s goals and obstacles throughout the remainder.  This isn’t a film that puts much faith in the intelligence of its audience, to a point where it is pretty insulting, even for a kid flick.

Ultimately, if you had any interest in Minions, you already saw it in theaters and bought all the attendant merchandise.  Because that was the point: to act as the most blatant form of brand management.  The film skates by on lackluster presentation and storytelling, but keeps the Minions in recognizable form to remind us all that the brand still exists and will continue to exist as long as we keep buying stuff with Minion faces on it.  Franchise branding is the name of the game for children’s films, but rarely is it so lazily blatant.  If you are a fan of the Minions, my opinion doesn’t really matter.  For everyone else, you aren’t really missing anything as far as I’m concerned.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

"Tangerine": Realism in Portraying Transgender Women

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

As transgender issues work their way forward into the popular media and public consciousness, it’s easy to suppose how the hot topic could be exploited by would-be filmmakers wishing to make a name for themselves, hoping that audiences would mistake using trans people as props for genuine activism on behalf of an oppressed minority.  Thankfully, that’s not what has happened with Tangerine, a crazy day in the life of a couple of transgender sex workers.  This is largely due to a sense of authenticity lent to the film by the two leads actually being transgender sex workers and the film’s story apparently mirroring some of their experiences.

It is Christmas Eve, and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) has just been released from a short jail term.  While meeting up with her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), she learns that her fiancée/pimp was sleeping with another woman while she was away.  Sin-Dee decides to go on a cross-town tirade to track down this woman so that she can confront her fiancée, while Alexandra tags along distributing flyers for her singing performance later that evening.

The experience of this film is rather unique in how it feels so authentic.  Shot on an iPhone with an anamorphic adapter for widescreen and at real locations in West Hollywood, the film feels devoid of the pomp and circumstance of big budget productions, instead relying on the charisma and emotion of its amateur actors to pull the weight of the storytelling.  All involved do a fantastic job, particularly the two leads whom I was shocked to learn had little to no prior acting experience.  They are naturally funny in playing caricatured self-portraits, yet when the moment calls for them to be more serious they are more than up for the task, particularly for a climax that is touching as it is appropriate for the film’s Christmas setting.

The only unfortunate thing about this film is that its already short runtime of 87 minutes feels padded with a distracting subplot.  The film continually cuts away to Razmin, an Armenian cab driver who frequently uses transgender prostitutes’ services to cope with his culture’s abhorrence with his homosexuality.  I spent most of the film trying to figure out what purpose he served in Sin-Dee’s and Alexandra’s narratives, and unfortunately there isn’t much of one.  Razmin’s brief interactions with the two women make an impact on his story, but his story ultimately has no resolution and only serves to distract from the most touching moments Sin-Dee and Alexandra share.  Perhaps director Sean S. Baker was trying to make a point by not giving Razmin any sort of proper closure, but he feels like he should have been a character in his own film, rather than be overshadowed by the infinitely more interesting leads.  That said, Razmin has his share of funny moments, so his presence isn’t a total waste of time.

Ultimately, even with the seemingly pointless Razmin subplot, Tangerine is a great movie, particularly in its natural portrayal of its transgender subjects.  The film does not shy away from knowledge that discrimination and violence against trangender individuals and sex workers are very real issues, but that is also not the main point of the film; the point is to show a day in the life of these people in a way that is human and relatable, in a way that makes us laugh and cry along with them.  Rodriguez and Taylor have shown us a glimpse of their world that I won’t be forgetting any time soon.

Friday, December 11, 2015

"Pride and Prejudice and Zombies": Dead on Arrival

In Theaters on February 5, 2016

I never finished reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  Though I was intrigued by the concept of placing zombie tropes in a Victorian setting, I didn’t find that the novel ever found a footing beyond its titular joke, at least not in the hundred or so pages I read before getting bored.  This didn’t give me high hopes when I heard that the tortured six year production cycle of the movie adaptation had finally churned out its obligatory final product years after The Walking Dead became the only piece of zombie pop culture ephemera to retain any popularity.  And alas, the resulting film was even worse than I had expected.

See, in theory, the running juxtaposition of English high society with the brutality of braining hordes of the undead should work better in a visual medium, as there is a lot more potential for physical comedy and absurdist winks to the camera that don’t require the characters to break the fourth wall in order to explain the joke.  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies completely misses that opportunity by playing most of the Pride and Prejudice and even most of the Zombies completely straight, almost as if this was two incomplete films that were mashed together in order to somehow bring them to market.  There are exceptions, most notably in the first half hour when the lore of the film’s alternate history is being established, but the two genres remain strangely divorced for a mash-up, leaving what is ostensibly a comedic film with very few laughs or even attempts at making us laugh.

The Victorian romance of Jane Austen’s novel is more or less intact, which actually works wonders to this film’s detriment.  No one going to see this film is looking for a serious portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy; they could just see one of the many adaptations of the original novel for that.  The actors are all pretty half-hearted in their attempts as well, with a noted exception of Matt Smith as an eccentrically needy Mr. Collins, but he rather bizarrely functions as comic relief in a film that is premised on comedic action as its selling point.

