Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Paddington": Of Surprisingly Great Quality

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Since the reviews started coming in for Paddington, I have found the film to be a major curiosity.  It’s a kid’s film that was released during January’s customary cinematic dry spell, which certainly didn’t bode well for the film being any good, and yet rave reviews kept pouring in.  And now, having seen the film, I completely understand why.  While I wouldn’t go so far as to claim this as any sort of cinematic masterwork, Paddington is a fantastic example of how to do children’s entertainment while still maintaining a fun story that adults can enjoy and provide a surprising amount of subtextual nuance.

The film starts off with Paddington living in Deepest Peru with his aunt and uncle, a couple of talking bears who had been introduced to English culture by an explorer from decades earlier.  When their home is destroyed, Paddington ventures to England to make a new life for himself.  Upon arrival, he discovers that England is not all the niceties and proper manners that he was taught to believe it was, and finds himself without a home to go to.  Enter the Brown family, whose patriarch is at first reluctant to take Paddington in, yet relents at his wife’s insistence at helping the needy.  With the Browns’ help, Paddington tries to find the explorer who visited his family, and yet he and the Browns discover that maybe he belongs in their family after all.

How the film manages to entertain both children and adults is rarely seen in modern children’s entertainment, as the obligatory physical comedy is never overblown or gratuitous, yet enough witty jokes slip their way into the dialogue so as to provide some genuine moments of laughter for the film’s more refined audience, all without relying on crassness or lewdness, the so-called “adult” humor.  It’s rather refreshing to see some actual thought be put into making a film universally entertaining rather than taking slapstick animation and adding some fart jokes and pop culture references.

The film truly shines, though, in that there’s a very clear subtext that Paddington is representative of immigrants from former English colonies.  The fact that he is a bear allows for Paddington to have some particularly unique mannerisms, yet he is still a distinctly British personality.  He feels he belongs with the culture on which he was raised, and yet, due to his particularities and appearance, most of English society considers him an outsider, if not an outright menace.  The film never goes so far as to make the comparison blatant, but subtle nods to latent English imperialist racism are certainly there, making the film a surprisingly intelligent message of tolerance and acceptance that should only become more resonant as the film’s audience grows in years.

Now, the film isn’t perfect, as Nicole Kidman makes an appearance as an almost entirely superfluous villain character who wishes to taxidermize Paddington and display him in a museum.  Though the story does a decent job of weaving her into the narrative, she serves little point in resolving Paddington and the Browns’ character arcs other than to be an obligatory kids’ film villain.  Seeing as the film is strongest when it’s portraying Paddington as a stranger in a strange land, I would have liked to see more of Paddington getting used to London, rather than the brief snippets we see of him exploring on his own.

However, this is admittedly a nitpick.  Paddington is a surprisingly intelligent and fun movie that just about anyone of any age should be able to enjoy.  It offers a compelling family message that should make it a classic for many years to come.

Any recent children’s films surprise you lately with their quality?  Let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

"A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night": A Political Statement Made Dull

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

To use a phrase that is quickly beginning to feel like a cliché on this blog, I really wanted to like A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.  It has a lot of themes and motifs that I’m very much on board with, providing a uniquely feminist look at sexism in Iran.  Unfortunately, though, this film feels like a lot of meat without many bones to support it, as the characters and plot are severely lacking in substance.

A vampire known only as The Girl wanders the streets of Bad City, coming across men who abuse women and choosing them as her sustinative victims.  In a scene where she warns a young boy to be good lest she one day choose him as a food source, she steals his skateboard and glides through the night, her chador flowing behind her like she is some sort of Iranian Batwoman.  Moments like this are where the film is most enjoyable, as The Girl’s exploits fly in the face of the patriarchal sexism that permeates Iranian politics and societal structures.

Unfortunately, the film’s plot is much more lacking, as a romance slowly, slowly, slowly develops between The Girl and Arash, a decent enough guy who plays by the rules of Bad City’s underground drug scene more out of a sense of duty to his father than a genuine enjoyment of the night life.  Arash seems to symbolize the potential that men have to be good people in Iranian society, and Arash’s presence makes The Girl more discriminating in who she chooses to kill, but his overlong existence in the film is not justified by that thematic point.

