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Tangerine (2015)
Not even close to justifying all the hype
18 December 2015
Someone is going to have to explain to me why this film is on so many "Best of 2015" lists (assuming of course that putting it on those lists wasn't just some sort of misguided feint at artistic affirmative action -- and, yes, I realize I speak blasphemy). One of the most ham-handed and poorly realized films I've seen in years. The acting is amateurish, but not in the way that is charming. Rather, it's amateurish in that way that makes you cringe. The dialogue is dreadful, and the plot is essentially non-existent. Many, many issues are depicted, but none of them is explored because, in fact, this is a film entirely without insight. I know Tangerine is a first of sorts: a film about a certain kind of trans life and with trans actors, but I cannot for the life of me understand what makes it a good movie, never mind one of the best. It took us two nights to finish watching this film (and it only lasts 88 minutes), and we only persisted because of all the rave reviews. You could save yourself the trouble and not miss much.
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Blackhat (2015)
Rehashed, recycled, reheated, redundant ... and a lot of other synonyms for bogus
18 December 2015
You've seen this film. Believe me, you have. There is almost no way to spoil it because you'll know exactly how it's going to go after the first 15 minutes. An embarrassment for Viola Davis, and increased nudity would have been the only thing that could have rendered Chris Hemsworth's presence minimally tolerable. (In this film, he is doing his best to channel every ounce of talent and screen presence that, say, Brian Bosworth brought to his roles.) Slow, relentlessly predictable, trite, and just plain silly (the way security and encryption systems work is completely invented). Delirious, blurry chase scenes and shoot-em-ups that have essentially nothing to do with anything. Random explosions. Something about nuclear power plants. Big, dramatic revelations that you saw coming an hour before. Perhaps there was more nuance in Morgan Davis Foehl's original script, but they must have had difficulty deciphering the parts written in crayon. Go out of your way to avoid this groaner.
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Watch it with the sound off
28 August 2015
The images of the 30 or 40-thousand-year-old drawings inside the Grotte Chauvet are absolutely stunning, spell-binding, wondrous. If you're the sort of person who is moved and amazed by this kind of thing, then this is truly your kind of thing! What mars the documentary are three elements: 1) an almost total lack of archaeological/anthropological explanation (and I don't count the pony-tailed ex-circus juggler-turned-archaeologist who barely seems to understand Herzog's ridiculous questions and does his best to respond but still ends up sounding like a French Milhouse Van Houten; 2) a musical soundtrack that is grating, repetitive, irritating, over-the-top, inappropriate, and just plain preposterous (flights of celestial choruses drone as the camera pans over the paintings on the cave walls); and 3) Herzog's inane, pretentious, Euro-trash narration, which comes in at about the intellectual level of a thoroughly stoned junior high student. Just wait for the last few minutes when you get to the part about the albino crocodiles and see if you don't hoot with laughter. The Chauvet Cave is extraordinary; Herzog is a farce.
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The Guest (I) (2014)
I Guest Not
16 August 2015
Starts out looking like a serviceable and promising—if perhaps not hugely imaginative—psychological thriller, and Dan Stevens' ever- shifting facial expressions are a neat bit of foreshadowing. In the last half, however, the film deteriorates into a silly, heavy- handed, overwrought teen-slasher pic with outlandish splatter effects and a "monster" who, although stabbed and shot, cannot be killed. The fact that the writers never bother to explain the nature of the top- secret program—of which David (Dan Stevens' character) is supposedly both an alumnus and an escapee—is a major (and foolish) bit of clumping amateurism. As the film progresses, David looks seedier and seedier until there's not the slightest credibility left that he could fool anyone about his true nature or intentions. Lance Reddick turns in the most wooden (or simply arthritic), 70s-style performance of his career, and you will need nerves of steel to avoid bursting into giggles as you watch him pretend to lead a SWAT team or fire a gun. Given the promising setup and first 30 minutes, the film is a major disappointment.
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Dull ... Dull and a Half
14 July 2015
This film is advertised as a documentary, but I actually experienced it as a low- budget horror film along the lines of The Blair Witch Project. In fact, I wasn't sure whether it was more terrifying to imagine being forced to go on a 225-mile hike in the company of this insufferable coven of Starbucks yuppies or being on an innocent walk in the woods, stumbling across the filmmakers, and having to listen to them play finger-cymbals and talk about kale. The fact that none of them can stay off their freaking cell phones for more than an hour at a time is almost enough reason to leave them on the trail as bear chum (yes, these are the guys you come across on the banks of the most gorgeous lake you've ever seen who celebrate the occasion by calling someone in another state to talk about espresso capsules). If that doesn't do it for you, the documentary also features the Most Irritating White Man In North America (you'll recognize him by his hipster hat, his hipster beard, and his hipster humor-- he's so ironic that even his irony is ironic). Though the filmmakers quote John Muir incessantly, you can't help feeling Muir would have chosen to become a bricklayer if he'd known the trail that bears his name would one day be traversed by people like these.
