Saturday, March 28, 2015
Were it not for the abundance of full-frontal nudity and references to cheap pornography, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows would be a slamdunk as an abstinence-only propaganda film whose core message is “screw around and malevolent demon spirit WILL track you down and kick your ass.” Mitchell, working from his own screenplay, takes the old movie trope of “death after teen sex” and gives it a fresh, though not totally coherent, spin. Maika Monroe (who reminds me of a slightly less winsome Catherine Deneuve circa Repulsion) stars as Jay, a young Detroit woman who gets bagged by a handsome though sketchy guy named Hugh (Jake Weary) who, post-coitus, ties her up and shows her the naked succubus who has been trailing him to tear him apart. But, now that he and Jay have done the nasty, Jay is “it” as in a game of tag, and the creeping soul sucker, which can change its appearance, will chase her. Peace out. The rest of the film is Jay running from a variety of slow-footed ghoulies with the help of her eager but utterly feckless sister (Lili Sepe) and friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi), who is reading Dostoevsky, and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who wants to share Jay’s burden in the worst way. Though the movie features some solid shocks, it has a grim griminess about it, an air it comes about honestly, being set in Detroit. I’m not altogether a fan of this new chiller genre I call “the pointless animus of spirit beings.” I generally like my evil with a purpose and “sex is bad” doesn’t do it for me.
Saturday, March 21, 2015
British director Matthew Vaughn’s terrifically entertaining films (Layer Cake, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class) contained equal measures of scabrous wit and bloody wonder. His latest movie, written with frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, is the stealth social satire Kingsman: The Secret Service, which is based on a comic book that I’m not familiar with but I didn’t feel at as much of a disadvantage watching this film as I did when viewing Watchmen (2009), for example. Vaughn borrows with seemingly mocking glee from the secret agent playbook as he tells the story of a league of gentlemen avengers with code names borrowed from Arthur’s Round Table, whose bond is to protect mankind. Vaughn scored major Hollywood wattage in casting Colin Firth, Michael Caine and Samuel L. Jackson in this farce, and they seem to be having a grand time. Firth and Caine play members of the Kingsmen, which is trying to stop a lisping, diabolical billionaire tech capitalist, that would be Jackson, from ridding the planet of worrisome humanity who are stinking up the place. All but a handpicked handful will be spared. Firth, code name Galahad, recruits a young London tough (Taron Egerton), the son of a slain Kingsman, for the team, and the movie is also about Eggsy’s training under the inscrutable Merlin (Mark Strong). Like Vaughn’s earlier films, Kingsman contains brilliant balletic close-contact battles — many featuring Sophia Boutella as Gazelle, a killer amputee who walks on knives — that are worth the price of admission. But a long scene of unbridled carnage featuring Firth and set in a Kentucky backwoods hate-mongering church has to be witnessed to be believed. Highly recommended but not for the squeamish.
Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) is a grimly satirical film about the grimly cynical business of network news — which is not to say it’s about journalism, mind you. It seems to be about everything but. Network, written by the great Paddy Chayefsky (Altered States, Marty) was probably considered sobering and cautionary when it was released — immediately after Watergate and Vietnam, during the Ford administration. Today, ita warnings about the dilution of journalistic standards in the hunt for ratings and in an effort to turn around public disaffection seem a bit done. Not irrelevant, just sadly familiar.
But the film is predictably well-crafted. Oscar-winner Peter Finch’s raving prophet Howard Beale is iconic, a voice in the wilderness as “mad as Moses,” as one character describes him early in the film. Beale loses his job as the evening anchor for the UBS network after an on-camera meltdown over “bullshit” only to score huge ratings with a final broadcast rant that sends listeners to their windows to scream the film’s famous line — “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.”
Watching Beale come into new stardom are his friend, the former head of UBS news, Max Schumacher (a stolid William Holden); the glibly manipulative head of UBS programming Diana Christensen (Oscar-winner Faye Dunaway), who knows a goldmine when she sees one, especially one that helps the American people “articulate their rage;” and the greedy and self-serious chief bean-counter for the network’s parent company CCA, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall). The narrative is a bit of a chaotic whirligig, not unlike network television itself, and interweaves subplots of marital infidelity, Arab investment and political insurrection for the story’s inevitable and bloody climax.
