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

Posted on | January 22, 2016 | 1 Comment

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.

The Royal Tenenbaums is a Weird, Wonderful Wes Anderson Great

Posted on | December 24, 2015 | Add Comments

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)The Royal Tenenbaums is perhaps Wes Anderson’s most personal, stylized, distinct film. In comparison to his other films, its even more outlandish than Rushmore, though it doesn’t have the fantastical qualities of The Life Aquatic. Sprawling, frantic, and multi-layered, the movie is an ensemble Hollywood comedy and a formally dazzling art piece. Above all, it is a peculiar, charming, tragic, funny, and beautiful look at the myriad complications of family.

The movie opens with an extended prologue that sets up the dysfunctional family of the title. There are three Tenenbaum kids, all child prodigies: playwright Margot, tennis star Richie, and finance whiz Chas. After astonishing success and great promise, “All memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums [is] erased by two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster.” So goes the narration of Alec Baldwin, which gives a warm, storybook undercurrent to the movie’s proceedings. Years after their childhood greatness, the siblings’ lives are in various states of disarray. Margot is stuck in a bored marriage with neurologist Raleigh St. Clair and hasn’t written a play in years. Richie retired from tennis after a meltdown at his career peak and now travels the world by boat. And Chas is a paranoid but loving helicopter father raising his two boys after their mother’s death in a helicopter accident. The trio’s mother, Etheline, is contemplating a proposal from her colleague Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). And Royal, their father and her ex, has suddenly announced he’s dying of cancer. His sickness brings the family, ever so reluctantly, back under the same roof (specifically the magnificent family home) for the first time in years.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)Royal, played by a sly yet soulful Gene Hackman, is the devious force that puts the film’s plot into action. He truthfully wants to reconnect with and rekindle the love of his family, but he is also broke, scheming, and motivated by his own interests. This film is populated by a huge, fascinating cast of characters, all vying for our love and attention like the needy, looking-for-love people they are. The cast is quite the star-studded line-up, but these are remarkably unusual performances. At first, the actors seem to be doing one-note caricatures. And, initially, that’s the point. Slowly, these wounded souls reveal their inner hurt. We know characters like the almost silent, solemn ex-tennis star Richie (a terrific Luke Wilson) are struggling with something, but we don’t what. When his pain is revealed, it’s staggeringly affecting.

There are so many characters with such disparate personalities, along with multiple converging story lines, that the film rarely has time to breathe. Every sixty seconds, it flips to a new exciting revelation or montage or conflict. Anderson always stuffs his films with eclectic soundtrack choices, jarring tonal shifts, show-topping displays of filmmaking talent, and thoughtful, surprising casting choices. He piles on the style heavy, but underneath there is always a wounded, beating heart. That very dichotomy – between look-at-me style and deeply moving substance – can work against the film but also makes it great.

At times, Anderson’s critics’ complaint that his films are mere doll-house visual playgrounds with knee-deep characters and flat stories begins to ring true. The Royal Tenenbaums can sometimes feel a little hollow, a little empty. Its flaws are hard to describe, but there are no doubt times when Anderson is working against himself, when his beautiful script and marvelous production are at conflicting odds.

Miraculously, all the parts of Tenenbaums fuse together successfully most of the time, and the result is stunning. Anderson is a terrifically confident director, as skilled at constructing a glorious set as developing a supporting character. Along with cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, he likes to create frames bustling with action but also carefully focused on a character placed in the center. The movie’s production values are a step above Rushmore‘s, and Anderson makes use of it. Each scene is oh so carefully lit, shot, edited, and placed to a song.

This is a quirky, outlandish, often very funny film, with sharp dialogue that never loses its wit or charm. Underneath all that, the movie contains some highly dark themes. The shadow of death looms over and cuts through it all. Royal’s cancer gives him six weeks to live, and his impending death actually unites the family. Lethal sickness, along with a grieving widower and an attempted suicide give the film a haunting, deeply moving, and surprisingly realistic chill. As critic Mat Zoller Seitz pointed out, the divorce of Royal and Etheline, when the kids were at their prodigious peak, is the spark that lights the film’s out-of-control flame. Above all, this is a movie about a family: a big, highly dysfunctional but ultimately loving one. The movie doesn’t make grand attempts to uncover the complicated meaning of family, but by following the story of one it sort of does. Anderson portrays some pretty bizarre sibling relationships, a well-meaning father’s sly scheming, and the loving mother who cares for them all with equal care. Ultimately, the movie’s lasting message is a classic one: We will fight and grow apart and move away and fall in and out of love, but the bond of family is unbreakable.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)From the start, it’s clear The Royal Tenenbaums is a singular, special, very weird film. At times, it seems like it will suffocate under its own idiosyncratic flair. This is a wobbling tower of directorial showmanship, putting layer upon layer of artsy, immaculate craft on top of its scarred, still-hanging-on soul. And still that soul, that emotion, that heart.  There is grieving, broken friendship, a sibling affair, old (and new) love, and the splintered relationship between a father and his children. Tenenbaums doesn’t always work; Anderson is gunning for his masterpiece but doesn’t quite succeed (Rushmore and Fantastic Mr. Fox are, in their own ways, as great). Yet this is still a terrific film, a classic of 21st century moviemaking, and a timeless piece of art.

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.

Ex Machina is Eerie, Unforgettable Sci-Fi (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 24, 2015 | 2 Comments

Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina is a science-fiction film but it is notably distinct from other recent entries in the genre. It’s propelled by slow-burning suspense, rather than big and bustling action sequences. It’s unafraid to pose questions about the ethics of artificial intelligence and what constitutes human nature. And, surprisingly, it involves science. More surprisingly, it makes that science consistently gripping.

