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.