Sunday, September 27, 2015

Electrifying and Relevant: Straight Outta Compton Soars.

Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton

Director: F. Gary Gray

Reviewed: 27 September 2015

jamesintexas rating--***1/2



I grew up in the era of this film, but I was a bit young for appreciating its music fully or having the income to buy cassettes on my own. However, I left the theater invigorated and electrified by the dynamic filmmaking and the attempt (mostly successful) to capture a time and place and group experience like the rise of NWA and gangster rap in the late 80's, early 90's, and I have nothing but respect for the craftsmanship of F. Gary Gray and the screenwriters in working this origin story in telling the rise and fall of multiple lead characters into a coherent, powerful film. Where the film lacks in conviction, it more than makes up in charismatic performances, stagings of concerts and songs, and fire. I think the film, more than any other I have seen recently, crystallizes a moment in time that is still ongoing: the powerful systems of oppression and institutional racism and cruelty that can lead to the provocative song lyrics of "F*** the police."

The film swirls around the triumvirate of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) with the story of the formation of their group, its success, and its aftermath which still echoes in our world today, nearly a quarter century later. There are moments of Eazy-E leaping over rooftops, escaping a police phalanx juxtaposed against Ice Cube getting assaulted by racist police officers in his front yard in full view of his outraged and impotent parents who can only stand and watch juxtaposed against Dr. Dre's pushing forward of inner-city stories and raps at a club when the music scene and establishment has yet to validate the emerging form of music. Gray's film is at its best in its swirling nature that pursues its analysis of the ethos of the time. Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) gets involved as the group's powerful manager which leads to inevitable conflict. And that's the film's weakest point. It seems afraid or unable to completely demonize Eazy-E's relationship with Jerry, which is portrayed as obviously insulting and unfair to the talents of everyone else in the super-group. It does not know what it wants to do with their relationship, how these two men found each other and used each other, and by the ending of the film, it winds up being inconclusive and strange instead of meaningful. I am also less sure about the meandering into Suge Knight as a devil-figure, which I cared less about in light of the lead characters. 

There's something pretty magical about trying to capture Ice Cube walking into the studio with lyrics that will surely lead to national controversy. There's something pretty magical about watching artists craft and create songs that we know now in 2015 as masterpieces. At some point, someone sang that song for the first time as a demo or recorded it over and over again before it worked, and Gray does that well here, with people listening to each other's performances and soaking it in.  Those quiet moments of listening and performing in a studio resonate with me the most. There's cameos by Snoop Dogg and Tupac, and the focus seems to be on documenting moments of discovery, moments that resonate with audience who know those songs by heart. At some point, every song that we've ever loved and recited and memorized was once a demo and an experiment in a small room of peers and friends trying to find its way out to the world.

Straight Outta Compton's musical scenes are stellar, and the energy driving the film is palpable. The scenes of police violence are resonant and relevant in a way that underscores where we are as a country today in 2015, making a film about the early 1990's inflecting 2015's America. O'Shea Jackson Jr. is the standout here playing his father, but I really found all the performances captivating by relative newcomers (to me). The electricity and fervor with which these artists create and the world that fueled the creation of their art was alive to me, and I think Gray has made a marvelous film deserving of critical success and the strong popularity that it has already received.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Whiplashing of the Tongues: J.K. Simmons Behaving Badly.

Movie Review: Whiplash

Director: Damien Chazelle

Reviewed: 13 August 2015

jamesintexas rating--***


I don't like that Bobby Knight threw a chair at an athlete in a basketball game or practice. There were always rumors that my HS coach threw a desk once when a state qualifying athlete was late for the second time to practice and had to be kicked off the team publically. In my worst moments, I've berated students and been loud and obnoxious in ways that are infinitely embarrassing and hopefully not collected on film. There were rumors at a previous school I worked at about an overhead projector being tossed out a window to prove a point. Eruptions of fountains of anger and the ideas of brutal mentorship, hazing and hypocrisy, and the pursuit of greatness in art are at the center of Damien Chazelle's lean, often breath-taking film Whiplash with the centerpiece being a battle of wills between conductor/dictator Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) at a conservatory and his pupil of promise Andrew (Miles Teller), a drummer with high hopes. The film examines what is necessary to be truly great, with one character positing that a thrown instrument and cathartic challenge: To be great is to be pushed past your own limits. I think of the professor played by Stellan Skarsgaard in Good Will Hunting: "I was great BECAUSE I was pushed!" How much is too much is not a question that this film is really interested in engaging though, and by thinly developing Andrew and Fletcher, its third act holds it back from greatness.

Chazelle revels in establishing the mystique of Fletcher, a shadowy figure who haunts the hallways of the conservatory, intense in his nearly-military running of his classroom, frightening in his berating of his students (all male), but the implication is that he gets results, so he's allowed to be a monster. Simmons won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his visceral work here, and his relentlessness is shocking and impossible to look away from onscreen. Teller struggles more to convey Andrew's interiority, partially because though he's nearly in every screen, and the story is ostensibly about his journey, he does not narrate, he rarely talks through his thinking, and he remains a bit of a cipher. He loves to drum, drums until his hands bleed, and there's a bit about him trying to make his father (Paul Rieser) proud. However, the film suffers because of its thinly developed characters and plot contrivances in the last third. How long would a teacher like Fletcher be allowed to threaten his students? In the age of cell phones and secret videos, his vicious, virulent attacks would be broadcast more publically, I would think in this era.

Whiplash wants us to consider if some great art and greatness comes from being pushed past your limits. However, why does that pushing have to be so degrading? There's little interest or explanation for Fletcher's homophobia, anti-Semitism, or just plain nastiness, and without any context, it just seems like bullying to me. There's always moments of truth and confrontation in the classroom and as a coach of athletes, but does fear and threat of violence really carry someone into the next plane of their work? I keep coming back to the idea of is it better to be feared or loved, and the adage that fear lasts longer than love. The ending of the film is intentionally open-ended with the idea that the both pupil and master could be right, though I know less about how the pupil differs from the master here. The editing is truly wonderful (also Academy Award winning) with its musical, drum-beat punctuating rhythms, and for a film that seems to occur mostly in rehearsal spaces or performances around the edges of darkness, Chazelle delivers quite a potent experience despite its flaws. 



Thursday, August 13, 2015

Apatowed: Amy Schumer's Uneven and Often Funny Trainwreck

Movie Review: Trainwreck

Director: Judd Apatow

Reviewed: 13 August 2015

jamesintexas rating--**1/2



Judd Apatow gets in the way of his lead performer, the great Amy Schumer, in her first screenplay Trainwreck, where she plays that familiar trope of a successful writer whom we never see write or represent any of the discipline or interiority of a writer. That's an easy complaint, and one made by Film Critic Roger Ebert long ago, that to show such an internal thing as writing is a struggle in film, but I think more importantly, Apatow (and sometimes Schumer) do not know how to show her character, a successful writer who is a mess in her personal life, from out of control drinking and sexual encounters to failing to connect with her father and sister. There is growth, but it seems to happen off screen with very little sharing of it beyond an obvious shot or two. Regardless, Schumer is deeply funny and tremendously talented, and I hope this movie is the beginning of more daring, exciting work from her.

The film raised many questions for me, and I think those have percolated in the weeks since I have seen it. After a sharp, very funny opening flashback with Colin Quinn introduced as her father whose rant about monogamy sets the tone, the film hovers around ideas related to aging and growing up with Brie Larson playing her married sister while constructing Amy's office life in a much sketchier, incomplete, and unsatisfying way. Amy negotiates an unsuccessful relationship with boyfriend Steven (John Cena, hilarious), but when things go sour for him, Amy finds herself drawn to the subject of her latest article: surgeon Aaron (Bill Hader), a guy who is smart and funny and seems to have an instant chemistry with her. And, he also happens to be best buddies with LeBron James. Amy's journey of discovery about entering into a relationship with Aaron becomes juxtaposed against her relationship with her father, who is suffering from MS and in assisted living, and her sister with a more domesticated life.

