Whiplash

October 28, 2014 at 9:27 am | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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When I think of the oft given advice, “you have to see it on the big screen,” I typically think of special effects laden blockbusters. Rarely, if ever, have I thought that of a character driven drama. Yet, I will say this of “Whiplash:” you have to see it on the big screen. Twenty-nine year old Wunderkind, Damien Chazelle (directing his first film, which he also wrote the screenplay for), manages to create a sort of frenetic energy that engulfs the theater; I just can’t see how that will translate onto 40″. The film is essentially a study of the relationship between two men: a young, talented jazz drummer enrolled at a prestigious New York conservatory and his driven, sadistic teacher. The boy is played by Miles Teller, who garnered a lot of attention as one of the leads in “The Spectacular Now” last year. He is now a main character in the YA “Divergent” movie series and will be playing Mr Fantastic in the reboot of the “Fantastic 4” series, due next year. So everyone is going to know him soon enough. But, he was still unknown, and clearly hungry, when he made this film and his dedication to the craft explodes off the screen. He apparently trained incessantly for this role and does most of the drumming you see on screen. Reportedly, the blood you see on the drum set is actually his. This is a kid ready for his breakthrough and it shows. He is raw and present and magnetic. For all of that, however, the real revelation for me was JK Simmons as the instructor. Known mostly for bit parts like J. Jonah Jameson in the “Spider-Man” movies and for roles on TV shows like “Law & Order” and “The Closer,” I would not have thought him capable of the savagery this role required. I was clearly selling him short. Simmons dominates every scene he is in with a performance that made the audience gasp more than once. It’s says something remarkable about him as an actor that he can create a character who is so unrelenting and loathsome and, yet, can still seem sympathetic (vulnerable, even) in a couple of key themes. We cannot stand this guy, yet, in those final moments on screen, what do we feel for him? That is the film’s great success: it gives us a truly brilliant, heart-pounding finale. When the screen cut to black and the credits rolled, my heart was pounding and my head was swimming. What did I think of that final scene? Was he right? What’s going to happen next between these two men? It’s a real tribute to this film that, even though I cannot know, I actually cared.

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Lilting

October 19, 2014 at 4:47 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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I knew very quickly I was going to like “Lilting,” the new film written by gay British-Cambodian film director and writer, Hong Khaou. This is Hong’s first feature film yet he knows how to linger in a moment and capture naturalistic performances from his actors– a critical requirement in a film about a  young man’s desire to help his dead lover’s elderly mother, despite her complete dislike of him. A plot like that could get maudlin quickly with heavy handed dialogue and exaggerated tempers. Restraint is key to making the subject matter work and Hong does this brilliantly by making the Chinese-Cambodian mother speak no English. This creates a natural slowing down of each scene and forces the actors to express more visually than they do verbally. It helps that the mother, Junn, is played by Cheng Pei-pei (known mostly to US audiences for her role as Jade Fox in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). She is masterful at showing a range of emotions, most of them heartbreaking, without speaking a word of English. Equal to that task is Ben Whishaw (“Cloud Atlas,” the British TV series “The Hour,” and most notably the new Q in the current James Bond series). Whishaw, who plays the son’s lover, looks utterly broken and lost; from the moment you see him he looks like he has lost the love of his life. The scenes between these two actors are beautiful as we watch them do battle with facial expressions. The heaviness of these scenes is cut by a side plot involving Junn dating an elderly man who visits her in the nursing home. Though they ultimately are of no consequence to the story, these moments help to cut an otherwise intense mood. Some of the directing is a tad bit heavy-handed (for example, Junn’s home is decorated in a late 50s style while her son’s home is ultra-modern, suggesting their two clashing world views) but the one real stumble in the film occurs in the flashbacks between the lovers. There is just no real chemistry between Whishaw and Andrew Leung, who plays the son. In those scenes, Whishaw looks already heartbroken and lost. I can believe he loved his partner only when I don’t seem them together. That’s an unfortunate misstep in a film that otherwise captivated me from start to finish with a sweetly sad poignancy that ends on just the right note.

