Sunday, April 28, 2013

Tom Cruise Forever! Tom Cruise as Wall-E!

Movie Review: Oblivion

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Reviewed: 26 April 2013

jamesintexas rating--**

Tom Cruise is a star. It's the end of the world as he knows it, and he plays Jack, half of a two-person "Wall-E" style crew in charge of repairing drones that protect giant energy converters driven by the earth's ocean. The year is 2077, and the rest of humanity has fled to Titan, the moon of Jupiter, as a result of the intergalactic war with the Scavs. We won the war but lost earth in the battle, or so we are told. Along with his partner Victoria (Andrea Risborough), Jack's mission involves relaying information to base, shown through video communication links with Sally (Melissa Leo), and protecting the machines and drones who guard them, while simultaneously avoiding the Scavs, fearsome and monstrous creatures lurking in the shadows.

At its best moments, "Oblivion" delivers a slow Ray Bradbury-esque portrait of a futuristic man who struggles with his lonely mission and longs for the past, presented in bits of black and white memory with a mystery girl (Olga Kurylenko). Much of this film involves Tom Cruise wandering by himself, and his journey and disorientation works far better than over-the-top action sequences. The drones themselves are fun to watch: giant, floating Pac-Man style ghosts with HAL-9000 eyes and machine guns galore! Jack's space station has a Cloud City look to it, and I enjoyed the small ship he pilots with its swiveling pilot's chair, a nod to both the Millenium Falcon and the X-Wing. There is a fun, small moment where Tom Cruise takes on his ultimate enemy, and as an audience member who has followed him since "Top Gun," it was quite fun to watch.

Fusing visual elements from "Star Wars: A New Hope" with the aesthetics of "The Day After Tomorrow," "Oblivion" works best in its quiet, meditative moments where long shots reveal the desert that has replaced New York City (though I do not quite understand how the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, Empire State Building, and New York Public Library are scattered so far away from each other). Cruise resembles Luke Skywalker on Tattoine with his speeder bike, his binoculars, and his secret yearning to go off-mission. The appearance of a face from his past forces him to question his mission and himself. There is a quasi-reverence for reading in this film with books taking on a symbolic power, though nothing is actually read beyond a poem containing intense foreshadowing that Jack happens upon.

And alas, there is too much going on here. The plot develops Jack and Victoria for such length of time that when Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau appear in Tusken Raider gear, there just is not enough time for them to register as characters. They seem part of a different movie. At too many points, Kosinski's direction undermines the story with last-minute nonsensical heroics, confusing cutting, and the film's only allowed F word. All the acting is fine: Cruise delivers a strong performance as a stoic, yet confident man unraveling while Risborough displays a veneer of strength over her brittle emotions. Kurylenko is given nothing to do in the film which is a shame, and the great Morgan Freeman is reduced to a cigar and some pretty cool sunglasses. I had to look up his character's name: Malcolm Beech. The ending of the film seems like an anticlimactic misfire, with its twisty reveals that I did not understand until the car ride home twenty minutes later. There is quite a bit to think about with "Oblivion," and its history as a graphic novel is clear, but at two hours long and with an unsteady hand at the helm, the film crashes. Tom Cruise, the star, cannot prevent this.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Evil Triumph: 1981's Evil Dead.

Movie Review: Evil Dead

Director: Sam Raimi

Reviewed: 27 April 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

What makes a great horror film?  It should be upsetting.  It should traffic in suspense and gore, as well as play on collective fears.  It should show images that are unsettling.  It should leave audiences disquieted.  It has taken me a long time, but I finally caught up with Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" alone, in the dark, in my house on a rainy Saturday.  As I travel backwards in time through film to catch up with the ones that I missed, ones that I was too young to see, and ones that I avoided, I am so glad that I did not see "Evil Dead" at a young age.  Even as a 34-year old, it was marvelously upsetting.

