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The Revenant is Intense, Thrilling Filmmaking (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 22, 2016 | Add Comments

The Revenant (2015)Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant hurls audiences into the frosty Frontier right away, with a thrillingly disorienting opening battle. For two hours and thirty-six minutes, it immerses us in a cold, bitter, unforgiving world where survival and revenge reign supreme. It’s a mythic epic with a Western-movie plot, fantastical realism touches, and bloody-thriller action. This is bold, brave, singular filmmaking, and even when it doesn’t quite hold up, it leaves you in complete awe. 

 After the Oscar-winning Birdman, Inaritu plunged into an even more challenging project: a nine-month shoot set in some of the most demanding settings you could film in. Rumors swelled around the film in the months leading up to its release: a dozen incompetent crew members were fired, a producer was banned from the set, actors faced hypothermia and ate raw liver, and Inaritu proved himself as a testy perfectionist. What’s true and what isn’t about the shoot doesn’t matter, but the movie sure feels real and immediate. Technically, The Revanant is flawless: there is not a single wasted shot, and many are stunningly beautiful. Inaritu uses seamless CGI, long takes, and a pounding yet subtle score to throw us right into Glass’ extraordinary journey. He has used all of his tools, and energy and patience, to create this movie and it has largely paid off.

The film opens with a ruthless, violent attack from the Natives that sets the tone for the film: gorgeous imagery, carefully orchestrated direction, largely physical but highly expressive performances. Amidst the carnage is a familiar face: Leonardo DiCaprio, in full fur coat, gun in hand, his teen-boy face hidden under a bushy beard. He plays Hugh Glass, a fearless, resilient hero who’s love for his family leads to a mad hunt for justice.

The Revenant (2015)Glass’ wife, a Native, was killed in a village attack but their biracial teenage son, Hawk, still stands by his side. The father and son are part of an expedition of fur trappers trying to escape the Natives, led by Captain Anderson (Domhall Gleeson). The vain, racist John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) despises Glass and Hawk because of their relation to the Natives and Glass’ high ranking status. After the opening battle, a mama bear attacks Glass and leaves him with almost dead and with nasty scars everywhere. Glass is carried along by the men men for a while, but Hawk, Fitzgerald, and the young Bridger are soon left alone to care for this dying man. Selfish, evil, and scheming, Fitzgerald kills Hawk as his father watches (while unable to move) then buries Glass alive, lies to Bridger about it all, and walks off to reunite with Anderson. Glass is infuriated and heartbroken, having lost his wife and now his son. So, against every conceivable odd, he climbs out of his burial and begins to walk hundreds of miles to find and kill Fitzgerald and have his revenge.

This is not a terribly original story. The Revenant is part Western revenge thriller, part contemplative and spiritual man-versus-nature drama. Inaritu, working from the screenplay adaptation of Michael Punke’s novel he co-wrote with Mark L. Smith, spells out the central relationships between Glass, Hawk, Fitzgerald, Bridger, and Anderson with sparse, sometimes unintelligible dialogue and the expressive performances of his cast. Here, he builds on the style he developed in Birdman: long-take intensity that boils and builds to showpiece sequences. His cinematic virtuoisty sometimes felt more than a little showy in Birdman, but it works perfectly here. The film begins with two astounding sequences: the relentless and perfectly choreographed opening battle and the much-discussed, violently suspenseful bear attack. Both are difficult to watch, but equally captivating.

This really is a technical triumph. Cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki does some astonishing work here, focusing on the details while immersing viewers in the panoramic sights of the wintery forest. Not a single shot is wasted, and almost all are stunningly beautiful. The terrific long takes don’t draw attention to themselves, but add to the visual power of the film. Lubezki tracks the action and observes the locations in a way that doesn’t bring us out of the movie but right into it. The word immersive may be overused, but it’s dead-on here. Inaritu uses largely seamless CGI, convincing make-up, and a pounding yet subtle score to throw us right into Glass’ extraordinary journey.

Inaritu has no struggles with crafting fabulous, ferocious action scenes. Inaritu isn’t only aiming to make an action flick, but also a film that has a lot about nature, death, and survival. The movie’s long middle-section consists mainly of Glass fighting nature on his way to vengeance, coming to terms with his grief, and eating a fair amount of raw animals. Plot-wise, this is an uneventful stretch and it is no small feat that Inaritu keeps us (mostly) enthralled. He throws many questions at us: how does Glass find the will to persevere and survive? What are Fitzgeralds’ motives? Can nature’s strength over man be challenged and even defeated? What comes after death? There’s a lot of ambiguity and question marks that loom after the credits roll. The movie relies on a whole lot of showing and barely any telling. That can sometimes be frustrating, but we are left to project our own ideas onto Glass.

With this immensely demanding role, DiCaprio has garnered enormous praise. Much of it is certainly based on the “Look what he did for a movie” factor; DiCaprio reportedly ate raw fish, raw meat, slept in a dead horse, and endured subzero temps and the constant threat of hypothermia. In a sense, it’s sort of a purposeful non-performance.He didn’t have to do much acting to showcase a sense of suffering. But his reliance on a few grunts and his piercing eyes shows a sense of subtlety and strength only capable from a very confident, composed actor. He conveys loss, grief, triumph, madness, anger, and pain while barely saying a word. As the truly evil Fitzgerald, Tom Hardy is all bulging eyes, pissed-off mumbling, and sudden violence. When he finds moments to reveal the character’s motives, we see that Fitzgerald is a man trying to beat nature and fellow men just like Glass himself.

