July 26, 2013
Film Review: The Hunt


Dir. Thomas Vinterberg
Score: 8.5

With a title (translated from the Danish) as rife with symbolic heft as this, you know it has to factor into the film’s proceedings, but while there are indeed a handful of scenes of men with rifles stalking deer in the woods, the real persecution in the film is of an innocent man, by a mob of terrified parents who used to be his best and oldest friends. 

That man is Lucas (Mads Mikkelson), a genial and kind fellow, who works at his local kindergarten, something of a step down from his former teaching gig in a high school which closed. He is also a recent divorcée, desperate to spend more time with his adolescent son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm).

Lucas’ place in the firmament of the town seems well secured. All of his closest friends — and their wives and families — are there, and everyone seems to know and care about everyone else. That is, until Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the young daughter of Lucas’ best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), develops a schoolgirl crush on him. One day at the kindergarten, Klara makes Lucas a gift of a woven heart and tries to kiss him on the lips, an advance the ever kind-hearted man gently refuses and reprimands. Embarrassed and wounded, Klara then tells the kindergarten principal, Grethe (Susse Wold), Lucas touched her inappropriately, bringing into the story certain vivid details taken from a porn photo that her older brother, Torsten (Sebastian Bull Sarning), was looking at with a friend.

Initially somewhat befuddled, Grethe eventually begins a further investigation of the girls’ charges, and, along with another school administrator, inadvertently feed the girl information until they are thoroughly convinced of Lucas’ guilt. Before too long, word gets out, other kids from the kindergarten start making similar claims and Lucas becomes shunned by his aghast friends. In the process, he loses his job, his dog is killed, his girlfriend leaves him, and, worst of all, his son Marcus is barred from seeing him.

Lucas is being forced to endure an almost biblical suffering. A completely innocent man with the best of intentions, he loses nearly everything — including his place in society — simply because of a child’s whim (though it must be said that although Klara is fairly quick to admit she was making up these stories, the adults around her refuse to believe her admission of guilt and convince her it must have happened anyway).

What the film so convincingly creates is a world in which every character has a point. Despite our knowledge of Lucas’ innocence, it’s not at all hard to imagine the thought processes of the horrified parents, especially considering their misconceptions about children (“Kids don’t lie!” Principal Grethe insists, “not about this.”) There is justification for everyone’s reaction — save one, at least — which makes the film that much more relevant and dense.

There is a suggestion that even our strongest bonds are flimsy, a thin layer of plastic stretched over a cable of powder. What we can know about even our closest friends is subject to our paranoia and fear. Out of all of Lucas’ large group of male friends, who congregate every year to mark the beginning of hunting season, only one truly stands by him, never once doubting his innocence. Everyone else is too scared and untrusting, which wounds Lucas more than anything else.

Vinterberg, who along with fellow Dane Lars von Trier, created the Dogme 95 minimalist movement of the ’90s that lured many talented Danish directors of his generation, has opened up his palette a bit — the film opens with a Van Morrison track, for instance, unthinkable under the strict naturalist tenets of the Dogme order — but retains much of the movement’s traditional dramatic understatement and character realism. The result is a powerful and utterly convincing film that won’t soon leave your conscience, especially the ending, which has a twist every bit as wrenching and far-reaching as Bergman’s brilliant Fanny & Alexander.

July 12, 2013
Film Review: The Way Way Back

Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Score: 5.7

A sullen 14-year-old, driving in the back of a huge station wagon en route to a beach summer is asked by his mother’s new boyfriend how he’d rate himself on a scale of 1-10. At first, the kid doesn’t answer, out of shyness or stubborn insubordination, but when the boyfriend persists, he eventually grants himself a six. “Well, I think you’re a three,” the boyfriend replies.

Avast! There be a coming-of-age story in our midst. The kid, Duncan (Liam James), is forced to endure many more such adult-dispersed humiliations at the hands of Trent (Steve Carell), and his gaggle of similarly irresponsible friends at Trent’s beachside cottage on the coast of Massachusetts. His mother, Pam (Toni Collette), is so into her new man, she ignores the warning signs that he might already be straying away with the wife (Amanda Peet) of his dear friend (Rob Corddry); and no matter how many times Duncan’s boozy new neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney), does something inappropriate, all the other adults just laugh with her and refill their drinks.

Fortunately, Duncan, a stoic and lumbering sort of kid, is quickly outfitted with unlikely reinforcements. There’s Betty’s comely daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), a member of the beach bunny crowd, but also into reading actual novels on the beach, which, I suppose, is meant to explain how she can still take a shine to him; and, more significantly, Owen (Sam Rockwell), a ne’er-do-well, madcap bachelor who runs the nearby waterpark and quickly hires Duncan on. Even as Pam begins to struggle under the somewhat oppressive regime of Trent, her son is making strong inroads into becoming a man of his own.

