Sunday, June 30, 2013

HE WALKS AMONG US: a review of "Man Of Steel"

Based upon the "Superman" DC Comics series created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster
Story by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan
Screenplay Written by David S. Goyer
Directed by Zack Snyder
*** (three stars) 

Near the conclusion of Quentin Tarantino's superlative "Kill Bill Volume 2" (2004), our anti-heroine The Bride (Uma Thurman) is tied up in the clutches of the titular Bill (David Carradine) who, before planning to wipe her from existence once and for all, graces her (and the audience) with a stunning monologue upending comic book mythology for the purpose of discussing the concept of alter-egos and the roles which we all play in life. Regarding the character of Superman, Bill expresses the following:

"Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak, he’s unsure of himself, he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race."

That monologue resonated with me as I watched Director Zack Snyder and Producer Christopher Nolan's "Man Of Steel," their bold, defiantly risky re-invention/re-exploration of the Superman legend, a film which shook the theater walls valiantly with a dark, disturbingly grim vision that for all of its considerable sound and fury nearly crumbles under its own significant weight.

As we all know from the original comic book mythology, Superman was born as the baby Kal-El on the far away planet Krypton to parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer), who send him to Earth to escape the imminent destruction of their home due to Krypton's disintegrating core. In "Man Of Steel," a re-telling of the Superman origin, all of the previously stated information remains intact but what has been added is that Krypton is also engaged in a climactic war against the renegade and megalomaniacal military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon), who is soon imprisoned in The Phantom Zone alongside his compatriots.

Once Krypton explodes into oblivion, baby Kal-El races through time and space, crash lands on Earth and is discovered and raised as an Earthing by farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent (very well played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Over the course of "Man Of Steel," Kal-El embarks upon his life journey of self discovery as the film unfolds as a series of snapshot pivotal events in the first 33 years of his life, all of which culminate in the return of General Zod and his army, who plan to destroy Earth and remake Krypton in its place unless the Man Of Steel (played as an adult by Henry Cavill) can stop him.

For those who have seen "Man Of Steel" and were disappointed that the film did not adhere, strictly or partially, to the overall brightness, triumphant heroism and often playful tone of the comic book series or even the classic films with Christopher Reeve, I can understand the frustration yet I cannot align myself with that same sense of disappointment.

As far as my personal relationship with Superman is concerned, I adored the comics as a child. I watched the classic television series starring George Reeves during those early formative years as well. I was 9 years old when Director Richard Donner released his extraordinary "Superman: The Movie" (1978) starring the perfectly cast Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in the leading roles of our red caped hero and the intrepid newspaper reporter Lois Lane. And Director Richard Lester's "Superman II" (1981) is indeed one of the finest sequels ever made as it actually improved, deepened and strengthened all that came before by surprisingly playing with the classic mythology in truly inventive ways. As for "Man Of Steel," Snyder and Nolan have gone decidedly further...much further. While this film is a quantum leap upwards from Director Bryan Singer's disastrous and interminable "Superman Returns" (2006), as well as being a quantum leap upwards from the masturbatory hell of Snyder's previous film, the mean spirited, stupid and sleazy "Sucker Punch" (2011), "Man Of Steel" is not your Father's, Grandfather's or maybe even Great-Grandfather's Superman in any conceivable way, for better and for worse.

I think part of the many problems with Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns" was that it was a film that was much too reverential to the Christopher Reeve era and interpretation that Singer's film had no personality of its own to speak of. Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan have clearly taken "Man Of Steel" down a much different path and for me, it was a path I was truly riveted by for a good portion of the film as they wisely realized that if they were going to bother with a new interpretation of Superman, it could not be a film that lived within the shadows of any previous versions. They had to blaze their own trail, which they have done to jointly successful and dangerously unsuccessful degrees. And frankly, the failures of "Man Of Steel" do make me appreciate just how difficult making an effective new story for Superman actually is. Face it...Superman is an embodiment of the perfect being. His inherent goodness and super-powers, as blessed by our shining sun, makes him an infallible character and therefore, a potentially uninteresting one. With regards to the late Christopher Reeve, I just do not believe that we will ever find an individual of his kind again to bring this character to life in any traditional sense. He made Superman completely embraceable due to the intense warmth of his sheer presence the very minute he arrived upon the screen. We latched onto him instantly and his chemistry with Margot Kidder was truly a screen romance for the ages. You just cannot top that. Period.

Like Snyder's excellent film adaptation of "Watchmen" (2009), "Man Of Steel is a dark film for our increasingly dark times. Working with a gritty, non-linear narrative, the film begins with war and apocalypse, ends with the potential genocide of all humans and the near annihilation of Earth and exists within a turbulent state of paranoid fueled agitation throughout. "Man Of Steel" also works a a sly and sharp cultural commentary as Krypton is a world that meets its self-inflicted end through a combustible combination the depletion of the planet's natural resources, political insurgency and war mongering. Sound eerily familiar?

In addition to playing with the classic mythology by muting the romance between our hero and Lois Lane (this time, played crisply by Amy Adams), never mentioning Kryptonite, the Fortress Of Solitude or even the Daily Planet's Jimmy Olsen and even only referencing the name "Superman" only once in the entire film, what Snyder and Nolan do with their vision for "Man Of Steel" is to essentially run in the opposite direction of all previous incarnations and plunge darkly into the heart of the sentiments made by that aforementioned monologue from "Kill Bill Volume 2." Superman has always been the symbol of "truth, justice and the American way" and Christopher Reeve's performance and embodiment represented humanity itself at its best. But this movie is importantly called "Man Of Steel." Superman is not American. Superman is not even an Earthling. Superman is an alien and Snyder and Nolan very smartly decided to tackle the character from the perspective and status of being the ultimate outsider, the being who will never be one of us no matter how long he walks among us. He will always be not of this Earth.

