March 28, 2014
Film Review: Enemy

Dir. Denis Villenueve
Score: 6.1

French-Canadian Director Denis Villenueve has adapted his curious oddity of a film from the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novel “The Double,” via celebrated Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, who wrote an updated version back in 2005. This triple-filtering, involving three continents and more than 150 years, is strangely appropriate, given the surreal nature of the material.

Essentially, in all three works, a neurotic, slightly unhinged man (in this film played by Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes increasingly obsessed with a mysterious fetch — a doppelganger — he discovers by accident. They eventually meet, take a strong dislike for one another (as mousy and nervous is the one, the other is brassy and overconfident), and eventually start meddling in each others’ lives and their relationships.

On top of Dostoyevsky’s keen eye for human observation, and Saramago’s Latino penchant for mental psychosis, we can also add Villenueve’s bleak world view and proclivity towards moral desolation. The director of last year’s well-overdone Prisoners (also with Gyllenhaal, who apparently can’t get enough French Canadian nihilism in his life), and 2010’s critically lauded Incendies, has visual panache to spare, and here, gets a perplexing puzzle of a story to try and wrap his head around.

Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a distraught adjunct history professor in Toronto, who lives in a drab apartment, meets nightly with his pretty but disaffected girlfriend, Mary (Mélanie Laurent), for uninspired sex, and perpetually has a look of worn-out fatigue, constantly rubbing his eyes and massaging his temples as if trying to keep his head from exploding. By chance he rents a recommended video one night, an idiotic farce called “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way,” and is stunned to see an actor who looks exactly like him in a minor role.

Eventually, he tracks down the man, known as Anthony Claire, to his modern, airy apartment (which stands in direct contrast to Adam’s unadorned hovel), and calls his number, only to have Anthony’s pretty blonde wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon) answer, assuming the voice she hears on the phone is her husband’s. The cat-and-mouse game goes on for a while before the men finally meet, peculiarly enough, in a seedy hotel room on the outskirts of town. They take a strong dislike to one another, but before long Anthony, something of a skirt-chaser we are lead to believe, hatches a plan to force Adam into letting him spend the night with Mary on a romantic getaway, and everything comes to an odd head.

The challenge of the film isn’t the solving of the puzzle of the narrative per se — there are certainly clues, but little to suggest a definitive answer one way or the other — but to determine how much of what we’re seeing should be taken at face value. The film takes pains to avoid concrete evidence that the two men are, in fact, the same — going so far as to have Adam walk just out of view after Helen first meets him before calling her husband on the phone — without ever proving that they’re not. Instead, it is Villenueve’s craft that is on full, naked display.

The director has a Lynchian way of stressing his frame just enough to generate a steady buzz of discomfort. Shooting through a filter the color of weak ice tea, the entire film is cast with a layer of grunge, as if dipped in bilge water. The film opens with a particularly unsettling vision of a high-end sex club, where women parade on stage in front of leering older business men, crushing large spiders under their heels. Through use of eerie — often voyeuristic shot selection — unsettling background noise, and a swelling, dissonant score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, Villenueve creates a hellish cast to the whole enterprise. As miserable and under pressure as Adam seems to be, none of the other characters, save Anthony, seem terribly much happier either.

At the Toronto Film Festival, where the film made its debut, the buzz was decidedly mixed, but more than one critic who had seen it mentioned the fact that the ending was one of the more shocking surprises they could recall. Generally, given a detail such as that, one can’t help but wonder what the shock might be, and halfway through the film, you start assessing possibilities in the back of your mind. It’s not normally my approach — I’m usually quite happy to let a film surprise me as much as it can — but, in this case, no amount of guessing will lead you anywhere close to the film’s closing seconds. It’s difficult to assess just what it might mean, of course, (frankly, I’m not sure what Dostoyevsky himself might make of it) but I can assure you, it’s not something you are in any danger of conjuring up on your own.

