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!