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"Reality" Isn't Enough
4 December 2014
Though the last 10 minutes or so, which deal with Mariel Hemingway's suicide-prevention activism and participation in a walkathon, are quite touching, this unfocused documentary bogs down badly for the 90 minutes that come before. What it shows is a wealthy, white, bourgeois, deeply screwed up family of American WASPs—but if that's mental illness, then 80% of the Republican party is mentally ill. Alcoholism, drug abuse, unhappy marriages, neglected children, allegations of sex abuse and the completely typical attendant family dramas about who is lying about that abuse and who is refusing to acknowledge the truth may have a certain soap-operaish, staring-at- a-train-wreck appeal, but they are connected to the topic of mental illness and suicide by only the flimsiest of threads. The film is uncomfortable to watch because much of its "realness" is presented without context or analysis. When Mariel visits her oldest sister, Joan (Muffet), who is semi- institutionalized, Joan is clearly suffering symptoms of tardive dyskinesia brought about by long-time use of anti-psychotics. The fact that the two women giggle and reminisce as if things were perfectly normal but with no mention of Joan's condition is simply gruesome. Nor is there any commentary regarding Mariel's bizarre, exploitative decision to visit her sister after not having seen her for more than a year, apparently solely so she can film the encounter for the documentary. Scenes of Mariel's interactions with her husband who is – let's be honest about it – a cruel, sexist, abusive jerk, only underscore the extent to which the film's material is undigested; there's something both disturbing and naive about the idea that depicting emotional pain is the same as having insight into it. Unhappy families may experience unhappiness each in their own way, but there's very little in this film to hint that members of the Hemingway clan have learned much about coping with theirs.
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Naked, but DOA
21 November 2014
The two male protagonists in this film were clearly chosen for their pectorals rather than for their acting ability, and that about sums up the general quality of this forgettable drama. With the exception of S. Lue McWilliams who, as the dying mother (and only grownup), has too few moments on screen, the acting is very "daytime soap" – in short, overwrought and about as subtle as a crutch. Karmine Alers in particular starts at about 120% pit bull and ramps up from there. In most of her scenes you're too worried that she's going to have a stroke to pay attention to what she's saying. The scene in which she supposedly softens enough to expose her "true soul" by singing, a cappella, a banal Britney Spears knockoff is almost too painful to watch. The real dog of this movie, however, is the direction and the screenplay, maladroitly handled in both cases by Richard LeMay. LeMay shows that he understands approximately nothing about pacing, and there so many crescendo moments that the overall effect is numbing rather than engaging. The characters fight about the same things, over and over. They say the same terrible things to each other, over and over. They come to moments of gut-wrenching emotional crisis, over and over. And then they make breakfast. It's about as amateur as it comes, and LeMay cries wolf too many times. When we finally reach the final scene, Elliot's deathless lines can only provoke peals of laughter. For the entire rest of this film, his character has displayed the emotional depth of a garden gnome, and his sudden moment of deep, voiced-over wisdom is an unbelievable, unearned fortune-cookie aphorism.
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Lone Survivor (2013)
Propaganda, 2013 Style
24 October 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Good God, this was a terrible movie, and I can't quite understand how people like Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg let themselves get caught up in such a piece of propagandistic hogwash. Marcus Luttrelle is hardly an uncomplicated figure—his numerous right-wing comments in interviews since his book came out, for instance, make clear the extent to which he's the typical brainwashed 'Murrican soldier—and there's absolutely nothing here to raise this film above the thoughtless, hoo-rah level of a period John Wayne flick (with much more fake blood). Numerous slow periods are punctuated by gruesome violence. Is this supposed to teach us something? Like "war is hell" or some other profound thought? Only a person with a heart of stone could fail to burst into laughter at the scene in which Marcus—near death and barely able to walk—stops to embrace a small Afghani child before climbing onto the helicopter that is going to carry him to safety (where he immediately codes and has to be shocked back to life). That level of flagrant, unsubtle pandering is exactly what makes this film a waste of everyone's time. This is a film for people who have drunk the Kool-Aid; if you retain the capacity for critical thought, you'll find it a bloody bore.
