Sunday, December 7, 2014

Plain Strain: An 80's Comedy fails to travel to 2014

Movie Review: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Director: John Hughes

Reviewed: 7 December 2014

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

In my quest to see films of my youth, films that I heard about or saw clips of but was never old enough or had the opportunity to view, I have returned to Planes, Trains and Automobiles while having a general, fuzzy feeling of its key scenes and emotional cues. I was nine when the film came out, and the 1987 John Hughes comedy does not stand up despite the good will generated by the avuncular John Candy and an irritable, scenery-chewing Steve Martin. But, as an artifact of its time period and as a mismatched buddy road movie, the film has its moments, mostly because of Candy's ineffable charm. John Hughes is not the most complex or skilled director, and here his synth-infused soundtracks, wacky jump cuts, and general sloppiness with the script and characters catch up to him in a way that I feel it never does in Ferris Bueller's Day Off or Uncle Buck.

Neal Page is an uptight businessman in a rush to get home for Thanksgiving. He meets cute with Del Griffith, a fellow traveler, by tripping over his mammoth trunk on the street while trying to get to a cab to the airport in time to fly home. A series of bizarre and increasing contrived obstacles place Neal and Del on the same plane and the same set of circumstances. Both men need to get to Chicago, and the world keeps conspiring against them AND placing them together. Neal's high-strung reserved nature clashes with Dell's slovenly loquaciousness, and as the time ticks down to the holiday, they make their way slowly and painfully across a mostly stereotypical anonymous middle west of weirdos and lunatics to arrive at the North Shore of Chicago in time for turkey.

Hughes knew that he had something with the pairing of John Candy and Steve Martin, both skilled and beloved comedic actors. They have a chemistry and a charisma that simply works, no greater highlighted than in the infamous sharing the hotel bed scene. A regular medium two-shot between them highlights the curliness of Candy's hair and the grey of Martin's, the physicality and bulk of Candy and the slenderness of Martin. Candy is willing to hold to Del's own unique set of logic dictating that he must be comfortable in a car, sing along to a Ray Charles song while driving erratically, and exist as a sort of low-level Willy Loman and confidence man, the Abe Froman of shower curtain rings. Martin plays a driven corporate type, stomping and falling all over airports and parking lots, an exasperated yuppie pacing back and forth, with a Howard Beale-esque fuse culminating in a quite wonderful Mad-As-Hell-Moment at a rental car counter mid-film, and Edie McClurg delivers the film's best punchline. Ultimately, however, Hughes does not seem interested in truly developing either character or the family characters at Neal's home. The lack of communication between Neal and his wife is left unaddressed, as well as her possible fears that Neal is having an affair.  The actress is given nothing to do. There is also a distinct lack of payoff at the end when the characters seem to have come to some realizations but are never given opportunities to verbalize them.

An elegiac air lingers around this film, and not just because Candy and Hughes have both passed. The idea of loneliness around the holidays seems antithetical to the commercials and ethos of the time yet as real as the dirty slushy streets of the midwest. Hughes creates an interesting character in the quirky Del Griffith, a man wearing a facade and clearly haunted and in pain. Sadly, Hughes never seems interested in letting Del be more than a punch line at worst or at best, a knowing, teary-eyed fellow without an adult voice. Del is only there for the joke and Neal's empty quasi-redemption, nothing more.

I do not think this film holds up though it is not without its moments.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Gone Girl: Medium Fincher.

Movie Review: Gone Girl

Director: David Fincher

Reviewed: 24 November 2014

jamesintexas rating--***

I hold director David Fincher in such high regard for past films like Se7en, Fight Club, and The Social Network that even when his newest film Gone Girl does not reach those heights, he still has created an admirable, stylish fast-moving thriller based on an enormously popular novel. Like he did with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher adapts a wildly popular and beloved work, elicits strong performances, and makes judicious choices for how to compress the storytelling, but as was the case with Dragon Tattoo, I feel less connected and visually impressed with where his film goes and how it goes there. For a director capable of masterful sequences, jaw-dropping cinematography, and general artistry, Fincher delivers a lesser achievement in Gone Girl. But, it is still an achievement.

Gone Girl introduces an estranged couple Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) in small town Missouri, and very quickly, Nick arrives home to find a smashed up room and no Amy. Police are involved, blood stains found, and Nick becomes a primary suspect in the potential kidnapping. Retreating to Margo (Carrie Coon) his twin sister's house, Nick begins to unravel a mystery that he may or may not be the cause of which corresponds with a series of clues left behind for him by Amy to celebrate their anniversary (a treasure hunt tradition of sorts between the two). Twists and turns abound, and to reveal more would remove some of the surprise from Fincher's work here. It winds and winds, with a structure that carries us into the world of Amy's parents, their history, Nick's complexities, and our American obsession with missing persons. A supporting cast of detectives, lawyers, and more show up, and everyone seems game for elevating this lurid tale which seems to relish its darkness and ugliness.

The film has an alternating structure that attempts to mirror Flynn's novel, though it fails to achieve any sort of balance which may be to the film's detriment. Or not.  Showing us one character more than the other may naturally align our sympathies, but there are several moments that attempt to shift our perspective on characters that we think we know. The nature of novel to film comparison is such that compression and elimination of moments leaves a lesser impression. As a result, Nick's hometown gets short shrift, as do the detectives investigating the case. The examination of social media's influence on a crime of this sort is interesting as is the twisty path that the story takes.

Affleck, like in Argo, seems still to be a bit of a cipher here capable of withstanding whatever emotion we project upon him, but the standout is Rosamund Pike as Amy, conveying a wide range of emotions quite effectively. Fincher is truly a master of concision, having adapted everyone now from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Gillian Flynn. His work is always stylish and well-crafted; all his surfaces have a glossy sheen to them, even when covered and dripping in blood. He does not shy away from gruesome violence and the hard R rating, and his films have always been watchable. I did not find his attempt here to be as effective as his best work, but that standard is an impossibly high one to reach. Gone Girl reaches for a powerful knockout of an ending that did not fully work for me, but the sum of its parts is a truly intense, dark thriller well worth your time.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Birdman Soars: A Multi-Layered Feast for the Mind.

Movie Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Director: Alejandro Inarritu

Reviewed: 9 November 2014

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

I have so much good will built up for Michael Keaton that Birdman, Alenadro Inarritu's psychological exploration into the winding mind of a former caped crusader turned Broadway actor, just worked for me on multiple levels. Keaton is a smash as Riggan, struggling actor and father, desperately trying to finish his theatrical debut in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. Yet, Riggan is haunted by his own demons, represented in a wonderful conceit by Inarritu, as he stalks the hallways and back alleys and rooftops of the theater in long, mostly unbroken takes. Riggan works with his cast including Lesley (Naomi Watts) and her boyfriend, the mercurial Mike (Edward Norton), as well as his lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone).

The film's mysteries are best left unexplored in this review as to not spoil the sheer joy of the film, but I found it exhilarating and incredibly fun. Everyone is delivering top-notch performances here with Keaton and Norton as standouts. There's magical realism, meta-Hollywood commentary, an abrasive New York Times Theater Critic, a treatise about the cinema versus the stage, a madcap run through Times Square, and more than enough to chew on after the film ends. I think the film has lived on in my imagination because of many of Inarritu's choices with the soundtrack, the unbroken nature of much of the film, and the breaking of conventions and expectations, in addition to its performances.

One of the reasons I go to the cinema is to be overwhelmed and surprised and amazed, and all of those descriptions apply to this film. The less I knew (and the less you know) about it, the better.

Birdman is one of the best films of the year.

The Creepiness Sticks: Nightcrawler.

Movie Review: Nightcrawler

Director: Dan Gilroy

Reviewed: 24 November 2014

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

Yeah, two and a half stars seems right.  Kudos to Jake Gyllenhaal for his supremely creepy and committed performance as Lou Bloom, the eponymous main character, a creature of the internet and worshipper of television news who finds himself drawn to police scanners and video taping gruesome scenes and selling them to the media. And, Robert Elswit's cinematography is remarkable and brilliant; the opening series of shots could be studied by itself in a film class as an examination of modernity and the eternal.

