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The Lobster (2015)
An Over-Cooked Crustacean
'The Lobster' comes out of its shell with an absurd premise - that a society exists where people who fail to maintain a relationship with their spouse are sent to a 're-education camp'. This rehab for singles takes the form of a regimented bourgeois hotel where the guests must find a replacement partner within 45 days. If they succeed, they are permitted to return to a dreary urban existence with their new significant other. If they can't accomplish this simple task, the hopeless losers are exiled to the surrounding forest where they are hunted down with tranquilizer guns, prior to being transformed into an animal of their choice.
This nonsense fable is delivered with all the sophistication of a stoner's daydream. The robotic acting and a deadpan script produces only profound tedium, punctuated by some random episodes of unpleasant cruelty and theatrical silliness. It's hard to see the point of this farcical allegory, but if one were being extremely charitable, one might concede it makes a couple of kindergarten-level observations about human behavior.
Flushing Rats out of the Sewer
'Spotlight' provides a riveting look at the Boston Globe investigation of the Roman Catholic pedophile priest scandal. As almost everybody knows, the church hierarchy concealed their knowledge of numerous priests who were molesting and raping under-age parishioners. The cover-up of these serious felonies was orchestrated through pay-offs and arm-twisting by Boston's archbishop, the despicable Cardinal Bernard Law. This corrupt cleric seemed to rule over the city, and his criminal negligence allowed the depraved activity to continue for many years.
The victims were countless Bostonians who endured this abuse and had their lives ruined. The heroes were an embattled lawyer, a resolute editor and a small group of persistent journalists who dismantled the obfuscation and red tape of respected authority figures and entrenched institutions. The villains were Law, his venal church and the priests who pretended piety while they preyed upon the young. 'Spotlight' tells this twisted tale with excellent writing, direction and acting.
It's worth noting Law fled to Rome after the scandal broke, was given an honorary position and still lives in comfort in a Vatican palace. In 2012 he was the prime lobbyist against giving women more responsibility in the church. Nothing much appears to have changed in the RC Boys' Club.
Big Eyes (2014)
'Big Eyes' is a lightweight biopic about a divorced single mother called Margaret Ulbrich, who dreams of supporting herself as an artist while she paints kitschy portraits of street children with sad, over-sized eyes. After meeting and marrying a glib hustler, she permits her new husband to claim authorship of her work when he sells a couple of the paintings. Like Thomas Kinkade's similar exercises in tacky taste, crude craftsmanship and sappy sentimentality, Margaret's 'masterpieces' soon become monstrously popular.
Based on real events, the film skates over the psychological issues, and depicts only the surface of the couple's dysfunctional relationship. Predictably, many story elements have been altered or invented for dramatic effect, and some 'facts' of this version are disputed. Amy Adams is exceptional as usual, but the movie's major weakness is Christoph Waltz's over-the-top pantomime villain performance as her sociopathic spouse, who schemes, blusters and womanizes while Margaret labors anonymously in the studio. Director Burton pads out his flimsy material with generic characters like Terence Stamp's NYT art critic, Jason Schwartzman's gallery owner, and Danny Huston's journalist, who also provides some unnecessary narration. In the end - like Margaret's paintings - "Big Eyes' only delivers a chintzy ephemeral experience.
Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Occasionally the Coen Brothers turn out films with a little substance, but these days it's mostly powder-puff satirical comedies. 'Hail Caesar' belongs firmly in the latter category, with its farcical tale of a lead actor kidnapped by a clique of Communist intellectuals from the set of a campy melodrama about Ancient Roman legionnaires. The studio's Mr Fix-It searches for his lost star while he negotiates with a potential new employer and pacifies the inflated egos of actors, directors and gossip columnists. After about twenty minutes, it becomes obvious this absurd story is just an excuse to serve up some pastiches of 1950s-era movie scenes being filmed on the lot.
These theatrical frolics combined with the half-baked mystery might produce a couple of weak chuckles, but little else. The plot is both fragmented and threadbare, the characters are all stereotypes, and their exchanges no more meaningful than Saturday Night Live skits. There are plenty of insider jokes and caricatures of movie-land personalities, but that's insufficient reason to spend ten seconds analyzing this self-satisfied trifle for subtexts. It's an unambitious, insulting mess, and a waste of everybody's time.
Gone Girl (2014)
Girl Out to Lunch
'Gone Girl' begins with a married man, Nick, returning to his suburban home to find an open door, broken furniture, blood spatters and his wife Amy missing. Within a couple of days, Nick's account of an idyllic marriage starts falling apart, and the local police begin to suspect he's a wife-killer. Ominous clues are discovered, while a tabloid talk-show host ramps up public hysteria with gossipy revelations supplied by one of Amy's neighborhood pals. Director Fincher encourages his audience to join this vilification of Nick as flashbacks portray the couple's life together from entries in Amy's diary.
Although the film possesses a few innovative ideas, it ends up a banal melodrama drowned by a deluge of plot-holes. None of its narrative devices are the slightest bit subtle, and only the terminally naive will fall for the script's clumsy red herrings. The credibility issues are numerous and gigantic, and the characters remain resolutely shallow as the tale descends into farce. The big revelation arrives far too early, whereupon any residual tension immediately evaporates. The last third of 'Gone Girl' becomes increasingly far-fetched - and by the time it reaches its conclusion, it has become irretrievably lost in the realm of the ridiculous.