Actors turned writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have attempted to churn out a summer coming-of-age comedy, but what the novice storytellers don’t factor on is how unlikeable they make their main protagonist. It’s a bit like watching comedy-classic Meatballs, but entirely from the prospective of bumbling, ostracized Chris Makepeace, instead of Bill Murray. Duncan is such a reticent drip (he goes out for a day on the beach in a pair of tuffskins that his mother bought him), the film has to bend far over backwards in order to give him the necessary ‘people who believe in him.’

If we, as a movie-going audience, can’t fathom why both the hottest girl on the beach and the coolest dude at the waterpark are somehow irresistibly drawn to the kid, it doesn’t really matter how many allowances they make for the character, it’s very difficult to buy. In fact, the entire early premise of the film — a couple who have only started dating within the past year agree to forego their regular jobs and spend an entire summer together on the beach with their respective children — is suspect. We are told early on that Pam works as a caterer, and that she and Duncan share a small Albany apartment. Apart from everything else, why would she agree to miss a caterer’s biggest season she presumably desperately needs in order to put far too much pressure on a relationship that’s only just begun?

The film plays it fast and loose with respect to its adult characters. Faxon and Rash avoid comic caricature, but don’t really present us with realistic depictions either (Trent, for all his misdirection, seems to really care about Pam until its conveniently revealed he doesn’t). There is a startling contrast to the sad, boozy, over-enthusiastic adults at Duncan’s house and the happy, boozy, genuinely enthusiastic adults who all work at the water park (Faxon, whom has to be pushing mid-30’s still ogles young teen girls with his crooked teeth that in any other context would be thoroughly creepy). One group is insincere and unable to come to terms with the realities of their lives, the other is carefree and fun-loving and seem to have none of the hang-ups and responsibilities of adult life.

Worse yet, as much as it plays at being funny — Janney and Rockwell play their characters with so much gusto you’re afraid for their lives — at its heart it’s nothing of the sort. It wants to be both an absurd summer jam, and a serious adult melodrama with kids caught in the crossfire. As a result, it’s neither. Like a sullen teen unable to express themselves with even the least amount of precision, it staggers on very uncertain legs.

July 12, 2013
Film Review Link: Pacific Rim

August 11, 2011
Film Review: The Future

Miranda July
Score: 6.5

Miranda July’s film opens with a disembodied voice. High-pitched and trembly, it’s difficult to place. A young child? An old woman? Not quite. It turns out to be a cat, talking about how excited she is for the day her future owners will be picking her up from the shelter and going home with them. And this is hardly the most peculiar conceit in July’s quasi-surreal comedy, either. We also have a talking moon, a disembodied shirt that crawls down a suburban street in L.A., and, perhaps most amazingly, two pasty-faced adults in their mid-30s who intentionally give up the Internet for a month.

But don’t get the impression the film is all hokum and oddities, like a Harmony Korine picture with better pacing. It’s far too inventive and risk-taking to so easily discount its considerable merits. At its root, July’s film is about our time together on this planet and what choices we make (or don’t make) that affect us indefinitely, or not at all. In this pursuit, July, who plays a winsome woman named Sophie, is perfectly suited with her co-star, Hamish Linklater, who plays her partner, Jason. As a well lived-in couple, not only do they share a similarly understated sense of humor and openness to absurdity, they have spent so much time together, sitting on the couch and reading, they actually look alike.

When they decide to take the plunge and adopt our feline narrator in a month’s time hence, a step they both see as an indication of the forced progress of maturity and eventual old age, they take the opportunity to live out their lives to the fullest before committing to the stability of the next fifty years together. Jason joins up with an environmental group, going door-to-door, fruitlessly trying to sell trees, while Sophie embarks on a peculiar affair with the man whose pencil drawing of his daughter Jason bought on a whim at the animal shelter.

At various junctures, we return to the cat’s progress from inside her cage, waiting patiently to join with her new family. July pours on the anthropomorphism thickly, creating a talisman of pathos in place of her two leads, who, in the beginning, are both too passively disjointed to create much of an emotional pull. It is when things start truly going south for the couple, that you begin to feel badly for them: For all their slight indifference, it’s clear they belong together, but Sophie’s spooky, nearly guiltless emotional transience proves to be a difficult obstacle even for the intractable Jason to hurdle.

It’s an odd film to be sure, asking its viewers to give it a wide berth, but despite its magic realism elements, somehow it never veers into fanciful preciousness. Some of that is due to the well-grounded character work by Linklater, who plays a sweetly innocent man who truly believes he’s found his soul mate right up until the point she shatters him. It is he who handles the film’s most emotional moment, literally stopping time in its tracks rather than have to hear his girlfriend confess her infidelity to him. There, sitting on the floor of their apartment, Sophie frozen in time, he pleads with the moon to keep this bad thing from happening, to keep everything just as it was, when he thought for certain he was almost totally bored and happy.

