Tag Archive for drama

Django Unchained Review (Film, 2012)

A spaghetti western/revenge flick about slavery in the deep south should be a total disaster. It is just such a shocking concept that would require a deft hand, lots of planning, and a rock solid screenplay to even avoid being offensive, let alone succeed as a film.

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to once again take old filmmaking styles and make them seem fresh, relevant, and sensitive to very dark material. Django Unchained somehow finds this intangible sense of humanity and heart in a very bloody revenge film. We care about characters who barely have two or three lines. The impetus of the story is a character more often seen screaming in pain than forming a sentence.

Django Unchained is the story of Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter traveling throughout America for huge cash gains. He frees Django, a slave, because Django is the only person who can identify his newest bounty. In return for his assistance, Dr. Schultz agrees to help Django find and free his wife who was ripped away as punishment for a failed escape attempt.

djangounchaineddeal Django Unchained Review (Film, 2012)

A mutual agreement to get revenge is formed

Forget anything you’ve heard about this really being a romance or being over the top schlock. It’s not. It’s hard to have a romance when half of the relationship is barely in the film. The same goes for the shock value. The biggest problem with the film is that the climax of the film is a huge blood bath that just goes on too long with no shift in the stakes.

djangounchainedbroonhilda Django Unchained Review (Film, 2012)

No, Django Unchained is not really about freeing this woman.

It’s a revenge drama within the framework of a spaghetti western. Django wants to fight back against the slave owners who ruined his life by taking his wife from him. Everything that happens–save that overblown blood bath–serves that purpose. Django Unchained is laser focused on the festering revenge of a man who is justified in his anger.

This is how Django Unchained builds its tension. Quentin Tarantino bravely allows the film story to focus on revenge itself. This is not the softer narrative of Inglourious Basterds leading into a huge denouement of historical revisions and vengeance served. Everything that is shown happens to force the audience to want the revenge to happen. We are meant to be angered by how Django is treated in every scene to the point of wanting everyone who even looks at him funny to be destroyed.

Revenge dramas usually show you some shocking set piece at the beginning of the film and let you idly watch as the hero sets up his perfect scheme. Tarantino has subverted the form to force you to fall into this cycle of violence and revenge. There is no glorification here, no attempt to force you to cheer as the body starts flying. This revenge is empty and meaningless in the end for the audience because Django, as a character, is a non-entity.

djangounchainedracism Django Unchained Review (Film, 2012)

No, the film is not about this particular plantation own, either.

Django Unchained is a strong film for what it doesn’t say. So much of the time, the camera focuses on quaint conversation and the oblivious nature of institutionalized racism. These characters are so used to the status quo that they see nothing wrong in their conduct. The racism is overwritten but underplayed to bring out the audience’s anger.

That is the paradox of Django Unchained. If you blindly buy into the misdirection of the throughline and never question it, you might walk away shocked by what you saw. If you engage with the story and let the anger begin to flow through you as intended, you might walk away shocked by your own response to the film.

Rating: 9/10

Thoughts on Django Unchained? Sound off below.

Lincoln Review (Film, 2012)

My glib, sarcastic response to Lincoln is “How much suspense can you really get out of whether or not congress voted for the 13th Amendment?” I had that thought before and after the film, but it was honestly the furthest thing from my mind while watching Lincoln. This is a film not about the ends but the means and in that it succeeds.

Stephen Spielberg takes Tony Kushner’s screenplay and manages to pull off a very entertaining film about congressional roadblocks and backroom deals. It is not a beautiful or even particularly stylish film–save the unexpected dream sequence in the first few minutes–but it gets the job done. It’s competently made and amplifies the drama of congressional debate just enough to be interesting without slipping into melodrama.

lincolncongress Lincoln Review (Film, 2012)

Such lively debate from the representatives of the Union

The acting is all fine. These are not the most dynamic characters ever committed to film but the cast makes you care for them anyway. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is folksy and charming in a believable way. Tommy Lee Jones nails the perseverance and withering wit of Thaddeus Stephens. Sally Field has the flashiest role as Mary Todd Lincoln, but her performance is honest enough to avoid “Hollywood crazy” hysterics when she slips into depression or anger.

Even with the crack about suspense when it comes to well-worn history, Spielberg does manage to build quite a bit of it in the film. Kushner gives him some nice arcs to play with–Robert Lincoln wanting to join the war against his parents interests, Thaddeus Stephens fighting with his own party over how far equality should go–that help with this. The biggest strength, though, is the backroom dealings of Lincoln’s unofficial assistants.

lincolnintrigue Lincoln Review (Film, 2012)

We know how it ends. The interest comes from how we got there.

A trio of hired guns come in to pick out which lame duck Democrats are the most likely to vote in favor of the 13th Amendment with a little encouragement. They are hired to guarantee 20 more votes for the Amendment out of 50 or so potential candidates. The suspense actually kicks in when the numbers just don’t grow fast enough. You know it will pass in the end, but somehow the minutia of how the Republicans force the passage is just fascinating. Somehow, against my best efforts, I, too, began to nervously count the votes during the climax.

