Movie Review A Million Ways to Die in the West

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Immediately following the screening of A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, I met a fellow cinefreak for a drink. We fell into a discussion about how we judge and critique films; do you hold one “bar” for all films regardless of their nature, budget, genre etc? Or, rather, do you have a sliding scale? I have trouble putting ANCHORMAN 2 up against the likes of THE DEPARTED. With all due respect to each of our methods and madness, it just doesn’t seem fair to me. I also feel that comedy is the hardest genre to judge as humor is as personal as one’s preferred toilet paper, and just as contentious a subject. That being said, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is absolutely freaking hilarious. Having been begrudgingly cajoled into Seth MacFarlane’s last film TED been very pleasantly surprised, I am happy to report that his sophomore feature length film shows that his wit has grown and, although it is still reliably filled with frat-boy sexual/poop humor, actually possesses some astute and strong social commentary which could fly right over some viewer’s heads. One of the skills MacFarlane demonstrates is an engaging duality; He wholeheartedly honors the western genre with all its props and scenarios but has his characters speak in 21st century hipster vernacular. It’s an idea which could have gone horribly wrong but it works and it’s funny. There is slapstick inside smart dry socio-political quipping. His is an old west parody with big splashes of BLAZING SADDLES “schtick,” Woody Allen’s neuroses, and even a nod to RAISING ARIZONA with an actor who is a dead ringer for Randall “Tex” Cobb (Evan Jones). While those influences are fairly obvious MacFarlane makes it his own with rapid fire one-liners and well crafted circular references to earlier bits without running them into the ground.

Seth MacFarlane, who wrote, directed and stars in the film, is perfectly at home with his quick delivery and cadence, and Charlize Theron holds her own as his beautiful ‘straight man’ and love interest. You can see an authenticity in their easy comfortable banter. For some reason MacFarlane doesn’t ‘look’ old west to me – he is too thoroughly modern a man to be in the setting and that just further underscores the inherent hilarity of the concept. It is however Neil Patrick Harris who steals the show with his outstanding comedic timing and well balanced blend of macho dandy with a splash of perverted metrosexual. In contrast to MacFarlane, Neil Patrick Harris looks the part and has the ability to make us laugh with just the raise of an eyebrow or well placed smirk. Amanda Seyfried does a solid job with a simple role and Liam Neeson is a fine villain. Giovanni Ribisi has now perfected his persona of clueless innocent mixed with total freak which only he can pull off and I love it. And I don’t really need to further elaborate on Sarah Silverman as a whore named Ruth who wears a gold cross and won’t have pre-marital sex with her boyfriend (Ribisi). The mere concept is too funny. This film is not about the acting per se. While we want the characters to be believable it’s a farce so how much do we really need to believe them to begin with?

As far as summer blockbusters go this one has most of the necessary winning requirements and even throws in some pre-requisite CGI when you least expect it. I will not go so far as to say that the scenario which provides MacFarlane’s character Albert with his ‘AHA!’ moment for the film’s denouement is particularly novel, but it is far better than the it-was-all-a-dream or he’s-actually-a-dead-guy-too trick. While the film hurls a lot at you and is packed to the brim with sight gags as well as its warp speed repartee it manages to pull it all off with a good steady flow. The casting is creative and it’s great to see Wes Studi flex his comedy muscles. While the scenic splendor of the opening credits is beautiful and huge in scope (almost to a fault) you won’t find any cinematography breakthroughs in A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST. But who cares? It’s audacious, dirty and a hell of a good time. Just what a summer movie should be.

Director: Seth MacFarlane
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris, Amanda Seyfried, Sarah Silverman, Giovanni Ribisi
Rating: R
Running Time: 116 minutes

Movie Review A Million Ways to Die in the West

Zoe Bell Interview

CM: You have been a stunt double in so many films, and you’ve had so many different acting roles in films and TV. You’ve played doctors and roller derby queens and all kinds of people – you’ve really run the gamut – what was it about this film, this story, which motivated you to become one of the producers?

ZB: Well actually it went the other way around. When first Josh called me (Josh C. Waller, Director) and I’ve been friends with Josh for a long time, he had been working with Kenny and Andy on this idea but it was  a short film and they were looking at me maybe being the fight choreographer/coordinator. I was trying to get people to see me as an actor more than as a strictly action girl. Which is a hard thing.

CM: I would assume that is quite a hard thing. Is that something which has been on the forefront of your recent endeavors? To shift from behind the camera to in front of the camera?

ZB: Oh absolutely a hard thing. But the film was a short that ended right after the fight between Sabrina and Jamie (Rachel Nichols) and we just decided to fill it out to a feature film the more we discussed it and worked on it.

CM: There is a great scene where you come to terms with being a mother whose child is in danger, and its a scene filled with difficult and painful emotions. Having no children of your own was there a specific person or child who you conjured to make that scene work emotionally?

ZB: It was a combination of finding something that I had felt in my life which was similar, and for me that was my brother, because he’s my younger brother and he is the one thing I will die to protect. I’m sure I’d die to protect my Mum & Dad as well but he was the younger little guy who needed me to look after him for a long time. Not anymore by the way – he’s a fully capable individual and I love him to bits! The other one was my Mum. Before that scene where Sabrina is breaking down a little bit I was singing a song that my mum used to sing to me when I was a kid. Not to conjure up my child love for my mum, but because I was being Sabrina it was more about what Mum must have felt when singing those songs to me.