August 4, 2011
Film Review: Terri

Azazel Jacobs
Score: 6.3

Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is a teen-aged schlep. Large, lumpish and shambling with a longish mop of dark hair, he’s the kind of kid you think you have an automatic bead on right up until the time you hear him speak. Instead of a whiny voice, filled with indulgent self-pity, he has the calm, measured elan of a well-spoken parent or teacher, and with it director Azazel Jacob’s film reveals more of its true intent. Terri might be heavyset and slightly ridiculous looking walking around the halls of his high school in full pajamas (why? “They’re comfortable,” he says with a shrug), but he isn’t some facile self-reclamation project in the making. He may be heavy, but he’s no weighed-down archetype.

His parents are gone away (when asked where, Terri simply answers “I don’t know”), so he lives in the house of his Uncle James (Creed Bratton from “The Office”), an elderly man who suffers from bouts of dementia. Caring for his sick uncle, on his own and forced to take charge of the household has left Terri with a strong caring instinct, one not lost on the school Vice Principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), who takes a strong interest in the teen and arranges weekly meetings with him just to “shoot the breeze.” It is only later that Terri discovers that Mr. Fitzgerald has made similar arrangements with other obviously physically or mentally disadvantaged kids, including a young psychopath with scalp wounds named Chad (Bridger Zadina). Terri laments that part of Mr. Fitzgerald’s interest in him is because he so obviously needs help. When confronted with his duplicity, Mr. Fitzgerald’s response encapsulates the film’s theme very succinctly: “Life’s a mess,” he explains, “We’re all just doing the best we can.” When Terri begins to hit it off with an equally ostracized girl, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) it is to Mr. Fitzgerald that he goes for advice, even as Chad threatens to completely spoil the experience of what might be Terri’s first date.

Jacobs’ film works hard to make Terri a well-rounded character (pun intended), with plenty of warts and impulse control problems to augment his sweet-natured temperament and pathos. He’s still not sure why he reacts to things the way he does, but he’s mature enough to recognize that he doesn’t know. In short, he’s a kid well on his way to becoming a mature adult who recognizes his limitations and takes advantage of his strengths. Unfortunately, not all the characters in the film are so well rendered: Heather, though sweet, perhaps takes too quick a run at Terri to be quite believable and Chad morphs into something of cartoon character, an outtake from a John Hughes movie. Indeed, a scene late in the proceedings with the three young protagonists sitting in Terri’s garage, drinking whiskey and trading foibles begins to echo The Breakfast Club perhaps a bit too much, with Chad in the Ally Sheedy teen psycho role and good girl gone bad Heather as Molly Ringwald. Still, the film is filled with good, honest moments and an excellent rapport between Wysocki and Reilly, who really take on the relationship of equals. Mr. Fitzgerald may be an adult but he has far from worked his life out. Terri might still have a long ways to go, but in his own way he’s no further back than anyone else.

August 4, 2011
Film Review: Point Blank

Fred Cavayé
Score: 5.9

Here is a film even subtitle-haters can get into: So much of the 90-minute screen time is devoted to breathless chases in and out of hospitals, subway stations, police centers and parking garages, you hardly ever have to turn your attention to the bottom of the screen to read any dialogue. Which is just as well, because the script — by director Fred Cavayé and Guillaume Lemans — works best when it eschews its flawed-logic narrative and just cranks up the action pieces.

Our hero is Samuel (Gilles Lellouche), a fantastically French nurse’s aid, with crinkly eyes and a perpetual dark shadow of stubble, whose stunning Spanish wife, Nadia (Elena Anaya), 7.5 months pregnant, spends her time wanting to sleep with him and making ratatouille. One late night at the hospital in which Samuel is studying to be a full-blown male nurse, he observes a stranger messing with one of his comatose patients, Sartet (Roschdy Zem), brought in earlier in the day after being chased by shady characters and left for dead after a motorcycle collision. Saving Sartet’s life, Samuel runs afoul of a group of ruthless, corrupt cops lead by a hollow-cheeked ghoul named Werner (Gérard Lanvin), whose scraggly beard practically reaches his eye sockets. In short order, Samuel is accosted in his apartment, and Nadia is kidnapped as a ransom for him delivering Sartet to safety. He gets quickly embroiled in a high-stakes game of cat and mouse with the corrupt cops and Sartet himself, a high-level thief in his own right.

