Sunday, January 31, 2016

"Chi-Raq": Good as Spike Lee Has Been in a Long Time

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Spike Lee, one of the only Black directors to have managed to build a decades-long career for himself despite a somewhat uneven filmography, is difficult not to appreciate as an auteur.  His films are built upon inconsistencies in tone, yet can sometimes have enough raw emotional energy to push through into greatness, such was the case with Do the Right Thing and School Daze.  However, the more recent entries into his filmography seem unable to recapture that sort of frenetic spirit.  His latest entry, Chi-Raq, is perhaps the closest he’s come in the past decade, making this an enjoyable film if not one of the greats.

Ostensibly a reimagining of the classic Greek play Lysistrata, Chi-Raq takes place in downtown Chicago, a community torn apart by gang warfare and a police force that chooses to fight violence with apathy and more violence.  The original play saw its titular character hatching a plan to withhold sex from the men of Sparta in order to halt their escalation of the Peloponnesian War.  Similarly, Chi-Raq’s Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) sets her aims on halting the violence of her community, which ultimately becomes a movement around the world as women proclaim in unison “No peace.  No pussy.”

Adaptation of Greek theater plays heavily into Spike Lee’s directorial fetishes, as it allows him to stage artificially theatrical setpieces and develop excuses for characters to deliver speeches directly into the camera.  The performances are great across the board, from Lysistrata’s leadership to her gang-banger boyfriend, the titular Chi-Raq, played by a remarkably decent Nick Cannon as a man emotionally invested in a lifestyle that is destructive to his community.  But more than anything, the script, largely written in rhyming couplets to add gravitas to the speechifying delivery, drips with fiery passion against the violence of Black poverty and the authoritative violence that perpetuates it and places innocents and children within the line of fire.  More than anything, this is a film about the need for unity in tearing down systems of oppression and recognizing that violence need not be the means by which ends are achieved.

As noble as that message is, though, there are times when the film’s marriage to the comedic aspects of its source material ineffectually make the artistry come crashing down.  Spike Lee has a much better grasp on racial politics than he does on sex and sexuality, and he has even less of a grasp on broad sexual comedy.  The recurring joke of the film is that the men of the world are going crazy from a lack of sexual intercourse, making them desperate to end Lysistrata’s sexual strike by any means necessary.  While thankfully the film never goes into dark, sexually assaultive territory (as realism isn’t really the point here), the setpieces meant to exhibit male sexual frustration are awkward and really just not all that funny.  There’s too much reliance set on the supposed inherent comedy of the situation and no effort put into actually telling jokes with the premise.  This makes the film feel about a half hour too long with redundancies and dragging moments that feel divorced from the hopeful message the film wishes to impart.

That said, Chi-Raq is not an entirely bad film, and the good parts are good enough to justify a viewing.  Spike Lee may not be able to capture the lightning in the bottle he did with his early career, but Chi-Raq is the closest he’s come in a long time.  Some tighter screenwriting and a greater focus on what he’s good at would serve him better in the future, but if he must continue to experiment, this one was at least a worthwhile venture.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

"Eddie the Eagle": Film-making by the Numbers

In Theaters on February 26, 2016

You would be forgiven for walking out of the theater and feeling like you’ve seen Eddie the Eagle before.  Thematically and in setting, the comparisons to fellow unlikely-Olympian film Cool Runnings are so unavoidable that the film can’t resist a direct reference to the Jamaican bobsledding team.  However, the winter sport this time around is ski jumping, and our hero is Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, and damn it all if that’s not about the only thing that distinguishes this film from any other feel-good underdog story.

Hum along if you know the tune.  Eddie (Taron Egerton in a remarkable likeness of the real Eddie) is an awkward outcast who never excelled as an athlete but is determined to compete in the winter Olympics, despite numerous influences in his life that tell him it can never happen.  When he is denied entry to the British skiing team based not on skill but on his working class status, he becomes determined to achieve at a sport the British Olympic team has no organized team for: ski jumping.  Enter Bronson Peary (a charismatic Hugh Jackman), a former Olympian whose lost potential career drove him to alcoholism and obscurity.  Bronson agrees to coach Eddie after a fashion, and the two become better and stronger people through their friendship.

As trite and by-the-numbers as the plot is, the film does at least become visually interesting at certain moments.  The film’s posters are quick to tell you that the film has the same producers as Kingsman: The Secret Service, and it shows when the film decides to highlight select key jumps.  Bronson’s chops-proving jump is particularly entertaining and other moments are well-served by clever editing and cinematography.