CM: I think that it’s all too easy to make characters in action/fight films archetypal one dimensional beings, and I feel that the women in the film were really multidimensional. You get the women’s back stories, you wonder what makes them angry or more violent and all the factors which influence their presentation and ability to fight. Was it written that way in the script, or do you think it has more to do with the group of actresses and their performances? The feelings and motivations are really present and come through in each of the women’s characters.

ZB: Oh it makes me happy and proud like a Mum to hear you say these things. It makes me proud of our movie and proud of our cast.

CM: Because honestly the rest of the cast, aside from the initiates, are more like comic book characters – they are one dimensional and it is the women who bring a richness to the film, and that really works.

ZB: I don’t think that any one element is solely responsible for that. I know that it was important to Josh that their emotional journey and their lives be accessible to the audience. One of the challenges that we faced, and it was important to me, is that there are women who like fight movies. Then there are women who hate them or could care less about them, and those are the women I wanted to see if we could give something to relate to in this film. Women who love action will enjoy this movie. Men across the board are probably going to enjoy this movie because its women fighting. A few of the men were probably disappointed that we weren’t in bar and undies I’m sure but I think they can deal with that. But I wanted to see if there are women who are not prone to relating to fights who could relate to what these women were fighting for, why it was that they could do what they were doing and each of the actors found something in their characters that they wanted to show and bring to that. Rebecca [Marshall] who plays Phoebe, said after the shoot, that there were a couple of different days where she went home and cried in the shower. It makes me feel terrible that I put them all thought that but she said it was not what we put her through but that being that evil, as satisfying as it was, was also horribly sad and depressing.

CM: I’m sure that it was all of those feelings, and on some level really satisfying. Her character especially, when you hear her back story, you can summon a bit of sympathy for her. I think that’s key, we just want to be able to access the characters now matter how we may do it.

ZB: It  came about as we were talking at one point about how we can make the audience, if Sabrina becomes our lead, but the first time we meet her she’s killing someone and we [the audience] don’t understand why, how do we make her likeable? People need to be able to root for her, and be able to get behind her. And then we applied the same sort of things to all the different characters.

CM: If I may go back for a minute to something you said about reaching the audience of women who could never go see a film like this, I thought that one of the elements of the story which really highlights its intelligence is that it is a metaphor, specifically more-so for women. We have all found ourselves in situations which we feel are beyond our control and we have to “fight” and those may be different situations for every woman. One might be something which addresses a sense of physical safety whereas for another it may be about emotional safety, but that’s a fundamental truth. And I think that the film is a terrific mythical portrayal of that truth.

ZB: It was definitely for us as well and these were all conversations we had early on. We had a concept before we had a script. It was a matter of what do we want to build into that script, and it was important that we consider; are they all just fighting for their kids? What about all the women out there who have never had kids? And their husband or their partner has been the love of their life for years for 50 years? That might be tough because we’d have bunch of 80 year olds fighting for their life…but even so, this is their life partner and without this person they have nobody else, so do you fight? And what if that person is ill – do you fight for that person? Do you give up? Do they need you? There is a scene in the fight between Cody and Teresa, which gives me goosebumps, where Teresa says ‘So your mother loves you’ and Cody says ‘yes,’ and Teresa then says, ‘…and she needs you‘ and it is Cody fighting not for the life of the mother but for her own life because her mother needs her. It is in those spaces that women find their power. I have so many goosebumps right now!

CM: This is a little bit of a sensitive questions but apropos of that thread do you want to speak to what kinds of situations or what kind of emotional places you find yourself in where you think to yourself, ‘Oh lord I’ve really got to fight through this.’ Where do you summon your strength?

ZB: That’s an interesting one. One of the banes of being in my head is that somewhere in my childhood I decided that I was lucky enough in life, that I was a fortunate enough person, that I didn’t have the right to be scared, unhappy or ungrateful. But the times that I feel that fight is around my Mum, Dad and my brother. There was one time my brother was feeling decidedly lost and I couldn’t do anything to fix it, or to change it. I couldn’t make it better for him and that was incredibly difficult. My Mum was diagnosed a few years ago, and since has come through the other side and is free of breast cancer, but that dropped me to my knees when I heard. The thought wasn’t so much that I would lose her, but about that I could not be with her right then, that I was far away and the time difference was bad and the quickest plane ticket I could get was about three days away. The feeling was that I was just so far away and that was the really hard part.

CM: Two of the things which I really loved in the film which are so smart, are two visual puns. The first is that the initiates are all wearing tops that many Americans call ‘wife beaters,’ and I’m wondering if you actually sat down and said ‘let’s put these b*tches in ‘wife-beaters!’ I can’t imagine it was coincidental but it’s so great…

ZB: Yeah! I know that’s so good! So where I come from we call those ‘singlets’ and we would have to ask the boys but I think the costumes, the outfits or uniforms, were definitely driven by me. I always think that gray sweats are the sexiest thing on a girl. I think comfy sweat gear – if a girl looks hot in that – she looks hot. And also it is not dissimilar to an outfit that you would find on a dude who’s fighting. So then when the guys stated, ‘OK, the girls in gray sweats and wife-beaters,’ I thought, ‘NO SH*T! That’s just brilliant!’