To know Sam Raimi's work now is to see him attempt to dazzle with big budgets and stars with "Spiderman" and "Oz: The Great and Powerful," but in 1981, the director crafted ninety minutes of suspense out of thin air, with one location, unknown actors, and a indefatigable sense of showmanship. Just as Steven Spielberg was forced to hide the great white shark until the third act of "Jaws,"Raimi uses trick after trick in "Evil Dead" to scare in low-tech, innovative ways, no doubt an effect of a miniscule budget. The plot of a traditional group of friends and lovers in a deserted cabin in the woods who stumble across an ancient text could not be more sparse. But the spookiness of the moving trees, the omnipresent rolling fog, and the sound work of gurgling, cackling demons summoning young people to their doom all works. As does the visceral texture of the film which spares no opportunity for blood, ooze, and worse to erupt onscreen and onto the face of Bruce Campbell's heroic Ash. When I said the word 'trick' earlier, I do not mean that pejoratively. I love textures, sets, puppets, make-up, and models and find that I prefer them to entirely computer-generated worlds in films. Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I like a scary costume or bit of make-up; I like a set and props that you can nearly feel. I just watched "Oblivion," the latest Tom Cruise science-fiction vehicle with an immense budget that shows impressive, otherworldly sights on the screen. It caught my eye. But at no time was I as worried for Tom Cruise as I was for Ash in this film. Special effects, make-up, and sound design all bombarded me in "Evil Dead," and hyper-realistic images are no match for being afraid of the dark, being afraid of the woods, and being afraid of unknown sounds. A great early shot shows a porch bench steadily slamming into the cabin's wall, an ominous precursor to the mayhem that follows.

Does this 1981 horror film hold up and still provide scares? Yes. A demon trapped in the cellar provides another layer of dread to multiple scenes, watching the adventures much like an audience and frequently grabbing out at the ankles of the protagonists. The camera hurtles unforgettably through the woods personifying the demons, as well as the endless door slamming and window smashing of the maze-like cabin.  I do not understand what it all means, and I do not think every sequence works, but I am in awe of the vision, design, and execution of this film.  I think it to be a near classic with a terrific final shot.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Killing Them Softly: Ain't That America?

Movie Review: Killing Them Softly

Director: Andrew Dominik

Reviewed: 21 April 2013

jamesintexas rating--***

The life of a killer, sometimes romanticized in the movies, has to be more like how it is depicted in "Killing Them Softly": grizzled, haunted men sit alone in sad hotel rooms or airport bars; conversations revolve as much about time spent in prison as about staying out of it; violence done to violent men by violent friends, onscreen or from a distance. A minimalist performance from Brad Pitt anchors the film, though it seems at times that he does more supporting work here as Jackie Coogan, a hit man sent out to protect criminal interests when a card game run by local hoods is robbed. Money must be made, and someone must pay. The guy who runs the game, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), once bragged of hitting his own game years back, setting himself up for the fall when two enterprising young hoodlums Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) bust in with guns and ski masks. In keeping with the film's nihilistic tone, even a successful robbery translates into only a little bit of money soon spent, and the safest place for a criminal in this world seems to be jail. Coogan stalks the world like its own angel of death, executing the business end of the unseen criminal forces at work behind Boston (though it could not be more obviously New Orleans in my opinion).

Dominik's larger focus seems to be on critiquing the systems of capitalism and government which, like the mafia, cloak themselves in secrecy, and delegate their dirtiest work. Images of President Obama and Senator McCain loom over the shoulders of characters when they are outside; snippets of public radio and interviews about the 2008 fiscal crisis play inside cars and bars. A supporting cast of James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, and Sam Shepard all do wonderful work, with the standout being Gandolfini's sad, beleaguered criminal who oozes volcanic rage; he has only two scenes but haunts the film. The extended robbery scene crafts effective tension, and a later scene with Liotta is punctuated by its attention to the giver of violence, not merely the recipient. I wanted to spend more time with Liotta or Jenkins or Gandolfini, but Dominik stays with Frankie and Russell and their inane, depressing conversations. Dominik allows himself a few flourishes: slow-motion shots of rain drops in a shoot-out in the rain with bullet-time; a camera mounted to a car door when it opens; Pitt's Coogan walking unmolested and undisturbed through a violent neighborhood with gunfire in the background. It is a chilling film.