For all it’s greatness, The Revenant an imperfect beast. The bare-bones story has a beautiful simplicity that pushes visuals to the forefront and leaves much for the viewer to decide, but it’s simplicity can feel like a one-dimensional sketch of a greater painting. There are times when the 156-minute run-time strains, and we wish things would speed up. But Glass wishes things would speed up too, and Inaritu, DiCaprio, and Lubezki throw us into his journey with breathtaking realism. The film might have worked better with a stronger, more sophisticated, script (some characters are hardly developed, dialogue can be a bit obvious). Instead, the movie relies on near-wordless visual storytelling to convey grand emotions and bloody conflict. It has a truly unique power all its own, and that is partly due to the sparse script.

The Revenant (2015)The film loses some steam during the second act, but (spoilers for rest of this paragraph) the movie amps up the suspense and conflict once Glass reunites with Anderson and heads off to confront Fitzgerald. The climactic fight is not a simple shootout but an over-the-top explosion of knives, guns, and horses. It’s intense, over-the-top, and extremely satisfying. In the final moments, Glass realizes there is nothing left for him: his wife and son are dead, and he’s hardly fit to repeat his harrowing journey back home. The taste of the revenge was sweet but brief, and now he’s hardly sure the trek was worth it. The ambiguous final image, of a lost and frightened Glass staring into the camera, gives the movie a haunting final chill. In an attempt to come to terms with his loss, a lost man loses himself further in his quest for justice. The fulfillment of movie violence turns into an existential chill, and Inaritu has effectively pulled the rug out from under our feet.

In the hands of any other filmmaker, The Revenant would be a vastly different film, perhaps more of a straight action movie or an average historical drama. Inaritu, along with Lubezki, DiCaprio, and the rest of his crew, have made an extraordinary film. At times, it is almost an endurance-test for viewers but a soulful beauty still slips through it all. The Revenant puts us through a difficult, challenging, sometimes gorgeous journey, not unlike Glass’ experience. It is intense, suspenseful, thrilling, and terrifying; a cinematic creation of startling immediacy and beauty. Inaritu has used all of his tools, and energy and patience, to create an epic and it has paid off.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the Movie You’ve Been Looking For

Posted on | December 19, 2015 | 1 Comment

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Spoilers Ahead
After almost exactly three years of unbearable anticipation and careful teasing, the most beloved and important movie series of all time has returned. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this latest installment, may soon become the biggest film of all time yet that hardly matters. There have been so many rumors flying around this movie, but only one question really needs to be answered: is it good? Yes. Sticking closely to the original blueprint, and mixing fresh faces with new ones, it’s a nostalgia ride, a new chapter, and a great time at the movies. This is no Phantom Menace, which was a crushing disappointment for fans and a betrayal of the original trilogy. Director J.J. Abrams and his crew of writers, studio executives, technicians, and actors have learned from the prequels’ flaws: flat acting, plots reliant on forced melodrama and galactic politics, an overuse of obvious CGI, goofy sidekick characters, and appeals to win the adoration of kids not old fans. George Lucas went ahead with his own vision for the prequels, ignoring fans wishes and plain common sense. The Force Awakens works in almost the opposite way.

In 1977, when Abrams was eleven, he saw the original Star Wars. Like so many others, it changed his life. It can often seem like that grade-school kid wanted to remake what he saw on screen, mixed in with some new characters. All along, his friends and parents are whispering in his ear and telling him what to do. Of course, here it’s the biggest blockbuster director of a generation working with a crew of thousands. Yet Abrams is still awestruck over Lucas’ original, and he’s eager to pay sometimes slavish reverence to his childhood.

The Force Awakens doesn’t just nod respectfully to its predecessors; it rips off much of A New Hope‘s plot structure. The story begins with the introduction of The First Order and its Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the masked villain who looks and sounds like a relative of Darth Vader. This organization is the latest incarnation of evil in the universe – after the Sith and the Empire. In these dark times, Resistance fighters rebel against Ren and his master Lord Snoke. One of these fighters is talented pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) who is captured by Ren, and then rescued by strormtrooper-turned-renegade Finn (John Boyega). After crashing on the planet Jakku, Finn travels on his own until he meets Rey (Daisy Ridley) a lone scavenger with dreams of great adventure. A droid, BB-8, with a map displaying the whereabouts of the lost Luke Skywalker, unites the pair and sets them off on a great search. Soon, they’re off traveling through space in the Millenium Falcon, which brings them to Han Solo and Chewbacca. The group embarks on a journey to find Luke, reason with Ren, escape the First Order, and meet up with some old friends.

This journey – specifically Rey’s story – is very similar to Luke’s: a restless nobody meets some old heroes and discovers the ways of the Force. That outline was used in the prequels too, but The Force Awakens also includes a new Death Star, another climactic spaceship fight, a lightsaber showdown, a Cantina scene, and a burgeoning romance. Just as Abrams stole the best bits of Spielberg’s hits for Super 8, he cherrypicks and updates his favorite parts of A New Hope. His reliance on familiarity and nostalgia is the movies’s biggest flaw but also a great strength, and hardly dents the overall excitement. After all, did we expect the series to enter some brave, weird new direction?