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You'll Think You Spent Five Years Watching This Drivel
5 September 2013
Rom-com C list drivel: predictable plot that takes its sweet time getting to the painfully inevitable conclusion. A few funny moments, but problems of both pacing and tone are fatal, as are the silly Brit stereotypes, the silly Jewish stereotypes, the silly "clueless straight guy" stereotypes. Jason Segal is, at times, so unbearably unattractive – both physically and as a character – that the whole "love of her life" angle turns into more disbelief than any normal person can suspend without hydraulic help. In the end, what the film has to say about relationships is a lot of galling treacle. That doesn't set it apart from its appalling genre; rather, it simply reinforces how utterly pointless that genre is.
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Flight (I) (2012)
Never really takes "Flight"
11 November 2012
A watchable but decidedly not a great film. Washington is his usual opaque self here, and his struggle to convey actual emotion is at times more difficult to watch than are the tough feelings he's supposed to be expressing. For years I've had the sense that there was something slightly cold and detached inside Washington as an actor. It's a style that serves him very well in hard-ass, semi-sociopath roles such as in Training Day, but makes him hard to believe when he plays characters with real emotional depth and whose inner turmoil ought to make us weep. All in all, the pacing of this film is mind-numbingly slow and dramatic tension is diluted by too many inconsequential scenes, including most of the opening sequences involving co-star Kelly Reilly, whose parallel story of addiction turns out to have just about exactly nothing whatever to do with anything. A scene involving a conversation in a hospital stairwell among Washington, Reilly, and James Badge Dale as a mysterious, incoherent, smack-talking terminal cancer patient– which the audience is supposed to understand as A Deeply Meaningful Message – is one of the most glaring of the film's several painfully superficial shaggy dog stories. The film's moment of Great Moral Reckoning, which comes as Washington's Whitaker is on the witness stand during an NTSB hearing, is unbelievable from start to finish—first because the chief investigator would never have asked the question that results in Whitaker's epiphany and, second, because the film deliberately fails to provide the elements necessary to grasp why Whitaker behaves as he does in that moment. His decision seems arbitrary—as does his almost every act throughout the film. John Goodman, as Whitaker's pusher, reprises his Arachnophobia role to no great effect.
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Take Shelter (2011)
Pointless, Superficial, Pretentious - and those are the good points
20 October 2012
This is an asinine film that takes two hours to deal superficially with the idiotic questions it raises (Wow, what if people we think are crazy are really prophets???!!? Oooh, what is the nature of reality??!?!?). If you didn't deal sufficiently with such deep and existential queries back in your 8th grade psych class – and if you really think a MOVIE is the medium that will finally provide the illumination you've been seeking –Jeff Nichols' meaningless exploration of meaningless ambiguities will have you close to the Big O, psychologically speaking. For everybody else, this film will seem slow – the way continental drift is slow – and about as riveting as watching water evaporate. Michael Shannon, meanwhile, holds back not a single element of his vast repertory of grimaces, lip twitches, frowns, and bug-eyed stares (I'm quite sure his face must have its own membership to Gold's Gym). With all those contortions going on, the viewer may lose sight of the fact that Shannon can't actually act, unless looking as though your hemorrhoids are killing you can be called acting. (He can't act in _Boardwalk Empire,_ either, but surely no one else in Hollywood pouts and moues with more conviction than he does.) In short, Nichols plods doggedly ahead in this film as though he's working out one of those fascinating ideas that come to potheads about 20 minutes into a decent high but which most people are smart enough to abandon the moment they sober up.
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Abandon Hope of Learning Anything About Freud, Jung or Psychoanalysis ...
7 October 2012
... all ye who enter here. One might have guessed, I suppose, that a film about the "talking cure" would be a "talking bore," but still: With Cronenberg at the helm and Keira Knightley and Viggo Mortensen in the cast, so much more was possible. Ah well, what did Freud teach us about wish-fulfillment fantasies? Mortensen is an insufferably pompous and idiotic Freud (whatever you think about the man, he was erudite) and Knightley's acting consists of a series of teeth-baring grimaces that are painful to watch. Cronenberg's vision is clearly this: Jung=good, Freud=bad. I'd say "fair enough," except that it isn't a fair representation by a long shot, and neither man comes across as what each was: a genius. Freud is self-satisfied and inarticulate, and Jung is dithering and self-loathing. More to the point, the director and writers apparently decided that the average moviegoer would be too stupid to understand anything about psychoanalysis or the very real differences between Freud and Jung, so it sort of glosses over all that dull detail. So much so that you couldn't possibly understand what the fuss was all about. The last half-hour is such an exercise in unbearable tedium that you can hardly wait for the Nazis to show up.