However, while the film isn’t without its chuckle-worthy moments, the script can be just downright cringeworthy at times.  Exposition is often redundantly spouted by multiple characters under the assumption that the audience will have forgotten key plot points after only seconds, and the film has an annoying reliance on flashback voiceovers to act as nagging reminders of why a situation is supposed to be tense or heartbreaking when it is entirely unnecessary.  And, though I don’t normally take notice of such things, the score is atrociously bad.  It’s primarily composed of synth music that is supposed to evoke the 1980s pop atmosphere but sounds instead like a retail job training VHS.  It was bad enough to be distracting, which is never a good sign for a film's musical accompaniment.

That said, Eddie the Eagle still functionally works, because this is the kind of film one can make in their sleep and still have it come out decent.  Like Cool Runnings before it, Eddie the Eagle is likely to become a junior high staple of inspirational dogma, another piece of trite inoffensive fiction to encourage the next generation to follow their dreams and et cetera.  And there’s really nothing wrong with that.  This is sure to at least please its audience in a rudimentary sense, as not every film needs to be a masterpiece of its genre.  Just don’t expect anyone to rush out and declare this the next big thing in cinema.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"Cinderella (2015)": Just... Good

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Oscar Nomination: Sandy Powell - Best Costume Design

I purposely avoided reviewing Cinderella when it came out in theaters and later on home video earlier this year.  Not because I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it (frequent readers should realize that predicted quality rarely keeps me away from a film), but because I wasn’t confident that I would have much to say about it.  The trailers made this appear to be just another retelling of a classic story, no new twists or gimmicks, just a straightforward live action version of one of Disney’s most famous properties.  And that just didn’t seem to provide much in the way of commentary.  Having now seen the film, I can’t say that this assessment was too far off, but there are a few things that I think can be touched upon at least in passing.

The story isn’t changed much from what you remember of countless other retellings, though the most obvious change comes in the form of character development for the prince, by which I mean he actually has some.  It’s nothing major, but a subplot about an advisor scheming to marry the prince off to an offscreen princess in order to gain political strength for the kingdom does allow the prince to feel like something other than the wish fulfillment plot device that he otherwise functions as within the narrative.  Similarly expanded is the evil stepmother role (played by a great-as-ever Cate Blanchett), whose motives and manipulations are expounded upon in minor ways that give her character dimension without ever feeling intrusive or unnecessary.  And I would be remiss not to mention Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother, whose Burton-esque whimsy is a welcome absurd high point in the film.  These are minor details, but those were the moments that caused me to actually take notice.

But nobody is going to be watching this film for a new or interesting take on Cinderella; they want to see the lavish production design and costuming, the latter of which having now received recognition in an Oscar nomination.  And yes, I can attest that this film is gorgeous to look at.  The sets are marvelously detailed and appropriately regal, yet colorful enough to convey a fairy tale atmosphere without becoming a full-on cartoon.  The costumes are excellently designed and convey as much about the characters who wear them as the performances do, relying on bright colors and stark contrasts to give that feel-good Disney vibe but never with a hint of irony or self-parody.

And… that’s about it.  The film doesn’t lend itself well to criticism or analysis because… well, it’s Cinderella.  If you want to see yet another version of Cinderella, here you have one.  There’s nothing especially noteworthy about it compared to any other version: the performances are good; the script is good; the CGI animals tend to reside a bit in the uncanny valley, but are not too bad overall.  This film is just… good.  But you’ll also probably forget about it right after, because nothing but its visual flourishes are really that remarkable.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"45 Years": The Double-Edged Sword of Performance Cinema

Now In Theaters
Oscar Nomination: Charlotte Rampling - Best Lead Actress

Charlotte Rampling’s nomination is the main reason I went out to see this film, and it’s easy for me to see why she was nominated.  45 Years is the kind of film that is built from the ground up to be a showcase for acting talent, and Rampling’s performance is just the kind of thing the Academy looks for in trying to fill a legacy spot in their female nomination pool, a respected older actress that will deflect attention from the fact that the other nominees are all young and hot.  In other words, she’s this year’s Meryl Streep.  But does a great performance make for a great film?  In this case, the actor showcase philosophy acts as a double-edged sword.

Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (an equally effective Tom Courtenay) are days away from celebrating their forty-fifth wedding anniversary when Geoff receives a letter in the mail.  Apparently, his ex-girlfriend Katya’s body has been found frozen in ice in the Alps after having fallen into a crevice in Geoff’s company fifty years ago.  As Geoff becomes increasingly obsessed with his past and with his lost Katya, Kate begins to investigate how Katya’s influence has secretly developed and tainted their long relationship in subtle and monumental ways.

The best thing about this film is that the two leads legitimately feel like a couple of many years, with routines and a status quo that feels normal without drawing attention to it, yet both characters are rich enough to have entire personalities separate from one another.  Courtenay doesn’t get enough credit for his portrayal of Geoff, a man succumbing to memory loss in his old age whose reminders of the past cause him to try to regress to his younger self.  Rampling does deserve the larger credit, though, as many key moments of the plot rely on her subtle facial expressions, Kate’s character arc relying more on what she isn’t saying to Geoff than what she actually is.

