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Blackbird

Posted : 4 weeks, 1 day ago on 16 September 2018 02:49 (A review of Blackbird)

Is this supposed to be some kind of parody of the hysterical Christian morality plays of Tyler Perry, or some kind of running commentary/satirical take on them? Is there any way to come to Blackbird that doesn’t end in you walking away completely confounded by its flagrant and vulgar mishmash of tones and improbable storytelling?

 

I have no answers for these questions, and that’s why I’m asking.

 

Director Patrik-Ian Polk stated that he made the film because we needed more stories of gay men who weren’t white. He’s right, but what we don’t need are movies as Lifetime-esque as Blackbird. I found myself wondering if this was supposed to be taken as camp, but there’s alternately a lack of conviction and a bone-deep seriousness that kneed that theory at several points.

 

I mean, what else is one to make of a film where a character’s abducted sister is a mere background detail to his coming out journey? Not only does Mo’Nique’s unstable mother (she’s only as crazy as any given scene requires her to be) blame his homosexuality for her daughter’s disappearance, but when the abducted girl is returned after six years, Mo’Nique shrugs off his homosexuality and forgives it all. Just a few scenes prior she was ready to lay hands on the boy to cure him of his queerness.

 

Yet this still sidesteps the fact that this movie treats the abduction and return of his sister as a mere blip on its radar. It’s so staggeringly inept and offensive that it’s borderline impressive. Who thought this was a good idea? You know they’re going to eventually circle back to this point since it’s a drum beat, incredibly hard, throughout the film, but to toss it off in the last few minutes is astounding. That girl’s been through hell and back, and now she’s a mere prop for her brother’s self-discovery and journey of acceptance? That takes some serious stones.

 

Blackbird is all over the map, and it’s not helped by Julian Walker’s awkward central performance. A non-actor but one hell of a singer, Walker simply cannot handle the dramatic weight he’s been entrusted with. He’s alternately too mannered, too broad, or just plain too artificial to register as a confused teenager trying to understand and grapple with his blooming sexuality and religious upbringing. It doesn’t help that he’s surrounded by Mo’Nique, very good despite a character that never makes logical sense, Isaiah Washington as his distant father, and Kevin Allesee as his dreamy first boyfriend.

 

So I ask again, what the hell is going on in Blackbird? They can’t possibly mean for us to take this seriously, and yet they appear to expect just that. Parody, satire, elaborate commentary – someone’s going to have to explain just what they were trying to achieve here. I’m flabbergasted.



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Like You Mean It

Posted : 4 weeks, 1 day ago on 16 September 2018 02:48 (A review of Like You Mean It)

You know, it seems like writer/director/star Philipp Karner is working through some deeply personal stuff throughout Like You Mean It. Shame he didn’t invite the audience along for his personal journey and mea culpa. Like You Mean It is glacial and opaque, much like its main character, and we’re stranded looking for a reason to care about so selfish a person or insight to expand our view of him. No such luck. We end the movie just as confused about Karner’s character as when we started, and praying that Denver Milord’s nice, solid guy gets as far away from him as possible. It must be said that Karner and Milord deliver naturalistic performances that feel lived in and authentic. The type that frequently elevates the thin material, but there’s so long you can watch a beautiful self-destructive egotist before it becomes tiresome. There’s plenty of craft and potential on display here, just no scope beyond the main character’s solipsism.



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Byzantium

Posted : 4 weeks, 1 day ago on 16 September 2018 02:47 (A review of Byzantium)

Vampires, Neil Jordan, and Saoirse Ronan looks like a winning combination on paper, but Byzantium all style and no substance. Ronan is customarily subtle, poignant, and nuanced, and Jordan imbues the entire thing with his austerity and low-key eroticism, but there’s just not enough story to justify the length, the narrative withholding, or “surprise!” method of delivering bits of material. It’s all right in front of you, very clearly and obviously, and Byzantium thinks it’s distance and manipulations are smarter than they are.

