The Theory of Everything(11/7/2014)/The Imitation Game(12/28/2014)

12-28-2014Theory-Imitation

I’m usually not a big fan of labeling prestige movies you don’t like as “Oscar bait” but every once in a while a film is guilty as charged.  It used to be that the movies which were obvious Oscar bait were the big expensive epics like Out of Africa or The English Patient but it’s been a really long time since a particularly large budget movie has actually won Best Picture, so the Harvey Weinsteins of the world have readjusted their targets.  Today the movies that have the best Oscar chances are the ones that are small enough to be considered underdogs, but still large enough to be recognizably a studio film.  These movies are supposed to be dramas, preferably ones based on true stories, which have very simple messages and are told in very traditional and mainstream ways that are in no ways “arty” even if they initially open up in so-called “arthouses.”  Bonus points if they’re British, double points if they have simplistic messages to deliver about some social issue or other, and triple bonus points if they’re set during World War II.  In general, movies for old people who don’t want unchallenging entertainment but also don’t necessarily want to go to the effects spectacles that Hollywood generally sells to the masses.  There’s usually only one movie each year that hits all these points but this year we got two of them, each one more desperate in their “Oscar bait” qualities than the last: the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything and the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game.  In fact these movies are so uncannily complimentary that I thought I’d do something a little different with them and review both at the same time.

So, obviously these are both biopics of famous British scientists afflicted with debilitating problems.  In the case of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) that problem is of course the ALS which left him all but paralyzed and forced to speak by typing into a voice synthesis and in the case of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) that was (in the movie at least) an almost autistic level of social awkwardness and the fact that he was a homosexual in a less than tolerant era.  The Theory of Everything is largely about Hawkings’s marriage to his college girlfriend Jane Wilde Hawking (Felicity Jones) while The Imitation Game focuses in on Turing’s attempts to crack the German Enigma code and his relationship with a smart code breaker named Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightly), who is herself something of a fish out of water as a woman working in a man’s field.

Both of these films come from filmmakers who are relative newcomers.  The Theory of Everything was directed by James Marsh, a filmmaker who’s made three fictional features which received minimal exposure and a pair of very popular though slightly over-rated documentaries called Man on Wire and Project NimThe Imitation Game was directed by a Norwegian filmmaker named Morten Tyldum, who’s most famous for making a genre film called Headhunters, a film I never got around to watching and which seems to have very little in common with his latest film.  Neither film does anything overly special with their visuals exactly.  The Imitation Game is basically just trying to imitate the visual stylings of The King’s Speech minus the off-center camera angles (AKA, the only interesting thing about that movie’s visual style).  The Theory of Everything isn’t exactly trying to do anything too different, but you could tell that Marsh has something of a visual eye for filmmaking.  He picks interesting angles here and there and he also knows how not to play into certain obvious script beats as heavily.  Another advantage for Team Hawkings is that it generally has a more memorable original score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, which generally trumps Alexandre Desplat’s (another King’s Speech alum) often intrusive score for The Imitation Game.

The advantage on the side of Team Turing is that it’s generally a more focused movie with more of a clear central conflict to work through.  Where The Theory of Everything is basically just a chronological run-through of the highlights and lowlights of Hawkings’ life and marriage, The Imitation Game very specifically focuses on Turing’s work on the Enigma code and his race to help end the war with a couple of flashbacks and flash-forwards to help flesh out his life story.  Also, given the hardships that Turing went through later in his life the film isn’t really able to entirely rest on a “triumph of the human spirit over adversity” story, but it sure as hell tries.  The message of the film is that sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine, I know this because characters in the film actually say that sentence out loud not once, not twice, but three freakin’ times just to make this corny  sentiment absolutely condescendingly clear to everyone in the audience.  When the film finally brings up the downer ending of Turings life it almost feels like a coda to the film’s true climax.

