Thursday, January 29, 2015

Match Review

In “Match,” Patrick Stewart plays Tobias, a ballet teacher at Julliard who gets accused of being the absentee father of Mike (Matthew Lillard) a cop from Seattle. When we first meet Tobias—Tobi, as he likes to be called—he is still as enthusiastic about ballet dancing as he was back in the sixties, providing encouragement to his class of aspiring dancers. Outside Julliard he lives a rather solitary life in a small New York apartment but from his cheerful and upbeat attitude he appears to be doing just fine. When Mike and his wife Lisa (Carla Gugino) show up at his doorstep, pretending to interview him for a fictitious dissertation about dance in the 1960’s—they’re actually trying to coax him into admitting that he’s Mike’s father-- he’s more than willing to share his wealth of information. He’s eccentric and flamboyant, prone to rambling and oddly sentimental—he holds on to his toenail clippings in a glass jar on the top of a cabinet-- but also extremely passionate about his line of work. In other words, he seems to be full of life, even at an old age.

Playing Captain Picard on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and Magneto in the “X Men” movies, Stewart has become a big celebrity personality over the years, so it‘s kind of strange to see him star in a low budget film like this—written and directed by Stephen Belber—playing such a pedestrian character, but he should do it more often. As Tobi, he gives an endearing, multilayered performance that only becomes more compelling and authentic. We see that Tobi’s cheerful, eccentric attitude is a façade, masking deep-seated feelings of pain and regret that become more pronounced as the movie goes on. Stewart is the best part about “Match” but the other two performances are also strong. Particularly Lillard, who initially comes off as stubborn and kind of a jerk—in fact he retains that demeanor for most of the movie—but in the end you can’t really blame Mike. He’s also trying to hold back immense feelings of pain and neglect.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t stand as high as the performances. This isn’t to say it’s bad but just that Belber’s script doesn’t have much depth or substance to it. With the exception of a few scenes at the beginning and at the end, the action is confined to Tobi’s apartment building, allowing for the movie to be tense and claustrophobic. When Mike and Lisa interview Tobias, things start out calm and simple. Gradually, however, as their questions become increasingly fishy and personal, the situation starts to heat up. The water boils over, emotions run high. The situation becomes increasingly tense and uncomfortable for the audience. Again, none of this is bad, in fact some of it can be entertaining; however, when we get to the picture’s conclusion there’s not much to mull over or reflect upon. And not much to sustain repeat viewings either.  Still, thanks to the performances—mainly Stewart’s—“Match” is worthwhile; you won’t gain much from it but you won’t lose anything either.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Most Violent Year Review

J.C Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” is a crime drama that requires a lot of patience from the audience. Part of this comes from the fact that the title promises a much different, more exciting movie. Chandor’s picture is set in New York during 1981, a year which historically had the most violent crime in the city, but virtually all of those crimes are done off screen. During the entire two hour and five minute running time there’s a grand total of one gunfight and a single foot chase. Instead, things unfold in a very meticulous and coy way and Chandor is more interested in what’s going on internally in his characters than on the outside. It’s a slow burn but those in the mood for a deliberate and suspenseful character driven crime saga should come away satisfied.

The movie revolves around Abel Morales, (Oscar Isaac) an immigrant who believes very strongly in hard work and the American dream. He operates a heating oil business out of long island, along with his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and his consigliore Andrew Walsh (another terrific dramatic turn from Albert Brooks). When we first meet Abel he’s in the process of buying a piece of property; a station where he can receive and deliver oil more easily and store more gallons.  However, he runs into trouble when his trucks start to get hijacked one after another, and to make matters worse the DA Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is going to bring charges against his business.