If forcing the audience to invest in a story that has an outcome taught to every public school student in America isn’t solid filmmaking, I don’t know what is. Lincoln is not the most thrilling film of 2012 or even the most inventive, but it is perhaps the most focused release of the year.

Rating: 8/10

Thoughts on Lincoln? Sound off below.

Killer Joe Review (Film, 2012)

William Friedkin and Tracy Letts get each other. They made that clear in their first collaboration Bug and the second go around proves it. Letts and Friedkin share a vision for Killer Joe and, for better or for worse, they stick to it through the end. The opening credits even announce that William Friedkin is directing a screenplay by Tracy Letts, which acts as a nice warning beacon for people who irrationally hated Bug and didn’t learn their lesson.

Chris Smith gets kicked out of his mom’s house after a late night fight and crashes in his dad’s trailer. Soon his step-mom and sister Dottie find out the real reason for his visit. Chris and Dottie’s biological mother has a $50000 life insurance policy where all proceeds are set to go to Dottie. Chris suggests they hire Killer Joe to take care of the dirty work, buying him out of his debt to a drug dealer and giving the whole family a leg-up in the world. Killer Joe is a police detective who doubles as a hitman. You play by his rules or you pay the price. Too bad no one in the Smith family is very good at following the rules.

killerjoestory Killer Joe Review (Film, 2012)

Killer Joe knows how to command attention

Of all the plays Tracy Letts could have adapted to the big screen, Killer Joe seems the least likely choice. It is his first play, written during grad school, and it’s more of an experiment than anything else. You can see the mind of a young playwright at work trying to emulate Tennessee Williams for maximum dramatic effect.

killerjoedottie Killer Joe Review (Film, 2012)

Is Dottie really who the family thinks she is?

Dottie is the ghostly presence that never leaves the house and might not exist, at least not the way the family thinks she does. The dad is the gruff but lovable family man and the step-mom is the sharp-tongued foil to his every move. Chris is the young heir who brings on the family’s destruction and Killer Joe is the outsider forced into circumstances he could never anticipate. Think Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with blood and beer cans.

Taken as an attempt to translate the southern gentility of Williams to the trashy trailer park stereotype, Killer Joe is a success. The film only has a plot to bring the characters to big revelations about their identities. What plot twists happen exist just to air out everyone’s dirty laundry for the sake of catharsis. The violence brings the family together and the forced etiquette at the hands of Killer Joe tears them apart.

killerjoecolors Killer Joe Review (Film, 2012)

Technically, Killer Joe can’t be beat.

William Friedkin once again proves his mastery of the technical craft of filmmaking. The film is mixed to perfection. Not one disturbing line is left unintelligible no matter how soft or loud. You can see everything you need to see because the lighting design is functional and artistic. Color is played with to define dominance in the story and the cast is kept in muted neutrals–save Killer Joe’s jet black uniform–to take on new life as the color filters slowly shift throughout a scene.

Ultimately, though, the experiment of Killer Joe falls short on film. There’s not enough substance to balance out the extravagant makeup effects that define the action of the film. The characters evolve in ways that makes sense onstage–big revelations yield character changes rather than organic arcs–but read as static and unbelievable on film. Bigger is better and more is more on film and a one room play focusing on characters alone isn’t going to go anywhere no matter how many set changes you throw in.

Rating: 6/10

Thoughts on Killer Joe? Sound off below.

Magic Mike Review (Film, 2012)

For a film all about male strippers, Magic Mike sure has a lot of charm, wit, and mostly clothed characters in it. Director Stephen Soderbergh and screenwriter Reid Carolin took real life inspiration from star/producer Channing Tatum to tell an atypical version of the old superstar/apprentice boilerplate.

Tatum’s Magic Mike takes Adam under his tutelage to help Adam make a better life for himself through stripping. Adam dropped out of college after losing a football scholarship and crashes at his sister Brooke’s house. He meets Mike by chance and, by equal chance, Mike falls head over heels for Brooke. Brooke makes Mike promise to protect Adam from the darker side of the city but Adam wants to experience everything.

magicmikemoney Magic Mike Review (Film, 2012)

Magic Mike is a film with a lot of heart and character. The workers of Xquisite and their friends and lovers are good people; they’re just flawed. They try to enjoy life as best as they can while dealing with the reality that they only have what they have because of their bodies. Most of the regulars at the club have addictions of one kind or another and the behavior only gets worse when they get together.

The big twist on the star is born format is the character of Magic Mike. He wants to do something else. Stripping is a means to an end, not the end itself. He saves every dollar he makes to start a respectable business and actually do something with his life. Mike is the star of the club because the money is convenient. He has no problem bringing someone else into the lifestyle because he knows how good the money is. He just knows that living off his body and sex appeal doesn’t actually satisfy him.

This twist is what gives Magic Mike power. There are a whole lot of cliches and tired plot points that begin to take over in the second half. The first half, though, is so wildly inventive, funny, heartfelt, and filled with unexpected but believable character choices that you can easily gloss over the less substantive conclusion.

magicmikecharacter Magic Mike Review (Film, 2012)Soderbergh adds a lot of style to the story that also helps to elevate it. Life is brightest inside the club, but most of the story takes place in the yellow, faded light of day. For so many of the characters, the club is their only source of joy or satisfaction. The real world lacks the same pizzazz and star quality even when the characters are acting like they’re having a good time. It’s a subtle device that really brings out a great sense of tension when the story takes a turn for the cliched.