Perhaps the next film will do just that, but The Force Awakens‘ referential tone also gives it a resonance that pushes it far past the prequels. The filmmakers have studied the original trilogy, and crafted a loving tribute to their childhood movie memories. Almost every beat seems designed to send viewers (specifically fans) into thunderous applause, giddy smiles, somber tears, big chuckles, or some combination of all those. It’s a gloriously entertaining movie, strong enough to remind you of the wit, charm, and action that made us fall in love with this galaxy in the first place.

Star Wars: The Force AwakensHarrison Ford gets a meaty role here, and you can sense his endearing world-weariness and excitement to be back in the role. Han’s line that sent the Internet ablaze – “Chewie, we’re home” – must have some poignance for Ford too. He brings that natural movie-star personality of the character (a mix of charisma, irony, irritation, and head-strong bravery) but with a tired, hardened heart. Carrie Fischer (now “General Leia”) gets far less to do, but she’s still strong and charming as always.

It’s Finn and Rey that give The Force Awakens a personality of it’s own and a next-generation freshness. As Rey, Daisy Ridely is this movie’s Luke, Han, and Leia: she’s a genuine underdog hero, a willful pilot, and a woman in control of her own destiny. John Boyega’s performance as Finn will surely make him a bona-fide star. He’s completely likable, impossible not to root for, has great comic timing, and is surprisingly handy with a lightsaber. (Abrams deserves kudos for not casting a white guy as the protagonist). Adam Driver, as Ren, and Oscar Isaac, as Poe, don’t get a whole lot to do but these talented actors leave a mark on the scenes they are in.

There are other things to gripe about with The Force Awakens, for sure. Its cliffhanger ending sure leaves you waiting for the sequel, but it leaves too many loose ends. With so much going on, some supporting characters get shortchanged. And the movie’s climactic airborne battle is so familiar you’re likely to forget the whole sequence. But after the letdown of the prequels (aside from Revenge of the Sith), this movie is a triumph. Above all, it’s fun. It’s also funny, exhilarating, shocking, and truly moving.

Star Wars: The Force AwakensAs it all wrapped up, something funny occurred to me. People who have never seen a Star Wars movie will certainly enjoy The Force Awakens, partly because they’re new to this strange, wonderful onscreen universe. They may feel a little left-out on some of the story. Thus, the film will resonate much deeper with fans; the deaths, jokes, and characters will bring back memories and trigger emotions. On the other hand, these viewers will chide the movie for not taking enough risks. Basically, though, it’ll work for either type of viewer. The Force Awakens will live on, and it already seems like a fan favorite. The Force is strong with this one. Some new hope has been injected into the franchise. Until the next installment, we can return to this one – over and over, grinning goofily, wiping away tears, cheering, tensing up, and remembering what Star Wars is all about.

The End of the Tour is Thoughtful and Freeflowing (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | August 29, 2015 | Add Comments

The End of the Tour (2015)“I cherish my regular guyness” comments David Foster Wallace, the author of the sprawling literary phenomenon Infinite Jest. “You don’t crack open a thousand-page book because you hear the author’s a regular guy. You do it because he’s brilliant” reporter David Lipsky replies in the new film The End of the Tour.

This is a movie full of competing contradictions – between novelist and journalist, celebrity fame and average obscurity, colleagues and friends. Yet the most important one might be the distinction between undoubted genius and unremarkable “regular guy”.

The End of the Tour begins in 2008, when news of Wallace’s suicide reaches Lipsky, and then flashes back t0 1996. David Lipsky is a novelist living in New York, unsatisfied by the insubstantial writing he publishes as a contributor for Rolling Stone. Then he reads Infinite Jest, a massive and massively praised new novel, and becomes determined to interview its author, David Foster Wallace. Though Rolling Stone hasn’t published an interview with a writer in the last decade, Lipsky’s editor let’s him have the interview. He travels out to Wallace’s Illinois home, nervous about meeting his newfound idol. Over the course of a weekend, Lipsky accompanies Wallace on the final stop of his book tour. Together, they binge on fast food and action movies, ponder the state of American life at the Mall of America, and talk about, well, pretty much everything.

Adapted from a 2011 memoir by Lipsky and directed by James Ponsoldt, the movie is vastly different from most films about famous people: it spans a few days, follows only a few characters, and never rushes to highlight landmark events. Instead, it follows the casual rhythms of conversations and the slow tempo of everyday life. Most scenes are simply Lipsky and Wallace talking – in cars, on a plane, at the movies, and in a cheap chain restaurant. They touch on a wide range of subjects, including television, addiction, suicide, entertainment, and even singer Alanis Morrisete, Wallace’s secret crush.

Before continuing, I will confess to having never read Wallace’s work or having seen him talk before watching The End of the Tour. The film has elicited much criticism, from Wallace’s family (who claimed he never would have agreed to the film) and friends. I won’t comment on historical accuracies or whether or not the film’s existence is offensive to the legacy of it’s subject because I simply don’t know enough about the facts surrounding the movie.

I do know that I found The End of the Tour endlessly thought-provoking, thoughtful in it’s depiction of both Wallace and Lipsky, and rivetingly conversational. There isn’t much flair to the filmmaking here, but there is a natural, subdued unfussiness to Ponsoldt’s style that fits the film.