This is because the film ultimately comes across as boring.  Scenes drag on without dialogue for obnoxious periods and this makes some of the blatant indie sensibilities all the more transparent.  Shot in black and white with superfluous scenes meant only to hammer in redundant social commentary, the film doesn’t aspire to be much more than a hollow political statement.  Yes, it is fantastic that an Iranian woman (Ana Lily Amirpour) has managed to make a Persian language film that directly attacks the social hierarchy of Iranian society, but the film should not get a free pass if it fails to be anything more than arthouse satire.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night functions best as a political statement by its very existence, but would have made a much better film as a short subject rather than a feature.  As it stands, the film drags on for what seems to be an interminable eternity, only to make some very obvious and blunt points that educated audiences should already be aware of.  Know that it exists.  Be happy that it’s able to exist.  Don’t waste your time viewing its existence.

What films do you think have made the best political statements?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, April 24, 2015

"Cake": Aniston's Offensive Oscar Bait

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Sometimes it is really obvious when a film’s intentions are not as advertised.  For example, Cake tries to portray itself as a hard look at an often misunderstood disability: chronic pain.  However, the film is clearly meant to be an award-baiting vehicle by which usually-comedic actress Jennifer Aniston can try to garner some credibility though a portrayal of a suffering woman.  The disingenuousness of the film’s motives are more readily apparent than in most award bait, as the film does not even seem to understand the hardship it portrays, much less have anything meaningful to say about it.

Aniston plays Claire, a woman suffering from chronic pain who develops a morbid fascination with the suicide of a fellow support group member.  Claire then spends the majority of the film contemplating suicide, as her pain seems to reach a point of unbearability.  As she develops a relationship with the widower of the woman who killed herself (and has psychotic delusions of that woman’s ghost taunting her), Claire’s past starts to come into focus, revealing a tragedy which emotionally pains her as much as her physical pain.  To those who suffer chronic pain or know someone who does, that last sentence may spell out to you the film’s biggest problem: Claire’s chronic pain is impliedly symptomatic of her emotional trauma, which is an entirely fallacious analysis of how chronic pain effects people.  At the very least, it muddies the waters: If the point was to explore the issue of chronic pain, why equally emphasize an emotional trauma?  If the point was to provide a character study of an emotionally tormented woman, then why make the chronic pain angle the film’s selling point?  At best, this makes the film thematically confusing; at worst, it makes the film an offense to the people it claims to represent.

It doesn’t help that Claire is a purposely offensive character.  She is rude and crass to everyone, even those actively trying to help her, and she only lets up when she thinks it will serve her needs, usually to get more pain medication.  This has the effect of reducing Claire’s entire personality to one entirely centered on her relationship to her pain.  She has no life or hobbies to speak of, nor does she appear to even have a job.  Her entire identity is couched in her chronic illness, which is a rather dehumanizing portrayal.  This is only made worse by Aniston’s overacting, riddled with loud moans and cursing so as to almost make the performance unintentionally comical, were it not for the offensive undertones implicit in the character’s very conception.

The film has further problems in its portrayal of Claire’s housekeeper, Silvana.  Claire is almost nothing but nasty and brutish to her overworked and underpaid facsimile of a nursemaid, and Silvana takes all the abuse with only one self-defensive outburst in the film’s climax, which is quickly “resolved” without any reason beyond saintly forgiveness.  The film demonstrates how Silvana sacrifices her time, energy and family life to act as Claire’s glorified chauffeur, even going so far as to smuggle drugs from Mexico, but never gives her an adequate reason to take the abuse.  This is the docile houseservant trope taken to its most offensive extremes, effectively making Silvana a plot convenience to drive Claire from scene to scene and conveying the non-stop verbal abuse Claire visits upon her as entirely justifiable through her docility.

Cake is a film that is clearly trying, but it aspires to the wrong goals.  Instead of focusing on an often poorly represented aspect of human suffering and building a smart and considerate story to bring focus on that issue, Cake opts instead to start with the concept of providing Jennifer Aniston a platform to prove to the world how she too can be a dramatic actress, then assembles the supporting pieces without care or consideration, even to the performance that acts as the film’s raison d’etre.  This is a bad movie.  Don’t see it.

Does Jennifer Aniston have what it takes to move beyond her sitcom-friendly comedic routine?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"It Follows": Will Make You Frightfully Paranoid

Now In Theaters
Between The Babadook and It Follows, it seems that the horror genre may be making a bit of a resurgence after decades of being artistically destitute.  The Babadook functioned well as a horror film because it took great care to show as little of its monster as possible so that the moments when the monster did appear were all the more terrifying.  It Follows is equally great for the polar opposite reason; its absurdly simple premise turns every scene into one of extreme paranoia, as the film’s monster could be anyone at any time.

The story of It Follows is the stuff that urban legends are made of.  A monster will slowly walk toward you, intent on murdering you, but always at a walking pace.  You are the only one who can see this monster, and it can look like anyone, even someone you know.  The only way to become its victim is to have sex with the person the monster is currently chasing, and the only way to make the monster stop following you is to have sex with someone else.  However, if the person you had sex with dies, the monster will start pursuing you again.