But that also works against the film as a whole.  Based on a short story, the film feels stretched to accommodate its minimalistic ninety minute runtime, leaving Rampling to do all the heavy lifting of padding out time to make the film feel long enough to justify feature length status.  There are many scenes of Kate simply walking about in public with a troubled look on her face, and, not to put to fine a point on it, these scenes are simply boring.  This already short film feels about a half hour too long, so the fidelity to the source material should have been sacrificed to develop a secondary plot.  This would have allowed the main storyline to develop at its natural pace while still giving the audience something interesting to watch.

Given the short runtime, though, I’m willing to be forgiving of that major fault in 45 Years.  Overall, you have to take 45 Years as the acting spectacle it was designed to be.  It’s a small film with big emotions that are subsumed by the complex characters that the two lead actors have created.  I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say Rampling deserves her Oscar nod, but she is easily the reason to see this film if you had any remote interest whatsoever.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

"Straight Outta Compton": Can't Meet Its Own Hype

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Oscar Nomination: Best Original Screenplay

I need to start this review with a huge disclaimer: Straight Outta Compton is not a bad movie.  The unfortunate reality, though, is that it isn’t a particularly great one.  I normally don’t get my hopes up for biopics, particularly those about artist celebrities, because the critical praise is usually overblown and everyone seems to ignore the fact that biopics are relatively safe projects that can get away with not taking risks under the guise of staying true to history.  I was hoping that Straight Outta Compton would be different, particularly because of its focus on a black demographic and the unique cultural perspective inherent in the rap community.  Unfortunately, that is only true to a degree.

The first third of the film is the most interesting, watching Compton-raised Easy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube (portrayed by the rapper’s own son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) start mixing their own beats and writing their own rhymes about the perils of their daily lives, only to find that their music spoke to their peers in a way that other music of the time simply wasn’t.  The biggest draw of rap as a musical style is the sense of background and history that rappers bring to their craft, how they convey their real experiences through rhyme and beat, and the film manages to maintain that compelling ethos through most of the first act, even if our three leads remain fairly stock in their portrayals.

But once the artists start hitting the big time and N.W.A. falls under the corrupting influence of their manager Jerry Heller (a typically sleazy Paul Giamatti), the film becomes a pretty hackneyed rags-to-riches tale, with the corrupting power of money driving Easy-E away from the art, which in turn pushes Dre further into his art and away from the group, and creating a schism with Cube that results in a years-long rivalry.  I came into this film knowing almost nothing of the history of N.W.A., and yet I was still able to predict almost every story beat and even the film’s forced climax.  This is just another example of forcing people’s lives into fitting a standardized narrative arc, which makes the biopic the most unnecessarily lazy type of screenplay, no matter how much clout the film gets for being “based on a true story.”

I imagine this film received a lot of praise for reasons beyond its biopic status, including its positive portrayal of impoverished black characters and its timely inclusion of police brutality against people of color that is once again in the public eye.  These are certainly good reasons to commend the film, and as I disclaimed before, this film is not bad by any means.  It’s okay that it’s only pretty average, but the fact that it’s a pretty unique brand of average seems to have grabbed people’s attentions.  If N.W.A. interests you or you are part of the desperately underserved black demographic, I doubt this film will disappoint.  However, if you’re looking for a film to meet the hype that Straight Outta Compton has accumulated, I think you’d best look elsewhere.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"Joy": The Failings of David O. Russell

Now In Theaters
Oscar Nomination: Jennifer Lawrence - Best Lead Actress

It’s no secret that I don’t really like David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle).  Though I don’t think his films are ever offensive or outright terrible, his scatterbrained methodology to filmmaking has never sat well with me, particularly his inability to keep focused on a central narrative long enough to make any of his characters’ arcs feel coherent.  And yet, critics seem to love him for reasons that I have yet to fathom… that is, they loved him until Joy.  This is the first film in Russell’s filmography to receive a truly middling response, and yet somehow still managed to snag Jennifer Lawrence a Best Actress nomination from the Academy.  So I figured I had to go see how exactly this came to pass.

Very loosely based on the life of Joy Mangano, Joy follows the eponymous character (Lawrence) through her exploits as the single woman supporting her family, both her parents and her children.  That is, until the film decides that her relationship with her family isn’t what’s important anymore and decides that Joy’s penchant for creation and invention needs to elevate her above her family as she invents a self-wringing mop that she struggles tooth and nail to manufacture and sell.  Then the film shifts once more into being an analysis of the rise of the QVC cable shopping network and Joy’s place within its growing success.  In short, the film’s plot it all over the map, and structurally the film reflects that chaos.

