Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Smooth as a Con Artist


              Christian Bale squints at himself in the mirror, pasting a lump of hair onto his bare scalp with gel. We watch for what feels like five minutes as he tries to smooth it out, his dark eyebrows furrowed in concentration, a pair of rose-tinted glasses perched on his nose, in a desperate, ultimately futile attempt to hide his hideous combover. It’s a brilliant beginning to a movie obsessed with visual details. Throughout the whole thing, there’s not a single tie, earring, shade, painting or hair out of place; they all seem to meld together in an intoxicating collage of ‘70s euphoria, the bright, faintly oily cinematography courtesy of Linus Sandgren juxtaposed with a feverish, pitch-perfect dreamscape of a soundtrack that features artists as diverse as Duke Ellington and the Bee Gees.

              The plot that unfolds isn’t particularly revelatory – it’s basically a heist flick meets an Informant!-style conspiracy comedy with a dash of romance sprinkled in. But as he did with his previous two outings (underdog sports drama The Fighter and mental illness rom-com Silver Linings Playbook), newly Oscar-friendly director David O. Russell takes a traditional narrative and instills it with his own flair, his sense of bubbling energy and chaos that simmers just beneath the surface, turning it into something that feels acutely personal and distinctive. Much like the Coen brothers, he has demonstrated a remarkable ability to bounce between a variety of genres without losing touch with his unique voice. Even though his recent movies have toned down much of the idiosyncratic absurdity that defined his early work, they’re still undeniably his. American Hustle proves to be a fine showcase for Russell’s strengths, from his keen ear for the rhythm of speech and conversation (shown in the film’s witty yet naturalistic dialogue, which zips and pops off the screen like firecrackers) to his affection for the nuances of human eccentricity.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Excesses of 'Wall Street'



        “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Those oft-misquoted and misunderstood words were immortalized by Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, Oliver Stone’s classic indictment of American capitalism and avarice. Twenty-six years later, it’s remarkable how relevant they still seem, how little has changed from those ‘80s heydays of power brokers and custom-suited yuppies. Joining a recent rash of movies concerned with financial issues and the economy, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street starts smack-dab in 1987 (coincidentally the year Stone’s film was originally released) and traces the crime-fueled and hijinks-filled stockbroking career of Jordan Belfort. It immerses audiences in the more-is-everything, morally bankrupt culture of Wall Street executives with a crazed eagerness, turning into a three-hour-long rollercoaster that somehow teeters dangerously close to fetishizing their sex, drugs and money-obsessed lifestyle while still acting as a mostly effective critique of the society that makes that lifestyle possible.

        Responsible for swindling millions of dollars out of stock buyers through his firm Stratton Oakmont, Jordan Belfort is a fascinatingly despicable individual, at least as portrayed by Scorsese and a delightfully game Leonardo DiCaprio. While there’s an argument to be made over whether this is his absolute best performance (I’m personally still partial toward Revolutionary Road), DiCaprio has certainly never been more balls-to-the-wall fearless. Although he’ll never be mistaken for an effortless actor, always committing to each role with almost exhausting intensity, the Titanic star has lately developed a looser, more relaxed onscreen demeanor, and between Inception, Django Unchained, The Great Gatsby and Wolf, he finally seems ready to accept his status as a movie star, instead of still striving to be a more mysterious, artsy thespian a la Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s magnetic here, radiating charisma whether he’s explaining the art of selling fraudulent stocks or smoking crack behind a diner with an equally unselfconscious Jonah Hill. Constantly jittery and manic due to his character’s heavy drug habits, DiCaprio pulls off everything Scorsese throws at him with aplomb; at various points, he blows cocaine off a hooker’s butt, mimes anal sex after persuading a wealthy customer to buy penny stock, has real sex involving a candle, and flops like a worm possessed by seizures from a pay phone to his extravagant sports car when a particularly powerful drug renders him unable to stand or walk. Belfort never becomes even mildly sympathetic, but thanks to DiCaprio’s gutsy performance and dominating screen presence, you can understand why people are so entranced by him.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Capitalist Dressed in Revolutionary's Clothing


              In a year of blockbusters preoccupied with relentless action and testosterone, Catching Fire feels like a breath of fresh air – and not just because its protagonist is female. It takes at least half the movie’s hefty running time for something resembling a real action scene to arrive. Director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn actually care about developing a plot that makes sense and put genuine effort into (re)establishing the characters and their world, which is really the bare minimum of good storytelling but suddenly seems like a luxury. Although Katniss Everdeen, the heroine, knows how to use a bow and arrow, she relies on more than physical prowess to overcome adversity, as she’s forced to navigate the treacherous waters of politics and fame, occasionally at the expense of her own morals; especially as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence with her signature blend of mercurial brashness and matter-of-fact poise, she’s more complex than your usual feisty, rebellious, faux-feminist heroine (see: Merida from Brave).