Questionable as all that is, it’s still feels gritty and tough when compared to the aggressive pleasantness that defines The Theory of Everything.  I guess it would be wrong to say that the life of someone with a debilitating illness like Stephen Hawkings is without struggle, but the film sure makes it seem that way.  We do certainly see the struggles with Hawkins’ health problems but his interactions with other people seem almost idyllic.  He’s got a doting wife with seemingly saint-like patience, friends and colleagues who are completely understanding of his problems and willing to accommodate them, and a career that is marked by almost nothing but success the whole way through.  Even when Hawkings’ marriage finally dissolves late in the film it is perhaps the single most amicable breakup scene in film history.  His wife doesn’t even show the slightest bit of resentment when she is more or less dumped after having shown Job-like patience up to this point.  Also, the movie’s final moment in which Hawkings puts forward his children as his greatest accomplishment rings completely hollow given the film’s complete lack of interest in said children up to this point.

Getting back to these movie’s status as Oscar bait, let’s talk about the two actors who are clearly vying for awards in the two movies.  Eddie Redmayne, who is probably best known as the twerp who shows up in the second half of Les Miserable, is not a very well-known actor but he does a pretty admirable job of potraying a young Stephen Hawking.  This is a pretty damn baity role that allows Redmayne to go all “My Left Foot” all over the screen.  In fact the role may end up being a little too baity for Oscar voters. This could almost be the physical disability version “going full retard” as Robert Downy Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder might have put it.  Benedict Cumberbatch is certainly a much more famous actor and while I’ve liked a lot of his work I can’t say I fully understand why the internet seems to be so singularly obsessed with him.  This Turing role is not too far removed from what we’ve seen him do before, after all his signature role of Sherlock Holmes is similarly eccentric and anti-social.  Harvey Weinstein seemed to know this, because the movie actually makes this character more eccentric than the real Alan Turing apparently was.  In the film Turing is not merely eccentric but more than likely on the Asperger’s spectrum, which was not true of the real Turing and the film also exaggerates the degree to which the chemical castration he received late in life physically manifested itself.

Those are not the only liberties that The Imitation Game took with the life of the real Alan Turing, in fact my cursory research seems to suggest that the movie uses “creative license” with something of a reckless abandon.  Turing’s actual computer was not named after his deceased childhood friend, his relationship with his real commanding officer and colleagues was significantly less adversarial, the Keira Knightly character has generally been expanded and emphasized more than is probably proportional, a scene in which the cryptographers are forced to decide whether or not to warn a ship of an impending Nazi attack is entirely invented, and Turing’s interactions with an MI6 agent towards the end were also invented for the film.  I don’t expect movies like this to be entirely factual and am well aware of the fact that liberties like this do sometimes need to be taken, but I don’t think any of these changes were for the better.  They almost all feel false on the screen and generally come off as hokey when they happen.  Even if they had all been true I would have suggested that some of them should have been changed to make the film seem less clichéd, but they are as phony as they initially seemed, and this is particularly jarring given that Turing’s story actually was interesting enough on its face and shouldn’t have needed these fabrications in order to work.

This is not to say that I think The Theory of Everything is an entirely factual endeavor itself, but when I watched it I didn’t feel an overwhelming phoniness to it.  In fact I almost feel like it could have used a little manufactured drama here and there in order to give it a little more conflict.  What’s more, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m giving The Theory of Everything a pass in general.  It is in no way a noteworthy film, it shouldn’t be in the awards season conversation in general (outside of maybe the Best Actor category), and I don’t recommend it.  That said, I went into that movie with pretty low expectations and it did manage to rise slightly (and I do mean slightly) above them and in general I think its only real crime is being kind of dull.  The Imitation Game on the other hand is a movie that I thought was kind of lame as I walked out of the theater and have come to be sort of infuriated by it the more I read about its historical distortions.  What’s sad is that it’s probably going to get a lot of support from people who will say that it’s an “important” story.  That’s true, the Turing story is important, but that doesn’t mean that this is a good movie.

The Theory of Everything: **1/2 out of Four

The Imitation Game: ** out of Four

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Top Five(12/14/2014)

12-14-2014TopFive

I’m not an expert in stand-up comedy, but I’ve certainly seen my share of comedy specials and I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of the elite names in the field.  If someone asked me about my top five stand-up comedians dead or alive the list would probably include George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Louis C.K., and Bill Hicks in some order or another, but my number one slot would almost certainly be reserved for Chris Rock.  I can certainly see why Carlin was more elegant, Pryor was more innovative, C.K. is more bold, and Hicks is more edgy, but no one has been able to make me laugh quite as hard as Chris Rock when he’s at his best.  His “Bring the Pain” special is probably the most brilliant hour of stand-up ever committed to film and he’s continued to put out great specials every few years ever since.  He’s a comic who can take hacky topics like the differences between men and women and through sheer force of personality spin them into gold and his observations about society continue to seem on point no matter how long he works.