This ingenious set-up allows for some of the scariest moments of recent horror cinema, whether it is noticing a speck on the horizon moving toward the camera, a familiar face moving in an unsettling way, or a panning camera moving over complete strangers, emphasizing how every single person is a potential danger until they do something uncharacteristic of the monster’s behavior.  The film terrifies by overexposing its audience to stimuli, but never in a way that feels cheap or hackneyed.  In other words, it instills a state of mind in the audience and then conditions us to scare ourselves rather than make the actual monster ever present.  And yet, when you finally do notice “it” amongst the crowd, the desire to flee its ominous advance justifies that perpetual suspicion.

And even though the film functions perfectly well as a straight monster story, it also serves as an equally effective coming of age piece.  The film’s teenage cast talk and act like real teenagers, often without affect and with a closeness that has yet to be broken up by the responsibilities of adulthood.  Their flight from the pursuing monster forces them out of the cloistered environment of their idyllic suburb community and makes them confront the harsh reality of the real world, symbolized by the poor, run-down portions of Detroit.  They struggle to find adulthood because they must, and the transition may well prove to be fatal as their sexual awakening may lead to their very demise.

This may sound like a heavy-handed STD metaphor, but I assure you that the film has no intention of turning its audience away from sex.  If anything, the film only wants to assure us that growing up is scary and dangerous, but also not impossible or unmanageable.  And somehow, embedded in that tale of burgeoning adulthood is a horrifying monster story that will leave you scanning the faces and gaits of everyone you see long after you leave the theater.  Go see It Follows.  You won’t regret it.

I was pulled to the theater to see this film, and my skepticism towards the horror genre is somewhat mollified.  Have any recent horror recommendations?  Let me know in the comments below.

Monday, April 20, 2015

"Maps To The Stars": Thematically Rich Despite Fundamental Flaws

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

David Cronenberg is one of the undisputed masters of the Hollywood body horror movement.  He knows how to emphasize the grotesqueries of the human form to make points about the human condition and just generally wig us out.  However, Maps to the Stars is a change of pace for Cronenberg, as his focus shifts to a direct analysis of the souls of Hollywood denizens, and the parallels he draws are problematic to say the least.  And yet, when his film hits the mark, it does a decent enough job, even if the insights he portrays are nothing new in criticisms of Hollywood culture.

The cast of characters is representative of relevantly modern Hollywood archetypes: the aging infantile actress who cannot live up to her mother’s black-and-white era acclaim (Julianne Moore, who has just been on a roll lately); a child star who has been morphed into a drug-abusive, egomaniacal bully; a mentally ill personal assistant whose history has been swept under the rug by parents with celebrity-adjacent careers too important to lose.  The performances are well executed and nuanced, and what emerges is a tale of children, whether they be literal or simply emotionally stunted adults.  All of these children are subject to abuse in one way or another, an abuse that is allegorical to how Hollywood’s allure of money and fame has the capability to destroy a person’s capacity for empathy or decency, thereby perpetuating a system of abuse.

This type of story has been told before, but never with Cronenberg’s overt attraction to the grotesque.  However, his attention is drawn in problematic ways this time.  While his characters’ tendency to see the literal ghosts of their pasts rings a little trite, their compulsive attraction toward incest is new, yet has subtext that I find more than a little disquieting.  Much of the film’s portrayal of incestuous relationships is within the context of child abuse: a rapist stepfather, advantage taken over a mental ill sister, various other instances of interpersonal violence that creates the Hollywood cast of damaged humanity.  And while those instances of abuse are demonstrative of the point the film is trying to make, I take issue with the film’s assumption that incest itself is a producer of inbred psychopathy.  Two of the film’s characters are the admitted product of a consensual sexual relationship between siblings, and the film seems to point to that as a reason for its characters’ doomed psyches, as if they were denied a chance to be healthy by virtue of their very existence.  Though this makes an adequate point about the chance for normalcy that child stars have in the Hollywood system, it paints an unfair portrait of children of incest that makes me more than a little uneasy.

That major issue aside, however, Maps to the Stars is an adequate enough film for what it is trying to accomplish.  Stabs at Hollywood excess and cloistered idiocy are nothing new, and Cronenberg’s disgust with the human condition is nothing new, but putting the two together provides for a unique spin on an old product.  Some of its philosophical underpinnings are, in this critic’s opinion, fundamentally flawed, but taking the film’s premises on abuse as true makes it thematically rich and overall pretty decent.  I would just encourage viewers to keep in mind that despite the film’s conflations, abuse and incest are not inherently analogous, and treating the human products of incest as inherently damaged is dehumanizing, even when making a point by analogy.