What's to like: LeBron James. Let's just say it.  The guy is flat-out wonderful in this film, and the supporting cast in generally of John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, a slew of comedians in recognizable and unrecognizable roles does fine work. Schumer has some very funny moments herself, and her scenes with Hader work together, as do her scenes with Colin Quinn. I did not respond to some of the choices in the second half of the film, from the faux-chase scene to epiphanies that seem hollow and very one-sided. Hader's character misses opportunities for authenticity and development in the second half, as does exploring Amy's family struggles. There's much more here than in an average comedy, and for its high moments of laughter, I can nearly recommend it. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

O Brother, Where Art Thou? Silliness in Sullivan's Travels, 1941.

Movie Review: Sullivan's Travels

Director: Preston Sturges

Reviewed: 11 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--***1/2


There is a comedic sequence in Sullivan's Travels that is fall-down funny. A chase ensues with a sort of RV following a speedster car through a bunch of country roads. There is a chef in a kitchen inside the RV who is subjected to the worst: items falling on top of him, dishes crashing everywhere, food spilling with every crazy turn the driver takes. And that's the film in a scene: out-of-control, wonderfully staged, and funny beyond all measure.

My favorite movie of 2000-2009 was the Coen Brothers' comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and now seeing Sullivan's Travels, I get more of the references as that is the name of director John L. Sullivan's (Joel McCrea) socially conscious film of substance that he wants to make depicting the class struggles inside the United States around 1941. Of course, the studio fat cats want him to make more of his slapstick comedies, his surefire box office champions, and in defiance, Sullivan takes it upon himself to disguise himself as a homeless wanderer and walk the earth in search of real hardship to better inform his movie. Sullivan catches the eye and kindness of struggling actress The Girl (Veronica Lake, luminous) in a diner who buys him a cup of coffee and a donut, sharing in his supposed hardship. Next, they are off with Sullivan attempting to hide who he is and his worth to the film studios, an RV following Sullivan as he tramps down the road to his next destination, and then, some twisty turns and attempts at social realism as he finds himself truly down and out.

The film packs all the right punches: great cast with quick dialogue; picaresque journey through America; some heartfelt songs and scenes; lots of physical comedy: and a warm heart that manages to comment on the Hollywood industry while being entrenched within it. The conceit of a rich man posing as a poor man to learn about another world is one that is very much still with us in film and in culture, and the pursuit of artistic integrity leads Sullivan to a nearly hopeless ending where Sturges finds the best possible way to end his film. It truly is a marvelously constructed film.

I've never seen a Preston Sturges film before, and I'm eager to see more based on this one. He seems to be a very capable, able filmmaker with smart characters, great wit, and a camera on the move in creative ways. Sullivan's Travels is quite the film, McCrea and Lake are terrific, and I'm on board for more of this talented team.



Monday, July 20, 2015

Exuberantly Joyful: Singin' in the Rain Soars

Movie Review: Singin' in the Rain

Director: Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

Reviewed: 20 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--****


How did I go this long without seeing such a glorious piece of cinema?

Singin' in the Rain is perched within the Top Ten Films of All-Time, according to the AFI List, and its imagery is second nature, yet when I finally sat down to watch it, I was really floored by its technical brilliance and dazzling color. The greatest visual effect, truly, is the human body as Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds show in frequent long takes, framed against gigantic sets, and accompanied by marvelous music. The film is about the rise of the talkies and what that means to silent film stars Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) who must suddenly make the transition to speaking their lines and using their actual voices. O'Connor shines as Lockwood's piano-playing buddy Cosmo Brown, and Reynolds shines as ingĂ©nue Kathy Selden, an aspiring actress whose meet cute with Lockwood involves him leaping into her coupe after an acrobatic escape from the press. The title song is the best sequence of the film, with Kelly stomping through puddles, soaring over streetlamps, and in essence, dancing with the world as his partner. The sequence on the stage with its use of the red lighting and the powerful fans is an equally powerful moment, and the aesthetics of this film are always captivating. I think it could be a wonderful first film to show to my son, thrilling to watch people leap and tap and bound, evoking a sweetness and an effervescence that simply cannot be faked. CGI dinosaurs and Gollum be damned, I'll take Gene Kelly's magical movement any day. Undeniably powerful.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Pixar's Glorious Innerspace: Inside Riley and Ourselves

Movie Review: Inside Out

Director: Pete Docter & Renaldo Del Carmen

Reviewed: 19 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--****



Basking in its own golden age of cinema right now, the geniuses at Pixar have crafted another tear jerking, hilarious, and completely inventive story that resonates, I imagine, with children and parents alike, proving that there's nothing they cannot do and, more importantly, nothing they cannot do right. This film is one of the best of the year, deserving of its box office and accolades, and I expect to hear its name called out again come Oscar-time. It's just that good.

Inside Out is ostensibly the story of a little girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) who moves with her family from Minnesota to the unfamiliar territory of San Francisco with her parents; however, in the coolest twist, we mostly see Riley from the inside, through a type of Herman's Head collection of emotions that govern her feelings and actions as she navigates the world. Riley is led by Joy (Amy Poehler), a spritely Tinkerbell-ish character with the ability to call back core memories from Riley's life while keeping her, well, joyful, and the other emotions in check. She's a benevolent general, so to speak, brimming with optimism and relentlessness. Riley also contains Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) who work together not competitively but more in symphony with each other. Each emotion fuels a different response in Riley, naturally, which can upset the delicate balance that Joy tries to maintain within her. When the move away from home and friends jolts Riley in a way that rocks her core memories, causing some of them to change, Joy and Sadness find themselves trapped inside Riley's long term memory, staring out at the control tower, desperately seeking a way back. The journey through the mechanics and machinations of this world with its marbles of memories, infinite abyss of discarded ones, and its trains of thought comprise the film's plot, complete with surprises best kept under wraps, though I will say that Richard Kind's work here is incredibly moving. Inside Out resembles being inside a bubble gum machine with its spinning, spiraling memory balls and its towers of colors. I felt transported in the best possible way.

The world-building of the Pixar film makers, led by Doctor and Del Carmen here, is so complete and thorough, that though complex, it is always navigable and comprehensible. In short, you can always tell where everyone is and what the stakes are. Everyone is at the top of their game with the voice performances, crafting fully realized characters though I had to wait until the credits to figure out who everyone was. Inside Out has an appeal to the parents in the crowd despite being sold as a children's movie, and its message of carrying both Sadness and Joy within you and being fueled by other emotions besides Joy is a powerful one, not one that dumbs down the complexity of life for any of its audience. The film explores why we remember certain things the way that we do, examining our memories as not always being truthful or the complete picture. Amidst the laughter is a powerful core of loss as one grows up: loss of memories, changing of memories with emotions, and partial loss of identity. In essence, growing up. It allows us brief and hilarious windows into the minds of other characters too, expanding its own implications. This is heavy stuff for any movie to tackle, and tackle it does with Pixar's signature grace. But the film is so funny, over and over again while reaching for your heart. And, for me, the Chinatown reference is pure joy, as are many of the surprises that await the audience.

It is becoming expected to be emotionally moved by Pixar (think the silent film sequence in Up or WALL*E, alone with his work and music), but I think they've reached an even more advanced level here. From the bottom of Nemo's ocean to the far reaches of outer space, Pixar may have traveled farther on the surface, but these marvelous filmmakers know that the greatest journey for all of us is within. I imagine a conversation of the summer must involve audience members debating amongst themselves which emotion(s) rule them and what commercial jingle from childhood cannot leave our brain, and we have Pixar to thank for another family film that tugs at the heart while being fun, never condescending or simplistic or crude.

They do movies right. Talk about Joy!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Brutal, Sparse, Novelistic: Liam Neeson's Latest Violent Opus

Movie Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

Director: Scott Frank

Reviewed: 11 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--***



Liam Neeson's latest film A Walk Among the Tombstones feels more like Jack Reacher than Taken, and perhaps it comes from his protagonist's wounded, haunted quality and patient direction that allows Neeson to brood, to wander, to get beat up, and, in short, to be vulnerable. Matt Scudder is an alcoholic ex-cop, current private detective who finds himself in the home of the brother of a friend from an AA Meeting. Scudder is asked to help find the man's kidnapped wife, and it is complicated because of the man's status as a drug trafficker. It appears that the criminals have been targeting fellow criminals, people without strict legal recourse, and paying the ransom is not assurance of release of the family member. Scudder is not superhuman; he is world-weary, walks everywhere, does not carry a gun, and is good at thinking through crimes, so director Scott Frank takes us through his process: interviewing witnesses, going to the scene of the crime, noticing neighbors and angles, and trying to uncover more. And he does, leading to layer upon layer of deception as the kidnappers prowl the neighborhood, picking up their next victim, accelerated Scudder's pace as he tries to stop them.

