Tuesday, June 28, 2016
Greta Gerwig (Mistress America and Frances Ha Ha) stars as Maggie, an administrator at a college or university in New York City. She oversees art students and loves her job, but, her main concern is having a baby. She comes up with a plan to get artificially inseminated. That plan gets upended when she meets an anthropologist named John Harding, played by Ethan Hawke (Training Day and Before Sunset). They fall in love and her goal to be a single mom is derailed.
It's not that she never wanted to have a man or be in a relationship. She just didn't think she ever would. She explains later why she thinks that way. She opens up honestly about her parents and her childhood. Her way of being and her coming up with this plan makes sense. It's the machinations thereafter that don't make sense.
It's not that the rest of this movie doesn't make sense in that it's confusing. It's just not clever or as compelling as it probably wants to be. For starters, Maggie's reason for not going to a sperm bank is a rather non-reason. Guy Childers, played by Travis Fimmel (Tarzan and Vikings), is the person whom she asks to be her sperm donor. Instead of artificial insemination, Guy wants to impregnate her through intercourse. Aside for a love of mathematics and pickle-making, we're never invited inside his head. We're never invited to know what Guy is thinking and why. He then practically disappears, yet by the end of the movie, we're meant to circle back and feel something about him, but unless that feeling is utter confusion, it doesn't work.
We are invited inside John's head, but again it's a place that makes little sense. John feels less like a character and more like a plot device. Directed and co-written by Rebecca Miller, this is purposeful for John. It just made his character one with whom I couldn't connect. When Maggie and John get together, she seems hyper-aware of problems, but he doesn't. In fact, everyone seems hyper-aware, except him. It's not just because he is on the receiving end of lies, he just seems dumb in certain regards, besides being a published and well-regarded anthropologist and writer.
John is then portrayed as a terrible husband and father. Yet, Maggie and Georgette, played by Oscar-winner Julianne Moore (Still Alice and Far From Heaven), bend over backwards to accommodate him or keep him in their lives. With Georgette, he has a couple of children and a decade or more of history, so you can possibly understand the investment. Unfortunately, it gets to a point where they're doing all this work for essentially a slouch and a deadbeat. John is not likeable, so I can't go with Maggie and her plan for him.
Gerwig does give a good performance. There are sweet and funny moments of Maggie being a mother working with an adorable little girl, Lily, played by Ida Rohatyn. Sadly, it's not enough here. The movie ends on a note that's also very hetero-normative. The idea of artificial insemination or not making a family in the traditional ways goes to a general, queer notion of non-biological based families. Yet, the movie ends with throwing that queer notion out the window and basically says nope it's all about biological ties.
One Star out of Five.
Rated R for language and some sexuality.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 38 mins.
Monday, June 27, 2016
It's a good time for this film to be released. With the upcoming Equity starring Anna Gunn, it seems as if the film landscape is ready for anti-heroines. In other words, the protagonist is female and not someone you necessarily like. She does bad things but yet the film remains mainly on her side. She lies. She manipulates people. She doesn't care about them. She only wants to do what she can to further herself.
Kate Beckinsale (Underworld and The Aviator) stars as Lady Susan Vernon, a widow and single mother to a teenage daughter. Finances seem to be running low, so she needs to hitch herself to another man. Another option is for her to marry her daughter to a man of means. Her daughter is Frederica, played by Morfydd Clark. She decides to visit some relatives in the country. While there, she juggles several potential suitors both for her and her daughter.
The majority of the comedy and the majority of the writing are concentrated on two things. One is Beckinsale's dialogue or monologues. Lady Susan spells out her manipulative, conniving and unsympathetic feelings to her co-conspirator Alicia, played by Chloë Sevigny. The bluntness and callousness or else matter-of-fact nature that she has but delivered in long-winded yet prim-and-proper speeches are one concentration in this movie. The other concentration is just the foolishness and idiocy of Sir James Martin, played by Tom Bennett. He's funny, but he seems to be a centerpiece of which Stillman is quite, smugly proud.