              As it turns out, Lawrence is an almost uncanny fit for the role of Katniss (I say “almost” because there’s still the whole white-washing issue, which I won’t get into here). Since appearing on Hollywood’s radar with the critically acclaimed 2010 indie Winter’s Bone, the Kentucky-born actress has evolved into a legitimate superstar, becoming the youngest person ever to receive two Best Actress Oscar nominations, joining two major franchises and basically dominating the Internet, thanks to her charming interviews and talk show appearances. She’s the perfect celebrity: gregarious and outspoken yet modest and self-aware, her every action and sentence seemingly free of any affectation. It’s hard not to draw parallels between Lawrence and Katniss, from the constant pressure they face to maintain their carefully manufactured personas and indulge a fickle, judgmental public to the endless media attention devoted to their physical appearances and private lives. Just as Katniss symbolizes hope for the budding rebellion in Panem, Lawrence has come to epitomize female empowerment for a generation of young women. It’s one instance where real-life knowledge enhances fiction, imbuing Katniss’s situation with an added layer of resonance and helping Lawrence accomplish a rare, often under-appreciated feat: she makes heroism compelling.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

To All the Dreamers Out There, This Song Is For You


        Not much of anything happens in Inside Llewyn Davis. Perpetually bundled up in a corduroy blazer, a wool gray scarf and ragged fingerless gloves, the scruffy, curly-haired title character wanders through the streets of early 1960s Greenwich Village with a bulky guitar case in one hand and a restless orange cat cradled in the other. He mostly seems to spend his days trudging from door to door in search of an inevitably low-paying gig or a friend willing to let him crash on their couch for a day or two. I’m not sure he cracks a smile even once during the movie. It’s not really a spoiler to say that, in defiance of the traditional Hollywood narrative arc, Llewyn never finds his breakout moment; at the end, he’s quite literally in the same place he was when the film started. 

        This doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for the Coen brothers’ new flick, and on the surface, the movie seems slight, forgettable, but in fact, the straight-faced, deliberately monotonous attitude it adopts toward its subjects gives the whole thing a distinctive allure not suggested by the threadbare plot. It’s that rare period piece that shows no nostalgia for the era it’s depicting. Gone are the usual scenes of carefree, substance-assisted revelry, the rose-tinted characterizations of ‘60s counterculture, and the youthful idealism and excitement often associated with that tumultuous decade. Instead, working with a low-key minimalism at odds with the heightened quirkiness that typifies even their more serious work, the Coens draw audiences into the desperate tedium of Llewyn’s everyday life with the detached precision of documentarians, showing the difficulties he faces without romanticizing or wallowing in his poverty. The stubbornly drab clothing and some gorgeous cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel so saturated of color the film occasionally looks like it was shot in black and white reinforce the somber atmosphere. Shots of the murky Gaslight Café where the characters frequently perform, of almost impossibly narrow hallways and roads that stretch straight toward some unseen point beyond a flat horizon create a sense of claustrophobia, reflecting how trapped Llewyn feels in an inescapable cycle of failure that’s partly of his own making.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review: That's Better


Peter Jackson needs an editor. According to the sacred text that is Wikipedia, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was edited by Jabez Olssen, who previously worked with Jackson on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, King Kong, The Lovely Bones and the first installment of the Hobbit trilogy, so maybe that familiarity is part of the problem. Either way, it’s not exactly controversial to point out that The Desolation of Smaug is way too effing long. When calculated, the average length of this year’s ten blockbusters (DoS, Iron Man 3, Star Trek into Darkness, Man of Steel, Fast and Furious 6, Pacific Rim, Elysium, Ender’s Game, Thor: The Dark World and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) comes out to 131 minutes. At a whopping 161 minutes, The Desolation of Smaug is by far the longest of the bunch – a full 15 minutes longer than its closest competitor, Catching Fire.