CM: (spoiler alert!) The other thing which I loved was toward the end when you have taken the weapon from the office which I believe is called a ‘flail,’ the stick with the strings and balls on the end, and you finally have Bruce Thomas where you want him and the camera shoots low looking at his face through these dangling balls. It is just brilliant and wraps up all of his misogyny and beats him with balls! There is no humor in the film but THAT is so funny and well placed. People will either get that joke or totally miss it. You must have been cracking up…

ZB: Oh I remember that scene so well. We called that weapon ‘the scourge.’ Yes, Bruce had some fun with that. I was behind the camera, a lot actually, because I really like to be involved in all aspects, and I remember that Josh (Waller – director) said ‘we are going to shoot you [Zoe] from below so you are big and all powerful and then we will scale down to shoot these BALLS…’ We did definitely had some fun times on that set.

CM: I have one final question for you; as you become more of a lead actress and step out from behind the camera and move forward, do you have a dream role? Or a particular genre or capacity that you really want to master?

ZB: Comedy. Straight up. I would love to do a comedy. If they need me to do action in it, definitely. After RAZE, I see that I was always drawn to dramatic, profound and deep stories, but as I said before I didn’t think I was secure enough to be able to say ‘I want to play that role.’ Since RAZE I had the feeling of ‘I want a comedy now – give me a romance comedy right now!’ Since RAZE I am definitely more interested in the emotional journey of the characters but the one thing that is plaguing me at the moment is that I want to do comedy. I was thinking that there are similarities in both action and comedy because they are genres where women are not really accepted straight out of the gate. Women comediennes are so much rarer. How empowering is it to be able to make people laugh? It’s a different kind of empowerment (than action) empowering people is one thing and making people laugh is something different but equally as important.

CM: Well I believe in you Zoe – bring it! I have so enjoyed speaking with you and I want to thank you so much for taking the time today. Congratulations on the DVD release of RAZE and we all look forward to your future endeavors both in front of and behind the camera.

Zoe Bell Interview

Movie Review Belle

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I have an old fiend who believes without question that the trailers you see before a DVD are a perfect indication of the quality of the movie you are about to watch. I must admit that she has been spot on much of the time. Her theory was going through my head while I was viewing BELLE as I remember seeing the trailer for it in theaters and feeling utterly unmotivated to see the film. I wondered about the hypothesis in reverse: Perhaps, it is those films whose trailer looks SO awesome that in the end fall short, and vice versa. That is certainly the case with BELLE. It’s hard to grip viewers with thrilling, breathless, sleep-at-the-theater-the-night-before anticipation for a period piece given that they are usually low on pyrotechnics, super-suits and Jason Statham. With his shirt off. Sweaty. I digress. BELLE is not only a very good story based on factual events, it is a good film and it is an important film in my opinion. If we are going to talk about slavery films, I debated heartily over 12 YEARS A SLAVE which I feel fell short of it’s potential and failed to hook me emotionally. I am very lonely in my position in regard to that film but I’m fine with that. While I do not want to reduce my opinion to mere gender differences it may very well be because I am a woman that my passion, rage and heartbreak were roused by BELLE, as it is a film as much about women and their roles, value and place in society as it is about slavery. It delivers several threads woven seamlessly together and it works. It fortunately doesn’t devolve into hyperbole and bodice ripping like so many historical films. I’ve got nothing against some good bodice ripping mind you but its a cheap thrill compared to intelligently presented ethical discussions. And of course there’s a smidge of love story thrown in for good measure.