Magic Mike is a fun, heartfelt drama about a man trying to make a better life for himself. Sure, the male stripper play a big role in the film with all the bumping and grinding you would expect. The film just wisely chooses to focus on character over sensationalism before the first pair of pants are torn away.

Rating: 7/10

Thoughts on Magic Mike?

Holy Motors Review (Film, 2012)

A homeless woman begs for money on a busy sidewalk. An action star shoots an elaborate weapons sequence in a motion capture suit. A dying man consoles his grieving daughter. What do these characters have in common? They are all the same man, hired by an unknown force to act out big budget Hollywood pictures in real life.

Holy Motors is an experimental film by writer/director Leos Carax. It hinges itself on the obsession with film itself. People go wild over narrative filmmaking even though it is a total fantasy. How would the same people respond when confronted with monsters, murder, mayhem, and tragedy in real life?

holymotorsmotioncap Holy Motors Review (Film, 2012)

The closest comparison I can make is to Shion Sono’s Noriko’s Dinner Table. Both films involve characters hired to assume false identities and interact with real people. They both contain strict performance schedules, elaborate costume changes, and the absurdity that can only be created when people willingly participate in real world melodrama.

The difference is that Holy Motors uses this hired guns conceit as the substance of the film. There is no greater story arc because the mysterious Monsieur Oscar and his limo/mobile makeup/wardrobe trailer driver Celine do not change throughout the film. They know the job they are hired to do and they do it. Celine preps the file for the next act while Monsieur Oscar goes out and performs. She keeps him on schedule and gets him to each event on time. She herself acts when she has to in order to insure the secrecy of their shared occupational field.

Evaluating a film like Holy Motors comes down to how successful the experiment actually is. Does Holy Motors work on a conceptual level? I think so.

holymotorsmakeup Holy Motors Review (Film, 2012)There’s something oddly satisfying about watching Monsieur Oscar adjust wigs, apply spirit gum, and remove prosthetics in between jobs. His character rips back the curtain on the effects-heavy nature of even a slice of life drama at this point.

Why is it so necessary to completely transform one actor into another when there’s bound to be an actor better suited to the role as written on the page? Is this level of difficulty and effort essential to how we need to view film? A wig is one thing, but reconstructing faces with latex and glue just to make an actor become another actors is something else.

Holy Motors explores a wide range of film genres, so the various scenarios can feel a little unbalanced. A strange mob/action scenario that came off as strange to me might make perfect sense to you while the musical sequences that worked for me might leave you cold. Leo Carax is clearly willing to alienate some of the audience some of the time to bring his vision to life. The result is a film that succeeds at its conceptual mission, sometimes at the expense of the audience.

Rating: 8/10

Thoughts on Holy Motors? Sound off below.

Flight Review (Film, 2012)

In Flight, Denzel Washington stumbles around for two hours as a chronic alcoholic, coke fiend, and marijuana enthusiast while slurring out that he’s fine to take the stand in a hearing to determine if his alcohol and drug abuse caused a plane to crash land and kill six people on board. He meets a heroin addict/female savior who tries like hell to get him clean after she OD’d and wound up in the same hospital as him. His lawyer is a cold and calculating man just trying to stop the pilot’s union from taking a financial hit on the crash. His union advocate repeats no less than a dozen times “you can’t drink before the hearing” in his handful of scenes on film. And his drug dealer laughs about the press and comes across as the only realistic and cinematic character in the film.

To say that Flight is a miscalculation is an understatement. Much like an airline pilot forced to flip a plane upside to crash land in a field, Flight feels like the entire cast is flying blind. Perhaps they improvised the entire film and their ability to maintain such consistent key phrases from the big money prize board should be commended.

flightreview Flight Review (Film, 2012)Unfortunately for that theory, there is a credited screenwriter for this pablum. John Gatins (Real Steel, The Shaggy Dog) literally has the cast circle the drain, danging onto poorly repeated metaphors and plot points for the middle hour of the film until anything interesting happens again. The entire “she loves him so she’ll save him” subplot could be cut with no impact on the structure of the story. It’s just another way to shovel in more addiction story cliches into a film that didn’t need them.

Flight starts off with so much potential. The first 30 minutes are a strong thriller about an ill-fated flight. There’s genuine shock value found in opening this film with a clear look into pilot Whip Whitaker’s daily routine. That he can so calmly assure his flight staff that he’s good to take off in the middle of a terrible storm after what he did is shocking. The tension only builds from there until the plane hits the ground.

Director Robert Zemeckis, stepping away from the unyielding death masks of his decade of motion capture nonsense, manages to sell each individual scene as important. There is something of interest or worth in every scene even if it’s the 37th time we’ve seen Denzel Washington reach blackout drunk phase and fall on the floor next to a pile of cocaine. The plane crash and direct lead-in to the hearing at the end of the film are masterfully built sequences of suspense. No amount of visual wizardry or quality acting can connect the dots in a film that, on the page, has no identity of its own.