Lou Bloom is a robotic spouter of adages, positivity and business acumen. Yet, something is off.  He hunts down job opportunities until he stumbles across a guy with a camera filming an accident and selling the footage to a television station. He realizes that this is his true calling. Gyllenhaal's delivery makes Lou seem slightly alien and off-kilter, all the while observing and locating exactly what he needs to do to get ahead in his business. The idea of nightcrawlers is one that I was unaware of and found to be fascinating, though I never fully understood the legality of the act of filming without permission or the network's ability to play potentially upsetting and illegal footage. Nina (Rene Russo), a local television producer, becomes involved in the playing of said footage, finding herself increasingly addicted to the rush and ratings that Lou is responsible for delivering.

Nightcrawler is unique and has intense moments. However, I do not think director Dan Gilroy was up to the task. At times, he seems to want to make a Network level satire of rapacious news media salivating for the latest fix. At other times, he wants to make Lou Bloom a Travis Bickle type, marauding and stalking the streets with his own interior monologue of dementedness. And then there are moments of humor where it seems to be attempting to mock the business world and American Dream by spinning it on its head. All in all, the film presents an upsetting look at a dark character, but its lack of any sort of explanation or back story for Lou feels uninformed instead of mysterious. There are homages to The Usual Suspects and an ending with a profound sense of darkness, yet too much of the movie is spent with Lou and his partner Rick (Riz Ahmed) in a bizarre sort of back and forth. There is no conflict within Lou about the morality of what he does, and that sense of drift invades the film, making it a string of outlandish and perverse moments with some very gruesome images. There is much to think about here, and Gyllenhaal shines despite the script and the director.

Noah: Aronofsky's Portrait of Obsession

Movie Review: Noah

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Reviewed: 24 November 2014

jamesintexas rating--***

Director Darren Aronofsky continues his cinematic exploration of obsession with the retelling of the biblical story of Noah (Russell Crowe), the visionary builder responsible for the survival of the earth's creatures and mankind. In an ambitious and often creative retelling of the Bible story, Aronofsky remains unafraid to put his own stamp on it, with fallen angels transformed into rock monsters and metaphysical miracles often performed by Noah's grandfather (Anthony Hopkins). A strong supporting cast of Jennifer Connelly as Noah's wife Naameh and Emma Watson as his adopted daughter Ila are given short shrift as the film touches upon how hard it would be to love a man like Noah or endure his fits of prophecy. However, Aronofsky feels mostly comfortable in building up a conflict between Noah and Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) representing mankind destined for destruction.

Aronofsky's boldness shines through this film, and the film stumbles when it tries to humanize Noah and explore his balancing of family and faith. I am not sure it all works. Crowe is his stoic, mighty best, but as far as depicting Noah's internal struggles, he fails. Does he fail because he cannot convey a character of this scope's inner dimensions? I have to say, with my unabashed admiration for Crowe, that it must be the script's fault. Aronofsky dabbles in magical realism, Anthony Hopkins, and rock-beasts, and I think that something had to give. No one else in the cast is given much to do: Winstone broods, Connelly stares, Watson cries and looks. The spectacle of the nature of the movie means that so much of it is spent waiting for the cataclysmic event. When it arrives, it does not disappoint.

Generally, I liked Noah, though I don't think it carries the day in terms of exploring its prophetic eponymous main character. No one in the cast stands out in a meaningful way, and part of me will always want more real animals, fewer CGI. Yet, I'm intrigued: Aronofsky wrestles with faith in film in a way that although less successful than his magnificent film The Fountainhead, but it reflects a genuine passion for the subject and a willingness to inject creativity and daring into some of the storytelling. From Black Swan to The Wrestler, he willing portrays characters in conflict with themselves in harrowing environments, and Noah is less successful only because he fails to make Noah as human as a disintegrating ballet dancer or a broken-down wrestler.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Enough Said: Not Enough Have Seen This Gem of a Film.

Movie Review: Enough Said

Director: Nicole Holofcener

Reviewed: 14 September 2014

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Enough Said covers ground well-worn: parents dealing with the empty nest as seniors prepare to leave for college; divorce in the modern age; dating and dishonesty. Yet, Nicole Holofcener's film captures its characters with new insight and grace, making a comedy of manners in a sense set against the shifting time in a parent's life. I found it to be admirable, sweet, and moving.

Julia Louis-Dreyfuss owns the film as divorced mom and masseuse Eva who struggles in her career, relationship with her daughter, and her own feelings as life prepares to move forward. A chance encounter with the divorced Albert (James Gandolfini) at a party sparks a laugh, and they form a connection that leads to a date. Albert is self-deprecating and weary, a bit sad in the eyes with the prospect of his daughter leaving for college as well; together, they are sharp and alive though not sure if they are right for each other. Holofcener, who also wrote the film, layers in the supporting characters played by Catherine Keener, Toni Collette, and Ben Falcone in believable and often hilarious ways, but to say more might ruin the charm of this film. I guarantee that there is at least one moment that is a cover-your-eyes-with-embarrassment-horror type of moment, and that's the sign that a comedy has worked its way into your brain and skin. It asks the question "How much do you want to know about a person at the beginning of a relationship?" The intrigue of what to leave mysterious in this age of total lack of privacy is thrilling, and the comedy arises from the inability of Eva to extract herself from the lives of the people around her.

There is such a warmth between Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfuss in this film. The performances are revelatory from these actors I associate mostly with their television shows. There is no doubt that I look at Gandolfini's Albert and think about it being one Gandolfini's last performances, adding an unintentionally elegiac quality to the film. Gandolfini will always be Tony Soprano, but consider his work in True Romance, Get Shorty, A Civil Action, and In The Loop as well. He delivers another fine performance here. And as for Louis-Dreyfuss, this performance feels like her cinematic debut of sorts, and she shines. I am deeply disappointing both acting performances were not Academy Award nominated. There is a tenderness and a very adult feel to the film, and I think it has been overlooked by far too many for far too long. Please see this film.

The Spectacular Now: Worth The Time.

Movie Review: The Spectacular Now

Director: James Ponsoldt

Reviewed: 14 September 2014

jamesintexas rating--***

James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now takes so many right steps that when a misstep finally occurs in the last two minutes of the film, it threatens to under the power of what came before it. A teenage romance film that eschews cliche for heart, The Spectacular Now focuses on Sutter (Miles Teller), a senior in a sort of arrested development; he's unable to plan ahead for his future, he stumbles through his life mostly drunk, and he has a painful relationship with him mom, a nonexistent one with his absent dad. When Sutter loses his girlfriend, he wakes up on a lawn without a car and to the sight of Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a girl at his school who knows him while he doesn't know her. She's delivering her paper route for her mom at 6 a.m., and Sutter tags along. A burgeoning friendship starts out, in the beginning mostly as a vehicle for Sutter to make his ex-girlfriend jealous and possibly just to rebound from that relationship. But Aimee's vulnerability and sheer loveliness make a strong impression on Sutter who simultaneously believes he isn't making her fall in love with him while doing so. The relationship has an air of second semester senior year, with the time running out of their hands as futures are planned, colleges applied to and accepted, relationships cemented or broken.

The film sharply shows the creation of a couple with its shared language and its us against the world quality. Both promise to each other to confront their parents about major events. Both struggle with figuring out their place in the world and the next step. The supporting performances are all equally strong from teachers to bosses to parents, and to say more would be a sin. Some of the surprises of the film are heart-wrenching. The film never condescends or makes things cliche with Sutter and Aimee, and its intense focus on them means ignoring the supporting cast around them to a degree. Only Sutter's ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) manages to make an impression, though never resulting in an honest conversation between her and Aimee. The film skips over major scenes and events, content with showing us the aftermath of graduation. It takes its young characters seriously, and their quests of self-discovery are often painful and poignant. I wish it took Aimee a bit more seriously and presented her life with more richness, but the director is diving deep into Sutter, so that's a limitation. Both actors work well together and create a believable chemistry. Teller's eyes depict a sadness in Sutter, a slowly dawning realization that the life of the party may not be where he wants to be.

I hope The Spectacular Now finds its audience. There are a million gross-out teenage comedies or films that showcase school and graduation in a crass, almost nasty way. This film is more interested in grabbing your heart and carrying you along with its journey. I don't believe the courage of the film and its depiction of teenage alcoholism among other things warrants complete forgiveness for the abrupt shift in the last minutes. Perhaps a studio head wanted a different ending. It feels false in a film where everything else doesn't. That's saying something, even if the film only approaches spectacular.

Network: The Future is Now.

