The World’s End

August 25, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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This is the newest film by actor/writer Simon Pegg and director/writer Edgar Wright, who have given us the brilliant “Shaun of The Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.”  This time Pegg and regular cast mate Nick Frost join up with several familiars from the British indie scene to play former high school buddies who are attempting to complete the 12 pub crawl that they had started 20 years earlier.  The only problem?  Well, alien robot thingies, of course.  True to form, it is a silly combination of wry British humor, slapstick and absurdity.   Unfortunately, we have seen it all before and better.  Like the Christopher Guest films of the 90s, the first couple were brilliant but it now all feels a bit tired.  Even the story felt a bit like a retread of “Shaun” but nobody seems to be having as much fun.  I did laugh and there were some winning moments but most were at the beginning.  As the film wore on, it wore me down a bit.  In particular, I found the pathos fell flat for me.  I get the metaphors of lost youth, squandered lives, etc.  They just didn’t land for me.  I found myself wanting more and less at the same time.  Pegg, Wright and Frost are all talented men; maybe it was time they grew up and moved on, too.

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Lee Daniels’ The Butler

August 18, 2013 at 7:13 pm | Posted in 2013 | 2 Comments
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Director Lee Daniels (“Precious,” “The Paperboy”) is apparently taking a page from Tyler Perry’s book of self-promotion.  Let’s hope it does not catch on; I have no interest in going to “Spike Lee’s Oldboy” or “Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.”  That aside, what we have with “The Butler” is a mostly noble effort.  Daniels is not known for subtly, just check out his first two movies.  However, he manages to show more here than he has in the past. Much of the film revolves around the titular butler, Cecil Gaines’ relationship with his eldest son, Louis. Cecil takes an old school approach in trying to gain civil rights through hard work and earning respect, while Louis joins the Freedom Riders and The Black Panthers.  To his credit, Daniels presents both sides of this argument evenly and with respect; if he has an opinion about which route was the right one, it isn’t present here.  Much has been said about the film being based on a true story.  However, it should be pointed out that this is only in the loosest form of the word “true.”  There was an African American butler who served in the White House for 34 years but his name was Eugene Allen.  He was married and had one son (not two) who was never involved in any radical politics.  Much of his early life and how he got to the White House is also exaggerated or fictionalized.  How much any of this matters is really a personal opinion.  But it does suggest that the father and son struggle at the center of this movie was created for a reason and that the central struggle about how to pursue civil rights was a core part of the story Daniels was trying to tell.  Fortunately, that part of the story is the strongest and the relationship between father and son is, by far, the most interesting. Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland,” “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai”) is a brilliant actor of amazing range who is able to show emotions roil across his face while maintaining the professional exterior of the butler.  He manages to imbue Cecil with a dignity and a stubbornness that seem perfectly fitted together. Oprah Winfrey, in her first real acting role since “Beloved” fifteen years ago, plays Cecil’s wife, Gloria.  Here, she lacks the power she has brought to her previous roles, most famously that of Sofia in “The Color Purple,” but still manages to present a complicated character, particularly during her years as an alcoholic.  The various presidents and their wives were gamely played with varying levels of success by Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda.  Personally, I found the Reagans to be the most convincing.  The remaining cast is an almost endless parade of celebrities, including Vanessa Redgrave, Terrence Howard,  Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey (who inexplicably gets third from the top billing, though she was on camera for less than a full minute and had no lines).  But, be warned, a movie does not get this much fire power by taking risks and, in the end, this is a very safe movie.  This is Oscar-bait, so don’t expect anything to complicate the feel good ending.  If you knew nothing of American culture, you would leave the theater thinking you had just seen the film on how we finally solved our race problems in this country, once and for all.  No one like a Travyon Martin or an Oscar Grant will rear his head in the final moments. I found that disappointing.  For a film that tries to take such a broad look at race relations in this country, it might have tried to take a more complete one.  Instead, we end on the newly elected President Obama’s words about a changing America.  If only everything were as simple as it is in like Hollywood.