The End of the Tour (2015)It’s likely you won’t notice that, because the movie’s strength lies on its two main actors more than the cinematography and editing. I can’t comment on the truthfulness of Jason Segel’s portrayal of Wallace, but it is a startlingly lived-in performance.  He generates nervous energy and social awkwardness, but also generates casual spurts of brilliance. He’s introverted and opinionated and thoughtful. As Lipsky, Jesse Eisenberg is intellectual and self-aware, but also hides a bundle of self-doubt. Both performances are terrific, but watching the actors play off each other is a true treat. Lipsky, with his reporter’s poise and comfortable NYC life, conforms to the social norms Wallace ignores, yet he pines for the success and meaning of his interviewee’s writing. The relationship between the two is sometimes prickly and often uncomfortable. They seem to have little in common, but their differences form an unusual bond.

This is a quiet and conversational movie, unshowy in style and simplistic in its plotline. Its constant chatter is likely to bore most audiences (so far, very few people have gone to see it). If you’re open to the film’s unique charms, and there are certainly some who will be, The End of the Tour is the sort of film that doesn’t try hard to grab you but sticks with you long after.

Irrational Man is Thin but Breezy Entertainment (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | August 22, 2015 | Add Comments

Irrational Man (2015)Irrational Man, Woody Allen’s 45th film, is a movie of contradictions: it’s likable but thin, exaggerated fun but also absurdly implausible.

The film begins as Abe Lucas, a potbellied philosophy professor at the end of his luck, arrives at a New England college called Braylin. He meets with the school president, who asks “Is everything alright?” and it’s hard not to instantly notice that something is off. Abe seems distracted and a little off balance. He suffers from alcohol and depression and his classroom lectures play out like dazed rants from a hardened old soul.

One of his students is Jill (Emma Stone), a bright and popular girl intrigued by Abe’s controversial writing and his rumored womanizing past. She quickly falls in love, to the chagrin of her suspicious boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley). Abe certainly likes Jill, but he’s hesitant to drag her into a doomed-from-start relationship. Of course, that’s exactly what he does; simultaneously, he’s having an affair with Rita, a fellow professor (Parker Posey).

Then Abe and Jill overhear a woman’s teary confession involving a lawyer she wishes were dead. Fed up with the lazy passiveness of modern life, he decides to turn his life around by murdering the lawyer. His attitude and outlook on life seem to brighten overnight, to the surprise of everyone around him. Little do they know his happiness is the effect of deception, murder, and some far-fetched trickery.

Irrational Man (2015)

Irrational Man‘s biggest flaw is Allen’s script, which plays out like a thin short story. Abe, Jill, and Rita (who’s barely a character) are senseless people and fairly one-dimensional, which makes it hard to connect to this character-driven story. The nicest person in the movie is probably Roy, who’s as preppy, predictable, and dull as a movie boyfriend can be.

That’s not to say the movie is unbearable. Abe’s park-set murder plan, the film’s central sequence, has a delightfully macabre tone. Emma Stone is likable and charmingly naive as Jill, which is just what the role calls for. And Rhode Islanders will have fun spotting some familiar locations.

About halfway through, Irrational Man begins to crumble. The tightrope-thin storyline reveals it’s flimsiness, while the film begins to drag. It doesn’t help that Jouaquin Phoenix doesn’t seem sure if this is a dark character study or a lightweight murder mystery and that Parker Posey is stuck with a sketch of a character. The movie falls into a jumble of cliches and interesting ideas that never get developed.

Irrational Man (2015)Then comes the climactic fight, which has an absurdly dark screwball tone the rest of the film could’ve benefited from. On the whole, this is a fairly minor movie from Woody Allen, who recently acknowledged (in a surprising but sensible interview) that he’s too lazy for greatness. It sounds crazy, but that’s a decent explanation for Irrational Man. It’s a low-key murder mystery that makes no attempt to be a deep character study or a memorable romantic comedy. “I’m lazy and an imperfectionist”, he told the interviewer. “Film-making is not the end-all be-all of my existence.” For the audience’s sake, however, it would be nice if he did give his all to a project. Maybe he’s just too busy coming up with new ideas to perfect a single film. (He’s returning to Los Angeles for the first time since Annie Hall for his next film, which he’s shooting now with Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, and Bruce Willis.) For now, though, we have Irrational Man. It certainly won’t brighten your spirits or get you thinking (the way Midnight in Paris and Annie Hall did). But it won’t send you out depressed with the movies, the way Abe feels towards life. Walk in with low expectations, and you might leave happily surprised.

Paper Towns is a John Hughes Film for 2015 (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 27, 2015 | Add Comments

Paper Towns (2015)When it was released in summer 2014, The Fault In Our Stars surprised audiences by being a smarter, and more honest terminal teen romance than expected.  For die-hard devotees of author John Green’s book, the movie was a different kind of experience: immense payoff after immense anticipation. The film was entertaining and emotional; exactly what it intended to be. In comparison to the book, the movie falters and its flaws are revealed; it lacked much of the sophistication and spontaneity that made the book so terrific.

The second adaptation of a John Green novel, Paper Towns, now arrives only a year after TFIOS. While the film’s lack of heartthrob melodrama signals this won’t be the surprise smash its predecessor was, it’s actually the better movie.

While the best aspects of TFIOS were lost in its transition to the screen, Paper Towns plays around with decades-old high-school movie cliches in a way the book couldn’t. Its certainly doesn’t surpass its source material, but it both subverts and stays true to genre conventions in a satisfying and occasionally surprising way.