There has of course been one major black spot on his resume and that’s his abysmal inability to translate his comedy into a film career.  Chris Rock the film actor hasn’t even had the decency to make movies that are memorably terrible, for the most part they’ve all just been painfully forgettable.  There have been some signs of progress, namely the 2007 film I Think I Love My Wife, which Rock also wrote and directed.  That wasn’t a “good” movie per se.  It wasn’t really all that funny and it didn’t really do much of anything, but it seem to signal that Rock was thinking about his career in the right way.  It was, of all things, a remake of Éric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon and it was clearly meant to be a sort of Woody Allen-esque examination of a wealthy married person’s marriage troubles.  It showed a softer side of Chris Rock and it didn’t really gel that well with his generally abrasive comedic persona.  Still the movie was something of a signal and a mission statement which basically said that Rock wasn’t going to reduce himself to starring in some of the high concept nonsense that some of his comic peers have been starring in.  He hasn’t always stuck to that, he’s certainly done supporting roles in dreck, but when he’s the star and chief creative force in something it’s usually going to at least be a valiant effort.  His latest film is the fruit of this new attitude: a comedy called Top Five which makes it clear from moment one that it’s being made by someone who’s run out of fucks to give and who thinks that now is the time to make a film that can live up to his work in stand-up.

The Paramount marketing department has not had the easiest time trying to cut trailers and T.V. spots for this film, in part because it doesn’t really have a high concept to hang on.  In the film Chris Rock plays a comedian/movie star named Andre Allen.  This character certainly has Rock’s comedic voice, but biographically he’s more of a composite of Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, and Kanye West.  Essentially he’s what the real Chris Rock could have turned into if he hadn’t been “keeping it real” all these years.  As the film opens, Allen is in a bit of a rut.  He’s decided he’s done making his popular “Hammy the Bear” movies (which involve a bear who’s a police officer) and his newfound desire to be taken seriously has led him to make a rather dreadful looking movie about the Haitian slave uprising in which he seems completely out of place.  He’s also engaged to a reality T.V. star for reasons that don’t seem to be entirely sincere, and he’s also struggling with a newfound sobriety.  It’s against this that he agrees to be the subject of a New York Times profile to be written by Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), and much of the film shows how this interview goes as Brown follows Allen around as he shows her a day in his life.

Structurally Top Five clearly bears a certain resemblance to the “two people walk through a city talking” format that was popularized by Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy.  The film doesn’t completely adhere to that formula or lean on it as a high concept, but it’s certainly there and you can tell pretty early on that this is going to be a story about a courtship between Andre Allen this journalist, which is a bit odd considering that Allen is supposed to be getting married shortly after this interview is finished.  Throughout the film Allen insists that his engagement to a reality star is sincere, but no one else in the movie takes this very seriously and neither does the film itself because his flirtations with Brown are never really treated as infidelities.  This relationship arc might have seemed a little more subtle in the script, but Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson have a lot of chemistry, which is generally great for the movie but as a byproduct it makes this romantic arc a lot less subtle.  Dawson generally excels at playing these kinds of smart and sexy dreamgirls and in some ways she actually steals the show here.

Beyond the two stars, Top Five is actually jam-packed with famous people and trendy actors in small roles and cameos.  J.B. Smoove shows up as Allen’s manager/bodyguard, Cedric the Entertainer has a memorable role as a trill player from Huston that Allen meets in an extended flashback and in even smaller roles you see appearances by everyone from Kevin Hart to Tracy Morgan to Jerry Seinfeld.  However, this is most definitely Chris Rock’s show and the comedy is plainly derived from his comic voice and sensibility.  It’s been a good six or so years since Rock has released a comedy special, and I suspect that this is because he’s been channeling his best jokes into this screenplay rather than into his stand-up.  You can hear a lot of this in Allen’s conversations with Brown, which range in topics from modern celebrity culture to race relations.  This is not to suggest that the movie is completely given over to tangential dialogue, but it isn’t afraid to go a bit off topic in the name of a laugh either.