The film looks cold and crisp and grey, and its locales reflect the harshness of the weather and time of year. Frank is telling a brutal and violent story here, one with nihilistic antagonists who are without morals and without much backstory at all, making them quite frightening. Revelation after revelation unfolds, and the film's setting in 1999 makes it fodder for all the Y2K jokes but also sets the stage for Scudder's growing friendship with homeless teen TJ (Astro) whom he meets at the library computer station. That friendship provides tension and fear for TJ's life, and the film gives them both enough room to breathe and build a believable camaraderie. Scudder mostly makes his investigation  face-to-face or studying old microfiche headlines, techniques that seem quaint when viewed in 2015. The violence is sickening and gruesomely effective in the snippets that Frank shares. Neeson does strong work here because he carries the world in his face and authority: my favorite scene is him on the telephone, badgering the kidnappers and showing a grim authority about their business while the family members look on with wonder and horror. But his Scudder is never glib or cheeky; he is weighed down by the things he has done and seen.

There are problems in the film's third act, particularly in a nonsensical exchange that seems to put the kidnappers at an extreme disadvantage, as well as a confrontation at a house that goes on way too long. The film has nothing particularly deep to say about revenge or the demons inside Scudder or other characters. It has a grim quality, a workmanlike pace, and a small sense of hope through the character of TJ. It offers no real resolution or catharsis with the maniacal serial killers; worse, their genesis seems the inevitable byproduct of a corrupt system where files can fall into the wrong hands. Scudder's final decision seems less heroic and more acceptance of the limits of tolerance, and the entire film feels like watching chapters in a book unfold. There is a construction and a patience in storytelling that feels very novelistic. I do not know if A Walk Among the Tombstones made enough at the box office to justify a sequel or further adventures, but Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder captured my attention, and I would continue to follow the character's adventures if given the opportunity.

Obviously Well-Done: Jenny Slate in Obvious Child

Movie Review: Obvious Child

Director: Gillian Robespierre

Reviewed: 12 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--***



Obvious Child is a small film with a mostly unknown cast that tells a compelling story with heart and humor. It has been unfortunately labeled "the abortion-comedy" by some critics, but I think it is so much more than that. Director Gillian Robespierre expanded her short film into a feature and delves into the life of this one character who makes up her mind about what to do when she does not want a child, and in its brief, economical running time, it works.

Jenny Slate plays Donna Stern, a down-on-her-luck comedian in New York City who is struggling to find her way. In between sets at a local stand-up club, Donna works at a used bookstore, spends time with both of her parents, and trades laughs and drinks with her friends. Everything changes when after a one-night stand with Max (Jake Lacy), Donna finds herself pregnant and figures out what to do through a series of conversations with a counselor, her friends, and her mother, all the while wondering whether to tell Max and whether pursuing him for a relationship is worth it.

Jenny Slate delivers a completely winning performance in this film, and she is at her best when bouncing off of Gabby Hoffman and Gabe Liedman who play her close friends. The film has a keen eye for both humor and drama, upending some of the romantic-comedy conventions while also having some of the raunchy, graphic humor. Obvious Child has a quiet power to it and the way it tells its story through the lens of one funny, smart woman makes it stand out in a year that could have used more strong female performances. The only obvious thing to me about this movie is the care that Robespierre and Slate put into telling Donna's story, and the directness of the ending is both hopeful and sad at the same time.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Looks Good, Says Little

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Director: Matt Reeves

Reviewed: 11 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--**1/2



It's odd. In a movie that seems disinterested in its human characters, even going so far as to not really foregrounding their names, histories, or relationships, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes asks us to care at the end regarding big revelations and possible life-altering developments? I could not get into it. But the continued story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes, has its own compelling and quiet dignity. In fact, I think I would rather watch two hours of Caesar and the apes leading their own community, speaking through mostly sign language.

Jason Clarke plays Malcolm, a sympathetic leader of a band of humans foraging in the ape territory for access to a local dam as a possibly power source. A miscast or simply misused Gary Oldman plays Dreyfus, the militant leader back in San Francisco who holds the core group of humanity together, displaying outward strength while grieving for his own lost ones. And Serkis plays Caesar, the most interesting of the entire cast, a leader bent on protecting his family and community, not falling prey to the infection of violence and greed that he sees as human qualities. When Koba, a rival ape, finds his own son injured by a careless human's act, he plots a scheme to betray Caesar and lead the group to all-out war on the remaining humans.

The film is complacent to skim along the surface with its human characters, giving Malcolm's wife Ellie (Keri Russell) essentially nothing to do but show up occasionally with life-giving medical attention, and their son is a practical nonentity without a name (www.imdb.com lists it as Alexander, and he's played by Kodi Smit-McPhee). The fights are brutally staged, and the reversal of humans being held in captivity by apes has some nice moments. The film pays glancing homage to its predecessor through a clumsy home movie with footage of James Franco's character and a return to an abandoned house from the first film. It builds to a brutal fight atop an unfinished building site in downtown San Francisco, with hysterical bombs ready to blow the apes all to hell.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes really could have worked just as well just showing these apes forming their own community and making their way in the world. The technology of the apes is just brilliant; Serkis is completely deserving of an honorary Oscar for his life's work so far, if a motion-capture performance will not be considered equal to a standard one. It ends with a cliffhanger, so I suppose that means a third film is coming down the pike, and I hope that one has a bit more of a sense of how to connect the human story with the ape story so that we care about both. Or, maybe, just jettison the human story completely? But there has to be conflict, of course.









Gunnin' Down a Dream: Thelma & Louise, 24 Years Later.

Movie Review: Thelma & Louise

Director: Ridley Scott

Reviewed: 11 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--***



I have lived with the cultural imprint of Ridley Scott's Thelma & Louise since 8th grade, but I never had the opportunity to watch it until twenty-four years after its release. So, I cannot assess its immediate cultural impact the year of its release, the same year that Jodie Foster won Best Actress as Clarice Starling in The Silence of The Lambs, but I regularly watch the TV show Nashville, created by Oscar-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri who has gone onto write several additional films like Something to Talk About and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Her work here is fused with a nearly invisible Ridley Scott, but the film fails or succeeds on the strength of its eponymous relationship. As Thelma, the cooped-up neglected wife of a loser, Geena Davis shines, depicting Thelma's thirst for adventure and excitement as she sets off on a weekend excursion with her best friend Louise (Susan Sarandon), a waitress with an on again, off again relationship with musician Jimmy (Michael Madsen). A little ways into their journey, the pair stop at a local bar, and when a man tries to rape Thelma in the parking lot, a shocking act of violence sends the two women on the road in a 1966 Ford Thunderbird, afraid of what they have done and completely convinced that the system will not believe their side of the story. So, a sort of road trip develops as the women figure out their next moves, as well as if they will stick together or go their own separate ways. There are hitchhikers like hunky J.D. (Brad Pitt in his cinema debut) and harassing truck drivers; there is Hal, a thoughtful police detective (Harvey Keitel) who seems to understand their plight. But as the two women drive closer and closer to their destiny, a sense of foreboding develops as does their criminal and even vigilante sides with the women of the last third of the film resembling desperados of the Old West, appropriately shot against the expanses of Utah, ersatz Arizona, though itself heartbreakingly beautiful.

The film's emotional core holds up, and watching Sarandon and Davis grapple with these life-changing decisions is what drives this film. Neither woman has it figured out; both do a great job of depicting the thinking in the moment, the fear and sadness of their situation. Both get the great opportunity to transform with their characters from meek and subservient to strong and independent. The plot itself hinges a ton on coincidence with Harvey Keitel's detective being pretty quick at tracking them and collecting camera footage from small town gas station robberies, but it builds to its emotional, iconic ending in the desert which pulls no punches.