The problem is that both things, Lady Susan's dialogue and Sir James' stupidity, began to feel like shticks with which the film keeps hitting the audience over the head. The film bludgeons us with these shticks. It got to the point that that's all the movie was. It was just shticks in sacrifice of developing characters or telling a fleshed out story. As a result, nothing felt authentic or genuine.
That could have been acceptable. This movie could have been acceptable as a farce, or a comedic romp with the manipulative Lady Susan at the center. Unfortunately, it's somewhat boring. I had a similar problem with this movie as I did with Nightcrawler (2014). It's boring because the main character comes up with a scheme and executes it with little to no resistance. It never feels like a struggle for Lady Susan. She breezes right through. She gets away with things so easily.
There is potential resistance. There is potential for her to struggle, but it ends up being only lip-service. Any potential threat to Lady Susan's plans are brushed aside and have no real consequence in the narrative or to her. If there's no real consequence, there are no stakes, no conflict, no drama. Therefore, it makes me not care or invest in anything happening.
Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for some thematic elements.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 34 mins.
Sunday, June 26, 2016
The movie Catfish shared some DNA with a lot of M. Night Shyamalan films in that it was all about the twist ending or the shocking reveal. This movie also has a mystery, a whodunit in a sense, that shares some of that same DNA, but this movie doesn't build to it quite the same. Essentially, the mystery in this movie is solved about half-way into it. It's not pushed to the end. The movie is less about surprising its audience as it is about enlightening on its characters and the situation. It's just not all together successful at either.
David Farrier is the Nev Schulman of this story. He's a New Zealand TV news reporter who becomes the target of homophobic attacks when he starts to investigate an online phenomenon known as Competitive Endurance Tickling, which are a series of videos where young, athletic men are held down and tickled aggressively and also playfully. When Farrier's friend and family man Dylan Reeve, the Max Joseph of this story, joins in to make a documentary, that's when things escalate and the company behind the tickling videos starts to make threats, mainly legal.
Initially, there's some connecting of dots. The first third to half is very much like a police procedural or going from point A to point B, even employing cop tactics like a stakeout. There's even a slight Michael Moore aspect to it à la Roger & Me (1989). Yet, Farrier or Reeve never get personally involved. In many ways, Farrier remains as elusive as the person he pursues, even though Farrier is the one on camera most of the time.
Say what you want about Moore. He did aim at huge targets. This movie instead is such a niche piece of work that doesn't have as much country or worldwide implications. There are seemingly tons of people who are affected, but it just doesn't have the same stakes or even come as close to having the same kind of resonance as a Michael Moore film. It gives the film a kind of uniqueness or quirkiness, which could be appealing, but, at the same time, it makes the movie more difficult for which to care.
The movie tackles the issue of cyber-bullying, and of course we should do what we can to combat bullying of any kind. The movie also brings up a fraud and harassment case nearly 20 years ago that focused around a Drexel University student, which was serious enough to involve the FBI, but of the present-day victims, the movie exposes less an external threat and more an internal one. There are clearly elements of classism and possible racism (all the victims and indeed everyone in this movie are all white), as well as gay panic. Farrier touches upon them but doesn't dig into them as much.
Supposedly, his tickling videos were meant to be private but he didn't like that they were posted online. He then got YouTube to have the videos taken down, which caused the bully to go after him. TJ or someone else compared the posting of the tickling videos to the posting of one's sex tapes without your permission. What was incredulous to me was this comparison. I never could make that connection, but the people on Farrier's side tacitly agree that these tickling videos are as equally damaging as sex tapes or porn videos.
I just watched Weiner, the documentary about Anthony Weiner and how his mayoral campaign was ruined because sexual pictures of himself got out all over the Internet, not once but twice. After all of that, the former New York, Congressman was able to find a job, so the fears from TJ are irrational. Yet, an analysis of those fears might have been a better avenue to explore. Underneath those irrational fears, I suspect lie some homophobia, but Farrier would have us ignore that and weep for someone like TJ, poor him.
Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 32 mins.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
Koudous Seihon stars as Ayiva, a man who might be in his 30's. He has a daughter but there is no mention of a wife. The film starts with Ayiva already on the road. It's later learned that his daughter is living with his sister back in his home land. It's not exactly made clear why Ayiva hit the road. If the movie is set in the relative present-day, the reasons could be political or economical. The movie seems to lean more toward the latter, as Ayiva is more concerned with earning money and sending it back to his sister and daughter.
