Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Recent Watches: Blue Jasmine (2013)


I don’t like to comment on the personal life of the people involved with the films I review. I think its tacky and this blog is devoted to movies, not celebrity gossip. Yet it’s become difficult not to talk about “Blue Jasmine” without bringing up Woody Allen’s most recent trouble. I won’t share my opinion about Dylan Farrow’s molestation accusations other then to say I think it’s strange she’s only bringing it up now. Allen has been cranking out films annually for two decades and it’s not like “Blue Jasmine” is the only one of his recent work to receive critical praise. He won an Oscar for “Midnight in Paris” only two years ago, after all. That the controversy has overshadowed the film is disheartening, even more so if it winds up affecting the movie’s Oscar chances. It’s a funny, bittersweet film, solid work from the filmmaker.

On the same level, you can’t help but think of Mia Farrow a little while watching “Blue Jasmine.” The plot follows Jasmine, the widowed wife of a corrupt Wall Street dealer. After loosing her life of riches and comfort, Jasmine has constantly been on the edge of a mental breakdown. The movie opens as she moves in with her sister Ginger, who lives at the opposite end of the economic spectrum, Jasmine attempting to reinvent her life. Both sisters are at turning points of sorts in their lives. The film cuts back and forth between Jasmine’s fraught current life and her previous life as the spoiled wife of a rich man, right before that world crumbled.

Woody Allen has written some of the best, most nuanced female characters in cinema history as well as women that are cartoonish, obnoxious shrews. On one side of that spectrum lies Annie Hall and Alice while, say, the wife from “Midnight in Paris” resides flatly at the other extreme. Jasmine is somewhere between the two extremes. On one level, she’s mentally unstable. She’s selfish, conceited, bitchy, and myopic. She's also treated very sympathetically, the movie focusing heavily on her impending breakdown. One of this very funny film’s reoccurring gag involves Jasmine’s tendencies to ramble. The film begins with her on a plane, apparently telling an old woman she’s met all about herself. However, we soon find out the old woman never asked about Jasmine. She was merely talking to herself and the old woman was the closest person listening. This gag reaches it zenith when she starts rambling towards her confused, seven year old nephews. She’s constantly popping pills, nerves always jangling under her skin. When she wanders into a new relationship with a would-be politician, Jasmine begins to tell white lies, combing over the embarrassing or tragic details of her previous life. This ends badly. Though “Blue Jasmine” might occasionally play its heroine’s poor stress management for laughs, by the end, it veers more towards tragedy.

“Blue Jasmine” is about another woman as well. Under-appreciated character actress Sally Hawkins plays Jasmine’s put-upon sister Ginger. Ginger is about as far apart from Jasmine as possible, at least at first. She’s slightly vulgar and works a crappy job to take care of her two sons. The difference between the two sisters is most obvious when they constantly point out that they aren’t related blood. However, both women have lousy taste in men. Ginger’s ex-husband, Augie, played by an unrecognizable Andrew Dice Clay, comes off as a bit of a blowhard. Her current boyfriend, the inexplicably named Chilli, is an even bigger mook, basically the grown-up version of a guido. His pathetic attributes come into sharper focus when he storms into the apartment and tears a phone out of the wall in rage. At the same party Jasmine meets her would-be beau, Ginger encounters a charming, sexually vivacious fellow played by a perfectly likable Louise C. K. When that relationship falls apart dramatically, you feel the most for Ginger. Like Jasmine, she’s prone to negative moments, treating her sister like shit at times. At the end, she’s a fallible human being dealt a shitty card by chance.

Cate Blanchett has received plenty of praise for her leading role here. Assuming the controversy doesn’t wind up distracting, she might still win. Is it the strongest of the nominated performances? Possibly. Blanchett sometimes indulges in exaggerated Big acting. The film’s emotional climax comes during a flashback, breaking up with her husband, when she completely shatters a part. Unfortunately, Blanchett veers close to overdoing it at times. The blatantly comedic bits rest uncomfortably between mockery and sympathy. When Jasmine gets the shakes, popping pills and downing them with wine, Blanchett might be playing it too broad. However, she mostly holds the performance together, inhabiting the character with steely-eyed nerves, choking down a world of hurt. Does she deserve to win? Maybe. In a year with a better crop of nominations, probably not. This year? Yeah, I suppose.  

I’ll admit to being one of those film fans who prefer Allen’s earlier, funnier movies. Since his comedies have always run on neurosis, it’s fine that his drama mine those same emotions for pathos. (I still haven’t made it all the way through “Interiors” though. Sorry.) “Blue Jasmine” is certainly a neurotic movie. Sometimes it simplifies those issues. Jasmine’s mental breakdown manifesting as wandering through the streets, talking to herself, is a bit much, an oversimplification of a complicated issue. Jasmine nearly entering another cushy life as a politician’s wife comes about in a slightly contrived manner. Either way, I admire Allen’s stab at nonlinear storytelling. Cutting back and forth between the past and the present provides a great contrast between the differing attitudes. As the film goes on, we realize there’s really isn’t much difference between Jasmine’s life now and her life then. The cracks were just more well-hidden.

“Blue Jasmine” has maybe been a little overrated by the press. To call it Woody Allen's best film in over a decade is definitely overstating it. The script works in many of the same themes and concepts the director has always toyed with. It’s a good film, humane and in-touch. The excellent moments, both funny and sad, rise above the movie’s more flawed elements. [7/10]

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Recent Watches: 12 Years a Slave (2013)


I never know what to say about a movie like “12 Years a Slave.” It’s not a film you can evaluate under the usual perimeters of “Did I like it?” “12 Years a Slave” doesn’t set out to entertain. After watching it, I honestly felt like shit. You’re supposed to feel like shit. The film rubs your noses in man’s inhumanity to man. It displays the cruelty and horror of the slave-era, as close to a historical document as one can get.

The story should be well-known by now. Born free and living in upstate New York, Solomon Northup is a violin player living with his wife and two kids. When joining a group of entertainers touring Washington D.C., he is drugged and sold into slavery. Thus begins a twelve year cycle of abuse amidst New Orleans cotton plantations. He is first sold to a plantation owner named Ford, a quiet fellow who reads from the bible and treats his slaves relatively well. But they’re still his slaves and when Solomon angers a white worker, he is sold to the sadistic, mentally unbalanced Epps. At Epps’ hands, Solomon is witness to, and suffers himself, alarming cruelty.

Director Steve McQueen, previously noted for no-holds-barred depictions of Irish prisons and sex addiction in “Hunger” and “Shame,” never shies away from portraying the horrors of the time. The moment he awakens in the world of slavery, Solomon is tortured, viciously whipped with a wooden board. One a boat to the South, he sees another black man stabbed to death for attempting to protect a female slave. That same woman is, sobbing, sold separately from her children. While on the Epps’ plantation, workers are whipped every day if their cotton production doesn’t meet expectations. An attempted escape is shunted when he walks in on two slaves being executed. The most nauseating moment occurs when a female slave is so brutally whipped that her skin smokes from the lash wounds. And why? Because she wanted a piece of soap to wash with. Despite the wave of critical recognition and award season buzz the film has received, there is no “safe” layer of prestige shine protecting the audience. The movie is stark, horrifying, and uncompromising in its portrayals.

McQueen’s direction is engineered to give every moment of torture maximum effect. In the first act, he frequently cuts between Northup’s new life as a slave and his happy former life as a family man, making the sudden moments of cruelty more jarring. The most terrifying moment is when Solomon is punished for speaking directly with a white worker. He is hanged from a noose, feet dangling inches above the ground. He stands on his toes, barely holding off strangulation. This is presented in a tortuously long take that goes for only a few minutes but feels like hours. The unbroken shot has a purpose, forcing the audience to relive every agonizing minute along with Northup. Ultimately, that is the most horrifying thing about “12 Years a Slave:” These things happened. McQueen never bows to misery porn self-consciousness. There’s no sentimentality or mawkish appeals for emotions. He is honestly presenting the awful conditions as they were.