It probably isn’t saying much but Top Five is easily Chris Rock’s best movie to date.  It’s made with a degree of energy and bite that has been missing from his previous film efforts.  As much as I like the film though, it isn’t quite the homerun that I wanted it to be.  The film’s cinematography is rather weak and digital-looking, which may have been an intentional decision made in order to give the film a bit more energy, but it often just looks cheap.  Beyond that there are just a couple of other little missteps that bring the film down here and there.  For instance, the fake films within the film do not really feel like pitch perfect parodies the way the fake movies in Funny People and Tropic Thunder did and there are a couple of times when the film pauses a little too long to go on comedic tangents.  Still, this is a pretty funny and enjoyable movie and for Rock it seems to be the answer to the career problem that is being mirrored by the Rock’s onscreen alter ego: it’s smarter than the likes of “Hammy the Bear” but not pretentious in the way that “Uprize” is.  It’s a fast paced, bitingly sarcastic and profane comedy, basically everything you want out of a Chris Rock product.

***1/2 out of Four

Foxcatcher(11/29/2014)

11-29-2014Foxcatcher

Warning: This review contains spoilers

If there’s any prominent filmmaker working today that I haven’t quite been able to peg done it’s probably Bennett Miller.  That’s not to suggest his film’s are strange or complicated, they’re not, but that it’s kind of been hard to really define what he’s all about as a filmmaker.  He certainly makes what you’d call “prestige films” that compete for Oscars, he used to work with Phillip Seymore Hoffman a lot (a fact that, unfortunately, will not inform his career going forward), and… yeah that’s about it.  His movies are all very well shot and acted and they all have a certain serious tone to them, but he doesn’t really have any signature shots or stylistic touches that I’ve really been able to identify.  Despite this I still feel like he’s an auteur, just not one who’s been overly quick to show his hand.  The irony of course is that for all we don’t know about him, we do know that his first film (Capote) was a true crime story and that his second film (Moneyball) was set in the world of sports and for his newest film (Foxcatcher) he’s managed to make a true crime story set in the world of sports.  Maybe he’s not such an enigma after all.

Foxcatcher tells the true story of a Greco-Roman wrestler named Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) who has just won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics but still sort of lives in the shadow of his older brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), who also won a gold medal at those Olympics and is thought to be more of a leader figure.  As the movie opens, Mark does not seem to be at the height of his prowess.  He’s clearly got money problems and his athletic prospects don’t seem to be booming, but much of that changes when he gets an invitation to meet an elusive millionaire named John du Pont (Steve Carrel) who is the heir to the du Pont family’s chemical company and fortune.  He also claims to be an avid ornithologist, philanthropist, patriot, and most importantly an enthusiast of wrestling.  Du Pont has dreams of building a first-class training facility for the U.S. wrestling team on the grounds of his Foxcatcher estate and he wants the Schultz brothers to be the cornerstone of this effort.  Dave is hesitant to uproot his family and move to Pennsylvania, but Mark sees it as a perfect opportunity to get back on top and signs on, but what he doesn’t realize is that he’s about to enter into one of the most psychologically taxing stages of his life and that his time in Foxcatcher will end with a tragedy.

The movie that Foxcatcher reminded me of the most was actually Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard.  Both films are about somewhat desperate protagonists who latch onto crazy rich people living in creepy mansions.  Like Norma Desmond, John du Pont is a lesson in what happens when wealthy people isolate themselves and are allowed to indulge their every whim by various enablers.  The main difference is that Wilder’s film was very specifically about the way movie stardom warps people, this one seems to be commenting on a more general form of affluenza.  It’s also a movie about the pitfalls of working in a patronage system, which would seem to be a cogent message in an era where people like Megan Ellison are increasingly in control of film production and political campaigns rest of the approval of the Sheldon Adelsons of the world.