Elysium

August 18, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Posted in 2013 | 2 Comments
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Neill Blomkamp is apparently carving out a niche for himself as the director and writer of heavy-handed sci-fi allegories.  With his first full length film (“DIstrict 9”), Blomkamp took on apartheid in a less-than-subtle way but at least that film had an edge that tempered the moralizing.  Not so with his sophomore effort.  “Elysium” is a giant space station where all the rich and mostly white humans live in complete tranquility.  Earth is filled with the poor, who are almost entirely Hispanic (at least those humans we are shown).  Poor Earthlings are constantly trying to sneak across the border into Elysium so that they can have a shot at a better life, or at least get to lie on one of the magic cure-all tanning beds.  Sci-fi can be a powerful medium for exploring current social ills.  However, for that to work effectively, it has to be intelligent and nuanced and insightful.  The bad guys of Elysium are soooo bad and the good guys are ultimately so noble that the whole things feels like an off-color joke.  Nothing is worse for an allegory than shallowness.  The answers here are all painfully (really almost offensively) easy; all the world’s problems can be solved literally with the flip of a switch (or the insertion of a USB cord).  The ending is so trite and sentimental that it would have pissed me off had I not seen it coming for the past 97 minutes.  Add on top of this the sort of plot holes and lazy writing that drive me crazy.  How do the villains find Max’s (Matt Damon) girlfriend’s home?  There is nothing in the story that would have plausibly led them there but it sure helps move the plot along.  How exactly does an open-air space station work, anyway?  And, when it goes “off-line” and shuts down completely, why doesn’t the gravity and life-support fail?  And, really, truly, how can an entire plot revolve around doing a hard-reboot in the mid-22nd century that looks like something out of the movie “War Games?”  Oh, and why is Jodi Foster doing that horrible accent?  What accent is that even supposed to be?  These things trouble me. Perhaps, they should not. But they do. When the first scene of the movie was of cherubic, doe-eyed children bathed in the light of a golden filter, I knew I was in trouble.  But, what’s a guy to do?  I set my jaw and plodded on through a lazy and saccharine mess so that, perhaps, you wouldn’t have too.  Now that’s what true sacrifice looks like, Max.

In A World

August 17, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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So, what does a gifted, intelligent actress do in Hollywood when she’s frustrated with the way women are portrayed on screen and the roles available to them?  If she’s Lake Bell (“Boston Legal,” “It’s Complicated”), she writes, directs and stars in her own movie.  While that sounds dangerously close to self-indulgent, it helps that “In A World” is both funny and insightful.  Bell cleverly tells the story of Carol, a vocal coach, trying to get into the voice-over business in Hollywood.  She uses this story as a vehicle to explore Hollywood perceptions about women but also, more broadly, about how women see and display themselves.  At times, the film suffers from a conflict of tone, trying to be both good-natured wacky and biting commentary at the same time.  However, the overall product is funny enough and clever enough to be satisfying.  This movie does not require brilliance from any of its actors but they all give solidly funny, and sometimes touching performances.  The crew of gosh-he-looks-familiars include Rob Corddry (“The Daily Show,” “Warm Bodies”), Ken Marino (“Veronica Mars,” “Burning Love”), Demetri Martin (“Important Things with Demetri Martin”), Fred Melamed (“Husbands & Wives,” “A Serious Man”) and Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”). Bell proves to have a great comic sensibility, herself, and is a clever mimic of voices.  The best humor of the film comes in the way it pokes fun at the types of voices women adopt to succeed in a male dominated world.  Bell knows better than to be heavy handed and leaves the commentary (mostly) off screen.  While this film was never uproariously funny or particularly moving, it was a fun summer comedy with more to say than most.