I’ve heard “12 Years a Slave” referred to as “inspiring,” which is a somewhat misleading statement. Is Northup’s will to survive inspiring? I suppose so. Early on, we see another slave torn apart by misery, weeping endlessly. Northup never gives in to such crushing despair. Though the film’s events present him with little reason to, he continues to survive. However, this isn’t an inspiring story of the human will to endure. When finally free and reunited with his family, there’s no steering music or emotionally uplift. Solomon cries uncontrollably, apologizing repeatedly for his absence. He may have survived but the mental and emotional scars will haunt him forever. A post-credit note informs us that those responsible for his kidnapping were never punished. Northup never received justice. It almost plays like a metaphor for our country’s relationship with its past. Slavery may have ended but we can never right those wrongs.

It’s cynical to say that “12 Years a Slave’s” critical recognition has less to do with its brave, ceaseless depiction of ugly history and more to do with its tireless professionalism. The movie’s production design and ringing Hans Zimmer score are excellent, of course. Chiwetel Ejiofor is fully committed to the material. Ejiofor is more of a character actor then a leading man and never lets any actorly ego get in the way of the performance. He is as brave and visceral as the movie around him. The same could be said of unknown Lupita Nyong’o, who never flinches when depicting the sad life of Patsey, the object of Epps’ psychotic affection. As Epps, Michael Fassbender is properly unhinged, playing an unpredictable man completely free of any sympathy for his fellow man. (Nyong’o and Ejiofor should both win Oscars but seem likely to loose to flashier performances in more audience-friendly films.)

Sometimes, however, the star-studded cast proves distracting. Paul Dano still seems much too fresh-faced and young to take seriously as a cruel plantation worker. Paul Giamatti is far too recognizable an actor for the small role he is given, drawling a lot of attention to himself. Benedict Cumberbatch is fine as Ford and I love that the film doesn’t let his character off the hook, despite being comparatively kind. The worse moment of stunt casting comes when producer Brad Pitt steps into the film. Sporting another ridiculous accent, Pitt plays a kindly Canadian crucial to freeing Northup. That Pitt would give himself such an important part smacks of ego. His presence is deeply distracting, a movie star in a movie otherwise unoccupied with crowd-pleasing decisions. Aside from that, the script’s dialogue sometimes comes off as over-written, sprouting in flowery directions at times. It’s a minor quibble.

(Sadly, without those big names in the cast, it seems unlikely that the film would have received so much attention from the Academy. Many Oscar prognosticators still list the film as the favorite to win. It might. At the same time, it’s such a vicious, uncompromising affair. I can easily see it making the Academy uncomfortable, forcing them to wimp out and give a bunch of awards to, god forbid, “American Hustle” instead. Actually, I can see that happening clearly, like some weird psychic vision, and it’s really disappointing.)

On one of the many film sites I read, a comment about “12 Years a Slave” said it should be shown in high school history class. I agree fully with this. I’ve lived in the south all my life and people here are far too willing to dismiss this country’s bloody, horrible history. The damage to our collective psyche can never heal and it’s a burden every American should carry. “12 Years a Slave” will now reside on my personal list of films too traumatic to watch more then once. It’s forceful and unforgettable, a powerful, desperate plea to never forget and never make excuses. [9/10]

Recent Watches: 2014 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts


It’s always interesting comparing the live action shorts to the animated shorts. The animated shorts tend to gravitate between cartoony and experimental. The live action shorts, meanwhile, are frequently burdened with “importance,” as if the only way to get the Academy’s attention is too be super-serious and depressing. This year, the live action shorts are especially affected by this attitude. Three of the nominated films, all of them stretching over twenty minutes, deal with depressing topics, making the experience of watching all of them together something of an ordeal. What positive details can I parse out of this year’s collection?



Helium:

Depressing topic number one: Sick, dying kids! “Helium,” a Danish film, concerns the friendship that forms between a hospital janitor and a young boy stricken with some unnamed, terminal illness. The boy, infatuated with balloons and zeppelins, is bored by the traditional idea of heaven. Counteracting this, the man invents Helium, a magical place where homes float on balloons in the sky, the night sparkles like crystals, and sick children are always healthy. As you’d expect, the boy's condition gets worse and the fantastical afterlife the man has invented is soon the only thing giving him hope.

“Helium” is Spielberg-ian in its ambitions, coming dangerously close to being mawkish. From the beginning, the movie never lets the audience forget that the little boy is going to die. The heaven of Helium is presented as something between “Avatar’s” Pandora and a Hallmark card.  However, the short has enough emotional honesty to prevent it from becoming overly sentimental. Lead actor Casper Crump, as the storyteller, seems honestly invested in the boy. He provides a little humor and keeps things from getting too soul-crushingly sad. I’ll admit, the ending left me weepy-eyed. Does the movie pluck at your heart-strings? Definitely. Yet it’s well made and well-acted enough to keep from being annoyingly manipulative. I don’t mind a tear-jerker when the tears are jerked properly. [7/10]



The Voorman Problem:

“The Voorman Problem” is one of two lighter shorts this year. A British production starring Martin Freeman, it concerns a psychiatrist tasked with analyzing a prison inmate who claims to be God. As the story progresses, the doctor is forced to recognize the possibility that the inmate’s delusions might be true.

“The Voorman Problem” is very slight and ends right when it gets interesting. However, the short makes great use of Martin Freeman. Freeman’s unbelieving frustration is more-or-less the only thing powering the “Hobbitfilms. He gets to march it out again here, fantastically, especially in a scene concerning Belgium. It’s funny, has a surprisingly moody direction, and seems to be reaching at something more. However, the short winds up not exploring its topic in a satisfying manner over the course of its brief thirteen minute run-time. [6/10]



Just Before Losing Everything:
Avant que de tout perdre

Second depressing topic of the evening: Spousal abuse! “Just Before Losing Everything” takes a while to unfold its premise. We see a boy walking away from school, hiding under a bridge. His mother picks him up before finding his teenage sister, who shares a tearful good-bye with her boyfriend. The family, pulling a large bag from the trunk of the car, gather at the woman’s workplace. She has to leave her job while her co-workers make cryptic references to some traumatic event, the woman remaining silent. As the film goes on, more details are revealed in understated, natural ways. The best moments are deliver quietly: The boy makes reference to his father pulling a gun on his mother. As she undresses, we see bruises lining the woman’s body. The deliberate pacing is frustrating at first but moments such as these wind up having more of a effect because of it.

“Just Before Losing Everything” builds to a great moment, slowly becoming a thriller of sorts. I won’t reveal the exact details but the final sequence generates a lot of suspense. You wind up becoming very invested in these characters’ lives over the course of the thirty minute running time. Lea Drucker is strong in her silence, rarely cracking and holding it together when we know all she wants to do is weep. Especially compared to the next short, its careful, detached approach proves very effective. It’s not my favorite of the nominees but it’s the best of the ones that might actually win. [7.5/10]



That Wasn’t Me:
Aquel no era yo

As I said, this year’s crop of nominees is an especially maudlin lot. The evening’s depressing atmosphere peaks with “That Wasn’t Me,” a super-heavy short that really wants you to acknowledge just how heavy it is. Third depressing topic of the evening: Child soldiers and the atrocities in Sudan! A group of aide workers, attempting to rescue kidnapped boys, do not succeed in escaping a warzone. They are abducted by the local warlord and faced with boys, some of them no more then toddlers, brandishing machine guns and covered in war paint. Things escalate quickly. Two of the attempted rescuers are shot. In the struggle, one of the boy solders is shot in the leg. Having no use for a cripple, the warlord forces the child to shot the wounded boy in front of every one. The woman is abducted and raped, all of it shown in sickening detail. The camp is attacked by a random helicopter, young boys shot in cold blood, their mangled bodies tossed through the air by explosions. The woman makes her escape and, despite reason dictating otherwise, drags one of the boys with her. Though she wants to kill the vicious little shithead, she instead merely wounds him, forcing him to lead her to a peaceful region.