Fan of David Cronenberg’s work?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, April 17, 2015

"The Babadook": Bringing Back Horror

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Horror films generally have a bad reputation in cinematic criticism, and at least since the turn of the millennium (if not earlier) there has been a certain amount of justification for that.  Whether lazily rebooting old franchises with no attempted care or relying entirely on jump scares and orchestral accompaniment to provide the illusion of tension, horror films are usually the most cheaply produced and among the most profitable.  So lo and behold, when a horror film takes home near-universal critical praise, I will sit up and take notice.  That film is The Babadook, and despite its silly-sounding title, it is quite possibly the best horror film to come out in over a decade.

Our two main characters are Amelia and Samuel, a mother and son on the cusp of the son’s seventh birthday.  Samuel has severe behavioral problems, an unhealthy obsession with monsters, and a fear of abandonment due to the premature death of his father.  Amelia also struggles with the death of her dead husband, who died in a car crash on the way to the hospital while Amelia was in labor with Samuel.  As Amelia begins to reach her wit’s end with her son, she reads him a children’s book called “The Babadook.”  Upon discovering violent and disturbing imagery in the book, she immediately stashes the book away, as it only makes Samuel outbursts even worse.  However, something was unleashed when she read the book, and the Babadook haunts them from the shadows of their own home.

Now, the Babadook itself is a masterfully created amalgamation of practical effects, often lurking in the shadows so that we can only catch glimpses of its eerily long fingers, frazzled hair, and signature top hat.  However, the film cleverly realizes that the key to horror is in what we don’t see, so often the film will rely on sound and limited perspective to provide a sense of foreboding.  Once a monster is exposed too much to the eye, it ceases to be scary, and this film expertly replicates the sensation of childhood glimpses of the boogeyman lurking around every corner.

The Babadook’s true strength, however, lies in the monster’s representational qualities rather than its literal monstrosities.  To claim the film is built around subtext is to do disservice to the term subtlety, as the Babadook’s metaphorical depiction of Amelia’s growing mental instability is nailed home with the force of a sledgehammer.  But that does not disserve the film in the slightest; horror is, above all else, about primal emotions, and by forging such a strong attachment to Amelia and Samuel through a slow and methodical build-up to the terrifying third act, The Babadook translates a family on the verge of collapse into a fantastic psychological roller coaster.

To praise The Babadook for being a horror film that does more than scare through the most transparent of mechanisms would not do the film’s achievements justice.  The bar is set low for modern horror movies, but The Babadook shines as a standard that horror hasn’t realized in decades.  I can only hope that other filmmakers take heed of what this film does so well and can rejuvenate an artistically bereft genre.

Disagree with me that horror hasn’t succeeded in over a decade?  Can you name some examples to rebut me?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"Big Eyes": Has Its Heart In The Right Place

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Tim Burton certainly has a way with larger than life characters.  In his animated and fantastical outings, that’s more than a little obvious, but he has a certain way with characters in his more grounded productions as well.  The excellent Ed Wood comes to mind, which portrays the worst director of all time as something akin to being endearing rather than insufferable.  However, something feels a little off about how Burton has chosen to portray the lives of Walter and Margaret Keane, if not in its portrayal of facts, then most certainly in which he chooses to emphasize.

To those unaware, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) rose to fame in the 1960s during the commercial art movement, selling copied reproductions of his paintings of young girls with disproportionately large eyes.  Much to the chagrin of the art community, Walter pushed his paintings to the masses through sheer force of personality, becoming one of the most recognized and financially successful artists in the world.  However, there’s one problem with that version of history; it’s not true.  His wife Margaret (Amy Adams) is the one who, for the entirety of his career, was responsible for painting the renowned works.

The film ostensibly plays the quiet and meek Margaret as its protagonist, which it very well should in light of Walter’s villainous manipulation.  The film opens with Walter wining and dining Margaret, but it doesn’t take long to realize that he’s not as noble and romantic as his eccentricities paint him to be.  Eventually, Walter convinces Margaret that the only way anyone will take her art seriously is if he, a man, takes public credit for it.  What follows is a slow and twisted descent into a gradually more abusive relationship, one that never reaches the point of physical blows but does amount to virtual imprisonment as Margaret is forced to paint picture after picture, never receiving any credit while her work forces her into isolation from everyone, including her own daughter.