With its high production values and confident, engaging cinematography, the film settles into a high-concept bit of fluff and nonsense. Sartet and Samuel, forced to work together against Werner and his crew, form a kind of anti-buddy twosome (typical of their minimalist give-and-take is when Werner orders Samuel to stitch him up after a brawl leaves his stomach bleeding profusely). Essentially, it’s precisely the kind of action vehicle Harrison Ford is always on the look out for (one can practically hear him shout “Rends-moi ma famille!” with righteous indignation), a slightly edgy, fast-paced thriller without much in the way of what you might call brains. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have its moments. Samuel is desperate and unskilled enough to ratchet up the tension between the otherwise cold as ice Sartet and Werner, and one sequence in particular near the climax, with a precinct house overrun with chaos and the characters all fighting through the unruly crowds to get at one another, hums with satisfying kind of energy. Otherwise, it’s a lot of near misses and worn down shoe leather, perfect for the anti-literate crowd.

July 28, 2011
Film Review: Another Earth

Mike Cahill
Score: 6.4

You can see why, from a screenwriting point of view, the idea of merging two disparate film genres together would be inviting: The friction between the two elements — the ways in which they work in harmony, and in direct opposition to one another — could be magic. More often than not, however, instead of the two stories weaving together to create a stronger fiber, they fray apart and you end up with something weaker than cheap dental floss.

Mike Cahill’s film, a combination of grief-studded drama and science fiction supposition, works better than most of these hybrids, largely behind the gutty effort of the film’s star, Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Marling plays Rhoda, a smart and beautiful young woman who is celebrating her getting into M.I.T. on the very night a new Earth (dubbed “Earth 2”) , becomes faintly visible in the night sky. Drunk and not paying attention to the road from peering up into the stars, Rhoda accidentally smashes head-on into a car waiting at an intersection, killing a pregnant mother and her young son, and sending the father, John (William Mapother), a Yale professor of music, into a long coma. Years later, after being released from jail, Rhoda takes a menial custodial job at a nearby high school and attempts to assuage her guilt by comforting the man — now living alone and in misery — whose life she ruined that fateful night. Lying to him about being part of a cleaning service, she spends days with him, getting his physical — and emotional — house in order.

The plot might scream melodrama, but Cahill and Marling are after something a good deal more elusive. The film is cut to the bone in places, barely calling attention to large sections of story (the entire four-year prison term Rhoda serves is represented by a single grainy video surveillance image of her staring into space from her prison cell), and reducing most of the side characters to something like apparitions; and all this to focus intently on Rhoda, and her unassailable guilt. When she enters a global essay contest to try and earn a spot on the first shuttlecraft to approach the second Earth, we pull for her not just because we would like to see her succeed at something, but also so she has some reason to live other than to carry the weight of a lost family on her soul.

Alas, as good as Marling is at representing the stoic, caring Rhoda, she vastly outshines her co-star, Mapother, who has the more thankless role of being the drama’s stooge, spending the vast majority of his screen time not having any idea who this kind and beautiful young woman is who has come to rescue him from despair. The film also quite self-consciously shoots for the shaggy intimacy with the kind of in-and-out-of-focus handheld shots that “NYPD Blue” made famous a generation ago, but here, in this otherwise quiet drama, that decision feels stagey and unnecessarily distracting. Still, there’s no questioning the sad longing in Rhoda’s eyes when she peers into the doorway of the man whose life she’s destroyed, or the way she stares up at the second, mirror-image Earth, hovering just out of her gentle grasp.

July 28, 2011
Film Review: Sarah’s Key

Dir. Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Score: 5.4

Often, you can tell from a given film’s movie poster what the filmmakers have in store for you. In Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s new film concerning the French authorities aiding and abetting the Germans in rounding up French Jews for the concentration camps, his star, Kristen Scott-Thomas dominates the frame, holding a book and looking pensively up to her left, super-imposed over a much smaller figure standing before the ocean. Would you be surprised in any way to find out, Scott-Thomas’ character only appears in the present-day half of the film?

Scott-Thomas plays Julia, a sort of mega-journalist married to Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot), an equally ambitious and successful French architect. The couple and their young teen daughter plan to move into his aunt’s old flat in Paris, but before the husband’s massive, modern overhaul can be completed, Julia, in doing research on a big story on the shame of the Nazi-sympathizers in occupied France, discovers a possible deal-breaker. It turns out one of families rousted from their dwelling and sent off to the camps lived in the very flat they plan on moving into. Instantly obsessed with finding the truth behind her in-laws’ whitewashing of the affair, she goes on to find even more horrific details about the fate of the former family. The film intercuts Julia’s modern-day story — including an ongoing disagreement with her husband about an unplanned pregnancy — with extended flashbacks to the Jewish family in question back in 1942, specifically on Sarah (first and most memorably played by Mélusine Mayance), the adolescent daughter, who survives the ordeal by escaping out of the camp and being taken in by a kindly older couple who dress her like a boy.