I really, really hated “That Wasn’t Me,” a self-aggravating piece of misery porn and the longest thirty minutes of my life. We know nothing about the aide workers before they are thrust into the hellish arena. The grimy, shaky-cam visuals are tired and uninspired, regurgitated from numerous other sources. Awkwardly introduced midway through the film, the story is actually shown as memories from one of the abducted boys. (How he remembered things he wasn’t present for, I don’t know.) The film presents real world atrocities not to raise attention but instead to shock. “That Wasn’t Me” is basically a cynical exploitation movie, utilizing real world horror for its own slobbering needs. There are ‘70s rape-and-revenge flicks with more internal integrity then this hateful thing. Sadly, this is exactly the kind of self-serious tripe the Academy loves and it’ll probably win. [2/10]



Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?:
Pitaako mun kaikki hoitaa?

After the drudgery of that last short, the light-hearted, quick-witted “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?” was really appreciated. It’s a hilarious short hailing from Finland and clocking in at a speedy 7 minutes. A mother and father oversleep for a wedding they’re invited too. Quickly, they have to prepare, throwing on their clothes, rushing through brushing their teeth. The husband and kids don’t take the rushing very well, hilariously stumbling through. The problems pile up, a wedding gift forgotten, a high-heel shoe cracking, a plant vase shattering. To reveal too much more would spoil the punch-line but, suffice to say, the film wraps up on a hilarious note.

The film packs a lot of laughs into its short run time. Little things like alarm clocks and gift cards wind up leading to fantastic visual jokes. The climatic three minutes deliver some real hilarity, the family having to pay for their unpreparedness in an especially awkward fashion. “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?” has no pretensions but presents a world as detailed and realistic as any feature. It’s absolutely lovable, screamingly funny, and, unlikely as it may be, I’m rooting for it to win. [9/10]


Unlike the obnoxious framing devices the animated shorts were hassled with, the live action shorts are bordered by interviews with previous winners. Shawn Christensen, who won last year for the excellent “Curfew,” which I’m happy to discover is being expanded into a feature, has some insightful advice. The other filmmakers do as well but that advice is undermined when you realize their feature credits include such films as “She’s Out of My League” and “What Happens in Vegas.” Also, Matthew Modine shows up for some reason and shares some amusing Kubrick anecdotes.

Over all, I wish the collection of shorts here were a livelier bunch. Some of the films are good, and at least two are excellent, but the collective watching experience this year was a serious bummer. This is why February is the only time I generally explore “serious” cinema. Movies like this can be a real bummer and for all the wrong reasons.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 35: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989) Commentary

It's pretty amazing that, concerning the Bangers n' Mash Show, we don't do audio commentaries more frequently. Episode 12, our commentary on the original Frankenstein, is by far our most popular episode, with our Dracula commentary not trailing too far behind. More importantly, with the way I'm always rushing to get two episodes out a month, and with commentaries being so easy, you'd think I'd fall back on them more frequently.

The main reason we don't do them more often is because I hate them. Precisely because they're so easy to do. In order to maintain the commentary atmosphere, I can't actually edit very much of the episode. So all our stammering, mumbling, stuttering, rambling, wandering off-topic, and any other stupid shit that comes out of our mouths stay in. In this latest commentary, the phone even rings out one point. My roommate wanders in a few time, talking. It's terrible and I apologize. During such a busy month for the blog, the podcast becomes a lot harder to keep up with. Hopefully, things will even out more once the Oscars are over.

Anyway, about the movie itself: This time, we're talking over "Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan." I chose this movie mainly because I thought it would be funny for us to comment on it. And it occasionally is, when it isn't being awful.



Our next episode will be better. Probably.

Recent Watches: 2014 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

It’s hard to believe, for three whole years now, I’ve had a chance to see the Oscar-nominated short films. For a normal movie-reviewing pleb like myself, it really makes me feel included in the nomination process. Not that I get to vote or anything but I do get to see films that, once upon a time, few outside the Academy saw. I know I say this every year but I still feel that way. Short films are an under-appreciated art. The filmmakers and artists behind them work every bit as hard as those behind the glitzy, studio-backed fare in the major categories. The more recognition for them the better. As I did last year, let’s start with the Animated Shorts.



Mr. Hublot:

The first really noticeable thing about “Mr. Hublot” is its sound design. The steps of a cyborg across his home’s floor, the soft rumbling of the futuristic world outside, the clicking of a light-switch… All of this is adsorbing. The visual detail of the short impresses as well. The future is worn and rusty, buildings crowded against one another. I’d guess you’d call this look “ZeeRust,” a distinctly retro-style combined with a lot of ware and tear. Visually speaking, “Mr. Hublot” is probably one of the best looking of the nominated shorts.

The visuals and sound design are so impressive that you actually overlook the story a bit. The film revolves around a neurotic android living in the future. He seems to exhibit some obsessive compulsive tendencies, clicking a light switch multiple times upon entering a room. A speedometer clicks away on his forehead, seemingly showing his life expectancy. When agitated, which is often, the numbers speed by far faster. Mr. Hublot never leaves his home, only watching the outside world from his window, with the magnifying glasses attached to his head. The story’s conflict come when Hublot spots a stray robot dog across the street, slowly forming an attachment to the little pup. After nearly rescuing the dog from a trash compactor, an effective moment that generates some wry suspense, he lets the robotic mutt into his home. Slowly, the dog grows to a massive size, forcing Mr. Hublot to change his OCD-enforced life schedule.

The film is ultimately about that willingness to restructure your life for love. Anybody with a beloved pet is bound to understand the story’s message. The film illustrates its ideas with a sweetness, never coming off as heavy-handed. The final reveal, and solution to the dilemma, is a charming resolution. Directors Alexandre Espigares and Laurent Witz exhibit a few visual quirks, showing a scene from inside a clock-face at one point. A few montages are shown through sped-up footage, a clumsy but effective way to show the passage of time, accompanied by some pop music. “Mr. Hublot” works very well, is assembled excellently, and is definitely a forerunner for the prize. [8/10]



Feral:

“Feral” has a nice sense of motion early on, following a pack of wolves as they chase after an elk. The film’s visual design is distinctive, mostly shadowy, abstract shapes moving against muted backgrounds. The story involves a feral child being adopted by a hunter, who attempts to indoctrinate the boy into polite society. This doesn’t go well, the boy mocked by other school children, eventually fleeing back to the wilderness.

“Feral” mostly works as a visual exercise. When the boy is first brought to the city, the buildings dance into view like paper on the wind, a nice moment that illustrates someone who has never seen modern society before. When dressed like a normal child, the boy’s shoes tie on their own. The story makes some interesting comparison between the pack of wolves and the mocking school children. There’s some visual touches that are left unexplained, such as the boy fusing with a wooden prison cell. “Feral” eventually devolves into pure abstraction, the ending continuing on without the audience. Whatever point the filmmakers were trying to make went over my head. Which is disappointing because “Feral” sure looks nice. [5/10]



Possessions:

“Possessions” is a Japanese film, inspired by that country’s rich traditional mythology. A man, carrying a box on his back, seeks shelter in a storm. Eventually, he comes to a small shack. The building is inhabited by tsukumogami, house-hold items that come to life after a hundred years of existence. While the ghostly items attempt to frighten the man at first, he defuses each situation with his skills as a craftsman and built-in curiosity.

Like all the other shorts this year, “Possessions” has an impressive visual style. The film opens in the dark, lightning giving us a brief look at our surroundings. The moodiness of the visual presentation reminded me a lot of “Ugetsu” and other traditional Japanese ghost stories. However, there’s a texture and richness to the design, each surface brimming with detail. Though starting out like a ghost story, “Possessions” ultimately reveals itself as a different type of tale. There’s a whimsy and a humor to the proceedings. Not to mention incredible color. A collection of dancing umbrellas, eyes peering between the broken spokes, seem more keen to entertain then intimidate. The second room, featuring haunted silk, is far more malicious, seeming to recall the kuchisake-onna legend a bit. One of the most charming things about the short is that, no matter how strange or frightening the apparitions are, the craftsman is only excited by their existence. Unfolding his detailed, complicated box, he mends the umbrellas and fashions the silk into a fine robe. He winds up being rewarded, in a way, for his kindness.