And while the film does portray all this, Burton can’t seem to stop himself from focusing on Walter’s crazed antics.  Though there are certainly scenes wherein Margaret’s suffering takes the spotlight, every scene where Walter is present steals said spotlight so that his rambling speeches can take center stage.  Perhaps that was partially the intent, as Walter’s overpowering nature is precisely what prevented Margaret from coming forward about her art.  However, there seems to be a certain amount of glee in Walter’s portrayal, as if Burton wants us to marvel at how deliciously strange this man is rather than how much of a monster he could be.  Even the film’s most disturbing scene, in which Walter assaults Margaret and her daughter with matches, is played with a degree of whimsy, when it should have been a terrifying representation of just how serious domestic violence can be.

And yet, despite Burton’s obvious historical crush on Walter’s zaniness, his heart does appear to be in the right place as far as recognizing Walter as the abusive con man that he was.  As I said before, Margaret is our protagonist, and though the film occasionally seems to forget so, it eventually steers back on course and delivers a satisfying tale of overcoming one’s abuser.  This won’t go down as being the prophetic follow-up to Ed Wood, but it’s a decent little passion project from one of Hollywood’s most commercial directors.

How do you feel about Tim Burton’s work in recent years?  Has he maintained his charm, or has he become creatively bankrupt?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, April 13, 2015

"The Immigrant": A Diamond In The Rough

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Why have I only just now gotten to see this film?  I had noticed the name in critic Top Ten lists of yesteryear, but how is it that only now the wider general public is granted access to The Immigrant, not on the silver screen, but on their television sets?  There are films that got award season notice last year by simple virtue of being biopics, but never mind a beautifully constructed film like this, an unpretentious character drama layered with a depth and emotion that most films can only dream to aspire to.  This is a film that deserves to be seen and appreciated, as it is most assuredly 2014’s most underappreciated.

The titular immigrant of our story is Ewa (Marion Cotillard), who left from Poland with her sister to find a better life in America.  When Ewa’s sister is quarantined by immigration authorities due to her lung disease, Ewa is threatened with deportation, as she has wrongfully been accused of being a prostitute while on the ship that brought her.  Enter Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who offers to take Ewa in.  All he asks in return is that she act as a showgirl in his stage productions and sexually service the patrons afterward.  In a lesser film, Bruno would have been a slick snakeoil salesman, whisking the vulnerable Ewa into a glamorous world only to pull the rug out from under her feet as he reveals his duplicity.  And yet, The Immigrant has greater aspirations than to paint its characters as mere archetypes.

See, Ewa is not some doe-eyed waif in need of masculine guidance; she is a victim of circumstance, one who had hopes of finding a better life after fleeing her war-torn homeland, only to find America’s promises empty and lacking.  Bruno, about as close to a named villain as the film ever gets, has no ill will toward the women he employs.  He’s just another man trying to get by, disadvantaged by his Judaism in a society that hates him for it, and as much as he regrets having to resort to being a pimp, he can’t abandon his only means of income.  The American Dream has failed him as well, and his cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner) only serves as a reminder with his successful magic act.  Emil is this story’s symbol of American success, and the film’s truest conflicts come to light when Ewa is caught in the middle of the struggle between Emil’s optimism and Bruno’s battered defeat at the hands of early capitalism.

More than just the script and performances, though, the film is gorgeously shot, emphasizing the characters as the focal point of nearly every shot.  This may be a film about the period in which it is set, but it is first and foremost about the characters, and by focusing on the characters, the beauty of their setting pops out all the more.  Many directors would feel obliged to linger on their carefully crafted sets, to draw attention to the painstaking work of the production designers.  However, by choosing to only establish the scenes as necessary and place the camera on the characters, the most important pieces of this film’s puzzle, the sets end up feeling all the more real, because we see the world as the characters do, not as a passive audience.

The Immigrant is a film that I cannot recommend highly enough, particularly because so many of you have not likely heard of it.  Between the gorgeous cinematography, the fantastic performances, and the brilliant direction, it is a diamond in the rough from last year’s cinematic library.  That makes it all the more unfortunate that you had to wait until now to see it.

What understated gems of cinema do you love?  Leave your favorites in the comments below.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

"Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter": A Darkly Hilarious Character Study

Now In Select Theaters

Sometimes a film comes along that doesn’t so much as tell a story as it does provide a character study.  Kumiko is just such a film.  Our titular character does not undergo any growth or change as the plot proceeds, but given that the film is not focused on a need for Kumiko to change, that works out just fine.  The consequence is that the film feels a little more freeform than your average narrative piece, but the lack of convention is made up for with a humorously dark sensibility as Kumiko stumbles from one bizarre encounter to another.