John du Pont is brought to life by Steve Carrel, an actor who walked a line between goofiness and awkward creepiness for seven years on the American version of “The Office,” here he does a seemingly different but secretly similar thing by walking the line between awkward creepiness and goofiness.  Much has been written about his use of a prosthetic nose to better imitate his character.  It’s a seemingly odd choice given that very few people in the audience are going to know or care what the real John du Pont looked like, but I think this piece of makeup actually served a bigger purpose of giving Carrel a mask of sorts and helping him transform into someone who acts like a funhouse mirror reflection of his usual film persona.  Channing Tatum, by contrast, isn’t subverting his usual screen persona (that of the jock who isn’t overburdened with intelligence) so much as he’s humanizing it and making it more believable in a real world setting.  He’s clearly done a lot of work to mimic the physicality of an athlete pushed to a physical and psychological limit.  My favorite of the three big performances here is actually that of Mark Ruffalo, who once again proves to be a master of the seemingly rare talent of playing guys who are believably down to earth and likable.  Beyond that though, he isn’t subverting or leaning into an existing persona and probably gives the most truly transformative performance of the film.

Over the course of “award season” there has been a lot of discussion about who the lead actor of Foxcatcher is.  Almost everyone seems to agree that Mark Ruffalo is a supporting actor in the film, but there’s a lot of discussion about whether Carrel should be viewed as the film’s lead or if Tatum is the true lead and Carrel is just a very flashy supporting actor.  I for one subscribe to the “Tatum =Lead, Carrel = Supporting” for now, and I don’t bring this up out of a fascination with awards categorization, I bring it up because I think this is actually a key flaw in the film.  The movie begins and ends on Tatum’s character and, we’re introduced to du Pont through Tatum’s character, and there are very few scenes in the movie that aren’t explicitly told through the eyes of one of the Schultz brothers.  The problem is that, by far, the film’s most interesting character is not Mark Schultz, it’s John du Pont.

The most important arc in the film is du Pont’s descent into madness and we miss important steps in this process because we’re watching it through the eyes of third parties.  When Du Pont finally does become violent I wouldn’t say it came completely out of nowhere but it did feel like the movie skipped a couple of steps in the process of explaining how he had come to that point.  Looking up the real case I discovered that the events of the film actually seemed to occur over a much longer period of time than it had seemed in the film, and that might sort of help explain why this murderous element abruptly entered into the film, but the movie doesn’t explain this as organically as it could have if it really were focusing in on Du Pont rather than making him something of a cypher to the side.  I don’t want to give the impression that the guy doesn’t get a good amount of screentime, I think we are given something of a general idea of what ails him, but by making Mark Schultz the central character the film is never really able to go full-on There Will Be Blood with du Pont’s character and instead settles for being The Last King of Scotland.

There is a lot that Foxcatcher does right.  The acting in it is really good and the film is very well shot, edited, and staged.  Despite that, I feel like there’s a certain spark missing from the movie and it’s perhaps the same missing spark that kept me from really loving Bennett Miller’s other two films as much as I admired them.  The film just never seems to excel at any one thing and I’m not exactly sure why Miller thought this would be such a great story to tell.  He makes a big point of establishing Du Pont as an American exceptionalist, but I’m don’t think that really amounts to much.  Maybe he’s just focusing on the ways in which wealth warps people’s worldview or at the very least has a certain way of exasperating existing mental illnesses.  Or maybe it’s about the lower classes being beholden to the whims of crazy rich bosses.  There are definitely ideas to be gleamed from this whole episode, but Miller never really picks one and runs with it.  Make no mistake, Foxcatcher is a good movie.  It’s better than most of what’s going to ever be playing in any given multi-plex anyway, but as a prestige movie I kind of wanted it to amount to more than it eventually does.

*** out of Four

Citizenfour(11/16/2014)

11-16-2014Citizenfour

I first started documenting my film going in 2007 and since then I’ve written a review of every movie I’ve seen in theaters.  In that time I’ve seen well over 200 movies in the theaters almost none of them have been documentaries.  I saw Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure in theaters back in 2008 and that’s been about it.  That isn’t to say I’m not knowledgeable about modern documentaries, in fact I see about a dozen or so every year, but I don’t really do it in theaters.  Why is that?  Well, it’s mostly a matter of economics.  With unlimited time and money I’d be at the theater every day seeing every movie, but with my limited resources I sort of need to prioritize and feature length fiction is simply the meat and potatoes of my film diet while documentaries have sort of been a sideshow.  It’s not that I disrespect documentary filmmaking or anything, but I do view it as kind of a separate thing in much the way I think a non-fiction book is different from a novel, which is why I don’t really include docs on my top ten lists and generally tend to wait until they come out on DVD to see them.