That sense of humor extends to the film’s style. Though animated in CGI, “Possessions” has a loose playfulness to its design that recalls more traditional Japanese animation. Funny, charming, and lovely to look at, “Possessions” is probably my favorite of this year’s nominations though I’m not sure if its idiosyncrasies will win it any favors with the Academy voters. [8/10]


 
Room on the Broom:

I guess the BBC is rolling out yearly adaptations of Julia Donaldson books. “The Gruffalo” and “The Gruffalo’s Child” were charming enough if overly simplistic. “Room on the Broom” actually isn’t an adaptation but instead one Donaldson wrote specifically for the small screen. The Gruffalo films weren’t Christmas specials but their winter settings moved them into that territory anyway. “Room on the Broom,” given its witch protagonist, seems to have been designed as a Halloween special. The Academy must really like Donaldson’s work since “The Gruffalo” was nominated and “The Gruffalo’s Child” was commended. I don’t dislike her but these films obviously play like the TV specials and children books adaptations they are.

Repetition is the word of the day here. A witch, traveling with her cat, collect a talking dog, bird, and frog over the course of the day, her broom becoming awfully crowded. She also incurs the wrath of a passing dragon. Despite being written for the screen, “Room on the Broom” still feels like a flimsy children’s book expanded to a half-hour. Long scenes of the individual animals explaining their plight go on. The dragon subplot really only exists to provide a flimsy climax. The way that is resolved is particularly unsatisfying. Donaldson’s prose is repetitive and honestly beneath the vocal talent assembled here. Simon Pegg puts as much energy as he can into his narration while Gillian Anderson is wasted as the frequently silent witch. At least “Room on the Broom” looks nice, skillfully combining CGI and stop-motion. [5.5/10]



Get a Horse!:

Disney continues to be stingy with shorts they own. 2011’s “La Luna” wasn’t included with the shorts package and neither was last year's "Paperman." I guess they figure, with “Get a Horse!” being attached to the hugely popular and enormously successful “Frozen,” it doesn’t need any more exposure.

Though I’d prefer “Mr. Hublot” or “Possessions” to win, it wouldn’t surprise me if Disney takes home the prize for this one. “Get a Horse!” cleverly combines traditional animation with computer-generated animation. (Sadly, and unsurprisingly, it is the only one of the nominated shorts to feature any traditional animation at all.) It also makes fantastic use of 3D visuals. The short plays out in two fields. A theater screen plays what, at first, appears to be a vintage Mickey Mouse short. However, as the short goes on, the characters on the screen literally break the fourth wall, breaking through the screen and running around it. It’s an especially clever execution, using 3D effects for something more then just jamming crap in the audience’s eyes. The short also returns Mickey Mouse to his more anarchistic roots, gleefully turning the tables on Black Pete when he kidnaps Minnie. It’s a good time and, hopefully, it’s success will mean more work like this from Disney in the future. [7/10]


Unlike previous years, Shorts.TV does not bog down this year’s presentation with an abundance of Highly Commended shorts. Only two additional shorts are attached this year. “A la Francaise” makes easy sight gags juxtaposing the behavior of 1700-era French royalty with chickens. There’s no story behind those sight gags, making it a trifle at best. “The Missing Scarf,” meanwhile, is equally simplistic but far more entertaining. A squirrel, presented as origami, searches for his missing scarf, questioning the animals he encounters, solving their existential quandaries as he goes. George Takai provides some hilariously dead-pan narration and the short’s animation is charming without being flashy. That’s probably why it didn’t get nominated. The ending is really unexpected too.

Last year’s presentation was hosted by former winners talking about the experience. This year, the host segments feature a talking ostrich and giraffe. The two animals are apparently standing in line for a Hollywood audition and trade catty stories about celebs they’ve met. The bumper segments are unusually vulgar and grating, distracting from any enjoyment the films bring. I hope next year they ditch the snarky talking animals and just focus on the wonderful, and sometimes not-so-wonderful, films being presented.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Recent Watches: Captain Phillips (2013)

Once upon a time, making a movie about true life events only four years after the fact would have been perceived as tasteless. Now, in our internet-aided society, where news travels at light-speed, a four year break almost seems too long. The real life story that inspired “Captain Phillips” has already been swallowed up by the endless news cycle. Director Paul Greengrass has done this sort of thing before, though. “United 93” was made six years after September 11th, when wounds were still raw. This commitment to discussing the facts while they're still relatively fresh is, no doubt, due to Greengrass’ history as a journalist.

Befitting that commitment to realism, “Captain Phillips” tensely following events as they happened. The movie goes out of its way to establish Captain Richard Phillips as an ordinary guy, seeing his position as captain of a freighter ship as only a job. The normal routine of the job is disrupted by the appearance pirates. Phillips and his crew manage to avoid the initial abduction. However, on a second try, the pirates board the ship, holding its crew hostage. Phillips quickly tries to outsmart the pirates but only winds up getting himself abducted. Tension inside the cramped life boat builds as the military gets involved and the two captains attempt to outwit one another.

The most interesting thing about “Captain Phillips” is the direct parallels it draws between the two captains at the story’s center. We get a brief look at Phillips’ normal life, discussing with his wife about their son’s futures and the threats of his job. Similarly, we get a small peak at Abduwali Muse’s life, the dirt hut he sleeps in, the desert heat he toils in everyday. The film quickly evolves into a tense confrontation between the two. When Muse boards the ship, he attempts to take control of the situation. Phillips’ plans to undermine that control, ordering his men around behind their backs, are constantly put in peril but Muse’s unmoving decisions. When the American is abducted to the life boat, the conflict becomes even more blatant. Phillips tries to win the sympathy of the other pirates. Muse never lets his own crew out of hand. Phillips devises little plots, always hoping to stay one step ahead of his captors. A battle of wills, of sorts, splits up between the two.

The script is sympathetic to Muse to a degree. His own fear, at failing his warlord boss, is all too apparent on his face at times. Sweat drips from his face constantly. A moment frequently shown in the trailer sums up this angle soundly: Phillips asks Muse if fishing or kidnapping are the only options he has in life. Muse assures him that “Only in America” are such things possible. The movie never goes as far as indicting America’s own role in world politics. At the very least, it acknowledges Phillips’ kidnappers as human beings, forced into their life of crime by circumstance. His ultimate defeat has a sad undertone to it, another man crushed by the gears of his situation. Barkhad Abdi is well-suited to the role.

“Captain Phillips” never makes such statement becomes its goals are ultimately much more modest. Fact-based or not, this is a thriller, a genre film. Everything in the movie is engineered to generate as much tension as possible. Paul Greengrass is infamous for his shaky-cam direction, pushed far pass the point of coherence in the later “Bourne” films. The director actually reels it back a little in “Captain Phillips.” Just a little. The jittery direction is designed to ramp up tension, add to the verisimilitude of the film, and keep the audiences on their feet. Henry Jackman’s score functions similarly, a constantly ramping collection of electronic horns and bubbling sound. The editing is frenzied. Is this bag of tricks successful? Sure. So are screamers. Greengrass is good at engineering thrills but little of it feels natural. It’s almost as if the film is saying to the audience, “How intense is this? Can you feel the intensity yet?”

What tension the movie does create is owed mostly to its performances and its writing. I’m not a huge Tom Hanks fan by any means. The guy has given some good performances in the past but I’ve always found his charm a bit on the “trying too hard” side. On one level, the role of Phillips doesn’t allow much opportunity for Hanks to “act.” There’s no time to focus on the man’s inner turmoil or strife, the story too busy moving forward. Instead, Hanks’ skill is employed in order to show a man under constant pressure. Phillips proves likable enough, especially during an improvised escape attempt, but is more of an audience cipher. At least until the very end, anyway, when his composure can finally drop. Hanks’ skill as a performer comes through finally. The climatic moment of Phillips screaming blindly or finally overwhelmed by the trauma of his situation prove powerful and effecting. Considering so many Oscar flicks are focused on Big Acting all the time, I guess I should be impressed that this one held back in that regard.