To eliminate comparisons to Christopher Reeve, Henry Cavill takes his own risks by not playing either the character of Superman or even Clark Kent. From beginning to end in "Man Of Steel," Cavill is playing the role of Kal-El and I found him to be extremely compelling as he struggles with the existential questions concerning the truth of his identity and of being forced to hide the truth of himself for the comfort and security of the society he has sworn to protect but one he has also been forced to exist within. There are great sequences depicting this internal crisis most particularly, Kal-El's heart to heart talks with Jonathan Kent regarding when he should or should not reveal himself to the world and one beautifully frightening section where he discovers his X-Ray vision as a child during a day at school. This aspect of the character also sets up the film's overt allegory to the story of Jesus Christ, a story that is indeed inherent to the legend of Superman. Just look at how he arrived to Jor-El gave his only begotten son to serve as a savior for humankind. Mmmmm....hmmmmm!

From its conception to the majority of its execution, "Man Of Steel" is powerful. From its edgy hand held cinematography by Amir Mokri to the string of excellent performances from the entire cast. I must make special mention of the performances by Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, especially as they each grounded the film with the correct amount of gravitas and empathy necessary to set Kal-El and the audience upon this journey. The first two thirds of "Man Of Steel" were so supremely stirring that I was feeling that I was potentially seeing one of the best films of 2013, a possible game changer on the level of Nolan's untouchable "Dark Knight" trilogy. And then, we reach the film's extended upon extend climax, where General Zod returns and wages war with Kal-El. This section essentially is the film's final third and that is where "Man Of Steel" almost crash lands as it is a display of truly endless carnage, destruction, violence, peril, terror, and pummeling. It is the very sort of movie audience bludgeoning that has plagued summer movies for years...or at least ever since the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay set foot behind cameras. Composer Hans Zimmer's numbingly percussive score didn't help matters either as his score bombastically pounds those drums as if we will never hear war drums ever again.

Now truth be told, the sequence does have its purposes and there are some images and moments here and there that truly evoke a post 9/11/ "end of the world" horror like Steven Spielberg handled so nightmarishly well with his "War Of The Worlds" (2005). I did greatly appreciate how Snyder utilized the film's opening apocalypse not for popcorn's sake but for something that nearly rivals Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia" (2011). You could feel the emotional shock of a world ending and not be wowed by special effects pyrotechnics. The film's concluding war sequences are crucially story driven--how the burdens of Jor-El the Father are cast downwards for Kal-El the son to complete. But the overall tone of "Man Of Steel" becomes a mirror of our society's "shoot first, ask questions later" and Orwellian "Peace Through Strength" political ideology so completely that I was confused if it was critiquing that stance or downright embracing it.

It was during this section of the film where I was wishing that Christopher Nolan had directed the film instead of Zack Snyder as Nolan's sensibilities appeal to me more and I just think he holds a much better handle upon how to utilize action, tension, and excitement and to not allow his films to descend into CGI overload, which Snyder does ad nauseum and completely without restraint or mercy. And then, we wind up in Chicago's Union Station (i.e. the fictional Metropolis) for the film's resounding climactic moment in the war between Kal-El and General Zod. For all of the great risks "Man Of Steel" takes to great effect, I feel that in this section there is a crucial moment where the filmmakers took one risk too many and essentially upended the core of who Superman actually is. I have no problem with filmmakers essentially taking DC Comics characters and giving them Marvel Comics complexity but to make Superman something that he clearly is not, and has never been, was disturbing at best and a flat out unforgivable mistake at worst.

Look, I have often complained against 21st century cinema for not having the audacity to take risks, try new things and extol a personal stamp upon the stories filmmakers wish to tell, The audacity of "Man Of Steel," as grim as it is, I believe is something to be applauded. You cannot blame Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan for desiring to make a new statement and swing for the fences as powerfully as possible. But you also have to know when to rein it all back in, to show that you have control over your material and that the material is not controlling you. In "Man Of Steel," our Kryptonian hero who is faster than a speeding bullet and strong er than a locomotive nearly whipped the film clean out the the filmmakers' hands with a barrage of blistering ugliness that ran against the urgent display of a man's emerging humanity and world responsibility that came before it. The inevitable sequel has already been announced, with a swift release date of possibly next year at that! This worries me because what else is there to build up towards once you've destroyed the world ten times over already?

Zack Snyder's "Man Of Steel" is strong stuff. But it's just not strong enough.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

IN A WORLD WHERE NO ONE CARES: a review of "Promised Land"

Story by Dave Eggers
Screenplay Written by John Krasinski and Matt Damon
Directed by Gus Van Sant
** (two stars)

In our social/economic/political landscape and structure, I really believe that we have collectively reached a tipping point. And frankly, I am wondering if anyone even gives a shit.

Forgive me for beginning this review in such a profane fashion. I do not mean to offend. But I have to say that as I look out across recent political events in our country, as well as in my home base of Madison, WI, during the last four to five years, so many rights, laws and issues that were and are solely designed to advance everyone in this nation forwards are all being strategically stripped away, piece by piece, without malice, and all in the grand pursuit and cultivation of ultimate power and gross avarice. Think about how the issues of gun control, our endless wars, women's health, climate change, class warfare, the destruction of unions and the subjugation of public workers and the sheer Orwellian ideology that the richest among all of us are the most disenfranchised have played out in recent years. I am truly amazed that hundreds of thousands of people are not taking to the streets demanding justice.

Yes, we have had our political uprising in Wisconsin against the ideological and inhumane practices taken by a certain Governor, who shall remain nameless so as to not taint my blogsite. Yes, we have had the Occupy Movement. And depending where you tend to obtain your news, social/economic/political skirmishes are still taking place. Even as I write, I am reeling from the United States Supreme Court's decision to cease the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and yet, that voluminous sense of outrage that I would expect to see, hear and feel throughout the nation is not readily apparent and I just do not understand why. Have we become too uninformed, too complicit, and/or too apathetic to really care about what is happening to all of us anymore, because it is happening to all of us. And the again, for all of the screaming and protesting that is occurring, it has been proven again and again that the speech of the people is no match for the "speech" of the corporations. When I need to be talked down from the ledge, I keep reminding myself of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's words about how the extreme length of the moral arc of the universe always bends towards justice. If that's true, then that moral arc desperately needs one gigantic, collective push!