BELLE is based upon the life of the real Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1904) who was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and a slave known as Maria Belle. Lindsay took Belle, played by the bewitching Gugu Mbatha-Raw, to be raised by his uncle the First Earl of Mansfield, William Murray (portrayed by the unparalleled Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (played by Emily Mortimer), who had no children of their own. Already in their care was the young Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) and it was thought it would be good for the Lady Murray to have a companion her own age. William Murray was also during that period serving as Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench (great title I say) who was, by virtue of his judgment in Somersett’s Case, instrumental in abolishing slavery in England. In the film the pivotal case involves a slave ship with a tragic end but it matters not – the life of Dido Belle, the trajectory of the legal case, marriage for position and power versus love and a ruthless portrait of women’s place in society all play well together in the film. The irony of the Lord Chief of Justice having to raise an illegitimate half back girl is not lost on the audience. It is in fact the very tension between what he believes, feels and lives in his own home versus what he is charged to rule upon, and the outcome of which will either uphold and condone the British slave trade, or strike it down and alter the entire nation, that serves as a smart and solid skeleton for Belle’s personal story. Additionally we are given a painful view from the standpoint of the women of the age and the sad reality that their standing in society and ‘net worth’ are the only values they have. Marriage is but a business deal and to act out of fondness or, god forbid, love, is unimaginable. While I hesitate to make an analogy between women’s caste and slavery it is hard to ignore that women were bartered for money, position, land and power. They had zero self-determination whatsoever. Where then does that leave our Belle? A black woman who is higher than a slave, but cannot eat with her family or at a formal dinner because of others’ “defendable objections.” There is a turning point in the film which allows Belle to believe that she has choices, perhaps more than many young women, but in the end it still leaves her – in her own words – nowhere. She is family to the Murrays, but not completely. She is independent and safe, but not really. She is marriageable and beautiful, but not enough. Because she is black. Black enough to be a diversion and “exotic,” but too much to be equal. The scenes in which this ugly truth is displayed made me squirm more than anything graphic I’ve ever seen in another film about slavery. It may be because of the seemingly intelligent civilized society that is the setting of BELLE, and that is why we shudder – we want to believe they know better. Maybe they do, but not to act on it early or frequently enough. No matter how beautiful, intelligent and talented Belle may be we are never far from being reminded that a crushing blow lies just moments away and once more the rug will be pulled out from under her shoving her firmly back in her place. Nowhere.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is absolutely captivating. She effectively communicates both strength and vulnerability with just her gaze and delivers her lines with conviction and power. Tom Wilkinson is as usual flawless and it is always a joy to watch an actor who has the skill to turn a mood with the mere inflection of a syllable. Emily Mortimer too shows restraint and delicacy staying far from what could have been a stereotypically passive and shrill wife. Sam Reid plays John Divinier, one of Belle’s potential suitors. His character is pivotal in the film and allows for a meeting of the mind and spirit with Belle. However I found myself wishing that Reid had more sheer physical presence. I felt that I was watching an 18th century surfer dude and it left me yearning for his physicality and manner to match his character’s passion, beliefs and drive. He is just a bit too soft and young to visually covey what his fine dialogue does. The film is deftly edited and that is saying a lot these days. It moves along smoothly and swiftly, giving us only necessary details and visuals, and there is little that is superfluous. Director Amma Assante has one previous feature film under her belt and evidently has an aptitude for working with her female characters in particular. It is not that the men in BELLE are one dimensional, especially not Wilkinson who moved me to tears more than once, it is more that they are mere pawns placed among Belle who allow her to see her path more clearly. It is a lovely film visually but it does not dwell on the landscape as a crutch as so many sweeping historical sagas tend to do. Giant green carpets of lawn and columnar manor homes can make up for a multitude of sins in screenwriting. BELLE is purely character driven and asks of its audience important questions:. What, exactly, is freedom? Are we free only in comparison to some construct or constraint? What are we willing to risk to do the “right” thing? How do you effect change when you are an instrumental part of the machine which created and upholds inequality and suffering? I am not saying BELLE answers all of these deep quandaries, but it does a lovely job asking the right questions and showing us about love, family, principles and honor.

Director: Amma Assante
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Mortimer, Sarah Gadon, Sam Reid, Miranda Richardson, James Norton, Tom Felton
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 104 minutes

Movie Review Belle

 

Movie Review Locke

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Some of the most memorable conversations of my life took place in a car. In a car with other humans. I have also had a great conversations with myself and my imaginary friends, family members and ghosts. Haven’t we all? Perhaps there is something about when we are in motion which unlocks our ability to better process events and feelings. It soothes our kinetic needs and gets our nervous system in sync with our heart and mind. I don’t know – maybe its all a bunch of hooey, but LOCKE tries very hard to make us feel for, and empathize with, the man on a mission in his silver BMW. A man whose whole life appears to revolve around managing potential crises and pulling the puppet strings of the people and the world in which he finds himself. A world he clearly believes he is in control of. Like the Wizard of Oz in his booth, Ivan Locke, played by Tom Hardy, works hard to project that he’s figuring it out, that’s its ‘all good,’ workable. And it’s not going so well this night.

Ivan Locke makes the decision to veer from his traditional path both literally and metaphorically, as he leaves his construction job late one afternoon. He drives away from home, where he is expected and waited upon, and his big work project where he is critical to the success of a large concrete pour first thing in the morning. I now know that pouring concrete is far more nuanced than I had ever imagined. That counts for something in LOCKE. Our film is Locke; driving, talking – always talking – on his Bluetooth and trying like hell to manage the plates he has spinning. He is a man of reason, calm and measured almost to an infuriating degree, striving to manage a moral and emotional predicament with logic and rationality. LOCKE confronts big issues; What is the ‘right’ thing to do? How much control do we really have in our life or the lives of others? How do we mend our karmic legacy? What is the less painful of two difficult choices? Does any of that really matter to Ivan Locke? Honestly I didn’t see it. Locke is fundamentally unsympathetic, hard edged, and frankly not likeable. I could not connect to him as a parent, a spouse or any capacity, and given that he is all we see, even though he is fetching, that’s a major problem. Those circling him on the phone however are strong, moving and effective. Tom Hardy tries like hell to bring it, but his clean tidy tears are not enough. It is hard to be the sole provider in a film. It’s a one man show and you have to be the man to pull it off. I feel that Hardy has range and can act with believability and competence, but is he ready for this level of intensity and isolation in a role? Or perhaps the issues lie with the writing and/or direction? Steven Knight who wrote and directed LOCKE also wrote one of my favorite films EASTERN PROMISES, which has a beautifully balanced narrative full of emotion, brutal violence and plausible dialogue. LOCKE is his second directorial film effort and while I applaud his big hairy audacious goal, he bit off a bit more than he could chew with LOCKE.

LOCKE has a lot on its mind and the film wants to get you to think about it all. Deeply. Unfortunately it doesn’t move you to reflect, and it utterly lacks dramatic tension which is critical to a story of this kind. If there is no dramatic tension in a car alone with a man then there’s not much else but traffic. LOCKE has so much to say, and yet gives so little. Hardy is too measured, too even keeled especially in the moments where is is battling the demons from his past. I think back to the solo performance of Spalding Gray in SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA,  how we stress with him, laugh with him and imagine taking massive quantities of drugs in Asia with him, all the while entranced by just one man in a checked shirt. If we cannot watch Ivan Locke scream, rage, sing, cry out or sloppily sob alone in the car, as we all do (come on admit it, I’ve seen you at the stoplight) then there is nothing really to see, except the great navigation system in a BMW.

