Monday, December 30, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
Dir. John Lee Hancock

2.5 out of 5

Some movies are kind enough to save us the burden of interpretation and spell out their agendas clearly in a single unifying scene: a Rosetta Scene.  In Saving Mr. Banks, it's a late-night conversation between Walt Disney and Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers, specifically a heartfelt monologue about the purpose of storytelling.  After struggling to convince and cajole the uptight Travers into signing over the film rights to her stories, Disney explains that the artist's job is to "restore order with imagination."  Though he's talking about Travers' ability to turn her memories of a difficult upbringing in rural Australia into a series of beloved children's books, it's an apt description of the film's mission to reshape the past into a fuzzier and family-friendly image.

Saving Mr. Banks promises a juicy tale about the arduous development of the classic Disney movie musical Mary Poppins, but instead delivers a tidy treatise about childhood trauma nuzzled within a diverting slice of corporate infotainment.  A down-on-her-luck Travers (Emma Thompson) accepts an invitation to supervise the development of a Poppins film with the understanding that she will have script approval.  However, she's immediately displeased with everything about the production, most of all the overly familiar, jokey manner of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), a man she views as a purveyor of frivolity and empty whimsy.  Travers embarks on an uneasy collaboration with Disney's creative team - screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers/lyricists Bob and Richard Sherman (B. J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) - but her imperious demeanor masks the true reasons behind her opposition to Disney's interpretation of her characters.

The film is well acted on all fronts, even when the performers appear to be marking time.  Thompson spends almost the entire film in a state of suspended mortification.  The script takes far too long to tease out her backstory in flashbacks featuring Colin Farrell as Travers' impulsive alcoholic father.  And while those portions are considerably dark for a family feature, Saving Mr. Banks is ultimately a safe stroll down a memory lane that's littered with eggshells.  It's naive to think that Walt Disney would be anything less than the shining hero of a Disney-produced movie, but the filmmakers bend over backwards to depict him as the antidote to Travers' corroded, bitter psyche, as if the author had just been waiting for him to reveal the halo atop his head.  At least Hanks is a perfect fit as Disney, twinkling away with the avuncular charm that defined his public persona (and, by most accounts, his private one as well).

Even though some of its takeways are dubious at best and slightly insulting to Travers herself, Saving Mr. Banks is exactly what it sets out to be - good, clean, Uncle Walt-approved fun.  Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) keeps the sentimentality at a tolerable level, mainly thanks to Thompson's dry delivery of acerbic one-liners and his handling of the gradually-developing friendship between Travers and her personal driver (Paul Giamatti).  Squandering a novel premise in favor of reinforcing the company line, Saving Mr. Banks is partially redeemed by small moments showing that these artists, though endowed with godlike powers of emotional transubstantiation, are indeed human after all.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Dir. Martin Scorsese

4 out of 5

The sordid, sleazy, spectacular life of Jordan Belfort - as told by Martin Scorsese in The Wolf of Wall Street, an adaptation of Belfort's two memoirs - beggars belief.  Founder of the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont, Belfort becomes a multi-millionaire before the age of 30.  He utilizes aggressive telemarketing tactics to push worthless penny stocks on ordinary Americans, then illegally manipulates the stock prices to make himself a fortune.  He turns a motley crew of oily salesmen in an empty garage into a concern powerful enough to shepherd the IPOs of real, legitimate companies.  He gobbles Quaaludes like M&Ms.  He throws cooked lobsters at federal agents.  He sinks his yacht off the coast of Italy, and nearly crashes a helicopter in his backyard.  It's all the type of stuff you wouldn't trust if you saw it presented as a serious biopic.

Both Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter know this, which is why The Wolf of Wall Street is a gloriously dumb epic of avarice.  Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Belfort, and from the start he lets the audience know that he's in on the joke too.  DiCaprio-as-Belfort frequently interrupts the explanations of his scams, admitting that it's not the stuff we actually want to hear about.  How he achieved his ill-gotten gains is not nearly as interested as how he spends them, something that this three-hour bender of a film chronicles in vivid detail.  Teaming up with the equally juvenile and unhinged Donny Azoff (Jonah Hill), Belfort binges on exotic sex and copious amounts of drugs.  He's a high-functioning addict, managing to keep hold of a trophy wife (Margot Robbie) and family, as well as an army of chest-beating, pump-and-dumping Neanderthals.

The Wolf of Wall Street travels far afield in single-minded pursuit of self-aggrandizing and darkly comic irreverence, laughing off the notion of lasting consequences.  When he attracts the attention of a straight-arrow FBI agent (Kyle Chandler), Belfort's advisers joke that he's being targeted like a modern day Gordon Gekko, the personification of Reaganomic excess.  However, the film's Clinton era setting is an important distinction.  Not only do Stratton Oakmont's false promises and financial sleight of hand foreshadow the subprime mortgage shenanigans of the most recent recession, they also suggest that the lesson everyone learned from the financial scandals of the 1980s is that greed truly is good, if you can get away with it for a while.