Paper Towns (2015)The movie begins when a gorgeous and slightly mysterious young girl named Margo moves in next to Quentin (Nat Wolff, who had a small but memorable role in TFIOS), who’s instantly in love. Flash forward to their senior year of high school, and the pair’s initial friendship has long faded away. The nerdy, affable Q hangs with the comically immature Ben and clever Radar. Margo, meanwhile, is the most popular girl in school. Q still pines for his childhood crush, but he doesn’t dream of his fantasies becoming reality.

That is until Margo crawls through Q’s window and enlists him as getaway driver/partner-in-crime for a wild, fantastic night of revenge pranks. It all seems too good to be true, and it is. Margo vanishes the next day, leaving behind an immaculately constructed trail of clues that Q obsessively pursues.

The director of the film, Jake Schreier, has studied the John Hughes classics and those film’s successors. Paper Towns has friendship troubles and blossoming romances. A jock throws a party at his parent’s sprawling house, and the expected excess occurs. There is suspense and mystery and twists, and then an enormously entertaining climactic road trip sequence.

Almost every actor slips perfectly into their role. Wolff’s monotone voice and tired yet energized expressions make him just right for the role of Q. He’s instantly likable, though his intentional boring-ness can get a bit tiring. His chemistry with Austin Abrams and Justice Smith (as Ben and Radar) is honest and frankly hilarious. Only supermodel-turned-actress Cara Delevinge seems poorly chosen as Margo. She’s not bad, and her free-spirited energy works well during the prank sequence. But this is a role that calls for an actress with enough charisma to captivate audiences even when she’s not on screen (which, most of the time, she isn’t). Delevinge simply isn’t bursting with that kind of personality.

Paper Towns (2015)Like TFIOS, the movie is visually kind of bland (though at least the soundtrack here is less imposing). Of course, no one comes to a movie like this looking for a technical masterpiece. They come looking for a good time. Like John Hughes, Schreier (or, to be fair, John Green) knows not just when to follow genre conventions but also when to play with them. After building high hopes, the movie’s inevitable third-act meeting comes off as touchingly bittersweet and also a hard slap of reality. The film’s message is about the complexities of teenage life, how the quirks and  personalities of adolescents can’t be defined by the tired stereotypes that kids and movies perpetuate.

That same idea was at the center of another teen film, released thirty years ago: The Breakfast Club. Inevitably, Paper Towns lacks that film’s freshness, and also some raw emotion. But this comparison got me thinking that the Teller of Adolescent Tales job once occupied by John Hughes has been passed to John Green. Paper Towns and TFIOS don’t just follow in the tradition of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sixteen Candles. They are those films for the next generation. (Take the analogy further, and you could say Nat Wolff is a current Anthony Michael Hall.) I doubt this film will the have the enduring power of The Breakfast Club, but Green’s books will. Paper Towns is a terrifically entertaining teen flick, but turn to the book if you’re looking for something more substantial.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: Comical and Touching, but a Little Thin (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 8, 2015 | Add Comments

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

 

Mild Spoilers!

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival, and instantly began accumulating buzz. Critics either praised it or panned it, and a flurry of love and hate was bestowed upon the film online. It won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the fest, cementing it’s reputation as a must-see for movie-lovers. There’s no question that Me and Earl stirs emotions (strong tears and big laughs), but it’s a modest, moving little movie, neither marvelous nor miserable.

This is director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s second feature, but he’s a longtime member of the industry. He worked for years as an assistant to filmmakers like Nora Ephron and Martin Scorsese, before moving on to direct episodes for various television shows. Grieving over the recent loss of his father, he found Me and Earl could be a way to come to terms with his personal struggles.

Based on a young-adult novel by Jesse Andrews (who wrote the script), the film centers around Greg Gaines, the awkward, self-deprecating “Me” of the title. Greg navigates high-school anonymously, attempting to stay on friendly terms with every clique but without actually befriending anyone. Anyone except Earl (though Greg only refers to him as a “coworker”). Together, the pair parodies their favorite films by shooting no-budget shorts with bad puns as titles.

Everything changes for Greg when his mom forces him to hang out with Rachel, a classmate dying of leukemia. Eventually, and rather unexpectedly, the two become close friends. But as their bond tightens, though, Rachel’s condition worsens. Against their will, Greg and Earl wind up making a film that is not a goofy remake of another film, but instead a gift for Rachel.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)The premise of Me and Earl (specifically the Dying Girl part) sounds heavy and a little depressing. Many moviegoers will need a pack of Kleenex. Despite this, the film is consistently clever and often undeniably funny. Gomez-Rejon balances the misery with movie references, sock puppets, stop-motion, and comic dialogue. It may be about a kid with cancer, but the film is often a joy to watch.

This is partly due to the trio of teen actors (who, in reality, aren’t in their teens) portraying the titular leads. Thomas Mann slips into the role of Greg, capturing the tics of the well-meaning, clumsy character. RJ Cyler’s performance as Earl is a frequent hoot, if a bit problematic. And Olivia Cooke, as Rachel, shows great range. She’s sunny and optimistic in one scene, then exhausted and tearful in the next.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)Jesse Andrew’s script has it’s faults, some of which have gained the movie understandable criticism. Take the character of Earl, who’s humorous and sympathetic but also a lazy stereotype. He’s the black best-friend to the white protagonist, talks in heavily-accented slang, objectifies girls, and ultimately serves to empower Greg’s third-act revelation. The other characters aren’t all simple cliches, but many of them are sketched a little thinly. There’s also not a lot of story meat on the film’s bones, which becomes obvious during the sudden finale.