The zombie action scenes are similarly half-assed, presumably out of fidelity toward keeping the film at a PG-13 rating.  Almost none of the zombie kills make their way on screen, and the ones that do are remarkably tame and bloodless.  This leads to a bizarre method of fight cinematography where we see our protagonists waving their limbs most dramatically and constantly connecting to something off-screen so that even the banal catharsis of mindless violence is denied to the audience.  And this is a shame, because even though the zombie lore of this film is actually somewhat interesting, with zombies that can seemingly articulate and speak as well as the members of high society they once were, the extent and ramifications of that lore are left largely unexplored in the hope that this film will spawn a franchise.  The mindless violence would have at least given me something fun to focus on while the film spun its wheels.

And that right there is why this film is so atrocious: it isn’t fun.  In fact, it’s really quite boring, much more boring than any film with the title Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has any right to be.  A friend that joined me for the screening joked with me that we had seen one of the worst films of 2016 before the year had even began, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I still felt that way a year from now.  This is a painfully dull film to sit through, and were it not for my commitment to these reviews I probably would have left long before the credits.  When this hits theaters in two months, do not spend your money and let this be the flop it deserves to be.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

"Macbeth (2015)": Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

Now in Theaters
Director Justin Kurzel is strangely noteworthy as a director not for what he has directed previously (which is itself nothing of note), but for what his next project is slated to be: the film adaptation of Assassin’s Creed.  To precede that film with an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays seems more than a little bizarre, especially considering that Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are performing in both films.  The resulting interpretation of Macbeth is simultaneously artistically boisterous and tragically pointless, a demonstration that Kurzel can portray historical violence in compelling and visually interesting ways that places the actual Shakespearean text in the back seat.

Kurzel and his fellow screenwriters take some liberties with the original play, most notably in that the battle that takes places in the moments immediately preceding the events of the play is shown in its full bloody glory with Macbeth (Fassbender) at the front and center.  This battle is, as is most of the rest of the film, visually stunning, as cinematographer Adam Arkapaw captures some of the most beautifully composed shots of the year.  However, this has the unfortunate effect of demonstrating Macbeth as a violent tyrant right from the get-go, so that his descent into madness feels more like a formality than a truly tragic evolution of his once uncorrupted character.

Both Fassbender and Cotillard do fantastic work as the Macbeths, particularly in individual scenes where they are given the full breadth of the original text to work with.  Fassbender’s decent into madness is assisted by some clever manipulation of time through editing and Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is at once daringly manipulative of her husband and yet dumbstruck by the monster her goading has supposedly created.  Neither transformation is really given the amount of screen time necessary to feel entirely convincing, though, as the film tends to rush through the slower, more talkative parts of the play as mere formality in order to get to the more violent and emotionally tortured material.

And that is ultimately why this isn’t in the upper echelon of Shakespearean adaptations; Kurzel has placed all priority on style rather than on substance.  As gorgeous as the cinematography is, many of the scenes designed so show off these shots drag on for way too long through an abuse of slow motion that would make even Zack Snyder flinch.  Furthermore, the score of this film is an omnipresent somber dirge, mixed much too loudly so as to be distracting rather than mood-setting.  Some stylized choices work, such as the blood red filter on the climactic battle scene or the near-wordless subplot about Banquo’s son losing everything at Macbeth’s hand, but these inspired moments feel muted by the constant heavy-handed reminders that this is art cinema.  And that just makes the production feel like a disingenous self-marketing exercise for Justin Kurzel in order to prove he can handle a large-scale production like Assassin's Creed.

On the whole, I’m willing to give this movie a pass because, at its core, it’s still Macbeth and is still entertaining based on the strength of the source material and the great talent performing it.  However, I hope that some producer influence can reign in some of Justin Kurzel’s arthouse tendencies while making Assassin's Creed, because his lack of subtlety becomes quite tiresome by the end of two hours.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"The Martian": The Triumphant Return of Ridley Scott

Now In Theaters, Available on DVD and Blu-ray on January 12, 2016

By my estimation, there must be two Ridley Scotts directing in Hollywood today who, for brevity’s sake, we’ll call Alien Scott and Prometheus Scott.  Alien Scott has a deft understanding of film as a visual medium, using it to enhance his story and characters whether or not he has extensive visual effects to back him up (see: Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven).  On the other hand, Prometheus Scott is who we seem to have been stuck with for at least the past five years, using film as an excuse to stage elaborate setpieces at the expense of telling an interesting story or creating compelling characters (see: Exodus: Gods and Kings, Robin Hood).  So I was a bit wary to go see The Martian, as I could very easily see how putting Prometheus Scott anywhere near a science fiction premise could spell recipe for disaster.

Thankfully though, after much goading from my peers and after everyone on planet Earth seemingly having watched this before me, I got to see how Alien Scott proudly suppressed his lesser instincts and asserted control.  I think this is because The Martian, though a piece of science fiction, has an incredibly simple premise: what if one man were stranded alone on Mars?  The comparison has been made that this story is a combination of elements of Cast Away and Apollo 13, as we see the stresses and difficulties of being stranded alone in a hostile environment alongside a scientific exploration of a team looking to problem-solve their way to bringing their lost astronaut home.  And miraculously, that could have been an overly busy film is incredibly watchable and entertaining.