Much like this year's Spring Breakers, The Wolf of Wall Street is a movie easily misconstrued as glamorizing the behavior that it should be condemning.  But look past the prurient interest in the lifestyle fails of entitled douchebags and you'll see that Scorsese views Belfort and his ilk as more of a symptom than a cause.  He points the finger at a system designed to create a hundred Belforts every day - a system that encourages utter contempt for working individuals with goals and dreams, and trades the concept of noblesse oblige for the cynical exploitation of the teeming, schmucky masses.  That, Scorsese argues, is far more harmful than a naughty, foul-mouthed, fantastically dunderheaded movie.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Catch-Up: Holiday 2013

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  In this edition: four holiday season films with year-end award aspirations.

Dir. Brian Percival

2.5 out of 5

Based on the best-selling novel by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief is the latest in a long line of films to filter horrific historical events through the guileless viewpoint of a child.  Here the tyke is named Liesel (Sophie Nélisse, last seen in Monsieur Lazhar), an illiterate orphan who suffers the misfortune of coming of age in Nazi Germany.  Parked with a new set of foster parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann (Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush), about a year before the German invasion of Poland, Liesel learns to read and write with encouragement from her adopted father as well as the young Jewish man (Ben Schnetzer) taking refuge in her basement, finding a refuge in literature amidst an increasingly bleak wartime landscape.

A staunchly middle-of-the-road World War II drama, The Book Thief hits all of the requisite beats on its deliberately-paced journey toward tasteful mediocrity.  Director Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) eschews literary affectation – save for the intermittent use of arch narration provided by the voice of Death (Roger Allam) – in favor of cloying moments signaled by the swelling of strings on the movie’s pedestrian score composed, shockingly, by none other than John Williams.  It’s a massive indictment of The Book Thief’s lightweight nature to have the man who created some of the most memorable film scores of all time reduced to yeoman-like status, not to mention the movie’s casual argument that the Holocaust was also a total bummer for the nicer Gentiles.  Though The Book Thief champions the lifelong pursuit of knowledge, its impact could scarcely be more superficial or ephemeral.

Dir. Stephen Frears

3.5 out of 5

Slyly concealing a social issues exposé within a cocoon of mismatched-pair humor, Philomena tells the inspired-by-true-events story of the eponymous Irish woman (Judi Dench) searching for the son she bore as a teenager in the 1950s and was forced to give up by nuns who ran a kind of penitence sweatshop for young, unwed mothers.  She’s aided in her quest by Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former “hard news” journalist and recently sacked government adviser who considers Philomena’s puff piece a necessary evil on his journey back to relevance. 

Despite his many charms, Coogan – who co-wrote Philomena with Jeff Pope – is not the typical comedian that films are built around.  Though he’s portraying a version of a real person in Sixsmith, there’s still a healthy dose of his ferociously intellectual and perpetually jaded character from The Trip, another road movie where annoyance and jocularity are often intertwined.  There’s definitely more sweetness in Philomena, but Coogan and Dench don’t overreach for big emotional payoffs, reacting to the ever-evolving scenario like human beings instead of Odd Couple caricatures.  This subtlety pays off in the film’s surprisingly feisty climax as Coogan goes for the jugular of the Catholic Church, lending a strong editorial perspective to a well-constructed yet by-the-book heartwarmer.  It’s oddly comforting to see that a movie with class can have balls, too.  

Dir. Spike Jonze

4 out of 5

"Black mirror" is a catchy neologism - already immortalized in song and on television - to describe the screens, computers, and other iDevices that facilitate the human race's indulgence in cheerful solipsism.  Spike Jonze's technological romance Her takes that idea one step further, imagining a lonely man, Theodore Twombly, (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his new state-of-the-art operating system, sonorously voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

But within that catchy boy-meets-computer logline lurks something even better - a sharp satire of socialization in the digital age.  Though it doesn't share the structural trickery and absurd wit of his collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Her still finds Jonze pressing heavily against expectation with a vision of a near-future that's both thrilling (visit Los Angeles' extensive subway system!) and uncomfortably familiar. The film keenly reflects an era where personal information is mined by machines to create a virtual space that supersedes reality.  There's no great rhetorical leap to make when Her's sensitive protagonist crosses the last boundary of intimacy between man and computer.  Forty years ago, these topics would've been fodder for a dystopian thriller.  Now, it's simply amusing.

Alas, the concept loses a bit of its freshness over Her's two-hour runtime.  Jonze is as love-blind as Theodore, enamored by mannered production design and a quivering pace - minor flaws that parallel the intentionally humorous fallacy of the film's central romance.  The computer understands Theodore like no other human because she already is Theodore, programmed with all the data that betrays his needs and desires.  Still, Her is a unique film that truly captures the zeitgeist: a humane, funny, and touching exploration of how difficult it is to keep a binary relationship from turning into a one-way feedback loop.