The Act of Killing

August 11, 2013 at 7:05 pm | Posted in 2013 | 1 Comment
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I see a lot of films.  This, I suppose, will surprise no one.  One end result of all that watching is that I rarely see something genuinely new.  The last time may have been 7 years ago with John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus.” This documentary, “The Act of Killing,” begins with an introduction by the director, Joshua Oppenheimer, in which he attempts to prepare the audience for what we are about to see and to beg us to stick it out.  I could not help but wonder if it had been added after test audience reactions.  There is little I can do to explain this movie that will in any way give you an experience of it.  Between 1965-1966 paramilitary goons killed some 2.5 million Indonesians who opposed to military take over of the government. They targeted mostly ethnic Chinese and “communists.” Amongst the countless men who did this was a petty film-ticket scalper, raised to mass murderer, named Anwar Congo. Now in his 70s, he and his friends have agreed to make a film about their “exploits.” Oppenheimer, who is fluent in Indonesian, took 6 years to make this movie. Along the way, he clearly became very close to this group of killers, who affectionately call him “Josh” throughout the film. Through some decision made off camera, they all decide they are going to film reenactments of their most brutal abuses with all of them (and their friends, neighbors, and random other people) playing all the key parts. Plus, they choose to do this while mimicking the Hollywood genre’s they so deeply love: Noir, Spaghetti Westerns, and what I think were nods to “The Deerhunter,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (I’m not kidding).  We then get the documentary of them planning, staging and enacting various scenes in various costumes. Add into this that one of these ruthless killers (Herman Koto) has a penchant for Divine-esque drag. It is as bizarre, inexplicable and phantasmagorical as it sounds.  Some of the images are stunningly beautiful, just on their own grounds; when you add context, they can be a bit dizzying. While the director assures us that we can laugh at times and (he swears) they sure did in Indonesia, I found it all to be too grim to be funny. In between grisly reenactments, these killers talk about what they did in unbelievably frank terms.  Some, such as Ibrahim Sinik, are quite proud.  Others, like Adi Zulkadry, are afraid of how the documentary will be perceived and remain defiant that the winners get to define what is or is not wrong.  And then there is Anwar Congo. The main focus on the film, Congo allegedly killed around 1,000 people himself during that genocidal year. He wants this film to show the truth of what happen but what he perceives the truth to be is harder to ascertain. He appears to be driven by nightmares of what he has done and seems to show grief and empathy toward the end of the film. However, I’m not so sure I wasn’t just looking at a master manipulator gauging which way the wind is blowing and trying to spin his image. It was hard to be sure but I was left with the nagging feeling that Congo’s best acting was occurring during the unscripted parts of the film. He seemed no closer to real insight to me but do you need to have insight to have remorse? When the screen finally went black, I was left with a sort of vertigo, not quite sure where to land after this bizarre journey but desperately wanting to talk it through. What is evil? What are it’s costs to those who go unpunished? What does remorse look like and how do we judge it? And does it matter? Playing at the same theater this weekend is an indie film about Hannah Arendt, the woman credited with creating the phrase, “the banality of evil.” When I think of Anwar Congo, it seems appropriate.

The Attack

August 11, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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This film by a little known Arab director (Ziad Doueiri) and a cast of actors virtually unknown outside of the Middle East, is unlikely to get much attention in the U.S.   That’s too bad because it takes an interesting a complex look at a very complicated problem.   An established and well respected Palestinian doctor working in a Jewish hospital, Amim (Ali Suliman) is on duty one day when a terrorist bomb goes off in Tel Aviv.  The bodies are brought in and he does his best to save them but the death toll is 17, 11 of them children.  Hours later he is asked to identify the body of his wife, Siham (Reymond Amsalem), and things quickly start to fall apart.  The police accuse her of being the suicide bomber and the film follows Ali’s story as he attempts to understand who his wife was and what happened to her. The narrative is tightly written and moves along at a steady pace. I felt that it could have ratcheted up the tension a bit in parts but this is a minor complaint.  Suliman is the best know of these actors, having been in American films, such as “Body of Lies” and “The Kingdom.”  He is the center of this film and pulls of a strong and nuanced performance.  The story, base on a novel by Yasmina Khadra, provides no easy answers and has no clear good guys or bad guys.  Instead, it presents a world where dogmas and prejudice seem to rule all and where no relief is coming any time soon.

Blue Jasmine

August 4, 2013 at 7:48 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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Woody Allen’s new movie manages to be both a revelation and a disappointment at times. The tireless Cate Blanchett (who will be appearing in a dozen movies over the next year) demonstrates her brilliance as an actress in a way I have not seen since her vignette in “Coffee and Cigarettes.”  She shines as the unbalanced, haughty and painfully fragile Jasmine.  It’s a thrill to watch her capture disdain and self-loathing, defiance and desperation in the same look.  Jasmine is a rich and complex roll that so many less accomplished actors could have made a mess off.  When this movie soars, it does so on Blanchett’s wings.  However, little else in the film can sustain her energy. The remaining cast, all of them strong actors, are fine but don’t particularly shine and some veer dangerously close to caricature.  Though sometimes funny, this script is not nearly as much so a previous Allen works.  But, I think I was most disappointed with the film’s portrayal of San Francisco.  Allen is famous for making New York come alive and has done a brilliant job recently capturing the energy of other cities, think “Midnight in Paris,” “To Rome with Love” or “Vicky Christina Barcelona.”  Yet, somehow, his San Francisco feels like a small section of Brooklyn.  With the exception of a few touristy shots of the water, none of the city’s personality is present and all of her denizens speak with thick New York accents.  Northern California has it’s own, unique people, rife for making fun of, I assure you.  Why cast Andrew Dice Clay, the terrific Bobby Cannavale (“The Station Agent,” “Romance and Cigarettes”), the amazing Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Jane Eyre”) and the various actors playing their friends to play Brooklyn and Long Island stereotypes?  I found this odd choice so discordant that it constantly pulled me out of the movie.  But, let’s set all of those complaints aside for the moment and return to Ms Blanchett, sitting on a bench in the final scene of the film.  Everything we have seen in the last 90 minutes is there on her face; it’s a perfect ending.