The overall message of the movie is how difficult it is for immigrants, especially immigrants of color like Africans or any of brown and black skin. It's difficult, or it can be difficult to make the trek at all. It's difficult to make a living once he's arrived at whatever new country and it's difficult to fit in and integrate into the fabric of the new society.
Alassane Sy co-stars as Abas, a fellow immigrant who travels with Ayiva from Africa. Abas' presence is more of a counter-point to Ayiva and how each handles the difficult situation. Abas sees the difficulty and shuts down. He gets depressed and doesn't want to engage until things come to a violent head.
Ayiva is a little opposite. He sees the difficult situation and doesn't shut down. He keeps going. Even tired and beaten, he keeps going. He's worked to the bone, pushed to his limits and literally left out in the cold, but the movie is as much about Ayiva's determination and almost unbreakable spirit as much as it is about anything else. Yet, his spirit isn't unbreakable and this film is about learning that.
Carpignano infuses the usual xenophobia and outright racism that would come into play with any immigrant story that was as depressing and austere as this film. As the film's latter half takes place in Italy, the austerity comes from the Italians, not all but a few.
There is a moment when a riot breaks out and the chant reiterated is "Stop shooting blacks!" Who knows the statistics and politics in Italy, but it's a moment that echoes what happened in Baltimore in April 2015, following the death of Freddie Gray. Now, this film doesn't provide us with a Freddie Gray-like character to make that connection. We simply have to take the riot on face value, but, without that connection, the riot feels a little hollow. Nevertheless, Seihon's performance is very strong.
This movie was nominated for awards at Cannes, but it was overshadowed by the Palme d'Or winner, Dheepan, which was also an immigrant story by Jacques Audiard. It had a bit more emotional power and better filmmaking than this. Audiard has made several films at this point. This is Carpignano's first and it perhaps shows.
Four Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains scenes of violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 50 mins.
November 21, 2015 at IFC Center and Sundance Cinemas.
March 29, 2016 on DVD / VOD.
Available on Netflix Watch Instant.
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Kevin Hart stars as Calvin Joynor, a forensic accountant who lives and works at a firm in the Baltimore and Washington, DC area. He's married to a beautiful lawyer named Maggie, played by Danielle Nicolet. They're high school sweethearts. It's been 20 years since high school. It's not clear if they've been married that long, but they've certainly been together for that long. Yet, they don't have children. That along with the fact that Calvin isn't where he'd like to be career-wise makes him a bit depressed and obviously frustrated. He's not exactly the sad sack as David Spade in Netflix's recent The Do-Over, but he is on a similar trajectory.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson also stars as Bob Stone, a former fat kid who was horribly bullied and embarrassed on a regular basis and who now is a tall, hugely muscular, 6'5" and possibly 300 lbs., gorgeous man. Yet, his personality does not mesh with someone who has a Herculean body. He's a total goofball. He still has body-image issues where he looks in the mirror and sees a fat kid. He's not depressed or frustrated though. He's upbeat and optimistic, happy-go-lucky, aggressively so. He's a "brony" if you know what that is. He wears a fanny pack with absolutely no shame. He rides a Kawasaki motorcycle but wishes he was Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles. He's a guy with not a lot of friends. He lives a lot in his own head, yet he's extremely extroverted.
The essential question though is if Bob is a crazy guy, crazy in a bad way, or if he's just an overly eccentric character. It builds to a point where Calvin isn't sure if Bob is a hero or villain. Bob's charm and cheer would suggest the former. The arrival of three CIA agents, led by Agent Pam Harris, played by Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone and Birdman), puts Bob's loyalties into question. It's an interesting premise because after a convincing first act, one doubts Bob being a good guy and thus one doubts if Johnson is a good guy.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, if you count his time with the WWF, has been acting for 20 years. In all that time, he's never played a bad guy or else a villain. The closest he's come is Michael Bay's Pain & Gain (2013), but even his character in that movie is never meant to be rooted against. His faith is meant to make him endearing, and throughout the film, one is never meant to lose faith in him. Here, however, the audience, particularly Calvin, is meant to lose faith, total faith, in Bob.