Now, dear readers, I am not about to spend the fullness of this review with a political rant just for the sake of doing so. The reason I am beginning with this is because I feel that the tipping point of which I referenced is due to the fact that our social/economic/political landscape has long shifted from being merely about politics and has taken a swan dive into the ocean of morality. The issues at hand and how they are being played out in this country have ceased to be about "Right" and "Left." For me, we are at a stage where every moment and every political decision is about Right and Wrong.

Sometimes, I think that it is extremely helpful to look to stories, the art of storytelling and even the movies to explore the most complicated aspects of our collective existence because by being personally removed and experiencing the issues through characters can, at best, illuminate concepts that would appear to be terribly daunting to comprehend otherwise. Sometimes, a movie can miraculously capture a precise moment in time, the very moment that places a pinpoint upon the period where life in America and the world changed. In recent years, Director Jason Reitman's "Up In The Air" (2009) was that very film, as far as fictional narrative features are concerned, as that film perfectly encapsulated the emotional wreckage caused by the 2008 economic collapse, mass layoffs, financial anxiety  and subsequent recession. In some ways, Director David Fincher's "The Social Network" (2010) also perfectly encapsulated the period where our virtual lives have threatened to overtake our real world relationships and interpersonal human connections.

Director Gus Van Sant's "Promised Land," written by actors John Krasinski (from television's "The Office") and Matt Damon, feels to be the very type of film that could also fit into this specialized category as the topic at hand is the controversial natural gas resource extraction technique known as "fracking" is utilized as a catalyst to examine and critique our country's current state of capitalism, where the corporate world's endless pursuit of money and financial dominance has continued at the expense of concern for our collective humanity and has outstripped all sense of morality. While the film does indeed begin very sharply and strongly, it unfortunately does not achieve the goals and a power that I would gather Van Sant, Krasinski and Damon had hoped for due to a muddled screenplay, a too tame tonality and a hazy directorial focus.  A shame as this film could have been a knock out and possibly the very antidote needed to kick our higher sensibilities out of its slumber.

"Promised Land" stars Matt Damon as Steve Butler, a representative of the fictional Global Crosspower Solutions (GCS), who alongside his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), travel from one economically strained small town community to another to (cheaply) persuade land owners to sign mineral rights leases over that grant drilling rights over to GCS. As the film opens Steve and Sue have arrived in a small Pennsylvania town and farming community, where much pride exists over how farms have remained intact and have been passed down from one generation to the next. Hoping to continue their strong corporate track record and close their deals within a few scant days, Steve and Sue plot how to ingratiate themselves into the community and gain the public's trust to better accomplish their goals.

Steve talks a good game to the townspeople as he explains how he was born and raised into a community much like theirs and over time watched how it became decimated due to the closure of an assembly plant. Feeling that towns simply cannot be sustained solely through the farming industry, Steve ensures that he and GCS can offer a solution, presumably the only solution, that will prove to be supremely lucrative for everyone: the aforementioned fracking process. When he and Sue are not offering sales pitches by day, the twosome cultivate the image of not being empty corporate suits by slyly making their presence with the locals. Sue begins a flirtation with Rob (Titus Welliver), the owner of a convenience store that sells guns and guitars while Steve spends his nights in the town bar, playing drinking games and building his own flirtation with Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a schoolteacher.

The town grows convinced enough with Steve's sales pitch that it decided to put the matter up for a community vote which first finds strong resistance from Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), a high school Science teacher, and even greater obstacles from the sudden arrival of Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), an advocate from a grassroots environmental organization who warns the town to not buy into anything Steve and Sue are attempting to sell as GCS destroyed his family's farm due to their fracking techniques.

As Steve and Dustin battle each other over the town's supports and potential votes either for or against the presence of GCS, Steve gradually falls into an internal crisis of conscience, as the small town boy he was clashes with the "bottom line" driven corporate adult he has become.

For all of its wants and intents, Gus Van Sant's "Promised Land" is a noble failure. It is an extremely well meaning film with its heart (and as far as I am concerned) its politics in the right place. But, noble intents and having a political conscious are just not enough and unfortunately, what could have been an experience of artistic and political power ended up being a jumble. Much of the problems with "Promised Land" lay at the feet of Krasinski and Damon's screenplay, which grows more sketchy and scattershot the longer the film runs. "Promised Land" does begin quite strongly as the motivations of the main characters and the film's overall conflict are established quickly and cleanly and there are several sequences of political debate and corporate intrigue that do supply very well delivered sparks. Scenes where Steve has to act at his most persuasive as he extols the virtues and over all necessity of GCS's involvement in the town are all extremely well written and Damon performs them with his standard sense of commitment and skill. I especially enjoyed the school gymnasium verbal duel between Damon and Holbrook, as that sequence truly set up the film I was hoping "Promised Land" would build into. But the film begins to get itself bogged down in superfluous material, making "Promised Land" lose its momentum, focus and ultimately, its overall purpose.

While Van Sant, Krasinski and Damon all wisely decided to create a film that is built on characters and story allowing the politics to develop organically instead of as didactic polemics, the execution of that tactic is surprisingly weak especially considering how strong Damon and Van Sant collaborated on their Oscar winning "Good Will Hunting" (1997). A major problem is that scenes meander more than they should. Character driven situations like Sue long-distance parenting her child via laptop, and one bar scene after another including karaoke singing are obviously included for the means of development and adding a bit of flavor to flesh out the story but all of those scenes eventually add up to nothing. A major plot twist late in the film feels more shoe-horned in rather than being anything remotely revelatory. Krasinski, Damon, and to a greater extent Van Sant also make the grand error of having a skilled actress such as Rosemarie DeWitt on hand but inexcusably waste her talents as she has nothing to do but simply exist in the thankless and seriously underwritten (or heavily edited) role of "the girl." And more unintentionally comic, Krasinski and Damon's script make the grand error of having seemingly every character at every point in the film utter Damon's character's name of "Steve" ad nauseum, as if repeating the name "Steve" will ensure that the imaginary audience will absolutely never forget his name. It was a distraction that nearly reduced this serious film into a drinking game.