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March 21, 2014
Film Review: The Lunchbox

Dir. Ritesh Batra
Score: 6.7

The problem with food movies is almost exactly the same as with teen sex comedies: The filmmakers tend to allow the film’s thematic product placement (duck l’orange, let’s say, or the breasts of Amy Smart) to take precedence over any other element, including acting, narrative drive, or mise en scene. Food-porn then, becomes the point, and everything else is regulated to the shadows. 

But if this film is considered food-porn, it’s of a considerably more soft-core variety. In writer/director Ritesh Batra’s hands, the shimmeringly delicious looking lunches being packed lovingly by a lonely, bored housewife into the hands of an unwitting widower in a completely different building from her distant husband, is very much a means to an end. It might well make us hungry to look at, but there’s plenty enough else here to chew on. 

The housewife, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), spends her days trying to appease her hard-driving and humorless husband (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), cleaning the house, taking care of their young daughter, and cooking what appears to be fabulous meals for his lunch consumption. In what must be an Indian tradition — at least in Mumbai, where the film takes place — the white-collar workers who populate the many, many offices and cubicles of the city don’t bring their lunches with them, but rather, have them hand-delivered by a series of deft handlers, who take each lunch from the apartments of their families (and/or participating restaurants), and somehow magically distribute them to their intended beneficiaries. It’s an extremely complex system (one that begs the question, wouldn’t it be easier just to brown-bag it yourself?), but one that seems to work with almost preternatural precision. That is, except for Saajan (the peerless Irrfan Khan). 

Somehow, there is a mistake made with his lunch, so rather than receive the bland cauliflower from the middling take-out place near his apartment high-rise, he instead gets Ila’s carefully and lovingly made food. The first time this happens, Saajan, somewhat perplexed, takes out a single gorgeously bright looking spiced string bean and bites into it thoughtfully, surprise and delight flashing across his face for only a brief moment before returning to stern resignation. 

After a couple days of this, Ila realizes what’s been happening, and writes a simple note to Saajan, explaining the mix-up and thanking him for giving her a brief, happy few days where she thought her abrasively detached husband was actually enjoying something she had prepared for him. Thus begins a peculiar sort of pen-pal exchange, with Saajan and Ila revealing ever more of themselves and their lonely lives to one another, even as she conjures up recipe after fabulous recipe. 

But this is no Fried Green Tomatoes fantasy where the magic of food, like love, restores all things. Both Saajan and Ila are too entrenched in their ways to really let go of their lives, and Ila’s food, though seemingly wonderful, by itself doesn’t move Saajan to see things differently. It’s her unflinching honesty, and desire for something better, that eventually draws him in. 

Batra’s film has a pleasing sort of pace, matching the grind-it-out Mumbai workday against the more thoughtful and considered measure of its main protagonists. There’s a reason they seem like such a good match, because Batra has them stand apart from the crowded din of the millions of other dedicated workers to find each other. Repeatedly, the film hammers home its aphorism: Sometimes the wrong train can take you to the right station. When these two lonely souls finally find one another, spectacular looking food is truly just the starting point.

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March 14, 2014
Film Review: Need For Speed

Dir. Scott Waugh
Score: 3.6

There are many reasons to dislike strongly this video-game-to-feature-film boondoggle — an insipid, entirely predictable plot in which every beat is telegraphed as if from a Telex; a group of characters so dangerously moronic and unlikable you actively root for the cops to capture them; a story incredibly devoid of even the most basic narrative logic — but perhaps the most significant one is the fear it puts into you about the future career of Aaron Paul. Paul, a highly gifted young actor who just completed a miraculous run as Jesse, the moral foil to maniacal high school science teacher turned meth cooker Mr. White, in “Breaking Bad,” now finds himself at a bit of a crossroads in his career, and, at least based on this effort, the early returns are alarming.