Movie Review: Network

Director: Sydney Lumet

Reviewed: 13 September 2014

jamesintexas rating--****

Network is a film that I knew the famous scene from far before I ever watched it. "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" has entered the pop culture lexicon, and Network's Peter Finch, bedraggled and soaked with rain, often shows up in montages at the Academy Awards. I would place it in the category of science fiction almost, as it presents a future that mirrors the world that we live in today. It stands among films like The Social Network and The Truman Show for its prescience and its close look at the modern media world. I found it upsetting and a brilliant work of art.

When Howard Beale (Peter Finch) an aging news anchor announces that he's going to kill himself on the air in one week's time, the network gets the best ratings it has ever had. Network executive Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) allows himself to be convinced by voracious producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) that airing the angry, ranting old commentator in an unfiltered, raw way will turn the audiences towards them. Beale is part Old Testament prophet, part cultural critic; think comedian Lewis Black in the modern era but more abrasive and shocking. Beale's friend and producer Max Schumacher (William Holden) finds himself embroiled in keeping his friend on the air, contemplating the effects of his on air mental breakdown, and his own midlife crisis when confronted by Diana. Everything comes together as Christensen attempts to use real life crime footage to spur a television series, a preview of some of the lunacy currently presented on today's networks.

The film offers a unique look into the creation of the television show and schedule with ruthless board meetings and over the top satire of how far the media will go for ratings. Dunaway's character stops at nothing and uses everything in her power to acquire media success. Finch's performance of a man losing his grip seems appropriately wide-eyed and cagey. I liked William Holden's performance quite a bit as a producer whose life spirals out of control with the events of the story. Lumet's work as a director here is so incredibly focused: he lets his actors have long scenes; we see the inner workings of the television studio instead of just the glossy lights; and the ruthlessness of the upper echelons of power inside of a corporation are chilling. I think the film has a relevance to our world today besides being deeply, often acidly funny.

We live in Network's world, and as for being mad as hell? Perhaps we have enough channels and Howard Beales to finally satiate us? Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Butter Scraped Over Too Much Bread: Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Director: Peter Jackson

Reviewed: 10 September 2014

jamesintexas rating--**

"I feel like butter scraped over too much bread," utters a haunted Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings trilogy before bestowing the one ring to rule them all to his nephew Frodo Baggins. It is a sentiment that I kept coming back to as I watched the second part of the second trilogy, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. With its slender but satisfying source material, Jackson has disappeared down the rabbit hole of his own hubris, following George Lucas before him as an artist whose tinkering has led to diminishing returns. The dragon not withstanding, this film offers little joy, humor, or wonder, and I am left with a sense of an inflated story which is still not finished. But, oh, that dragon!

The story picks up quickly with Bilbo carrying the ring (Martin Freeman), its excessive dwarves who cannot seem to be killed, and stoic Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). They are being chased by CGI bad guys with oozing deformations. An early sequence through the Mirkwood leads to some exciting spider fights, but again, nothing compared to the slow burn and reveal of Shelob in The Return of The King. As the hobbits ride barrels, make friendships, and claw their way to Erebor and the Misty Mountain, another story opens up with a thread about elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom with digitally enhanced eyes) and possible love interest Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). And Gandalf (Ian McKellen) seeks out the Necromancer in shadowy places, setting up the inevitable conflict in the third film. The touchstones of the book are all here: the locating of the secret door, the mountains of shimmering gold, Smaug himself, and the town not far from his door. Yet, very little of it is compelling or interesting. The film is at its worst in the nearby town with its thin characterizations.

What does work is the incredible cavernous halls of gold occupied by the glowing, pensive Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). The conversations between Smaug and Bilbo here are the highlight, albeit not as much fun as the riddling and wordplay between Gollum and Bilbo in the first film. But it does say something if Jackson manages to make those conversations the highlights in both films. Smaug's body and silky voice captivate, though there are so many opportunities to barbecue a hobbit or dwarf that one wonders if the film would not have been better sacrificing one or two of its leads. To see Smaug launch to the sky in search of ruin is a marvel, and the abruptness of the final cut means I will see the third film, but I was left, again, with the sense that one amazing film of an amazing book has been stretched out to cover seven or more hours of storytelling. On some level, it stinks of making more money from an audience, and on another level, it is just butter scraped over too much bread.

What could have been!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Life Itself: A look at the life of the unbroken legend Roger Ebert.

Movie Review: Life Itself

Director: Steve James

Reviewed: 16 August 2014

jamesintexas rating--****

Roger Ebert would not have approved of me waiting over two weeks to write this movie review.

I meant to see his film in Houston on the big screen, possibly with some of the middle school students from Denver Harbor who met him with me in June of 2004 (impossibly, those same students are now in their twenties: some in college, and some with families). However, it seemed right to watch it in Elmhurst, a suburb of Chicago, where I grew up as a kid, although the experiencing of seeing a new movie on the television is still one I have to get used to. My parents were there on the couches and chairs next to me, and my wife who also met Roger Ebert on that trip over ten years ago was at my side. The spirit of family, community, and place swirled about me most fittingly as I watched Steve James's new documentary Life Itself, among the very people who would purchase the Sunday Chicago Sun-Times on Saturday to start going through it the night before. That Sunday Sun-Times featured essays and interviews conducted by Roger Ebert and in late December every year, it featured his best movies of the year. Those lists and his myriad books dominated my consciousness and still do, beckoning me to try new directors, genres, and expand my canon. I have no doubt that Roger Ebert helped steer my parents towards films such as Glory, Goodfellas, and The Crying Game during 1991-1993, and they mentored me by showing me my first real works of cinematic art at a formative time in my life. My Friday morning ritual in high school was to run the two mile loop up Myrtle Ave to the train tracks, train tracks down to York Road, stop somewhere downtown with my 85 cents in hand to purchase a Friday Tribune and a Friday Sun-Times for Siskel and Ebert's written movie reviews, and then jog back home with the papers in hand, usually passing Nu-Time Video with an alluring movie poster beckoning from beside the front door. I would read the movie reviews first--before sports, the front page, and any sort of world news. They were that important to me. Ebert's writing was voluminous and profound: lengthy treatises with literary analysis, rich in film history, but always written with his unique and approachable voice. His television persona to me was not as strong, but I saw Siskel & Ebert whenever I could, and I always found it to be illuminating. Two smart guys on television talking about movies! And not always agreeing! About two weeks after graduating college, I met Ebert at the Harold Washington Library where he read e.e. cummings's poetry aloud and signed a copy of his book to me. Later that first year as a teacher, Ebert emailed back and forth with me about teaching the very course at that Houston school that would lead me to being able to meet him three years later. He was a champion of film and of life, and Steve James expertly captures that in this film, the best of the year so far.

Clearly, as a Roger Ebert fan, Steve James's film worked for me on multiple levels, but as I watched James unfold the debilitating and devastating medical diagnoses that Ebert receives and lives with as does his wife Chaz juxtaposed against the wilder, raucous years of the Pulitzer Prize winning writer's life, I found the core of the film through the title. Life itself. Roger Ebert was so much more than just an attitude or a persona. His life itself was about finding what defined his life, and the search for truth never goes simply or smoothly. Ebert has described movies as being "empathy machines" because of their transformative and evocative power to take us inside worlds in surprising ways. Movies connect and allow us to, as Atticus Finch would say, "put yourself in someone else's shoes and walk around for a little bit," to paraphrase the familiar line. We walk in Ebert's shoes in this film as James skillfully weaves from his childhood and rise to prominence as a critic as well as a television personality, and then again, we walk with him through painful years of alcoholism and in physical therapy as a battered but unbroken Ebert fights to regain control of his body. We walk with Chaz, the love of his life, and the woman whose life for Ebert defines the film and him. His success, James makes me think, would have been merely empty laurels without the love of Chaz and the joy he felt when with her and their family together. Home video clips punctuate this feeling.

I knew I would love the old Siskel & Ebert clips and out takes, some particularly vicious and petulant. I knew the talking heads aspects of the film would work for me, hearing tales of old Chicago and old newspaper business. The film shows an imperfect man adrift in a successful life who found love, and that love anchored him in a way nothing else ever could. Instead of canonizing or lionizing the beloved Ebert, James aims at presenting a more balanced, more honest portrait. Friend Martin Scorsese discusses their friendship and the pain of a negative review for The Color of Money. Gene Siskel's widow recounts their bickering, professional jealousy, and at times, awfulness to each other. Chaz shows the grace and grief of a partner turned caretaker when the simple act of walking up the stairs can become a trying ordeal of shaken heads, upset hands, and even rage. Throughout it all, James's focus on Ebert analyzing his life and considering his own mortality allows us a shockingly intimate and hopeful picture of what it means to live and what it means to die.