Ultimately, this is a case of not selling your best assets. Flight could be a tight legal thriller about where to place responsibility in the wake of terrible tragedy. Is it the fault of the unfit pilot? The ill-maintained plane? An act of God? Or some combination of those and other factors? Those are the most effective moments in the two-plus hour feature.

Instead, Flight is mostly a tired character study into the mind of an addict. It has absolutely nothing new to say about those circumstances. Actually, it does say something new, but saying “coke dealers are awesome” isn’t exactly a feel-good positive message.

Rating: 3/10

That’s one point for every John Goodman as a coke dealer scene. He’s almost worth the price of admission.

Share your thoughts below.

Argo Review (Film, 2012)

The year is 1979. A large militarized group of Iranian citizens storm the American embassy in retaliation for the United States taking in their deposed Shah for medical treatment. Six embassy workers escape to the Canadian ambassador’s home. Their escape is a secret hidden behind the wave of media following the Iranian hostage crisis at the embassy. A CIA specialist is brought in to plan their exit. He proposes producing a fake film and flying the six Americans home as part of his location scouting crew.

argoiran Argo Review (Film, 2012)

Ben Affleck stars in and directs Argo, loosely based on actual events during the Iranian hostage crisis. The result is a clean, tight thriller that is perhaps more interested in the false movie front than the rescue itself.

Argo comes alive once Affleck’s Tony Mendez proposes the film production front for the escape. He is given permission to fly out to Hollywood to meet with award-winning special effects make-up artist John Chambers, a CIA contact, to work out the details. They pull in producer Lester Siegel and go to town building an air-tight cover for the escape.

argofilm Argo Review (Film, 2012)All of the best scenes are saved for Mendez and the Hollywood contacts. John Goodman (Chambers) and Alan Arkin (Siegel) are excellent as the unexpected CIA operatives. They voice all the doubts the audience could have in believable ways and tackle the project with humor and bravado. This trio of characters are the best developed and most authentic in the film.

The focus on the film cover story comes at the expense of the actual crisis the fake film is supposed to solve. The six Americans are presented as archetypes, not characters, and most of the actors struggle to do anything but drink and cry for their scenes. The exception is Clea DuVall, who clearly did her homework building a backstory for her character so her mostly stoic role could really pop onscreen. The balance is so off between the two plot threads until they meet that you might be more invested in the success of the fake film cover than the lives of the six Americans. That’s a problem for a film about a plot to sneak six Americans out of Iran alive.

Despite the balance issues, Argo is still a tense and believable thriller. The CIA office scenes are perhaps a bit cliche, but they keep the story moving and add a welcome sense of context to the expansive nature of the escape. The final 30 minutes more than make up for any scripting/editing imbalance in the film.

Argo is an accessible thriller with a great hook and solid technical execution. It’s worth viewing if you have any interest in the subject.

Rating: 7/10

Thoughts on Argo? Sound off below.

A Separation Review (2011, Film)

A married couple in Iran have amicably agreed to a divorce. There is only one sticking point: who does their daughter, Termeh, live with? If Termeh goes with her mother Simin, they’ll be leaving Iran within a few weeks on a visa. If she stays with her father Nader, she’ll be helping him care for his rapidly ailing father in the throes of Alzheimer’s. The judge hearing the divorce case refuses to grant custody to either parent. Simin moves out of the house, forcing Nader to hire a full time caretaker for his sick father.

Until the caretaker actually shows up, A Separation is a fairly typical divorce/custody drama placed in a less explored context. Iranian law is largely based on the teaching of Islam. The faith of the nation helps define legal proceedings. As such, there are cultural complexities that make many simple interactions we might take for granted in the United States taboo within that nation.

aseperationvalues A Separation Review (2011, Film)

A Separation hinges its entire premise on interactions between men and women in Iran. Razieh, the caretaker, is put into distress within minutes of arriving on the job. Nader’s father has soiled himself and she is afraid that it would be a sin for her to physically touch him. He is not family and she knows that she is not allowed to touch him unless it is an extreme emergency.

Everything spirals out of control from there. Writer/director Asghar Farhardi crafts a tense and unpredictable drama predicated on faith, truth, and gender roles. Every character introduced by name winds up in front of a judge arguing in an ever expanding case of he said, she said with blood money on the line. No character is safe from having a darker side emerge when dealing with the legal disputes.

The only potential problem with A Separation is how much the film hinges on the complexity of the Iranian legal system. Obviously, as this is an Iranian film from an Iranian filmmaker, the context of the story is clear for its target audience. Buoyed by international success at festivals and awards ceremonies (it won Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards and was nominated for Original Screenplay), the film is being viewed by a much wider audience. The linear plot is clear and the build of tension is undeniable. I just wonder how much more effective the long series of investigation scenes would be with a better understanding of the laws and cultural customs of Iran. The big issues are clearly explained early on; it’s the little things that go beyond my knowledge and understanding.

aseperationlegal A Separation Review (2011, Film)

You do not need the full context of the legal system to understand how well made A Separation is. The movement of the camera is particularly impressive. Seemingly every character is treated in a slightly different way. Razieh’s husband Hojjat, a man quick to temper, is given quick cuts and sharp angle changes to reflect his temperament. Razieh gets a slower, more ponderous camera, as each decision she makes is a thoughtful one based on years of teaching. Termeh’s moments are quick and smooth, reflecting her attempts to stay away from conflict and just keep moving forward. Simin and Nader are both centered on the screen as much as possible. Simin moves more during her scenes, adding a fluidity that goes against the far more grounded shots of Nader. The camerawork is a clever touch that visually defines the differences between the major characters in the story.