Dir. John Wells

4 out of 5

Misery is company for the fighting Westons of August: Osage County.  Rare are the moments when two or more family members can kibbutz without emotions boiling over - light needling and gentle insults are about as nurturing as this brood gets.  So conflict is unavoidable after the sudden suicide of patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepard) forces his immediate family - led by his caustic, pill-popping widow Violet (Meryl Streep) and daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis) - to assemble the clan at the family homestead in Oklahoma, where Violet's lowered inhibitions and fading sense of dignity prompts her to begin airing out decades' worth of dirty laundry.

Adapting his own work for the third time (after Bug and Killer Joe, both directed by William Friedkin), Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts once again shows how adept he is at creating claustrophobic operettas of discord.  August: Osage County happens to be his most accessible screenplay yet, though it underlines the difficulty of mercy by refusing to sugarcoat the suffering of the Weston family.  (Much of that suffering is courtesy of Violet, whose chemically-induced state adds a hint of tragedy to her cruelty.)  Director John Wells mostly stays out of the way, letting the powerful source material speak for itself.  Streep is typically superb as the cornered Violet, but it's Roberts who shines brightest with her strongest work in years, combining righteous anger and tortured sympathy that perfectly suits the movie's level of Shakespearean dysfunction.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Past

The Past (2013)
Dir. Asghar Farhadi

4 out of 5

What’s the difference between a lie and a half-truth?  That’s the driving question behind Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, the follow-up to his Oscar-winning divorce drama A Separation.  While there’s no easy answer, Farhadi adheres to the same results-driven approach.  Whereas a lie seems more callous in its intentional deception, Farhadi argues that sins of omission can be just as damaging.  And when you start to see things through another person’s eyes, maybe it’s possible that there is no difference at all.

Events are set in motion by an inauspicious homecoming: Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), an Iranian man, returns to France after a four-year absence to finalize a divorce with his ex-wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo).  He re-enters her life at a chaotic time: Marie, who has two daughters from her first marriage, is now preparing for her third to the handsome dry-cleaning entrepreneur Samir (A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim), who has a troubled young son of his own.  Though Ahmad is preternaturally understanding and compassionate, he starts to question everyone’s motives when Marie’s eldest daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Marie herself reveal information that threatens the tenuous peace within this blended family.

Despite the early focus on Ahmad-as-superdad, The Past slowly reveals its greatest strength: the ability to see conflicts from all sides.  Farhadi uses his empathetic eye to toggle between perspectives with great ease, deftly weaving a complex patchwork quilt of wants and needs that takes no character for granted.  Ahmad’s unlikely peacemaking is partially driven by guilt.  Lucie’s rebellious posture contains a measure of self-doubt.  Samir, at first an interloper, is more reluctant to let go of his past than his engagement suggests.  And best of all is Bejo as Marie, a woman whose life in a perpetual state of renovation, reflected by her house – a fixer-upper that she and Samir are attempting to remodel themselves – in an incisive, yet subtle, metaphor.

The Past shares many dramatic beats with A Separation, replicating its emotionally-charged conversations and its lockbox of secrets that still can’t prevent the truth from wriggling its way out.  It’s a film that respects its audience’s intelligence, asking us to re-draw the story in our minds as each new revelation causes a ripple effect on the tangled web of relationships.  The Past is also a bit laborious.  Farhadi is a relaxed, natural communicator, but the plot encroaches on what’s best conceived as a well-oiled kitchen drama, piling on the twists and turns until the gears start to grind. The film also surprisingly points to a scapegoat, though it ultimately fits Farhadi’s “family first” theme: those capable of hurting you deeply are still the same ones who know you the most intimately.  Even when they lie, there’s always part of them that wants to tell the truth.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Dir. Peter Jackson

3 out of 5

Unlike the individual Lord of the Rings films, which could reasonably stand on their own as self-contained stories in a larger dramatic arc, there’s no getting around the fact that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is an obvious continuation of last year’s An Unexpected Journey.  Since the two films share many of the same strengths and weaknesses, it seems appropriate to evaluate Smaug with a eye toward the progress (or lack thereof) made from one installment to the next.  Consider the following more of a mid-term evaluation than a traditional review.

1. Tastes Great, Less Filling

When stretching a 300-page novel into an entire trilogy of nearly-three-hour films, the addition of filler is inevitable.  This is less apparent in Smaug, partially because it’s almost 20 minutes shorter than Journey, but also because director Peter Jackson does a better job of identifying and sticking to a consistent narrative through-line: the quest of exiled dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his compatriots to enter the Lonely Mountain and reclaim a precious artifact with the help of shy hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman).  Still, everything with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) remains tangential, and his investigation into the return of an evil necromancer is a head-scratching distraction.