I think a lot of it comes down to excellent casting.  Matt Damon is pretty much perfect for stranded astronaut Mark Whatney, a character who could be a bland cipher if placed in the wrong hands.  Thankfully, Damon is such an effortlessly likeable actor that he brings crude humor and tragic emotion to his part while still remaining charismatically neutral enough to act as an audience surrogate as he spends most of his screentime alone.  You’re right there with Whatney, feeling his triumphs and setbacks just as he does.

The cast back on Earth and in the returning space vessel that mistakenly left Whatney for dead are equally impressive, a collection of characters so vast that it is impossible to list or even remember most of their names.  However, Scott played this smart by giving most key characters a well-recognized actor to play them, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, and Jeff Daniels to name a few.  Their characters are well-developed enough to give them distinct personalities and make them immediately recognizable, but not so well-developed that the audience is given more information than they can handle.  It’s the kind of large cast management that would make Joss Whedon blush, and I think that is the biggest contributing factor to Ridley Scott’s success with The Martian.

There’s obviously a lot more that goes into a film than its characters, but as I’ve said in other reviews, sometimes the seamlessness of direction is precisely what makes a film so great.  The script is rock solid, the story beats land perfectly on the exact emotion the audience needs to feel at a given moment, and the science-positive message of an entire world looking to save one man is simply awe-inspiring.  I know for a fact that Prometheus Scott would not have been able to direct one of the best films of the year.  But Alien Scott, the true Ridley Scott, most assuredly has.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

"In the Heart of the Sea": Sinks Under Its Own Weight

In Theaters on December 11, 2015

Ron Howard is a talented director, but every person has their limits.  There is a reason that Moby Dick hasn’t been adapted for the big screen very often: beside the monumental whale attack and the single-minded drive of its protagonist, the work is a bloated piece more fascinated with whale blubber than storytelling that does not lend itself well to filming.  Howard attempted to side-step this issue by making an adaptation of the historical events that inspired Moby Dick, using a portrayal of Melville as a curious interviewer of a survivor of said events to act as a framing device for the historical narration.  However, there is just so much that Howard tries to work into his film that it collapses under its own blubberous mass, whether it be due to cuts to the film’s length or simply too many tonal and focal shifts.

The film is at its best during the Melville portions, where Melville (Ben Winshaw) interviews Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the aged last survivor of the whale attack that destroyed the Essex in 1820.  These scenes are well-acted and carry what is closest to what the film has to a character arc as Nickerson talks his way through his trauma, but ultimately the framing device feels a bit bizarre, seeing as Nickerson’s younger self isn’t present for some key scenes that he somehow still manages to narrate.

But that is the most minimal of complaints compared to how the film rather half-heartedly goes about establishing its protagonists: first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), the son of a landsman who has worked his way up through the ranks by sheer determination, and Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), the heir to a whaling dynasty that gains him the advantage of easy promotion with no practical experience.  The film sets this up early as the potential starting point for the butting of heads and the eventual putting of Pollard in his place, and though the narrative makes an effort to resolve that arc in the end, there is no character development shown to happen on screen.  The actors do very well with their survivalist monologues, but never do we see Pollard and Chase’s conflict come to a satisfying head or more than a token conclusion.

As for the whale itself, the whale attack shots are beautifully realized, but if you were expecting to see anything more extensive than what is shown in the trailer, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.  More attention is paid to the horrific carnage of whaling practices, which simultaneously feels victorious to the whaling crew and horrific in light of the savage brutality to the aquatic mammals.  It’s oddly duplicitous, which robs what little we see of the white whale attack of the pure horror that makes monsters entertaining in the first place.

In turn, the white whale get short-changed in favor of scenes of survival at sea that don’t carry as much weight as they should due to the aforementioned lack of character development for either the leading men or for the supporting crew.  Ultimately, this is a film comprised of fragments of great film ideas: a story of survivor’s guilt, a clash of hard work versus privilege, a testament of the horrors of whaling, a monster movie, and a tale of survival in the most dire of circumstances.  Ron Howard is a skilled enough director to make any of those work, perhaps even two within the same film.  However, the ambition exhibited here would be beyond most director’s abilities to compress adequately into a two hours film, and Howard is certainly not the one to surmount this obstacle.  Maybe someday a director will make an entertaining adaptation of Moby Dick, but this isn’t the film to tide you over until they do.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

"Amy (2015)": Tastefully Presented Tragedy

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Amy is not a story we haven’t heard before, and I don’t mean that in the sense that Amy Winehouse’s rise in fame and decline in stability is incredibly well-documented.  I mean this in the sense that we have seen artists burn out on their celebrity before, and Winehouse is an example of that tragedy in the extreme, where the death of a young artist forces us to step back and look at the psychological trauma that celebrity can inflict upon a person.  Amy is a testament to the life of a talented young woman who fell victim to her own fame, and though it isn’t the best documentary of the year, I have a hard time seeing anything else bringing home the prize at the Oscars this year.

Which isn’t to say that Amy isn’t a good film; it very much is, taking material that would have made excellent fodder in a made-for-TV exploitation special and elevating it to a touching tribute to the impact Winehouse made on the musical community.  Director Asif Kapadia clearly saw the dangers fraught in presenting this material as respectfully as possible, and therefore used a few tricks to make the story more resonant.  First, and most notably, the film has almost no face-cam interviews.  The benefit of making a film about Amy Winehouse is that there is a plethora of home movie footage and archived news reports to present a coherent narrative on Winehouse’s life, even without the use of narration.