A Separation is so well executed with such a great sense of tension that I struggle to think of a reason not to see it. You might not understand all the complexities of the legal process, but that process is only used to bring out rich character based conflict and twists.

Rating: 8/10

Thoughts on A Separation? You know I want to hear them. Sound off below.

Lawless Review (2012, Film)

I’ve hit an odd roadblock in reviewing Lawless. When I saw it on Friday, I was enthralled with it. Now, just a few days later, I’m struggling to remember what I found so compelling. How do you account for such a fleeting feeling of satisfaction when evaluating a film?

Lawless is based on Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World. It tells a story of bootlegging, organized crime, and police corruption during the tail end of Prohibition. Forrest and Howard Bondurant run a moonshine racket out of the family diner. The youngest brother, Jack, wants to go for something bigger. He’s smaller, but it doesn’t mean he can’t stand up against the big city bootleggers. Jack just happens to make his move when everyone in the greater Chicago area wants a piece of the Bondurants’ racket.

lawlessaction Lawless Review (2012, Film)

I cannot fault Lawless for its authenticity. This is a period film that does not neglect the little details that create a realistic world. From the hemlines in menswear to the different fabrics available depending on location, the costumes scream realism. So does the music. It’s primarily traditional American folk, though the big church scene in the first act uses authentic Sacred Harp arrangements for added weight and character. Even the labels on the boxes you can read and the slang vocabulary are true to period.

I can’t fault the acting, either. This cast is stellar. Shia LaBeouf gives his best performance since Disturbia as the youngest Bondurant brother. Then again, this is the first time he’s had a lead in a film with actual character development since Disturbia. Give him an actual screenplay and he can light up the screen.

lawlesssbondurant Lawless Review (2012, Film)

Then you have Tom Hardy as the oldest Bondurant brother. You might not remember a lot about Lawless when you walk out of the theater, but you won’t soon forget Forrest Bondurant. Tom Hardy fully embodies the role of a man who has convinced himself that rumor is truth and brute force trumps everything else. Forrest is one of the most unpredictable characters to appear onscreen in years because Hardy gives nothing away until it happens. It’s a brave and shocking performance that makes the film as strong as it is.

The supporting cast is good, as well, but they don’t have nearly enough to do. Both Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain play women who catch the eye of a Bondurant brother, but they’re used as plot devices more often then they’re explored as full characters. The same applies to Dane DeHaan as Cricket (a local crippled boy who knows everything about cars), Gary Oldman as big city gangster Floyd Banner, and Guy Pearce as Charlie Rakes (a crooked special detective trying to cut in on the backwoods bootlegging business). They all have scenes that are necessary to tell the story, but they don’t necessarily have enough material to work with to build memorable characters.

I believe that is the main problem with Lawless. There is nothing technically wrong with this film. The screenplay is structured well; you could set your watch to the placement of the acts and when the turns happen. The cinematography is effective, the cast is believable, and the direction is ]cohesive. Tom Hardy aside, there’s just nothing remarkable about the film.

There’s a good time to be had at Lawless. Just don’t expect some revelatory production that will make you rethink period dramas.

Rating: 7/10

Thoughts on Lawless? I think, with a little trimming and a faster pace, it could have been really exciting. It’s just so even tempered that nothing really stands out on its own. What do you think? Sound off below.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home Review (2012, Film)

If a 30 year old man who lives in his mother’s basement and smokes pot all day told you everything is connected in the world, would you believe him?

That’s the premise of Jeff, Who Lives at Home, written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass (aka the Duplass Brothers, Cyrus, Baghead). It’s an intriguing concept that plays with audience expectations and the role of the unreliable narrator. If you know there’s no way the main character, Jeff (Jason Segel), could possibly have an accurate view of the world, how do you follow along with a single idea he has the rest of the film?

jeffwholives1 Jeff, Who Lives at Home Review (2012, Film)

The humor of Jeff, Who Lives at Home comes from this conceit. Jeff’s family–his mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), and his brother, Pat (Ed Helms)–serve as a proxy for the viewer in the film. The action is set into motion because Sharon wants Jeff to actually do something on her birthday. She leaves him a note and five dollars to go pick up wood glue at the Home Depot and fix a broken slat on a door. Pat gets pulled in to force Jeff to actually follow through with something outside of the house. Jeff has other plans. He received a strange phone call asking for Kevin and now is convinced that somehow he must find and help Kevin that day.

The rest of the film is a madcap comedy of paranoia, throwing out stories about secret admirers, fidelity, and the nature of fate in the world. Each individual strand is fine. Taken together, they start to get a bit muddy.