The script is designed to keep the screws turning. When focused on Phillips and his situation, that works fairly well. Even though the audience knows the ending, a moment where Phillips has a gun to his head still generates a fair amount of tension. However, the script is a little too precisely constructed. The film frequently cuts away to the military’s reaction, marines skydiving out of a plane, the negotiator tersely speaking with his operatives. By shifting away from the life boat, the tension is deflated. The mounting score and spastic editing try to keep those thrills going but just wind up exhausting and boring the audience. Maybe we would have been a bit left out on the story had the focus been squarely on Phillips and his captors. But it would have been a stronger film.

“Captain Phillips’ more-or-less succeeds at what it sets out to do, just not as effectively as it had expected. It’s a decent, not great, thriller. It’s also another example of a film that wouldn’t had been nominated for Oscars if it hadn’t been based on a true story. (And if it hadn’t been based on a true story, it probably would have starred Liam Neeson.) That Hanks was ultimately not nominated for Best Actor shows that the Academy might agree with that assessment. [6.5/10]

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Recent Watches: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

There are certain topics the Academy is attracted to. Serious real world topics like the Holocaust, slavery, war, and, the topic of “Dallas Buyers Club,” HIV and AIDS. A lot of films about these topics feature big performances to go with their big topics, sometimes throwing in sweeping cinematography or grandiose musical scores to help. While the performances aren’t exactly small, the film is a surprisingly low-key examination that organically incorporates its serious social themes in to an involving character study.

One out of five Best Picture nominations this year that are based on a true story, the film follows Ron Woodroof, a good-old boy Texan who, quite unexpectedly, is diagnosed with HIV during the early years of the disease when so much of it was misunderstood. In denial at first, partly because of his strong homophobia, Woodroof quickly comes to realize he has the disease. When treatment proves difficult, he begins paying off an orderly at the local hospital to supply him with drugs. When those drugs prove more dangerous then helpful, he begins to drive out of the country to buy drugs not approved by the FDA. In time, especially after befriending the transgendered Raylon, Ron warms up to the local gay community, selling the unapproved drugs through a “buyers club” to help others stricken with the disease. The film follows his struggle against the law.

What a strange career path Matthew McConaughey has taken. A career that started with films as critically divisive as “Dazed and Confused” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation” segued most famously into lead parts in low-brow, stock-parts romantic comedies. For years, McConaughey’s rambling accent, frequent lack of shirts, and bongo-aided pot session made him a running joke. However, he’s been making efforts over the last few years to reinvent himself as a dramatic force, a trend that has cumulated with “Dallas Buyers Club.” McConaughey strips himself of his sculpted good looks, looking skeletal and sickly. Woodroof proves an ideal match for McConaughey’s strengths. The character is a wily bastard, determined to survive through any means, circumventing the system in order to live. Woodroof starts the film as a homophobic piece of white trash. The script never pushes his redemption too much, instead letting it evolve naturally. McCoanughey’s built-in charm takes the character a long way, making him believable even during his uglier moments. Woodroof’s will to survive isn’t painted with tear-strewn moments of silence. Instead, he’s a fiery person, determined not to go softly. Surely the Oscar-clip moment comes when guards attempt to escort Ron from a pharmaceutical presentation. His plea that he’ll be a thorn in their side until he’s dead is funny but oddly powerful. That McConaughey was nominated isn’t surprising and, dare I say, he might even deserve to win.

Also receiving massive amounts of attention is Jared Leto’s supporting turn. Like McConaughey, Leto has had a fairly checkered career up to this point. For every soul-barring “Requiem for a Dream” or memorable bit part like “American Psycho,” there has been a bit of forgettable teen fluff like “Urban Legend” or an embarrassing indie misfire like “Chapter 27.” For a while, he seemed way more committed to his cheesy emo band then acting. However, as transwoman Rayon, Leto does indeed impress. He, too, undergoes a starling physical transformation, sickly thin and done up in unflattering dresses and wigs. The effeminate Rayon proves a good foil to hyper-macho Ron, the two playing off each other. Most of Leto’s best moments are dependent on his chemistry with McConaughey, like when Rayon is confronted about his drug use. It would be a blatantly Oscar-bait-y performance if it weren’t so emotionally raw. Leto has no problem pluming pathetic depths, especially when forced to beg his disapproving father for money.

While the two male leads has received most of the attention, “Dallas Buyers Club” has a strong supporting cast. I wasn’t even aware that Jennifer Garner was in the movie until I watched it. Garner too is possessed of a small-town charm that is hardly used properly. The flirtations between Garner and McConaughey are one of the film’s biggest surprises. There’s a warm humor between the two, a weird, mutual respect. Garner remains a voice of reason even as her established wisdom is tested, causing her to reconsidering her own life choices. The film also features strong supporting roles from Steve Zahn, stepping outside of his tragic-comic persona, and a scraggly, bearded, nearly unrecognizable Griffin Dunne, as the grimly sarcastic doctor supplying Ron with unapproved drugs.

The film’s is anchored by a docu-drama style direction. Jean-Marc Vallee’s visual presentation frequently employs shaky-cam direction, lending a surprising reality to the situation. His camera focuses on the actor’s face, the presentation intimate and close. Even when getting flashier, such as a dementia episode Ron has while on the road, the film remains grounded. “Dallas Buyers Club” isn’t an overly flashy film. Like all good direction, the look informs the film’s themes and tone.

Despite its grim story, the movie has many funny moments. “Dallas Buyers Club” is at its most entertaining during the middle chapter, when Woodroof has successfully set up the titular club. He and Rayon go through a funny daily routine, people outside their doors, waiting for help. There’s a likable energy to these moments, keeping the audience invested. Watching McConaughey beat the system and do things his own way is satisfying while reinforcing the script’s point. It’s ultimately an underdog story, except this time the underdog is fighting for his right to live.

The movie has courted some controversy. Reports vary on the real Ron Woodroof’s sexual proclivities, many reporting that the film has exaggerated his homophobia or that Ron was openly bisexual. The first issue is one I’m willing to accept. The movie probably wouldn’t have been as affecting if it wasn’t a redemptive arc and Ron’s homophobia is necessary to make that work. As for the second point of contention? By removing these elements, is Hollywood hypocritically making a film centered on gay rights more accessible to middle America? Where there fears that Ron would be “too gay” if portrayed as bi-sexual? This seems pretty likely and, ultimately, leads to an another issue. Is the film’s message reaching a wider audience more important then fidelity to the facts? I’ll reluctantly say “yes,” especially in a time when equal rights remain a hot-button issues, when people with prejudice need to be reached and have their thoughts changed.

“Dallas Buyers Club’s” greatest success comes from its focus as a character study. By keeping things small, it allows itself to explore larger issues. It also proves a vehicle for a series of powerful performances. I went in with no opinion and found myself admiring the film quite a bit. [8/10]

Monday, February 17, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 34: The Films of Quentin Tarantino

If you're wondering why my Oscar coverage has stopped dead, this is why. Well, this and other reasons. For those lucky enough not to leave on the east coast, you missed out on a massive snow storm that kicked everyone's asses and more or less dropped productive production around here down to zero. That's the real reason my Oscar coverage has halted. Hopefully I'll get back to that by tomorrow. No guarantees, as always, but let's hope.

Anyway, here's a podcast episode about the films of Quentin Tarantino. As you might have guessed, I used my report card reviews as notes, meaning many of the points I bring up here will sound familiar to those who have read my reviews. Whatever, I'm a pragmatist. At least when it comes to film scholarship.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Recent Watches: Nebraska (2013)

The more films Alexander Payne makes, the more his interest in family comes into focus. “About Schmidt” and “The Descendents” were both concerned with the relationship between parents and children. “Nebraska” returns to this subject but from a different perspective. It’s not an aging, disapproving father wearyingly looking at his daughter’s marriage. Nor a father and rebellious teenage daughter learning to find common ground. Instead, “Nebraska” focuses on an adult age son looking back on his elderly father’s life, discovering the things they have in common.