However, the film does use narration throughout, but in the form of audio recordings with Winehouse’s friends, producers, and fellow artists.  In lieu of watching these people cry for their lost friend, we get to see Winehouse through their eyes, with their remembrances matched to potent images on-screen that depict more than the drugged-out caricature the popular media presented Winehouse as in her later years.  According to Amy, Winehouse was a goofy, everyday woman with a talented voice that led her to be exploited and for her on-going struggles with substance abuse and bulimia to go largely untreated.  The film isn’t so much interested in laying blame on any particular person (though Winehouse’s promoter and her father do not come out looking very good), but it does paint the picture that the compounded struggles of her celebrity status are what pushed Winehouse to her demise.

The Academy, mostly comprised of film celebrities, will likely give Amy the Oscar win for Best Documentary in a landslide, as Hollywood loves stories of tragic youth sacrificed upon the altar of celebrity.  Amy is quite a good film, particularly for how lewdly this subject matter could have been presented, but it isn’t quite so novel a documentary as, say, Going Clear.  As with any documentary, though, this may just be attributed to my relative ambivalence to the subject matter.  If the life of Amy Winehouse is of any interest to you, this might be one to give a shot.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

"Shaun the Sheep Movie": Comedy Without Words

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Aardman Animations is pretty well renowned for their extensive catalog of stop-motion animation films and TV shorts, among which are the fantastic Chicken Run and legendary Wallace and Gromit.  Recently added to their catalog is a show aimed at a younger audience, but not any more wanting for charm.  Shaun the Sheep is centered around a fairly basic cartoon premise of barnyard animals and their clueless farmer.  Despite being aimed at kids, the show is universally funny family entertainment, mainly due to its reliance on cartoon slapstick and visual gags and a complete disregard for spoken humor.  In fact, the entire show’s dialogue is communicated in grunts and animal noises.  So when making a feature length movie adaptation of a show that only runs for seven minutes an episode, will the faithful wordlessness translate into consistent comedy?  The answer is most assuredly yes.

The film opens on a monotonous week on the farm, with Shaun and the rest of the sheep going through the daily motions of their lives.  One day, Shaun gets the idea to take a break and devises a plan to put the farmer to sleep so that he and the other sheep can watch some TV in the farmer’s house.  After a domino trail of ridiculous antics, the farmer is not only disposed of, but he has ended up in the nearby city, alone and with amnesia.  So it is up to the sheep and the faithful watchdog Bitzer to bring the farmer back home.

Given that the show is aimed at younger audiences, I was expecting a bit of a toned down version of what Aardman usually has to offer in their cinematic exploits.  This is only true in one respect, and that is in the obligatory absence of intelligible voicework.  There are still jokes in the form of written and other visual gags, and the fact that there is no dialogue to distract from that only makes those jokes stronger and funnier.  The slapstick isn’t reduced in the slightest, as Aardman uses their singular gifts in animation to create setpieces reminiscent of the best that Looney Tunes and early Disney had to offer.

And really, that’s the best thing that can be said about Shaun the Sheep.  It is a cartoon at its core, and it isn’t ashamed to be one.  Aardman recognizes that kids don’t need loud noises or constant chatter to stay entertained; with great timing and some wacky antics, one can tell a great story that people of all ages can enjoy.  Though necessarily grander in scale than the limited focus of the farm, the story is still instantly relatable and the characters instantly loveable without the necessity of telling us to love them.  More than anything, Aardman knows how to evoke childlike joy in a way that has since been lost to the bygone age of cartoon shorts.  Here’s hoping they keep doing just that.  But in the meantime, Shaun the Sheep Movie is just as worthy an addition to their catalog as any of its predecessors.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

"Trainwreck": Brings Out the Best of Two Artists

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Amy Schumer is perhaps one of the most inconsistently funny people working in comedy today.  At times, she is the queen of feminist social commentary, crafting hilariously satirical situations via sketch comedy that is poignant and cutting.  Other times, though, she can come off as vindictive and as resentful of other women for qualities that she is self-deprecating of in her stand-up.  That’s why I ended up feeling a little hesitant about, Trainwreck, her new star vehicle which she also wrote.  Fortunately, though, she has some grade-A talent to back her up behind the director’s chair: Judd Apatow, a man who has seen little by way of success in recent years.  Yet these two comedians together have made one of the funniest films of the year, which I doubt they would have been able to separately.

As per usual, Amy Schumer autobiographicalizes her role by playing a character named Amy, who has problems with sexual intimacy, yet no problem with sexuality or using weed and booze to supplement her partying lifestyle.  Working for a gossip magazine that is clearly Schumer’s topical target for venting her feminist ire, Amy gets assigned to write a story about sports surgeon Aaron Connors (Bill Hader).  As she gets to know Aaron, she begins to feel actual romantic feelings for him, and as she navigates this new relationship she must tackle her issues with allowing affection into her life.

The comedy is pure Schumer, even if it is wrapped in the shell of a romantic comedy.  The jokes are often borderline adolescent in their reliance on sexuality and absurdism, but still relatable to what most people go through in their social lives, work, and relationships.  Schumer has a definite knack for portraying what it is like to live as a non-skinny girl in a world that seemingly only rewards women for physical “perfection,” and though this film is definitely restrained enough to keep its social commentary to a minimum, the perspective shines through in how Amy’s character seems to have built up her emotional barriers as a reaction to this.