Fireflies in the Garden (2008)
Fly in the Ointment
'Fireflies in the Garden' reveals how much film producers despise their writers, directors, actors and audience. A movie which ran for 122 minutes in its original cut, has been chopped down to 89 minutes for its DVD release. The story is a fairly complicated family drama about past abuse, secrets and betrayals, so even the most attentive viewer will be watching with furrowed brows as the missing action frequently makes the characters' behavior incomprehensible.
The film has some decent performances from an outstanding cast, but their talents are wasted since the fragmented plot produces only confusion and frustration. Few screenplays can survive losing 25% of their material, and it's pointless to write a real review when the narrative arc of this abbreviated version makes so little sense. There are numerous instance where issues are raised, but never followed up, leading to a conclusion which is an anti-climactic farce due to all the excisions and omissions.
The Riot Club (2014)
The Rotten Club
Miles and Alistair are a pair of privileged freshmen at Oxford University who are invited to join an elite club devoted to drunkenness and debauchery. Miles appears to be a fairly decent fellow who has become romantically involved with a working class student called Lauren, while Alistair has several loose screws, and is wedded to his delusions of superiority. After enduring some juvenile initiation rites, the two newcomers join some seasoned student hedonists for a bacchanalian feast in a country pub's private dining room.
Unfortunately the club members are just caricatures of spoiled fascist brats as the second half of the film observes their tedious antics at this interminable blow-out. The aristocratic lowlifes turn out to be less sophisticated than soccer hooligans as they over-indulge in various intoxicants, insult the pub's staff, get rejected by a prostitute and trash the joint. After Alistair lures Lauren to the gathering, the entitled yahoos insult and assault the girl, and the evening degenerates into an orgy of excess, followed by violence and betrayals. Despite some fine acting and high production values, the film misses several opportunities to make a deeper impression. Most obviously, Miles and Lauren's relationship is given very perfunctory attention compared to the endless depiction of drunken mayhem, and this oversight dilutes the dramatic effect of the girl's cruel mistreatment when she arrives at the revelry.
Reach Me (2014)
Reaching Rock Bottom
'Reach Me' exemplifies the potential pitfalls of a vanity project. Financed by crowd-funding, this mess of a movie demonstrates how producers and bean-counters can prevent an egotistic writer/director from delivering a self-indulgent, audience-tormenting fiasco. Ostensibly the film relates how an inspirational self-help book by a reclusive author affects the lives of a collection of individuals. Unfortunately the platitudes of the fictional book and the embarrassing final product reek of complacency and the loss of critical faculties.
Only dope-addled stoners will be able to perceive any coherence in the muddled plot. In addition, most of the characters possess annoying personality traits, and the script obliges them to act out endless sequences of scenes depicting imbecilic behavior. Hopefully the film's brutal rejection by distributors and the public has been a sobering experience for those who conceived the idea, donated their hard-earned cash or allowed themselves to be flattered into participating.
The Calling (2014)
Auto-dialing a Serial Killer
Set in the wintry rural wasteland of Canada, 'The Calling' resembles a slow-witted bastard child of 'Fargo' and 'Omen'. A serial killer is quietly going about his business until depressed, alcoholic, pill-popping Sheriff Hazel is roused from her suicidal daydreams after stumbling upon the mutilated corpse of an elderly female acquaintance. Soon she has discovered several other mutilated remains have been scattered around the frozen countryside, leading Hazel to suspect one of cinema's most blood-curdling stock villains is on the prowl in the precinct. Scoffed at by her superior, she marshals the small town's oddball duo of police officers and their perky receptionist to catch themselves a deranged predator. Soon they are detecting like big city gumshoes, sipping strong black coffee in their cruisers and hot on the maniac's trail.
The script reveals some glaring holes as Hazel's team uncovers an occult connection linking the killings, but the cast's fine acting papers over some of these shortcomings. When all the loose ends are tied up, the killer turns out to be a fairly routine lunatic, the rationale for his activities is the standard silliness for this genre of film, and 'The Calling' is exposed as a rather tired old workhorse.
Like Sunday, Like Rain (2014)
Like Life, Like Indie Film
When Brooklyn waitress Eleanor has a sudden break-up with her fractious boyfriend, she needs a new job and roof over her head as soon as possible. She lucks out finding a position as live-in nanny to precocious, privileged Reggie who lives in a luxurious apartment on the upper west side of NYC. Both characters deal with their dysfunctional family backgrounds by maintaining reserved exteriors, and this unusual small-scale film portrays the developing relationship between a blue-collar young woman and the neglected twelve year old.
The story begins slowly and continues at a leisurely pace throughout. Although nothing very dramatic occurs, their bond gradually deepens as they spend time with one another and discover a common interest in music. Leighton Meester and Julian Shatkin give nicely observed performances in the lead roles, but the script doesn't give them anywhere particularly interesting to go. Some emotional turmoil occurs when Reggie accompanies Eleanor back to her upstate home town due to a family crisis, but the episode seems rushed and artificial compared to other events. Their story eventually arrives at an understated conclusion.