Steve James was brought onto my radar by Roger Ebert in 1994 with the documentary Hoop Dreams, and Ebert's championing of that film brought it worldwide renown and an Oscar nomination for Best Editing (though none, criminally, for Best Documentary). James has continued to make fascinating films ever since, from Stevie to The Interrupters, and what a uniquely appropriate joy it would be in late February to see Steve James standing at the Academy Awards accepting an Oscar, finally, for this tribute and examination of the great Roger Ebert. To me, Life Itself, like Ebert's autobiography of the same name that provides some of the film's foundation and shape, allows an audience to ponder the deepest questions of what makes our lives worth living while retaining the joy and twinkle of the man who would have written this review much more eloquently and much more rapidly.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Innovative Documentary: The Unforgettable Cutie and The Boxer

Movie Review: Cutie and The Boxer

Director: Zach Heinzerling

Reviewed: 26 July 2014

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Zach Heinzerling's innovative documentary Cutie and The Boxer starts out as a chronicling of the life of aged artist Ushio Shinohara, an artist know for dipping boxing gloves with sponges into paint and punching his way across a campus. However, Heinzerling subtly shifts gears and focuses in just as much on Ushio's wife Noriko, herself an artist who has had to put her career on hold to support her husband and raise their son. Set in their ramshackle but intensely beautiful apartment in New York City, the film explores the nature of artistry and what it means to support an artist. Noriko's drawings of heroine Cutie have never been revealed to an audience like her more well-known husband's paintings and sculptures. Noriko's self-definition and stepping out into the light require a recalibration of their relationship at this very late age, making for fascinating cinema.

Heinzerling captures the astonishing intimacy of the creation of the artwork, the packaging and marketing of a gallery show, as well as using animation to take us inside Noriko's drawings. The couple's shared history is documented through home movies and archival footage of them as a younger couple. I would be astonished to know if Heinzerling knew where this story would go. Cutie and The Boxer exists as a singular and unique portrait of an artistic couple growing and healing, moving forward while struggling as artists. There are many moments of unspoken pain with echo through their respective art.

The final shot achieves a quiet perfect beauty of equilibrium. I highly recommend this film.

No Country For Old Counselors: Ridley Scott's The Counselor

Movie Review: The Counselor

Director: Ridley Scott

Reviewed: 17 July 2014

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite authors of all-time, and The Counselor pairs his first ever screenplay with the visual flair of director Ridley Scott. The result is a surprisingly haunting series of philosophical conversations between two characters punctuated by scenes of grotesque and intense violence all set against the backdrop of the modern day border between Mexico and the United States. If 1980 was the time of No Country For Old Men and Tommy Lee Jones's sheriff Ed Tom Bell realizing his impotence in the face of the growing border violence, The Counselor is its contemporary aftermath, its promise of reckoning in a world where the cartel wields unspeakable, nearly mythical power. We are left watching the criminals squabble and scurry against each other, and one wrong decision can led to the abyss.

The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) loves his fiancee Laura (Penelope Cruz), jets to Europe to buy her a diamond engagement ring, swims in the world of criminals as their lawyer, but when he finally chooses to get into the drug trafficking business with club owner Reiner (Javier Bardem), things fall apart. A drug courier goes missing; a jailed mother asks for a favor; something ferocious is set in motion that cannot be stopped. The center cannot hold. Reiner and girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) are the kinds of people who sit on blankets in the desert watching their pet cheetahs attack jackrabbits. Westray (Brad Pitt), himself a shady businessman offers his own counsel about crossing the threshold with these forces. The Counselor finds himself in over his head in every possible way.

With its talky, philosophical structure and multiple reveals, The Counselor may best reward a second viewing because it takes until the final scene to understand all that has come before. I was interested in its red and purples, its liminal states between day and night along border roads, its gallows humor regarding a cartel shipment, and its deep conversations, particularly one with the mysterious god-like Jefe (Ruben Blades) who tells the Counselor enigmatically, "You are the world that you have created." The conversation seems a natural extension of ones held by Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. "Call it," Chigurh would have said, but the Counselor's choices have imprisoned him far beyond the reach of any form of chance or hope.

The Counselor is a brutally harsh film with a performance from Fassbender that conveys terror but also distance. There is a scientific, almost clinical dispatching of characters and violence as we watch pieces swept from the chessboard with expediency. "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed" as the Yeats states in his poem "The Second Coming," and no one can hold the floodgates back. I found its ending astonishing, as well as the multiple meanings of the title. Whose counsel does one trust?

Don't Purge Everything: There's Something Powerful Here

Movie Review: The Purge

Director: James DeMonaco

Reviewed: 24 July 2014

jamesintexas rating--**

The Purge's premise is that in the near future, the United States will be reborn and its new founders rise to power by allowing the populace a twelve hour purging of violence and hatred every year. In a sort of bizarre twist on Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery," neighbor can turn against neighbor, rich against poor, family against itself, all against the legal and permissible backdrop of the government's system. According to experts, the idea of the purge makes society more safe and controllable. "Would you kill someone tonight, dad, if you wanted to?" asks the wide-eyed preteen son of Mr. and Mrs. Sandin (Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey). "Yes," the father replies, "but we don't feel the need to do so." Instead, the well-to-do Sandins, flush with the nicest house and most advanced security system in the neighborhood, hunker down with their myriad cameras, content to watch the rest of the world on this one night of lawlessness, revenge, and chaos. Of course, the chaos arrives at their front door, and when the youngest Sandin, Charlie (Max Burkholder) opens their security system to save a homeless man being hunted, the hunters find themselves standing at the gate, knocking to be let in, wearing creepy masks. And daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) may have let more in quite unknowingly as well.

The premise is better to think about than to watch in execution. Playing off our post 9-11 fears, The Purge could have reached for more resonance with our modern era, but instead it is content to degenerate into a home invasion chase movie with jump-out scares and a completely nonsensical geography. It made me think of home effectively some movies with a confined space establish their sense of geography like, say, David Fincher's Panic Room. Here, there are conveniently places to run for fleeing family members at all times, and characters always pop out at the right time. It takes place within a gated community among members of a certain class. The opening shots hint at what happens in urban centers and play with the idea of purging being a way to regulate society, to eliminate the poor, to maintain an equilibrium. I wish the film had the courage to explore those convictions or even consider violence such as war; to see The Purge through a post-Iraq and Afghanistan lens where many of our soldiers are inordinately members of the lower classes sent into danger by those safely ensconced in power would be a potentially explosive reading. There are already elements of "The Most Dangerous Game" where man hunts man. But, the film is more content to show Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey roaming around their home with shiny, photogenic weaponry. Alas. And the director fails to convey Hawke's character's change of heart with any sort of clarity. The story needs him to change directions, so he does. That's it.

I'm not saying it is not scary. To watch it in a dark house with the shade on the front window blowing in the breeze and casting weird shadows over everything, with noises amplified tenfold in the night, and with a consciousness of I'd better not scream and wake up my sleeping nine-month old, The Purge has its moments. But I would not recommend it or want to watch any part of it again; there really is not much going on under its mask, unfortunately.

Far From Heaven: A Technical Triumph

Movie Review: Far From Heaven

Director: Todd Haynes

Reviewed: 17 July 2014

jamesintexas rating--***

I admired Todd Haynes's 2002 film Far From Heaven, but I did not love it. Perhaps I do not know the Douglas Sirk films that he is so astutely paying homage to, but I know the type. He seeks to rip the facade off of the perfect life of the 1950's and examine sexuality, power, agency and conformity. His artistry is admirable, and Haynes has proven himself to be a master at modulating costumes and colors. Julianne Moore looks like the quintessential mother figure from any movie or television show of the era that I have seen. She plays Cathy Whitaker, the perfect mother and wife, whose life quickly begins to disintegrate around her. Within the context of the story, Cathy is trapped. Her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) feels compelled to have a double-life and get away with it, and inside of her large home with her two children, Cathy feels heartbreakingly alone. Her growing connection with her African-American gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) has a light but transgressive quality that sends waves across their idyllic Connecticut community. The more I thought about Far From Heaven, the more I thought about Ibsen's A Doll's House with its images of imprisonment and desire for female empowerment. Haynes throws conflict at these characters, but his story moves within the limitations of the time period. A climactic moment must just be that: a moment of recognition and possibility, but within the world of these characters, nothing more can be. I found the ending somewhat frustrating, but perhaps that is Haynes's point. Cathy Whitaker found herself constrained on all sides within her marriage, her social status, and her community. To break free may be what a modern audience expects.