Me and Earl undergoes a major tonal change in it’s last fifteen minutes, as it becomes the full-on tragedy you’ve been subconsciously expecting but definitely didn’t see coming. It’s a little over-the-top, though there aren’t a lot of other ways to deal with this material.

As a director, Gomez-Rejon hasn’t fully grown into his skin. The movie is plenty inventive, deftly weaving in and out of various genres, with snappy comic timing and some unusually clever cinematography. At other times, Me and Earl is Wes Anderson Lite; it has all the conscious cleverness and color-coordinated hipness of his films, but lacks the lived-in feel that pervades his stories and characters. For a director this early in his career, however, the movie shows true talent and an idiosyncratic style waiting to bloom. This is a very movie-y movie; it pulls on all our emotions, and isn’t afraid to show off it’s filmmaking tricks. There are some blemishes in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, but it’s so frequently fun to watch and also intensely moving. Like it’s lead character, it’s humble, sometimes unintentionally offensive, but ultimately totally winning.

Tomorrowland: Imaginative, Optimistic, and Overstuffed (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | May 31, 2015 | Add Comments

TomorrowlandAt a time when violent, male-driven, franchise-continuations dominate multiplexes, Tomorrowland feels refreshing. It’s family-friendly, features two-female protagonists, and isn’t a latest installment in a series. Hollywood rarely releases big-budget action movies based on new concepts, but that’s exactly what Tomorrowland is. It’s also an ode to optimism and imagination, a world-building sci-fi spectacle, a nostalgic Disney adventure, and – maybe too many things, all at once. Brad Bird (who previously directed two Pixar masterpieces, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, as well as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) stuffs the film with ideas and images, touching on big themes, and stressing important morals. Simultaneously, Tomorrowland manages to sustain a light, bright tone. Yet while the film never collapses on itself, it feels a bit incomplete. Bird has made a good movie out of great ideas.

After opening with an awkward narration sequence, the film starts at the 1964 New World’s Fair. Frank Walker, a science-loving little boy, tries to enter his jet-pack invention into the competition, but is quickly rejected. At the Fair, he meets an enthusiastic girl named Athena, who gives him a look at a bold and bizarre future called Tomorrowland.

Fast-forward to the present-day, where forward-thinking teen Casey (Britt Robertson) tries to save a NASA launch pad from being shut down. She is arrested for trespassing into NASA, but finds a mysterious pin at the jail. That pin turns out to be a temporary ticket to Tomorrowland, and an exhilarating promise from the future.

Spilling too many plot details about Tomorrowland would ruin much of the film’s spontaneous surprise, which Brad Bird has been trying to preserve with the film’s secretive marketing. As trailers have shown, Casey eventually meets Athena and a grown up Frank (played by George Clooney). The trio embarks on a globe-trotting mission to save the future and restore hope to mankind.

Based on the snappy humor, fast-paced action, and striking visual sense he brought to his work with Pixar, Bird would seem like an ideal fit for this material. Watching Tomorrowland, it’s hard to imagine another director being able to inject so much life and humor into such a complicated, exposition-dense sci-fi adventure. He keeps the film comical and clever, even when the script he co-wrote with Damon Lindelof threatens to bog down the fun.

The boundless visual capabilities of animation Bird previously practiced also translate well here. The film is filled with a sense of awe-inducing wonder. The sequences set in the world of Tomorrowland have an imaginative, childlike sense of wonder at odds with the blurry, explosive visuals of most modern action films.

The story is aided by a strong cast, led by Britt Robertson as Casey. Despite being 25, Robertson makes a credible and lively protagonist. As Athena, Raffey Cassidy is sharp and clever, while also able to deliver moments of emotional poignance. Clooney’s trademark personality is at first distracting, even annoying, but he gets slips deeper into his role as the film progresses.

For all it’s strengths, Tomorrowland has some major problems. Chiefly, there are too many things going on. All the different plot-lines compete for attention, resulting in a film that feels oddly slight because of it’s ambition.  There are other issues, such as a few scenes that mistake Men in Black kitsch for futuristic wonder. And the movie’s climactic sequence feels too minor for such a grand adventure.

TomorrowlandDespite these problems, the film still resonates. At the center of Tomorrowland is the idea that optimism and imagination conquer negativity and disaster. The movie preaches that lesson insistently, and sometimes too obviously. Nonetheless, this moral is the most unique and intriguing aspect of the film. Contemporary action films rarely have any sense of purpose, instead committed to following the exhausting formula of explosions and more explosions. Tomorrowland features few action scenes, and the chases sequences that are included never stretch to ridiculous lengths. Instead, Bird tries to convey a simple, important message and instill a wide-eyed sense of joy in audiences. Hopefully, the rest of Hollywood gets the broader message: use your imagination.

 

Avengers: Age of Ultron: The Most Marvel-y Marvel Movie Yet? (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | May 4, 2015 | Add Comments

Avengers: Age of UltronFilled with clever comedic character moments, noisy and never-ending battle sequences, and clues to where the franchise is headed next, Avengers: Age of Ultron may just be the most Marvel-y Marvel movie yet. On paper, that makes the movie sound sort of unbearable. (One of the best Marvel movies, Captain America: The First Avenger, felt little like one). Ultimately, that is exactly what makes the movie so entertaining.