Director – Steven Knight
Starring – Tom Hardy, [voices: Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels, Tom Holland]
85 minutes, Rated R

Movie Review Locke

Movie Review The Amazing Spiderman 2

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Expectations can be a killer.That should be the tagline for this film as well as this review. THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2  tackles all kinds of expectations and the horrible consequences of what happens when they fail to be fulfilled. The movie also made me question whether we should hold comic book movies to the same criteria – or expectations – which we hold other films. By their very nature comics and their characters are hyper-real, excessive and bigger than life. Isn’t that what we want from them? Isn’t that what we love about them? To what degree should the story be plausible or the characters be believable, and where in the story do we want to believe versus being, well, amazed? That is a very fine line indeed and one which I suspect the four credited screenwriters struggled with mightily. While I enjoyed and liked the film far more than I expected to (low expectations folks), the inconsistencies and outrageously excessive length kept it from being what I believe it could have been with tidier writing and a more ruthless editing hand.

I will not dwell on the fact that I have no idea why we needed to reboot the Spiderman franchise a mere 10 years after the Tobey Maguire versions which still feel fairly fresh to me, but never mind that. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have great chemistry as they should as they are also a couple in real life. I would like to add here as well that Emma Stone is so damn cute and perfect that I have a wicked girl crush on her as do most of the women (and men) I know. It’s enough to just watch her eyes shine when she smiles. She is truly magnetic. Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborn evokes an alluring and provocative early David Bowie androgynous vibe which conveys both teen angst and impending malevolence. Director Marc Webb brings us up to date on the incredible things that computers can do for our viewing enjoyment and maybe that’s the whole point here. We all know the story – no revelations here unless you thrill to every new genetically altered Oscorp accident induced super villain. We had a lizard guy first and now we have Jamie Foxx as ‘Electro’ who is, well, an electric guy. Kind of eel-like as well. Comic books work for us in part because they are an easily digested serving of modern day Jungian archetypes. The warrior, maiden, trickster, father and more are all blown up in 21st century CGI and mind boggling 3D. Now that I mention it I should reveal that I saw the film in IMAX 3D and I wholeheartedly support that viewing environment. If there was ever a film to make great use of it – it is this. The 3D effects of Spiderman swinging by a web though New York City’s canyons of skyscrapers are both thrilling and nauseating – just as they should be. And to its credit the Spiderman stories present more than the simple black and white of good versus evil; there are ethical dilemmas and decisions to be made, alliances to be formed and betrayed, love blooms and is lost. I felt that there was a marked inconsistency in the screenplay where the dialogue between dyads, Peter and Gwen, Peter and Harry and Peter and his aunt, was surprisingly genuine, unexpected and at moments honestly moving. The rest of the script however falls right into typical and prescriptive cliches. Why do evil villains upon morphing into their monster modus operandi instantly have the power to come up with pithy double entendres? Why does the evil doctor have to be German? Does the nerd really have to have ‘high-water’ pants, ridiculously outdated glasses and horrible hair? Why do the antiheroes have to have such bad teeth? I mean really – can’t we be treated to just a tad more sophistication? It is when the movie relies upon this kind of rote carelessness that you see the potential and opportunity which was lost, and that’s a shame. If Webb is trying to make a film accessible to kids he has failed there – they will never understand the sexual innuendos, the underage cognac drinking or the corporate espionage and back stabbing, but thank GOD miraculous black underwear appears on Electro at a key moment of materialization or all hell would break lose. And know that most kids younger than teenagers will be scared shitless.

Once again I come back to expectations. Was I disappointed? No, I actually had quite a good time. I was never bored, I was thrilled, and I was even a little moved. I wish we the audience had been given a bit more credit for our ability to see nuance, to not want everything served up on an overt digital platter. It’s OK to make your audience think once in a while. Additionally, at 2 hours 22 minutes long a good 20 minutes could have been trimmed and it would have made a far better film. While it has become de riguer to throw in a thread suggesting the next film right before the credits roll, we really don’t need it. THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2 bites off a bit too much and that compromises it as a whole. It can be hard to know when to say ‘when’ especially in a blockbuster franchise like this, but a grown up has to unplug the video game at some point and I wish only that it had been done a bit sooner.

Director – Marc Webb
Starring – Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field
142 Minutes, Rated PG-13

Movie Review The Amazing Spiderman 2

Movie Review Obvious Child

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I was going to start by saying that OBVIOUS CHILD is what all independent films should strive to be, but I caught myself and realized that, in reality, it is what all films should strive to be. Genuine, believable, surprising, accessible and moving in some way. Not everything has to be TERMS OF ENDEARMENT but really don’t we want our films to move us regardless of genre? Don’t we want to identify with the serial killer? The mother? The soldier? The animated sloth? OBVIOUS CHILD is all that and more and I was deeply impressed. It is full without being excessive, revealing without being mawkish, and hilariously funny without trying to be a comedy. It is even more remarkable that this is the first feature length film from Gillian Robespierre who wrote and directed. And, while I have not fact checked this, she’s like 16 1/2 years old…or something disgustingly young and talented like that.