“Nebraska” has widely been framed as a late-career revival for Bruce Dern. Dern, once a leading man in the seventies, has mostly been in small roles in small movies for the last few decades. Woody Grant is an unlikely hero and a good fit for Dern’s laconic charm. At first, the audience wonders if Woody’s sleepy reaction to most of the things around is a result of not paying attention or a deteriorating mind. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that Woody’s brain is starting to go. However, he’s not a weak, senile old man. Instead, his actions have motivators. Slowly, the film reveals a life full of small losses, compromises that have taken their toll. Dern’s weathered face conveys weight, his lonely eyes and slouching posture subtly showing his buried sorrows. Upon first appearance, he’s pointed at where he’s been, nodding quietly. He then points forward, certain in where he’s going.

Woody proves the most lovable when suddenly energized. Convinced he’s won a million from a mail-in contest, he wanders off on the road to claim the dubious money, much to the frustrations of his nagging wife and adult sons. When son David takes pity on his illing father, and his mother gets fed up with the old man wandering off, he decides to take Woody on one last road trip. My favorite moments are when Dern shows how excited his character is. The two searching a train track for his missing teeth is amusing, slowly giving us a peak into the old man’s mind. Woody waking David up, determined to get his money today, shows the elderly man in an unusually spry moment. After loosing his paper in town, Woody seems at lost. Until David suggests they look for it. At which point the old man is on his feet, ready to go. Even a brief stay in a hospital isn’t enough to keep him off the road.

While Bruce Dern dominates the film in his folksy, quiet way, “Nebraska” wouldn’t work anywhere near as well as it does without Will Forte as David. Primarily known as a comedic actor, Forte proves adapt at dramatic acting. We don’t get much of a look at David’s inner-life, save for a brief, mostly unnecessary scene with his ex-girlfriend. Like his father, he’s a quiet person, keeping his feelings and thoughts to himself. At film’s beginning, David doesn’t have any particularly strong feelings about his father. He mostly regards him as a doddering old man. As the film goes on, the son learns much about his father. Not just his past but his inner-life. Forte has incredible chemistry with Dern, playing off each other fantastically. When David confronts Woody about his life-long alcoholism, there’s no fiery resentment. Instead, the interaction lies somewhere between curiosity and quiet pain. Watching the two learning to rediscover each other is one of the film’s greatest joys.

Aside from Dern and Forte, another strong force in “Nebraska” is June Squibb as Woody’s long-suffering wife. Or is Woody the long-suffering one? It’s hard to imagine how such a quiet old man fell in with a loud-mouth spit-fire. Squibb is a force of nature here, cussing and joking. Over the years, her patience for her husband’s habits has only shortened. Upon stepping off a bus, she greets her husband of so many years not with a hug and a kiss but rather a shorten swear. Squibb’s strongest moment, bound to be her Oscar clip, is when she visits the local cemetery. David and Woody stay back, quiet. Kate goes to each grave, talking about the deceased, the rumors and gossip of their lives. How their paths crossed, what she remembers. Kate spares no words, calling her close friend a slut and a brother an idiot. Squibb creates a real human being, an old woman full of piss and vinegar. The Academy got it right, June more then earning her nomination.

Alexander Payne’s films often have a degree of humor in them, even if they’re telling very sad stories. “Nebraska” might, in actuality, be one of the director’s funniest films. It features humor quite a bit broader then his past efforts, playing up the director’s talent for the absurd the most since “Election.” Upon being reunited with his extended family in Nebraska, some unusual characters come out of the woodwork. When learning that a family member is coming into some money, folks start showing up, asking for money. This comes to blows rather comically with the other son, Bob Odenkirk’s Ross. Two nephews, twins, are great big rednecks, figuratively and literally. One just got out of jail for rape. They wind up jumping the old man outside a bar, stealing his ticket. The whole situation is so absurd that you can’t help but laugh.

A subtler strain of humor runs through the film. My favorite moment is when Woody and all his brothers are gathered in the living room. Each one is dressed in buttoned-up plaid shirts. Each one stares slack-jawed at the television. When Dave mentions the drive down suddenly, each old man, without changing their expression at all, look to him in rapt attention. Somewhere between the film’s two styles of humor is a moment later on, when the two brothers wind up in a barn, mistakenly stealing the wrong air compresser, the follow-up to one of the movie’s best running jokes. Over all, “Nebraska” is a far funnier film then you’d expect.

Which isn’t to say that “Nebraska” isn’t without deeply sad moments. Hawthorne is a real dead-end town. The whole place seems to be a single street, a garage and a bar the only spot around. The treatment he receives from some of his old “friends’ is ghastly. Stacy Keach plays the film’s more-or-less villain. He has some personal grudge against Woody from years ago and is determined to get repaid. When he tells David about a painful period of his father’s past, Dern only looks aside, quiet, his eyes a million miles away. Another person in town, Angela McEwan as Peg Nagy, was an old lover of Woody, years before he met David’s mother. The son meets with the old woman, learning more about his father in that one minute then he knew in a lifetime. The quietest, saddest moment in the film comes when the family visits Woody’s childhood home, abandoned but still standing. The camera watches, quietly, as the old man looks through the rooms, out the windows. It doesn’t express what he’s thinking, Dern’s face showing a lifetime of regrets and thoughts. “Nebraska” rarely goes for big emotion, instead reaching for quiet, sad truths.

There’s been some words written about the director’s decision to shoot the film in black-and-white. My first thought was that Payne made the decision as a deliberate reference to stark character studies of the seventies, especially “The Last Picture Show,” a definite influence. Instead, the choice seems to have been made to reflect the wide, flat landscape of the setting. “Nebraska” is a soft, personal story but Payne’s decision to shoot the film in wide, huge shots makes the personal very large. It’s an uncommonly pretty movie.

“Nebraska” has a great ending, so neatly wrapping up the story’s emotional baggage, giving Woody one final moment of dignity, while maintaining the honesty and humor of the film that came before. The film has the director returning to similar territory as “About Schmidt,” but with a little more sincerity and a little more heart. That heart beats from two wonderful performances and a script that is sadly humorous and humorously sad. The movie won’t win a lot of Oscars which isn’t fair. It should win a bunch. [9/10]

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Recent Watches: Philomena (2013)

When the Best Picture nominations were announced back in January, which seems months ago now, there were a lot of expected titles on the list. The year end critic’s round-up had presented several forerunners and, predictably, those movies were honored by the Academy. However, there was one title that seemed a little out-of-place. “Philomena” was well-liked by the critical establishment. However, it didn’t receive the kind of raves that usually translate to Oscar gold. The only real attention the movie got was from Harvey Weinstein’s decision to appeal the MPAA’s R-rating. Then again, the film was directed by two-time nominee Stephen Frears. It stars perennial Academy favorite Judi Dench. Lastly, it’s a heart-tugging story about an asshole that learns to forgive from an adorable old woman. “Philomena” might not be blatant Oscar-bait but it’s certainly Oscar friendly.

Oh yeah, it’s based on a true story too. After being let go from his job at the BBC over an off-color comment that wasn’t even really his own, Martin Sixsmith is at a bit of a lost. No one seems much interested in his book about Russian history. For a series of coincidences, he is introduced to Philomena Lee, an old Catholic woman. Years ago, Philomena was a pregnant teenage girl living in a Nun-run orphanage. As was common practice at the time, she was separated from her child, the young boy eventually sold off to a rich American couple. After hearing her story, and considering that human nature stories sell really well, Sixsmith decides to follow the old woman’s story. Together, they discover that Philomena’s son had grown up to be a successful Republican lobbyist and a gay man during the Reagan administration.

The main conflict of the film steams from Martin and Philomena’s disagreeing philosophies. Sixsmith is a died-in-the-woods atheist and makes his disinterest in religion clear several times. Philomena, meanwhile, is a devout Catholic. Martin is stymied by her faith, seeing only years of abuse at the church. Throughout the film, the two differing ideologies come into conflict. They argue during a car drive about the nature of the world. She remains faithful even when Martin makes it clear the injustice she’s been served. The ending makes it clear that this is a story about forgiveness, not a story about belief.