The cast is excellent, and Moore delivers a strong performance of great interiority amidst the posturing and conventions that must be upheld as a housewife of this time period. Her best moments come when her character finds herself face-to-face with uncertainty. Quaid and Haysbert do fine work as well, and the film has a stagy quality with its small but focused cast. The bright colors of the transforming leaves hint at Haynes's message that transformation for this society is coming soon; the seasons are a changing, but the change does not come quick enough, and there are many hurt and excluded and powerless in this type of society. We see Cathy nudging ahead, uncertainly pushing forward on beliefs about race and gender that will eventually sow the seeds of the Civil Rights and Gay Rights movements to come. One cannot help but wonder what happens to her after that final shot. Todd Haynes remains a director with an eye for composing a shot, handling color and light with ease, and Far From Heaven, though perhaps less powerful for me because of my ignorance of its references and genre, has a well-crafted and thoughtful atmosphere.

Heathers: High School as Hell Stands the Test of Time

Movie Review: Heathers

Director: Michael Lehmann

Reviewed: 26 July 2014

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Wow. Heathers, the dark high school comedy from 1988, still packs a potent punch over twenty-six years later with its quotable and memorable dialogue, memorable lead performance by Winona Ryder, and its uniquely sardonic vision. Its characters quibble about how much time they get off from school in the wake of an apparent suicide outbreak, and it all stems from the in-crowd of the three Heathers who rule the school as the original mean girls. Ryder stars as Veronica, the hanger-on of the Heathers who ends up plotting their fall from power and total destruction with the new kid in school J.D. (Christian Slater). The film concerns the power of high school cliques, the hilarious apathy of the adults in charge, and the opportunity to skewer teen culture. Although I feel that the film's second half unravels a bit and loses the momentum firmly established from the opening sequence, Heathers has a unique and often hilarious perspective on hypocrisy and facades. It is good to be reminded of a time when Winona Ryder ruled the world, and Christian Slater's performance has its own charm. At its best moments, Heathers has a kind of comic frenzy: Veronica writing in exaggerated handwriting in her diary; witty repartee between Veronica and her parents; dark monologues delivered along side coffins; an inverted conversation between J.D. and his dad; and, at last, underlining meaningful passages in Moby-Dick. Does it deserve its place among the best high school films of all time? I say because of its weirdness and wonderful script, Heathers earns a spot among the most memorable of that list. At the time, I cannot even imagine how its controversial subject matter was received; it still has a sharp edge.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Slow Burn: Praise for Out of the Furnace

Movie Review: Out of the Furnace

Director: Scott Cooper

Reviewed: 26 July 2014

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Out of the Furnace, the new film from director Scott Cooper, has an admirable amount of restraint in its economical storytelling, graceful concision with images that call to mind director Terence Malick, as well as real stakes for its hardscrabble characters set amidst a heartbreakingly beautiful dying steel mill town in western Pennsylvania calling to mind The Deer Hunter. A film unafraid to challenge its audience by defying conventions of the genre, Out of the Furnace features a superb cast led by Christian Bale and Casey Affleck as brothers Russell and Rodney Baze: the former, a steadfast mill worker, and the later, a haunted U.S. Army veteran of four tours in Iraq. They care for their dying father alongside their uncle Red (Sam Shepard, and after a few twists and turns, both end up in situations far beyond their control. Rodney pressures bar owner and loan shark John Petty (Willem Dafoe) to support him in fighting for money, leading him to the dark unpredictable character of Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a menacing character first introduced memorably at a drive-in before a series of brutally violent acts. Harlan controls drugs and more in Ramapo, New Jersey, a sort of backwoods mafia network out of the television show Justified, and when Rodney goes missing, it is up to Russell to find him when traditional forces cannot.

I cannot speak highly enough about this cast. Shepard, Dafoe, Harrelson, and Forest Whitaker all shine in their supporting roles, as does Zoe Saldana in a role usually cast aside without much thought, but here, she serves plays an integral part of Russell's life. Woody Harrelson's performance is hypnotic with the capacity for violence at any time. The furnace of the steel mill anchors the film with its shimmering smokestacks, and ruined, weathered homes and mills exist as the backdrop for Russell's struggle. Bale can hold the screen in wordless moments, with soulful eyes with deep wells of regret.The attraction of this highly respected cast to this film is obvious. Cooper is wrestling with a morality tale of near-biblical proportions. He cross cuts from brother to brother several times in very interesting and complex ways, unafraid to let the cutting go on for long stretches that force us to ponder the similarity between the rituals both men undergo. A later section of the film cuts from Harlan DeGroat to Russell in another thought-provoking piece of editing. The film just refuses to be boring or dumb or play down to its audience. The stakes are palpable.

Violence has meaning to Russell, and his transformation only works because of the journey of the film. Cooper allows the film to breathe; we see Russell and Rodney's playful chemistry as brothers and believe the hold each brother has on the other. Pain echoes as time passes. It would have been easy for Cooper to turn Out of the Furnace into a paint-by-the-numbers revenge film with a ruthlessly violent protagonist. Instead, Russell's attempts to hold onto his humanity amidst the chaos created by Harlan DeGroat have an unquestionable tension that reverberates until the final shot of the film. Cooper infuses the screen with life and uses "Release" by Pearl Jam quite evocatively to open and end the film. I wanted to see every character's life in this film in even more detail, from Dafoe's slimy operator to Shepard's flower-growing hunter. More time spent in this universe, please.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Unhappy Families in August: Osage County

Movie Review: August: Osage County

Director: John Wells

Reviewed: 6 July 2014

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

August: Osage County is the film adaptation of Tracy Letts' caustic family play chronicling the disintegration of one family upon the disappearance of their patriarch one hot summer day. A showcase for some terrific actors and actresses, the film never takes off under its own power, feels stagey and less powerful than I suspect it is in the theater. Of course, to see Meryl Streep face off with Julia Roberts is certainly worth a look. Both Academy Award winning actresses were nominated for their work here.

In the theater, there is a shared intimacy between performer and audience. Voices must be loud enough to be heard in the back. Sets and backgrounds, while important, are supplanted by dramatic speeches and dialogue. The tension of moments and scenes has a palpability that exists differently in film. Take the centerpiece scene in August: Osage County. The matriarch of the family, Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), lights into nearly everyone at a dinner table, wielding her viciously worded power in a scene that goes on for quite a while; Violet literally has "fire in [her] mouth" with what her husband Beverly (Sam Shepherd) calls "a touch of mouth cancer," and the symbolic burning and truth-telling is not lost upon the audience as she scorches those around her for various real and imagined transgressions. Her three daughters have gathered around the table with her: Barbara (Julia Roberts), the failed wife of an academic; Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the daughter who stayed and sacrificed; and Karen (Juliette Lewis), the flighty free-spirit who fled to Florida. The tension builds a bit, but every editing cut releases that intensity, and the final eruption has far less power than I think it would have onstage.

The entire Weston family is drawn together, and emotional manipulation abounds. The Tolstoy quote about "each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" proves true. Secrets are released; skeletons in closets are revealed; and an almost mythical level of tragedy descends upon the denizens of this hot Oklahoma plain. In general, the scenes within the house have an oppressiveness that I found lacking in scenes in cars or outside. The story acquires so many characters and relationships that too many are given short shrift like Ewan McGregor's philandering husband or Abigail Breslin's petulant daughter. The film has an interest in the sins of the parents falling upon the children, as well as the inheritance of self-destruction, but it also seems to want to be more shocking in its verbal interactions among family members. Overall, the cast is strong with Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale as standouts in addition to Streep and Roberts. Meryl Streep transforms herself yet again, but it is worth saying it every time: she is the greatest actress of our time and expertly conveys Violet's grandeur and imperiousness but also her brittle fragility. August: Osage County has moments that work quite well, but it never leaps up and truly becomes a successful film. It always feels stagey and may just not have been translated for the screen in the best way. The ending in particular feels off; the film could have done without the last scene.