This is where Judd Apatow comes in, offering a level of charm that we haven’t seen since his early films.  Whereas Schumer has provided the majority of the comedic influence, Apatow has inserted his trademark emotional influence to provide support for a relatively standard story.  Aaron seems to be genuinely confused when Amy is unable to make an emotional connection to him, and when she constantly wants to end things with him because it’s becoming too hard for her, he is strong and there for her regardless.  And yet, Apatow’s direction is smart enough not to imply that Aaron is saving Amy from her own emotions, but rather that it is Amy’s responsibility to navigate her own character arc.  It is great to see that Apatow has the capacity to treat a female protagonist with the amount of depth that he has given to male protagonists in his previous work.

All in all, Trainwreck is anything but.  It is a sly and witty film that combines the best qualities of two very funny people and cuts out most of what can make them relatively unpalatable.  The film is by no means perfect, with a few too many one-note side characters and a few missed jokes here and there, but overall, this is a hilarious film that I highly recommend, especially to those who have enjoyed anything that Amy Schumer or Judd Apatow have made in the past.  Hopefully this means that the two will collaborate in the future.  I’d love to see what else they’d have in store for us.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"The Good Dinosaur": The Merely Good Pixar Movie

In Theaters on November 25, 2015

The Good Dinosaur was originally slated for release last year, but for unknown reasons, the original director was scrapped and the project was delayed by a year and a half in order to be reworked into its current product.  This isn’t the first time that Pixar has run into a troubling production cycle, but, at least in my opinion, the other Pixar movie to come out of that development hell (Brave) was as worthy of the Pixar name as any other.  However, I’m not so sure that this is the case this time around.  Don’t get me wrong, this is still a pretty good movie, as Pixar’s standards are (usually) well above what is considered passable for children’s entertainment; yet it still comes across as lesser than its siblings.

Part of this has to do with the simplicity of the film’s set-up.  Set in a world where dinosaurs were never eradicated and have evolved into sentient species, the film focuses on the journey of Arlo, a cowardly young Apatosaurus who is swept away from his family by a raging river and must find his way home.  Accompanying him on this journey is a feral human whom he names Spot, a non-verbal sidekick who is less rabid than he initially appears and whom Arlo grows to love in their quest to return home.

Though Pixar has made simple, clichéd set-ups like this work before (see the aforementioned Brave in telling a Disney Princess story), they have gotten by on strong character development that is sorely lacking in The Good Dinosaur.  Arlo is entirely defined by his coward-to-courage character arc, and Spot functions entirely for Arlo to bounce his thoughts off of when he isn't acting as cheap slapstick comic relief.  Other dinosaurs appear throughout the film as interesting characters that offer funny and heartfelt moments, but their presences are purely transient, only serving to act as pit-stops for Arlo to receive on-the-nose advice.

The animation itself, though, is gorgeous.  Or, at least, the wooded setting of the film is.  The mountains and rivers have an almost photo-realistic quality that is unparalleled in animated cinema, which makes it all the more disconcerting to watch the extremely cartoony character designs of the dinosaurs romp across its landscape.  The choice seems like a conscious one, as if the animators knew that the simplistic story they were working with would have to be carried by expressive faces and eccentric movements, but it feels jarring in juxtaposition to such carefully crafted realism.  This isn’t to say that the expressive animation isn’t effective, as the film still manages to offer heartfelt moments of genuine emotion through little to no dialogue, but the two well-meaning elements of exaggerated emotion and photorealism just don’t visually work well together.

This review sounds quite negative, but it really isn’t meant to drive people away from seeing The Good Dinosaur.  This is still Pixar, and in light of the recent revelation that the studio plans to continue sequelizing with little original content on the horizon, this film is a welcome entry to their catalog for that reason alone.  However, especially in the inevitable comparison to recent masterpiece Inside Out, it’s hard not to see how Pixar squandered some missed opportunities with this one.  The Good Dinosaur is definitely worth seeing, but lower your expectations for it to be merely good, rather than the usual Pixar greatness.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"Sisters (2015)": Buddy Comedy At Its Funniest

In Theaters on December 18, 2015

It’s hard to deny that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are two of the funniest women working in show business at the moment.  Their respective sitcoms ran for seven seasons each and were huge successes, if not in their initial ratings, then in critical acclaim and Netflix watches and re-watches.  The two women also have a definite chemistry and affinity for one another, as demonstrated by their team-ups on SNL and in hosting award shows.  However, their previous feature outing, Baby Mama, was a bit lackluster, if only because it was carried by their performances rather than strong writing.  Is Sisters the film to prove that the duo have what it takes to deliver on the big screen?  I most certainly think so.

Sisters is the story of… well, two sisters, Katie (Fey) and Maura (Poehler).  Katie is immature and irresponsible, yet paradoxically the mother of a fairly well-adjusted teenage daughter.  Maura is overly responsible to the point of being self-sacrificing, even when her advice is unsolicited.  When the women’s parents decide to sell their childhood home, the two head to the house to clean out their old bedroom.  In an act of rebellion against their parents, the two decide to throw a major party like those of their high school days, but this time Katie has to be the responsible one and Maura is allowed to let her freak flag fly so that she has the chance to score with the cute guy next door.