Frank Capra’s peculiar morality tale set in the U.S. Senate, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), wears its idealism on its sleeve. This is both admirable and grating. James Stewart (a Capra favorite) plays interim senatorial appointee Jefferson Smith with a broadness that was the signature of Capra’s comedies (It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take it With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) and with a spirited patriotism that would mark Capra’s, sometimes inartful, Why We Fight documentaries of the ’40s. Smith’s belief in American principles inspires young people (boys, primarily) back home. They see through their parents’ cynicism and complicity in the decline of the American Dream. An early scene between the weasley Gov. Hopper (Guy Kibbee) and his mouthy, but amazingly informed, kids is a model of timing and exposition. And how terrific is it these kids who think Jefferson Smith is just what Washington needs get schooled by reading the Boy Ranger newspaper?! Hopper sees an opportunity and sends the unprepared and, presumably, pliable Smith to Washington.
In a wonderfully earnest sequence, the newby visits all of the famous monuments and words in the Nation’s Capital, but then must confront a political establishment that is steeped in graft and a press corp that is manipulative and, initially, unsympathetic to the cheeky, square-state junior senator. Smith finds an unlikely ally in the cynical and sassy Clarissa Saunders of Baltimore (played by another Capra favorite Jean Arthur), whose own dreams have been doused by power players like money bags Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) and the once-honorable Senior Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Raines). She finds news inspiration in Smith’s description of the unspoiled beauty of his home state, all of which sounds marvelous to a girl whose only known the wranglings of Congress. Smith quickly becomes a nuisance and when his passion leads him to cross Taylor and Paine, the Taylor Machine unleashes a character assassination campaign, with Paine’s help, that at first overwhelms but then ignites Smith.
The final act of Capra’s classic is (in)famous and is what makes the tale so peculiar and, maybe, unsatisfying to some. It’s infamy comes from the unsatisfying ending that inserts “God’s deliverance” in the place of justice. Still, 75 years after its release, Mr. Smith warns about internal threats to personal liberty, the imbalance of power, disunity among the country’s citizens, the untoward influence of great wealth on policy-making, and the inevitable corruption that follows. And that makes it as fresh as today’s headlines.
Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Columbia University linguistics professor Alice Howland is riveting and affecting but, regrettably, weighed down by a story that is cold and distancing. I don’t think it means to be. Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have taken Lisa Genova’s novel of a brilliant mind succumbing to the ravages of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, wrapped it in downy fabrics and set it by a fire. It’s a loving gesture but it dulls the edge this film so desperately needs. It’s an extended Hallmark moment. The agony of Howland’s mental uncoupling feels rear enough, yes, but it’s softened by her station as a world-renowned Ivy League researcher who is married to a supportive doctor (Alec Baldwin) and surrounded by accomplished children (Kate Bosworth, Kristen Stewart and Hunter Parrish). I suppose we are to mourn the loss of her teaching position, the obliteration of her memory of her family and the closing of her mind to their love but it all feels safe — tragic, yes, but still safe. It is clear she’ll never be found wandering the streets of New York lost and without identity or left to wither near a window in a nursing home — as is the case with too many of those struggling with Alzheimer’s. Such a fate is foreshadowed but it is never a real threat and more’s the pity for this sober but unsatisfying film.
Damien Chazelle’s propulsive and profane Whiplash is an exhausting film about a talented and obsessive young drummer named Andrew (a terrific Miles Teller), who attends a New York conservatory where a demonic sadist named Fletcher (a terrifying J.K. Simmons) is the resident jazz guru. The film’s title is taken from a Hank Levy composition that Fletcher wants his ensemble to master for competitions. He doesn’t use the charts to teach his students how to play their instruments. Rather, he stabs and eviscerates his players with music for reasons that are not altogether clear. Fletcher tells young Andrew that he is looking for his Charlie Parker, who, according to folklore, only became “Bird” after his mentor, Jo Jones, threw a cymbal at him in a fit of pique. That tale is probably apocryphal but Fletcher, a shameless manipulator, recounts it to beguile young Andrew, whom he then intimidates, threatens, curses and belittles. And still, amazingly, the boy, battered and bleeding, literally, wants to play for the bastard. Chazelle’s script is not without its narrative flaws, but the interplay between these two fine actors is combustible, and the words he puts in their mouths are rude and rhapsodic. Highly recommended.
Evan Goldberg’s and Seth Rogen’s is what it is, and it’s academic to point out all that it isn’t — mainly because the co-directors didn’t intend for it to be anything other than what it is: a spectacular, vulgar bromantic mess. So why bother wishing and wondering? It is NOT art even though we know that at least one of the film’s leading men, James Franco, is capable of much more than mugging and hamming. It seems to carry a message about truth, honor and trust, but it’s not peddling philosophy. In fact, it’s pretty lunkheaded, and unapologetically crass, which is Rogen’s (highly bankable) hallmark. Yet, alas, it’s frequently quite funny. Randall Park is a toothy riot as Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un, an eternal adolescent with daddy-issues, who pits wits and dentia against Franco’s vain celebrity reporter who is commissioned by the CIA to poison the pesky dictator during a globally televised interview. Rogen plays the producer of Franco’s popular program. Goldberg and Rogen (who worked together on and in various capacities) make movies that are National Lampoon without the restraint and razor sharp satire. Instead, Goldberg and Rogen offer a no-limits buffet of low-culture references and sendups that seem to have more in common with vaudeville than with motion pictures.