In the end, I found myself thinking of both the ancient text of King Lear and the modern film Nebraska, released the same year. All three stories are about aging and sick parents crashing into the selfishness of inheritance by the children. Who will take care of the sick? What do parents owe children? The reversal of power within a family is a compelling subject, and August: Osage County has a certain undeniable power, but I think I would rather see it onstage. And with Meryl Streep, of course.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Disastrous Tammy: Melissa McCarthy Misfires.

Movie Review: Tammy

Director: Ben Falcone

Reviewed: 4 July 2014

jamesintexas rating--*

I squirmed in my theater seat as I watched the new film Tammy, thinking about many things. Other performances by the lead actress that I have enjoyed. Complete creative control run amok. Long stretches of silence in the theater. One of the most likable and charismatic actresses of our time playing a confusing character. A slew of Oscar-winning and Emmy-winning actresses as well as respected veterans make up the cast, looking uncomfortable and unsure of what type of film Tammy should be. And the heart of the film is the great Melissa McCarthy as Tammy, a wild misfire of a performance that careens from one scene to the next in a movie that seems as aimless as its characters. Since Tammy the film is ultimately unsure of what it wants to be, that makes caring about its characters difficult.

Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) has the ultimate bad day: in quick succession, she loses her transportation, her job, and her relationship. So, she packs her bag and travels to her mom's house, linking her up with her alcoholic grandma (Susan Sarandon) who is all too eager to loan Tammy her car for a chance to join in her escape. The pair head out on the road, vaguely, with the possible goal of visiting Niagara Falls. They stumble into small-town adventures, criminal activity, elaborate cover-ups, and family members eager to teach them life lessons.

It just does not work. Scenes are painfully long with many unfunny moments. For a road movie, I never got any sense of where they were and how far they had traveled. Intensely painful moments are mentioned (a childhood memory that haunts Tammy) and discarded quickly. Scenes that evoke isolation and exclusion are played for quick laughs. Tammy's mom, Deb (Allison Janney), is excluded from most of the film, never even mentioned by her mother or daughter on their journey. Tonal shifts abound, making it impossible to get a sense of these people's identities.

There are some scenes that make little sense like the one of Tammy dancing around to a pop song in the parking lot by herself. I was confused as to whether we are meant to think of Tammy as mentally ill or challenged in some way. Her centerpiece scenes seem to be a jet ski scene and a robbery scene because of their sheer physical comedy. But then in other scenes, she is lucid and insightful. But the film is not interested in exploring how Tammy became Tammy. The film seeks to have many emotional moments (characters confronting each other or having epiphanies), but it truly does not want to earn any of those moments. Things really ring false. Maybe others will find a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking Susan Sarandon funny, but I did not. Mark Duplass and Gary Cole are the sort of afterthought characters that are not given more than one note to play. Duplass in particular is given the unenviable task of laughing at Tammy's antics; he laughed more than anyone in my theater. I also did not know what to make of Kathy Bates' late appearance in the film. Her inspirational speech seems cliched and factually correct based on information given earlier in the film. The overall impression is a sloppy one.

I think one of the aspects that I have liked about Melissa McCarthy's performances in Bridesmaids and The Heat is that her characters, while deeply comedic, are always intelligent and confident. Here, when playing Tammy who is neither, McCarthy flails wildly, robbed of her usual quick wit and sharp comic timing. It is difficult not to blame McCarthy who wrote the screenplay along with her husband Ben Falcone, the director. I have to wonder if Tammy was meant to be something other than this. Perhaps studio interference altered with their original vision? What we are left with in Tammy is an unfunny film that had some incredible potential and a dream cast. The film does not seem to have the courage to regard its characters as real people, and that is a shame. McCarthy's track record demanded high expectations for this film, expectations that the film was not able to reach.

The Fault in The Fault in Our Stars

Movie Review: The Fault in Our Stars

Director: Josh Boone

Reviewed: 27 June 2014

jamesintexas rating--***

The Fault in Our Stars shows the orbit of teen Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a Stage 4 thyroid cancer patient, who crosses paths in a church support group with the very direct Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), himself a survivor of osteosarcoma that has left him with a prosthetic right leg and a fearlessness exhibited by his central metaphor: a clenched unlit cigarette between his teeth. As he tells Hazel, "You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don't give it the power to do its killing." The two form a friendship that steadily grows as different health challenges threaten to keep them apart. The story holds its characters in such high regard that it moves beyond melodrama; all of the teens with cancer in this film are going to die and know that brutal fact. The urgency with which they act upon feelings connects with the limitations of the short amount of time they are given.

Because of its powerful story and memorable lines, it feels like it should be an automatic success. However, the fault with this movie lies in its execution. Josh Boone drowns out the sound during key dialogue scenes between Hazel and Augustus not understanding that part of the joy of understanding these characters and their burgeoning relationship involves their highly intelligent and literature back and forth. The danger of adapting a much-loved novel involves such risks. When does an adaptation get it right, and when does the visual set to music supplant the substantive conversation?

Ansel Elgort's grating, smarmy performance initially turns Augustus Waters into a grinning image of perfection and cleverness. He gets better as the film proceeds, and in later moments of vulnerability, the character seems most real and realized by Elgort. His work underscores how effective Shailene Woodley's work as Hazel is, and Boone is content to have his camera hold Woodley's face for thirty to forty-five seconds without cutting away. She holds the film's attention as Hazel, though it can be even a challenge for Woodley to make texting (or waiting for texts) compelling.

The Anne Frank House scene just struck me as tonally inappropriate. The decision to overlay the scene of Hazel climbing bravely with her oxygen tank with the reading of Anne Frank's words from her diary at first just seems heavy handed. This love story is about teens without much time, and reading The Diary of Anne Frank is a haunting experience because we know that this is all the time Anne is ever given, that her crush on Peter remains unfulfilled, that her family was survived by only her father. The idea of lives cut short and the power of written words resonates here, especially given Hazel Grace's devotion to authors and books. But Boone turns the scene into a cathartic embrace between his leads, complete with swirling camera movement and spontaneous clapping from strangers at the roof of the Anne Frank House. Are we meant to equate The Holocaust with cancer? Are we meant to cheer for the romance here and in this moment? I found it more troubling and in poor taste.

A later scene that is supposed to be fun involving three teens and some eggs just left me feeling sad for the characters and the mom of one of the victims. The disposable soundtrack of treacly ballads telegraphs every emotion. The script's focus cuts away from the cancer group and its dynamics, the existence of Hazel and Augustus with their respective families, and the friendship with Isaac. In its hurry to pick up the pace and get to Hazel and Augustus, we lose the perspective of who these characters are. I admired the quiet strength in Laura Dern and Sam Trammell's performances as Hazel's parents who offer so much in so few scenes. They are not given much to do, which drains a climactic scene of some of its power, though I found the quiet moments between Hazel and each of her parents to be the most emotional and heart wrenching, perhaps because I have just become a parent myself.

The film has undeniable emotion from the powerful rendering in John Green's novel (Kenyon College, Class of 2000!). As a reader of this book first, I have to ask if the film adds to my understanding or appreciation of its characters and story. Ultimately, I do not think that director Josh Boone made choices to increase or deepen the complexity of one of the most beloved books of the last ten years. The missteps do not mar the story's cumulative power, but something has been lost in translation from book to screen. Shailene Woodley's performance, staring into oblivion, is worthy of consideration. And the story is a genuine tearjerker. I cried at least eight different times while watching The Fault in Our Stars, and there is something incredibly moving about these characters and their short amount of time together.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Neighbors To Greatness: Parents Versus Parties in Neighbors.

Movie Review: Neighbors

Director: Nicholas Stoller

Reviewed: 27 June 2014

jamesintexas rating--***

The new comedy Neighbors has its moments of total hilarity with winning performances, but the film suffers at times from not trusting its own premise. Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen play new parents Kelly and Mac Radner who nervously view a fraternity from the local college move in next door to their home. In an effort to head off any potential conflict, they awkwardly introduce themselves to Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco), president and vice-president of the chapter, who realize the power of winning over the neighborhood in order to throw their increasingly outrageous parties. Teddy sees the looming, uncertain future represented in the Radners while they see the fraternity fun as the past that they left behind for responsibility. A blank space exits on the fraternity's Wall of Fame, and Teddy studies his own legacy, concerned about throwing the best bash in the fraternity's history (outlined cleverly with members of The Lonely Island among others in black and white flashbacks). But the realities of having a young infant trying to sleep while living permanently next door to a deafening party set in. Something has got to give as no compromise can be negotiated.