Truthfully, the film’s themes of belief are just in service of a typical defrosting heart story. Martin Sixsmith is presented as someone who doesn’t believe in anything. Philomena is a sweet old woman who helps bring him around to at least believing in people’s innate goodness or something. Sixsmith’s asshole behavior is honestly kept in check. Only two scenes push believability. One is when the two are having breakfast in a hotel. Martin, in as respectful a manner as possible, tells the old woman to shut up. That this comes before a major story revelation is obviously meant to set up a deliberate character contrast. A second moment is when Martin is alone in his hotel room, talking on the phone with his wife. He disparages Philomena as a cheesy old lady, someone invested in Reader Digest and romance novels. Those moments are a little overdone.

Luckily, the film is mostly better balanced then that. The two lead performances, without being spectacular, center the story. Steve Coogan co-wrote the script and the role of Sixsmith fits in nicely with his pre-established persona of a sardonic, low-key guy. There is a sarcastic humor to many of the things he says. The funniest moment is when the two are riding into an airport, Philomena going into detail about a book she just read. Coogan slowly nods, quietly showing his disinterest. Later, when Sixsmith realizes he briefly met Lee’s son, she quizzes him on the details, Martin not remember very much despite her enthusiasm. Coogan even gets a dramatic moment at the end, confronting the mother superior of the church.

Getting the most attention for the film is, naturally, Judi Dench’s performance. Dame Dench has been doing this for a long time and knows how to act. She has no problem pluming emotions for the part. A quiet moment in a confessional booth is especially affecting. When the camera focuses on her blue eyes, years of age visible on her face, the movie’s big, sloppy heart hits you. Even if the movie hadn’t placed in the Best Picture nomination, Dench probably would have been nominated. She is sweet and funny without overdoing it. And hey, why wouldn’t she? She’s Judi fucking Dench.

The movie is most successful in its last act. The story’s conflict is based on whether or not Philomena’s son, in his new life, ever wondered about her. When it’s finally confirmed that, of course, her son did care about her, the movie earns some honest emotion. Most of it is thanks to Dench’s soulful acting and a good supporting turn from Peter Harmann. The story wraps up a sweet note, the characters coming to an agreement of sorts. Aside from Alexandre Desplat would-be Danny Elfman score, “Philomena” goes easy on the whimsy. It’s a likeable movie, no great stakes, but manages to be better then you’d expected. Did it deserve a Best Picture nomination? Probably not. But, eh, it was better then “American Hustle.” [7/10]

Monday, February 3, 2014

Director Report Card: David O. Russell (2013)

8. American Hustle

David O. Russell isn’t the guy who makes quirky indie comedies anymore. Russell is in the Oscar Bait business, these days. Right after “Silver Linings Playbook” finished cleaning up awards, Russell and co. got to work on “American Hustle.” Originally entitled “American Bullshit” and loosely based on the ABSCAM operation, the film combines the seventies setting of “Argo” with the relationship drama of “Silver Linings Playbook.” With a cast packed full of previous nominees and winners, it’s unsurprising the movie wracked up a shitload of nominations. It will be even more unsurprising when the movie inevitably walks away with several wins on March 2nd. However, myself and many other reviewers have wondered: Is the movie actually good?

“American Hustle” is truthfully two very different types of films stitched together. The main plot concerns conman Irving Rosenfeld and his mistress/partner-in-crime Sydney Prosser. The two are caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso, forcing the two into a plot to catch New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito and his bribery. The other plot involves the complicated, interacting romantic relationships of the character. Irving loves Sydney, despite being married to his shrewish wife Rosalyn. Sydney eventually gets swept up in a love triangle, as Richie quickly develops an attraction to her. Rosalyn eventually winds up with a very minor character. Amazingly, the movie resists pairing up the Mayor with the crazy cat lady or something. This balance is set up during the very first scene, as a money switching deal is complicated by the cast’s romantic entanglements.

The political plot is stop-and-go. The tone shifts back and forth between comedy and drama during these scenes. When an actor meant to play an Arabian Sheikh turns out to be Mexican that is blatantly humorous. The man being taught his lines and routine actually generates a decent laugh. However, a little scene, when the same actor is faced with a murderous mob boss, played by an uncredited DeNiro trotting out his gangster act for the umpteenth time, that moment plays out with baited suspense. The FBI getting a mafia meeting on tape obviously plays out seriously. The following scene, of agents riotously celebrating, is more humorous. The Mayor getting nervous about a money drop is later contrasted with a goofy scene of characters talking at dinner.

The tonal shift of the crime plot works decently. The humor frequently deflates most of the suspense and not in a positive way. For example, DeNiro’s mob boss is introduced with a violent flashback where he randomly shoots a dude. Bob winds up being a one-scene character, all that build-up pretty much for nothing. Scenes involving Louis C.K. as Richie’s boss are hopelessly awkward, plot mechanics dressed up with character humor that feels as fake as it is. Sometimes, the lighter scenes make for a decent contrast. An FBI boss’ light-hearted reaction to a sudden setback is a good moment. Russell has, in the past, been good at balancing the comedic and dramatic. “American Hustle” is not his best job in that regard but, occasionally, it does work.

However, the romantic subplots wind up being far more problematic to the tone. In “The Fighter,” any serious intention the plot might have had was frequently derailed by Mickey Ward’s obnoxious sisters and mother. “American Hustle” has a similar problem. Jennifer Lawrence impressed me and many other film fans with her phenomenal turn in “Winter’s Bone.” She won an Oscar for “Silver Linings Playbook,” which she may or may not have deserved. But her performance in “American Hustle” comes close to destroying the entire film. As Irving’s wife Rosalyn, she is nothing sort of cartoonish. Rambling with an absurd Joisey accent, Lawrence plays the part like the 1970s equivalent of Sookie. The character is introduced by starting a fire with a sun lamp. Later on, she maliciously explodes a brand new microwave by putting aluminum foil in it. After leaving a black scorch mark on the wall, she demands her husband thank her. She bitches and grouses with Adams’ Sydney. Most obnoxiously, Rosalyn nearly winds up getting her husband killed but not keeping her mouth shut around her mobster boyfriend.

Lawrence gets her Oscar-clip moments, a cry in a corner, a plot-advancing monologue on a bed. But it’s too little, too late. Lawrence’s over-the-top theatrics are detrimental to the over-all-film. It’s a good thing the movie is based on a true story because, otherwise, we’d never believe such a selfish, terrible human being could ever exist. Sorry, Jennifer, you look lovely but you better not win an Oscar.

The film’s performances are generally pitched at a high-level. Even the usually subtle Amy Adams screams for no reason while inside a disco club’s bathroom. Adams probably gives one of the better performances in the film. Her fake-British accent slips throughout, which makes it unbelievable when she drops the accent in-story. Still, Adams uses the withering glance she perfected in “The Master” to good effect. It’s effectively used to kill boners a few times. Similarly, she has decent romantic chemistry with both of her male leads. A moment where her and Bale try on clothes in the back of his dry-cleaning building is sweet and funny. She seduces Cooper in a hotel room, climbing on top of a bar, beckoning him closer. Of all the performances in the film most likely to win an award, Adams is the one who probably deserves it.

Christian Bale is famous for dropping a shit load of weight in “The Machinist.” In “American Hustle,” he packed on the pounds. The film begins with his buttoning up his shirt over his bulging belly, gluing down a ridiculous comb-over. Bale also carries a similarly broad Jersey accent but he is, dare I say, a better actor then Jennifer Lawrence. Bale’s trademark intensity is employed here as being a stressed-out guy. Ironically, his criminal dealings stress him out far less then his love life. The affair between DiMaso and Sydney causes him to sweat like a pig. When the situation does begin to get him down, it manifest as cautiousness.