So what was it about the new Laura Poitras that got me to buck that trend and head to the theaters to see a documentary?  A lot of it has to do with the film’s hyper relevance.  This is a movie that is not just being discussed amongst film aficionados; it’s also being heavily discussed in political and general media circles and it’s quickly becoming clear that it’s a film that needs to be seen in order to keep up with the zeitgeist.  This is, after all, about the story of the year: the Edward Snowden leaks.  Not only that but it’s being told by a documentarian who has been in on the story from day one.  Filmmaker Laura Poitras was in fact the person that Edward Snowden first managed to contact securely as was, along with journalist Glen Greenwald, the person who Snowden met that faithful day in a Hong Kong hotel in order to spill the beans on the government’s domestic and international privacy breaches.  This meeting is in fact the centerpiece of Citizenfour, we see the journalists set up a shoot in the hotel room and nervously conduct an impromptu interview, not necessarily one meant for public consumption but more to collect data.  They then report it and wait to see what the public reaction will be.

Citizenfour is not necessarily meant to serve as an all-encompassing survey of the entire Snowden Affair, and while it doesn’t entirely throw the audience into the deep end without explanation, it does generally expect its audience to have some familiarity with the story going in.  Instead, the point of the film seems to be to present the process of putting together and distributing a major leak to the public.  It is somewhat remarkable that this video footage exists at all.  We’re never going to see video documentation of Woodward and Bernstein meeting with Deepthroat but we do get to see what it looked like when Snowden explained PRISM to Greenwald and Poitras.  This footage with Snowden himself is probably about 30 to 40 percent of the film.  The rest of the film focuses on a variety of other subjects who are either responding directly to the leaks or who are just generally commenting on the implications of government surveillance.  Some of this material seems a little random, but for the most part it comes together and presents an argument.

There is one big problem with Citizenfour and that’s that the movie doesn’t really have an ending.  This is of course because the Snowden story hasn’t fully played out in real life, but it’s still a problem when looking at the documentary as a narrative.  The film’s most compelling character, Snowden, disappears from the film about half way through because Poitras has to leave Hong Kong.  Snowden only returns to the film for a short piece filmed in Russia which almost feels like a cliffhanger in the way it wraps up.  No doubt Poitras is still working on this story and I wouldn’t be shocked at all if she ends up releasing a follow-up film sometime in the future that may wrap things up, but as it stands the film feels incomplete and that is a definite sore spot.  Still, I do think this is a pretty damn solid documentary, and one that anyone with even the slightest interest in the NSA spying scandal should definitely see.

***1/2 out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 12/2/2014

Blue Ruin (11/12/2014)

11-12-2014BlueRuin

Blue Ruin is a revenge film about a disheveled vagrant who comes out of homeless obscurity in order to kill the recently released man who had murdered his parents years earlier. This plan eventually spirals out of control and re-ignites the feud between the vagrant and his potential victim’s family. It’s kind of a hard film to talk about because it is exceptionally well and doesn’t really have any substantial flaws to speak of, but which still feels kind of unremarkable just the same. The film is certainly an excellent calling card for director Jeremy Saulnier, who also serves as the film’s cinematographer, which is an important distinction because the film looks a hell of a lot more professionally shot than many of the indie flicks I’ve been seeing recently. The film also does a really good job with a largely unknown cast and there are some really well staged scenes scattered throughout the film which really elevates things. However, as well crafted as the film is I really didn’t think there was a whole lot to this story. On paper this is a pretty standard revenge story aside from the fact that it doesn’t overtly glamorize the central character’s quest for blood. I suppose that’s preferable to the more conventional revenge narratives being sold by the likes of The Equalizer and John Wick but I still don’t know that it’s as unique as it perhaps thinks it is. There are plenty of other movies out there which argue that revenge only begets cycles of revenge and aside from that I don’t think this movie really has all that much to offer.