Normally Russell’s films tend to meander in the middle before finally finding its way back to the central narrative in the minutes before the credits roll, but here he can’t seem to find any sort of narrative throughline in the film.  Joy’s narrative arc starts, stops, changes course, or completely drops so many times throughout the film that any sense of coherent pacing flies right out the window.  Lawrence is a committed enough acting talent to make the character work from scene to scene, but we never get much of a glimpse into who Joy is as a character or how she changes throughout the story because the writing can’t seem to decide what story it wants to tell.

I think this is primarily because Russell is stepping out of his comfort zone with Joy, attempting to focus on a single character and pushing the larger eccentric cast into the background.  Russell has never excelled at writing deep characters, but usually he does a good enough job casting very talented actors that can carry the load of the poor writing.  However, here we see the merely two-dimensional Joy having to interact with a one-dimensional cast that, while largely portrayed by Russell regulars, have even less to work with than Lawrence.  The dialogue is often stilted and awkward in ways that would be more forgivable if the characters were allowed chemistry, but in a story that is ostensibly a character study there isn’t much room to do that, at least not as Russell directs it.

Lawrence’s Oscar nod is pretty evident as just that: a nod.  She is a very talented actress who is the main reason that Joy is even watchable, and this nomination is more of an acknowledgment of that talent rather than her performance in this particular role.  David O. Russell will always deserve credit for giving Lawrence the platform to prove her talents, but it seems that his translation of scattershot plot details into the semblance of a coherent film is losing sway with critics and the Academy.  And quite frankly, I think it’s about damn time.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

"The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared": Comedy Across Culture

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Oscar Nomination: Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Until the Oscar nominations were announced a couple days ago, I had never even heard of the absurdly titled The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.  It’s a rather oddball choice, particularly in Makeup and Hairstyling, an Oscar category that receives only three nominations a year and somehow managed to snub the makeup work in Star Wars.  But I do understand why this movie was nominated, as it takes its 50-year-old star, Robert Gustafsson, and ages him up to the 100-year mark and ages him down to as low as 20 and everywhere in between for a story of a man’s life lived.  It’s an impressive transformation and one that never feels phony or unnatural.  But with that acknowledgement aside, how does The 100-Year-Old Man fare as a piece of entertainment?

Well, it’s probably worth noting that this is the highest grossing Swedish comedy of all time, which at least says something of its popularity in its own country and that the comedy was universally relatable enough to make its way overseas.  And this is understandable because it is apparent pretty early on that The 100-Year-Old Man’s chief inspiration is an American classic, Forrest Gump.  The modern storyline follows our eponymous old man, Allan, on an escape from his nursing home where he stumbles across a suitcase full of money and meets a bizarre cast of characters as he unwittingly flees a pursuing biker gang.  However, the film will sometimes cut back to earlier periods of Allan’s long life and show how his simple love of explosives influenced some of the biggest events of the twentieth century.  (Guess who’s really responsible for the success of the Manhattan Project.)

The humor of this film tends to hover around the comically morbid, with absurd deaths and Allan’s naiveté played for laughs as he instigates world-changing events through alcoholic partying and searching out the biggest bombs.  What’s actually quite clever about all this is that Allan’s tendency to unwittingly get into troublesome yet grand adventures could easily be attributed to old age and confusion in the main storyline, but his flashbacks make clear that this is how he has always been and that this latest occurrence isn’t even all that unusual to him in the grand scheme of things.

Yet, as much as the film made me laugh uproariously in some key memorable moments, I do wonder if some of the comedy is lost in the language barrier and accompanying subtitles.  I think a great example is the character Benny, a perpetual graduate student who is one credit away from having a degree in just about everything, yet is filled with so much indecision that he is unable to commit and just graduate already.  Conceptually, this is a really funny joke and is even funnier in juxtaposition to Allan’s carefree “life is what it is” attitude.  However, a lot of the humor surrounding Benny is delivered via dialogue, and his awkward nature just doesn’t translate well as broad comedy.  There are moments like this that don’t feel intentionally slow, but are likely the result of the language barrier.