We’re approaching 30 years since James L. Brooks released Broadcast News, a funny and insightful indictment of style-over-substance television news. Holly Hunter played a brilliant and obsessive producer who is pulled into the orbit of a handsome, and unschooled, rising star played by William Hurt. She is repelled by his folksy charm and that he admits to not getting the news he’s reading. But her iciness slowly starts down that slippery slope as the “woman” in her begins to overrule the “journalist.” (Yes, it’s a bit sexist but Hunter’s character remains conflicted throughout.) Watching with wounded bemusement is an ace reporter, the multi-linguist Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), whose stark cynicism might be read as James Brooks’s own view of the current (and future) state of affairs for an industry that he clearly loved. (James Brooks was also executive producer of The Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore shows, each of which was set in the world of television.) Talk of tape and scenes of linear editing and camera crews and the like do date the film technologically, but its events and sentiments — the decimation of a newsroom, the promotion of feelings over facts, the pandering and pettiness — are most assuredly as a relevant as today’s headlines.
The Honourable Woman’s geographic and psychological expansiveness is impressive, and its acting BBC-impeccable, especially Maggie Gyllenhaal and Lubna Azabal. The story takes Gyllenhaal’s Baroness Nessa Stein, the head of a British philanthropic concern with strong ties to Israel and an interest in fomenting peace between Arabs and Jews, through the fires of hell in the company of Azabal’s Arab translator Atika, but doesn’t completely deliver her on the other side. The complexity of writer / director Hugh Blick’s story defies neat summation because The Honourable Woman’s eight, dense episodes explore the murky waters of political gamesmanship, international trade, terrorism (traditional and cyber) and affairs of the heart. The voice-over for the series’ opening credits asks “who is to be trusted?” Though that certainly sets the proper frame for a series about spies, it does not approach the depths of deceit and betrayal this program explores. Highly Recommended.
Sunday, March 1, 2015
I don't know why Daniel Oyelowo was not nominated for an Oscar for Selma but I certainly don't see it as a case of racist Hollywood not paying due diligence to diversity. I think questioning the diversity of the assembly of top performances for a year is an after-the-fact gesture, almost meaningless. Diversity concerns should have been addressed when the roles were being cast, films greenlighted. Still, I do understand folks' feelings of disappointment. And I think I understand why Academy members did not give Oyelowo a nod for his performance as Martin Luther King Jr., whose memory we commemorate tomorrow. For many folks, Oyelowo looked and sounded like MLK, his bearing was spot on. He embodied a man whose 30-foot monument stands on the Mall in D.C. Ironically, I think it was Oyelowo's replication of King's cadence in his public orations that may have sunk his nomination. I've not read a word from anyone about this but suspect some Academy members, the purists in the thespian tradition, may have struggled with the precision of Oyelowo's delivery. It was marvelous but was this acting or mimicry? Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch scored for leading roles in two other bio-pics but Redmayne's transformation into Stephen Hawking was a Day-Lewis scale physical feat and Cumberbatch's recreation of a man who few knew and who died so many years ago (1954) could hardly be classified as mimicry and yet it was mesmerizing. Oyelowo will not suffer from the lack of a nomination. His star is on the rise -- as, no doubt, are his pay checks.
Much of Bennett Miller's unswerving psychodrama Foxcatcher is tough to watch. It's not bloody or violent even though it is set in the world of championship wrestling and has Valley Forge as a backdrop. It is difficult -- but essential -- viewing because it reminds us that once all material desires have been sated the wealthy too often turn to owning and controlling people. Steve Carell stars as John DuPont, a scion of that legendary dynasty, who is an egregiously unaccomplished and unattractive middle-aged man living with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave). He fancies himself a molder of men though there is no evidence he's ever done so and he is himself a phantom of contrivances and vanity. DuPont holds target practice on his estate with members of the local constabulary, buys himself a tank and two Olympic gold medalists, the Schultz brothers, first Mark (Channing Tatum) and later older brother David (Mark Ruffalo). The brilliance of this tragic and true story is in Miller's slow reveal of how those who value little often destroy what they own, even if those possessions are other people. Highly Recommended.
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