 

Problem lies squarely with Gemma Arterton’s Clara, a character with a backstory, profession, and trajectory that deserves her own movie in which everything is fully fleshed out and not dripped out in-between bits of love birds and self-mythologizing narration. Vampirism in Byzantium is a gentlemen’s club and Clara’s transformation from sickly prostitute to vampire femme fatale is more drab than anything. There’s juicy, rich material with vital lifeblood flowing in the veins of that story, but Byzantium treats it as a mere afterthought or as exposition for Ronan’s Eleanor to deliver under the guise of a notebook containing their shared journey to this point.

 

If you’re wondering why it’s a shared journey and can’t figure out that they’re mother/daughter, then I’m not sure what to tell you. They masquerade as siblings or some other familial relation, it changes depending on what city they’ve escaped to this time around, and remain in constant vigilance and fear of discovery by the brotherhood of vampires on their trail. They’ve been chasing these two ever since their creation, some hundred-plus years ago but what’s time to an immortal, really?

 

The feminist uprising flirted at within Byzantium is shuttered in favor of a love story between an undead girl and a dying boy. Granted, the scenes between Ronan and Caleb Landry Jones are by far some of the best, quaking with romantic yearning and a meeting of equally doomed kindred spirits. She’s forever a sixteen-year-old vampire while he’s slowly dying from leukemia. I suppose other love stories have been built on worse premises. I’m being pithy, but the scenes between the two of them are uniformly strong, engaging, and a reminder of just how talented these two young actors are.

 

It’s just such a mild disappointment that Jordan essentially made an art house Twilight instead of the far more interesting girl power fable lurking around the fringes. For all of its flights of violence, slow burning eroticism (check the way Ronan plays with her victims by slowing tracing her long fingernail over their veins), or charismatic love story, Byzantium ultimately boils down to a drab piece of Masterpiece Theater.  



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Destiny

Posted : 4 weeks, 1 day ago on 16 September 2018 02:47 (A review of Destiny)

Fritz Lang’s first big hit, with Metropolis just a few short years away, may not be as ingenious or vital as his later works, but it’s still fascinating to watch as a primer on the earliest parts of his career. It’s something of a morality play/parable between a young woman who has recently lost her lover and the embodiment of death, strangely sympathetic and kind here, but it occasionally plays as a bit of a slog. None of this mean it’s still not a noteworthy rediscovery, and one that you should seek out.

 

Destiny finds Lang telling a triptych of doomed lovers stories, each of them populated by the same core of actors playing dress-up both in elaborate costuming and in racial makeup, wrapped around a “present day,” for 1921, story. A young couple wanders into a small town where Death has bought a large property, walled it up, and ushers in his captives through supernatural means. The young man dies, and the young woman begs with Death for his return to the land of the living. Feeling strangely empathetic to her plight, comparatively to the wider array of cold and clinical portrayals of death in cinema, he offers her a challenge: he will send her to three different locations, if she can save her lover in any of them, he will restore the pair to the living.

 

Death’s lair is a glorious cinematic vision, like a catholic church turned up to eleven. There’s candles everywhere of varying sizes, each light representing someone living, and the souls of the dead appear in his hands as glowing orbs before becoming a person. In this particular case, it’s a small infant, and we’re quickly shown the grieving mother bending over the child. Death’s weariness in his task is evident, and he seems particularly troubled by the babe’s demise. Bernhard Goetzke’s physical appearance and finely calibrated performance should place him in the pantheon of great silent monsters and fantasy figures in due time. He makes for a rich, mysterious, complicated character, but he’s not the main attraction.

 

That would be Lil Dagover’s questing lover. She’s adequate but a mere sketch of a thing, and her romance is expository. We get no sense of her true loss or the scope of her passions before being told about them and her gaining this quest/chance. While Goetzke feels relatively modern in his minimalist acting, Dagover is pure silent cinema mugging and too broad pantomime.