However, it is reasons like those that usually prevent foreign comedies from finding their way to American shores, and the fact that The 100-Year-Old Man is able to transcend those barriers for the majority of its runtime is a testament to the universality of its humor.  I watched this film to fill my need to comprehensively cover an Oscar race, but I walked away satisfied that I had seen a really funny movie.  It probably won’t win a gold statue, but this boost in visibility should extend its fame in an otherwise ignorant American market, and that’s probably as worthwhile a reason to nominate a film as any.  Check this one out.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi": Military Fetishism Gone Awry

In Theaters on January 15, 2015

It’s no coincidence that 13 Hours is a January release; it is almost a year to the day since American Sniper hit wide release to critical acclaim and, more importantly, box office dominance.  If Star Wars is going to be geek culture’s yearly December ritual, uncritical examinations of the War on Terror and its soldiers is going to be the January equivalent for that uncle who fills your Facebook feed with Trump 2016 posts.  It seems only inevitable that the first to take a stab at this newfound cash cow would be Michael Bay, a director who has founded his career on military fetishism and unironically using explosions as a medium for emotional expression.  And though Bay has broken his mold in the past (see: the surprisingly decent Pain and Gain), 13 Hours is definitely closer to the Transformers end of his filmographic spectrum, an overlong exercise in pyrotechnics without much emotional heft to carry it.

13 Hours is the story of the six CIA security contractors who defended the American diplomatic compound during the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.  And, quite frankly, that’s about all there is to the film plot-wise.  As usual with Michael Bay, characters are little more than stock archetypes at best, and the tedious thing about this film is that he opts to make every one of his protagonists the same archetype: a gritty man’s man who inexplicably is drawn back to warzones despite his love for his family, usually a wife and kids.  And the film takes the first act time that it could have spent developing these characters as unique individuals and spend it on “tension-building” setpieces that don’t bear any readily apparent relationship to the events of the 9/11/2012 terrorist attack that acts as the bulk of the film.

But perhaps more egregious than the bland protagonists is that the film makes no effort to portray the enemy combatants as anything more than fodder to be taken down by righteous American bullets.  In films not based on reality, it becomes a bit easier to portray villainous forces as simply evil, but even then you have to provide some measure of motivation to explain why your antagonist is acting as they are.  13 Hours doesn’t do that, and considering that this is a film based on real events in a real conflict, there needs to be a lot more effort than usual put into understanding the motivations of the terrorist threat.  Without that necessary context, the film quickly devolves into a team of white dudes mowing down legions of ravenous brown people in the moral focus of an action blockbuster, where our protagonists are always right and the complex political struggles of the Middle East are reduced to gunfire and explosions.

This would perhaps have been more bearable if it weren’t for Bay’s horrible sense of cinematic vision in his action scenes.  Primarily consisting of quickly cut shots with a camera that can never sit still, the action scenes feel cobbled together with whatever Bay haphazardly shot as he commanded explosion after shootout after car chase.  Rarely do these scenes feel coherent, and I lost track of what was supposed to be happening so often that it all just became boring white noise.  Perhaps visual chaos was what Bay was going for in these scenes, but other directors (see: Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg) have portrayed warzone chaos in a manner that still let us know what it was that we were looking at, and Bay rarely gives us that moment to comprehend.

As must be the usual disclaimer in reviews of war films, I don’t disrespect the courage or sacrifice of the men who fought and died in this battle.  What I do object to, though, is a director using that courage as an excuse to make a tone deaf piece of action propaganda that reduces the reasons for their sacrifice to “because the brown people attacked us.”  American Sniper took a lot of flak for its portrayal of the War on Terror, and personally I think some of those criticisms were exaggerated in light of the overwhelming audience response to the film.  However, 13 Hours is the embodiment of those criticisms come to fruition, an unironic portrayal of American diplomacy through gunfire, and I really hope I am wrong in thinking that this film will be just as well received by American audiences as its spiritual predecessor.  Please prove me wrong.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

"The Walk (2015)": An Ending Worth the Wait

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Robert Zemeckis has certainly made a reputation for himself as one of the greats of American cinema, having directed some of the most enduring films of our popular culture, from Back to the Future to Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Forrest Gump, to name only a few.  In retrospect, it seems like it was only a matter of time before he attempted his hand at the 3D filming gimmick, and I feel that my experience is somewhat lacking for having seen the film in 2D on a home television set.  There are moments that were clearly intended for 3D visuals and, in a very rare circumstance, were likely greatly enhanced by the effect, but alas, the time to see that has passed.  So does the film hold up even without the vertigo-inducing visuals?  Well, yes and no.

It seems pretty obvious that biopics are not Zemeckis’s strong suit, as his characteristic whimsy makes its way into the life story of tightrope walker Philippe Petit in a manner that really feels intrusive and unnecessary.  The first half of the film is all about Petit (a surprisingly physically agile Joseph Gordon-Levitt) making his way up in the street-performing scene and making preparations to come to America to cross the newly-erected World Trade Center towers on a tightrope.  Considering that the great accomplishments of Petit’s life largely come down to one event, an entire hour of build-up feels excessive and indulgent, an attempt to make Petit seem like more of an underappreciated performance auteur than he actually was.  The film even borders on megalomania with Petit breaking the fourth wall in cutaway narration with the Twin Towers looming in the background, a move that is meant to be fanciful but ultimately feels egotistic and unnecessary.