Still Mine

August 4, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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A caveat: it was hard to watch this film without unfairly comparing it to last year’s brilliant “Amour.”  Fortunately, my friend and fellow attendee was able to help me shift my perspective.  This is not to say I did not like the film initially; I actually loved it through out.  Rather, I had been evaluating it through the wrong lens.  The movie covers the true story of Craig and Irene Morrison, a couple living off the Bay of Fundy on the Maine/Canadian border. They have been married 61 years and Irene now has Alzheimer’s and is beginning to fade away.  Craig decides to build a new 1 bedroom house for her on their property, until a local letter-of-the-law building inspector attempts to stop him.  This a very traditional story arch with heroes, villains, colorful personalities and a fair dose of sentiment.  As such, I was tempted to see this as a love story, much like “Amour” (though much less dark), that follows a couple at the end of their lives.  It is that to a degree and the love between Craig and Irene is beautifully and gently portrayed by veteran actors James Cromwell (“Babe,” “LA Confidential,” this recent season of “American Horror Story”) and Geneviève Bujold (“Anne of the Thousand Days,” “Dead Ringers,” “The House of Yes”).  Their dynamic is a pure pleasure to watch and they light up the screen together. However, this is primarily Craig’s film. He is the star and this is the story of the softening of his 87 year old heart. He is initially angry and quick tempered around Irene’s illness and he is stubbornly defiant toward the housing board.  By the end, he is accepting of whatever fate has for him and infinitely patient with his wife.  These changes are not broadcast loudly, in fact they are very subtly portrayed but they are there.  At one point, Craig talks about the polishing down of an old table; it’s a beautiful metaphor for who he is.  This is truly a lovely movie about lovely people portrayed lovingly by two incredibly skilled actors.  It is not a punch in the stomach like “Amour.”  It is more of a warm hug; one you don’t want to leave.

Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus and 2012

August 4, 2013 at 6:33 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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There are multiple versions of this movie’s name but the name, exactly as listed above, was the one given during the title sequence, so that’s what I am going with.  That’s not the only strangely inconsistent aspect of this film.  It follows Jamie (Michael Cera), an insufferable American tourist, as he wrangles his three long suffering local friends (brothers Juan Andrés, José MIguel and Augustín Silva) on a journey across Chile in search of a San Pedro cactus and its hallucinogenic properties.  Along the way, Jamie impulsively invites along equally insufferable, free-spirited Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman) and then immediately regrets his decision.  Jamie & Crystal Fairy are both painfully insecure but express those insecurities in diametrically different ways.  Both Cera and Hoffman (who you might know as a child in films Like “Field of Dreams,” “Uncle Buck,” and “Sleepless in Seattle) play their characters without a shred of self-consciousness; they are merciless in portraying the hypocrisies and insecurities, partly because you can sense the underlying empathy they have for the people they are portraying.  Cera, in particular, is saddled with playing a cruel, controlling, and anxious man-child.  He is tough to watch for much of the film. Fortunately for the audience, we have the open-hearted Silva brothers to ground us.  Without them to connect to, this would have been a difficult ride.  Written and directed by their fourth brother, Sebastían Silva (best know for his wonderful film, “The Maid”), the story is funny often enough but never outright hilarious.  It does better at being touching, particularly toward the end, and does manage to help us connect with two pretty disconnected characters.  In fact, the penultimate scene around a campfire was wonderful.  In particular, I was pleased that all of the characters’ reactions to what was being said felt real to who they were.  I have often wondered if Michael Cera could ever succeed in a truly dramatic role.  Perhaps, he has his doubts too, because he has built quite a career out of playing every type of comedic character he can.  Here, he comes a close to drama as I have seen him and I think he pulls it off.  This was not as powerful a film as “The Maid” and really struggled with its momentum in parts.  Silva, who has real potential as a director, was also guilty of some odd choices in editing, music, etc. that were, at times, completely inconsistent with the tone of the film.  It felt as though he was just trying some things for the fun of it.  The movie certainly had its moments, just not quite enough to highly recommend it.

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