The film begins in Tokyo, where Kumiko lives alone, works a dead-end job for a boss she hates, with no relationship prospects or any seeming desire to obtain any, and with a disembodied phone voice for a mother who constantly harps on Kumiko to move back in with her.  Kumiko’s only solace is in a distorted old VHS tape of the film Fargo, with one scene in particular grabbing her attention: where Steve Buscemi buried the $420,000.  The first half of the film is spent with Kumiko as she plans her expedition to retrieve the buried treasure, operating under the assumption that the film is true because the film’s (false) title card claimed so.  And yet, it soon becomes clear that the specific monetary prize isn’t Kumiko’s true reason for seeking her riches; she wants to amount to something, and this goal is her way to surmounting a crippling depression, even if it is a delusion.  Her encounters with co-workers and acquaintances are equal parts hilarious and sad, as we see people totally unequipped to deal with Kumiko’s depression attempt to orient her toward a more relatable life path.

Resisting this apparent “need” to change, Kumiko spends the latter half of the film navigating the route between Minneapolis and Fargo to retrieve the hidden treasure.  Along the way, she encounters many eccentrics, from an unofficial tourism committee, to a woman bent on steering her to tourist traps, to a police officer who genuinely wants to help but has no idea how.  The film is arguably at its weakest here, as Kumiko’s limited English prevents her from extensively interacting with these characters, and attention is brought away from her to focus on what are essentially glorified absurdist monologues.  However, the film avoids becoming a chore by virtue of these encounters being incredibly funny, as the help these strangers offer is compounded by cultural cluelessness and an ineptitude worthy of a Coen brothers cast.

To avoid spoiling the ending, I will just say that it is bittersweet, as its tragedy is offset by an assurance that Kumiko need not change for the rest of the world.  In a sense, hers is the anti-arc, a character study that emphasizes that she is not the one in need of growth, but how the world failed to grow in order to accommodate her and her depression.  Marvelously insightful and wickedly funny, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is well worth your time.

This film is on a limited theatrical release run right now, so many of you may not get to see it until its release on home video in a few months.  Would you like to see me review more limited releases on this blog while in theaters, or would you prefer me to wait until they become more accessible?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

"A Most Violent Year": Technically Great

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

A Most Violent Year is another one of those films that got rave reviews toward the end of last year, and yet was completely snubbed by the Oscars, and though the film eventually came to a theater near me, I didn’t feel any particular urgency to see it since my plate was full with Oscar shenanigans.  However, I was curious, mostly because of the film’s star, Oscar Isaac, who also starred in my favorite film of 2013, Inside Llewyn Davis.  Normally I don’t let myself get drawn in solely by the actors at play, but Isaac, in this humble critic’s opinion, is one of the most overlooked actors in popular culture, even if his roles are often the subject of critical acclaim.  And he performs quite admirably in A Most Violent Year along with always welcome co-stars Jessica Chastain and David Oyelowo.

The story is somewhat complicated, so bear with me.  Isaac plays Abel Morales, the owner of an up and coming oil and heating company in 1981, who through honesty and hard work is trying to work his way into the New York City market.  His next step is to purchase a fuel oil terminal, and he puts down a sizeable down payment for the property while he waits for his bank to come through on the remaining loaned amount.  Meanwhile, oil trucks throughout New York are getting hijacked at gunpoint, yet Abel refuses to allow his drivers to carry weapons because he is under scrutiny by a prosecutor (David Oyelowo) looking to go after the corruption in the home heating industry.  When one of his drivers ends up in a gunfight on the highway, no bank will loan Abel or his business the funds necessary to close the land deal, so he must gradually compromise his own morality in order to compile the $1.5 million he needs to make his business succeed.

Complex plotting aside, this film feels a lot like The Godfather in how it takes a man with good intentions and gradually reduces him to a product of his environment, and then ultimately the master of it.  Acting as Abel’s foil is his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who sees from the start the underhanded and necessary steps he needs to take in order to not lose everything.  Abel’s constant struggle is in maintaining his dignity and moral superiority, which paradoxically means ignoring his self-excused indiscretions while preventing himself from stooping to the levels of vicious depravity that his wife advocates.  It’s an intriguing dynamic that muddies the waters of good and evil by making the steps to evil gradual and yet ever looming.

However, if the film has one flaw, it is because it can at times be something that The Godfather never was: very dull.  Despite the great performances and plotting, the film’s subject matter often leaves something to be desired.  Let’s face it, the oil and heating business is not a particularly sexy or intriguing subject matter, especially when the film’s largest thematic reference point is a film about the fucking mafia.  Sure, the film occasionally diverts to a gunfight or a chase scene, but these moments are fleeting and, while thematically significant, overshadowed by a majority of scenes where men sit in rooms discussing sums of money.  I did not truly become invested in the film until I figured out where it was going, and for the majority of the film’s first act I was trying my best to play catch-up as I zoned out from boring conversation to conversation.