Director Joss Whedon, totally exhausted by the all the expectations and pressure and guidelines thrust upon him, makes no attempt to challenge our notions about the superhero genre. Or to comment on the complexities of modern America. Or even to inject some fresh new ideas into the Marvel Universe. All he wants to do is make a solid, sturdy, slam-bang, good ol’ fashioned action movie. Assuming that was his only intention, he’s succeeded. And while I still left wanting more, and wondering what more is left for a director to do with Marvel, this is undeniably fun stuff.

Avengers: Age of UltronWhedon’s script for the movie is centered around four or five enormous action set-pieces, all of which are loud, long, and explosive. Everything else in the movie (the comical team banter, an unexpected romantic plot-line, subtly revealing flashbacks) is structured around those action scenes. This is a classic action movie structure, and the actual plot is a classic doomsday adventure. The movie kicks into gear when Tony Stark/Iron Man and Bruce Banner/Hulk try to end all violence with an AI peace program, though they keep the plan a secret from the rest of the team. Sooner than later, things go terribly wrong and an evil robot named Ultron is stumbling around and discussing his plans for world domination. So, the Avengers are forced back into action in order to stop the end of the universe.

Hold on, isn’t that basically the plot of the first Avengers? And couldn’t that same basic storyline (team of superheroes overcome differences to save the galaxy) apply to Guardians of the Galaxy? The answer is yes, and yes. In terms of plot, there isn’t anything startling or new here. Not that Whedon doesn’t really seem to care. He also doesn’t bother investing any of the action scenes with any clever choreography or calming coherence (the scenes with a potential “wow factor”, like a Hulkbuster suit donned by Iron Man, were revealed in the trailers).

Avengers: Age of UltronWhat does Whedon care about? The characters. It’s always been the little moments that stand out in these films, and the best sequences in Age of Ultron are the quieter ones. Hawkeye, Hulk, and Black Widow were shoved to the sidelines in the first Avengers movie, so it’s both fitting and gratifying that they’re given starring roles this time around. Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, and Scarlett Johanson are all more confident in their roles, and Whedon has given them all fine storylines (I can’t say anything more, for fear of spoilers). Ultron (voiced with a touch of wit by James Spader) isn’t a great villain, though he’s not a bad one either. But Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, two damaged twins with great power, are fine new additions to the series.

Unfortunately, that means Iron Man, Captain America, and Thora are all given less to do. Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans (as Thor and Cap) have never been charismatic scene-stealers, so it’s not exactly a shock that their characters’ earnest cluelessness fades into the backround. On the other hand, Robert Downey Jr. has always been the best thing about Marvel movies; surrounded by CGI blurs, he always brings knowing and needed personality. His performance here is easily his most mailed-in, least invested yet (which is not to say he doesn’t get some fine one-liners). You can’t really blame him, though. Seven years ago, the first Iron Man movie gave him a shot at rebooting his career. There’s no doubt he’s thankful for the superstardom these films have afforded him, but he seems a little worn down by it.

What do you I have to say about the movie’s finale? It ends with thirty minutes of things going boom, as every Marvel movie does, and it left me a bit exhausted. Will a Marvel movie ever end another way?

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Age of Ultron has a lot going on in it, more so than any of it’s predecessors. It does not, however, have much to say. Whedon has made a highly efficient, largely effective action spectacle…and nothing more. The resulting movie is a good summer popcorn flick, and that’s a compliment. But the strength of a Marvel film can often be measured by whether or not, walking out of the theater, you are left excited for more. Am I? Not particularly.

Seymour: An Introduction is an Illuminating, Intimate Piano Documentary (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | March 16, 2015 | 1 Comment

Seymour: An Introduction

Some documentaries can be sloppily filmed, perhaps slightly unclear, or maybe even poorly constructed and still win me over because of their captivating subjects. But the best docs accompany their fascinating stories with filmmaking savvy, a unique point of view, and possibly an inventive spin on the genre.

Seymour: An Introduction, which opened in limited release last week, falls somewhere in between those two categories. It’s an intimate, ponderous, lovely examination of music, work, and life, directed with surprising and attentive subtlety by actor Ethan Hawke. There’s not a lot of cinematic flair here, but that’s a good thing. Hawke is rarely on screen and, instead of turning the movie into a movie-star showcase, he lets his subject do the talking.

Several years ago, he was at a dinner party when he found himself seated next to Seymour Bernstein, a piano virtuoso who stopped performing live at age 50 to teach students his instrument. Impressed by his kind, conversational dining companion, Hawke confided a new fear of stage fright to Bernstein, who had experienced similar feelings. Eventually, the actor realized this guy would make for a fine film subject.

And he does. Warm and slyly funny, endlessly talkative and erudite, Seymour is exactly the kind of person you would want to listen to for 90 minutes. Hawke paints this portrait of his subject by weaving together several sequences: a lunch discussion between Bernstein and a former student/New York Times writer; footage of piano lessons; and interviews in the man’s home (he’s lived in the same NYC apartment, alone, for fifty years).

This simple, straightforward approach allows lots of time for Seymour to discuss his opinions on classical composers, concert tours, the beauty of nervousness, the intense correlation between an instrument and it’s player, and the primal necessity of music.