Speaking of Steve, it was also extremely surprising that in a film which is explicitly mirroring the dwindling morality of a nation with the dwindling morality of the central character, the internal crisis was handled so simplistically. By the overall nature of "Promised Land," Steve should be the most multi-layered character within the entire proceedings but as the film lurches onwards, the script has him do no more than wring his hands and say over and again that he "is not a bad guy." Is that all there is? Having the leading character in a potentially politically charged motion picture exude a clash of moral values that is no deeper than anything you saw in say..."Doc Hollywood" (1991)? Will Steve choose big city money or small town values? Yes, dear readers, that is what "Promised Land" boils down to and the effect is disappointingly shoulder shrugging and yawn inducing.

Look, I know that a movie cannot change the world or have all of the answers to our devastating problems and I certainly did not expect "Promised Land" to do anything of the sort. But, it could have been so much better. It could have been a film to get us thinking, one to get us to ponder situations and current events in a way that just listening to the news or reading the paper just cannot reach at times. But it didn't, and by the end, I just didn't care.

This is precisely the very feeling you do not want to leave your viewers with when desiring to make a film that will strike up a crucially needed call to action, to rise, to wake up and band together ensuring that the aforementioned moral arc doesn't swing in the opposite direction to a point where it is nearly impossible to right the wrongs again.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

"WHAT DID LINDSAY SAY?": a review of "The Bling Ring"

Based upon the Vanity Fair article "The Suspects Wore Louboutins" by Nancy Jo Sales
Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

"Too many bottles of this wine we can't pronounce
Too many bowls of that green, no lucky charms
The maids come around too much
Parents ain't around enough
Too many joy rides in daddy's jaguar
Too many white lies and white lines
Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends
Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends"

-Frank Ocean ("Super Rich Kids")

Ms. Coppola, you have done it again!

"The Bling Ring," the fifth film from Writer/Director Sofia Coppola is a film that aligns itself snuggly with all of her previous films yet this time, she is finding ways to branch outwards. The culture and pitfalls of celebrity is Coppola's primary subject of choice and over the course of her four earlier films, she continuously and surprisingly found fresh, inventive, and elegant ways to explore themes of memory and perception (1999's "The Virgin Suicides"), loneliness, isolation and soulful connections (2003's "Lost In Translation"), how the culture eats and discards the young (2006's "Marie Antoinette"), and crippling states of ennui (2010's "Somewhere"). Within all of those earlier films, Coppola was essentially giving us transmissions from inside the fishbowl. With "The Bling Ring," Coppola is just this far outside of said fishbowl, thus giving us a sharp satire and striking cultural commentary about our relationship, attraction and repulsion to the omnipresence of fame driven media in the 21st century. As always, Coppola presentation may be an acquired taste for many viewers due to her somewhat detached aesthetics. But, I think that if you do give this film a chance, you may be surprised at how much you come away with.

Based upon real events, "The Bling Ring" introduces us to Marc (a sympathetic Israel Broussard), a lonely teen expelled from one school and now entering a new one without any friends or connections to assist with his re-adjustment. Soon, he crosses paths with Rebecca (an excellent Katie Chang), they begin to build a friendship and shortly, he is introduced to her circle of club hopping, high partying high school friends which include the tart tongued, gangsta rap listening trip of Chloe (Claire Julien), Sam (Taissa Farmiga) and Nicki (a wonderfully vapid Emma Watson).

One evening, and seemingly just for the hell of it, Marc and Rebecca locate the address of Paris Hilton on the internet. More internet searches and Facebook feeds indicate that Hilton will be away from her Hollywood Hills home for the evening and the twosome then decide to break into her home for a look-see. The invasion into the world of the uber-rich and famous quickly becomes theft as Rebecca begins to pillage Hilton's home. This one visit soon becomes eight, all of their friends quickly become involved and one theft of a purse and jewelry soon becomes full on raids of the homes of Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox, Audrina Partridge, Rachel Bilson and Lindsay Lohan, thus making the teen thieves media celebrities themselves.

Where Coppola's previous film "Somewhere," was an exercise in extreme minimalism, "The Bling Ring" is almost adrenalized--at least by Coppola's standards. The film is quickly paced, trimmed of all superfluous material and yet, it is packed full with Coppola's signature artistic touches of employing a "less is more" aesthetic and also including her impeccable taste in music choices. As I have previously stated, "The Bling Ring" works beautifully of a piece with all of her past work but it can also be seen as an updated companion piece to both Woody Allen's underrated and brutally wicked satire "Celebrity" (1998) and David Fincher's outstanding cultural critique "The Social Network" (2010).

Coppola gives a world that is sadly recognizable to anyone who chooses to watch this film. A world where individuals with no discernible talent are made famous for no other reason than because they are famous and impressionable people, on the outside looking in, are desperately trying to attain their 15 minutes regardless of any sense of consequences. We can see it all in front of us just by clicking on the TV with the plethora of horrific, exploitative television shows like "Teen Mom," "Dance Moms" and those so-called "Real Housewives" of wherever that have littered our programming to the point where the line between reality and fiction has become so blurred that scripted programs feel more real than the shows that are supposedly representations of reality. The brilliance of what Sofia Coppola does with this material is to not stand upon a soapbox or design her material with any sense of pre-judgement either for or against her characters. Much like Writer/Director Richard Linklater beautifully achieved with "Before Midnight," Coppola just presents us with the material in a matter-of-fact way and allows her audience to flexibility to make any connections they wish.