The funny thing is that (again, according to Wikipedia) it’s also 17 minutes shorter than The Fellowship of the Ring, the shortest entry in its series, but I didn’t feel nearly as drained after AMC’s Lord of the Rings marathon last December – the extended editions, no less – as I did when the credits rolled for Desolation of Smaug. Long story short, the problem isn’t the running time itself so much as what the filmmaker does with that time. No matter how much extra material you try to tack on, The Hobbit simply doesn’t have as much substance as The Lord of the Rings; there’s no way you can stretch a single 300-page children’s book out into three almost-three-hour movies without them feeling bloated. That’s not to say I don’t understand the temptation. After all, once you’ve seen Lord of the Rings come to vivid, awe-inspiring life onscreen, The Hobbit seems rather unimpressive and trivial, and all writers know what it’s like to grow too attached to their work to sacrifice any of it (not that that stopped them from cutting Tauriel’s backstory). But you can’t help but wonder what The Hobbit would be like if Jackson and co. had stuck with their original plan of just splitting it into two parts. The plot would’ve been more streamlined, with perhaps less portentous foreboding and needless set-up; the narrative arcs would be more distinct; and the action scenes would sustain their momentum the whole way through instead of starting with a burst of electricity and petering out toward the finish line, as though Jackson has forgotten how to end a battle since he completed The Return of the King.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I can say something that might seem totally out-of-left-field: I liked The Desolation of Smaug. Not in a pretentious, backhanded “oh, it’s better than the first one” kind of way, though at least for me, it was. I genuinely enjoyed it. To be fair, it started out rather slow, but by the half-hour mark, when the elves were introduced and something resembling an actual plot began to form, I found myself becoming engrossed in this fantasy world and the characters in a way that never happened with its predecessor.

I liked the sense of humor, which was goofy but subtler than in Unexpected Journey (if Legolas’s reaction to seeing a picture of Gloin’s son doesn’t make you crack a smile… I have nothing to say to you). I liked the barrel set piece, which had a sense of fun inventiveness that managed to keep the child inside me amused, and on the whole, the action was a definite improvement over the generic sequences in the first Hobbit movie, even though the climax in particular seemed to go on forever. I liked how it emphasized the distinction between the Mirkwood elves and those featured in The Lord of the Rings and how the filmmakers even superficially delved into the politics of Laketown, a place unlike the majestic or picturesque places we usually see in Middle-Earth (I suppose most likely, none of that appeals to anyone who isn’t a hardcore fantasy fan and couldn’t care less about world-building, but whatever, that’s their loss). I liked Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel so much that I didn’t even mind the awkward love triangle. Most of all, I liked Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug, an awesome sight to behold (especially on IMAX), so well-realized by WETA Workshop that you can feel the texture of his scales, and the menacing villain so sorely missed in Unexpected Journey (Gollum doesn’t count, since he only appeared for about ten minutes of the movie).

                At the end of the day, it’s pointless to compare The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings. The two series are on completely different levels (though not quite as drastic as the leap down from the original Star Wars movies to the prequels because The Hobbit is at least mildly entertaining), and it’s not hard to imagine that Jackson is less than fully committed to his current trilogy since he signed on for directorial duties at pretty much the last minute, after MGM’s financial troubles forced Guillermo Del Toro to leave (Del Toro retained a screenwriting credit for both The Unexpected Journey and Desolation of Smaug). But as a detailed, intriguing expansion of the Middle-Earth universe and a loving ode to fans, I could not wish for more. I look forward to seeing how this journey ends.


Monday, December 16, 2013

Walter Mitty Wanders Aimlessly through Postcard-Pretty Landscapes



          When stripped down to its bare bones, Ben Stiller’s adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is essentially a modernized, New York-set The Wizard of Oz. An utterly unremarkable man stuck in a drab, dead-end life dreams of something more only to be suddenly swept off to some faraway, exotic land on an adventure of wonder and self-discovery. Loosely based on James Thurber’s classic short story, Walter Mitty abandons the central concept of a man who drifts off into daydreams of an exciting life, often at inconvenient times, fairly early on, instead diving headlong into a globe-crossing trek as the title character, a negative developer for Life, goes off in search of an elusive photojournalist and the missing photo destined to grace to cover of the magazine’s next – and last – issue. Set at a time of extreme upheaval for the news world, the movie is preoccupied with the transition from print to digital, pining for what it sees as the comforting authenticity of the past even as it perhaps unintentionally yet eagerly embraces the slick technological advancements promised by the future. It’s this uncertainty, a pervasive inability to decide exactly what it wants to be, that prevents the film from truly working and resonating the way it so clearly wants to.