However, once the film finally gets to New York and the towers themselves, it transitions into a full-on heist movie, with Petit and his accomplices executing their mad plan to rig a wire across the towers in the covert dead of night.  Until this point, Petit’s accomplices are criminally underdeveloped, yet another sign of Zemeckis’s overreliance on Petit’s supposedly overbearing personality, but by the time the heist rolls around, the character details fade into the background for some really tense stealth sequences.  It doesn’t matter that you know the wire will eventually be erected; Zemeckis is a crafty enough director to give sufficient urgency to make you forget that.

And of course, the sequences where Petit traverses the wire are simply breathtaking.  Zemeckis captures the sheer vertigo of being one hundred stories in the air, and even though not in 3D is still captivating on a smaller screen.  This is perhaps the only time in the film where the intrusive narration is at all welcome, as Petit spends most of his time mute and evading the police waiting at either end of the wire.  And aside from a couple hokey moments meant to instigate doubt or self-reflection, the excitement of the sequence is not diminished.

So all in all, the film ends up being a bit of a wash.  If you’re looking for a great story with interesting characters, this isn’t really the film for you, and you’ll find the first half of the film visually interesting but not much else.  However, if you are willing to sit back and wait it out, there are some fantastic heist setpieces and a visually marvelous third act just waiting to be experienced.  It’s a shame that this film will no longer be shown on big screens in three dimensions as it was clearly intended to be, but if the visual marvel interests you, it’s still worth the wait.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

"Sicario (2015)": My Unfair Review of A Great Film

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Sicario feels like a film I should like a lot more than I do.  I have a hard time putting a finger on exactly why it doesn’t meet my expectations, and by no means is it a bad or even a less-than-great film.  It tells a story with a potent narrative and a gut-wrenching theme and moral that is only all the more so for its realism.  However, in a year where I’ve been singing the praises of so many films, this one feels relatively underwhelming, which I admit is not an entirely fair measuring stick to measure a piece of art by, but here we are.

The film follows agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) of the FBI as she is recruited to assist in a CIA operation to stop drug trafficking in El Paso, Texas.  However, it quickly becomes evident that El Paso is not the site of the operation and she is instead flown in to Juarez, Mexico, with the apparent goal to draw out a cartel leader for arrest.  As Kate continually tries to contribute to the operation, CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his partner Alejandro Gillick (Benecio del Toro) prevent her from assisting or ensuring that the operation adheres to strict legality or ethics.

What makes this film so fascinating is that it seems to purposely be trying to frustrate its audience, particularly those who came to this film to see a strong female protagonist kicking ass against drug-peddling bad guys.  Kate is perhaps the only person in this film you might call a “good guy,” yet she is constantly punished and sidelined for trying to make any sort of appreciable contribution or impact, and this is much more than just subtext.  As a representation of the so-called “strong female character” trope, Kate is placed into a real-world situation where being physically strong or morally righteous is not an advantage; the male-dominated systems of manipulation and secrecy prevent her from being effective at her job, which in turn frustrates her from effectuating the positive change and happy ending we as an audience are hoping for.  In short, this is a commentary on female empowerment struggling and failing to find a voice in light of a patriarchal system that perpetuates violence and espionage for the sake of a “higher good.”  I don’t know about you, but I find that captivating.

So what is it exactly about this film that didn’t click with me?  I think it comes down to the characters.  Emily Blunt is great as always as Kate, but Brolin’s Matt is perhaps just a bit too charismatic for my taste.  Because the film insists on keeping its audience as much in the dark as Kate is for most of the film, Matt’s scheming nature isn’t foreshadowed nearly well enough to give him much of a personality beyond “snarky guy who actually is an asshole under all that bravado.”  As for Alejandro, while I think this is probably one of the best performances of del Toro’s career, the extent of that performance’s effectiveness relies on a late-film reveal that itself hinges on an attachment to Alejandro that the film never entirely commits to or bothers to develop.  The structural beats are there to establish Alejandro as an important presence, but I never felt an emotional attachment to him that would have made his all-important character moment all the more resonant.

Perhaps it’s too harsh of me to judge a film by those who are ultimately its antagonists, but the cold truth of the matter is that this film failed to engage me on a deep emotional level.  Structurally, narratively, cinematically: the pieces are all assembled and directed quite well.  However, and perhaps this is in light of the other, more emotionally resonant films I’ve seen this year, I came out of this one feeling a little underwhelmed.  Still a damn fine film and one that I would recommend heartily, but not one of the year’s best as I was led to believe.