Twenty-four years later, its world of pay telephones and reading maps in the car seems quaint in the modern era of smartphones and Googlemaps. But the drive of Thelma & Louise, the story of these two women, their strong friendship and refusal to conform or endure abuse at the hands of husbands, lovers, or frankly, anyone, marks a moment in feminist storytelling that is both compelling and revolutionary and not easily forgotten.

Casting Stones at The Judge: A Misfire

Movie Review: The Judge

Director: David Dobkin

Reviewed: 11 July 2015

jamesintexas rating--**



The Judge, the latest film starring Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr.,  feels like a book with the ending missing or a film missing a reel. Somewhere inside of this glossy, professional-looking production with a stellar cast, the story has gone awry and lost me. I'm not sure what happened, and as a legal thriller, a character study, a family or father-son story, it kind of fails on all levels. I think I was trying to out-think it, casting its reach far deeper than it was prepared to go. It seems to get stuck in its own telling of an estranged son and imperious father, smashed up with a criminal case that ends up involving both.

Downey Jr. plays a high-powered defense attorney Hank Palmer in Chicago whose home life is crumbling due to his apparent neglect of his wife, disinterest in his daughter, and his tendency to work himself too hard. When called back to his Indiana hometown for a family crisis, Hank finds himself at odds, again, with his father, Judge Palmer (Duvall) while trying to piece together the life he left behind, including his relationships with his two brothers Glenn and Dale (Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) and a past flame Samantha (Vera Farmiga). Upon trying to leave, he finds The Judge embroiled in a charges of murder against a former criminal whom he sentenced. Hank assumes the duties of defense counsel as secrets are revealed, facades removed, and the stakes raised immensely for father and son to heal.

Whew. There is a lot here. The opening shots reveal the symbolic nature of a baseball glove tossed upon a dresser, gardenias sprouting in the yard, a flickering home movie taken from an old-timey movie camera. Yet the film struggles to depict its set of three brothers and The Judge in believable ways. Duvall is compulsively watchable, and I appreciated how the film attempted to depict his pride coming up against his fear of losing his memory (and the possible legal implications on his rulings if proven so). Billy Bob Thornton delivers a strong performance as an opposing lawyer with a grudge against Hank's reckless lawyer past, and Vera Farmiga deserves more than her underwritten character. I really thought it was building towards some sort of shock ending with a twist, but no. Nothing like that here. I'm not even clear about the crime in question and what exactly happened. So it cannot really be a legal thriller, and it doesn't really commit to being a relationship movie. So what is it? I'm not really sure, but I'm all for seeing Robert Downey Jr. act in films outside of franchise extravaganzas; I like watching him act, even if he struggles with figuring out the core of who Hank Palmer is. That's something that the film's director and three screenwriters could not do. To see it is to see probably one of the last screen performances of Robert Duvall, a legend of cinema who started out as Boo Radley, and despite what I take to be a sympathy nomination (or just an acknowledgement of how consistently great he always is), no one will include The Judge among his greatest performances in The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and The Apostle, among others. I really thought there was going to be more to this story.



Sunday, June 28, 2015

Citizenfour: A Masterpiece True Horror Story of our Time.

Movie Review: Citizenfour

Director: Laura Poitras

Reviewed: 28 June 2015

jamesintexas rating--****



The world in which we live in is unlike the one which I was born into or into which my parents were born. Our digital fingerprints live forever in current and defunct email addresses (by my count, I've had one in college, four on hotmail, one in gmail, and four work addresses), multiple devices (home computers, laptops, tablets, phones), and the ever-growing social media hydra of facebook, twitter, four square, linked-in, instagram, etc...  Photos exist everywhere and anywhere. Things that I wrote on message boards or in college float around, available through searches to anyone. All that data, all that information is on a sort of digital bulletin board for the length of our lives and beyond. And what happens if the collection and analysis of the digital fingerprints of our lives is done with ulterior or unseen motives? In Sofia Coppola's film The Bling Ring a few years ago, bored teens in Hollywood used technology to figure out when celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton were out of town, then searched for where they lived, and then invaded their homes to peruse and steal their stuff. The very same thing has been happening for a long time in our post-9-11 world as skilled documentarian Laura Poitras, thoughtful journalist Glenn Greenwald, and courageous whistleblower Edward Snowden show us in the remarkable Citizenfour, a film that documents a place and time in such a profound and moving way. Although the action of the film involves smart people sitting and talking in claustrophobic hotel rooms that serve as quasi-prisons, it is not a boring film. Instead, I'd call it one of the best films of the year, filled with horror and a sense of the emerging reality that we live in: the film's ending is not yet known.

Ed Snowden looks like people I know with whom I went to college. He could be the brother of one of my friends. He's deeply knowledgeable and passionate and thorough in his work as an NSA analyst, but he is not a zealot or a caricature or an anarchist. He sat in a government job in Hawaii and saw his work and the work of others being ultimately opposed to his values and the values of our country and found himself in a unique position to challenge it at the highest level. Someone needs to build the websites that collect the data. Someone needs to have access. Snowden's seeking out of Poitras and Greenwald was most wise, as they are worthy caretakers of this explosive story. To see Ed in the hotel room, talking through the release of leaks and information to the media, attempting to shape the revelations that will completely up-end his life forever is breathtaking. To hear him speak of not wanting to hide his identity, to want to confront the government directly is laudable. Poitras focuses on the conversations, the handwritten notes, the plan for release of leaks to the media, the concern for phones being tapped, and the biggest drama of the film takes places as front desk and media outlets call his hotel room, as the UN attempts to shuttle Ed from one hotel to another, as he speaks to his girlfriend thousands of miles away as the government attempts to evict him and does questionable construction on his street. The zooming out to look at statements and speeches of President Obama is also damning, as it sharply criticizes the administration's say one thing, do another policies regarding data collection on its citizens.

Poitras flashes informative but not overwhelming text on the screen while showing lingering long shots of NSA spy facilities being built in Utah or the nighttime shimmering of barbed wire encrusted servers in German which hold all of our secrets. The engagement here is at the root level of what do Americans deserve in terms of digital privacy? Can (Has) the government compromised its citizenry's rights to protest, to organize, to air grievances, and to speak freely when it captures and collects all private conversations before any sort of crime is committed? One activist talks about the linking up of our phones with something as mundane as a Metro Card to ride the train. With access to those two data points, a person could track where one goes and who one possibly meets by cross-checking the data with millions of others. We are in the world of pre-cognition here, the world of science fiction like Minority Report. What must be done to keep us safe? What should not be done to keep us safe? These questions, rarely raised, were thrust into the international spotlight because of Snowden's work with Greenwald. The ending of the film is riveting because it begins to show the myriad other whistleblowers that could be inspired by this moment in history, as well as the uncertainty of where the story is going and where the story will end.

My limited understanding is that Ed Snowden is still alive and still in Russia, unable to leave for threat of arrest or worse by our government. But I believe his voice is still being heard: he recently spoke via technology at the SXSW Festival in Austin. The idea of citizenry speaking truth to power has its roots in American history. Think Watergate and Deep Throat. Think publishing The Pentagon Papers amidst the Vietnam War. And now, we have Edward Snowden exposing the NSA by revealing its collection of metadata on all of its citizens, especially the over one million that are on the watch list. I think history will come to bear upon his revelations in a way that shows his act to be one of bravery, patriotism, and a vital step in our nation's possible confronting of what we do in the shadows. I loved the 1999 film by Michael Mann The Insider, where the character of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) confronted his conscience and spoke up about lies being perpetuated by the tobacco industry but with great personal cost. That film resonated with me because it was about the moral crisis of that man: When do I speak up?