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A Waste of Animators
7 October 2012
Hotel Transylvania has occasionally cute moments and intermittently interesting art design (otherwise, it's mostly K-Mart Hallowe'en décor), but the story is trite, hackneyed, cliché, and any other words you can think of that mean: nobody broke a sweat on the script or on the plot. The voices are mostly uninteresting, except for Steve Buscemi, who attracts interest by demonstrating that he was catastrophically miscast as the Werewolf. The film is also aimed at a very, very young age group, something you might not understand from seeing the trailer, which makes the film seem about 10 times more sophisticated than it actually is. If you've got little kids, take 'em. If you don't, you'll fall asleep about halfway through the opening credits. If you do go, DO NOT spring the extra bucks for the 3D version. There's about as much 3D here as there is on your average Etch-A-Sketch.
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The Master (2012)
Only an Idiot Would Fail to Recognize How Stupid This Film Is
22 September 2012
With this review, I'm going to save you not only the price of a ticket, but also the pain of reading pretentious, affected reviews by pseudo-intellectual asshats who are going to try to argue that The Master is "deep" or "meaningful" or (God help us) "artistic." Here goes: This is a bovine, uninspired film without an idea to its name. It is an example of cinematic eggheadery elevated to level at which it becomes a hanging offense. It is a testament to the criminal insistence of some directors on assembling a group of terrific actors and putting them in gorgeous settings – and then handing them scripts constructed of colorless, incoherent twaddle and wasting every single moment that they spend on-screen. The Master is not allusive, evocative, allegorical, oracular, deliberately ambiguous, "like life," or any of the other b.s. you may have had the misfortune to read, if you dipped into the autoerotic ramblings of film critics manqués who – trust me on this – don't understand this film either, but get off on trying to convince you, with their winsome and enigmatic smiles, that they do. They are not smart; they are minions. If "Master" existed in real life, they'd be the ones hand-washing his jock. The Master is unintelligible, boring, and stupid. In fact, only an idiot would refuse to recognize just how stupid it really is.
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Biutiful (2010)
Nothing biutiful here....
25 January 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Never in my life have I been so relieved to see the protagonist of a film drop dead, but the death of Uxbal, _Biutiful_'s main character, still comes more than than an hour after I started looking forward to it. This relentless, pointlessly depressing, depravedly dismal two-and-a-half hours of human suffering might have had some redeeming social value if it were a documentary, but it isn't. Instead, it's meant to be art, which means it doesn't even have truth to recommend it. And that's where Iñárritu's sadistic self-absorption and grim dedication to the pornography of squalor becomes the film's downfall. Yes, there's a feeling of "intimacy," as the NYT writes – the intimacy of cleaning up someone else's vomit. Bardem's noble, expressive face is the only thing that makes many of the film's scenes watchable, but the message of _Biutiful_ is just this: we are lost, we are lost, we are lost. What would appear to be the film's only saving grace (Ige's decision to stay in Spain to care for Uxbal's orphaned children) comes at the cost of immense suffering: she's forced to remain in a country she hates and be separated from the man she loves, who is also her child's father, in order to dedicate herself to righting someone else's disaster of a life. You're trying to tell me that that's _Biutiful_?