Friday, January 8, 2016

"The Revenant (2015)": Just Give Leo a Fucking Oscar

Now In Theaters
Can we just give Leo his fucking Oscar already?  While I don’t buy into the hype that Mr. DiCaprio is the greatest actor to be continually denied by the Academy (if anything he is nominated too often), I do recognize that he works incredibly hard for the sake of that little gold statue, and after The Revenant I’m genuinely afraid for the man’s safety, as it seems as if this role nearly killed him multiple times.  As you can imagine, this leads to some incredibly tense and intense moments throughout the course of the film, which is why it’s unfortunate that those moments are weighed down by so much faux-artsy baggage.

In 1823, a hunting party in the Louisiana Purchase is attacked by the native Ree tribe, forcing them to flee back to their settlement.  On the way back, their tracker, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), is mauled by a bear and left seriously wounded.  After attempting to carry Glass and trying to keep ahead of the pursuing Ree, the party’s captain decides to leave Glass behind with Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, an actor more worthy of recognition than DiCaprio, both in general and in this film), Glass’s son, and a greenhorn to ensure that when Glass inevitably dies he is given a proper burial.  Fitzgerald loses his patience in anticipation of the approaching Ree, murders Glass’s son, and leaves Glass behind for dead.  Glass crawls out of his grave and travels across the wilderness to take revenge on Fitzgerald.

DiCaprio doesn’t so much embody a character in this film as he does a concentration of masculine machismo wrapped in a beard, his sole defining character traits being the love of his son and his desire to see his son’s murder avenged.  This works well for the purposes of the narrative, but it would make the buzz about DiCaprio’s Oscar qualifications suspect were it not for the intensity of the action setpieces and tests of survival.  Shot in actual wilderness settings, some of The Revenant’s most exciting moments are precisely so because it is very obvious that there isn’t a stunt double getting beaten by artificial elements; that’s DiCaprio actually suffering in the actual wild for the sake of his performance.  I don’t know if that qualifies as “acting” per se, but it sure as hell adds a level of realism to the film that makes it fascinatingly engaging.

That is, until the film decides to slow down and take its quiet, reflective time.  Cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki is one of the best in the business, and while his naturally lit shots are absolutely gorgeous in this film, there isn’t much substance to back up the pretty pictures.  As previously stated, there isn’t much depth to DiCaprio’s character, and when the film continually stops to watch him reflect on paternity or humanity’s battle against the elements, it makes you realize just how empty an experience the film actually is.  This is particularly apparent in the more abstract dream sequences, most of which are redundant or are simply too on-the-nose to be worth the effort.  A simple revenge story can be just that; it doesn’t need to have deeper meaning or empty intellectualism shoehorned in to give it credibility.

The parts that work in this film really, really work, showcasing a raw intensity that is rarely seen in big budget films.  However, the slower moments somewhat sour the experience, making what could have been a great film into a good yet tragically flawed one.  But I think the more important question, the one that is on everyone’s mind, is whether Leonardo DiCaprio finally deserves to take home the Best Actor Oscar.  Quite frankly, I don’t care if he does or doesn’t.  Just give him the damn thing before the guy's efforts put him in an early grave.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

"Anomalisa": Humanity in Puppetry

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The films of writer Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) often defy simple explanation, with plots that are so high concept that we mere mortals can sometimes only scratch the surface of the themes at play (or are suckers for the author’s pretentions, depending on your point of view).  Anomalisa, Kaufman’s second directorial effort, is deceptively different, with a premise that is quite simple to explain yet executed in such a way as to still convey a staggering amount of depth, a feat in and of itself considering the film is entirely animated with stop-motion puppetry.

Protagonist Michael Stone (David Thewlis) lands in Cincinnati on a business trip, burdened by the mundanity of his life.  Everyone around him has the same face and speaks with the same voice (Tom Noonan), whether it be his wife, his son, the hotel clerk, an ex-lover, everyone.  That is, until he hears the voice of someone new, a fellow conference attendee named Lisa (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) who is completely and utterly unique in Michael’s eyes.  Michael begins to pursue a relationship with Lisa, whose shyness and self-consciousness act as barriers to anyone getting close to her.

As ridiculous as this sounds, the puppetry really adds a layer of surreal humanity to the proceedings at play.  This is partially due to Kaufman’s unique sense of absurdist comedic timing, but that’s not nearly the whole picture.  Animator Duke Johnson (who also did stop-motion work on TV’s Community) is able to convey a striking level of realism through his creations, whether it be in the subtle ways arms and legs move unconsciously, the way people do or don’t non-verbally engage when talking with each other, or even the physical act of sex, portrayed here without the glamour of Hollywood-standard bodies nor the accompanying non-verbal consent to give one of the most strikingly realistic portrayals of sex ever filmed, no less beautiful because of its artificial nature.

