Tag: movie review

Review of Best of Enemies

4 stars

“Enemies” a fascinating, poignant, profound documentary

The masterful documentary, “Best of Enemies”, is about the televised debates between Democrat Gore Vidal, and Republican William F. Buckley. They were shown on ABC in 1968, when ABC was considered a dumping ground for lesser programming such as “The Flying Nun”. Their debate would hopefully give ABC more credibility, and it happened to revolutionize television forever.

“Best of Enemies” shows why documentaries can be so much better than fictionalized accounts when it comes to insights into human nature. Both Buckley and Vidal were so much more than they seemed, and this documentary showed their nuances and human complexities more than any fiction account probably ever could.

Buckley and Vidal seemed to have so much in common that their differences were practically an irksome disappointment. They both went to boarding schools, they were both writers, and both had an elevated, aristocratic manner. Yet, it was mostly their sociopolitical views that divided them, and created so much personal animosity between the two.

Since ABC was suffering from a creative void, the network executives thought it would breathe new life into the channel and give it a ratings boost, if they had two people from opposite ends of the political spectrum debate each other’s views; essentially, the verbal equivalent of boxing. Buckley already had his own show, called “Firing Line”, where he debated his guests, who were just about always Democrats.

Buckley and Vidal had a total of 10 televised debates, and there is a point toward the 8th or 9th debate, where they both cross the line into name-calling. I will let you see for yourself, but at that point in the film, their overboard insults truly got under my skin. Gore and Bill were articulate and intelligent in a way that most TV personalities, these days, are not, yet when they needled each other enough, their worst sides would spill out.

Though Vidal and Buckley had their flaws, and were both smug in a way that just about every political commentator nowadays is, the film shows their humanity. I found it rather tragic when it is recalled that when Buckley was older and he was on a talk show, he was shown a clip of the name-calling feud between him and Vidal, and I could sense how ashamed he was, saying “I thought that tape had been burned.”

Following the debates, Vidal and Buckley wrote what could basically have been called smear articles about each other in Esquire Magazine. They went back and forth with lawsuits, and one can sense that on some level they enjoyed this back-and-forth feud. Gore Vidal, though, like Bill Buckley, seemed to hide his insecurity with cold wit and sarcasm. These two men deserved each other.

Whenever I see a documentary like this, I wish there would be more documentaries this great, that explore human nature and behavior in ways that fiction cannot. This was truly one of the best films, of any genre, of 2015.

 

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Review of Chiraq

3 stars

“Chiraq” a weird, over-the-top spectacle

Spike Lee’s “Chiraq” is surreal, meta, and over-the-top. I admire the whole film for its boldness of vision, even if it is not always pulled off well. When it works, it is a wonder to behold. For all the stylistic flourishes in the film that do not work, there are many that do. The film begins with a breathtaking image of the United States split into thirds of red, white, and blue, and guns and rifles making up the states. This works despite its heavy-handedness, mostly because it is creative, and it got my attention.

The film is based on the classic Greek comedy, “Lysistrata”, and updated to the present day in Chicago. It keeps the characters names, and its fourth-wall-breaking narrator, played by Samuel L. Jackson. The main female protagonist is Lysistrata, who is in a relationship with a rapper with the stage name Chi-raq, played by Nick Cannon. Lysistrata gets the idea from a neighbor played by Angela Bassett to go on a sex strike and round up all the other heterosexual black women in Chicago to strike with her, until the men stop shooting each other.

This premise does not translate seamlessly to modern America; I would even say that, as a resident of the Chicago area, with the exception of some shots and references, the film did not give me a strong Chicago vibe. It kind of felt like it could have taken place anywhere in America, and this is probably because Spike Lee is not from Chicago. With Spike being a Brooklyn native,  I got more of a sense of place and location from films he directed like “25th Hour” and “Do the Right Thing”. This is because a) he is most familiar with NYC and b) Chicago, at least for me, has never been as conspicuous on film, as cities like NY or LA. Despite this, Chi-raq worked somewhat as a stinging commentary on race and violence in America as a whole, even if Chicago may have been a generic backdrop, that served little purpose besides its provocative nickname.

One of the things about the film that works surprisingly well is that it is spoken in iambic pentameter. The dialogue mostly rhymes, and after a while, I was having fun guessing and anticipating the characters’ rhymes.  A rhyme that worked especially well was “strike” and “dyke”.

Another powerful aspect of the film is John Cusack, as the compassionate Mike Corridan, based on Chicago’s Rev. Mike Pfleger; he has a deeply moving scene, where he preaches to a black congregation about their “self-inflicted genocide”. This scene may be the best piece of acting that John Cusack has ever done.

“Chi-raq” may be somewhat bloated, with a reach that exceeds its grasp, and it has moments that are so over-the-top that I just had to cringe. Yet, what does work has a sort of go for broke power that, by the end, left me haunted and shook up, and feeling like I saw an imperfect, yet vital piece of cinema.