 

Luckily, Lang buries her in sophisticated cinematic magic and an enigmatic atmosphere. It doesn’t entirely compensate for the weaknesses, but it does a fair job of trying to level the field. Destiny transports us from fable-like visions of ancient China and the Middle East to a 15th century Venice where the doomed lovers will continually lose each other death’s predestination. The Chinese segment is the strongest of the three, there’s a magic carpet and some interesting visuals to try to distract from the ick factor of the yellow face and grab-bag of Oriental clichés. Try as Dagover may to change fate, she continually comes up at a loss.

 

The portent of gloom and decay looms over Destiny, and the eventual reunion of the lovers is a twisted happy ending. Lang’s film is a reminder of the dream-like quality and power of silent film. This one’s not quite a nightmare, but more an unnerving, deeply eerie glimpse into the inevitability of greater forces striking us down.  



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Septembers of Shiraz

Posted : 1 month ago on 14 September 2018 12:27 (A review of Septembers of Shiraz)

Between this and Argo, boy has American cinema turned an endlessly complicated event into a two-dimensional construct. Historical context or a decent grasp on the complexities at play? Don’t look here. Compelling and multi-layered characters? Nope, try again. But at least you get an international cast playing at accents. (Yeah, I mean you, Adrien Brody!) Well, except for Salma Hayek.

 

Septembers of Shiraz, or Enemy Territory depending on the location, follows a wealthy Iranian Jewish family as the revolution erupts around them. Do they support or oppose the revolution? I couldn’t tell you, but it isn’t long until Brody’s patriarch is imprisoned, tortured, and vainly trying to plead for mercy and escape. Hayek keeps the home fire burning, tries to get information on where her husband is and his alleged crimes, all the while sparring with the longtime housekeeper (Shohreh Aghdashloo, once again too good for the material handed to her). That’s it, that’s the entire movie.

 

If you’re wondering if there’s a happy ending and a reunion, there is. The myopic view of a fraught time demands a simplistic ending, just as it demands simplistic heroes and villains. The elites are poor victims of an ungrateful lower class, the revolutionaries are greedy thieves, and very little is made of the political and religious ideologies at play. What do you get? Another generic pseudo-history from Hollywood that’s too narrow-minded to develop anything beyond totems and slogans. 



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Pariah

Posted : 1 month ago on 14 September 2018 12:26 (A review of Pariah)

The piercing realism that can’t be faked strikes you hardest in Pariah. You can sense it in the script and direction by Dee Rees, you can sense it in Adepero Oduye’s central performance, in Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell’s supporting work. It just drips from every frame of Pariah.

 

You could write it off as Rees’ truth coming out in the mouths and actions of her characters, and that’s certainly a part of it, but it’s also in the naked, candid performances that never feel like they’re acting. Oduye, in particular, always appears to “be” in front of the camera, and she never telegraphs her next movement or scenario. We’re left as fragmented and adrift in confusion and turmoil as she is.

 

Conversations overhead between her parents, both know she’s gay and each blames the other or takes a “don’t ask, don’t acknowledge” mandate on it, are heartbreaking. They feel like transcripts from a gay youth forcefully removed from the home, or one who decided to flee before the toxic environment got too much for them. The contentious nature of a life lived in the closet, especially one with less-than accepting parents, is given full-life throughout.

 

A scene early in film struck me during which Oduye transitions on a bus ride from butch to a softer feminine ideal imposed on her by her mother. It’s a quiet moment, one deftly handled by the actress as the escalating sense of unease, both interior and exterior, never gets a fulfilling outlet. It’s another thing that must be shoved into the closet with the door quickly slammed shut before its contents come tumbling out. Everything is right in there as the camera merely observes its main character juggling her two lives.

 

That other life is lorded over by her deeply religious mother, played by Kim Wayans in a dramatic performance that’s shocking coming from someone primarily known for In Living Color. Her father, Parnell, is an overworked cop that’s supportive of his daughter yet hopefully she’ll eventually grow out of her predicament and course correct. Their marriage has gone to rot and they use their oldest daughter’s repressed sexuality as a cudgel to berate and beat each other. You know it’s only a matter of time before something explosive happens.