 

Pride

October 5, 2014 at 5:33 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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I have to start by saying that I don’t think my rating of this film does it justice. Let me see if I can explain. I rate a film based on my experience of it, even if I don’t think that experience is going to be the same as most people’s. And perhaps I’ve seen too many films but I just kept thinking throughout this one, “haven’t we see all of this before?” This entire film felt like it was 20 years too late for me. It reminded me of a mash up of the working-class British comedies of the 90s (think “The Full Monty” and “Waking Ned Devine” among others) and the feel good gay pride films of the 90s (“The Edge of Seventeen,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!”). Every scene, every line, every song and every character was exactly what you would expect them to be. Nothing varied from the formula one whit. All the jokes were exactly the jokes you’d expect and, yes, they got laughs but, if you had paused the movie, you could have predicted most of them right before they were said. And the same can be said of the tearful moments and the poignant moments and the indignant moments and the rousing moments and the… The writers worked every last laugh and tear and moral message with such self-satisfied determination that it was hard to get caught up in it. But, at times I did. And the audience certainly did. The final scenes are moving if, for no other reason, because they are true. My crowd gave an ovation during the credits and the person I was with loved it.  So… what do I do with that. For me, my rating reflects the fact that this film did nothing to surprise me but if I were rating it on pure enjoyment (all film aesthetics aside), I think most people would call it a 4 or a 5, just like my friend did. Do with that what you will.

Gone Girl

October 4, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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Having read the book, it’s hard for me to know how surprising the twists and turns of this film would be for most viewers. I felt like it was obvious where things were going in the first half of the film (though, like the book, the second half is impossible to guess) but, when the big reveal comes halfway through, the woman next to me gasped, so perhaps I’m not giving it enough credit. Either way, this was a fun and fast paced thrill ride that stayed remarkably true to the book. Ben Affleck has been rightly praised for his performance, which requires a fair amount of subtlety; his character, Nick Dunne, is a complicated one. But I was really impressed by Rosamund Pike (mostly seen in small roles in films like “Jack Reacher” and “Die Another Day”). Her performance as the titular girl was great fun to watch. There is little I can say here about the plot, as the twists are so elemental to the story. Yet, I will say that the translation of the book to film was finely done.  You can feel David Fincher’s (“Fight Club,” “Zodiac,” “The Social Network”) taut directing throughout. At 2 1/2 hours, he still manages to keep up a brisk pace from start to finish.  The audience gasped with the first line of the film and again in the final cut to black; there were furious whispers all around me as the credits rolled. It’s that kind of movie. This is not your typical Hollywood thriller and it plays with audience expectations, all the while mocking us for those expectations. There is a brilliant running commentary in both book and film around our 24 hour news cycle and the way the media’s script tells us what to believe about what we see. There is something cleverly meta going on when the film does the same thing to us that it is commenting on.

The Drop

October 1, 2014 at 4:30 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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If there is a star to watch in Hollywood right now, it’s Tom Hardy. For the second time this year (see also “Locke”), he puts out an amazing performance. I first saw him when he played a young Patrick Steward clone in the god-awful “Star Trek: Nemesis.” He didn’t have much to work with there but, since then, in films like “RocknRolla,” “Bronson,” “Warrior” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” he has proven his mettle. Here, again, he shines as a working class guy with a spot-on Brooklyn accent who works at his cousin’s bar, played perfectly by James Gandolfini (an example of great casting more than great acting, as this character requires no stretch for him). Hardy’s character get’s drawn into his cousin’s bad choices and, well… bad things happen. This film is very noir, both in it’s style and it’s themes. As such, the arc of the story isn’t much of a surprise but there are a couple of good twists along the way. Hardy’s relationship with Gandolfini is balanced beautifully against the relationship he is trying to form with a neighbor, played by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace (“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” “Prometheus”). Though she struggles with the American accent, the film wisely manages that by giving her the name “Nadia.” Like Hardy, Rapace is brilliant and it shows throughout the film. This is a movie of almost unrelenting tension that builds and builds and much of it is shown in her face. There is a perfect scene near the end of the film in the bar where, after a sudden moment of violence, she captures perfectly the look of a woman trying to pretend like she’s not scared out of her mind; it’s fantastic acting and a joy to watch. While the story is hardly a new one and the outcome is hardly surprising, it does such a great job of maintaining the tension and the acting is so well done across the board, that I would highly recommend this film to any fans of noir, Tom Hardy or just plain great acting.

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