Take Sharon’s story. Sharon, frustrated that her younger son is wasting his life, just wants the simple home repair as a birthday gift. She knows she won’t get anything else. When her frustration peaks, she receives an anonymous instant message on her work computer. The man claims to be her secret admirer who doesn’t care that she’s older or frustrated with her life.

jeffwholives2 Jeff, Who Lives at Home Review (2012, Film)

Taken alone, Susan Sarandon makes what’s essentially a one woman storyline (with an assist from a PC) quite compelling. Her reactions to the escalating office fling are hilarious and adorable. I would easily watch a whole movie about this character falling in love with the idea of falling in love.

Sharon’s story is not the whole movie. It’s only a fraction of what happens during the film. At the same time, Pat is in a fight with his wife (an excellent turn by Judy Greer) over the purchase of a Porsche (“surprise,” he says, before she makes her true feelings known). Jeff follows a teenager with the name “Kevin” on his jersey while riding the bus. Pat finds Jeff wandering around a parking lot and starts fighting with him over his status in life. The stories only branch out further from there.

jeffwholives3 Jeff, Who Lives at Home Review (2012, Film)

I understand where the Duplass Brothers are going. They want to make a sweet little story about doing the right thing and how the choices you make impact the direction your life will go in. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is quite successful at being sweet.

The problem is that this larger matrix they’ve built up exists only to make an emotional climax on its own terms feel more grand. It’s a poor choice. By the time you get there, everything feels too calculated and twee to feel real or substantial. It’s worse than a slapped on happy ending; it’s a satisfying conclusion ruined by scale and scope.

Rating: 4/10

Thoughts? I had a lot of fun watching Jeff, Who Lives at Home, but felt a little empty at the end. Sarandon is the MVP, but Segel has never been better. What about you? Share your thoughts below. I love to hear from you.

Margaret Review (2011, Film)

Margaret is, in some ways, a love letter to everyday NYC. The environment writer/director Kenneth Lonergan brought to life onscreen is the New York City I remember from when I lived there. No matter how private your life is, how personal the moment, you will always be surrounded by people. Someone will always see you. Whether or not they choose to be that witness is another story.

Lisa Cohen is a high school student wise beyond her years. In many way, she still acts like a child who wants everything she wants and doesn’t take no for an answer. Yet her ability to conduct herself as an adult and demand respect is unparalleled by anyone else in her life. That is until she plays a key role in the death of a pedestrian in a terrible bus accident. Lisa chooses to see what she wants to see during her fleeting relationship with a cowboy hat wearing bus driver and chooses to lie to the police about what really happened.

For the next two hours and ten minutes, Lisa grapples with the choice she made. Lonergan brings in a bunch of superfluous details–her mother is starting a new relationship, her teachers are growing frustrated with her know it all attitude, she’s embracing the male gaze as a sign of power–but the driving force is the accident. Her memory and choices overtake every aspect of her life until they become the only thing she lives for.

Margaret is a difficult film to watch. The main plot is engaging, but every diversion Lonergan throws in makes it that much harder to follow the story. Everything comes back to Lisa because Lisa is the center of her own universe. She is a self-centered teen who loves hyperbole and relishes every opportunity to throw out a big word and put someone down for not being as smart as her.

margaret2 Margaret Review (2011, Film)

What makes the film as watchable as it is in its bloated and meandering flesh is the cast. Anna Paquin is electric as Lisa Cohen. She looks older than a high school student in the classroom scenes, but place her against any adult and she looks like she’s barely thirteen. It’s a brilliant casting choice and Lonergan does everything he can to play up this disparity to isolate Paquin’s performance from everyone else in the film. With the exception of one very emotional scene (she loses the American accent when she’s on the verge of tears), it’s as close to flawless as you can get as an actor.

J. Smith-Cameron, as Lisa’s physically absent but emotionally engaged mother, is pitch perfect in her performance. She has the worst plots thrown at her–the opening of her Broadway show, especially is a distraction that could have been shown once or twice and established the point–yet manages to trick you into thinking every moment she has is important. I’d gladly watch the Joan Cohen feature film from Kenneth Lonergan; I just wish it wasn’t part of Margaret.

margaret3 Margaret Review (2011, Film)

Then there’s the wide ensemble with only a few scenes to their names. Allison Janney plays the victim in the bus accident and she should have been nominated for every award during the 2011 film season. What she does with one short scene is what acting is all about. Matthew Broderick and Matt Damon play two of Lisa’s who coddle her a bit too much because of her intellect. The arcs they create with only a handful of scenes do more to define the growth of Lisa Cohen than anything Lisa Cohen does on her own. Kieran Culkin and John Gallagher Jr. (Tony winner, Spring Awakening) play the only friends Lisa has in her age group and find authentic moments in some absurd scenes.

But herein lies the problem with Margaret. All the individual elements–the actors, the design, the editing, the sound, the self-contained scenes–are excellent. They just don’t all add up to much of anything at all. There is a point about 90 minutes into the film where, if the story just stopped, it would be a brilliant film. Lonergan has established all the key story points and put these characters on very clear paths to their destinies. Instead of allowing the audience to define the experience, Lonergan stubbornly ties up every plot point with a big scene regardless of the impact on the overall story.