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BearCity (2010)
Sweet, Flawed, Charming - Could Have Been So Much Better
2 April 2011
Cute with the typical amateurish qualities that make gay films of this nature either charming or painful, depending upon your sensibilities. The acting is earnest but decidedly nonprofessional. The only standout is Gregory Gunter, whose character (Michael) is utterly compelling and which Gunter plays with pathos and humor but not self-pity. Gerald McCulloch as Roger is large unwatchable, though it's hard to tell whether it's because his character is such a d***head or because the actor's own ego kept popping through. (If you watch his endless interview after in the DVD highlights, you'll see what I mean.) It's tough to make a film centered around bar culture without making it seem petty, vulgar, soul-crushing, and at least occasionally self-destructive; and it's an open question whether the directors nudged a bit to highlight those aspects or whether they were simply recording cinéma vérité. With all the sweetness that comes through in the struggles of the film's couples (complete with serious and often over-the-top drama), the film's central mystery remains what Tyler (Joe Conti) could possibly see in Roger, a smarmy, shallow, ego-bloated scene queen who not once but half a dozen times snubs Tyler to his face because Tyler isn't bear enough or muscley enough (or something enough) for the superficial, middle-class-white-boys-with-gym-memberships crowd by which Roger judges himself and his actions. Or, to put it another way, you may never understand why Tyler falls for and pursues Roger (to the extent of giving himself a makeover –a move that likely guarantees the doom of any relationship) and you'll certainly find yourself asking whether he has a shred of self-esteem in his body. The fact that Roger isn't what anyone could reasonably call a bear only adds to the confusion. Personally, I'd have gone for a little less Jennifer Anniston-esque comedy and paid a little more attention to the serious and genuinely dramatic (as opposed to simply flamboyant) issues that the film skates over like thin ice before turning safely back to shore: self-esteem issues among big men and the difficulty of cultivating and maintaining a positive body image in a gay "culture" ruled by gym Nazis and diet maniacs; the painful issue that's raised in the Michael-Carlos couple when Michael considers getting lap-band surgery (is he going to wind up so thin that Carlos won't be attracted to him anymore?); the double "coming out" required of non-bears who are attracted to men who are hairy and/or fat and/or older than they are and who face ridicule for their desires; and the uneasy co-existence of working-class bears and their middle- to upper-class counterparts who wear similar drag and occupy the same physical spaces in which "bear culture" is practiced but who, arguably, are essentially antagonists. _Bear City_ seems to intend to be a coup against the slavish cultural propaganda promulgated by so many "gay" indie films, but it's more of a bitch slap than the good hard sock in the jaw that's needed. Still, the film deserves credit for its beau geste and for starting a conversation within a medium that tends to pretend it doesn't understand the question.
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Hang garlic or put up a crucifix - anything not to see this mess
13 October 2010
Too bad it's not possible to give negative numbers. This is the original Swedish film on which the current flop, _Let Me In_, is based (a flop despite the American filmmakers' greedy certainty that anything with vampires in it would be box office gold). It is also a parody of why Swedish films are such unrelenting, open-a-vein bores: phlegmatic actors, laconic characters, a total of about 250 words of dialog (much of it senseless), and a sense of rhythm you'd expect from someone on massive doses of Haldol, including a willingness to spend five agonizing minutes on scenes that have nothing whatever to do with absolutely anything. But you don't have to hate any of those elements to find this film silly, amateurish, and tedious. Maybe there was some knee-slapping Swedish irony and humor going on behind the freakish characterizations and the illogical turns of plot, but you certainly didn't get any sense of it from the ham-handed subtitling in English. All in all, this is an inferior product, an incompetent film, and an enormous waste of two hours of your life. Let your pretentious friends call it "moody" and "artistic" (which are the buzzwords that film snobs always trot out for substandard Swedish films, aren't they?); I'll just call it lumbering, incoherent, and dull.
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Not a new moon: just the same old, moralizing moon as before.
5 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
By far the best of the three to date, which isn't necessarily saying much. At least Eclipse has a plot that makes some actual, coherent sense, and events are set up and fully explained rather than just being dumped on the viewer without preparation. There's a new director in town (each chapter has had a different director; Chris Weitz of Twilight II was truly a hack), and this one appears to understand things like pacing. The moralistic propaganda continues to spew forth at high volume, and what's interesting is that Bella emerges here as the little slut: she's leading two men on, passionately throwing herself at both of them; she's the one who wants to become a vampire, and she's the one who tries to seduce Edward, despite the risk to her (he declines not because he might, in the heat of passion, eat her, but because he's an old-fashioned guy who doesn't believe in sex before marriage). What's so addictive about the series, which could perhaps also be said of all High Romances, is that it posits the "loved one" as the absolute center of the entire universe: no one worries