Edward Snowden has been a figure that I only cursorily knew about through perusing the news, watching media clips, and seeing vodka billboards on US-59 mocking his imprisonment in a Russian hotel. Poitras humanizes him and reminds us that he is a person, desperately trying to get his cowlick to stay down, nervous and uncertain like the rest of us but unwavering in his commitment to exposing what the government is doing. Poitras's Academy Award winning work here is brilliant not simply because of its unprecedented access: to be a fly on the wall in the room in these conversations is truly epic! But rather, the even more impressive nature of this documentary is her clear shaping of the conversation regarding metadata, the synthesis of the global media's reactions to the release of what the NSA is doing (taking us from Rio to Germany, from a London newspaper's nervousness that someone is going to come in and shut them down to the revelation that Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone has been tapped). Poitras goes both big and small, and the result is a blinding, searing indictment of the way things are while showing bravery and dare I say patriotism at the highest levels from activists, journalists, and documentarians. In Citizenfour, she shows citizenry at its most costly and upsetting and vital.

Spy Wins: A Hilarious Adventure

Movie Review: Spy

Director: Paul Feig

Reviewed: 25 June 2015

jamesintexas rating--***



Oh, what a difference a year makes, and what a difference a good director makes! Bouncing back from the abysmal and unfunny Tammy of last June, comedic dynamo and national treasure Melissa McCarthy returns to form in Paul Feig's thrilling Spy which has its sights set on lampooning elements of the genre while also telling a good tale. The mere treatment of McCarthy's office-bound but fully capable agent thrust into the field as a real person with friendships and hang-ups is a terrific leap forward, and the film rallies around its dynamite supporting cast who all look like they are having great fun. It's the best fun anyone has had with the James Bond/Spy genre since Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, and though it lacks that film's full-tilt anarchic goofiness, Spy delivers very solid laughs and enjoyable sequences. Well-done, all-around.

As CIA analyst Susan Cooper, McCarthy's character serves as the eyes and ears on missions for agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law, wonderful), feeding him information through contact lens cameras, talking  to him through an earpiece while safely ensconced in the home office. When Agent Fine's mission fails due to the nefarious Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, having fun), resulting in possible selling of bombs and it appears that agents' identities have been compromised, Cooper approaches Director Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) about going into the field as a relatively unknown who has the training but lacks the experience. The film becomes Susan's journey from one world to another, complete with help from Nancy (Miranda Hart), a fellow analyst, and rogue agent (and constant hilarious one-upper) Rick Ford (Jason Statham, divine). The pursuit of Rayna and possible nuclear explosive devices allows Susan to prove herself as the plot takes her to gamble in the finest casinos in Europe, lounge in private jets, assume multiple identities, out-wit talkative baddies, and ignite the expected propulsive pyrotechnic conclusion.

Yet through it all, McCarthy and Hart in particular embody their characters with a sense of fun and fear that shines through all of the backdrops and costumes. McCarthy is back at the top of the mountain, spouting obscene tirades with the best delivery in the business and shining in the action scenes, particularly a close hand-to-hand fight in a kitchen. Feig wisely eschews an overload of visual effects and keeps us focused on these characters in conflict and conversation with each other, and that's the key take-away from this film. I wish that he would reign in his tendency to overload the endings of his films with celebrity cameos, and it does feel a bit long at the end. The film takes its cues from the slick, recent Daniel Craig Bond films like Casino Royale, but it enjoys itself in its joke-telling and set-ups. It is fun, and the film allows us the pleasure of watching Janney, McCarthy, and Hart work together in multiple scenes of intelligent, capable women solving the spy issues of the day with intensity and hilarity. And who knew Jason Statham, formerly of The Transporter film franchise, had such an affinity for comedy? I wish he could be nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Spy. And Jude Law? He could have been Bond, but in this film, he gets to play it up in an endearing way; he's somebody that I constantly look forward to seeing again. And McCarthy returns to the top, and I'm awaiting her next work with a strong director.



Friday, June 19, 2015

Jurassic World: A Worthy Sequel

Movie Review: Jurassic World

Director: Colin Treverrow

Reviewed: 19 June 2015

jamesintexas rating--***1/2


For whatever reason, Colin Treverrow's new film Jurassic World has captured my imagination with its wonder and jaw-dropping sound and special effects. As a fan of Jurassic Park (which came out when I was in high school) who skipped the next two films, this sequel sidesteps those films and offers up a 'What if?' scenario after the retreat from Isla Nublar in the first film. The shadow of John Hammond looms over this film in the form of a statue of Jurassic Park's late creator, but despite a book jacket photo of Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and a near-cameo from Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), Treverrow is playing with a new park, mostly new dinosaurs, and a new set of rules. And in this film, dinosaurs are even more scary and even more destructive when things fall apart at the park, which they must, though I will admit to being as captivated by the quieter moments as much as the anarchy.

The film transports us to a fully-functional park, complete with Disney-like wristbands, monorails, SeaWorld-esque shows (with perhaps the coolest seat movement ever), and the inevitable worries of any big new thing: How do we keep the public's attention? How do we attract more visitors? How do we raise profits? The raw capitalism leads to reckless genetic engineering of new breeds of dinosaurs with the hubris that humanity can control what it creates. What could go wrong? Treverrow makes our lenses for this world a pair of brothers, Zach and Gray (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins), not particularly close, both weathering the imminent divorce of their parents who send them off for this vacation with their aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), one of the executives that runs Jurassic World. Claire is sketched broadly in the beginning of the film, always shown in high heels, Starbucks cup in hand, cell phone attached to her ear, navigating the world of the park with an eye for efficiency and not at all acknowledging the wonder of this created world. She, of course, is counter-balanced with the earthy Owen (Chris Pratt), animal trainer and tracker who takes the paycheck from Jurassic World but spouts off speeches about these animals being alive, bonding as a precarious Alpha of a pack of Velociraptors in a tense early scene. Pratt's character is there to teach Claire's character a lesson and to be a tough Indiana Jones-type, though Pratt delivers another charming, winning performance. In short, the center cannot hold, and both are thrust together in pursuit of Claire's nephews who find themselves alone in the park chased by Indominus Rex, a pretty awesome creature.

As expected, the dinosaurs are pretty amazingly rendered, and there are so many of them! Although there is no seen of emotional grandeur like the scene from the original film when Dr. Grant sees the first dinosaurs from the car, John Williams' score soaring behind him, the film comes close with a few innovations: a little kid riding a baby Triceratops in the park, bubble pods that allow people to race alongside a herd of galloping beasts, rafts the float down a river with dinos munching calmly alongside, and the thrilling underwater dinosaur that performs by leaping up to devour a great white shark as lunch! The creation of a hybrid dinosaur allows a new chance to be afraid with the rules being slightly altered from what we expect. We do not fully understand the newbie's power and tactics. Technology fails early and often in this film, so the film becomes about the managing of a retreat more than the fighting back. At its best, Jurassic World is scary and gruesome, with people getting taken and eaten in truly disturbing ways, a world where if you do not know a character's name or recognize the actor, watch out! I think it must push the limit of PG-13 in terms of people being devoured and torn apart; much is hinted without too much blood shown, but I felt it had a certain ruthlessness in the way it dispatched victims. I think it might be too intense for little kids, and I cannot believe that I just wrote that statement.

There are surprises and shocks that took my breath away, and the sound design booms all over the theater arriving from different corners, crafting a very unique cinematic experience. I do not think this film will ever be as much fun at home or on a computer; it is meant for the big screen. I never fully bought Zach and Gray as brothers or their emotional turmoil. Is it not enough that they are both nearly killed together? They have to deal with divorce too?  Much like the two kids in the original film, they are mostly there to be put in harm's way, though thankfully there is no scene as stupid as in the first film when an electric fence meant to dissuade a T-Rex only slightly injures a young boy grabbing onto it when the park's intermittent power returns. And, the denouement does not involve kids saving the day by tapping away on computers, thankfully. The film's sharp look at what a park would look like includes the trappings that would most appeal to families. It extends John Hammond's vision into a quasi-reality that looks and feels familiar. I think there's a terror here from the threat to the park goers that feels fresh and new. The crowds milling about are families with little kids and strollers, and the stampeding was quite scary to me as a relatively new father. No parenting book that I've read offers "How do you save your loved ones from dinosaurs?"