"Killing Them Softly" is not about how Brad Pitt's character figures out who is responsible for the heist. That intelligence is handed out anticlimactically. The moral dilemma of the film is absent; Coogan does what he does and has reconciled himself to it. The only thing left to be discussed is the price. The obvious corollary is the American capitalist system, where unseen forces pull the strings and allow people to believe in their own autonomy and agency, profiting all the while and never suffering themselves. Dominik's larger point may be that our government and our elites are "killing us softly...from a distance" in a way that never allows for proper perspective or blame to be assigned. An ugly, gritty film with a great performance from Brad Pitt, "Killing Them Softly" is not the kind of film I wanted it to be or hoped it would be. And I think that is exactly what director Andrew Dominik intended.

Damsels in Distress: Hilarious and Winning.

Movie Review: Damsels in Distress

Director: Whit Stillman

Reviewed: 15 April 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Sometimes a movie can be annoying, pretentious, or merely static. Sometimes a movie gets you on its side quickly, allowing you to forgive any flaws. I can see how some audiences could react to a social comedy like "Damsels in Distress" with its obvious debts to the works of Jane Austen, its nods to the self-obsessed world of academia, and its sun-dappled walks amongst gorgeous columned buildings.  I think this film won me over in its first twenty minutes by being strange and deeply funny, so I decided to go along for the ride. I found myself beaming at the end and really recommend it, though I will understand if you dislike it.

Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), one of the lead characters in Whit Stillman's new film "Damsels in Distress," warns the women around her about men who send drinks to them at bars: "What you are describing is a 'playboy' or 'operator move.'" The way that she draws out the syllables in the word had me laughing more and more each time she said it.  Rose, along with Violet (Greta Gerwig) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) form a trio committed to Suicide Prevention at Seven Oaks College, and in the first scene they adopt transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton), taking her under the wing and bring her into their world. As Violet hilariously reminds Lily, "Have you heard the expression, prevention is nine tenths the cure? Well, in the case of suicide, it's ten tenths the cure." Violet and her friends upend the social order by selecting guys far below them on the social scale to date: "Take a man who hasn't realized his full potential-or doesn't have much yet...Then help him realize it or find more." Their philosophy involves elaborate dance sequences, long walks through campus, and pillow talk conversations where all four leads share a room. In a loose construction of chapters with cute names, the girls address the major issues of the day: dance crazes, 'operator' types, parties, and the like.

I first discovered Whit Stillman films in college where the Kenyon Film Society showed "Metropolitan" and "Barcelona." I remember the intelligence of his characters, the commitments to studying upper-crust society mores, and the brilliance of Chris Eigeman. "Damsels in Distress" is Gerwig's film, and as Violet she shines and gives very funny line readings. As an idealized, romantic version of college, Stillman constructs Seven Oaks as a site of warring interests, with the Romans (not Greek system) clashing with the elitist newspaper writers for the Daily Complainer being most amusing. Does everything in the film work? No. Tipton is asked to carry far too much of the storyline on her own which muddles the film. No male character is half as interesting as the female ones. Yet the work of Gerwig and Echikunwoke carry the day, and instead of a cool kids in school film like "Mean Girls" or "Heathers," and instead of an acidic attack on college and dating like Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things," Stillman focuses on a delightfully aloof, well- intentioned bubble of socially privileged and sheltered women with sharp wit, heartfelt emotions, and the ability to country line dance. From fashion to dialogue, the women seem wonderfully out of joint with their time. No one carries a phone or checks email. It is almost a shame that the men have to be included.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Roger & Me.

Title: Roger & Me.

by James T. Sheridan

Hello, my name is James T. Sheridan, and I am the teacher of the CSP: Classroom Without Walls class that Roger Ebert met in Chicago in early June of 2004. He took time out of his busy schedule to answer questions from twenty middle school students from Houston, Texas and their chaperones for over an hour on the set of “Ebert & Roeper.” I still think about this amazing visit nine years ago often, and with Roger’s passing last Thursday, I wanted to reflect upon his kindness.