about his job or because his boss is a jerk or, for that matter, about being unemployed; no one needs money; no one suffers from depression, anxiety, or loneliness; no one wonders about the purpose of her or his life; no one has any problems whatsoever except those caused by love; the human characters rarely eat, sleep, study, read, or participate in other normal activities. When the couple relationship is life's only issue, life becomes extremely simple. Of course, given the nature of the story, it is a highly dramatic and unstable life, but that's also par for the adolescent course: jealousies are invented; problems appear in the relationship out of thin air (maybe I'm not right for you; you love me, but you don't love me enough; no, I must leave you forever, it's the only way!); the tenor, color, and direction of Bella's entire existence shifts 180 degrees on the basis of a single conversation; and the extended cast is swept into the innumerable conflicts that are born in the effort to preserve the couple at all costs (indeed, Bella and Edward's friends and family barely have existences of their own and have no function other than to provide support for the tribulations and ordeals of the couple). The acting, on the whole, never rises above mediocre: Taylor Lautner's Valley Boy demeanor and Keanu Reeves-like blankness makes him Hollywood's most unconvincing Indian (though it was an excellent move when, halfway through Twilight II, he lost his dreadful long-hair wig and went back to his military cut). He's beautiful-ugly: the over-pumped, muscular body that threatens to consume his head, his bizarrely developed trapezius muscles, the world's tiniest nipples (I'm not the only one who noticed: they were Photoshopped for his shirtless movie posters), and a nose that spreads from ear to ear. His face is substantially without expression, though he's terrifying when he smiles. Still there are moments, most often when he's filmed in the middle distance, when his statuesque presence is affecting indeed. Robert Pattinson has a hard time forcing any genuine emotion through that pancake makeup, which is, to a greater or lesser extent, a problem that afflicts the entire cast of vampires; Kristen Stewart's Bella, meanwhile, mostly leaves you not understanding why Edward and Jacob are ready to rip each other to shreds over her; Bella is a stubborn, demanding, bourgeois princess with all the depth and personality of Formica. What do they see in her? Maybe it'll be revealed in the next ten installments. One thing is for sure: Despite the relentless hype about the way the Twilight series is a demonstration of "girrlpower," Bella is no Buffy. She's pushy and willful but not strong, impulsive but not thoughtful, imperative but committed to nothing and no one beyond her own desires. Most important of all, she has made her man the entire purpose and fulcrum of her existence, ready to abandon everything (including her parents) in order to Be With Him. That makes her a relic, not a role model.
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Not even enough escapist fun to justify the price of the ticket
29 May 2010
Perfectly banal and overwrought, with CGI and other special effects that move at the speed of light and make a crap load of noise, but are completely incomprehensible in terms of understanding who is doing what to whom or why any of it matters. Jake Gyllenhaal is hunky and pretty in Arab drag, but he and all the other actors are basically just collecting their paychecks; apparently no one told Ben Kingsley that it was all essentially a big joke, because he occasionally tries to transmit an actual emotion, which makes him look ridiculous (even more than all the mascara he was wearing) in the context of the others who are literally cartoons. Richard Coyle is arguably the worst, but the inevitable "princess who must be saved and screwed (Gemma Arterton) is an utter, irremediable dog and my eyes bled every time she appeared on screen.
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Mine vaganti (2010)
It would take an immigrant to create a film like this in Italy....
13 March 2010
Bravo for Ivan Cotroneo, the talented translator of Cunningham and Kureishi, among other evident skills, and for Fernan Ozpetek, the only Italian director (though he happens to be Turkish by birth) who regularly and reliably features positive gay characters in his films. In an Italy that, at least as issues of sexual identity and respect for difference are concerned, has just barely crossing the threshold of the 1980s, Ozpetek is a rarity and a treasure. The first two-thirds of Mine Vaganti (Loose Cannons) will seem dated to anyone familiar with the last 30 years of queer representation in American cinema, as will the melodramatic, end-of-the-world reaction of Tommaso's father to learning that his son is gay, but the last third hits all the right dramatic and emotional notes and redeems any doubts one might have about the rest. There are some outstanding performances here: Ilaria Occhini as Tommaso's grandmother, and the gorgeous Nicole Grimaudo as the disconsolate and complex Alba. In fairness, I even have to throttle back some of my knee-jerk dislike for Scamarcio. It's not that he's a standout here, but playing a gay character is still a brave move in Italian cinema, especially for an actor who still depends on teen-heartthrob roles for his bread-and-butter. He's certainly no more or less believable as a gay man than are any of the other actors in the film, though even that's a throwback to the days when U.S. cinema divided representations of gay men between "normal," masculine gays (Tommaso—who may be gay, but still knows how to play soccer—his boyfriend, and his brother) and the "sassy gay friends" who are frivolous and effeminate and whose only purpose is to provide comic relief. Still, Mine Vaganti is a giant step forward and a welcome and charming antidote to government silence and Vatican-inspired hate speech.