Jenny Slate plays Donna Stern, a salesperson at a typical New York City renegade independent bookstore and a stand-up comedienne at night. She’s funny. She’s rough around the edges and that’s good because she is a real person – you like her a lot but she’s got some good New York grit to her. Allow me to say here, as a born and raised New Yorker that this is a very New York film, and the cluster of companions and friends surrounding Donna are people I grew up with and people I know. We enter Donna’s life just before all hell breaks lose. While each of us has likely suffered one of the unfortunate events which rain down upon our endearing Donna, it is the clusterfuck nature of this moment in her life which gives depth to the story, while still remaining believable. While I hesitate to draw attention to physical beauty, I want to state that Jenny Slate is the perfect woman; she’s pretty but not too beautiful, she is confident, sexy and funky but also fragile and spazzy, she screws up and makes you laugh ’till you cry at her pain. Those seemingly opposing forces are what make Donna such a powerful lead. Her circle of friends are wonderfully varied and fit together like a beautiful-multi-borough-hipster-collage . I wondered if in fact the actors are friends in real life. The ease of their conversation and the perfect timing of their dialogue and jabs is how each of us is with our own friends – blunt, caring, uninhibited – and while that comes naturally in life it is hard to create on paper. Donna’s relationship with her BFF Nellie, played by Gaby Hoffman, is a crystal ball revealing the rhythms and love inherent in so many women’s intimate friendships and it is wonderful to watch.

OBVIOUS CHILD has a fairly limited range of locales – a cab ride from one setting to the next and back again. The camera work is direct and solid. The editing is efficient and the film never drags. The script is both familiar and fluid but has phrases which will inevitably becomes part of my personal vernacular. I would share some but I really don’t want to spoil the fun. This film is what talent looks like; talented direction, talented writing, talented acting, casting, editing, all of it. I questioned whether this story would even work with big “name” actors. Would we believe it? Could we feel for the characters in the same way? I don’t know, but it really doesn’t matter because it is a damn fine independent film, and a jewel of a film.

Director – Gillian Robespierre
Starring – Jenny Slate, Gaby Hoffman, David Cross, Jake Lacey, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind & Polly Draper
83 Minutes, not yet rated (I’m guessing R for naughty words)

Movie Review Obvious Child

Movie Review Under The Skin

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Silent, velvety, unknown blackness is the entree to the textural mind trip that is UNDER THE SKIN. While there is most certainly a narrative arc to the film to say that it is easily discernible  is an understatement. We are led from pure abstraction into form, and the first half of the film is characterized by an enveloping soft darkness punctuated by light and shapes. It has a feeling to it – more than a “vibe” – I mean an actual texture which draws you into a world we know is not our own. Even the score, composed by Mica Levi, astoundingly his first score, has such shape and consistency that the viewer is rendered helplessly transfixed by the experience of viewing. Director Jonathan Glazer has not made a feature film since 2004’s BIRTH and he wrote the screenplay for both films. He without question has a feel of his own and can bring to life characters who seem familiar and yet cannot quite seem to find their own way with the rest of humanity. They are always just a little…off.

The nameless female played by Scarlett Johansson in UNDER THE SKIN is clearly not of our world and shows up in Scotland with a singular purpose which quickly becomes evident. She is also not alone in her mission, and the relationship with her motorcycle riding accomplice is equivocal, like the film itself. Working to accomplish her goal with singular determination, she maneuvers through and interacts with the world from behind the wheel of a van. We too are captive in the van and while she aimlessly drives, seeking her prey with great specificity, she is in control.  To what end we are never wholly certain, but we are allowed glimpses into the hypnotic parallel space to which she retreats and what we see there is both horrifying and fascinating. There is precious little dialogue in UNDER THE SKIN and the spare script is just enough to help us glean what we need in order to understand her method and purpose. The visual representation of where our female resides is exquisite – it can be appreciated for both it’s deft visual effects as well as its metaphorical implications. Johansson mastered the female who, with all her beauty and sensuality, seems totally divorced from it. Her ability to attract her “prey” with her physicality is something she knows intellectually but seems unable to inherently sense. That incongruity is the crux of the film.

The latter part of the film is in stark contrast to the former and when our female chooses to leave the safe space of her van. She is not merely abandoning her ‘job,’ but stepping out of her world and into another whose color, light and laws are totally different. Glazer does a brilliant job of denoting this shift with just the lighting and art direction. As she experiences change in her environment so do we – again we feel it – and it communicates the nuances of the story better than any dialogue could have. The film is a sensory experience and it is powerfully matched by the sensory themes of the story itself – the power of people and spaces to lure us into peril, the trance of desire, and the struggle to find what makes us human. There are scenes in the film which are chilling and haunting yet not a drop of blood is spilled. It is a welcome and intelligent contrast to what we in America typically think of as scary. UNDER THE SKIN is not a tidy package and leaves ambiguities in its wake. It makes you think and question, analyze and obsess, debate and deconstruct, and it is a thrill to have the experience.