2. ‘Lord of the Rings’ Lite

In case you weren’t tipped off by the characters, locations, music, costumes, editing style, running time, title fonts, and shiny golden ring that turns mild-mannered hobbits into violent meth-head tweakers, Smaug does everything in its power to remind you that it’s just like those other movies you liked ten years ago.  After hitting a nadir in the tacked-on first scene (featuring a rather conspicuous cameo), successive callbacks are mostly tasteful despite a lack of any good reason for being besides our existing familiarity with that “other” trilogy.  At least this movie’s LOTR refugee, elf warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom), fits more naturally into the material, as does his female counterpart, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, portraying a character created specifically for the film), when Bilbo and friends find themselves imprisoned in the elf stronghold of Mirkwood.  Their presence adds depth to Jackson’s pluralistic portrayal of the many races that coexist in Middle-Earth, but...

3. ‘The Hobbit’ or ‘The Dwarf’?

The most problematic aspect of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was its cavalier attitude toward the titular character, often giving the impression that his adventure was a side dish in an all-you-can-eat buffet of Tolkienania.  This problem remains in The Desolation of Smaug and is exacerbated by the film’s turn to setpiece-heavy action storytelling.  Few directors can orchestrate a spectacle like Jackson (just avoid seeing it in a high frame rate presentation), and it’s impossible to deny the kinetic pleasure of a daring barrel-aided escape through treacherous rapids and bloodthirsty orcs.  

But Jackson pays even less attention to his nominal star this time out.  The centerpiece of Journey - a battle of wits between Bilbo and the feral, ring-obsessed Gollum - is replicated to a less satisfying degree as an extended tete-a-tete with the fearsome dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Instead, the focus is instead on rough-and-ready characters like Thorin, Legolas, and the sympathetic barge captain Bard (Luke Evans).  One of the more valid criticisms of the otherwise miraculous Lord of the Rings trilogy was that Jackson turned a naif’s journey into a parade of badasses, a flaw that The Hobbit prequels throw into even sharper relief.

4. Et Tu, Bilbo?

Bilbo’s final line of dialogue in An Unexpected Journey - “I do believe the worst is behind us” - was famously and unfairly mocked by many a critic upon the film’s release.  But The Desolation of Smaug is seriously tempting fate by again ending on a prophetic one-liner: “Oh no, what have I done?”  It would be easy to poke fun at this coincidence, citing the fundamental disconnect between Jackson’s dauntless wide-angle approach to adapting a quirky, picaresque, single-character-driven novel.  But I won’t.  After all, Jackson still has one more movie to bring his grade up.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

American Hustle

American Hustle (2013)
Dir. David O. Russell

4 out of 5

American Hustle begins with a title card that states "some of these things actually happened": it's a stroke of genius that simultaneously serves as a timely rejoinder to this year's glut of "based on/inspired by true/real events" films and announces the freewheeling tone for director David O. Russell's disco era costume drama.  Using the late-1970s Abscam scandal (an FBI sting operation that used a fictitious Middle Eastern sheikh to nab politicians taking bribes) as a jumping-off point, Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer concoct a frothy tale of deceit and double-crosses as the con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner/lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are forced to aid in an entrapment scheme devised by reckless FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  After the feds bust the pair for running comparatively petty scams, Richie smells an opportunity to advance his own career by using their unique skills to expose corrupt public servants trading political favors for cash.  It's a triangular story of professional compromise and romantic tension in the guise of a traditional crime saga, peppered with the type of shaggy, quasi-cynical humor that characterized Russell's last effort, Silver Linings Playbook.

But, befitting a story about confidence men, American Hustle is a film that only feels loosey-goosey.  In reality, it's a highly polished, meticulously plotted Hollywood machine, and that machine has three fine-tuned parts in the three stars of Russell's mini-repertory ensemble.  There's Cooper at his cocksure finest, mining the innate douchiness of his overreaching striver for maximum comedic effect; Adams as a steely-eyed operator rocking a wardrobe comprised entirely of garments that foreshadow Jennifer Lopez's infamous Grammy dress; and Bale, balding and paunchy, reveling in a schlubby charisma that makes his character easy to underestimate but impossible to write off.  Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence compliment the main trio as a well-meaning mayor and Irving's loopy, indiscreet wife, respectively, two characters that further complicate the results of Hustle's elaborate shell game with their unexpected candor.