He might not be the first gifted actor who simply works better on TV than the big screen — with its large aspect and encompassing focus, film tends to demand more presence from its actors than most TV fare — and there’s no shame in recognizing who you are and what medium your acting persona best works (do you hear that, David Caruso?), but no matter what your agent says or how many zeroes you can fit at the end of your paycheck, if you use your status to make lifeless dreck such as this on the big screen, you’ll squander your chance to ever make a cinematic impact in this lifetime.

Paul has shown range and uncanny grace in his best work, but has a tendency to catch on to malformed projects suited to someone with a lot less emotional access than he appears to have. Between junk like this and positioning himself as some sort of Bratpack wanna be in Ciroc ads, gallivanting around Vegas on a private jet with his good friends Frank Vincent and Diddy, I fear he’s heading in entirely the wrong direction.

This film, which is almost exactly as much fun as going over to a friend’s house and sitting on the couch watching them play on the X-Box for two hours, is such a shameless infomercial, it inserts super-high-end cars as motorporn, and is clearly underwritten by Ford, whose special edition Mustang is paraded about like a trophy wife at a country club.

The story, such as it is, involves Tobey Marshall (Paul), a supremely talented street racer living in Mt. Kisco with his pack of fellow gearheads (including Rami Malek and Scott Mescudi), running his late father’s high-end garage, even as it threatens to foreclose. The financial pressures force him to turn to Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), a local kid made Indy racer, who has always had bad blood with Tobey, ever since he made off with his girl, Anita (Dakota Johnson), the older sister of Tobey’s winsome sidekick Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), a kid so freewheeling and good-natured he’s as marked for death they might as well just call him Ponyboy. After an insanely idiotic street race goes tragic, Tobey is sent to prison, taking the rap for the weasily Dino, who denies ever being involved. When Tobey gets out, he determines the best way to get vengeance somehow involves him entering an insanely illegal, super high-end street race known as the Deleon, in order to, um, clear his name, win a huge amount of dough and somehow put the nefarious Dino in his place.

This apparently means driving the aforementioned Mustang supercar across the country to the race, accompanied by Julia (Imogen Poots), a pretty blonde Brit, who acts as the car buyer for her rich employer. Somehow, after attracting entirely undue attention in Detroit and causing untold death and wanton destruction along its highways, the team makes their way to the race, just in time for Tobey’s redemption to begin.

Mere words can’t do justice to the incredible stupidity attached to this entire project, but let’s note a few small, salient plot points just to set the mood:

-Despite the fact that his repair shop is on the edge of being foreclosed upon, and money is such an issue Tobey is forced into working with Dino in the first place, the rag-tag team has such a high-tech arsenal of surveillance equipment and super-computers to monitor themselves, it would make the NSA envious.

-Monarch (Michael Keaton), the man behind this insanely illegal high-end race is a complete mystery to authorities even though he live-video broadcasts his assembling of the racers and the actual event from the comfort of his home office, and seems to do little all day but put his face front and center of his endless broadcasts.

-For reasons never remotely justified, Tobey feels compelled to make enough ruckus in Detroit to attract the attention of all the police in the city in order to be admitted to the Deleon, but takes so many risks of himself, his passenger and every man, woman and child walking the streets of the city, he would have been shot on sight.

-A missing red car that suddenly appears near the end of the film is somehow enough evidence by itself to exonerate Tobey from further persecution, even though in process of acquiring it, the convicted felon on parole, jumps state lines, recklessly drives across the entire country, causes innumerable major accidents and potential life-threatening injuries to a parade of cops and innocent bystanders alike, and seems utterly unrepentant about the entire stupid progression of his life.

All of this, mind you, lead by a band of dimwitted idiots so moronic they make the combatants in The Cannonball Run seem like the Algonquin Round Table. If Paul wants us to buy into his film career going forward, he’s simply going to have to do better than this: Two hours in, you can actually feel your brain begin to wither. Tobey might ultimately win his redemption, but we’re the ones paying the price for it.

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The Best of the Best Picture Oscar Winners, Part 5 « Online Film Critics Society

An OFCS poll of the best Oscar-winning films in the history of the award. An interesting experiment. 

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