That said, though, I found A Most Violent Year to be an overall good film.  The summary I provided a couple paragraphs ago should act as a decent primer to get a dedicated viewer through the film’s opening half hour, and I promise that there is plenty else to enjoy in this tale of a moral slippery slope.

So who do you think is one of the most underappreciated actors working today?  Let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

"The Homesman": Less Than The Sum Of Its Parts

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

As the star and director of The Homesman, Tommy Lee Jones seems to be fashioning himself as another actor-turned-director in the vein of Clint Eastwood.  Both share a fascination with the cowboy archetype and tell stories in grim, matter-of-fact ways, encouraging understated performances and thematically punishing any characters that dare to rise above the grimly punishing landscape of the frontier.  And for as much as Jones’s film seems to want to emulate Eastwood’s trademark style, he can’t quite manage to make his film much more than a nihilistic interpretation of the tragedies that marred frontier life.  That works just fine for the film’s purposes, but it certainly doesn’t place in on the same tier as his obvious chief inspiration.

The film opens with spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), who eventually agrees to take three disturbed women on a five week journey to Iowa so that they may be institutionalized.  These three women have all lost their sanity due to the hardships they have faced on the frontier, whether it be losing one’s children to disease, killing one’s own child, or rape.  As Cuddy prepares for her journey, she meets a man about to be hanged, who calls himself George Briggs even though he admits that is not his real name (Tommy Lee Jones).  She enlists his help in exchange for cutting down his noose and a payment upon delivery of the women, and the two set out with their charges across the lonely wasteland of the American West.

The primary conflict revolves around Cuddy’s difficulty in coping with the madness of her charges, and ultimately seeing how her own isolation has brought about a similar madness in her.  It’s powerful and engaging material, and Swank pulls it off with gusto, using the gruff yet goofy foil of Jones’s Briggs to make her plight seem all the more tragic.  Granted, there are certainly undertones that Cuddy and her charges are in need of a strong masculine presence to stabilize them, but then again, many of their hardships are brought about by the common, less-than-noble men who dominated their lives in the first place, so the thematic feminism of the film comes out as a bit of a wash.

But then, about halfway through the film, the narrative focus shifts to Briggs, leaving Cuddy’s storyline anticlimactically resolved.  And then, as the film reaches its final moments, you realize that the finale is going to place Briggs in a similarly anticlimactic position.  The film is rich with themes and motifs, the latter half consumed with Briggs’s realization of his own more compassionate nature, but whenever the film comes close to completing a character arc or providing a bit of closure, the rug is pulled out from under us and we’re left with a nihilistic notion that life on the frontier just sucked.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the film feel a bit pretentious in its motives, as if to say that noticing the thematic depth of the picture is worthless because real life carries no thematic weight.

All in all, though, The Homesman is a pretty decent movie.  The lead performances from Swank and Jones really make their characters enjoyable to watch, particularly considering that Jones steps out of his usual father figure persona and makes Briggs equal parts loveable and selfish.  However, for a film that is so convicted to be about nothing, it populates its runtime with enough pointless symbolism to make a freshman film student weep.  Watch it for the story and the performances, but don’t expect it to amount to more than the sum of its parts.

Does Tommy Lee Jones have what it takes to follow in Clint Eastwood’s footstep as a director?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, April 3, 2015

"St. Vincent": Bill Murray Almost Saves It

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

St. Vincent really straddles the line between being genuinely fun and being too hokey for its own good.  It’s okay for a film to be formulaic, so long as the dialogue and performances pick up the slack that the plotting leaves, and this film seems to only truly deliver through the vessel of one actor: the ineffable Bill Murray.  As per always, Murray is a joy to see on screen, his trademark irreverence toward the world making his humor distinctive and instantly recognizable.  Equally impressive is the way that he tinges his cynicism with melancholy, giving depth to a character that would otherwise be just another grumpy old man cliché.  And yet, Murray is perhaps the only thing about this film that rises above mediocrity, and that can make a slog of the scenes where he isn’t present.

The plot formula is one we’ve all seen before, with a grumpy older man, the titular Vincent (Murray), finding himself babysitting his new neighbor’s wimpy, nerdy kid.  The unlikely pair start to get close, with Vincent teaching the kid to stand up for himself while instilling the vices of gambling and barhopping into his young, yet somehow unshakably pure mind.  Meanwhile, the kid’s virtues start to soften Vincent’s heart and demonstrate that he’s not such a bad guy after all, and yeah, you can see the other trite plot details coming from a mile away.