 

 

 

 

Review of The Gift

 3 stars

“Gift” a searingly tense, chilling thriller

“The Gift” is about the unraveling of a marriage between a couple named Simon and Robyn, played very well by Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. The sinister interloper of their marriage is Gordon, also played very well, and menacingly, by Joel Edgerton, who is the director of the film. For much of the movie, though, we are not sure who is at fault; Bateman and Edgerton have dark secrets that will be not spoiled here but are fascinating, disturbing and logical.

The film starts with Bateman and Hall buying a new house in LA. Even in this first scene, they seem a bit uneasy together. When Gordon, or Gordo, as he was called in high school, runs into them, Simon does not remember him at first, and tells Robyn walking away that the conversation was super awkward. The next day, Gordon drops off a bottle of wine. Robyn pities him, and wants to give him a chance, so she invites him over to their house for dinner.

The dinner is somewhat awkward, making it seem like Gordon was jealous of Simon in high school. Simon reveals to Robyn that they were not even friends in high school, and Gordon’s nickname was “Gordo the weirdo”. Simon was class president in high school, and according to Gordon, he could get anything he wanted, and one of his expressions as class President, was “Simon says”.

“The Gift” is quite scary at times, but not in the conventional sense; it is chilling, foreboding and ominous, keeping us on the edge of our seats, so that even some of its more outlandish twists and revelations are quietly shocking. Some of the most terrifying scenes in the film are when Robyn is walking through the house, feeling paranoid and unsure, and the audience shares her fear.

In one scene, where Simon and Robyn are having dinner with their new neighbors, he tells them Robyn is too nice, and she gives people too many chances. This shows throughout the film, making Robyn seem like a bit of a pushover. In this sense, Robyn is a compliment to Simon, who is skeptical of everyone’s motives. Simon, though, is a more complex, fleshed-out character than Robyn.

On a deeper level, the film is about a battle of wills between Simon and Gordon, both overly concerned with their masculinity and their social status. Gordon is traumatized by something that happened to him in high school, and Simon feels threatened by the advances that Simon has made on him and his wife. They are both right to feel this way, yet not right in how they act on their impulses.

Toward the beginning of the film, “The Gift” may be a little too heavy on its foreshadowing and metaphors. Some shots are lingered on a little too long for effect, and one of the first shots of Bateman breathing behind a glass door to Hall, is a little too obviously a metaphor for their relationship. Nevertheless, all three of the actors play off each other with palpable tension, making the film riveting to watch, right up to its jaw-dropping final twist.

Review of Grandma

 3 stars

“Grandma” a bittersweet dramedy enlivened by Lily Tomlin

Paul Weitz’s dramedy, “Grandma”, is given heart, energy and a reason to exist by Lily Tomlin. She gives her lines levels of warmth, sadness and self-deprecating humor that probably most other actresses probably could not have. Tomlin plays Elle Reid, who has a rich backstory, which comes into play when her granddaughter, Sage, asks her for money so she get an abortion. Elle has no money to give her, because she paid off all her debts, and hilariously cut up her credit cards into wind chimes.

Elle reminds Sage that this decision will haunt her for the rest of her life if she chooses to go through with it. Elle and Sage spend the day asking others for money, including Sage’s boyfriend, a transgender tattoo artist (Laverne Cox), Elle’s ex-husband, Karl, played excellently by Sam Elliott, and finally, Sage’s mother, played very well, yet somewhat cartoonishly, by Marcia Gay Harden. Elle beats up Sage’s immature boyfriend with a hockey stick, making Sage worried that the whole school will know. Elle scoffs because of how ridiculous it would sound.

Elle is a lesbian, and she just broke up with her much younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer). She married Karl before she came to terms with herself as a lesbian. Their scene is written with written in a relaxed yet intelligent manner, revealing their past and their personalities. It is the only scene Sam Elliott is in, yet it shows how he was wounded by her, yet is still in love with her. Sam Elliott’s face and voice are very expressive in this scene, showing how much an actor can accomplish with so little screen time.

Marcia Gay Harden, as Sage’s mother/ Elle’s daughter, is intensely caffeinated, and always on the go. She is the very last person they ask for money, and the reason is apparent right when we see her. She immediately asks her why she didn’t use condoms. We can tell, though, that she cares for Sage, and she is just juggling too many things at once.

It was an interesting choice to have the mother, almost self-consciously, out of the picture, and focus, for the most part, on Tomlin’s rapport with her granddaughter. Even with how cranky Elle appears, she has Sage’s best interest at heart, perhaps in some ways more than Sage’s mother. The film is divided into six chapters, and  the final chapter was a bit superfluous. It just seemed to lay things on a little too thick. If the film ended a little before that, it would have been more satisfying.