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Once you get to Eden, keep right on walking
6 March 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I've seen some pretty dreadful movies about illegal immigration lately—the eternally wooden Raoul Bova in the sanctimonious and superficial "Io, l'Altro" (I, the Other), for example, or Philippe Lioret's depressing and pedantic "Welcome"—but Verso L'Eden/Eden à l'Ouest is pure and unadulterated rubbish. Here's my thing: Riccardo Scamarcio is a terrible actor. No, I mean, some actors are bad in a way that makes you embarrassed to watch them. Others are bad in the way that makes you feel embarrassed for the other people in the theater. And then there's Scamarcio, who belongs to that category of actors who make you feel embarrassed to be alive. Scamarcio launched his career, if we want to use that word, playing romantic leads in dimwitted teen comedies. Now and then, for reasons known only to the directors whose children Scamarcio's agent evidently kidnapped and threatened to murder, Scamarcio was then also chosen for roles in serious movies. Let me correct that: he got roles in movies that weren't "if you're IQ is above 40 you're too smart to enter this theater" comedies or "compared to this, a Hallmark card is freakin' Wuthering Heights" romances. Whether the movies were serious is up for discussion. But Scamarcio is sort of like beige—he goes with anything. It doesn't matter to him what kind of movie you put him in; he's happy to trot out his repertory of three facial expressions (ooh! and did you notice? He has green eyes!) in any known genre. From a movie-goer's point of view, the more Scamarcio has to "act," though, the uglier things tend to get. In Verso L'Eden/Eden à l'Ouest, he's supposed to be an illegal immigrant of indeterminate origin who arrives in Greece from an unnamed country, hoping to travel to Paris and find work. So there are like, *layers*, you get me? And Scamarcio doesn't do layers. Guy chasing a girl who doesn't love him? Got it covered. Guy who betrays the girl he loves, but is forgiven in the end? No problem. Guy who agrees to help his best gal-pal win the guy of her dreams, but ends up sweeping her off her feet instead? In his sleep. But don't ask him to something complicated like pretend to be of a different nationality, get washed up on a beach in Greece, and spend the ensuing weeks outrunning illegal-immigrant posses, police dogs, and con-men in pursuit of some private (never articulated) dream. Director Costa-Gavras, meanwhile, either forgot whether he was making a comedy, a sex farce, or a drama—or else he simply decided he'd pushed Scamarcio about as far as he could. He certainly threw continuity to the wind: one minute Scamarcio is in Greece, the next minute he's in Italy, then he's in Germany—don't blink or you'll miss all those borders. The result is a series of side-splitting scenes in which Scamarcio gets caught in a nudist colony, is mistaken for a bellboy, beds a babe or three, fends off the advances of gay truckers, and engages in at least a couple of foot chases through the city streets with the Keystone Cops. This is absolutely the most superficial, unserious, insultingly naive film about immigration ever made, and Scamarcio (did I mention he has green eyes?) lights it up with every single one of his 15 watts of charisma. Costa-Gavras ought to be writhing in shame. As for Scamarcio, he's pretty much made it clear that he's beyond all that.
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Shake Well Before Using - Excellent New Italian Comedy
1 March 2010
Much to my surprise, given Italian cinema's penchant for comedy that alternates between depressingly adolescent sex farces that would have seemed dated ten years ago and diabetes-inducing romances, Genitori e Figli: Agitare Bene Prima dell'Uso (Parents and Children: Shake Well before Using) is a rather delightful light comedy. Like all films of its genre, it floats superficially over virtually every issue it raises, but nonetheless manages to provide at least a smattering of deeper perspective on the usual stereotypes: the pretty-boy would-be actor who auditions for a TV reality show has actually put some thought into the direction he wants his life to take; the 15-year-old girl contemplating her first sexual experience isn't a mindless flirt who has no clue how a sexual relationship might change her. Indeed, this is one of the few Italian comedies I've seen that could actually have a life overseas: its references to Italian pop culture and social and political realities, etc., are handled lightly enough to allow them to "translate" beyond Italy's borders, and the genuinely "Made in Italy" aspects mark the film as Italian without making it incomprehensibly cliquish and inward-directed. There are no real standouts among the cast (though Michele Placido is charming as a curmudgeonly father and high-school teacher). Luciana Littizzetto is much more convincing and touching than I would have expected her to be (she works mainly as a cabaret comic), while Silvio Orlando is over-the-top and, in some scenes, nearly unwatchable. Having recently seen some of Mario Monicelli's older comedies (Parenti serpenti, Speriamo che sia femmina), which are delightful even if they show their age, I'm impressed by the snapshot of contemporary Italy that Veronesi provides here. Some of it will be surprising (an elderly cardiac patient left in a hospital ward without electronic monitoring of any kind; the ritual of the "gavettoni"—a high-school prank in which students attack one another with water-balloons on the last day of the school year), while other elements will be recognizable most anywhere in the Western world. For Italy, though, even joking about the "expanded" or "blended" family requires an act of courage, and in Genitori e Figli Veronesi manages to squeeze a lot of truth in between the laughs.