Of course, the characters take time to engage in philosophical arguments and debates that should have happened way before they started creating new dinosaurs or even started taking a paycheck from the company. The chain of command seems remarkably unclear for an enterprise of this magnitude, and Vincent D'Onofrio's character Hoskins need only twirl a mustache to be any more ridiculously villainous as a potential defense contractor, eager to sell trained Velociraptors to hunt terrorists. There is a nice acknowledgement of the first film through a quick foray into an abandoned building with reminders of touchstones from that story, but Treverrow does not linger, and soon everyone is chasing everyone, with efficient storytelling streamlined. Owen always shows up on his motorcycle wherever Claire is driving, and cell phones and communication work when the plot needs them to do so. New Girl star Jack Johnson delivers some much-needed humor as Lowery, a park technician with a birds eye view and a sense of responsibility to his job. Irrfan Khan plays Simon Masrani, a charming CEO-type of the park whose recklessness is telegraphed early and often through his insistence upon piloting his own helicopter. What could go wrong? But despite the film's flaws and its stumbling through with its main character Claire who goes from bumbling neophyte to efficient gunsmith to quick-thinking heroine, it works and entertains at a high level.

Ultimately, Jurassic World won me over with its eye-popping effects and imagery. The final fight is one for the ages, and the technology overpowers because it provides such a dramatic response in me. That underwater dinosaur is cool and terrifying. The film's quieter moments offer some food for thought about what we would pay for as consumers. I can forgive the film's more egregious sins because it brings me dinosaurs and fear, two potent ingredients that made this an ultimate summer movie going experience.


Friday, June 5, 2015

Pitch Not Entirely Perfect: Lots of Laughs Though

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect 2

Director: Elizabeth Banks

Reviewed: 29 May 2015

jamesintexas rating--**1/2



This film is just alright.  It's funny in moments, and it is enjoyable, but it does not really know what it wants to be, and its aimlessness detracts from its overall success as a complete film. While a fan of Pitch Perfect, I found there to be less to enjoy in this film, but I did enjoy it. Somewhat. 

The film opens with a traumatic piece-de-resistance: the self-anointed Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) mistakenly botches an aerial dance piece in front of President and Mrs. Obama, essentially flashing the entire crowd and disintegrating the reputation of the Barden Bellas. Disgraced and dishonored, the women retreat to campus where they find themselves essentially banned from recruiting and performing except for a loophole involving the national acappella competition. Freshman Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), a legacy Barden Bella, joins the crew, determined to write original songs and perform them while Beca (Anna Kendrick) struggles with her new job working for a music producer (Keegan-Michael Key) who hilariously berates his staff. And Bumper (Adam DeVine) returns to campus as a security guard and in a less adversarial role than the previous film. There is a competition, of course, and you know what's going to happen.

There's a silly German acappella group called DSM to serve as potential rivals, and two of the male characters from the first film offer cameos of sorts in throwaway plot threads. The appeal has always been of the girls bonding, practicing, and performing, and the film has its moments. It doesn't seem to have as high a joke to laughs ratio as the first film; Fat Amy has become less endearing and they cannot decide whether to make her the butt of all the jokes and flat-out ridiculous or to make her a real character with an arc. There's no "Cups" level song in my opinion to leap from this film's soundtrack, and everyone seems to be okay making a modest sequel with some laughs from the commentators and some strategically placed bear traps. I'm not sure if I should have expected more.  I valued its laughs and sheer silliness at times, and I think that David Cross's brief performance as an acappella-obsessed reclusive millionaire is wonderful. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Hellfire and Electric Guitar in Mad Max: Fury Road: A High-Octane Phantasmagoria of Mayhem

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

Director: George Miller

Reviewed: 29 May 2015

jamesintexas rating--***1/2



With eye-popping action, an unnatural bright color palette, and nearly relentless action, George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road delivers a two hour shot of adrenaline to the heart with unforgettable visuals and undeniable effect. The movie starts with a chase and basically maintains it for its entire running length. What Miller does here is all the more incredible because of its weight; the film feels dangerous in its depiction of this desert wasteland world of kill or be killed. The special effects enhance the film, the score pounds the brain, and the lead performances are nearly silent as action becomes the order of the day. Pure, exhilarating action.

Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) escorts a convoy from the tightly controlled sanctuary of the ruler Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a mask-wearing madman who doles out the water sparingly to the hordes of impoverished who live at the foot of the cliff. Furiosa's task is initially a supply run for gasoline and bullets, the lifeblood of this culture, but when things go awry, Immortan Joe and his crew of loyal foot soldiers must race to find her. And they bring recently captured universal donor Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), strapped to the front of Nux's (Nicholas Hoult) dirt race car like some bizarre hood ornament. As Max struggles to free himself in the struggle, Furiosa harbors desires of rebellion and even finding sanctuary in a land through the desert, but the chase is on with deadly, metal-bending consequences when everyone collides. And, there's a chained guy with no eyes who jams wildly on an electric guitar which spews fire at the front of one of the pursuers. Awesome.

The chase really does unfold for the entire two hours. I really like the forward momentum of this film as well as its look. Strange to say, the weakest link here is Hardy's performance as the nearly nonverbal Max, mumbling his few lines in a marble mouthed way that seems akin to his work as Bane several years ago. Hardy's voice seems enhanced, perhaps made even deeper, but the movie belong to Charlize Theron as Furiosa, who delivers a topnotch performance of movement and intensity, doing more with less, consumed with the mechanics of driving a big rig across the desert. The film works best when the two leads are repelling attackers, creatively repairing the vehicles, rushing across frightening landscapes to catch the vehicle before being left behind. The baddies are quite bad, with plenty of leering looks and eye-catching make-up in addition to bones strapped to the hoods of cars, deathly pale complexions, and a million variations on souped-up cars and motorcycles. At one point, the rig is being stalked by leaping motorcycles which just as likely could have been horses leaping up in the air behind them, a forgotten tribe of nomadic warriors that materialize out of thin air with deadly intent.

Miller's world-building in Mad Max: Fury Road is so strong, a sign of how long he has worked with this character and nihilistic, apocalyptic concept, yet it still feels fresh. Characters stare at what we believe to be falling stars and remark upon them as being satellites falling to earth, an older way of sending information back and forth that seems alien to this time and place. I think a fear of mine in seeing a reboot (or a re-conception) of an existing character and world would be the feeling of being tied down to particular plot points or storytelling tropes, and to me, Miller avoids this completely. He has made a different Mad Max movie than the previous three with Mel Gibson, and instead, he's injected creativity and uniqueness to a story that I thought would be familiar. In a most exciting turn of events, there is an inclusivity to the film's gender politics that worked for me and felt remarkably fresh. I take the title to be a knowing nod to the shared top billing of both Max and Furiosa. To be honest, Theron's character and volcanic performance owns the entire film!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Babadook's Horrors: A Unique and Terrifying Masterpiece.

Movie Review: The Babadook

Director: Jennifer Kent

Reviewed: 20 May 2015

jamesintexas rating--****



I don't think I can ask for much more than the sleek, terrifying, ninety-three minute long film The Babadook: it captivates and moves at a quick pace through very dark material, offering genuine scares and chills with its fresh ideas. Amelia, a young mother (Essie Davis), struggles after losing her husband in a car accident while driving to the hospital to deliver their son Samuel. Flash forward ahead, Samuel grows up into the precocious, slightly dangerous, and often annoying six-year-old who creates dangerous devices, studies old magic tricks, and makes life increasingly difficult for his mom. The eponymous creature of the title appears via a mysterious children's book that neither remembers buying, but once Amelia starts reading The Babadook to Samuel, it is obviously not appropriate with its violent imagery, threatening pronouncements, its character's long, sharp knives for fingers, outstretched and reaching. Things go from bad to worse, as you can imagine, and the book that cannot be destroyed becomes an omnipresent force in their decaying, rotting house as both mother and son fight for their lives and souls.

There's much to like here. Davis is a revelation as the embattled, exhausted Amelia, fighting herself as much as any outside force. She inhabits both the chippy, faux-cheerful Amelia who tries to fit in at her affluent sister's house party, while also showing the world-weariness of being a caretaker at a retirement home during the day. It is Kent's point to show Amelia being stretched by both work and home, serving as caretaker to all and neglecting herself. The horror comes in bursts with a slow, building intensity, and Kent is wise to use darkness and effects sparingly. I watched the film in three longer chunks, which probably lessens the hold that it had over me, and I was thankful for that. I think that even its lean running time would have had me completely worn out at the end of one sitting.