 

Review of ’71

3 stars

 ’71” a tense, riveting war thriller

After all the hype surrounding  Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper”, “’71” was just the film I needed. “Sniper” was aggressively sentimental, calculated and its sense of heroism did not ring true to me at all. “’71”, on the other hand, hits the ground running in its first scene with soldiers boxing each other in basic training. The reason “’71” has so much urgency is partially because it does not get sidetracked with its need for a grand statement, or to make its protagonist into a hero. It feels like it is going on real time, without a sense of hindsight, which gives it all the more power.

The film is about the troubles in Northern Belfast, Ireland, seen from the perspective of British soldier Private Gary Hook. Gary Hook comes from a foster home with his little brother, who he shares a warm moment with before he is to shipped off to Belfast. Gary and his crew are shipped off to Belfast immediately upon word of “The Troubles”. On their first day, the soldiers are assigned to inspect houses for weapons, on a street filled with Catholics and Protestants that are at each other’s throats.

Right when they get there, the citizens start attacking and overpowering them. They are hard to control, and when one of the soldiers is shot, Gary flees the scene. He does not know who he can trust, and the rest of the film is fascinating and suspenseful, because except for Gary, we are never sure who is on whose side. Pretty soon, some young IRA members are after Gary, and as scary and threatening as they are, they are never black-and-white villains. They were desperate, and I could tell how they were driven to do what they were trying to do.

Like I mentioned earlier, “71” works because of how matter-of-fact it is about its atrocities. Also, for once the shaky-cam effect is not nauseating, but it really got me into the story, and made me feel like I was right there. The film is brutal, and difficult to watch, yet there is a power in the desperation of its characters, and I found the closing scenes to be deeply moving and uplifting.

Review of Whiplash

Featured image

3 and a half stars

“Whiplash” a painful, yet  gripping battle of wills between student and teacher

I will have to admit that back in January, when “Whiplash” won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, I could not really tell what all the hype was about. It kind of sounded like a darker, edgier version of “Mr. Holland’s Opus”, which did not give me much hope or enthusiasm; nonetheless, the film is a visceral experience. This is in part because of the music, which is mostly wild, relentless drumming. It is also powerful because of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons’ complex performances and fascinating student-teacher relationship.

The film begins masterfully, with Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) drumming slowly, with the tempo gradually getting faster and faster, until we see Andrew sweaty and out of breath. Throughout the film, Andrew literally puts his blood, sweat and tears into jazz drumming; he drums so vigorously that his hands actually do start bleeding, and drumming causes him such anxiety that it makes him cry in at least three scenes. I ultimately did not see Andrew as a spoiled brat, even though many times he came off as a snob. He is obsessive and singular in his focus, and does not even want a girlfriend or a social life to distract him from his drumming. Yet Andrew has been drumming since he was a little kid, so drumming for him, seems to almost be more of an instinct than an ambition. His likable father is played well by Paul Reiser. Andrew’s family seems to be relatively working-class, and he seems to be the only musician in his family (most of his cousins are athletes), which, in a way, makes him a more sympathetic character than he would have been if he had come from a rich background. He struggles, so even when he feels entitled, or seems like, as J.K. Simmons calls him “a self-righteous shit sack”, I was invested in him emotionally. Andrew is a fascinating character psychologically.

Even though Miles Teller is spellbinding, J.K. Simmons as Terrence Fletcher, the head of the prestigious music school Andrew is attending, is the one that steals the show. I would say that he lives up to his hype and is Oscar-worthy. In the first scene of the film, Fletcher walks in on Andrew drumming and he is toying with him already. In this opening scene, we see that Andrew is ambitious to a fault, and that Fletcher is a needler; yet we can also see that Fletcher cares, in a perverse sort of way. Soon, he recruits Andrew to be in his jazz band, and “Whiplash” is a piece that the band plays throughout the film.

Having Fletcher as a jazz instructor pushes Andrew’s sanity, and something that becomes abundantly clear is that Andrew has always been an obsessive, single-minded and Fletcher essentially pushes him to the brink. The movie as a whole may not even make a very good case for Fletcher as a teacher though. He is abusive, and his slapping and throwing drum sets at his students, seems to be damaging. Sure, Fletcher has a favorite anecdote about jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker’s instructor throwing an instrument at him, thus motivating him to be a legendary musician, yet I am not convinced that abusive behavior leads to perfection or greatness.

Either way, J.K. Simmons is electrifying to watch as Fletcher. We are never entirely sure what he is thinking, because he is not just a one-dimensional bully. In a great scene midway through the film, he explains his motives to Andrew, admitting that he pushes people to the edge, yet he has never made anyone great. This one scene shows that Fletcher can be humble, even if he is not being outwardly compassionate.