There’s no denying the Holocaust can add volatile jet fuel to a drama, all right, but if it’s misused, or simply becomes a backdrop to a melodrama already too strident, the effect can have absolutely the opposite effect than what the filmmakers might have hoped. Paquet-Brenner’s film, based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay, has the best of intentions but settles far too often for having its characters respond in accordance with a point the film is trying to make, rather than as actual human beings. The narrative is carefully constructed so you primarily follow the course of action 70 years apart between Julia and Sarah, but rather than enhance each other’s stories, you instead grow to resent the film’s insistence on equating the two women’s ordeals. Complaining to your wealthy, successful husband about his overuse of the cellphone doesn’t compare favorably in terms of scope, to a young girl ripped away from her family and carrying an overwhelming guilt on her shoulders for the rest of her life.

July 28, 2011
Film Review: Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Dir. Glenn Ficarra & John Requa
Score: 6.6

Within the first five or six minutes of meeting Cal (Steve Carell), we witness him suffer through a terrible dinner with his wife in which she blurts out she has slept with someone else and wants a divorce, fall out of the passenger side of their car onto the suburban road to avoid having to hear her describe her feelings about their break up, and, in perhaps the quickest conjugal dissolution in cinematic history, watch him back a large U-Haul truck out of their driveway, off to the kind of miserable bachelor apartment building that Millhouse’s dad might find appealing.

As portrayed by Carell, Cal is nebbish and ineffectual, kind-hearted but removed from his Id to the point where he intentionally wears white New Balances with his frumpy, too-large suit coats, and sips vodka cranberries with a straw. These facts are not lost on Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a slick, handsome ladies man, who sees Cal sitting miserably by himself up at the bar shortly after he’s moved out of his house, and, seemingly, takes pity on him. He decides to teach him the ropes of being a ladykiller — beginning with a new wardrobe and haircut — in exchange for something ineffable of which we’re never quite sure. Meanwhile, Cal’s wife, Emily (Julianne Moore) is trying to make it on her own at the house with the kids, including 13-year-old Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who has an undying love for his babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who, in turn, has a powerful crush on Cal, for being such a good dad. To further muck up the works, Jacob, who spends most of the first third of the film bedding down every woman with whom he comes in contact, meets the brainy, honest Hannah (Emma Stone) and might actually have found in her someone to genuinely love.

Despite the film’s somewhat ham-handed set up, it works surprisingly well, mainly on the strength of a solid cast and Dan Fogelman’s witty, well-executed script, which revels in turning Hollywood clichés just slightly enough on their head to keep them fresh while throwing in a succession of skillfully handled narrative misdirections to keep you on your toes.

At first glance, many of the characters we meet are little more than archetypes, none more-so than the dowdy, pathetically passive Cal with his Velcro wallet and rumpled Gap jeans, but the film is largely toying with your expectations. Quite obviously, Cal and Jacob will end up switching roles, with Cal becoming something of a womanizer and Jacob finding more to love than his own (impressive) pecs, a clichéd Hollywood set-up if ever there were one.

All this is true, yet the ways in which the film takes each character a step or two further past their initial impressions leads to a welcome and amusing reassessment by the end, especially in the film’s piece de resistance, an outlandish scene that brings each and every plot element into play at once in a marvelous bit of French-like farce. By the end, the characters have grown so much past their original stations that even Robbie’s laughable quest for acknowledgement of his love doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched. Perhaps, the rom-com isn’t quite as dead in the water as the many, many cynical and shoddy attempts Hollywood has churned out the past few years would have us believe.

June 8, 2011
Film Review: Beautiful Boy

Shawn Ku
Score: 5.1

It’s been a tough year for parents, cinematically speaking. They’ve suffered through the tragic death of a child (Rabbit Hole), the condemnation of a nation in mourning (The Conspirator), and the abduction of a son to an eerie fourth dimension (Indsidious). Here, though, in Shawn Ku’s drama, the parents have to endure perhaps the most devastating kind of misery imaginable: Not only do they have to survive the grief of their only child committing suicide, they have the added horror of knowing he committed a savage killing spree at his college before holding the gun to his own head.

The child in question is Sam (a sufficiently haunted looking Kyle Gallner), a college freshman at a school not too far from where his parents live. The night before he goes on his rampage he calls them and speaks briefly with his father, Bill (Michael Sheen), and at slightly more length with his doting mother, Kate (Maria Bello). If he sounded more troubled than usual, they didn’t notice. They are in the midst of having their own issues: Bill, remote and joyless, is a workaholic who is coldly plotting leaving his wife and moving into his own place; Kate, a literary copy editor, still has blind hope that all the family needs to get back on track is a nice vacation on the beach somewhere. After the massacre and suicide, they are left trying to come to terms with the loss of their child, and the guilt of him having done such a heinous act.