Most directors would try to fill us in on every aspect of Bernstein’s life, but Hawke avoids such biographical predictability (likely either because of his politeness or Bernstein’s privacy) in favor of an informative approach that feels more riveting than introductory. At times, Seymour: An Introduction has the charming comfort of a big, warm hug. It’s not all absorbing entertainment; Bernstein tears up discussing his experiences in the Korean War, and chances are you’ll do the same. The movie moves covers a lot of history and skips between several sequences, but it steadily holds onto a relaxed, low-key, but provocative tone. As soon as you’ve seen the movie, you’ll want to mull over it’s ideas with friends and family. And then? You’ll be itching to start practicing an instrument.

Seymour: An Introduction

So, that’s my take on the film, which I got the chance to see at NYC’s IFC Center. Afterwards, the audience was treated to a Q&A with Hawke and Bernstein no less insightful and delightful than the film. Hawke discussed his reasons for making the film, while Bernstein told sometimes hilarious, sometimes illuminating stories that were left on the cutting room floor. I walked away with a smile on my face and a head full of new ideas.

Selma: A Relevant Historical Drama Bursting With Life (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 11, 2015 | 4 Comments

The march in SelmaA riveting chronicle of suppressed anger, unbelievable bravery, and shocking racism, Ava DuVernay’s Selma uses a momentous moment in history to tell the story of a man’s entire life, and of a country’s ceaseless struggle. Rather than make a conventional cradle-to-grave biopic, DuVernay has distilled the essence of MLK into a finely crafted historical film that’s almost necessary viewing after the racial violence of the past year. It’s the story of the Dream in action.

Selma starts with a shot of the face of Martin Luther King Jr., centered and staring straight at us. He’s preparing his acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. He’s honored by the award, but less than satisfied with the progress being made. Racism still lies deep in the hearts of many whites, especially Southerners. By law, blacks are allowed to vote, but King knows that rule isn’t affecting anything. He confronts Lyndon B. Johnson, who’s understanding at best, indifferent at worst. Something must be done, King demands, and “it cannot wait”. But it must, Johnson tells him. And so King and a group of fellow activists, friends, and SNCC members rally for a series of marches in the heart of bigoted America: Selma, Alabama. It’s a final, collective push for black voting rights everywhere.

Director DuVernay, who took over the project when Lee Daniels dropped out to make The Butler, has done an astounding job at narrowing down the essentials of the Civil Rights movement into a cohesive but intricately detailed two-hour film. Though the filmmakers weren’t allowed to use King’s original speeches, the speeches DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb have written feel as thoughtful and authentic as the real stuff. The script manages to fit in a whole bunch of history , fromicons (Malcolm X, J. Edgar Hoover) to pivotal moments in the lead-up to the marches (the Birmingham bombing, the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson). But more crucially, Selma is Selma, not King. The Selma marches were a result of cunning strategics and unknowable courage made possible by blacks daring to dream, as well as whites who knew this effort needed every man and woman willing to help. When the first march (called Bloody Sunday) does come, and it sure hits hard, it’s all the more powerful because we have seen the work it took to get there- the brunch meetings, the late night phone-calls, the perfecting of speeches, the gathering of men and women from all around. Selma is a film that rarely glosses over the details, and instead shows us what these men and women were willing to sacrifice. In this sense, it’s not unlike Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which showed us the intricacies of political meetings and manipulation leading up to a momentous historical triumph.

Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) calls for "massive demonstrations" against racism

And just as Daniel Day-Lewis found the humanity in the myth, Selma gives us with Martin Luther King Jr. the hard-worker, rather than the dreamer. After tiny parts in huge films, David Oyelowo makes the jump to serious leading man. He slips into MLK, inhabiting the role in just about every way. Physically, he’s got it all down: the portly physique, the refined mustache, that accent. But he also gets to the heart of the man’s struggle for racial equality. King wants change, but he’s not sure how far he’s willing to go. He wants “massive demonstrations”, but is it worth it if his dear friends and colleagues are killed in the process? Oyelowo isn’t afraid to delve into King’s personal troubles, either. In one uncomfortable scene, his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) confronts him over allegations of infidelity. “Do you love me? Have you loved another woman?”, she questions. It’s a big dramatic moment, but Oyelowo underplays it, with long pauses of silence.

Unlike some biopics, Selma is a true ensemble film. Standouts include Stephan James as SNCC member John Lewis; Colman Domingo as Ralph Abernathy, one of MLK’s closest friends; and Keith Stanfield as the doomed activist Jimmie Lee Jackson. And there are brief, fine, slightly distracting cameos from Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Martin Sheen.

I’ve offered nothing but praise for Selma so far, but DuVernay makes a few missteps. The Birmingham bombing scene starts with some genuine hair-style chit-chat between the girls, but then becomes  an overblown, slo-motion explosion. And there are a few moments, particularly early on, with some stagey acting and typical biopic politeness. But these are minor quibbles with a vital film, bursting with life. There are several impeccably moving scenes: King calling up Mahalia Jackson to hear her sing; the Bloody Sunday march sequence; the final speech.

Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King in SelmaVisually, the film is an atmospheric beauty. Cinematographer Bradford Young gives the whole film a warm haze, the prison scenes are lit with a shadowy sorrow, and the marching sequences are a chaotic collage of violence. But you don’t go to Selma for the visuals. You go because King’s call for equality across all color lines couldn’t be more meaningful right now. We are reminded of how far we’ve come, but also of the progress we still have to make. We imagine the day when the whole world wakes up to reality and realizes that dream. As John Legend sings over the credits:

One day, when the glory comes
It will be ours, it will be ours
Oh, one day, when the war is won
We will be sure, we will be here sure
Oh, glory, glory
Oh, glory, glory

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