Now, this wouldn’t be so bad if the writing were solid, but it mostly isn’t.  Vincent as a written character seems to be closer to Dennis the Menace’s Mr. Wilson than the persona we normally see Murray adopt, and the only reason Vincent is made even remotely funny is through the sheer force of Murray’s expert delivery.  Every other character feels fresh from the factory, from the saccharinely sweet child character, to the overworked, barely-making-ends-meet divorced mom, to Vincent’s pregnant prostitute girlfriend, who may sound like an original character, but mostly serves the role of being Vincent’s non-child confidant.  It all feels so formulaic that there doesn’t really seem to be a point to the film other than seeing Murray make what should have been a forgettable role into the only standout performance in the whole production.

And, unfortunately, that’s ultimately what makes this one a loser as far as I’m concerned, because by the film’s latter half, Murray’s wise-cracking amoralisms take a backseat to the aggrandizement of Vincent’s better qualities, which ultimately makes him a more boring character than he was before.  The film’s climax is literally the kid character giving a speech about all of Vincent’s great qualities and why, even though he is a jerk, deep down Vincent is still a great man.  All the build-up for that scene is so devoid of comedy, including a forced stroke-and-recovery mini-arc for Murray to suffer through, that it sucks the life out of what had until then been a passable exercise in traditionalism.

I’d really only recommend this for the die-hard Bill Murray fans, for you are the people most likely to at least glean some worthy enjoyment from his persona.  However, the film’s plot is so full of cliché and overused tropes that there really doesn’t seem to be much of a point to it beyond its star’s performance, and even that is given the short shrift by the end.

Have a favorite Bill Murray film?  Tell us in the comments below.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"Rosewater": Jon Stewart's Disappointing Debut

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I like The Daily Show.  I like Jon Stewart.  I like political commentary and political satire.  So why is it that I don’t really like Rosewater, the political film directed by Jon Stewart of Daily Show fame.  Well, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but it’s because the film reminds me of American Sniper.  Yep.  I’m comparing a film beloved by conservative masses to a film made by one of the most optimistically liberal voices in media today.  And while Stewart’s directorial debut isn’t quite as lifeless and drab as Clint Eastwood’s latest, it suffers from many of the same issues, most notably a lack of narrative drive or a compelling protagonist.

To those unfamiliar with the story of Maziar Bahari, he was a journalist for Newsweek magazine who covered the Iranian elections in 2009.  After filming riots in the streets following the election, Bahari was imprisoned by the Iranian government and accused of being an American spy seeking to discredit the Iranian government.  He was then psychologically tortured for four months, until a social media campaign forced the Iranian government to release him or risk losing face.

To the film’s credit, Bahari’s story has a bit more of a through line than Chris Kyle’s, as Bahari has a definitive antagonist in the form of his warden and torturer, and his journey to find strength is at least salvageable from the emotional nullity the film has to offer.  However, the film allocates its time and resources much too heavily toward Bahari’s time spent in his cell, oddly hallucinating family members who tell him to keep to his convictions.  The torture scenes lack any sort of passion to make them engaging, and Bahari’s true savior, the media campaign for his release, feels like a deus ex machina footnote at the end of a barely existent character arc.

Jon Stewart’s personal politics are no big secret, and yet he seems to have so visibly restrained himself in the course of making Rosewater that the film has no political drive until the film’s final shots, and that is too little too late.  The final shots tell us that there are still people working within Iran to expose the injustices of their government, but that revolution is unseen and forgotten after the first act, making that ending seem tacked on and out of place in light of the survivor story we just witnessed.  And the beginning of the film shows a lot of promise in that respect, demonstrating how the Iranian government represses free speech and the underground forces who seek to spread the word about the country’s internal injustices.  However, almost all of this is eliminated once Bahari is imprisoned, paradoxically making Bahari a stronger character for finally having an arc, yet robbing the film of its sense of purpose.

Rosewater feels like a film I should like, but I simply can’t get behind the notion that simply recounting true events makes for good filmmaking.  Jon Stewart is an intelligent man who likely has a bright career ahead of him, hopefully making more films, because the potential for greatness is definitely here.  However, in removing a political voice for the majority of the film’s runtime, from events that are inherently political, the film ends up feeling pointless as a work of fiction.  Much like American Sniper, Rosewater feels like it would have been better presented as a documentary, because without a stronger character focus and a more emotionally driven narrative, the whole production feels more than a little stale and lifeless.

Sad to see Jon Stewart leaving The Daily Show?  Leave your bemoaning in the comments below.