Foe me, I was just struck with how this collection of teenagers felt to me to be extensions of the nihilistic literary worlds of Bret Easton Ellils' emotionally detached kids, where all of them are fatally jaded, everything is meaningless yet they all keep searching for the very next high, which never really arrives. Adding to this emptiness is indeed the internet culture, predominantly seen in the film via Facebook postings, where these kids have taken the point to document their entire lives in a virtual universe but they have so real connections to each other in the real world, other than for empty usage. Taking on the cartoon world of gangsta hip-hop and how it has been embraced by white culture, Coppola critiques aspects of that assimilation in how her female characters walk around addressing each other as "bitch" and "slut" in a coldly cavalier fashion. Words and their meanings are meaningless, and the costumes they parade around in serve no real function than to just be a costume to be discarded for another costume.

Yes, there is indeed a perverse thrill to be had stepping into worlds that are created to keep us common-folk, no matter how much money we may have, completely out of bounds. It is a feeling that Coppola captures very slyly and the excitement in creeping into the closets of the uber-rich was palpable--but not for the characters. Coppola uses all of the theft sequences to have us think and examine our current status as a instant gratification culture and sense of intense entitlement for things and statuses that have not been earned. For all of the houses the kids break into and for everything they steal, each moment contained no sense of connection or gratification (just watch how they simply toss around the high class swag as if it was trash), other than potentially being a stepping stone to greater potential recognition. It is a sad, soulless state of affairs for our collective humanity, Coppola seems to be saying, but she has wisely not made a soulless film.

With "The Bling Ring," Sofia Coppola has also made a wise film about friendship and peer pressure, which actually makes this film a close cousin to Writer/Director/Author Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower" (2012). Both films essentially have the same set-up of an isolated, troubled kid desperately trying to find lasting, important relationships with his peer group. But depending on the group of individuals that isolated, troubled kid happens to fall in with, the consequences can go in a variety of directions. Which friends will truly accept and love you and which ones will coldly use you to achieve their own ends? With "The Bling Ring," the central character of Marc unfortunately finds the latter grouping, and that unfortunate union gives the film its soul.

Again, the crux of the film lies within the relationship between Marc and Rebecca. Rebecca is obviously using Marc as her accomplice and foil, stringing him along with smiles and perceived kindness but in reality, she is a viper as she cruelly chides him whenever he is itching to exit one of the Hollywood Hills homes without being caught before she is ready to leave herself. And yet, I don't believe that Marc is so naive to not know that she is indeed using him. I think he is a kid who needs a connection so badly that any connection would do. So, he plays the odds just so he is not left completely alone in the world. I think that he is possibly the one character in the film whose actions are not necessarily fame driven but acceptance driven for a real world relationship.

But then, as an added texture, there is also the question of whether he is in love with Rebecca or not mainly because I think that Marc just may be a closeted homosexual, given his penchant for a pair of pink high heeled shoes he has coveted for his very own and wears in private. it was a feeling I had as he seemed to be tentatively squeaking out signals to his new friends here and there, testing the friendship waters so to speak. But, since everyone around him is so gigantically self-absorbed, no one would ever take the bait. Israel Broussard, who bears a striking resemblance to Jeremy and Jason London, gives a completely winning, gentle performance in a film full of duplicitous, empty characters and you just want to whisk him away from all of the madness before the walls inevitably close in on him.

Emma Watson is clearly having the time of her life playing the complete opposite of the virtuous Hermione Granger from the "Harry Potter" series in a wickedly funny performance that should serve as a sign to filmmakers that they may want to snap her up for their future projects as quickly as possible as she is really showing signs of how skilled of an actress she has become.

Yet again, the star of this show is Sofia Coppola, who once again has proven that she is indeed the real deal with a cinematic vision all her own and the immense skills to bring those visions to vibrant life. She, as far as I am concerned, deserves greater recognition as a filmmaking force to be reckoned with as her time in the sun certainly did not have to diminish after the waves of appreciation for her "Lost In Translation" subsided. Sofia Coppola injects cinema with a passion and art that is a necessity these days. Movies truly need an artist like her and while I do understand that her style may to be everyone's cup of tea, I strongly urge you to take a step outside of your own movie going comfort zones and head out to "The Bling Ring."

What a sad state movies would exist in if her voice was not a part of the conversation.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

THIS IS 40: a review of "Before Midnight"

Based upon characters created by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan
Screenplay Written By Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke
Directed by Richard Linklater
**** (four stars)

After sitting through one underwhelming film after another in 2013 (with a couple of notable exceptions), you truly have no idea of how enthralled I am to have just experienced what is easily a triumph in the idiosyncratic film career of Writer/Director Richard Linklater. "Before Midnight," Linklater's third film in the continuing love and life story of Jesse and Celine, both exquisitely performed (and co-written) by the film's stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. I have often expressed that I am not typically blown away by movie love stories as they often tend to feel either contrived, tepid or just plain false to me. But in the cinematic year of 2012, I saw one film love story after another which rang with the bell of truth to varying successful degrees such as "Celeste And Jesse Forever," "Your Sister's Sister," "The Five-Year Engagement," "Ruby Sparks," and the extraordinary "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World." All of those films now feel like warm ups to Linklater's soulfully excellent film, which elegantly and painfully charts how love grows, changes, stagnates, surprises, disintegrates and resurrects in one's 40's. For a series that has already hit its high notes, "Before Midnight" is the best entry by a long shot.  

As with Linklater's "Before Sunrise" (1995) and "Before Sunset" (2004),  "Before Midnight" is not an experience based upon a plot driven narrative but more as a slice of life, the capturing of one moment in time. When we last left Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) nine years ago, it was in quite the emotional cliffhanger as their afternoon reunion in Paris led to a moment of whether Jesse would or would not miss his plane back to his family and troubled marriage or remain in Paris with Celine, clearly the love of his life. As "Before Midnight" opens, we find Jesse (now divorced) and Celine at the conclusion of a six week vacation in Greece. Now a fully committed romantic partnership which has graced them with twin daughters, Jesse is still dealing with the consequences of his choices from the previous film as he bids farewell to his now teenaged son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) at the airport in order to return him to his Mother back in the United States.