Director – Jonathan Glazer
Starring – Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, and a whole bunch of Scottish folks…
108 minutes, Rated R

Movie Review Under the Skin

Movie Review Joe

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I will defend to the death my belief that Nicolas Cage can actually act. By ‘act’ I mean present us with a reality we believe is a wholly formed, complicated person who does not resemble the facade we associate with Cage the celebrity/action star. In “Joe” he achieves this and gives us a man we want to like but at times struggle to. And that’s good. “Joe” is directed by David Gordon Green and it is his ninth feature length project. It is notable that he has carved his path with comedies such as ‘”The Sitter” and “Pineapple Express” which feature high energy, weed soaked, 16-30 year old male hilarity. Green now draws his energy back, demonstrates restraint and nuance in “Joe” which I would have been hard pressed to believe him capable of. The film is based upon the only novel written by Larry Brown, and is the first feature length screenplay by Gary Hawkins. Green, Brown and Hawkins are all Southerners and the subtle realities of that culture, a deeply engrained culture of its own, is beautifully represented here. You will though find glaring stereotypes; Joe is white, his crew is all black, traditional good ol’ boy police officers are hotheads, and the modern ‘integrated’ south seems still, albeit peacefully, very segregated. It is a very good screenplay – sparse but not empty or undefined with carefully chosen words and phrases. It is completely believable and authentic.

Joe (Nicolas Cage) is a straightforward well known man in a small southern town which is nameless. He runs a crew of primarily African American men who poison trees so they can be easily cut down to plant trees of higher quality. A teenage boy, Gary, appears in the woods asking for work and thus begins the weaving of threads which form our story. It is a simple story and that is no criticism – rather it presents a good framework for the characters in “Joe” to evolve and that is where the strength of the film lies. One of the notable features of “Joe” is that other than Cage, and Tye Sheridan who plays Gary, there are little to no recognizable faces in the cast. I questioned whether it was possible to forget that Cage was himself in this role and whether he could effectively blend in with the the rest of the cast. By the end of the film I felt that he had inhabited the role completely and the invisible line of stature was erased. Tye Sheridan has matured into the right mix of boy and man, his body wiry but his focus and rage intense.The men in Joe’s crew have such natural rapport and chemistry that I wonder whether they were actually trained actors. Their interactions are so fluid it seems the film is part fiction and part documentary, and leads me to question whether much of their dialogue is improvised. There are scenes with exquisite balance and flow, such as when Joe’s crew shows Gary how to operate the machinery and the job’s basics responsibilities.There are other sequences which are wholly unexpected and take you by surprise. While the overarching storyline may be anything but new, the path that it takes to get to its destination is, and it does not pander to its audience. We know bad things will happen but Green does not shy away from ugliness and evil. To the contrary, he is so direct and matter of fact that when the evil comes it is as evil as it gets; utterly without remorse and depraved.

A notable factor of “Joe” is its art direction and color palette. It serves to define space and mood in a way which words cannot. The overall tonal quality of the film is dark and brooding, yet not noir. There is deeply saturated color but there is no glare. The spaces which Joe inhabits are red, blue, purple, gray, all tinted intensely and with passion. Contrast that to the sole location of impartiality, the place where all men are equal, where the different factions come together – the general store – which is white, bright and neutral. This vision and attention to detail elevates “Joe” to above average. The film is, ultimately, a solid character study. Gary is the lone soul moving forward in life, striding against a tide of people struggling to stay afloat from the pull of their own worst selves – of their most base impulses. Classic battle of good vs. evil, maybe, but with a bit more flair. For Tye Sheridan it is a foundation on which to build a very promising career. For Nicolas Cage it is a step in the right direction – back – to a role of humanity and frailty, and a welcomed change from flaming skulls and superhuman bad guys.

Director – David Gordon Green

Starring – Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan,  Ronnie Gene Blevins

118 minutes, Rated R

Movie Review Joe

Movie Review The Unknown Known

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One of the challenges of reviewing a documentary – specifically one about an individual – is that it can be hard to distinguish one’s feelings regarding the subject from one’s impressions of the film as a whole. Perhaps though that is part of what forms a great documentary; that we are allowed to become so enmeshed with our subject that we lose the veil which separates us. Additionally, when it comes to politics and those who move and shape it, one must struggle to assess a film in spite of one’s particular party allegiance. I have not spent a whole lot of time thinking about Donald Rumsfeld, and I question how much anyone really does other than maybe Mrs. Rumsfeld or Donald himself. In fact, I feel fairly confident in saying that it is evident that Donald has spent quite a lot of time thinking about Donald Rumsfeld, and obviously, so has Errol Morris the brilliant documentary filmmaker as demonstrated in his new documentary “The Unknown Known.” Morris has formed his chronicle of Rumsfeld around a skeleton of Rumsfeld’s tens of thousands of political memos which are now archived online. The title of the film, ‘the unknown known’ refers to a concept Rumsfeld elaborated upon during a 2002 press conference at the White House which exemplifies his vernacular and briefing style perfectly.