        Despite the presence of Stiller in the director’s chair and the lead role and a cast that also includes Kristen Wiig, an obnoxious and horrendously bearded Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt and Kathryn Hahn, Walter Mitty is decidedly not a comedy. The film adopts a light, upbeat tone, and there are several moments scattered throughout that aim for laughs with mixed success, but there’s an underlying pensiveness to the proceedings that pushes it to much more dramatic, though never dark, territory; it’s about as far removed from Tropic Thunder, Stiller’s previous directorial outing, as you can get. In fact, the movie works best when at its most unassuming and straight-faced, either depicting the off-kilter banality of Walter’s everyday New York City life like in the opening sequence or simply capturing the awe-inspiring beauty of the countries that he visits, enhanced by some striking cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh and a jaunty, uplifting soundtrack. However, too often it becomes cluttered by a meandering, contrived plot that dips too far into alternately mild yet awkward humor or saccharine inspiration, not to mention some bizarre product placement.

        Though he’s more known for his offbeat, balls-to-the-wall comedic roles in such works as Zoolander, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and Night at the Museum, this isn’t Stiller’s first time going more serious, and the performance he turns in is sort of a meeker, less caustic version of his character in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. He appropriately plays Walter Mitty as almost a blank slate, a man who’s spent his entire life just going through the motions of living, who never takes risks or engages in interactions that he doesn’t have to. Yet, perhaps because Stiller isn’t really the cuddly, instantaneously endearing type or because Walter can apparently afford to fly off to Greenland or Afghanistan on a whim, he never quite feels like the Everyman he’s supposed to be. Even after surviving a shark encounter, escaping an erupting volcano and hiking the Himalayas, he seems to be fundamentally the same person we met at the beginning of the film, only slightly more assertive and, ultimately, jobless. Mostly, what he gets out of his travels appears to be the chance to embellish his eHarmony profile, which seems weird until you realize that, despite all the breathtaking scenery (seriously, that alone makes the movie worth watching, though maybe not paying for) and earnest platitudes about living life to the fullest, this is really a story about a guy finding the nerve and self-confidence he needs to ask out the girl of his dreams.

        That girl is his new coworker Cheryl Melhoff, played by a brunette Kristen Wiig. Far removed from exaggerated cartoons she portrayed on SNL or even Bridesmaids, Wiig gives off a charming aura that makes it easy to see why Walter fell for her, and she shares a subdued but easy chemistry with Stiller. However, her character never quite evolves beyond the obligatory love interest, feeling more like an ideal than a fully-fledged human being. Cheryl’s backstory involving a troubled relationship with her ex-husband is never completely explained. There were times when I hoped she would turn out to be a figment of Walter’s imagination, a literal manic pixie dream girl, conjured up by his suppressed desire to break out of his shell and explore the world, but alas, that likely would’ve been one twist too many for a movie already suffering from a disjointed narrative. Caught between comedy and inspirational drama, troubled nostalgia and carefree excitement, appreciating the ordinary and reveling in the extraordinary, Walter Mitty never establishes a confident path, floundering particularly in the second half as it performs backbreaking contortions in order to arrive at a neat, largely predictable ending. By the time Walter realizes that, like Dorothy, he’s had what he needed with him all along, it’s hard to not wonder whether the journey, while enjoyable enough in parts, was really worth taking to reach this destination.        


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Friday, December 13, 2013

Captain Phillips Review: Smooth Sailing Through Rough Waters


              Paul Greengrass is a good director. In fact, throughout the past decade, he has discreetly become one of the most reliable mainstream filmmakers in Hollywood, with two solid contributions to the Bourne franchise, the heart-stopping and essential docudrama United 93 and the much-better-than-it-gets-credit-for Iraq war thriller Green Zone. For the most part, Captain Phillips plays up to his strengths – crafting compelling, coherent action scenes and navigating sensitive political material with a deft, almost ruthless lack of sentimentality – and he realizes them with such apparent self-assurance that it’s easy to forget just how rare, how admirable, those qualities are. To say the movie is adeptly, if not masterfully, executed almost seems like a backhanded compliment; a simple “well-done” doesn’t quite have the same ring as the usual superlatives like “brilliant, mesmerizing, zeitgeist-y tour de force”.

              But I can’t think of a more accurate way to describe Captain Phillips. From the opening moment, a subdued conversation between the titular character and his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener, cleverly but somewhat oddly cast in a role that amounts to no more than a cameo), to the end credits, the movie motors along at a pace finely calibrated so as to sustain the suspense while still letting each scene breathe and evolve naturally. This isn’t a high-octane actioner a la the Bourne movies; Greengrass allows the tension to simmer below the surface most of the time, like a wave ready to unfurl, so the occasional, sudden bursts of full-blown violence and turmoil feel all the more explosive. Henry Jackman’s alternately pulse-pounding and spine-tingling score energizes even the most deliberate scenes. The only glaring misstep is Greengrass’s signature “shaky-cam” cinematography style, which verges on distracting during the less action-oriented exposition, though by the time the plot really gets going, it becomes more seamlessly integrated.