*** out of four

12 O’Clock Boys (11/15/2014)

I am something of a fan of documentaries about “inner city issues” and the new documentary 12 O’Clock Boys finds an interesting entry point into a number of those issues. The film focuses on a group of young African-Americans in Baltimore who have begun illegally driving dirt bikes and ATVs through the city while doing wheelies and various other tricks. I was vaugly familiar with this phenomenon because of a Meek Mill music video but didn’t really know that it had a name or what its origins were before seeing this documentary. It doesn’t really come out and ask it too often, but I’m pretty sure the central question that the film is trying to ask is whether or not the police, the media, and society are being unfair to these bikers and if similar activities would be met with more approval if these were suburban white kids instead of poor black kids. Personally I think that might be the wrong question because I don’t know that any of the 12 O’clock boys would really be all that interested in this hobby if it wasn’t illegal and frowned upon by authority. To me it seems like this is meant to be a way to snub authority figures without having to delve into the world of drug sales and other harsher varieties of crime. Director Lotfy Nathan does probably deserve credit for having found this topic, but he never really seems to get ideal access to this world, most of the film focuses on outsiders and periphery participants, specifically a young kid named Pug who aspires to one day be one of these kids. Ultimately I feel like a better movie could have been made with this material, but 12 O’Clock boys did provide some good food for thought just the same

*** out of Four

11-15-201412OClockBoys

We Are the Best! (11/20/2014)

11-20-2014WeAreTheBest This Swedish film about a group of middle school aged girls in the early 80s who form an amateurish punk band has gained something of a following over the last year.  “Formed a band” is perhaps misleading.  The movie does not seem to be implying that what we are watching is the beginnings of a band that will one day become a big thing, rather this merely seems like a sort of hobby/game for a group of bored tweens.  Of course Punk Rock is an ethos that is so rooted in raw energy that to call any punk band “amateurish” is perhaps to miss the point.  I think that the film is suggesting that these girls are, in their own small potatoes way, more “punk” than a lot of the punk bands that went on to fame and fortune.  Overall, it’s a decent enough slice of life, but that isn’t necessarily what I usually look for in a movie, I’m more into stories that feel a little more substantial both to the characters and to the viewers.  Also, I’ve got to say that from a visual persective this movie leave a little bit to be desired.  Stories about punk rock probably shouldn’t be to expensive and elaborate, but this just kind of looks half assed in a handful of respects.

*** out of Four

Korengal (11/28/2014)

The 2010 documentary Restrepo was one of the greatest documentaries ever made about the Iraq/Afghanistan wars.  It was a really tense look at a camp in the middle of a volatile region of Afghanistan and the soldiers who fought to control the region.  Now, four years later, Sebastian Junger has made another film about the Restrepo camp.  This isn’t exactly a sequel; it takes place at the same time as the first film and is made up of footage that was shot at the same time as the footage that was used in Restrepo.  Instead of using Restrepo’s cinema vérité approach the film is actually largely built around a number of interviews with the various soldiers who were at the Restrepo camp which were shot after they arrived home.  The film is less about the combat situations and more about what day to day life is like at the Restrepo camp.  There is some value to this footage as it gives a different and perhaps more accurate picture of what life was like for these guys than Restrepo (which cut out more of the boring lulls) did, but as a film its significantly less compelling.  It feels more like it should have been some kind of bonus feature on the Restrepo blu-ray rather than a feature film unto itself because it generally feels like a very minor work in comparison to its predecessor.

**1/2 out of Four

11-28-2014Korengal

Chef (12/2/2014)

12-2-2014Chef Chef is John Favreau’s return to independent filmmaking after making back to back Iron Man movies and Cowboys Vs. Aliens, and it’s not afraid to point this out.  The movie is meant to be a pretty blunt allegory for Favreau’s own career given that it’s about a guy who considers himself an artist who just can’t soar while under the dictating control of a businessman trying to get back to his roots and make something special.  Here’s the thing though… Chef is many things: it’s amiable, it’s entertaining, it’s charming, but it is not by any means bold art meant to challenge anyone.  It’s certainly not the film equivalent of an innovative gormet resturaunt, and given that it’s filled with celebrities I don’t think it can really claim to be the film equivalent of a scrappy food truck either.  Really this is the film equivalent of something like an Applebees or something, and there is a place for such things I guess, but if you’re going to talk a big game about breaking from “the man” and bringing out your inner artist you’ve got to come out swinging with something a hell of a lot stronger than this.  I don’t want to be too hard on the film, it does work as breezy entertainment and a lot of its look at the culinary world seems authentic.  I’m going to narrowly give it a pass, but it writes checks that it can’t cash and that kind of makes me disrespect it more than I otherwise might.

*** out of Four 

Force Majeure(11/9/2014)

11-9-2014ForceMajeure

Warning: This review contains spoilers in its second half.