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Brothers (I) (2009)
More thoughtful than the usual psychologically-wounded-soldier-comes-home flick
29 December 2009
Warning: Spoilers
There is not one single new, insightful, or even particularly interesting thought in this film on the subject of either war or brothers, and yet fine performances by Natalie Portman and a Jake Gyllenhaal who does an amazing job of acting with his face, eyes, and body (he is, in many scenes, all but mute) make it compelling and even moving. (Tobey Maquire, meanwhile, is horribly miscast and is most unbelievable, unfortunately, when his character is most emotional: in his bug-eyed rage or evil-faced desperation, he makes you laugh or look away in embarrassment. The fact that he is also as pencil-necked as a 10th-grade chess champion doesn't help make him convincing as a gung-ho marine.) **SPOILERS FOLLOW**: What saves this film is the fact that it doesn't end in the typical blood bath or orgy of tragic domestic violence, which is what generally comes of the heavy-handed anti-war equation "war turns men into animals." Instead, there's a ray of hope, a possibility, a question at least. "Can I re-enter the land of the living?" Maguire's character wonders near the end. The movie doesn't answer, but it gets major points for asking.
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Retire, Martin, retire!!!
18 December 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Daniel Day-Lewis plays a Bill Sykes-send up with a truly laughable makeup job and an accent that's as carefree as the wind. You never really know why he hates Irish immigrants so much (a mere generation away from being an immigrant himself), and you never understand why everyone in The Five Points slum is so loyal toward and protective of him when he does absolutely nothing to alleviate the poverty and squalor of their senseless, miserable lives. (Oh yeah, since his legitimate front is as a butcher, he occasionally throws a decent steak their way.) Don't get me started on Cameron Diaz, The Whore With The Heart of Gold (because THAT's a story that hasn't been told enough) who, inexplicably is the only character in the movie with clean teeth. Liam Neeson, who croaks before the end of the first reel, is one lucky bastard.

After the first 20 minutes, of course, anyone not watching the movie in Braille understands perfectly what the one and only dramatic issue is going to be (REVENGE!!) and you can step out for Chinese while the movie drags its ass toward its inevitable and tedious conclusion. Granted, *Gangs* might have made some use of the obvious Shakespearean themes, but Scorsese doesn't even try to handle them. Thus, though you might entertain a flicker of interest in the Hamletesque question of whether the son will avenge the father, you wind up so bored w/DiCaprio that you don't freakin' care anymore by the time he gets around to doing the deed (which is rather done for him before he even bothers to show up).

In fact, though Leonardo keeps staring out at you from that bland little face and trying to convince you that he's struggling with Complex Moral Issues, the fact is: Every single person in this movie is reprehensible and evil, with differences in degree but never in kind. And if there are no good guys, why are you supposed to be cheering at the climactic scene when (for about the 11th time) the streets yet again run gooey w/blood and body parts? And yet, Scorsese tries. Toward the end of the movie, he picks up the nearest blunt instrument and bashes away at the plot until he's grafted an obvious hero (DiCaprio) and an irrelevant hetero love story (DiCaprio and Diaz) onto it. In other words, Martin Scorsese has nothing but contempt for you. You're too stupid to realize that DiCaprio's character is a venal, murderous little crook and you'll be mollified by a pretty romance between him and a sociopathic pickpocket prostitute. Because the history of America began between the sheets.

This is the movie you'd get if Oliver Stone and Hannibal Lecter collaborated on an American history epic, and it's about as cynical a piece of trash as I hope never again to see.
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Haven't you already seen this film about 20 times?
24 November 2009
What a strange thing: Allen makes the exact same film he's been making for what seems like a century, but shifts the set from New York to Barcelona. It isn't clear why, other than to include scenes of Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem fighting in Spanish. Allen's habitual, relentless claustrophia remains as present as ever, though, and we barely ever get out of a house, a room, a tight shot on a stilted conversation. Barcelona could have been Baltimore for all the difference it made. Neurotic artists, bad relationships, gossip, nouveau riche, petit bourgeoisie, passive men, crazy women, blah blah blah blah. Plus ça change, plus c'est le même Allen.
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