Perhaps the greatest trick that Russell plays is convincing audiences that this is anything new.  Just as Russell's The Fighter clearly considered itself a spiritual successor to Raging BullAmerican Hustle determinedly borrows everything that Scorsese didn't nail to the floor in Goodfellas.  Despite some unnecessary structural horseplay (a flash-forward opening that circles back around in about 15 minutes, voiceover narration delivered by three different characters), Russell is amazingly adept at re-purposing these elements into a breezily efficient and humorous package.  He somehow manages to both pay homage to and demystify the archetypes romanticized by Scorsese, as American Hustle is focused less on the traditional payoffs of the big heist or moral comeuppance than the petty character disputes between these crooked figures, who are more than a few rungs below the top of the food chain.  This is a movie where perhaps the biggest conniver, Richie, offers an explanation of his grandiose ambition to...his mother, whom he still lives with, while his hair is bound by dozens of tiny pink curlers.  

As the FBI operation pushes the players deeper into a political skins game that eventually attracts a powerful and violent Mafia kingpin, it becomes clear that everyone is trying to punch way above their weight class.  The film's beauty ultimately derives from the tragicomic acceptance of its characters' limitations, communicated in loving detail through everything from the setting (Renner's clout is minimized by the fact that he's not the mayor of New York, or even Philly, but Camden, New Jersey) to Irving's elaborate grooming regimen.  American Hustle may be derivative in a macro sense, but it's definitely unique in it illustrates the pitfalls of upward mobility, drawing a distinction between the people who think they can control the entire chessboard and those happy to play a lesser role if it helps to satisfy their personal agenda.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen

4.5 out of 5

The films of Joel and Ethan Coen exist in worlds of their own making.  Like little idiosyncratic capsules of human behavior where mood and feeling matter more than a plot, these movies are all about twisting together the frayed ends of coincidence.  To wit, a cat whose name is revealed late in the third act may go a long way in unlocking Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ fantastic Joyce-ian fable about the American folk music scene of the early 1960s.  Oscar Isaac portrays the eponymous Davis, a frustrated folk singer whose former bandmate committed suicide by leaping off the George Washington Bridge.  It’s a portrait of the artist as a compulsively watchable asshole, his emotions constantly jeopardizing his relationships with a small number of allies that only dwindles over the course of the film.

Llewyn Davis may be cinema’s most compelling character of the year.  With a songbird’s voice and a mule’s heart, he is just another beast of burden trudging between Greenwich Village coffeehouses and lounges, part of a singular species in which everyone has a box of unsold LPs propping up an end table.  Offstage, Llewyn is quite unlikable: sarcastic, glib, and kind of a hypocrite.  He questions the artistic integrity of one bohemian friend but isn’t above recording a novelty single about the Space Race for some quick cash.  Later, he hides behind the shield of professionalism when his patronizing uptown friends try to make him literally sing for his supper.

Alas, it’s only through music that Llewyn can truly communicate and connect with others, as long as they’re willing to listen.  Inside Llewyn Davis is full of seamlessly integrated musical performances by Isaac, as well as co-stars Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan as a married pair of musicians.  Mulligan’s character is particularly harsh to Llewyn – for very good reasons – but her fury pales in comparison to the indignity he suffers as a travel companion to a dismissive and imperious jazz legend (John Goodman, making the most of every single frame) as well as the owner of a Chicago nightclub (F. Murray Abraham) where Llewyn makes a desperate attempt to secure a gig.

Inside Llewyn Davis never suggests that its antihero is of any exceptional merit, but neither does it assert that he’s entirely deserving of this shabby treatment.  Llewyn is more like an avatar for the Coens’ mordant sense of humor about the universe.  (See also: Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man; Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski)  Even it most touching scenes are fraught with potential embarrassment and the looming threat of disappointment – Llewyn’s attempt to reconcile with his father runs the gamut from awkward to moving to mortifying.  Yet none of this is accomplished with any hint of malice.  It’s just the hint of bitterness that makes Inside Llewyn Davis’ underlying sweetness more palatable;, you’ll hardly notice when the movie is playing your heartstrings like a Gibson.  Once again the Coens have managed to hide genuine emotion within a masterfully-designed quirkiness and imbue 100 minutes of failure with a foolhardy yet entirely human yearning for hope.  Maybe Llewyn will never get it right, but he has to keep trying.  Indeed, it’s the best that any of us can do.  

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Out of the Furnace

Out of the Furnace (2013)
Dir. Scott Cooper

3 out of 5

Broad metaphorical strokes abound in Out of the Furnace, a hardscrabble blue collar drama about a steel mill worker named Russell Baze (Christian Bale) whose life is upended after a fatal drunk driving accident.  After stoically serving his time in prison, Russell spends most of the film as the embodiment of the ex-con with the heart of gold – painting windows, visiting his father’s grave, tearing up when his ex-girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) announces that she’s carrying another man’s baby.  Then, with director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) cranking the symbolism to a fever pitch, Russell lands the film’s haymaker: after quarrying a deer on a hunting trip, he stares deep into its eyes and refuses to pull the trigger.