While Jesse struggles with his responsibilities as a Father, his career as an author has sustained and satisfied him through three internationally published novels, Celine finds herself at a career crossroads as she struggles with the possibility of taking a job with the government. "Before Midnight" begins with the twosome spending  a glorious afternoon in the company of friends of varying generations and their romantic partners and soon, Jesse and Celine find themselves alone for, what is seemingly the first time in a long time, and without the distractions of careers, children and just the presence of other people surrounding them, they are forced to connect and re-connect in ways that just might either bind them closer or unravel them altogether.

Where "Before Sunrise" was wide-eyed, romantic and poetic and "Before Sunset" was melancholy, bittersweet and unquestionably sultry, "Before Midnight" shows an unprecedented power as this film is truly electrifying. As with the previous two entries, I simply hung onto every word that was said as each film serves not solely as a document in the lives of Jesse and Celine, but all three films have also worked as generational "check-ins." Where Jesse and Celine showed obvious emotional battle scars in "Before Sunset," as they each looked gaunt and shaken, "Before Midnight" finds the twosome in the early 40's looking healthier (Delpy is surprisingly voluptuous compared to the earlier installments--and she has a topless sequence that is striking reminiscent of Julianne Moore's bottomless scene in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" from 1993) and behaving in a much friskier manner (Hawke is surprisingly looser and funnier than in the past installments). As we see how the lives of Jesse and Celine have progressed, we are also forced to do just as much serious self-examination as these fictional characters and from the audible voicings of recognition that I heard within the audience I saw it with, as well as the sounds I made myself, Linklater, Hawke and Delpy have executed their work with masterfully perceptive precision with how long term relationships and romance itself works and survives--and often to very uncomfortable degrees.

"Before Midnight" could easily be broken up into three sections. The first would be Jesse dropping his son from the airport and the long family car ride to their friend's gorgeous abode Greek Peloponnese peninsula. The second section is the gathering with friends. And the final section finds Jesse and Celine alone through and afternoon and a long night in a hotel room where sexual passions and long held resentments collide in a sensational romantic showdown. What was so remarkable to me about the way the film is structured is how in the first section, which features a lengthy conversation (which plays out in real time and almost no edits whatsoever) between Jesse and Celine, we are fully aware with how much the twosome are holding back from each other, especially as their children are asleep in the back seat. Yes, there are some near flare ups but they are quickly extinguished and deflected in the ways that I feel all couples would recognize in one way or another.

When we reach the second section, where their friends are urging them to have time to themselves, and they will even watch the children for them, we see how Jesse and Celine quietly attempt to find ways to actually not find themselves alone and without the interruptions of life, where there is nothing left but time, space and each other. Linklater has brilliantly keyed into the truth of how when you are in their 20's, that exact openness was glory itself but now in your 40's, dark clouds loom on the sidelines threatening to overtake you. What was once freedom has now become nearly oppressive and that distinctive tension which just crackled on the screen between Jesse and Celine in the film's earlier sections just explodes in the dynamic third section.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy must be given equal credit to Linklater for the execution of "Before Midnight" as they have embodied these characters so completely, that it would only make sense that they would serve in their conception as co-writers. In regards to their actual performances, Hawke and Depy have such a natural chemistry with each other that we absolutely never for a moment sense that they are acting as they are so in the moment that the entire film nearly feels like a documentary. But that is the genius of Richard Linklater as a filmmaker, he never allows himself to get in the way of his own material. I am actually still smarting from the experience of sitting through Writer/Director Noah Baumbach and Actress/Co-Writer Greta Gerwig's insufferable and irritatingly plastic "Frances Ha," as they never allowed themselves to just tell the damn story at hand because they were so busy being self-congratulatory as they smugly pranced back and forth with top hats and canes extolling how clever they are. Richard Linklater never falls into this trap with "Before Midnight" as he understands that the comedy, drama, pathos and pain of the story of Jesse and Celine is fully inherent and he doesn't have to jazz it up with tricks and traps to make the film pop. The art of conversation itself and what those conversations reveal is excitement enough. Unlike "Frances Ha," this is a film that makes independent cinema worth championing as "Before Midnight" explores love, relationships and romance in ways that Hollywood is just too terribly afraid or just uninterested in pursuing.

Jesse, the self-involved artist/dreamer and Celine, the passionate firecracker of sexual politics are just an outstanding pair to behold. We root for them just as we are fully aware of their respective flaws. Jesse can fall into pretentiousness that borders on callousness whereas Celine's consistent doomsayings are just deep fears emerging as self-fulfilled prophecies. Their conflict in the hotel room unearths everything they have been holding back about themselves as well as each other and I deeply appreciated how Linklater helmed this section without any hyperbole and just let the sequence play out as naturally as possible allowing all participants in the film and the audience mine for that very sense of truth (sometimes uncomfortably so) that has made this series so endearing and celebrated. It is extremely rare when I can look to a film and see shades of the relationship I have with my wife for instance. In "Before Midnight," I just do not know how Linklater and his team accomplished this feat but I swear the conversations, outbursts, accusations, recriminations and resolutions felt so eerily familiar that is was frightfully easy to place myself and her within those particular surroundings, words and emotions. I dare you to not feel the exact same way when you watch this film.

How do you remain in love after 20 years? 30 years? 70 years? Is it possible for love and passion to survive that long? Will the very things that made us fall in love with our partner in the first place remain over time or will they evaporate, forcing pairs to either fall apart or just exist without passion through the repetitive nature of life as we age? Richard Linklater probes all of these concepts and so much more within this excellent film. In many ways, it serves as a perfect companion piece to several of his previous films from "Slacker" (1991), the seminal "Dazed And Confused" (1993), and the animated "Waking Life" (2001), due to the film philosophical leanings and conversational tangents. But his "Before..." series remains so, so special to me as they have grown into films that explore us as well as the central characters. I appreciate how he, Hawke and Delpy have seemingly grown more passionate about these characters over the years instead of just cranking a new film out without thought, reason, purpose and passion behind it.