This makes “A Most Violent Year” a gangster picture but Chandor never makes clear exactly what illegal activities Abel and Anna are involved in. Isaac continues his hot streak as an actor, giving a superbly unassuming and scrupulous performance that maintains this sense of ambiguity for the duration of the film. Abel wears nice suits and sports a mobster-style comb over but he lives and acts modestly. He wants his business to grow but he doesn’t come off as greedy or power hungry; he doesn’t want to live luxuriously, in a giant mansion with lots of stuff. For the most part, Abel keeps a calm and patient demeanor, only rarely losing his temper. In order to buy the property he goes through a major bank to get a lone, a move that feels very ungangster like and most importantly, we never see Abel directly take part in any illegal activities.

At the same time though, because his trucks keep getting stolen and because the police are launching this investigation, there’s clearly something going on. Isaac always portrays Abel as being stable and in control, even as he struggles to keep his business from failing he never becomes panicked or fazed. At no point does he seem totally innocent, like he’s being wrongfully targeted by the police or rival gangs/businesses. However because Abel isn’t upfront about his criminality--because he doesn’t flaunt it around, as most movie gangsters tend to do—we’re forced to examine the character and his actions more carefully. We’re supposed to look below the surface to find out what’s actually going on.

As good as Isaac is, Chastain equals him in everyway. She too gives a powerfully understated and ambiguous performance. Her Anna is at once a faithful wife/business partner and a dominant, independent woman, whose motives aren’t always clear. Sometimes she appears to be the one in charge of the business. She’s tough and intimidating but at the same time has a discreet elegance. Together, Abel and Anna make for one of the most compelling and mysterious married couples in a movie this year.

Like Abel and Anna, the rest of “A Most Violent Year” is also unassuming and requires careful viewing. Chandor doesn’t make everything crystal clear. Since things happen in a very low key, measured manner it’s easy to miss subtle developments in the narrative. Important bits of information are revealed in casual conversation. Certain scenes—for example, when Abel and Anna hit a deer with their car as they’re driving home and Anna kills the animal swiftly and apathetically with a gun after Abel takes too long—that seem random initially, actually expose important aspects of the characters. Chandor maintains this methodical pacing for the entire movie, never feeling the need to speed things up or over explain things. In this regard, the picture doesn’t talk down to the audience.

In addition, Chandor uses this subtlety to create tension. Everything feels too calm and low key, so you watch in anticipation for something explosive and out of the ordinary to happen. It gets to the point where even during the most mundane sequences you’re on edge. Also, by setting the movie during the year with the most violent crime, Chandor creates an even greater sense of suspense and paranoia. In the film, violent crime is treated like an ominous presence that always looms in the background; we may not experience much of it directly on screen but it’s always there, putting strain on the characters, as well as us. And all of this is accomplished with the utmost of ease and authenticity, not once does any of tension feel forced or over-the-top.

“A Most Violent Year” isn’t going to do well with the general audience. It’s simply too slow and not enough happens on a large, visible scale. Not that Chandor’s previous two efforts—“All is Lost” and “Margin Call,” two fantastic movies in their own right—were crowd pleasers either but given the title of this one I have a feeling it will probably be received the poorest. What happens in the film certainly isn’t ground breaking but it’s an expertly crafted and acted drama/thriller that’s able to sustain a feeling of dread and uncertainty all the way up until the final frame. It’s not a film I can easily recommend but those with a great enough attention span should be extremely impressed by it.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Predestination Review

For the most part, the month of January is a cinematic graveyard. Major studios dump their weakest, most derivative movies there so they can be immediately forgotten. If a movie gets bumped from a prime fall release date—like say in November or December—to January, it’s usually not a good sign. Occasionally, however, a movie will come along with loftier aspirations. “Predestination,”—written and directed by Peter and Michael Spierig—is one of those movies; in fact its twisty time travel premise makes it one of the more ambitious January releases in recent years. At the same time, that’s not saying very much. Ultimately “Predestination” suffers from some glaring storytelling issues and a plot that gets increasingly more silly and messy.

Ethan Hawke plays a Temporal Agent—aka a time traveling special agent—who goes back in time to stop crime before it can happen. For his last mission he must travel back to the 70’s and stop the Fizzle Bomber, the one criminal who’s evaded him throughout time. While posing as a bartender he runs into a young “woman” (Sarah Snook) who tells him her long, woeful life story. Being abandoned by her parents as a baby and having to grow up in an orphanage, not fitting in anywhere, as well as finding out that she’s a hermaphrodite. Something that further alienates him/her from the rest of society.