What scares me? Sharks that can see my entire body while I can only imagine them during dips in the ocean. People in masks with dark intent. Clowns talking to children through sewer grates (thanks, Stephen King), and things that are otherwise incongruous and strange. And a children's book that seems to come alive amidst the isolation of this parent trying to do it all alone is now added to that list. The Babadook should not be as effective and as scary as it is, but Jennifer Kent's work is a masterpiece of sound architecture with its otherworldly whirls and clicks, special effects that seem more sleight-of-hand or magic-like than CGI (except for one sequence), a tour-de-force performance from the great Essie Davis as well as a brilliant child performance from Noah Wiseman, a steady pace which keeps building, and a very strong ending that resonates far after the last frame stops. It is different than the standard horror film; it more closely resembles Take Shelter, the 2011 Jeff Nichols film which featured Michael Shannon as a father trying to protect his family from oblivion (or just his growing mental illness). I think that The Babadook should continue to get more attention and viewers, as its ideas and world-building indicate a thoughtful and daring new vision from director Jennifer Kent. Bravo.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Californian-Iranian-Vampire Film: Watching A Girl Walks Home...

Movie Review: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

Reviewed: 12 May 2015

jamesintexas rating--***


A purported Iranian vampire movie set in the fictional wasteland of Bad City but actually filmed in California, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is Ana Lily Amirpour's gorgeous black and white, hypnotic take on a modern telling of the ancient story. The Girl (Sheila Vand) stalks the denizens of Bad City as a sort of angel of death and spiritual guide, appearing in their paths late at night, shrouded in her chador, occasionally riding a skateboard. The film chronicles her interactions with a pimp, a drug addict, that man's son Arash (Arash Marandi), a little boy, and a prostitute. Amirpour's aesthetic decisions focus on the shadows, leaving people out of focus within a shot, alongside luminous black and white shots with trance-like music and long takes create a sense of building dread throughout the film. The less detail that is given, the more curious I became.

The Girl offers warnings to those around her, and her interactions with Arash appear to change her somewhat. They form a connection, an alliance of sorts, which leads to all sorts of consequences for both of them. The film is heavy on its mood and atmosphere, with nearly all of its running time occurring at night. The cuts to the oilfields with derricks steadily drilling are meant to parallel the sucking of blood, and the whole transplanting of the setting is interesting and spooky. The image of The Girl riding a skateboard with her cape-like chador flapping all around her is one that will not leave me easily. There is something disturbing about how unassuming and small The Girl is while also being completely in control and menacing. There is a haunting sadness to her relationship with Arash, particularly, one that Amirpour hints is vaguely incestuous.

The film made me deeply curious as well, and the coming together of so many styles in a vampire film is quite fun. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night feels like a western at times with its empty streets and nightly showdowns. There are elements of horror that work quite well because of the suspense and the sense of restraint. Amirpour's eye for capturing an image is keen and thoughtful; I look forward to seeing more work from this emerging artist.



Saturday, May 9, 2015

300: Rise of an Empire is Good, Trashy Fun

Movie Review: 300: Rise of an Empire

Director: Noam Murro

Reviewed: 3 May 2015

jamesintexas rating--***


Bloody, trashy fun. This quasi-sequel to 300 offers an alternate view of the Athenian army while the Spartans are making their desperate stand at Thermopylae. Here, the fighting is on ships that threaten to engulf Greece unless a stand is made, resulting in some fantastic water battles and the occasional sea serpent. The result is a live-action cartoon of sorts with spraying blood, epic violence, scenery-chewing speeches, and a bunch of fun. There's not much to think about here, but the film seems to be enjoying itself immensely.

Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton, kind of bland) leads his warriors against the Persian warrior Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, shiny), son of slain King Darius and his fighting force led by Artemisia (Eva Green, wonderful). There are some platitudes offered about democracy, which is strange since the fighters seem to slavishly devoted to fascism. But mostly it is just an excuse for giant battle sequences and nifty swordplay.

The effects are pretty wonderful with swirling colors and the trademark slow-down, speed-up fighting that we have come to expect from a 300 movie. There's no Gerard Butler or Michael Fassbender, really, beyond a few still shots, so this could probably be best categorized as a sideways sequel like that last Jason Bourne movie. It seems to revel in its storytelling, but try as he might, Sullivan Stapleton just lacks some of the charisma of a Gerard Butler, so he cannot pull off the growly gravitas needed to deliver a line like "an unbreakable bond made stronger by the crucible of combat." But he tries his best. The revelation here is Eva Green's go-for-broke histrionic performance as Artemisia, a skilled warrior who fights from the front and stands toe-to-toe with all of the men, serving as a kind of Lady Macbeth pouring her spirits into Xerxes's ear while simultaneously seducing and attempting to recruit Themistokles. The scenes of Artemisia in command are quite fun, and the film moves at a steady brisk clip. 102 minutes is probably just about the right amount of time to spend in this world. The ending seems to set up a third film which I hope gets made because it is clear that the filmmakers are having fun in this world and could show us even more bloody insanity with some fearless over-the-top performances.

Brutal and Sad: Lone Survivor's Tale of Terror.


Movie Review: Lone Survivor

Director: Peter Berg

Reviewed: 4 May 2015

jamesintexas rating--***



There are one or two moments in Lone Survivor that seem to pull back from its microscopic focus on four Navy Seals trapped in enemy territory on an Afghanistan mountainside, fighting for their lives. It's the home base where troops and back-up are at the ready. Instead of being able to immediately fly to the aid of their trapped comrades, director Peter Berg shows the bureaucracy of the fighting force, where gunships are unable to accompany the Blackhawks to the hot zone to aid the men. The implication is that the US was fighting a deadly war with a force that was stretched too thin, and some of the deadly consequences in this film from the four men to the botched rescue mission are implied rather than overtly stated. It is difficult to make a film honoring these men while simultaneously denigrating the leadership that tried to do this war cheaply. The film made me think of something General Colin Powell said: "War should be the politics of last resort. And when we go to war, we should have a purpose that our people understand and support." I am still not sure that we had that purpose, but the film concretizes the heroic nature of the brutal conditions and violence these Seals were placed within during a time of "last resort," and I think the film successfully captures this firefight in all of its upsetting emotion.

Peter Berg's focus is on the band of brothers, the camaraderie and selflessness of the men in the battle, and it becomes a painful watch. Almost immediately. The title (and history) lets us know what is going to happen, so we become engrossed in the how of it all and the way the situation rapidly spirals out of control. Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster) are dropped into Afghanistan on a covert operation to eliminate a major Taliban leader. The men welcome the opportunity to be useful and put their grueling training to the test, and soon enough, all four men are hidden away on an Afghanistan mountainside, trying to get radio contact amidst the jagged peaks, evading the wandering goat herders who threaten to reveal their position. Berg's filmmaking is at its best when he uses tracking shots in the forest, just showing the meticulous, careful actions of these men before and after it all breaks down. The camera is always clear about what these men want, how they are executing the mission, and after a moral conundrum, how they make the best of a bad situation. Much of the acting is truly action, with faces and eyes becoming important conduits for the storytelling. All four lead performances had an impact on me, with standouts being Kitsch and Foster. It eventually disintegrates into an almost nonverbal silent type of communication with the Seals enduring the worst kinds of hell as they desperately try to get to an extraction point.

A war movie by its nature can be exhilarating, but I found Lone Survivor to be draining. The punishing retreat of these Seals and the bloody disintegration of their fighting force is meant to honor what actually happened, but I cannot help but try to root for the facts to change. The impotence of their force against so many results in it just being jaw-dropping that anyone survived. The film commits to honoring these men and their sacrifice and is at its best when depicting the camaraderie and brotherhood of the four Seals who know that they must put their lives in each others hands. The film is less successful at depicting the village that harbors Luttrell and protects him against the Taliban, content to play with some basic iconography of a near-silent innocent child taking care of him. The rescue scenes offers a bit of a catharsis of sorts for the audience, but overall, Lone Survivor is a sobering film about the war that ends in Berg's choice to elegiacally honor the real-life Seals through photographs set against Peter Gabriel's cover of David Bowie's "Heroes." It is difficult not to wonder what lives these men, all of these men, would have continued to have. What children they would have raised, what husbands, boyfriends, and partners they would have been.