The film certainly has a sensationalist plot point, but the trouble comes in the aftermath. Grief on its own, frankly, is not the most interesting of emotions to witness. By definition, it’s inert and all-encompassing, reducing everybody to empty husks of themselves, which is a tricky thing to convey on screen without resorting to melodramatic histrionics or unconvincing plot twists. The film, co-written by Ku and Michael Armbruster, tries to skirt the problem by having both of its main protagonists submerge a majority of their pain underneath a more desperately normal façade. When they grieve, it’s nearly always when they’re alone, in the shower, or first waking up in the morning. Easily the best scene in the film is when the estranged couple first hide out from the frothing-at-the-mouth press in a hotel room together, co-conspirators in the management of their misery, almost giddy with love for one another. Though this, too, is clearly a rickety coping mechanism that eventually breaks a major spring.

If the film sounds a bit rote and literal in its construction, something Sean Penn might have directed, you’re not alone. At its worst, it’s an advanced acting exercise — albeit one that finds both its leads in fine form — with many scenes of repressed emotion tangled up with the obligatorily explosive emotional fireworks by the climax. What it never really manages to do, however, is truly peer into the souls of its characters, and, as the cynic might point out, what’s the point, otherwise?

June 2, 2011
Film Review: X-Men: First Class

. Matthew Vaughn
Score: 5.1 

It might sound strange to say, given the checkered track record of the superhero film in general, but of all the titles (and this summer’s onslaught is continuing unabated, with the upcoming Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger), the “X-Men” series do have a significant legacy to live up to. Bryan Singer’s initial two films (X-Men and X-Men 2 remain two of the high-water marks of the genre, bolstered by above average acting, excellent art direction and reasonably rewarding writing. The films succeeded in hitting the sweet spot between faithful, thoughtful adaptations and robust action pictures. You could enjoy them without hating yourself in the morning, as it were.

Unfortunately, after the promise of the first two films, the third — helmed by the considerably less inspiring Brett Ratner — was a conceptual and artistic dud. Since then, we’ve had one spin off sequel of sorts, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which while pretty to look at, did little else to wash out the foul taste of the previous title. That film was directed by Matthew Vaughn, who did well enough in the eyes of Fox to have another go in this new prequel to the original film.

On paper, the film has some promise. We are set in the early ’60s, as tensions mount between the U.S. and U.S.S.R over nuclear missile placements. In place of Royal Shakespeare actors Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, we have two highly decorated young Brits, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, and a fine supporting group that includes Rose Byrne, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt and January Jones (playing a diamond-encrusted villainess whose icy demeanor eerily recalls Betty Draper, only with the power to send Sally up her room telekinetically). Also in its favor, Singer, who famously defected from the third film of his trilogy after a contract dispute to instead direct the oddly limp Superman Returns, returns as a producer.

Despite it all, though, the film falls pray to the classic pitfalls of the comic picture — it reads like a throwaway, all quick, artless scenes that jump around from location to location, getting to their point with as little wasted breath (some might call it “atmosphere” or “tension”) as possible. In the course of things, we meet the young Xavier (McAvoy) and Magneto (Fassbender) as they get embroiled in a CIA program to combat the evil forces gathered by Sebastian Shaw (Bacon), a former SS officer and tormentor of adolescent Magneto, now an arms dealer of sorts, with a grand scheme to pit the regular homo sapiens against one another in order to rise his brotherhood of evil mutants into a commanding position while still profiting from both sides. Xavier and Magneto hastily gather a group of young mutants to combat Shaw and his minions and thus a grand battle is enjoined just in time for the Bay of Pigs.

Alas, despite its obviously large budget and talented cast and crew, the film is far too impatient to make much of an impact. Scenes hurtle past, pushing the major plot points, but leaving far too much behind in terms of character development or coherency to really grab your attention beyond the whiplash narrative and the depressingly ineffective CGI effects that prevail throughout. As much as we may want to care, the film gives us little chance to do so, which is too bad.

To create a particular point of comparison, Singer’s second film introduced a character named Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a blue demon-looking mutant, replete with pointed ears, fangs and a curving arrow-tipped tail. As ridiculous as it could have been, the combination of Cumming’s exceptional acting and the art direction’s superior interpretation created a fully believable, accessible hero. In this film, when one of the characters takes a serum designed to shrink down his enormous feet, he instead further mutates into a blue-furred creature that comes across as a miserable combination of Teen Wolf, the Cowardly Lion and an extra on “Cats.” If this calamity doesn’t bring Singer back to helm the next film in the series, all hope is surely lost.