Donald Rumsfeld has had a long career in public service beginning with his position as Administrative Assistant to Congressman David S. Dennison Jr. in the Eisenhower administration. In 1962, at the tender age of 30 he was elected to Congress and, well, its been onward and ‘upward’ since then. Rumsfeld is indeed a fascinating subject not merely due to his breadth of experience, or the political and world events in which he has had an instrumental hand in managing or – dare I say – orchestrating. He is a man with his own philosophy as no doubt all those who commandeer the crushing responsibilities inherent in the role of Secretary of Defense must own fully. It is however Rumsfeld’s unshrinking conviction that his philosophy is the “truth” despite evidence to the contrary which makes him fascinating. He is unshakable in his belief system. You can almost see a neural short-circuit when he is confronted with the possibility that his view, his recommendations, his choices may not have been best. He holds seemingly opposing beliefs which allow for the eventuality of ANY possibility – his philosophy morphs and shifts according to potentialities. And he is not aware of that, nor can he allow for the whisper of doubt from hindsight to insinuate itself into his consciousness. Rumsfeld is without question a highly intelligent man and he allows for convenient “truths” by manipulating semantics which makes for an entertaining and fast paced mind game. He is brilliantly adept at providing non-answer-answers and the art of bait & switch redirection. Good thing Morris is on par with him and does not shrink from diplomatically confronting him on discrepancies when we start to squirm so severely we want to scream.

There are moments in “The Unknown Known” which are thrilling in their own way; to hear Nixon and Bob Haldeman (White House Chief of Staff to Nixon) discussing Rumsfeld on one of the many Watergate era tapes is electrifying. A memo sent to Condoleeza Rice entitled “Chain of Command” will make your mouth drop open and ask yourself whether he would have ever even considered sending something of that nature to a male member of the administration. The moment where he states that all captured terrorists (actual or perceived) would be better off treated as prisoners of war makes you question your hearing. It is in those moments where the brilliance of Errol Morris is most apparent. He can lay bare a horror with even greater force by  allowing his subject to believe he is being celebrated, and that is a magic trick few can match. As a history of a long and storied political career, “The Unknown Known” highlights some key moments of the latter 20th century from the perspective of someone on the inside and consequently presents them through the colored glasses of his subject. But moreover this is a character study, a biography, and it is an excellent one. At one point Rumsfeld says, “It is easier to get into things than it is to get out of them.” Beyond being a valuable truth in almost any context, we suspect as the film concludes that Rumsfeld himself may be thinking of that very truth…

Director – Errol Morris

Starring – Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris, and historical footage of multiple US political figures

103 minutes, Rated PG-13

Movie Review The Unknown Known

Movie Review: Sabotage

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Drugs. Sex. Money. Guns. Welcome to America! Following a prophetic image of a man with blood on his hands, we are launched within the first five minutes of “Sabotage” into all of the above including a not terribly convincing girl-on-girl tidbit to prime us for the onslaught of the next 104 minutes. There is a seamlessly executed DEA raid led by Breacher (Schwarzenegger) and his top-secret elite team of far too pretty and testosterone laden agents including a token female so aggressive you’d not know her gender but for her sports bra. Schwarzenegger has aged. He looks significantly older and paradoxically I found that comforting. He remains in remarkably good shape and is convincing as the major domo, his age gives him a much needed gravitas for the role. However, I found myself questioning whether someone who in reality is 66, no matter how buff, would be sent on a raid. And it bugged me. I had hope for “Sabotage” following the well choreographed raid scene and its creeping suggestion of what will go awry. It all seemed just a little too easy. This film is at its best when we are in the action and no one is conversing. Unfortunately…there is dialogue.

Writing convincing dialogue is an art and it is not a simple task. In this case director/writer David Ayer and his co-writer Skip Woods would have served the narrative far better if they could have let go of their need to make the characters sound like the meanest, toughest, most bad-ass eight people on earth. Straightforward, simple dialogue, kept to a minimum would have transformed “Sabotage” from a story with true potential of a double-double-cross which keeps you guessing just who has $10M of missing drug money, to a film lacking any originality and filled with such flat stereotypes that it’s hard to believe in anyone. Beyond that, sadly, it becomes laughable. Choice lines like “fingering the Devil’s pussy” and “Ammo is cheap. My life ain’t” make you cringe and wonder how the actors could actually choke them out. To top it all off, there is an F-bomb either preceding or finishing every phrase and utterance throughout the entire film. Instead of adding the desired force it trivializes everything said. Skip Woods has written a number of relatively successful action scripts and David Ayer wrote and directed “End of Watch” which was a particularity good and evocative police drama. Clearly the talent is there. My understanding is that the studio pressured Ayer to move the film in a direction and edit it into more of an action film than the thriller/drama he had envisioned. That is a crime. I accept that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s range is – how shall I say – fairly narrow and we all know what to expect from him, but there was the possibility of a decent film which was plundered, Arnold or no Arnold.

The supporting cast of Sam Worthigton, Joe Manganiello, Terrence Howard, Josh Holloway, Max Martini, Kevin Vance, Mark Schlegel and Mireille Enos work hard, a bit too hard. But they deliver the action, and if they are going to be covered with blood for most of the film (their own as well as other’s blood mind you…) at least they look good underneath it all. The film also delights in an enthusiastic display of fake entrails, brains and assorted bits of human body liberally tossed around. To its credit there are some good choices; Olivia Williams as the lead FBI agent on the case is well cast. She is an experienced character actor and is a grown-up, not a seamless, sexpot, too beautiful young thing. Her partner is played by Harold Perrineau who is always a pleasure to watch as he is affable and at the same time projects a stature which can deliver a verbal blow like a switchblade. When all the loose ends are finally tied up you realize that the premise of “Sabotage” was solid, just not the execution. Oh, and, be forewarned, you’ll want to clean your refrigerator when you get home.

Directed by – David Ayer

Starring – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Terrence Howard, Mireille Enos

109 Minutes, Rated R

Originally written for ScreenRelish – check them out here!
Movie Review Sabotage