What makes this film work so well, besides the fact that the script is overflowing with hilarious jokes, is that Katie and Maura are very well-developed characters.  On the most basic level, they are archetypical foils to one another, but they also obviously have a shared history with one another that transcends the bare outlines of their personalities.  This probably has a lot to do with Fey’s and Poehler’s BFF status, but considering that these two are so funny anyway, I don’t really mind the fact that this film is mostly just an excuse for them to hang out together.

And unlike the aforementioned Baby Mama, the writing in this film is really solid.  In many straight comedies, the screenwriter can often forget to write a third act entirely, or can make the third act so dire that the comedy comes to a screeching halt.  However, Sisters makes neither of these errors, keeping the comedy consistent while simultaneously delivering resolution to both major character arcs of the two sisters.  This doesn’t even take into account that the jokes themselves are usually riotous, to the point where I’m sure I’ll have to watch the movie again just to make sure I didn’t laugh so hard that I missed something.  There are a few jokes about lesbian stereotypes that don’t quite work (which is true about most Fey-affiliated GLBT humor), but on the whole the film had my entire theater laughing almost non-stop.

Sisters has the unfortunate distinction of opening in theaters on the same day as Star Wars: Episode VII, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this one flies under a lot of people’s radar.  But that won’t prevent me from advocating for it.  If you have time for two movies that weekend, or if you just really aren’t feeling the Oscar bait this year, seriously, support Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as feature film buddy comedians.  This film is great, and I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Friday, November 20, 2015

"Trumbo": Cranston Holds Steady As A Leading Man

Now In Theaters
Trumbo feels like a film that I should like a lot more than I do.  It’s a Hollywood historical piece populated with a cast of performers that I all enjoy over the breadth of their careers.  However, it also strikes me that the purpose for this film’s existence is pretty bare and blatant: this is a piece of Oscar bait, goading the Academy to rally behind the story of one of its most unjustly persecuted talents.  The film is good on its own merits, to be sure, but that ulterior motive seems to hover just outside the frame at all times, and it exposes the film for exactly the by-the-numbers biopic that it is.

Bryan Cranston makes a star turn in his first major role since Breaking Bad as Dalton Trumbo, an openly Communist screenwriter who was wildly successful in the 1940s.  However, in the wake of WWII, the U.S. Congress felt a need to root out Communist influences in popular media for fear that this would lead to sympathies with the other, non-capitalist superpower of the era.  This led to the imprisonment of ten of Hollywood’s most outspoken Communist writers, and once they were released from prison, these writers were blacklisted from working with any major studio.  This forced these writers to work in secret and for little pay, which caused hardship, loss, and in extreme instances even death.

The film lives and dies with its incredible ensemble cast of notable character actors, including Louis C.K., John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Alan Tudyk, Diane Lane, and Michael Stahlbarg, to name only a handful.  Most of these great actors get their share of great character moments, painting the darkest chapter of Hollywood’s history as populated with eclectic and larger-than-life figures who feel believable precisely because Hollywood thrives on the illusion of being larger than life.  Cranston does an admirable job as Trumbo, though I think the rumblings of this landing him an Oscar nomination are somewhat unfounded; he’s still doing a variation of the underappreciated genius shtick he was pushing as Walter White, except his character now has the wit and moral integrity to back it up.

And yet, despite the film’s great character moments, there is a lack of emotionally connective tissue to tie these scenes together.  Trumbo is victim to the classic biopic pitfall of trying to condense decades of information into two hours, so while the film as a whole feels like a coherent whole, the transitions between scenes that span vast lengths of time feel somewhat forced and at times tonally dissonant with one another.  Furthermore, the film falls into a second act lull that pulls attention away from the victimhood of the Hollywood Ten to focus on Dalton Trumbo’s personal failings as a human being when placed under the pressure of the situation.  In another film, this sequence would have been perfectly fine, as it is well-acted and heartfelt, but here it feels like a distraction meant to show off Cranston’s acting chops.

However, you shouldn’t take that to mean that Trumbo is a bad film.  Far from it, this is an engaging and entertaining piece of biographical fiction.  Sure it’s a little bloated and a little pretentiously self-congratulatory, but it makes up for that with some truly entertaining performances, some of whom steal the show with seemingly little effort.  Bryan Cranston may be the audience draw for this picture, but much like the real Dalton Trumbo, he wouldn’t get far without the support of his colleagues.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"Mr. Holmes": How To Turn Fan-Fiction Into A Great Movie

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

There’s something irresistibly intriguing about the central conceit of Sir Ian McKellen playing an aged version of Sherlock Holmes.  A beloved actor for both his iconic roles in geek ephemera and his endearing public persona, McKellen seems uniquely equipped to tackle the complexities of a character virtually as old as cult fandom itself.  And thankfully, the results are pretty much on par with McKellen’s abilities, thanks to a surprisingly gripping screenplay and a plot that serves both the character and McKellen’s unique spin on playing him.

McKellen’s Sherlock is a 93-year-old man, living in self-imposed exile with only a housekeeper and her preteen son Roger as his company.  His memory has started to fail him in recent years, with one particular case bothering him for his inability to remember it.  As Roger begins to connect with Sherlock over a shared passion for beekeeping (a nice canonical nod to the original books), Sherlock begins to unravel mysteries of his own past, coming to realizations of why he feels guilt and failure as a detective for offenses that he cannot initially remember.  This is mainly revealed through interwoven flashbacks that do a remarkable job of slowly unraveling the mysteries of both past and present and creating a parallel character development between past and present Sherlock that works to emphasize the dramatic tension of both arcs through juxtaposition.  In other words, the film is masterfully edited.

