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Posted : 2 months, 2 weeks ago on 25 September 2018 06:26 (A review of Ghostbusters)

The Venn diagram between would-be academics and blue-collar workers is a near perfect circle in Ghostbusters, a near fairy tale of trade jobs thwarting the paranormal. Only in New York would something like this fly. I mean, what other city would find citizens barely raising an eyebrow at the sight of Sumerian demon dogs possessing its fellow dwellers?


Here's the thing, Ghostbusters is a charming piece of (creaky) special effects with a riffing Bill Murray as its center. Everything revolves around Murray’s winking and rapid-fire snark, including an unfortunately sidelined Ernie Hudson and a part for Sigourney Weaver that breaks down to “the sexy brain.” It’s this casual misogyny, endemic to films of the 80s, that prevents from enjoying Ghostbusters more than I do. Did we really need to see Dan Aykroyd get head from a sexy ghost woman as a punchline?


Where Ghostbusters really shines is in its careful deployment of set pieces and specific personalities rubbing against each other in conflict and humor. It’s just as much in Annie Potts’ deadpan receptionist as it is in transformation of a ghost into vengeful harpy. You remember the smart-ass comments and the ridiculous punchlines just as much as the money shots, and how these two things frequently feed into each other. C’mon, the reveal of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is equally hilarious for something so soft becoming a kaiju as the setup involving Murray’s anxious ramblings about trying to keep his mind clear and failing to think of anything but this gooey mascot.


Remember how fun this one without the baggage of the limp sequel, unjustifiably reviled distaff remake (messy but fun), and the never-ending threat of a third proper entry? I know it’s hard, but really try to remember the vibrantly colored spiritual realms, cartoon-ish ghosts, and creepy but silly opening segment. Ghostbusters may be stiff in its joints, but there’s still charm aplenty to be found here.

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Jackie Brown

Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks ago on 16 September 2018 05:58 (A review of Jackie Brown)

Adaptation works wonders for Quentin Tarantino. Sure, he can’t help himself when it comes to populating his film with a sprawling running time and (so much) jive talking, but Jackie Brown remains his most mature, accomplished, and satisfactory work. There’s shocking bits of violence here, but much of it actually (gasp!) in service of a story and not just to foster his juvenile instincts or heavy-handed referential nature.


Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch provides a solid framework, one that forces Tarantino does diverge from not only in changing Jackie’s race from white to black but in other narrative details, but it’s also a model of great adaptation work. Leonard’s economical style and Tarantino’s maximalist don’t sound like a match made in cinematic heaven, yet there’s something incredibly juicy and vibrant about their divergent styles meeting in the middle here.


Maybe it’s the way that Leonard’s style forces Tarantino to “grow up” cinematically, but there’s honest to god human emotion and recognizable characters here. Led by a stellar Pam Grier in a performance that demanded serious awards attention and a revitalization of her career that strangely didn’t come, Jackie Brown garnishes its entangled double-crosses and crime elements with a center that’s the sweetest, most humane love story in all of Tarantino’s body of work.


Unrequited and suppressed emotions run throughout Tarantino’s films, but they usually end in a big bang of violence and artful blood splatter. Think of the Bride’s near phoenix-like origins in the Kill Bill films, of the entirety of Reservoir Dogs turning in on each other, or The Hateful Eight’s long simmering grudges erupting in prolonged scenes of carnage. Jackie Brown is the most complex examination of that emotional state, and it’s most mature.


We meet Jackie as a struggling airline stewards for the low rent Cabo Air, and we quickly learn that she doubles as a drug runner for Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson, going near Brechtian but still a joy to watch) once she’s caught by the ATF and its primary detective on the case (Michael Keaton). Her bail bondsman, Max (Robert Forster), is immediately smitten, and their connection is the core of the movie. Everything else, including Ordell’s beach bimbo girlfriend (Bridget Fonda) and thug best friend (Robert De Niro, wincing and grimacing more than acting), is part of a tangled weave to keep shoving these two back together. They are the center that holds it all together.


On paper, their affection and blossoming feelings for each other shouldn’t make much sense. Jackie is the world-weary and desperate version of any of Grier’s iconic blaxploitation heroines, while Max is the ultra-buttoned up good cop. Yet there’s visible sparks from the moment they meet, and between the actor’s clear chemistry and joy in playing off each other to the fun of just watching them sit back and talk, their connection becomes our active rooting interest.


Tarantino’s always had a strong eye for casting, but he out does himself with the performances he gets from Grier and Forster. Grier is a mesmerizing presence. She’s beautiful, she’s intelligent, she’s resourceful, and she’s got one mean poker-face. Grier’s performance is master class of small bodily movements telegraphing everything for the camera. She never goes “big” because she never has to, and her transition from honest and open communication with Max to staring down danger with an impassive face is demonstrated with a mere eyebrow raising. It’s the kind of performance that would reignite a male actor’s stock and have bigger, better opportunities, I mean, look at what happened with John Travolta before he shot himself in the foot.


Just as good is Forster as Max, for which he received the film’s lone Oscar nomination. He deserved the damn thing as he’s the quiet, emotional heart to Jackie’s quick-thinking brain. He’s just as prone to underplaying his scenes as Grier, and his crinkled smile and hint of heartache in their final back-and-forth is a knockout of minute details and specific choices making a moment come alive on camera. It helps that Forster is something of an anonymous character actor, you know you’ve seen him when he pops up but his name frequently escapes you, because a bigger star in this part would’ve titled things out of balance. Forster’s schoolboy crush and conservative demeanor are deeply touching in his elliptical goodbye to Jackie.


It’s this kernel of romantic possibilities in the face of middle age that makes Jackie Brown so rewarding. It’s a great hangout movie, even if some of the diversions with Fonda and De Niro prove more distracting than humorous and glaring examples of the director’s fetish for women’s feet. Jackie Brown is also a towering achievement to the cinematic brickhouse that is Pam Grier, and she works hard for the money and adoration.

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A Star Is Born

Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks ago on 16 September 2018 02:49 (A review of A Star Is Born)

Maybe if this had been remade with La Diva Streisand in 1966 instead of 1976 things would be different, but that’s not the world we live in. Streisand’s version of A Star is Born, do you really think the credited writers (including Joan Didion!) and director Frank Pierson actually had a say in this vanity project?, is a towering achievement to Barbra’s ego at the expense of all else. Sure, any version of A Star is Born ultimately boils down to the two leads, but this one jettisons any and all semblance of supporting players and nearly throws out the male lead for good measure. Then again, whom would Streisand have to act against if he died too soon? Props to Kris Kristofferson’s leathery charisma and lived-in alcoholism here, he’s delivering an authentic and true performance in a notably artificial film opposite a co-star in full-on demanding diva mode. Streisand’s a solid actress normally, especially in comedy, but we’re asked to believe her as a mere mortal here, one full of moxie and soft-rock/folkie music just waiting to burst out. The whole thing is false, including Barbra’s leading turn, especially her leading turn. Glimpses of camp itch to escape but they’re buried under the rubble of Streisand’s self-mythology and iconography. The only scene that plays as truth from her is a rehearsal for a television special where she starts barking orders at the crew and says she wants it to be right. That’s the only time a real person is viewable in her Esther, and it’s quickly submerged by more flattering close-ups, including a whooper of a single tear dramatically rolling down her face. Just stick with Judy Garland’s version, that one is just as long but still manages to delivers the goods.

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Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks 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 : 2 months, 3 weeks 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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Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks 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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Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks 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 : 2 months, 4 weeks 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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Posted : 2 months, 4 weeks 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 : 2 months, 4 weeks 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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