 

Inevitably, it does and it launches the final stretch of the film towards a more positive future. Pariah earns its hopeful ending where escape becomes a means of freedom and authenticity. Things will get better, but only if you’ve got the fortitude to clutch the small moments of hope and make your break when the opportunity presents itself. There’s a pleasing sense of truth here, one that is both captivating and shattering in equal measure.

 

Dee Rees made good with Bessie and Mudbound proving that Pariah was no one-off morning glory. It was just the first feature from a promising and exciting new talent. I can’t wait to see what she does after this already stellar body of work.



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Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Posted : 1 month ago on 14 September 2018 12:25 (A review of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World)

Yes, for all of the likeable work that Steve Carell and Keira Knightley put into their lead performances there’s still a remarkable lack of chemistry between them. Yes, the end of the world setting is merely a means to shove them together in a romance that would otherwise never occur, got it. And yes, you’re right, that home stretch is really rough going and vaguely disappointing, but you know what? I still enjoyed myself, improbable as it may seem.

 

We open with the knowledge that in three weeks an asteroid will come crashing into the earth, and that’s all she wrote folks. The foreknowledge of the end of the world somehow seems worse than if it had happened by surprise. You know that there’s a finite amount of time before it all comes to a terrible end, and how does one reaction to that?

 

Well, some people riot in the streets, others engage in orgies, drugs, and a general never-ending bacchanal that would make Dionysus throw his hands up and say, “Sorry guys, I gotta go home now.” I mean, just listen to Patton Oswalt’s filthy monologue about how he’s given over to vices in these final days. It straddles a fine line between hilarious and off-putting. In-between all of this chaos and freewheeling loving is Dodge (Carell), a recently abandoned insurance salesman who’s found himself stuck with caring for a dog, and his neighbor, Penny (Knightley).

 

You can’t call it a “meet cute,” but all the same, they’re forced together on a road trip that leads them to colorful characters, oddball situations, and a slowly dawning realization of love. There’s nothing that Seeking a Friend for the End of the World does that could count as a surprise, and I’m slightly mystified by how much I enjoyed. I’m going to chalk it up to spending time with two pleasant actors and some fun quick appearances by a uniformly strong stable of comedians (Oswalt, Rob Huebel), character actors (Connie Britton, William Petersen, Melanie Lynskey), and movie stars (Martin Sheen).

 

Sometimes all you want is something pleasant, and these two characters are good enough. They couldn’t possibly usher in a satisfactory conclusion, and perhaps that wasn’t one to be found anywhere in this material. Stating that the end of the world is imminent leaves you painted into a corner. When the final credits start to roll you best have brought about the apocalypse.



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Being Flynn

Posted : 1 month ago on 14 September 2018 12:24 (A review of Being Flynn)

You’ve got some serious artistic hubris if you’re willing to stick Robert De Niro behind a yellow cab and reference one of his most iconic works, and Being Flynn cannot compare to Martin Scorsese’s sweaty, paranoid Taxi Driver. That was a work of pure daring, an evocation  of numerous westerns gone to rot and sanity in the concrete badlands of New York City. Being Flynn, meanwhile, is a generic adaptation of Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. One that is too safe, too clean, and too hurried to really grapple with and sell the material.

 

Being Flynn gives in to Hollywood redemption clichés, we know that Nick will overcome his sudden drug addiction to become a well-respected author, we know that Jonathan will eventually find stability, probably at the intervention of Nick, and things will be on their process of healing. What makes it all so frustrating is just how abrupt many of these darker twists are handled. Watching this, you’d be hard-pressed to see just how deep into addiction Nick has spiraled. We only know and get the sense because of Olivia Thirlby’s speaking it aloud. Being Flynn wants to present the warts of Flynn’s memoir, but it doesn’t want its movie star cast to have to get too ugly for their parts.