I want to say all the film needed was some judicious editing, but that’s a big aspect of the production that cannot be ignored. Margaret was shot in 2005. From there, a wide variety of reports have come out all claiming to explain why it took the film until 2010 to be complete. The most pervasive rumor is that Lonergan demanded perfection in the editing room, but his desired three hour cut of the film was not acceptable to the distributor. He had to knock at least thirty minutes out of a film with a 168 page shooting script. That’s a significant change.

So, if this is the carefully edited, screen tested, satisfy the distributors edit of the film, how do you reconcile the odd diversions within the tighter focus? I think the problem comes from having to spend too much time with the story. To Lonergan, what he kept in is essential to his vision of Margaret. To a film audience that doesn’t know what the full version of the story is–how he actually intended to tell it–it feels a bit misguided.

I liked what I saw. I just wish that Lisa’s story was the clear focus the whole way through. That’s what I wanted to witness.

Rating: 6/10

Thoughts on Margaret? I’d actually love to see Lonergan adapt this for the stage. I think a nice three act structure and the constraints of a physical set could do wonders to bring this story alive. The one drawback would be the cast size. If you move everything indoors, you don’t need the constant flow of traffic to create NYC. You’re still dealing with full classrooms of active participants and all the friends, relatives, and players in the accident that drives the narrative. I’d be interested in seeing how that could come together.

What about you? Sound off below. Love to hear from you.

Film Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Tilda Swinton is an incredible actor. She is capable of making truly deplorable characters compelling onscreen. From the drugged up kidnapper of Julia to the unambitious adulteress of I Am Love, Swinton can make you want to watch a bad person make terrible decisions for two hours, no problem.

The difference between those films and the Lynn Ramsey-directed/co-written adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin is narrative cohesion. Swinton is at her best when you get to see the progression of her character. Chop up her work and the spell is broken.

weneedtotalkaboutkevinslap Film Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Eva wants to be the victim in this story

I can’t imagine there is an easy way to approach this subject. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a film about the aftermath of a school shooting. The central figure is Eva, the mother of the boy who carried out the attack. She is the pariah of the town, harassed, bullied, and beaten because her son took their children away. She’s lost her home, her family, and her sanity in the wake of the attack. Every time Eva takes a chance on herself, she’s hurt all over again by someone else.

Now imagine trying to tell that story using an epistolary novel where only one person writes any letters.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a pastiche of scenes from the life of a boy who knows how to get on his mother’s nerves. Sure, he could use the toilet anytime he wants to around four or five years old. It’s just more fun to torment his mother by insisting on wearing a diaper and punishing her with bowel movements. He could be nicer to his younger sister, but getting a rise out of Mumsy is far more entertaining.

At least that’s how Eva views the situation. The reality might be quite different. Eva is nowhere near a reliable narrator. She constantly looks outward for someone to blame. One of the most disturbing images in the context of the film is when Eva walks Kevin in his stroller into the middle of a construction site so she doesn’t have to hear him scream. A minute later, he’s four or five years old and Eva is convinced the child has gone deaf from screaming too much. There is no moment of self-awareness that any potential damage could have been caused by jackhammer field trips for her own sanity. Eva wipes away her offenses as soon as she can lay blame on someone else.

The problem is that we don’t get to see these calculations at work. The first hour of the film is the world actually abusing Eva. She wakes up to find that someone has covered her house and car in red paint. A grieving mother splits her lip because “someone’s having a nice day.” She can’t walk down the street without someone staring at her and her son’s crimes are constantly laid at her feet.

weneedtotalkaboutkevinkevin Film Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Ezra Miller steals the show as Kevin

This is mixed with shots of a young Kevin rebelling against her. He won’t roll the ball. He won’t say “Mama” even though he can talk. He won’t eat properly, sit still, get dressed, or follow any rules at all. He’s painted as a hell spawn bent on destroying her life.

Then you realize that Eva really is insane and the story gets interesting. Once Tilda Swinton actually has a real scene partner–Ezra Miller as the teenage Kevin–and the film can focus on their relationship, it’s thrilling. Kevin has grown up to be the spitting image of his mother. He’s passive aggressive. He’s vindictive. He’s prone to random acts of violence and blaming everyone else for his problems. It’s not that he’s a sociopath by choice; he learned it from his mother. Or did he? The film wisely refuses to take a stand on that issue.

If We Need to Talk About Kevin shuffled the scenes around in the first ninety minutes, it could be a masterpiece. There is nothing to grab onto for the first ten or so minutes of the film. What does Eva at the La Tomatina festival have to do with the story at hand? Is it Eva’s safe place? Why doesn’t it recur later on then? As it stands, it’s just a bizarre scene with no bearing on the story being told.

It’s almost as if Lynn Ramsey didn’t know what she could get rid of from the novel. Two hours feels like the right amount of time for this story. It’s just not organized well enough to sell Eva as a character whose story needs to be told.