Thematically, though, this film is going to throw a lot of people for a loop, not least of all the ones fed up with Tom Noonan’s voice coming out of nearly every character and animated portrayals of sexuality.  There’s a pretty big allusion to the Fregoli delusion, a psychological disorder wherein one believes that everyone around you is actually one person in disguise, which would seem to portray Michael as a tragic figure suffering from mental illness.  However, because the film never comes outright and says that Michael has this delusion, it might be more appropriate not to view this as a character study but as a commentary on the individual in relation to the world around them.  There’s a lot of ambiguity in the film’s interpretation that I’m not entirely sure was intentional, but I will wholly admit that the mystery could be the entire point, to cause the film to linger with you long after the credits roll.  The ambiguity over whether there is supposed to be ambiguity is bothersome to me, but it likely won't trouble anyone enough to wholly detract from the experience.

Still, Anomalisa is a fantastic addition to Charlie Kaufman’s filmography, the kind of bizarre, mind-bending artistry we’ve come to expect from one of Hollywood’s most unique auteurs.  I don’t think it quite rises to the classic level of some of the films he only wrote and didn’t direct, but this is a film that will deserve to be seen even if you don’t find a showing in its inevitably niche theatrical run.  You’ll be surprised just how real these human pieces of plastic can be.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

"The Hateful Eight": Sadistic Cinema

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I tend to view criticism of film as the act of answering two specific questions.  First, does the film serve as suitable entertainment for its audience?  Second, does the director adequately convey their intent and make the best film possible to realize that intent?  In other words, I try to act as a consumer reporter as well as an art critic.  Normally the two roles work in conjunction and overlap tremendously, but The Hateful Eight makes it very hard to assume both those roles, as director Quentin Tarantino’s entire goal with this film seems to be rooted in a hostile manipulation of his audience, almost as if to say “If you derived any enjoyment from this film, you missed the goddamn point.”

Tarantino is a master of his craft, so when his new project seemed to be a conceptual successor to the Resevoir Dogs conceit of bottling criminals in one room and watching the tension build to fireworks, yet made with the attention to detail and more mature sensibilities of late-career Tarantino, I was excited to see what he could come up with.  And to the film’s immense credit, it is a surprisingly gorgeous film, shot on panoramic film so that all the vital background details spring to life without necessarily detracting focus from the cast.  And all eight of the main cast of criminals trapped in the snowdrifted lodge are very well-performed, most notably Samuel L. Jackson as a former Union soldier turned bounty hunter and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a prisoner to another bounty hunter set to hang in the next town.

But these performances serve a nefarious purpose, as Tarantino lurks behind the camera to offer an experience that is openly hostile to its audience, even if the audience doesn’t always realize it.  Tarantino is a master at emotional exploitation, an appropriate skill considering his stylistic influences are primarily from the exploitation genre of the 1970s.  However, where he usually puts those talents to use by having his audience cheer on a group of Jews blowing off Hitler’s face or watching a former slave raze a plantation to the ground, here there is always a sense of dramatic irony to any moment that feels anywhere close to cathartic.  For example, there were people laughing and cheering in my theater at a mid-film scene that is purposely gratuitous and extremely disgusting, but Tarantino framed the moment in such a way as to trigger the audience’s conditioned response to moments of cinematic revenge and the doling of just vengeance.

This is a very clever trick on Tarantino’s part, and one that was clearly intentional based on the in-text criticisms of passionate, vengeful violence.  But where does that leave the audience?  Well, as I said before, if you are watching this film under any conception that there is a hero to root for and walk away as if that expectation is met, you missed the point.  This is a film that purposely wants you to hate it, and the only satisfaction you’re supposed to derive is the knowledge that Tarantino didn’t trick you like the average sap who paid for their ticket.  If that was indeed Tarantino’s goal, he certainly succeeded, but I don’t feel like that’s a terribly laudable goal, particularly if you don’t like to have your ego stroked over your supposed superiority for identifying manipulative film tropes.

There’s a running theme in the film of characters expositing their backgrounds, but never revealing the whole or any of the truth as they weave their self-serving narratives.  Tarantino is doing much the same thing by sharing this story with his loyal fans, testing the waters to see if enough of them can see the truth behind the film’s supposedly cathartic anti-heroism, that this story has no hero no matter how many of your fellow movie-goers may cheer them on.  This isn’t a film that is meant to be enjoyed, but for making a film that so successfully masquerades as one, Tarantino deserves a lot of credit.  But the joke’s still on us, and that makes the film hard to recommend to anyone other than Tarantino’s most diehard cinephiles, and even they may walk away with Tarantino’s intended dissatisfaction.  After all, that’s the goddamn point.