The phrase ultimate sacrifice is not one to be used lightly.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Dom Hemingway: All Style, No Substance.


Movie Review: Dom Hemingway

Director: Richard Shepard

Reviewed: 2 May 2015

jamesintexas rating--**



First of all, I like Jude Law. I like seeing him play the pugnacious, incarcerated, foul-mouthed, and eponymous Dom Hemingway, a small-time safecracker who has just been released from twelve years of prison and is trying to find his way. Law's spitfire soliloquies and confident cadence amplify Dom's lust for life outside of the walls of prison but also reflect a sort of world weariness. Dom's a bit too old for how he dresses, a bit too paunchy to go without his shirt for so long, and a bit too impulsive to fit in the modern world. Dom's also estranged from his daughter whom he left alone with her dying mother at age twelve and also struggling to make sense of what he is owed by fellow gangsters for keeping his mouth shut for twelve years, at obvious great cost to his family.

Second of all, director Richard Shepard is having fun with the storytelling here: punchy title cards as chapter breaks, occasional slow-motion sequences set to booming British tunes, the always wonderful Richard E. Grant playing Dom's be-handed sidekick and fellow gangster Dickie Black; and motor mouthed and intensely foul dialogue spouted out by club-owning underworld characters.

Third of all, Shepard seems to be reveling in the low-rent, less glamorous side of British crime in the vein of Guy Ritchie and others, making sure that we see and smell how depraved and petty this world can be. There are celebrations but coupled with deep hangovers, and Dom's search for himself involves returning to his daughter and finding out who he can become in the future.

But...

Scenes and set pieces go on far too long, and I ultimately felt, even with the fun chapter breaks, the film to be shapeless and a bit bizarre. A steadier hand may have excised some of the plot and some of the meandering, and the last thirty minutes segues deeply into Dom's relationship with his daughter and grandson, though it seems to be more interested in symbolic reconciliation rather than actual character development.

The friendship between Dom and Dickie is left largely unexplored, though Richard E. Grant's thousand-yard stare and yellow-tinted glasses hint at a sordid, silly past of mayhem between the two men. Major violent acts are committed without consequences or repercussions in a world where, seemingly, blood will have blood.

And the film ultimately seems like a series of vignettes and Dom more of a caricature rather than a fully-developed character. No fault of Jude Law's though because Law delivers a swaggering, volcanic performance as Dom, but I wonder if the adventures of Dom Hemingway might have made for a more interesting character study with more time to develop. Perhaps the character deserved a 12 episode run on HBO or a longer film than its scant 93 minute length?

Call it Edge of Tomorrow or Live Die Repeat: Either way, Cruise Delivers

Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow

Director: Doug Liman

Reviewed: 18 March 2015

jamesintexas rating--***

Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise's latest film, is a fun, rollicking video game of a ride through a cool premise: It's classic Tom Cruise action wrapped up in Groundhog Day and spliced with Aliens, and it all works. It all works due to a marvelous cast, a central conceit that is straight-up fun, and a tone that allows the audience to revel in the storytelling and video game qualities of a feature film with a gigantic budget.

Cruise plays Cage, an Army Public Relations officer, who finds himself on the front lines of battle between the earth and alien sentient Matrix-like creatures. Early on, it becomes apparent that as punishments of some sort, Cage must enter the ranks of the infantry as they prepare a D-Day like assault on alien-held territory. Rita (Emily Blunt) holds the position of being the most decorated and distinguished soldier of the era, and Cage finds himself alongside her in the bloody, chaotic battle scene. When the tide of the battle turns, and Cage is destroyed, we gasp as an audience (Who kills Tom Cruise in the first twenty minutes?) and then realize that The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie has structured the script just so in order to give Cage a chance to relive the day, to regenerate as it were, but while also maintaining his memories. So, each time Cage fights the battle, he learns and improves tactically. Let the video games and often hilarious death-montages ensue!

Doug Liman brings a freshness and a quickness to the storytelling here that is most welcome. Edge of Tomorrow is not weighed down by its plot, and I found it quite refreshing as a science fiction action film. It does not take itself too seriously. And the action is crisp and jagged at the same time, scary and always surprising. I think the ending has its flaws but in terms of execution and vision, I think the film is strong and one of my favorites of the past year. Tom Cruise knows his capabilities, and he remains exciting to watch onscreen. I chose not to get lost down the rabbit-hole of endless purgatory and when does Cage learn what he learns. Instead, I bought into the big picture, enjoyed the small moments, and saw Edge of Tomorrow for what I believe it is: action entertainment of the first-order.




Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Chef: Half-Baked though Well-Intentioned.


Movie Review: Chef

Director: Jon Favreau

Reviewed: 18 March 2015

jamesintexas rating--**




Jon Favreau's latest film Chef seems very personal to him, though the dramatic arc of the film suffers from an inertia and lack of stakes. The ending is tacked on, the world is quite simplistic, and the characters never wade too deep into the real world (or emotions).  The food looks nice though.

Favreau plays the wonderfully named Carl Casper, an LA chef who was once a rising star in the industry but has now chosen to play it safe with his menus at a successful local restaurant. When a war of words with a noted food critic escalates into an internet melee (and an ultimatum with restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman), Carl has to step back, examine his life choices, consider his neglectful relationship with his young son Percy (Emjay Anthony), and struggle to take guidance from his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara). At the one hour mark, Chef evolves into a road movie as Carl takes a step backwards in time during a trip to Miami, reminding himself of the food that he used to love and used to make.

At least, I think.  The film is so murky, so muddled in its depiction of Carl that I never knew what was driving him. He had reached a demonstrable level of success in Los Angeles, but he hungered for creativity and control over his menu? But, then the choice of a food truck is a tricky one because a chef would be very limited in what he or she could make in such a confined space. But, maybe the ability to switch the menu is the most important thing, as Favreau frequently shows Carl chalking up the board on the outside of the truck. And, his friendly relationship with his ex-wife never hints at what drove them apart (his work?) but also never allows Inez to be a fully formed character. Sofia Vergara could have been asked to do much more.

The film is shot well with glowing close-ups of shimmering and sizzling food (has grilled cheese ever looked this good onscreen?), but Chef just struggles to coalesce into a fully formed story. Carl's son is an expert on Twitter, so he rallies the crowd to come and support the food truck. Carl's best friend Martin (John Leguizamo) displays an unnerving amount of loyalty to his boss and a lack of care about the world he leaves behind. The chefs never worry about (or mention) the difficulty of obtaining fresh ingredients during their cross country sojourn, as well as money is never really an issue. The lack of any sort of financial awareness (Inez backs him, sends him to her ex-husband in Miami played by a daffy Robert Downey Jr.) makes the whole thing feel like a bit of a lark. Carl's epiphany of being a better, more present dad supersedes (or coincides) with the new food truck business, and it is a business where he can teach his son hands-on, including him in his life's work where before he did not. The ending builds to a few jarring developments that were not foregrounded, so as a result, feel tacked on or inauthentic. Favreau has assembled a great cast to work with; I just wished Dustin Hoffman, Bobbi Cannavale, Scarlett Johanssen, and Oliver Platt were in the movie more.

What to say?  Is Chef a commentary from Favreau on his earlier success as a filmmaker with independent darling Swingers and his journey from there to big-budget noisemakers like Iron Man and Cowboys & Aliens?  The development of antagonism between chef and critic seems to mirror director and film critic at times, though in both cases, an artist knows when he or she is taking a risk.  Playing it safe is different than making the attempt.

Chef feels like a swing and a miss to me, but at least Favreau is swinging, and if he returns to his love of storytelling and character, his next foray may connect. I like that Favreau is considering the implications of his life's work as well as the risk of complacency.