Rating: 5/10

Thoughts? I hear the book is quite upsetting. Would it be worth reading to try to understand what was happening at all in the first hour of the movie? Sound off below with your thoughts on the book and the film. I’m don’t think I’m done with Kevin yet and I’d love to hear from you.

Django Unchained Teaser

The teaser trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained frightens me in the best ways possible. The performances seem positively unhinged. The concept is pure pulp. Everything seems to be winking at the audience. It’s possibly more self-aware and darkly humorous than Death Proof.

Yet, I found myself clapping with delight at the expected beats. Look, there’s Christoph Waltz’s bounty hunter shooting faster than any man without bullet time abilities in years. There’s Jamie Foxx digging into Django’s transformation from slave to honorary bounty hunter. And there’s Leonardo DiCaprio being as smarmy and privileged as can be.

The footage looks beautiful but still has those Tarantino flourishes. Can another US director splatter blood on a pretty white landscape as nicely as Tarantino? I don’t think so.

Last time Tarantino went for a twist on history, he scored big. Inglourious Basterds netted seven Academy Award nominations for rewriting the history of WWII by way of melodrama and long tight dialogue scenes. Will Django Unchained provoke a similar reaction with darkest chapter in American history? We’ll see when it comes out on Christmas day, 2012.

Thoughts? I’m most curious about the editing of the picture after the unexpected passing of his long-time collaborator Sally Menke. What about you? Sound off below.

Film Review: Coriolanus (2011)

Shakespeare is hard. There’s no two ways about it. Even onstage, you have to get everyone in the cast on board with the same interpretation or the play does not flow. The rhythm, cadence, accents, and style have to fit together or it’s a mess.

When you bring the Bard’s work to the big screen, the challenge is even harder. Shakespeare’s plays are practically glued to the boards. Almost all of the action happens offstage. You might get a sword fight here or there, but all the real war, assault, confrontation, death, and mayhem happens in the wings. They’re plays of reaction to major events rather than major events that drive reactions.

Coriolanus, one of the less produced works, could make for a great feature film adaptation. It’s comparatively short, could easily be done on a shoestring budget, and relies on a strong ensemble cast to get its point across. It’s a play about the will of the people against the will of the state and those who choose to manipulate the balance.

Sadly, Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut Coriolanus is not that film. The casting is suitable, if not spectacular. The short-tempered soldier Coriolanus will tear through you (as he should) with Fiennes’ performance. Gerard Butler and Jessica Chastain are fine foils for war and civility in their work as Aufidius and Virgilia. The ensemble of concerned citizens and the cavalcade of powerless politicians all do what they need to do, with notable but thankless work from Lubna Azabal and Brian Cox.

coriolanusvanessaredgrave Film Review: Coriolanus (2011)

Pro Tip: If you know the play, just skip to Volumnia's scenes. You'll be much happier.

Vanessa Redgrave, however, feels like she was born to play Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother. In this adaptation, her harsh militaristic attitude is supported by being a high level military strategist and former soldier herself. She ravages the movie. No one survives scene work with her because she outclasses their performance in every way. If the film was called Volumnia and focused on Redgrave’s performance, it would be a masterpiece*.

It’s not. This is the over-bloated story of Coriolanus. Fiennes does the popular (but rather tired) modern military dress adaptation of Shakespeare. Everyone is a soldier, a rebel, a politician, or a terrorist. Images are copied straight from the news footage of US soldiers taking Baghdad in April 2003. Long and bloody battle scenes do nothing to engage the viewer or expand the role of Coriolanus.

We know from his words that he is a soldier fighting against enemies rather than a man of the people. There is no surprise in seeing him take down entire buildings by himself while earning scars he won’t show. It’s especially pointless when the makeup department covered his face and head in curvy scars that actually take away from the impact of the coerced rebellion against Coriolanus’ installation in politics.

coriolanusralphfiennes Film Review: Coriolanus (2011)

Coriolanus is a man lost in war. Ralph Fiennes is a man lost in Shakespeare.

Coriolanus is at its best when it is simple. The story comes alive when everyone is in a self-contained area and delivers their lines as a working ensemble. This is the tense material that makes the play so worthwhile. Too bad it’s a rarity in this adaptation.

Coincidentally, these are the only scenes where every actor follows the same cadence and approaches the material in the same way. They come alive not just because of the content but because of the cohesion. Shakespeare taken line by line in isolation is not Shakespeare; it’s random flourishes of linguistic skills with no point beyond showing off. Taken together, the unity of the language comes out. You recognize the recurring and evolving images and devices of the text and use them to inform your interpretation of the performance.

Even a die hard Shakespeare fan will be disappointed in this adaptation of Coriolanus. Pure Shakespeare will never be an action/epic/thriller in the modern sense. If you want to turn Shakespeare into a boom-splosion masterpiece, translate the text to modern English and have at it. If you want to turn Shakespeare into a working film, let your actors do the heavy lifting.

Rating: 3/10

Thoughts? I’ll start. I think the only reason Vanessa Redgrave was not nominated for Best Supporting Actress is that anyone who received the screener and wasn’t reviewing the film shut it off long before she first shows up onscreen. What do you think? Sound off below.

*Mine! I claimed it. You can’t have it.