Written by Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen who are both writers for The Mindy Project, as well as Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), the three of them craft this great conceit and pull off what no one else has done and that's make us doubt "The Rock." Yet, it's not for long. The movie is very funny. It's very hilarious actually with a lot of great gags and one-liners, but Barinholtz, Stassen and Thurber ultimately go the predictable route where no matter what, in the end, we have to love "The Rock" and smell what he's cooking.
A lot of humor is generated through Johnson's sheer energy and indomitable screen-presence. Johnson and Hart have great chemistry. They bounce off each other especially well in a doctor's office scene where the two are having a so-called therapy session. However, there are some great bits of dialogue like a crack about Denzel Washington as well as one about Jake Gyllenhaal, delivered by comedian Kumail Nanjiani that made me laugh. There are some physical jokes that were effective too, like one involving blue pajamas and another involving a wish-fulfillment of a taser.
Yet, there are some things that don't work. A crack about Will Smith fell flat. The appearance of Aaron Paul delivering his now hackneyed line from Breaking Bad also falls flat. The appearance and initial scene involving Jason Bateman is funny, but he's basically playing the same character that he did in The Gift (2015). Johnson also has a naked-dancing scene in front of people and on a stage, which could have been funny if I hadn't seen naked-dancing scenes in several films this year, namely Dirty Grandpa and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. The nudity scene in Popstar, particularly the aftermath of which, was vastly better than here, so it took the steam out of Johnson's Full Monty.
Unlike Ride Along, the bromance is played up way more here. The bromance is played up way more here than possibly in any Hollywood film in the past decade. Johnson and Hart even kiss. There's a nice cameo at the end, which allows Johnson to kiss a woman. It's nice because the cameo is Melissa McCarthy replicating the joke at the end of Spy (2015), which is a plus-sized woman hooking up with a chiseled, action star. Last year, it was Jason Statham. Here, it's "The Rock" who incidentally fought Statham in Furious 7. It's not nice in that it seems tacked on, if only to reaffirm Bob's heterosexuality, as if a bromance can't stand alone. Thanks to this film though, En Vogue's "My Lovin" is stuck in my head.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for frenetic violence and mayhem, suggestive content and brief strong language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 57 mins.
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
|Dar Salim (left) and Pilou Asbaek in 'A War'|
The star is Pilou Asbaek (The Borgias and Lucy), a great actor who now has been in all three of Lindholm's films as director. It's also the third film by Lindholm to be about a man removed from his wife or female partner, and placed in an all-male environment with fear of violence, right at hand. Asbaek plays Claus Michael Pedersen, a commanding officer of a Danish unit of soldiers, stationed in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, probably some time between 2013 and 2014.
The reason I cite 2013 and 2014 is because of the specific reference to Camp Bastion. Denmark is a NATO member. It sent 9,500 personnel to Afghanistan between January 2002 and July 2013 to assist with the War in Afghanistan. Most of the Danish forces were set-up in Helmand province.
Helmand is one of 34 provinces in Afghanistan, located in the country's south. For that province, the British Army built Camp Bastion, the military base that became a logistics hub and a desert home for the Danish and American troops. Yet, in October 2014, Camp Bastion was handed over to the Afghan forces and renamed Camp Shorabak.
If Denmark stopped sending soldiers in 2013 and the base was handed over the next year, then this film had to have taken place within that span of time. Various Danish soldiers, including Claus, refer to the base as Camp Bastion, so that dates the whole thing in a way, but not to its detriment.
What Lindholm brilliantly does is pose two dilemmas for the soldiers in this situation. An Afghan man comes to Claus and asks for help, as the Taliban is threatening the Afghan man's family. The first dilemma is whether or not Claus and his unit should help the Afghan man because it would put them out of their way or possibly put them in danger. How Lindholm directs it and Asbaek acts it is powerful, subtle yet affecting.