Bale does a good job. Sure. But the best performance in the film is the one that has been widely overlooked. Jeremy Renner doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his role in various action blockbusters. His dry delivery of sarcastic one-liners made otherwise uninteresting characters watchable in “The Avengers” and even, yes, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.” In real life, Mayor Angelo Errichetti was involved in several criminal empires. His fictional counterpart is portrayed as the nicest guy in the movie. He cares about his community and is willing to break the law in order to help said community. His love for his family motivates him. He is a genuinely good human being, despite his bending of the rules. By turning the entire rest of the cast against him, it adds a degree of moral grey ground to the story, which winds up making the film more interesting then it probably would have been otherwise.

Bradley Cooper has a limited charm as an actor, his frat-bro being insufferable at times. His style is well-suited to Agent DiMaso, a passionate guy who is driven through the wringer. Cooper does fine when trying to charm an imprisoned Adams, with whom he has decent chemistry. His excitement works well enough. However, some of Cooper’s later yelling-and-shouting is amazingly tone deaf. A moment in a hotel room where he screams threats at a superior seem pasted in from a heavier, more intense film. His interaction with Louis C.K. is fine up until they start fighting, which comes off as intensely mean-spirited. Also, mean-spirited is his briefly glimpsed mother and finance. The movie doesn’t care about these characters and presumably the audience isn’t meant too. Despite several of his dick moves, Cooper remains human and likable.

Which makes the film’s decision to cast him as the villain at its very end really strange. This signifies many of the problems that emerge in the last act. Like all movies about con artists, “American Hustle” has to pull a big twist out at the end. Turns out, certain characters you thought might have been working together are actually working against each other. Previous character development is tossed out in favor of “surprising” the audience. Throughout the film, Irving, Sydney, and Richie are against each other. Irving loves Sydney, Richie loves Sydney, and Sydney doesn’t seem sure who she loves. By the end, Sydney definitively picks one of the guys and any previous conflicts seem tossed away. It ends the film on a sour note.

Most of Russell’s directorial quirks disappear beneath the movie’s Oscar-friendly weight. His style is mostly presented through the film’s soundtrack. Elton John, David Bowie, Chicago, Steely Dan, Donna Summers, Tom Jones, and many others are deployed skillfully, frequently playing perfectly with the images on-screen. My favorite shot in the movie is one of Bale and Adams walking through the passing dry-cleaned clothes, a weirdly sweeping, romantic moment. “American Hustle” is deeply, incredibly uneven. The film feels, at times, more like a delivery systems for its exhaustingly faithful seventies costume and production design. I can only assume its critical praise is mostly from critics being blinded by the big, loud acting of the talented cast. Is it a bad movie? Not really. But it’s not exactly a good one either, plagued by some shaky writing and screenplay composition. [Grade: C]

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Recent Watches: Her (2013)

Spike Jonze’s films are all eagerly anticipated by the cinema obsessed crowd. “Her,” his most recent venture, made my top ten most anticipated films of the year list in 2013. This is a little odd when you consider he’s only made three features prior. More-so when you think about how two of those features, “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” legitimately great films, were authored by Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman is a screenwriter with a distinctive voice all his own. One that has, in the past, overshadowed the directors involved. Jonze’s first film made without Kaufman’s input, 2009’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” was his most divisive film yet, an emotionally devastating but wildly uneven dissertation on childhood. The point of this rambling introduction is that, while there were plenty of reasons to get excited about “Her,” I was ready to be disappointed.

Especially since the premise openly invites comparison to Kaufman’s style. “Her” is about a guy, a lonely, creative type, who falls in love with his computer, an advanced artificial intelligence of the near future. This is the sort of high concept quirkery comparable to lovers erasing memories of each other or a portal into a not-particularly-well-known-at-the-time character actor’s brain. Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore writes custom-on-order letters for people. Oh the irony, someone who can’t connect emotionally with people who is great at connecting with complete strangers via words. Considering the influx of indie flicks about lonely guys getting their life changed by quirky, outgoing women, “Her” had other problems too. Could Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha, the operating system Joaquin falls in love with, be cinema’s first computerized Manic Pixie Dream Girl? “Her” avoids most of these issues by being a genuinely thoughtful love story, exploring the situation in deeper ways, from a personal and societal prospective.

The unconventional love story is involving enough that some have probably overlooked the social satire present in “Her.” The movie is set in the near future, I’d guess twenty or thirty years from now. That means the adult characters in the film would be the children or teens of today’s world. Post-Millennials, Generation Z, whatever you want to call them. The first generation of kids who have been hooked into social media their entire lives. The kids who upload videos of themselves doing nothing to Youtube, tweet about every passing thought in their head, and post pictures of their lunch or other some mundane bullshit on Instagram. Theodore’s story is not an unusual occurrence in “Her’s” future. Other characters have developed romances with their OSs. Every background character in the film has a bud in their ear, eyes glued to tiny screen, speaking to a voice in their head. And what would a romance with a computer be like? All a program like Samantha does is reflect back your own personality, influenced by the contents of your hard drive. Naturally, a generation of self-adsorbed narcissists would fall in love with their computers. The social commentary of “Her” doesn’t occupy its main story, instead dwelling in the background, informing the events of the script.

But “Her” wouldn’t work if the viewer didn’t fall in love with Samantha too. Theodore could have been a problematic character. He’s praised by his co-workers for his sensitivity. Despite having lame facial hair, think glasses, and wearing dorky high-waisted pants, he has no problem picking up masturbation buddies in chat rooms and makes out with Olivia Wilde and Portia Doubleday. He’s named Theodore Twonley, for Christ’s sake! Joaquin Phoenix, an actor capable of astonishing intensity, keeps the unlikely character grounded. The film acknowledges, however subtly, the character’s deep shallowness. He falls in love with Samantha mostly because she validates him while giving his life structure. (It’s not like he’s a rare case either, as most everyone else in the film, like Amy Adams’ friend or her husband, are also up their own asses with self-obsession.) Phoenix’s performance ultimately roots the story in honest emotion, his exuberant joy visible, heartache or frustration present in his posture or facial expression. Johansson is rarely used well by directors, too often relegated to eye-candy role. Using only her smoky voice, she makes Samantha a real character, communicating sweetness, vulnerability, and enchantment with only slight vocal inflections.

The film’s emotional impact is what will surely be most felt. Two scenes between Theodore and Samantha stand out especially. The two’s first “love” scene is especially affecting, the characters’ voice straining against one another, rising in erotic excitement. It avoids being exploitative by focusing solely on the event’s affect on the characters. A climatic moment, when the romance reaches an impasse, hits like a gut punch. Taking place in public, focusing mostly on Joaquin’s face, his heartbreak rates as real. Other moments are sweetly natural, like an ukulele-assisted duet, playful banter while riding on a train, or a surprisingly effortless double date. Jonze’s direction and Owen Pallett’s score are designed solely to facilitate the film’s emotional impact. Jonze’s presentation is graceful, cutting away to blackness as a particular point. A visual non-sequitur, Theodore standing in the snow, provides an emotional exclamation point to the film’s climax. The score is unobtrusive and soft, quietly commenting on the film’s themes without putting too fine a point upon it.

The future imagined in “Her” is patently plausible. Personal computers have shrunk to the size of matchbooks and are mostly voice-activated, controlled with iPod-style ear buds. Video games are hands-free and play upon room-sized holograms. Samantha, and the eventual singularity OSs of her type lead too, is the most farfetched element. The film’s central premise is mostly used to comment on the nature of romance, how people fall in love, how relationships evolve, the ups and downs of fresh love, when sex gets in the way, and how people can outgrow each other. And, who knows, maybe artificial intelligence or something like it could be mass-produced by 2044.

The film is heartfelt, funny, and smoothly clever, many social and emotional issues woven into the story. For Jonze’s first solo-effort, it’s impressive, none of its flaws being derailing and directed with just the right gentle hand. Had I seen the film before January 1st, it would have easily ranked in my top five. Will the movie win any Oscars? Probably not, as the Academy tends to not like films that plum honest emotions. But we’ll see. [9/10]