One point of contention I’ve noticed amongst critics is the reliance on the intergenerational friendship trope as Sherlock befriends the young Roger, but honestly, I didn’t have much of a problem with it.  It never overshadows Sherlock’s personal development and the focus is almost always placed on Sherlock, not on the less interesting dynamics between Roger and his mother.  There are enough scenes to establish Roger as a fairly likeable character in his own right, but not so many as to overshadow the primary reason people want to see this film in the first place.  And McKellan’s Sherlock is a pretty damn amazing interpretation of the character: a smug erudite who knows precisely how smart and capable he once was (and still is), but is tortured by the limitations his age is putting on his mind and body and is not entirely incapable of making human connections if he determines the effort is worth making.  It’s a complex portrayal that well serves a complex character.

But aside from the fantastic lead performance and the very well-executed premise, the screenplay offers a number of delights that I rather didn’t expect, particularly in how it treats Sherlock as a metafictional character.  I have a soft spot for stories where the lines between fiction and reality become blurred, and in this version Dr. Watson and Arthur Conan Doyle are one and the same person, with Watson’s recollections acting as fictionalized accounts of Sherlock’s actual cases.  To see a curmudgeonly grumbling Holmes grouse about the inaccuracies of Watson’s accounts and even go to a cinema to see himself portrayed in a woefully melodramatic adaptation is as supremely entertaining as it sounds, and the commentary never gets old.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed Mr. Holmes.  The minor quibbles that would have probably bothered me in other films weren’t as much of a concern here due to very solid writing, a good plot, and an excellent performance by Sir Ian McKellen.  I’m not the biggest Sherlock Holmes fan, but I am familiar enough with the character to know when he is being done justice to, and this film not only embraces its source material, but understands it well enough to provide a proper bookend to the life of one of fiction’s greatest characters.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

"The 33": The Good Moments Fall Through The Cracks

Now In Theaters
I can’t think of a film in recent memory that felt so internally polarizing to me.  The 33 is at times quite effective and at others bafflingly amateur, but it is never what one would call mediocre.  The juxtaposition of these qualities makes for an emotional rollercoaster, but not one that is based on investment in the film itself; rather, it’s incredible shifts from good to bad alternately pull one in and out of the film to the point where it is disorienting to try and evaluate whether what you just watched was objectively any good or not.  In short, this film is incredibly uneven, which is why I cannot recommend it.

The 33 is the story of the Chilean miners who were trapped underground in 2010 after the unsafe working conditions of their mine caused a collapse.  With enough rations for three days, the miners must fight to survive with what little they have until the Chilean government can drill through to their rescue.  However, even once that is accomplished, the daunting task of actually extracting the men from the mine still looms heavily over the proceedings.

What this film excels at most is framing the tension of the situation in such a way that makes it easy to forget the inevitable happy ending that will arrive for the struggling band of brothers.  Starting with the collapse of the mine, the near certainty that at least one of these men is going to die is ever present, and yet the miraculous revelation that they all survive is not any less sweet for having realized it with foreknowledge of real life events.  Then, as the men struggle to survive on a minimum of food, the tension remains high as both the drillers up top and the miners below bemoan the impossibility of their situation.  This is driven home by an excellent performance by Antonio Banderas as Mario, a miner to whom leadership has been thrust upon, yet wants nothing more than to keep everyone alive and from tearing each other apart.

However, once you start looking at the characters, the film starts to fall apart due to how shallowly realized they all are.  As well as Banderas portrays Mario, he isn’t defined by much more than his de facto leadership status, and doesn’t seem to exhibit much personality beyond that.  The other miners fare even worse, as they fill in the stock archetypes of the struggling alcoholic, the man with the pregnant wife, the new guy, the old man days away from retirement, and so on and so forth.  It is understandable that in order to portray this many characters it is necessary to make them readily identifiable, but that should not come at the expense of character depth, a problem that could be rectified by simply deigning not to focus on so many of them as named characters and instead explore the personalities of those most important to the narrative.

But what ultimately makes this film unforgivable is the shockingly bad direction during key moments, primarily when the film attempts to inject comic relief.  There are sequences that feel forced and awkward, in particular a shared hallucinatory experience as the miners are starving to death that feels very inappropriately played for laughs.  Furthermore, the score of this film is atrociously poorly timed, with chipper and uplifting music playing at the most bizarrely dreary moments, completely pulling you from the experience.  There are some things this film does quite well, but none of those are enough to justify the price of admission, because even without the major missteps this film would only be serviceable.  If you’re interested, wait for a rental.  Otherwise, give this one a pass.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

"Creed": Celebrating Its Legacy, But Standing Proud On Its Own

In Theaters on November 25, 2015

Sometimes, not often, a film comes along where everyone just does their god damn job.  The writing is tight, the acting is on point, the score is excellent, the cinematography and editing are engaging without being obtrusive, and the direction of all these elements is executed with a seemingly effortless grace.  This is the heart of effective moviemaking that spawned classics of the 70’s and 80’s that are still remembered and beloved today, and perhaps no film embodies that working spirit more than Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, a studio gamble on a then-unknown writer/actor/director that paid off in an Academy Award winning hit that spawned one of the most iconic franchises of American cinema.  The franchise has seen its ups and downs, particularly toward the end of its lifespan, but because we live in the age of nostalgia, there is no way this series was going to stay dormant.  And, thankfully, Creed embodies the effort and spirit of the original film, yet still retains an identity and integrity of its own.