May 19, 2011
DVD Review: Diabolique - Criterion BD Edition

Henri-Georges Clouzot
Score: 8.0

The opening credit sequence for Henri Georges-Clouzot’s classic mystery thriller is illuminating precisely for what it does not do. It has no action, no tricky sequencing or mini-narrative of its own. Instead, it’s nearly completely static: a single shot of the murky surface of a pool, algae and leaves clumped over the surface. The only motion is the slight ripple in the breeze, shimmering the reflection of the trees around it. By the end of its nearly two minutes of screen time, you’ve been forced to consider this dark, uninviting water, left to wonder just what it might be suggesting.

Much is murky and unseen in the dappled depths of this taut masterpiece of atmosphere and deception. On its surface, the film is about the tangled murder plot between two unlikely allies — Christina (Vera Clouzot), the abused wife of cruel husband Michel Delassalle, played by Paul Meurisse; and Nicole (Simone Signoret), the man’s mistress. Together, the three of them work at the same boarding school for boys, where Michel is the headmaster and Christina the principal. She is wealthy but sick with a weakened heart. Apparently dumped by her lover, bitter Nicole pushes former rival Christina to take action against her brute of a husband, whom she claims has plans to kill her and make off with her fortune. The two women hatch a complicated murder plot that involves luring him away from the school over to Nicole’s apartment several hours away, where they will drug and drown him, then returning the body to the school under cover of darkness, and slipping it undetected into the brackish “chocolate soup” water of the pool and play dumb when the corpse is eventually found. The problem is, even after they drain the water, the body is never recovered, and an increasing number of signs seem to indicate Michel is somehow, someway very much alive.

Of course, in murder mysteries, the body — hiding it, disposing of it, making sure the victim is actually dead — is nearly always the trickiest bit. What sets this film apart, aside from its rich performances and sumptuous photography by DP Armand Thirard, is the way it atmospherically influences your perception of things. No one, save perhaps Charles Vanel’s wizened retired police commissioner, comes out of this thing a hero, everyone is stuck in the muck and sediment of the bottom. Clearly influential on everything from Psycho (Hitch was a big fan) to Blood Simple, Clouzot’s dark vision loses very little more than five-and-a-half decades after it was released.

This BD edition is stuffed with notable extras, including selected scene commentaries from film scholar Kelley Conway, a video interview with film critic Kim Newman, the original trailer, and a booklet with an essay by former New Yorker film critic, Terrence Rafferty.

May 12, 2011
Film Review: 13 Assassins

Takashi Miike
Score: 8.2

No one can accuse Takashi Miike of resting on his laurels. Or resting on anything else. Since 1991, the prolific Japanese director has made a mind-boggling 83 titles (including videos and TV shows), including 45 feature films. This is not to suggest he churns them out, factory-style, either, as can be evidenced by his latest film, a bloody samurai showdown that is nothing short of exhilarating.

The film begins, as many Samurai films do, near the end of their domain. Feudal Japan is being slowly phased out, and with the change in political climate, old guard such as Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) and Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura) are becoming a thing of the past. The two men also represent different paths for Samurai: Shinzaemon is mostly retired to a life of fishing and leading a nearly empty dojo; while the unfortunate Hanbei has become the protector of his shogun’s evil and petty half-brother, Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki), a man so vain, privileged and brutal, he takes peasant girls and cuts off their limbs just to amuse himself. Caught between the Samurai’s oath of loyalty and his better conscience, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), enlists the aid of his old comrade, Shinzaemon, to put together an elite force of samurai to assassinate the evil Shogun. Matched up against Hanbei, his former dojo mate who despises his Lord, but cannot forsake his Samurai duty, Shinzaemon then has to plan a battle of strategy and skill in implementing Sir Doi’s edict, against a vastly larger army.

To be sure, swords fly and heads roll in this film, but Miike smartly bides his time, allowing nausea-inducing sound effects and strong editing to imply the violence up until the final climactic frenzy of blood-soaked combat. As with any good samurai movie worth its salt, the film is most concerned with honor and loyalty, but the interpersonal politics, between the elder warriors and the younger samurai, many of whom understand their way of life won’t last through their lifetimes, is equally fascinating. Watching the badly outmanned assassin force attempt to get to the evil Lord, you’re struck by the dichotomy of fighting styles, from the haphazard, tentative swipes of the youngest samurai, to the bold, precise strikes by the old guard, and understand much more is at stake than the attempt to kill a single, evil man: The Samurai are fighting to end their line in the most honorable way possible. Miike’s film, beautiful, brutal and compellingly evocative, is a minor masterpiece of action cinema.

May 12, 2011
Film Review: Bridesmaids

Paul Feig
Score: 7.2 

In a summer comedy rumored to be like a Hangover for women, six rowdy broads board an airplane headed to Vegas to celebrate what promises to be a wild and unhinged bachelorette party. Only, tellingly, they only get as far as Wyoming before they forcibly have to return back to Chicago on a bus. In other words, this is a movie that can play the Hangover game, even as it totally switches the rules around on you.