What begins as a funny exploration of two new parents negotiating the terms of their lives after having a child eventually degenerates into an elaborate series of pranks back and forth between the family and the fraternity as lines of decency (and credulity) are crossed in the pursuit of total victory: the fraternity's destruction or the Radners moving. The Dean and probation are involved, a subplot with filming an initiation ritual goes awry, and supporting cast member Ike Barinholtz shows up late as Mac's friend Jimmy to increase the level of craziness. Some of the pranks are funny and inventive, but halfway in, one goes too far and took me out of the movie. The film works best in its moments with Byrne and Rogen talk with each other around their baby Stella, but the second half of the film eagerly drops Stella from the movie, even shortchanging potential humor in having her babysat while they stealthily creep around the parties next door. The film offers some nonsensical interludes, and as someone with a neighbor using power tools after 9 p.m. at night while trying to ensure that my infant son does not wake up, I just don't buy a few of the characters' decisions late in the film. If their baby is still next door, some of what they are doing just exacerbates the noise level.

The surprise here has to be both Zac Efron and Rose Byrne's incredible comic timing and gameness. Unexpectedly, Efron delivers a committed and very funny performance often while shirtless, and his pairing with Dave Franco really works well (look for a show stopping themed party celebrating a beloved actor's film career). He seems to be having fun. Rose Byrne uses her natural Australian accent and is treated as more of an equal than typically seen in these types of movies; she shows a zaniness that works well playing off of Rogen's stoner charm, and I like how she is a partner to the mayhem, not just an accessory or an afterthought.

I think my frustration comes from the film not committing to its inventive premise and retreating into safer territory. There are a few scenes where I found myself wondering about how injured the person would (or could) really be as the pranks escalated, and some involving a house with a baby just do not work. And the film sells itself short by allowing itself to just be about juvenile hijinks. I wondered if there would be scenes where a crying baby Stella wakes up the fraternity neighbors or more introspection from Teddy and Pete on brotherhood and community. Yet, the movie is very funny with some moments of deep laughter, and I think director Nicholas Stoller focused too much on chronicling the party, drinking, and drug scenes in a film that really offered something fresh: new parents trying to hold on to their identities as cool people. Neighbors touches a few truths with some surprising heart, and I think a stronger script by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien would have spent less time pranking and partying and more time with the new family. He would have cut two distracting minor characters and their subplots and shown more of the couple. And that baby. What a cute performance by twins Elise and Zoey Vargas.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Monsters Part 2: Good Fun

Movie Review: Monsters University

Director: Dan Scanlon

Reviewed: 25 June 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***

A prequel to the sublimely silly Monsters, Inc., Monsters University offers insight into the backstory of James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) before they teamed up and became scaring buddies, and the result is this funny, albeit underwhelming story that loses its way a bit but offers enough winning moments to be enjoyable. The new film does not have the kinetic propulsion of Monsters, Inc. or its bureaucratic and baroque silliness, though setting these two lovable monsters in a college setting allows for some big laughs. From his childhood, Mike has always been inspired by the scarers who trained at Monsters University, and Sully is a legacy, the son of a great scarer with a nonchalance that borders on disrespect of his education. Much like the recent film 22 Jump Street, director Dan Scanlon focuses mostly on the bachanalian parties of college in lieu of spending time in classes or eating in a dining hall or visiting a library. At some point, someone should do a serious study of the depiction of college life in American film to catalogue the increasingly narrow vision of what higher education is shown to be. But, alas, back to the movie. An elaborate Scare Games contest designed by the fearsome dragon Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) serves as a group challenge that will allow the book smart Mike and the coasting Sully a way back into the Scaring Major after finding themselves kicked out for some mindless hijinks. To enter, they must form a team with the lowly Oozma Kappa fraternity of castaways who create some of the film's biggest laughs. I loved the Grover-Animal-like-bendy-monster named Art (Charlie Day) with his criminal past and silly personality. The film's structure quickly resembles the quintessential college film competition-style, with different challenges designed to test each team's overall scariness, and various lessons about teamwork and self worth are sprinkled throughout.  

The only challenge that really works involves a monstrous near-blind librarian and the team's stealth movements through her domain. The scene is really quite well-done in its grandeur and art design. But otherwise, these moments feel rote and by-the-numbers here until the ending which offers a bit of a twist. I was so happy to see Randall (Steve Buscemi) back, but instead of being the villain, he starts out here as Mike's roommate but is criminally underused and underdeveloped. More Randall, please! Scanlon's team of animators fills the frame with gorgeous and striking looking creations, and I loved some of the minor details (the slug trying to get to class, the hacky sack players, and the hard-rocking mom in a van). There were many moments when it was hard to believe that the film was animated; the technology has advanced so incredibly that I really am impressed by what I see on-screen.

These characters are fun, and their world is one with richness and texture. Monsters University does not try too hard or push itself too much, but it has a strong message about honesty, enough callbacks to the first film to reward an attentive viewer, and the colors dazzle. The eyeball of Mike Wazowski is a wonder to behold in its expressiveness and green-white beauty. I think the first film remains the classic film, one of the best of the past decade, but Monsters University is nonetheless a lot of fun.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Each Unhappy Family Is Unhappy In Its Own Way: Joe Wright's Anna Karenina

Movie Review: Anna Karenina

Director: Joe Wright

Reviewed: 20 June 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***

Tom Stoppard's script condenses Leo Tolstoy's 963 page novel into a concise 2 hour and 9 minute film, and married to that vision of this great Russian classic is director Joe Wright's theatrical sensibility of staging much of this within the confines of a classic theater setting. Marvelously, much of the film exists on the stage or around or above it, with sets being magically whisked into view, actors and actresses changing costumes quickly, artwork being dropped into view in the background hinting at the majesty of Moscow or the fields of wheat in the country. The stage becomes an office, a home, a train station, an opera house, and beyond, lending itself to Wright's love of long takes (evidenced in his camera swimming through parties in Pride & Prejudice or circling the beach of war torn Dunkirk in Atonement). Anna Karenina never seems to be having more fun than in that opening thirty minutes when Wright dazzles with inventiveness, taking us to the street through the stairs up into the rafters or having a delightfully daffy Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden, obliterating his dour and officious Mr. Darcy character) storm around his office, tipping his cigar at his servants while eyeing his children's governess. And that act of infidelity, discovered by his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) begins the story. In the face of divorce, Oblonsky's sister Anna (Keira Knightley) arrives to heal the rift and preserve the union, but the train journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow leads to a chance encounter with the captivating Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). To enter into an affair with Vronsky means putting her marriage to the austere committee-member Karenin (Jude Law) at risk as well as the life of her young son Serhoza. In minor key to the relationship between Vronsky and Anna, the film also portrays the idealistic farm-owner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) tentatively pursuing the regal Princess Shcherbatsky (Susanne Lothar). The consequences of Anna's actions lead to social ostracism, paranoia, and potential ruin for all in a time where reputation means all and divorce is unpardonable.

In such a lengthy novel, the desire to be encyclopedic about agrarian methods, Russian politics, and family history can be indulged. In a more conventional film's running time, these elements must be boiled and dumbed down, reduced to their surface rather than plumbed to their depth. My main complaint with the film, having just finished the novel, is Wright's obsession with the surfaces (the costumes and shining jewelry; the lighting and blinding white and blues of Vronsky's uniforms) while neglecting the interiority of his central triangle of Anna, Vronsky, and Karenin. Anna's shift in mindset happens far too abruptly and without enough time to develop; it is difficult to understand the passion curdling so violently. Keira Knightley is a fine actress, but her work here as Anna seems too quick to offer as much about Anna the woman. She needed more scenes. I'm not sure that Johnson-Taylor has the gravitas or intensity yet to play a Vronsky well, and Jude Law is given very little to do in very few scenes. Macfayden seems to be having the most fun, and it is joyous to see him reunited with his former co-star of Pride & Prejudice. He seems of another movie entirely. The Levin-Shcherbatsky sections leave far too much unexplored, and the ending seems to me to be mishandled.