Who knows if they will return to Jesse and Celine in the future but if they do, I will happily follow them anywhere, no matter for how long, especially if they arrive with the inevitable "Before Nap"! I serve that statement as an obvious joke of course, but I am telling you, without question, that it is no joke that "Before Midnight" is enormously entertaining, unabashedly romantic and sexy, visually splendid and so emotionally truthful.

"Before Midnight" is easily one of the very best films of 2013.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

THE PRETENDER: a review of "Frances Ha"

Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Directed by Noah Baumbach 
*1/2 (one and a half stars)

"I'm so embarrassed! I'm just not a real person yet."

And so it goes for the titular Frances, a young woman and aspiring dancer of 27, living in New York city, struggling to find her way in the world and feeling so far behind her social circle. While this sort of a story goes directly to the heart of my personal sensibilities, I have to say without hesitation how much I vehemently hated this movie.

Yes, dear readers, Writer/Director Noah Baumbach has hit his third strike with me in "Frances Ha," a would be "coming of age"/"arrested development" film starring the insufferably unctuous and irritating Greta Gerwig who, I am afraid, is not nearly as charming and beguiling as some critics, Baumbach and perhaps even Gerwig herself thinks she is. For those of you who do not frequent independent films or art films or for those who actually hate them, "Frances Ha" is precisely the type of independent art film that would make you hate the genre. It is painfully precious to a fault. It is completely self-congratulatory, smug and filled to the brim with endless amounts of hipster irony that the entire proceedings feel to be placed within a set of quotation marks and not one moment at any point ever feels to be emotionally authentic. I hated this movie. Good God, did I HATE this movie, especially when it could have been so wonderful but it seems as if Baumbach allowed the purity of the story to get away from him as he has seemingly fallen completely in love with every good thing any critic has said abut him and he just wallowed in it to beat the band. In an already disappointing movie year, "Frances Ha" stands out as being one of the worst I've seen so far in 2013.

Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the film, stars as Frances, the aforementioned 27 year old aspiring dancer living in new York City. As the film opens, we are presented with a montage sequence that would not be out of place in any movie love story, except this time we are given the romance contained within the friendship between Frances and her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner--TRIVIA ALERT she's Sting's daughter), with whom she shares an apartment. When Sophie decides to move in with her boyfriend Patch (Patrick Heusinger), Frances falls into an emotional tailspin, making her question her place in the world which now feels so precarious without the one friend who has truly given her life meaning.

As I previously stated, this type of a storyline goes straight to me heart as I just carry this inexplicable penchant for tales of the young and young at heart on a journey of self-discovery. The restlessness of the 20's is an era of one's life cycle that I feel has not been explored either very much or very well in film and that era is just aching to have compelling stories told for that age group. When I was in my 20's, I was fortunate to have a few (many of them tended to feature Eric Stoltz in them for some reason) to latch onto but when the horrendous "Reality Bites" (1994) was the one to gain the most notoriety, you must realize how misrepresented that age group happens to be in the movies, and how much better they deserve to be served.

With "Frances Ha," Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig do have at their disposal what could have been a wonderful story of female friendship combined with the youthful inertia caused by uncertainty, identity crisis and the lack of knowledge at how to navigate the real world. They also have thoughtfully included the sense of creating a self-imposed sense of competition that lurks at the heart of Frances as she deals with her peers who are moving onwards socially, romantically or those who just can simply afford to be romantic layabouts due to having the finances to fall back upon and squander. I also thought a great touch to include in the film was this idea of emotional conclusion and how while we might not be able to always see the end in sight, we always know, and painfully so, when the relationship in question is just over. Everything is here for a film that I would tend to embrace but Noah Baumbach has just flooded it with the worst of his artistic tendencies thus robbing it of any emotional resonance, truth or soul.

In my review of Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" I defended his over the top artistic pursuits because that is indeed his specialized cinematic aesthetic and he should always be allowed to make his film his way and not conform his style for mere mass appeal or accessibility. For that,  he does indeed run the risk of alienating a sector of a potential audience and for that, so be it. I feel exactly the same about Noah Baumbach, a filmmaker I have championed for many years as his first three films, "Kicking and Screaming" (1995), "Mr. Jealousy" (1997) and the extraordinary "The Squid and the Whale" (2005) were all precise, literate, perceptive and very smart comedy/dramas that exhibited a personal style that always felt emotionally true to sometimes uncomfortably painful degrees. Beginning with the odious "Margot At The Wedding" (2007) and continuing with the inert "Greenberg" (2010), Baumbach's films have become much more mannered, less inspired or even remotely insightful. "Frances Ha" equals "Margot At The Wedding" for being the worst of his output to date as he demonstrates that he has absolutely nothing, and I mean, nothing new to say on the subject of an individual's sense of inertia, his standard theme, and no amount of nods to the films of the French New Wave (most notably the films of Francois Truffaut), the glorious music selections from composer Georges Delerue or Woody Allen's "Manhattan" (1979) can cover the fact that "Frances Ha" is sadly bankrupt.