Newcomers need not worry about studying up on previous Rocky films, as Creed functions entirely as its own narrative while still winking acknowledgment to longtime fans of the series.  Our protagonist is Adonis Johnson, the extramarital child of legendary boxer Apollo Creed, who died in the ring before Adonis was born.  Adonis bounced around foster care after the death of his mother, but was taken in by Apollo’s widow.  Growing up with an expectation of a calm, corporate career, Adonis finds that he cannot suppress his urge to enter the ring, but wishes to earn a reputation distinct from that of his father.  So he moves to Philadelphia, where he enlists the help of Rocky Balboa to train him into being his successor.  Adonis’s character arc, while entirely functional in its own right, works as a fitting metaphor for the success of the film as a continuation of the Rocky franchise while still acting as a solid story on its own, and the story gains an extra layer of meta-depth because of it.

However, what really sells the film is the combination of those key elements of film-making that I mentioned back in that first paragraph.  The character performances are fantastic, with Michael B. Jordan absolutely killing it as a troubled youth who struggles with issues of identity and an angst that he has never learned to cope with, and Stallone returning as an older, jaded Rocky that seems like a very natural take on the aged character.  The dialogue is alternatingly witty and heart-wrenching, injecting the film with comic relief at key moments while still telling a serious story that tackles difficult emotional issues, both for Adonis and Rocky.  The score is similarly fitting with triumphantly nostalgic swells of the Rocky theme and more somber tones as necessary.  The camerawork is fantastic, particularly in the boxing scenes, one of which is an extended take with hidden cuts that creates the masterful illusion of an uninterrupted match.

I could pick this film apart and tell you exactly why each of its elements work, but that would be a disservice to the efforts of director/co-writer Ryan Coogler to make those elements seem effortless to the casual viewer.  His direction is spot-on, and it’s likely because his efforts that all the right people showed up to work and did their god damn jobs.  This will probably go down as one of the best films of the year, and let me tell you, that was not a sentence I was expecting to write before the lights dimmed in the theater.  This will be the film to go see this Thanksgiving.  Don’t miss it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"Digging For Fire": Has A Horrible Marital Moral

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I’m going to be very blunt: Digging for Fire is a really, really dumb movie.  Like, really dumb.  Its entire thematic premise is based around a tired cliché that doesn’t even believably work within the film’s narrative.  Its characters are shallow archetypal representations that serve to make a point that not only is much too obvious to be thought-provoking, but is actually even morally unethical to put into practice. 

Married couple Tim and Lee are housesitting for Lee’s client when Tim discovers a gun and what seems to be a human bone buried in the hill adjacent to the house.  The police seem (inexplicably) disinterested in this discovery, so Tim wants to dig around and see if he can find more bones.  Lee disagrees and wants to leave it buried.  Lee then leaves to visit with her parents and some friends, leaving Tim alone at the house.  Tim invites some friends over, and both Tim and Lee find their way into flirtatious entanglements with members of the opposite sex.

Let’s disregard the fact that Tim’s clearly calm demeanor towards potentially discovering a body is more than a little absurd.  The buried body metaphor is very obviously a skeleton in the closet, a secret that perhaps shouldn’t be unearthed.  Tim eventually decides to leave the body buried and with it buries the clothes he wore to try and impress the girl he liked.  By extension, Tim and Lee’s respective extra-marital romantic encounters (neither of which culminated in sex, by the way) should be buried so as not to harm their marriage.  This is a horrible message.  Since when is dishonesty a proper way to manage marital conflict?  The fact that this film portrays such behavior as okay makes me question the relationship ethics of everyone involved in this project, and by extension the relationship ethics of society as a whole.  I sincerely hope that I’m not alone in thinking this is messed up.

But even if we were to take the moral at face value and dismiss the hackneyed metaphorical mechanism for its delivery, the film doesn’t even work on its own terms, particularly because it never gives us any reason to be invested in Tim and Lee’s relationship.  They share a few opening scenes together, just enough to establish that they are married, their relationship has some tension, but they are in love and share a young child together.  However, this simply isn’t enough for us to care about them as people or for us to root for them to stick together.  They’re both clearly tired and stressed out, and I think that is meant to make us sympathetic to how close they come to non-consensual adultery, but with that as their sole defining character traits, it’s hard to care about anything they do that would affect their so-called “relationship.”

Last year I reviewed another film by director Joe Swanberg (Happy Christmas) which I gave a lot of slack for its improvisational tone.  However, it seems that even with a script that Swanberg can’t deliver.  Between the shallow writing, clichéd execution, unlikeable characters, and completely backwards notion of what constitutes a healthy relationship, Digging for Fire is one of the unethical films of the year.  Don’t lie to your partners, people.  Even if you think that you’re protecting your relationship, that isn’t fair to your partner, and they deserve to have a relationship that isn’t built on lies.  And don’t look to Joe Swanberg for marriage counseling.