The second dilemma is one posed in Rules of Engagement (2000). It's also a question posed by documentaries like Dirty Wars (2013), except addressed from the other side. It's also a question posed in this year's Eye in the Sky (2016), except this film keeps us in the perspective of the ground forces. That dilemma or question is if military should or shouldn't fire at a target when the possibility of civilian casualties or even fatalities exists, and how much should the men who decide to fire be held accountable.
The film does successfully pivot and become a legal drama, after beginning as a harrowing war-epic. Even though I enjoyed the 2000 film, thankfully this movie doesn't devolve into the melodrama or the histrionics of Rules of Engagement. Lindholm creates a credible argument on both sides. We are following Claus, and Asbaek gives such an empathetic performance, but still the argument against him is so strong that one can't help but feel for that opposing side.
That's why, even in a plain and boring-looking room, the latter half of the film is still thrilling, just as thrilling as when guns and bombs are going off in the first half. It also provides more of a soldier's experience, both abroad and at home, than Clint Eastwood's hammer-and-nail American Sniper.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language and some war related images.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 55 mins.
Monday, June 20, 2016
Like Monsters University, this movie is more of a prequel. Even though the majority of the action takes place after Finding Nemo, instead of moving forward, this film is moving backward. It's essentially the origin story for Dory, the blue tang fish, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres. Because of her disability of suffering from short-term memory loss, she never was able to tell from where she came. This movie rectifies by taking us all the way back to her birth place, and to her parents on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean. Finding Nemo was set at the Great Barrier Reef.
Yet, this film is not about Dory connecting to her parents. The search for them is merely the premise. Her connection to them is simply superfluous, or it's a device for self-improvement or self-motivation. Her parents are basically the McGuffin. The only true familial connection is the one between the parent-child who were the subject of the previous film. The clownfish named Marlin, voiced by Albert Brooks, and his son, Nemo, voiced by Hayden Rolence, spent the last film mostly separated. This time, the two are really able to be together and bond. It's all in service of reaffirming Marlin's relationship with Dory and his need to be more trusting of her and others, but still.
A refrain in this movie is "What would Dory do." All the characters have to learn to trust her or embrace her way of being. This doesn't just include fish, but an octopus with a lost limb named Hank, voiced by Ed O'Neill, as well as a couple of larger creatures, including a near-sighted, whale-shark named Destiny, voiced by Kaitlin Olson, and a beluga whale with broken echo-location named Bailey, voiced by Ty Burrell. Like Dory, each of these other aquatic animals has a disability and each has to overcome the fears of failure that are attached to that disability.
Given this film arrives in the wake of such documentaries as Blackfish and news events that question having animals in captivity, one way to read this movie is for its pro-environmentalism, or the idea in general that all aquatic animals don't want any interactions with humans or shouldn't be within the confines of human structures. This film isn't as anti-human as the previous feature, but it could support that interpretation.
Director Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane, despite targeting children, repeats the Pixar tendency to depict children as scary monsters. In fact, there is a scene here that echoes a sequence in Toy Story 3 where the characters in question are seemingly attacked by wild children who have no regard for the feelings or the welfare of the things that are vulnerable. Beyond that, humans are not the bad guys here. Humans are helpful as another refrain is "Rescue, Rehabilitation, Release," a refrain by one human in particular, famously known for her pro-environmentalism movies a la Avatar and Gorillas in the Mist.
Even though the filmmakers don't hit the audience over the head with it, there are subtle touches that show the pollution and the waste that's being dropped in the Pacific. At one point, Dory gets caught in a plastic, six-pack ring. The end credits also include some shots of Hank and others swimming through the human junk that's been sunk and abandoned on the ocean floor.
The jokes are well-done. The vocal performances are winsome and distinctive. It's not as glorious to watch because a lot of the movie takes place in the human world without saying too much about it, as opposed to Finding Nemo, which really embraced all the wonders of the Pacific Ocean. The previous feature also felt informative but in a very subtle way. Teaching moments come through a bit more clunky here. The short-term memory loss also comes through as more a plot-device than an actual affliction. The film is entertaining, but lacks the emotional punch that even Pixar's last Oscar-winner, Inside Out, had.
Four Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for mild thematic elements.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 43 mins.