Both Teller and Simmons have been in films for a while. Teller was great as the most sensitive character in “Rabbit Hole” and charming as Sutter Keeley in “The Spectacular Now”. Simmons has less prominent, but still memorable, roles in films like “Juno” as Juno’s father, who was firm, but never mean, and in “Thank You For Smoking” as Aaron Eckhart’s cynical boss. In “Whiplash”, Simmons has outdone himself as a thoroughly examined and unpredictable character who we are never sure what to expect from.

 

My Top 10 Best (or Favorite) Films of 2013

2013 has been quite an exciting year for cinema. Something I have realized about myself and movies this year is that I have become drawn more to subtle, understated films about relationships and the complexities of everyday life. Three films on this list, including “Her”, “Short Term 12”, and “Fruitvale Station”, are quiet and patient, yet they are all interesting and moving. I would take any of those 3 movies over a loud, stupid mess like “Pacific Rim” any day. So for the top honor of best film of the year, I was torn between “Before Midnight”, “Captain Phillips” and “Her”. In the end though, “Captain Phillips” wins. The list is as follows:

* Reviewed on website

 

1imageCaptain Phillips- “Phillips” is a riveting thriller where Tom Hanks plays the title character, a cargo ship captain on a ship in Somalia, being hijacked by Somali pirates. Barkhad Abdi gives a menacing performance as the pirate in charge of the hijacking. Just about wherever Hanks and the pirates were I felt like I was right there with them.

2. imageHer- “Her” is a film for our technology obsessed times. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly who buys an operating system, brilliantly voiced by Scarlett Johansson, The operating system’s name is Samantha, and she has all the other qualities of humans and more. They eventually fall in love. Somehow this all feels right, and it does not become too tacky. It is philosophical sci-fi at its best.

*3.image Before Midnight- This is a beautiful, romantic film, about mature seasoned love. The characters are so articulate I could have listened to them talk for hours. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play Jesse and Celine, a married couple whose relationship has been tested through the years, and somehow their arguing never becomes uncomfortable or annoying. Hawke and Delpy have possibly the best chemistry of any Hollywood couple ever.

*4.image  Short Term 12- When this film first came out, I liked it, but I did not love it; yet as time went on, the film made more of an impact. Brie Larson gives an incredibly moving and Oscar-worthy performance as Grace, a patient and saintly woman who works at a foster home for teens.  John  Gallagher Jr. is also good as Grace’s co-worker and off and on boyfriend. Together, they get through each day with a sense of humor and empathy, working with all kinds of teens of different classes and ethnic backgrounds.

5.image 12 Years a Slave– This is one of the most brutal films I have ever seen about slavery, yet it is always convincing and it has an extremely compelling point of view. Solomon Northup is an upper middle-class violinist, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. “12 Years” is almost like the anti-Django, about a slave who never resorts to petty, macho platitudes,  but simply survives, and comes out as a noble, yet wounded man. Sarah Paulson also gives a chilling, yet compelling performance, as Mistress Epps, the wife of Edwin Epps, the equally vicious slave owner, played just as well by Michael Fassbender.

6. imageMud- A beautiful, surprisingly heartwarming tale of life on the Mississippi. Matthew McConaughey plays Mud, a drifter whom 2 young boys, named Ellis and Neckbone, stumble upon and become a go-between for. Mud is in love with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who does not exactly feel the same way. The emotions in this film are much more complicated than this, and it is primarily about, how Ellis discovers the complications of love, and his disillusionment about romantic love.

7. File:ZeroDarkThirty2012Poster.jpgZero Dark Thirty- I know “ZDT” qualitfied for the 2012 Oscars, but I was able to see it about 2 weeks into January 2013, after I had made my top ten list for 2012. This being said, Jessica Chastain gives a coldly understated performance as Maya, a woman who is assigned to find Osama bin Laden, and will stop at  nothing to track him down and kill him. The film is so tense and tightly wound that it seems to be on the edge of an explosion every second.

*8. imageBlue Jasmine- Cate Blanchett gives a tragic, yet funny and relatable performance as Jasmine, a rich woman, who was married to Hal (Alec Baldwin) a Madoff-like crook, and basically had a nervous breakdown from their divorce.

*9. imageFruitvale Station- “Fruitvale” is a completely plausible, tragic story of Oscar, a 22-year-old African-American man, who is trying to go straight and stop dealing drugs, and be a better father.  His life, though, is stopped short in a subway, when  police shoot him. This is what the whole film leads up to, so it is not a spoiler. When his mother, played masterfully by Octavia Spencer, hears that her son got shot, it is one of the most moving, most meaningful moments in a film all of last year.

10.File:The Spectacular Now film.jpg The Spectacular Now- Miles Teller (who we may see a lot more of) and Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”, “Divergent”) give superb, complex performances as 2 teenagers in love. They are fairly awkward characters, which gives the movie a realistic feel.