Not surprisingly, “Predestination” gets more complicated and messy as it goes on, eventually leading to a major twist-- involving the identities of our two characters as well as the identity of the Fizzle Bomber—that’s clever but also pretty ridiculous to say the least. The more you think about it afterwards, the more you think about how the movie gets to that end point, the more ridiculous it becomes. In fact it verges on comedic; a tone I’m not sure the sibling directors intended. I wish I could say more but I would spoil the entire ending.

With that said, the movie is competently made and acted. Hawke and Snook are both solid, playing people that haven’t exactly lived fulfilling lives. Hawke’s Temporal Agent is haunted by his inability to catch the Fizzle Bomber after all these years, preventing him from retiring. Hawke continues to show off his ability to play likable Average Joe’s and relative newcomer Snook gives a quietly powerful performance as someone who hasn’t been able to catch a break his/her entire life. “Predestination” may be one of the first sci-fi movies to feature a hermaphroditic main character, whose “condition” fits prominently into the rest of the story.

For being a high concept, time travel movie “Predestination” feels surprisingly small scale. This is most likely the result of a low budget. While it does create a level of intimacy, the narrative also feels constricted. At times you get the impression that the movie wants to be as big as its concepts. Outside of Hawke, Snook and Noah Taylor as the head of the Temporal Agency, there aren’t any other noticeable characters. Overall I think the movie could have benefitted from a few more set pieces and characters, to add scale and nuance. Not only that, “Predestination” gets bogged down by some lazy storytelling devices; namely the use of flashbacks when Snook’s character recounts his/her life story to Hawke. In general flashbacks should be avoided, or used very sparingly. In the case of “Predestination” a rather large chunk of its running time is devoted to these flashbacks. Now yes, the flashbacks do contain important information—some of which will come into play at the end—but to have this person tell their life story in one sitting gets to be incredibly exhausting for the audience members. And even worse, when the flashback portion finally concludes the movie settles into its home stretch. Considering that the movie is trying to be clever, you’d think the writer-director siblings could find a better way to relay this information. It sort of puts a damper on the movie’s gutsier and more unique attributes. 

All in all, “Predestination” isn’t a great movie—if it was it wouldn’t be released in January—but I commend the Spierig brothers for trying to make a dense and ambitious picture. Sure, it’s kind of a mess and I wish so much of it didn’t consist of one character telling another their life story. But it’s an interesting movie nonetheless, which usually isn’t the case with January releases.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Inherent Vice Review

“Inherent Vice”—based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon—is Paul Thomas Anderson’s wild, psychedelic take on the Film noir; think, “The Big Sleep” crossed with “The Big Lebowski.” The movie can be a lot of fun to watch but I also felt emotionally distant from the proceedings. During one scene the Private Investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) visits his acquaintance from the police department, Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornson (a fantastic Josh Brolin) to give him an update on a missing person. Before Sportello can share his juicy bit of information Bjornson bluntly asks, “remind me again why I give a shit?” This is kind of the way I felt while watching “Inherent Vice.” I was never bored but every so often I asked that very question in my head. Unfortunately the movie never provides a good enough answer. Again, this isn’t to say “Inherent Vice” is a total loss—far from it-- but by the end I didn’t care very deeply about the outcome of the story or what happened to the characters.

The action takes place in Los Angeles during 1970; Anderson creates an atmosphere ripe with paranoia and pessimism. Changes in the landscape are coming; old neighborhoods are being bulldozed to make room for new housing developments.  With The Manson Family murders fresh on everyone’s mind there’s a visible fear of the counter culture movement. At the same time though, the straight edged government types do their fair share of illegal activities. Overall, neither side can really be trusted.  The picture is riddled with humor that directly addresses this feeling of paranoia. For example, Sportello and a few other people are pulled over by the cops because three or more people together are now considered a “cult.” It’s been a while since Anderson has made a movie this funny. His last two efforts “There will Be Blood” and “The Master,”--while impressive in some respects-- felt rigid and oppressive. With “Inherent Vice” he achieves a loose and silly vibe, similar to the one in his sophomore feature “Boogie Nights.”