Every May I diligently focus all sorts of attention to what’s going on at the Cannes Film Festival.  I diligently jot down a list of all the movies that are in competition and keep my eyes peeled to Variety and The Hollywood Reporter to see which film is in position to win the prestigious Palme d’or.  What I haven’t been doing, however, is keeping a keen enough eye on what’s been going on in the “Un Certain Regard” section and with the Director’s Fortnight.  This is increasingly beginning to seem like a mistake because all too often a movie featured in one of those programs will come along and blindside me, especially if it doesn’t have a name-brand director at the helm.  That was the case with Force Majeure, a Swedish movie from a fairly obscure filmmaker which I hadn’t really heard anything about at all until it opened stateside a week or two ago to solid reviews.  As such I ended up going to it with very little idea of what it was or what to expect out of it, which is not really a position I’m used to being in.

The film is set at a ski resort in France which is being visited by an upper middle-class Swedish family on vacation.  The vacation seems to be going well until one day while the family is eating lunch on a balcony patio they see an avalanche that seems to be coming towards them.  It turns out that this “avalanche” is nothing to worry about.  It was intentionally set off (albeit at the wrong time) and the bulk of the snow never reached the second floor patio the family is eating at but it’s still rather frightening in the moment and the husband,Thomas (Johannes Kuhnke), responds by running for his life while the rest of the family hunkers down.  Once it’s apparent that they were never in danger the family sits back down to eat, but the incident still lingers in their minds.  The wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli) confronts Thomas about his act of cowardice, but Thomas insists that she misinterpreted what happened and that he wasn’t really running away, which Ebba finds less than convincing.  Eventually this really starts to snowball and begins to be a wedge that could potentially divide the two if it goes unchecked.

The central theme of Force Majeure would seem to be masculinity as it basically has the husband being challenged for his cowardice and his resulting shame.  The film seems to question whether there’s really a place for traditional conceptions of male toughness and courage in modern middle-class society.  It actually reminded me a lot of this episode of the show “Louie” called “Bully” where Louie is challenged to a fight by a teenager. After he balked at that immature challenge he’s soon told by his date that, while she intellectually believed that was the right thing to do, it was still a pretty big turn-off.  That act of emasculation sent Louie into an existential crisis and pretty much the same thing happens in this movie.  The husband gets really confused and embarrassed and goes into a funk that mostly exasperates the situation.

Here’s the thing about Force Majeure: I think the whole “masculinity” angle is a bit of a false lead.  While he is challenged by the wife, it becomes increasingly clear towards the end that he’s more upset with himself than the wife ever was.  From the beginning the wife seemed more angry about the husband’s excuses after the fact than she was about his initial cowardice.  She doesn’t say she wants him to grow a backbone, she says she wants the two of them to simply be on the same page.  Just the same, he does get distracted by his emasculated whining and this is why the wife eventually has to feign injury on a ski slope in order to give him a chance to “save the day” and re-establish his masculinity.  However, I think the real key to that scene on the ski-slope isn’t that the husband is given the chance to save the day at the end, but rather that they were recklessly going down that slope in the first place.  Together they made that dangerous decision, and then soon thereafter they’re making an over-cautious decision together as they decide to leave a bus that’s going down a hill in a rather dangerous manner.  They key word in both of those scenarios is “together.”  By the end of the film they are once again on the same page, and that is why the film never really goes down the Blue Valentine/Before Midnight rabbit-hole and the ending seems rather hopeful about their marriage.

Force Majeure probably works best as a starting point for discussions; as a movie I don’t necessarily think it’s overly remarkable.  Ruben Östlund certainly knows how to make a movie and gives the film a solid modern look and does a pretty good job of bringing the film’s ski resort to life but the film never really feels like a single cohesive piece.  The film has a handful of side characters like a pair of friends that come to visit the central couple and a mischievous resort worker who arrive into the film but don’t really have complete arcs.  In fact, at times it feels almost like this is a very special episode of a Swedish sitcom rather than a single complete movie given that it just sort of peaks in at one episode of this couple’s life and brings everything to a status quo at the end.  That’s not to say that it’s a poor movie, I definitely hold it with a certain level of regard, but it still felt more like a trifle than the real deal.

*** out of Four