For a film that has been decorated with black and white cinematography, why in the world did Baumbach decided to shoot his film digitally? It was a terrible move as it made his movie often look like a television show clouded by such bad reception that I was looking for a set of rabbit ears to help re-adjust the picture quality. By delving deeper into the film itself, I was stunned by the stilted, static line readings by all of the cast members, a tactic that diffused any sense of emotional connection to the characters and the story. It was as if absolutely no one in the film believed anything that they were saying or they just (barely) learned their lines right before the cameras rolled. But I have to say that now after having seen her taking the full lead of a performance, the appeal of Greta Gerwig is entirely lost on me. I just do not understand the amounts of praise that have been heaped upon her and with this film, I am really at a complete loss. Her performance is fully indicative of the film as a whole and why I hated it as much as I did because "Frances Ha" claims to be a film about a young woman of 27 attempting to find herself but in reality, this is a movie that is pretending to be a film about a young woman attempting to find herself. Gerwig, and the film as a whole, all seem to be playing dress up and never for one instant did I believe in anything that was happening. "Frances Ha"  felt to be so prefabricated, so plastic, so erroneous, concocted and flat out false that I actually wondered if Baumbach and Gerwig had completely forgotten what this time of life actually feels like in order to represent it authentically.

Greta Gerwig's performance did absolutely nothing to endear me to "Frances Ha." In fact, she kept me at arms length for almost the entire stretch of the film. While she does have some good moments here and there (her racing to an ATM machine was a good one), all of her flouncing around, from one end of this film to the other, made her appear to be like a life sized version of an awkward, gangly Muppet clamoring for attention but unlike this character, Muppets have identifiable souls and are surprisingly more realistic than this character as portrayed by Gerwig.

Like I said, Gerwig seems to be engaged in the process of pretending instead of being and because of that, the entire conceit of the film falls into a deep hole of extreme superficiality from which it cannot climb out from. At times, "Frances Ha" reminded me of the HBO series "Girls," a show that I have not been able to embrace, not for lack of trying, as I immediately grew tired of viewing these privileged white young woman flowing through their lives in such an artificial fashion that the obvious cultural commentary that Writer/Director/Actress Lena Dunham wants to explore never really rose to the top. That exact same problem derails "Frances Ha" as Frances bounces from apartment to apartment and takes an ill fated weekend jaunt to Paris all the while paying lip service to how "poor" she is that like Dunham, any cultural commentary Baumbach and Gerwig may be desiring to explore about growing up over educated and underemployed in the 21st century also gets lost in all of the fake window dressing.

Due to Gerwig's irritating performance, I found the character of Frances to be unbearably cloying, painfully self-absorbed and disastrously narcissistic. Of course, Frances' descent is due to her increasingly fractured friendship with Sophie but even then, "Frances Ha" felt to be so false as Gerwig and Sumner have no chemistry together and as characters, I could not understand why these two women were even friends in the first place as they seem to be at odds from the very beginning. Having Frances and Sophie say "I love you" ad nauseum and platonically sharing a bed together is not enough to convey a full history of friendship.

Just take a quick look back at Director Paul Feig's "Bridesmaids" (2011), so beautifully written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo a film that explored many of the exact same themes as "Frances Ha" and witness how the history of a friendship was fully evident between the roles played by Wiig and Maya Rudolph, especially when they didn't even share that much screen time together. Or look to two particularly strong films from just last year Director Lee Toland Krieger's "Celeste And Jesse Forever" or Director Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister," where both of those films explored the growing pains that exist in all friendships as the individuals within those friendships evolve. "Frances Ha" never reached those heights for me due to its inexcusable lack of genuineness. Look, I do not need Frances to be accessible or even likable. I need to have a sense of her humanity to understand her and Greta Gerwig's performance as well as her conception of her alongside Baumbach just failed for me.  

Dear readers, I will always applaud Noah Baumbach's commitment to his artistic visions and believe me, even as much as I detested his latest film, I would be even sadder if he tossed his individualistic qualities all away for the pursuit of mass appeal. Even so, and after three films that have underwhelmed me to varying degrees, I just do not know how much longer I can hold onto him, even as much as I have loved and treasured his artistic voice in the past.

But like the character of Frances herself, maybe it is time for me to not spin my wheels and wonder when it all went south and just realize that this cinematic romance may just be mercifully over.

Saturday, June 1, 2013


I have to say that after the disappointingly weak beginning to the movie year, the cinematic month of May was a most positive one that I hope will point to even greater films to follow.

Despite the fact that I awarded two films with my personal four star rating last month (Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" and J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek Into Darkness"), I feel that I have yet to see something that would really send me over the top. Could the month of June provide me with that gift?

1. Tomorrow, my plan is to take in a screening of Writer/Director Noah Baumbach's latest effort, "Frances Ha," starring the celebrated Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the film with Baumbach. I have to admit, Gerwig's charms are still lost on me as I was not that impressed with her work in Baumbach's previous film "Greenberg" (2010) or furthermore, I wasn't that taken with the film as a whole for that matter. That said, I am always on the lookout for greatness and I sincerely hope that this film will affect me in ways "Greenberg" did not.

2. Writer/Director Sofia Coppola returns with her fifth film this month, "The Bling Ring," starring Emma Watson. Coppola has been four for four with me and anytime she steps behind the camera, I will always anxiously await the results.

3. My fingers are still crossed that Writer/Director Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight," the third film in the love story of Jesse and Celine (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, respectfully) will arrive at my Sundance theater this month.

4. The wizards of Pixar really, really need to re-earn my good graces after a string of successively subpar material, culminating with last year's awful "Brave." While the idea of a prequel in this month's "Monsters University" does not excite me and in fact, makes me shrug a bit. I do want to give them the the good 'ol college try, especially as the original film is a personal Pixar favorite of mine.

5. I am extremely curious as to the results of Brad Pitt's mega-budgeted gamble, the zombie apocalypse of "World War Z." The trailers have been impressive to me and I hope this is a worthy film to experience.

6. And of course, there is the unmissable film of the month..."Man Of Steel," from Director Zack Snyder and Producer Christopher Nolan. As far as I am concerned, it has been over 30 years since there has been a "Superman" film worth watching. I hope that this new film is the one to revitalize a character who has long deserved a new film to match his ever extending legend.

That is more than enough for me to sink my teeth into for the month (as well as my other and equally passionate duties with the sister site, Synesthesia). I will pace myself and try to keep up with the speed of life, hopefully writing and writing for my spirit and for your pleasure.

I'll see you when the house lights go down...