 

And what a cast it is! Paul Dano’s distant, soulful face is perfect for a role like this, and delivers a reliably solid performance, but the part never taps into his full talents. It’s as if everyone is too afraid to ask him to go the places and lengths he went to in There Will Be Blood once more. Julianne Moore, Thirlby, and Lili Taylor are all wasted, and they’re about it for female characters. Moore plays his mother, a thinly sketched part that makes you wonder why she signed on in the first place, but at least she gets some stuff to play unlike the others. Thirlby mainly functions as “the girlfriend,” and Taylor has a small part in the homeless shelter where much of the action takes place.

 

So, that leaves Being Flynn in the hands of De Niro, and he’s in fine form here. After years of wandering the proverbial woods, De Niro’s recently been picking and choosing projects that provide ample room for him to stretch, to underplay, or perform in a very specific manner. His alcoholic with a grandiose self-image and aggressive relationship with his son is such a role. Being Flynn emerges as something of a star vehicle in a roundabout way.

 

You’re lured in with the prospect of a serious dramatic adaptation of a great modern literary work, but you get bargain basement Sundance material that already felt creaky in 1998. But what did you expect when the material is being handled by Paul Weitz, he of Little Fockers fame. That tells you just about everything you need to know.



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St. Vincent

Posted : 1 month ago on 14 September 2018 12:23 (A review of St. Vincent)

Indie dramadies about softhearted curmudgeons befriending adorable, precocious moppets is a genre that produces more duds than gems. Case in point: St. Vincent, Bill Murray’s entry in that much-abused genre finds him saddled with babysitting a tween that feels like the embryonic version of Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore. Except writer/director/co-producer Theodore Melfi is no Wes Anderson, and St. Vincent is often left adrift tonally, cliché in narrative, and buoyed by strong performances from the three leads. Murray can do likeable prick in his sleep, it’s his default mode, but he still does strong work here. Melissa McCarthy gets little to do, but she does manage to nail the tricky balance between drama, comedy, and barely concealed resentment in a long freeform monologue detailing her harried working mother’s backstory. While Jaeden Lieberher gives an acting performance that manages to make a real character out of a series of quirks. Lieberher may have a strong, long-lasting career in front of him if he keeps delivering work as uniformly strong as he does here and in 2017’s IT: Chapter One. It’s just a damn shame that St. Vincent gives into such schmaltz and obvious emotional pandering instead of sticking to the pricklier terrain its three characters often find themselves in.  



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Singles

Posted : 1 month ago on 14 September 2018 12:23 (A review of Singles)

The Pretenders had released four albums by the time their first compilation, Singles, hit the shelves in 1987, and it’s a testament to their unique and enduring spin on classic rock. Chrissie Hynde brought a feminine mystique to the classic cock rock sound. From their self-titled debut through 1986’s Get Close, Hynde perfected her pop songwriting skills, married them to a tough-but-tender sound, and Singles is sixteen classics from the New Wave siren and her merry band of rockers.

 

Singles kicks off with their cover of the Kinks “Stop Your Sobbing,” and Hynde’s steely snarl smartly wraps around Ray Davies’ British Invasion gem. But Hynde’s own songs are quickly revealed as the equals of that smart assed opening shot. “Kid” is a glimpse at Hynde the heartbreak queen, “Talk of the Town” finds her love sick, and “Don’t Get Me Wrong” is pure sass. That doesn’t even cover the elegy of “Back on the Chain Gang,” biker chick tough “Middle of the Road,” or the iconic “Brass in Pocket.”

 

“Brass in Pocket”’s refrain of “I’m special/I gotta have some of your attention/Give it to me!” captures the magic and mystery of Hynde. She alternates between self-possession and demands for your attention, and she feels authentic while doing both. She’s a tough customer, but there’s a soft center to that leathery exterior. For all her heavy eyeliner and untouchable cool, Hynde’s still capable of expressing a deep vulnerability like on “I Go to Sleep.” It’s in expressing all of her moods and modes that the Singles emerges as a powerful testament to the allure of Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders.

 

DOWNLOAD: “Back on the Chain Gang,” “Brass in Pocket,” “I Got You Babe”



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