              If nothing else, Captain Phillips should be commended for two things: reminding us that Tom Hanks is not only a likable celebrity but also a genuinely good actor and introducing us to Barkhad Abdi. Hanks has somewhat fallen out of the spotlight since he teamed up with Steven Spielberg for Catch Me If You Can in 2002, mired in the Middle-Aged Actor Trap of banal action flicks (The Da Vinci Code) and maudlin inspirational dramas (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), but here, he shows once again why he has five Oscar nominations and two wins to his name. Although much has been made of his performance during the last 20 minutes (and rightly so), those final scenes would not be nearly as powerful if Hanks had not been such a forceful, resolute presence throughout the rest of the movie, his calm façade masking a whirlwind of inner desperation. It’s undoubtedly his best performance since Saving Private Ryan. Equally impressive, if not even more so, is the Somali-born Abdi, who had no acting experience whatsoever before being cast as the pirate leader Abduwali Muse in 2011. Despite his inexperience and lean, almost skeletal frame, Abdi commands the screen with the unaffected poise of a veteran movie star. Where many actors would have delighted in the opportunity to chew scenery, he stays quiet, his sunken eyes burning with a steady, repressed intensity, matching Hanks scene for scene.

              With last year’s incendiary Killing Them Softly and the deceptively patriotic Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, as well as the upcoming American Hustle (formerly titled American Bullshit) and The Wolf of Wall Street, recent Hollywood has shown a surprising willingness to explore relevant, potentially provocative political topics (a trend that will hopefully continue with the impending, grittier-looking Captain America sequel). Captain Phillips follows in the footsteps of Zero Dark Thirty, a thriller that depicts real-life events with almost documentary-like detachment, right up to its inevitable, brazenly un-triumphant conclusion. While the film’s accuracy has been disputed in various circles, that does not take away from its nuanced, intelligent critique of American hubris and privilege, its refusal to succumb to easy jingoism or superficial catharsis. It may not have the harrowing gravitas of 12 Years a Slave or the emotional grandeur of Gravity, but Captain Phillips is, in its own way, fearless and worthy of celebration.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

On Ignorance, Hypocrisy and Anti-Feminism


***Note: For the sake of brevity, unless otherwise indicated, the term “men” in this blog post refers to heterosexual cis males.***

             A couple weeks ago, Joss Whedon made waves across the Internet when he spoke at an Equality Now dinner about his issues with the word “feminism”. While I don’t doubt that he had good intentions, and he did bring up an issue worth discussing (albeit not as revolutionary and novel as he seems to think it is), the overall speech is something of a disaster. Besides the fact that Whedon is a wealthy, heterosexual, cis-gendered white man and therefore not in a position to lecture feminists on how to run their movement, he demonstrates a complete ignorance when it comes to the history and theory of feminism and how oppression works. No one’s perfect, but considering that Whedon is viewed by many (unjustly, in my humble opinion) as a feminist icon, his lack of self-awareness is disconcerting, to say the least.

             That’s just one instance in an ongoing trend of anti-feminism. In recent years, a number of high-profile women, from Katy Perry and Taylor Swift to Susan Sarandon and Kelly Clarkson, have “come out” as not-feminist for a variety of reasons. It must be noted, first of all, that “Are you a feminist?” is starting to become as tiresome as all those dieting and beauty-related questions that actresses are blitzed with during press junkets. The whole idea that female entertainers are obligated to embody some kind of feminist ideal is misguided at best (you’d think we would have learned by now that viewing celebrities as role models can only lead to heartache and disillusionment, but apparently not). But that is not to say we shouldn’t be critical of public figures; after all, these are the people who, in theory, possess the power to make a significant impact on society. So, as unfair as it may be, when people like Kelly Clarkson and Joss Whedon publicly reject feminism, it reflects poorly on the movement as a whole.

You heard Tina Fey: this is not helpful.

There are plenty of valid reasons for a person to not identify as a feminist. It’s no secret that the movement has a rather troubled history of focusing on the needs of a specific demographic (namely, upper/middle-class heterosexual white women) while marginalizing or downright ignoring other, less visible groups – hence, the emergence of intersectionality and Alice Walker’s womanism. As a collection of many different individuals with their own personalities, backgrounds, beliefs and values, feminism encompasses a wide range of complicated, even contradictory ideas, which inevitably results in disagreements and internal conflict. In fact, the principles of feminism are so broad and loosely defined that they render the term pretty much meaningless; labels matter little compared to actions, so as long as you consciously strive to create change, it doesn’t matter what you call yourself.