The bride-to-be in question is Lillian (Maya Rudolph), best friends since childhood with a recently down-on-her luck former bakery owner, Annie (Kristen Wigg). While Annie has struggled on a downward spiral since the collapse of her cake business in Milwaukee, Lillian has been getting engaged to a very wealthy Chicagoan, with whose business partner’s wife, Helen (Rose Byrne), she has very quickly become close. When Lillian asks Annie to be her Maid of Honor, Annie promises to dutifully put the whole production in motion, including the dress fittings, the bridal shower, and, naturally, the bachelorette party. Only, with the ravishingly beautiful and poised Helen slowly usurping control away from her, Annie can’t seem to get anything right. Fearing that she’s losing her best friend, she gets ever more desperate, even as the rest of her life is crumbling around her ears.

With a buoyant, laugh-out-loud script by Fiig and Annie Mumolo, and comic precision from director Paul Feig, the film is able to scamper from one style to the next. There’s Annie’s drolly disturbing British brother and sister roommates, like something out of an “SNL” skit; extended comic set pieces involving Annie’s and Helen’s budding rivalry that goes on long enough to start funny, wear itself out and charge up all over again; and an instant classic food-poisoning-at-the-bridal-shop scene that will echo in this summer’s pop culture annuls if not beyond. But, it also has a soul. As much of a self-obsessed screw-up as Annie is, at the root of her trouble is a real sense that the best possibilities of her life have passed her by. Her fear of losing Lillian isn’t just about their friendship, it’s about her ever being able to attain true happiness again, a situation perfectly typified in her long treks from downtrodden, undervalued Milwaukee over to fabulous, overhyped Chicago.

The film is smart enough to make a comedy that, for all its ribald humor and dick jokes, never loses track of the emotional thread between the two old friends that holds the whole thing together. And Wiig, who finally gets a chance to show her impressive full repertoire of comic and tragic skill, is absolutely the film’s lynchpin. Even as the film settles in for a conclusive and predictably happy ending, locking all windows and doors, you can’t begrudge the genuine emotion it’s managed to work its way through, even as its made you laugh. In the end — despite a comic turn from Melissa McCarthy that is directly out of the Zach Galifinaiks play book — the film has very little in common with the smash hit comedy of two summers ago, it’s all heart.

May 12, 2011
Film Review: Everything Must Go

Dan Rush
Score: 5.3

The fiction brilliance of the late Raymond Carver has laid out more than one acclaimed filmmaker in pursuit of trying to adapt him, including Ray Lawrence (Jindabyne) and Robert Altman (Short Cuts). While both accomplished directors may have ended up with decent enough films, they both failed to capture the essence of the great short story writer himself. The suspicion here is it has directly to do with Carver’s particular narrative style — however ‘augmented’ by former editor Gordon Lish’s sensibilities. Simply put, he was a minimalist who left much of his characters’ motivations and impulses to their own imaginations, which only added to their collective power. Film, of course, is a medium that very often serves to answer exactly those kinds of questions, and, in the process, dilute the principle soul of Carver’s work.

A difficult thing, then, to write an appraisal of novice writer/director Dan Rush’s feature debut, a kind of loose adaptation of Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance.” To compare the two in any way, is a bit like comparing the mouse Walt Disney initially spied at his family’s farm to the cartoon icon that came out of it. In the story’s six and a half pages, Carver lays out a simple enough situation: an alcoholic whose wife has finally left him, holds an impromptu yard sale by putting all of his and his wife’s belongings in the front yard and sells most of them to a young couple who happen by. We know next to nothing of the man’s life, inner or outer, other than he’s alone now, and probably feels that it’s all for the best, even if he’s utterly alone in the world.

In the film, we meet a former alcoholic named Nick (Will Farrell) on possibly the worst day of his life. In the morning, he gets fired from his high-level sales management position because of drinking-related incidents; then he comes home to find his wife has left him, changed all the locks on the doors and left all of his things strewn about the yard. Improbably, she has also cancelled his phone, credit cards and frozen his bank account. With nowhere else to go, and no car once the company reclaims it, Nick spends his days sitting in his easy chair on his front lawn, making friends with a neighborhood kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace, Biggie’s son), and drinking endless PBR cans in an epic relapse.

It’s not that the film is without its merits — both Farrell and Wallace turn in strong performances, and there is some nice geographic detail that adds another level to the atmosphere — but without Carver’s relentlessly exacting pathos and eye for detail, the film can’t really approach the level of its (loose) source material. Standing on its own, it feels thin, and as a Carver-inspired piece, it does little more than make you lunge for the original the minute you leave the theater. Some things are best left undone.

Liked posts on Tumblr: More liked posts »