How you respond to that sort of trope will likely determine how much you enjoy Out of the Furnace.  Granted, there is a lot to like on the film’s margins concerning Russell’s younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a down-and-out Iraq War veteran forced to support himself by taking dives in illegal boxing matches organized by local crime boss John Petty (Willem Dafoe).  Itching for a bigger payday, Rodney convinces a reluctant Petty to strike a deal with Harlan DeGroat (a quietly terrifying Woody Harrelson), a drug-running hillbilly with the influence and manpower to back up his violent reputation.

Still, Russell is the film’s narrative glue, and Cooper determinedly constructs the action around him.  Yet despite another intense, dark-night-of-the-soul performance from Bale, these scenes tend to sap the momentum built up by the course of events taking place far from him.  Placed in an impossible position by his brother’s carelessness and wondering whether to trade his personal freedom for his family’s redemption, Russell should be smoldering.  Instead, he simply thaws – a puzzling choice considering the prominence of the movie’s forge metaphor.
Though blessed with an excellent cast and a hauntingly-rendered setting courtesy of cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, Out of the Furnace’s eagerness to live up to awards-season expectations means it lacks in originality.  Cooper underutilizes Saldana and Forest Whitaker in a go-nowhere subplot, and has a tendency to lean on contrivances and misdirection in place of suspense.  (A misplaced cell phone is used in particularly groan-inducing fashion.)  Out of the Furnace turns things around in time to remain intriguing, but it plods along with a grim, fatalistic sense of purpose that undercuts a fine message about Russell’s struggle to exercise his free will.  “It doesn’t have to be like this” shouts one of the players in the climax – a notion made somewhat frustrating when the inevitability of its conclusion seems spelled out in big, bold letters.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Frozen (2013)
Dirs. Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck

4 out of 5

Fairytales are by nature didactic, but the storied Walt Disney Animation Studios appears to have learned some lessons from its competition in its latest offering based on a classic fable.  A loose adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Snow Queen,” Frozen finds the Mouse House steadily inching away from its tradition-bound heritage while retaining a sense of elegance.  It’s truly a hybrid of a film: an old-school cartoon musical (arguably the studio’s first since The Princess and the Frog) that crackles with the kinetic energy of a Dreamworks Animation picture and playfully subverts cinematic tropes like the upstarts at Pixar.

Frozen clearly aspires to be more like the latter, especially in the way it builds up one set of expectations only to wind up at a completely different destination by the story’s end.  The film takes place in a fictional Nordic kingdom where the royal heir, Ilsa (Idina Menzel), was born with the power to conjure snow and ice out of thin air.  A childhood accident involving her little sister Anna (Kristen Bell) drives their parents to keep Ilsa’s abilities a secret, isolating her from a world that’s unlikely to comprehend and accept her meteorological powers.

Ilsa eventually does accidentally send her realm into an eternal winter and, feeling distraught, retreats to an elaborate ice castle high in the mountains.  It is here that the buried lede finally emerges, as Anna embarks on a quest to coax her estranged sister back home while discovering that she’s even more sheltered and naïve than the sibling who rarely emerged from her bedroom for almost two decades.  Ilsa and Anna are atypically complex characters in a movie aimed at small children, a trait which screenwriter Jennifer Lee – part of the writing team for last year’s superlative Wreck-It Ralph – establishes early in the film’s exposition-heavy first act.  Lee also co-directed the film with Chris Buck, and together they delight in messing with the tried-and-true structure of Disney musicals: see Ilsa’s showstopping number “Let It Go,” which morphs the traditional “villain song” into a soaring affirmation of self.

Frozen is a very good film with flashes of greatness, notable for its unique emphasis on sisterhood and a healthy approach to the obligatory romance angle.  Anna has two love interests – the dashing prince Hans (Santino Fontana) and the humble ice seller Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) – but her arc is consciously feminist, and the movie offers comparatively mature instruction on love and relationships, setting up a palpable contrast in the musical score – compare the early bombast of “Love Is An Open Door,” with the demystifying “Fixer-Upper,” sung by a chorus of roly-poly trolls.  The film’s few sour notes come when it leans too heavily on the precedents of other, subpar animated films.  The comic relief character Olaf the snowman (Josh Gad) feels like a sop to the rambunctiousness of brasher franchises, and Disney is still struggling to establish a unique visual identity in the CGI era, as saucer eyes and smirks abound. 

Yet Frozen is far from a tongue-in-cheek meta-fest – it’s a children’s film with the courage to take its themes seriously.  Continuing the work of Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen trades simplicity for growth capacity, creating an experience that will only grow more rewarding as its demographic ages and gains experience.  As it turns out, Disney is still devoted to the old-fashioned business of teaching life lessons, but Frozen is yet another sign that its pedagogy has finally entered the 21st century.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
Dir. Francis Lawrence

3.5 out of 5

The opening scene of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire effectively hits the reset button, as if to suggest that its predecessor was nothing but a bad dream:  Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is back in the hardscrabble environs of her home, bow in hand, hunting illegal game for sustenance.  That illusion is shattered, however, when Katniss imagines one of her targets as a victim from the state-sanctioned deathmatch known as the Hunger Games, which she recently won by threatening to commit suicide with her fellow competitor and sham boyfriend Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).  She can’t shake the trauma, especially when life outside the arena proves just as ruthless as the dystopian bloodsport used to distract and mollify the masses.