Because of the film’s scatterbrained, confusing nature it’s somewhat difficult to give a proper plot synopsis. Even if you watch the trailer multiple times you’ll still only get a vague sense of what’s going on. So I’ll do the best I can without boring you; an ex flame Shasta Fay Hepworth, (Katherine Waterston) comes to Sportello with a problem. Her new boyfriend Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a real-estate tycoon has gone missing. Sportello takes the job and of course things get more complex. Before long he’s investigating the disappearances of two more people, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) and Hepworth herself and comes into contact with a mysterious ship called the Golden Fang. Along the way he runs into more past love interests, old acquaintances and has encounters with biker gangs, the police and the FBI. Sigh.

Sporting a ratty green jacket, wild and tangled hair and a pair of glorious muttonchops, Sportello’s counter-culture Phillip Marlowe is a welcomed addition to the Film noir cannon. He’s definitely not the smartest—he runs his P.I. business out of a doctor’s office-- and with his frequent drug use you sometimes wonder where he gets the motivation to keep pursuing this complex case. At the same time his naïve, almost childlike personality feels refreshing. He’s not cynical or jaded like most P.I.’s; the weight of the world hasn’t brought him down. Essentially Sportello is a doofus who’s trying to do something important—or at least what he thinks is important—and do it the best way he can. Once in a while we see him scribble a few notes on a note pad or look over a list of suspects on a white board, in an attempt to keep track of his work. He even combs his hair when he goes to meet people in more formal settings. Phoenix is able to find a good balance between excessive and sincere. Sportello may act stupid and crazy but he never becomes a total caricature. Also believe it or not, he’s the only character that can be trusted from start to finish. Everyone else, even the tightly wound, hippy-hating Bjornson has some kind of hidden agenda. In a turbulent Los Angeles the most consistent and trustworthy person is a drugged out idiot. Talk about trippy.

And yet, as entertaining as “Inherent Vice” can be I still found myself oddly detached from it. The movie is convoluted and it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on but that’s not my issue with it. In general, Film noirs—even the classic ones— usually contain convoluted plots but by the end everything adds up in a satisfying manner. Before writing this review I had the opportunity to watch the movie again and while I understood the story better I can’t say I cared about it all that much or the characters on a deep level. I didn’t care if Coy Harlingen was found and reunited with his wife and kid. I didn’t care about Sportello’s relationship with Hepworth or his relationship with Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), a Deputy D.A., and I didn’t even care whether Sportello solved the case or not.

For all of the stuff that happens in the movie, the central “case” itself—as well as the various mysteries its made up of—feels kind of slight and insignificant. In fact, the movie really doesn’t need to be as complex as it is. Certain side plots and characters could have been cut entirely. By the time the movie reaches its conclusion, loose ends may be tied up but you’re unsure of why those loose ends are significant in the first place. Unfortunately, the individual parts of “Inherent Vice” don’t quite add up to a completely satisfying hole. Furthermore, with the exception of Bjornson, the supporting characters remain relatively one-dimensional. They simply get lost in the clutter of the narrative.

I don’t want to disregard “Inherent Vice” completely. Perhaps I’ll watch it again, in a couple months or even a year and my problems with it won’t be as pronounced. All in all, I think I liked Anderson’s movie on a surface level. I enjoyed watching Phoenix’s dazed, Private Eye stumble and bumble around. I enjoyed the 70’s aesthetic; David Crank’s production design and the groovy soundtrack--made up of original compositions by Jonny Greenwood and existing songs. But I still can’t deny the emotional distance I felt while watching, which made it difficult for me to engage with the picture on a deeper level.