As a suburban Chicago kid, I grew up reading Roger Ebert’s columns and watching him on television. I got into movies early with my dad’s help, and I remember trying to beat your Oscar picks throughout middle school and high school. I remember getting up early and running through downtown Elmhurst to buy the Friday Sun-Times to read his movie reviews at breakfast. I read him in print since 1991 and for the past seventeen years online. After graduating from Kenyon College and in that tenuous pre-Teach For America month, I met him in the summer of 2000 at the Harold Washington Library where he read an e.e. cummings poem for Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project where I also met Studs Terkel and heard Nikki Giovanni’s poetry for the first time. He signed a copy of his newest book “I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie” to me with the dedication, “but you’re okay!—Roger Ebert.”  He always steered me towards interesting films that I had never seen before such as “The Crying Game,” “Hoop Dreams,” “Fargo,” and “Sling Blade,” films that would shape my values and my consciousness. As the Kenyon Film Society President in college, I helped control what films were shown on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and I am proud to admit that Roger Ebert’s reviews influenced me heavily. In 2004, I was completing my fourth year teaching at McReynolds Middle School, and one of the reasons that I stayed was to work closely with the group of CSP students who read additional books, watched and studied movies, and completed service projects way beyond the requirements of the school day. I was so honored that Roger Ebert agreed to meet my students after writing him a simple letter in the mail. The CSP: Clase Sin Paredes class worked extremely hard to raise the necessary funds to visit Chicago for a weeklong field experience through car washes and BBQ’s, and our trip was an astounding success as students gathered information about college. Students and teachers bonded on the El rides that we took around the city. From dinosaurs and mummies at the Field Museum to the dazzling view from the top of the Sears Tower, the students experienced the best the city of Chicago had to offer. For many students, meeting Roger Ebert at the ABC-TV studio was a memorable moment. For me, it was a visit that I will never forget, as a teacher and as a Chicagoan living in Texas.

He met us at the door of the studios, and his warmth and approachability made the CSP class feel very comfortable.  Roger Ebert spoke to them from the heart about his life experiences and choices.  Nothing could be more powerful for young people to hear. Eighth grader then and now Woodbury University graduate Javier researched Roger Ebert for his Chicago Project and had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shake his hand and tell him and his wife Chaz what he knew about them. High schooler then and current St. Edward’s University graduate and University of Houston graduate student Griselda told me, “I do remember that he had the most genuine and warm smile. I still have the picture in my Chicago album where we’re all doing the thumbs. After the trip, I always looked out for Mr. Ebert’s reviews.”  High school student then, UT-Austin and Harvard Graduate School of Education graduate, and current San Antonio elementary teacher Rosario stated, “I remember sitting in the audience chairs, listening to this man who had an opinion. The experience made me question: what was my opinion? What would I do with my opinion? How could I ensure people would listen to this poor kid from the hood? Attempting to answer these questions over the next few years changed me. Whether I was organizing an immigrant rights protest, writing a term paper, or now planning a lesson plan, I remember the importance of having an opinion and listening to the opinion of others.”

        As a teacher, I was overwhelmed by his kindness and interest in the students. The staff went above and beyond to make this visit possible. Even after he left (he screened Life of Brian that day, I believe), Roger Ebert’s staff showed us around the offices and continued to answer questions and teach the students about the life of a film critic and the creation of a television show. Such experiences do not happen everyday.

In life, it is rare for a person to meet one of his or her heroes. Reading Roger Ebert’s words from a young age inspired me to keep my own film review journals, to write movie reviews in college for the Kenyon Collegian newspaper, as well as to currently review films for online magazine Cinespect. At all four different schools where I have taught, I have used Roger Ebert’s reviews with my students and will continue to do so. I am honored that he took time to meet with my students because he was a person whom I respect and admire. From championing small but important films to writing thoughtful reviews every week, Roger Ebert was the premier voice in film criticism in this country, if not the world. Know that I will continue to learn from him, read his books, and review the website to catch up with reviews and essays. There are many great movies that I still need to see. I will continue to read and learn, to agree and disagree, and to see and think deeply about film.

Roger Ebert, one last time, thank you for your support of the CSP class from Houston, Texas. We will never forget our visit to ABC-TV studios and the hour spent with Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, and the wonderful staff. Our classroom truly has no walls.


James T. Sheridan,
CSP Teacher
       Classroom Without Walls
       Houston, Texas