Catching Fire benefits from a massive budgetary upgrade to expand the world of Panem, where the elite of the central Capitol exploit the labor and resources of their nation’s impoverished, far-flung districts, none more marginalized than Katniss and Peeta’s District 12.  But their romantic play-acting is interpreted by some as an act of defiance – the audiences on their awkward victory tour seethe with anger towards the government, pushing the country to the brink of rebellion.  Unwilling to make Katniss a martyr, the embattled President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and new game designer – wait for it – Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) devise their masterstroke: put Katniss back in a special edition of the Games, an “all-star” version that pits past winners against each other in an extravaganza that promises to eliminate the people’s idol, and earn boffo ratings.

Under the care of a new director (Francis Lawrence) and new screenwriters (Slumdog Millionaire’s Simon Beaufoy and Little Miss Sunshine’s Michael Arndt), Catching Fire surpasses the original in both narrative stakes and visual panache.  More really is more, especially when it comes to the Games themselves, which now include older, deadlier opponents and a constantly-changing arena that only heightens the players’ sense of hopelessness against the system.  The decadence and moral rot suggested by the first film is bolded and underlined here, a continued skewering of reality TV, manufactured celebrity culture, and audience manipulation.

That being said, there’s still a lot about this world that feels unnecessarily vague.  In confining its social commentary to the most general, shopworn slogans (have you heard the one about the bread and circuses?), Catching Fire foments a revolution in search of a metaphor.  This opening stretch feels longer and less novel than it did the first time around.  The film zips through a handful of convoluted subplots and political machinations that I suspect will take on a greater meaning in the planned sequels.  At the moment, it’s simply killing time before killing time.

Nevertheless, it’s still clear what The Hunger Games has going for it.  The star quality of Lawrence, who cycles through so many emotions from fear to despair to determination without losing the innate decency so fundamental to Katniss.  The visceral impact and suspense of the Games, introducing new wrinkles to quench the audience’s thirst for novelty.  The courage to clothe its grim self-seriousness in outrageous Capitol fashions and memorably silly phraseology like ‘Quarter Quell’ and ‘Jabberjay.’ (And, in case you forgot, ‘Plutarch Heavensbee’!)  Ultimately, Catching Fire follows an effective blueprint for a franchise picture: the basic foundation may be prefab, but it’s more than made up for in distinct and entrancing personal accoutrements.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Catch-Up: Fall 2013

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  In this edition: four films with strong authorial points of view on civil rights, masculinity, relationships, World.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Dir. Lee Daniels

2.5 out of 5

While “history is biography” no longer flies as a maxim in the academic world, the movies just keep on trying.  Case in point: Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a film that takes its inspiration of the life of an actual long-time White House servant and molds it into a Forrest Gump-esque journey through the African-American experience of the late 20th century.  Part family melodrama, part fabric-of-America saga, The Butler stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, who rises from a traumatic childhood in the sharecropping fields of Georgia to become a domestic worker at the residence of the most powerful person in America.  

The director of Precious and The Paperboy remains uninterested in subtlety, as Cecil eavesdrops on a succession of presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan (played by a variety of stars in supremely distracting cameos, though John Cusack makes a delectable Nixon), while his radicalized son (the underrated David Oyelowo) takes a Zelig-like journey through every crucial moment of the civil rights movement from 1960 to 1985.  It’s an overstuffed, frequently corny history lesson sprinkled with some truly powerful, emotionally affecting sequences.  

That’s just another way of saying it’s unmistakably Daniels, bursting with ambition and passion yet hamstrung by several off-key moments and sloppy filmmaking - his idea of attention to detail is to put a Rubik’s Cube on the desk of a Reagan-era administrator.  The Butler is yet another Daniels film carried by its talented cast, but not even they can hide the movie’s significant flaws.

Dir. Randy Moore

4 out of 5

There's a lot of psychological baggage to unpack in writer-director Randy Moore's Escape from Tomorrow, a nightmarish farce of a family vacation gone awry.  Jim (Roy Abramsohn) is a middle-class dad accompanying his wife and two young children on a trip to the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.  And while Jim is cast in the mold of Clark Griswold from the Vacation films - right down to his futile attempts to salvage no-win situations - he shares none of Griswold's chipper enthusiasm.  Jim's trip is a hallucinatory descent into family man hell, as his long-suppressed id begins to revolt against the stresses of fatherhood and marital fidelity.