Wright foregrounds train imagery throughout the film, and I admire his fluid camera work and dazzling creativity. However, the decision to place most of the film inside the theater also undercuts some of the power of a dramatic horse-racing scene (where Vronsky's miscalculations and hubris are more obvious when given more dramatic time and space). Throughout, though, it is exciting to see Wright's characters dance and swirl around the stage, go in and out of doors only to reappear upon an entirely different setting. The film has a musical quality with elements of dance incorporated, but he also freezes scenes to dramatize certain moments.

The degree of difficulty in crafting a film from this novel demands an ambitious director. Wright is mostly up to the task, but his stumbles are also the screenplay's. The devotion to the technical aspects of the film may have supplanted the core relationships, and without investing in the drama of Anna, Vronsky, and Karenin, the film leaves me with a dry, academic, distanced sense of admiration instead of an emotional payoff at the end with "the impossibility of struggling." The final shots are ponderous: Karenin reading in the wheat fields with the children, and then the wheat fields extending into the theater. I'm not sure what to make of some of the dramatic choices here, but clearly Wright is interested in the masquerade of hypocrisy and facades worn by Russian aristocracy in 1870, though as a storyteller, he was better, funnier, and more nuanced in his work with Austen than he is with Tolstoy.

Giving a Damn: Gone With The Wind, Film Review 201.

Movie Review: Gone with the Wind

Director: Victor Fleming

Reviewed: 16 June 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ****

Gone with the Wind won Best Picture in 1940. 74 years later, 12 Years a Slave won the same award.

To watch Gone with the Wind is to see a story of transformation and survival through a distorted lens of American history, culture, and storytelling. At times with its intense color palette and rousing score, the American South feels like the mythical land of Oz (not surprising since director Victor Fleming also helmed The Wizard of Oz in the same year). Yet, it is impossible to ignore the foundation of this way of life and these characters as slave owners, with the slave characters written as ludicrous caricatures (with the one exception being Hattie McDaniel as Mammy). But despite a modern viewing of a work of art made during my grandparents' generation, I found Gone with the Wind to be captivating in its scope and its almost Shakespearean storytelling. As a guide, I turned to my favorite film critic Roger Ebert who stated, "A movie isn't what it is about, it's how it is about it." In this vein, Gone with the Wind is not merely a Civil War film or a portrait of the dying life of the Southern plantation or even a feminist empowerment story with fierce Scarlet O'Hara as the central protagonist. The film's how, its iconography and giant set pieces, its sweeping camera work and deliberate telling of its story make it the classic of American filmmaking that I always heard that it was, and it can be both enjoyed and critically examined.

Scarlett (Vivien Leigh), the daughter of an Irish plantation owner, lives a charmed life at Tara, the name for the family's ancestral home in 1860 Georgia. Attracting all of the boys in the county, Scarlett instead wants Ashley (Leslie Howard), the one man whom she cannot have due to his imminent betrothal to the saintly Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). A desperate attempt to throw herself at Ashley is rebuffed and witnessed by the charmingly rakish blockade-runner Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a confident and forward-thinking capitalist capable of prophetically seeing the profits and dangers of the imminent conflict. The Civil War arrives in Georgia, and all characters are swept up in the enlistment, the battles, the fundraising on the home front, the care of the wounded, and the eventual march of Union General Sherman upon Atlanta with ferocity and fire. Scarlet must adapt and survive despite her world transforming all around her, and the film depicts Scarlet adjusting to the destruction of her old way of life and her forging of a new one in the post-Civil War South.

As a piece of popular film culture, Gone with the Wind felt like a film that I knew without having seen it (from Oscar clips, parodies, famous lines, etc...). In viewing its nearly four hour running time, I found it engrossing not just because of its remarkable concision of Margaret Mitchell's 1400 page novel (infinitely deeper in characterization, history, and emotion) but also in its memorable imagery. Fleming outlines his characters in complete shadows frequently, and he uses color in almost painterly ways to indicate the burning of Atlanta. His camera dollies out upon a character, framing them in the context of his or her world, sometimes indicating a heroic posture and sometimes (as in the Confederate Hospital) to show one person nearly swallowed up by the history and action of the time. Scarlett's impetuousness and heroism make her developing relationship with the supremely confident Rhett all the more fascinating. The film moves beyond telling the history of these people during the war, and instead tells the history of these people during a time of great change in their lives.

It is impossible not to cringe at certain moments of this film: the slapstick, infantile treatment of Pork and Prissy; the crude and offensive romanticism of slavery and field work; the depiction (and glorification) of rape. Such things cannot be ignored. However, I found the film's technical craftsmanship to be superb; the fiery burning of Atlanta seems a dangerous, artistic triumph of special effects for its time. The film's lead performances are incredibly heartfelt and effective (partly, I think, because there is so much of them to experience). Vivien Leigh owns the entire film with her expressive face and body language, and Clark Gable brings a vivacity to his scenes, though he feels like much more of a supporting character. Hattie McDaniel embodies Mammy with a gruff decency, a loving intensity that makes her steal every scene. McDaniel and Leigh both won Academy Awards for acting, McDaniel's being the first ever for an African-American. I feel that as a work of art, Gone with the Wind showcases epic storytelling on a grand scale, miraculously keeping its characters straight, touching upon the unseen aspects of life in the South during this era with its myth-making always in step. The film remains one of my only windows into this world of supposed chivalry and antiquated decorum built upon the backs of slaves, men and women whose lives were destroyed to accommodate this lifestyle. That fact can and should never be forgotten while watching this film.

In some ways, this dreamworld of Gone with the Wind is like the Land of Oz, an alternate reality of mythical dimensions, a dream that ends and should end and maybe never existed in this way in the first place. We are better for having Margaret Mitchell's stunning novel and Victor Fleming's ambitious adaptation of it, though the story of survivor Scarlett O'Hara should continue to inspire troubling questions about our national identity and the stories that we tell about our own past.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Jumping for Joy: 22 Jump Street Delivers Pure Silliness.

Movie Review: 22 Jump Street

Director: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

Reviewed: 16 June 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***

22 Jump Street is a hilarious and fast-paced sequel that pokes fun at itself as much as possible en route to some of the largest laughs of the year. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill return as Jenko and Schmidt, this time placed under cover as college students to discover the identity of The Ghost, a dealer behind a superdrug named Why-Phy that is about to invade college campuses. Jenko finds himself pulled into the world of the football team and fraternity represented by Wyatt (Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn's son Wyatt Russell) while Schmidt forges a connection with hall neighbor Maya (Amber Stevens) while sleuthing for clues about the drug. The investigation threatens to drive the two friends apart as Schmidt deals with his jealousy and Jenko finds himself contemplating really playing football, realizing that "I'm the first in my family to ever pretend to go to college."

But, that flimsy plot is just pretense for a ton of screen time with Tatum and Hill playing off of each other, often times contrasting their physicality (Tatum will jump Parkour-style up buildings while Hill will angrily plod the stairs). The two actors work so well together; the chemistry never stops being funny with them taking on their friendship with the gravity (and dialogue) of a love affair. Tatum is so winning here with his new found knowledge from his Human Sexuality class and his verbal trips of the tongue. And Hill continues to play up his character's neediness and chameleon-like nature of changing into whatever he needs to be, a blend of awkwardness and big eyes. The plot gets put to the side as the film devises sequence after sequence to showcase these two actors. A great scene just involves Hill doing the walk of shame home in the morning carrying his shoes. Ice Cube returns as their Captain and delivers the best moment of the film at a breakfast gone wrong; I cannot remember when I have laughed more deeply or missed more dialogue because I was trying to breathe. His scene causes the theater to erupt with laughter. Some of the supporting cast from the first film returns for some big laughs as well with special recognition given to Rob Riggle for sheer silliness.

Last summer, one of the funniest films was the apocalyptic This Is The End with both actors amidst a group of contemporaries, and based on this third film, I could stand to continue to seeing a film with Tatum and Hill every summer. The verve with which they attack the idea of sequels in this film (through direct and very meta-jokes, budget concerns for the Jump Street department, a chain of potential follow-ups at the end) indicates an endless well of creativity and laughs. I'm pretty sure there was an Annie Hall reference with Tatum and Russell playing with lobsters midway through, and a chase scene passes the Benjamin Hill Center for Film Studies with a snippet of Hill's signature zany music. The film is not great from beginning to end, but the laughs are consistent and  real and guttural; they have made a film that maximizes its own laughter by cutting nearly everything else. And 22 Jump Street works. I recommend it.