For first half of the movie, it feels like Moore is intent on recycling tropes about the "dark side" of the Disney empire.  He revels in depictions of unwholesome behavior at the Happiest Place on Earth: Jim ignores his family to follow two nubile French teenagers around the park, succumbs to a temptress on a park bench, and gets embarrassingly shitfaced on a spin around Epcot Center.  It all builds to a bizarre interlude in an imagined secret bunker underneath the Spaceship Earth attraction, where it's finally made clear that Moore's agenda is much broader than a takedown of corporate conformity.

Moore filmed much of Escape from Tomorrow on Disney property in Orlando and Anaheim without the company's consent (some complex/objectionable scenes are achieved via unconvincing green screen), a fact that has generated praise for the sheer chutzpah of his guerrilla filmmaking style.  It's quite a feat, but it's not inherently impressive until Moore establishes a genuine emotional imperative for his efforts to achieve such realism.  The last twenty minutes of Escape from Tomorrow introduce themes that are both personal (drawing on Moore's memories of spending time with his father at Disney World) and universal (the psychic effect of a break from the "real world").  The location is not at fault; rather, it's the notion of indulging fantasies that distort our perception of reality, creating a disconnect that lingers long after the vacation is over.

Dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt

3.5 out of 5

Few young stars can boast a work ethic as tireless as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the director, writer, and star of Don Jon, a movie equally inspired by the famous Renaissance libertine and the hyper-masculine fitness and laundry enthusiasts of MTV's Jersey Shore.  Packing pounds of muscle onto his cherubic frame, Gordon-Levitt transforms himself into the titular cocky, slick-talking womanizer whose litany of conquests still doesn’t satisfy him as much as his beloved internet porn.  Jon vows to turn a new leaf when he starts dating the stunning Barbara (Scarlett Johannson), but finds his porn habit hard to break, even as his new girlfriend is able to exert a considerable influence on his life in several other ways.

Originally titled Don Jon’s Addiction, the movie’s romantic conceit is really a stalking horse for an exploration of sexual expectations in the digital age.  For someone with a résumé as diverse and idiosyncratic as Gordon-Levitt’s, Don Jon isn’t much of a curveball - this is still a world where female characters exist mainly to trigger the epiphanies of a male protagonist.  But credit JGL for his open-mindedness and sense of humor.  Jon is a man whose life is defined by a routine that starts off as faintly ridiculous (he counts off weightlifting reps by reciting that week's assigned Hail Marys), but it's not until he forms an unlikely bond with night school classmate Esther (a pleasantly warm Julianne Moore) that he recognizes the severity of his emotional disconnect.  It’s a simple message, but one told affably and with conviction and without castigating Jon’s other lifestyle choices - about what you’d expect from a nice, hard-working showbiz kid like Gordon-Levitt.

Dallas Buyers Club
Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée

3.5 out of 5

A frank yet earnest snapshot of the AIDS crisis, Dallas Buyers Club dramatizes the life of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a macho electrician, hustler, and part-time rodeo cowboy who, after contracting HIV at a time that it was still considered a “gay disease,” circumvented FDA regulations to obtain unapproved pharmaceutical treatments for the illness – first for himself, then for a community largely ignored or marginalized by the medical establishment.  Directed by Quebecois filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée, Dallas Buyers Club repels treacle thanks to its setting – unmistakably Texan, but also indicative of the disease’s nationwide impact – and its mostly unsentimental tone.  The latter is attributable almost entirely to Woodroof, an indomitable and deeply flawed individual played in a bravura performance by a wiry, gaunt McConaughey.  Woodroof doesn’t simply want to survive, he wants to live, and his compelling struggle practically turns the film into a character study.

In fact, it may be preferable to think of Dallas Buyers Club that way instead of as a white heterosexual narrative of the early battles against ignorance and misinformation in the AIDS epidemic.  The movie’s portrayal of the gay community is by no means monolithic – Woodroof eventually partners with a transgender woman named Rayon (Jared Leto) to market his alternative remedies – but it’s stuck playing second fiddle.  There’s also the film’s distinct libertarian streak which, although unique, sets up a number of straw men to be blown away by the colorfully offensive Texan’s bluster.  The enemy is not only Big Pharma, but also doctors – save for one sympathetic physician played by Jennifer Garner – and government regulators loyal to a self-serving system that keeps individuals from seeking their own solutions. 

Still, Dallas Buyers Club triumphs by focusing on the changes in Woodroof.  The disease precipitates a complete personal transformation, a motivation to learn more – about AIDS, about medical research, about the world (he becomes incredibly well-traveled for a guy who starts the movie in a trailer park), and about himself.  Like any good social issue drama, Dallas Buyers Club views controversy as a teachable moment: one that’s equally instructive for its characters and its audience.