Directed by first-timer Alex Garland, this is a rare combination of daring independent filmmaking and subtly stunning special-effects. The plot is straightforward. Caleb, a nerdy twenty-six year-old coder, wins a contest at the colossal search engine he works for. The prize is a one-week stay at the gorgeous estate of his reclusive CEO, Nathan. Caleb is initially perplexed by his boss’ solitary lifestyle. He’s shocked when he learns he will be one half of an unprecedented experiment. Nathan has created Ava, a startlingly sophisticated female robot. Caleb is there to asses her humanity. At first, he is astonished by the uncanny realism of Ava, and the technical brilliance of the creation. Slowly, he develops more human feelings for her, specifically love. He begins to question everything: is Nathan on his side? Are Ava’s emotions her own? What constitutes humanity, and can a robot have a real relationship with a person?

Ex Machina (2015)Ex Machina is slow and eerie, dropping clues and building suspense until everything unravels in the absorbing final twenty minutes. The film’s single setting and the limited cast bring to mind a stage performance. Like a play, the film’s themes and ideas work largely because of the distinct performances. As Caleb, Domhnall Gleeson is a nervous and nerdy everyman, amiable and appealing despite sparse background information. Buff and bearded, Oscar Isaac is cold and imposing as Nathan. Isaac nails all the layers of a very sophisticated character. And Alicia Vikander, as Ava, manages to be simultaneously innately robotic and deeply human.

Alex Garland wrote the film’s script without intending to direct, but we should be thankful he was got the chance to helm. The condensed but complex storyline, thoughtful characters, and neat narrative twists are all the hallmarks of an immensely skilled director. The film is as sleekly stunning, consistently clever, and surprisingly self-aware as Ava herself. Technically, the movie is also a marvel. All the robotic technology looks effortlessly real but not too familiar. Rob Hardy’s cinematography provides a jolting sense of immediacy to the story. And the music, by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, is the perfect compliment to the surrounding dread.

Ex Machina (2015)Ex Machina concludes with a cold, dark, cynical conclusion that will keep you thinking for days. It doesn’t stretch on and on, but instead leaves lots of images and ideas left in your brain.


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.

Catch Me If You Can is Top-Notch Spielberg: Breezy, Delightful, and Melancholy (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | March 2, 2015 | Add Comments

Catch Me If You Can (2002)Breezy and light but undercut with a stinging melancholy, Catch Me If You Can (2002; available on iTunes) finds Steven Spielberg straddling between drama and comedy, and creating a classy, perfectly constructed based-on-a-true-story 60’s caper. It’s seems like an odd choice for Spielberg to direct at this point in his career; it is neither an “Important” historical drama that reasserts his brilliance nor a fantastical adventure that again proves his powers as an entertainer. Doesn’t matter. It’s hard to imagine a more delightful, thoughtfully made late-career film from one of our great working directors.

Adapted from the eponymous non-fiction memoir by the film’s subject, Frank Abegnale Jr., the film begins with a clever game-show scene that gives us our first glimpse of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio). After a few scenes from 1969, which give us a look ahead, the film skips back to 1963. Frank is a teenager living happily with his loving parents Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) and Paula (Nathalie Baye) until money problems threaten their middle-class bliss. The family moves out of their spacious home and into a smaller apartment, and then Paula cheats on her husband. The two divorce and Frank, moody, confused, and horrified, runs away from home.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)There are two early scenes in the film that hint at where Frank’s life is heading. In the first, his father gives him a cheque book as a birthday gift and tells him he can have anything he wants. Later, Frank is bullied at his new school. Then he walks into French class and convinces everyone he’s a substitute teacher, until his parents are notified. Yet these are mere glimpses of what Frank is capable of. After running away from home, he pretends to be an airplane pilot and gets a job at Pan-Am. Then he forges cheques listing the airline company’s name, and gets away with stealing millions of dollars. And then he gets a job as a doctor, saying he went to medical school. And then he gets a job as a lawyer saying he went to law school. The entire film has this absurd, but absurdly entertaining, “And then he did this” flow, partly thanks to the relaxed and entirely cohesive script by Jeff Nathanson. Within the space of a half-hour of screen time, we see him go from innocent, contented boy to a bittered son of separated parents to man of luxury, riches, and happiness. But is he really happy? Frank asks out a stewardess, spends a night with a prostitute, and occasionally meets up with his dad, but he never settles anywhere or with anyone. Things won’t stay like this forever, of course, and it’s not long before a humorless FBI agent named Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) is on Frank’s trail.

Spielberg is on peak form here, swiftly switching gears from ridiculous rich-kid comedy to equally ridiculous cat-and-mouse caper comedy. He clearly relishes the chance to do a 60’s period film and the attention to detail (the Aston Martin Frank cruises around in, the Pan-Am clothing, the spacious suburban houses) is just right. So are all of the actors, especially DiCaprio. As Frank, he’s slick and crafty, a skilled smooth talker. But DiCaprio infuses the role with undertones of guilt, sorrow, and loneliness that make us feel sympathy with him to the end. Hanks has surprisingly little screen time, but makes the most of it by taking the role of goofy government agent and going a little deeper. Walken is also great as the well-meaning but delusional father, and Amy Adams has a fine supporting part as an innocent love interest.

There’s top-notch work all around here, from cinematographer Januz Kaminski, who deftly switches from sunny and optimistic to cool and dark, from John Williams and his suspense-bulding score, and from legendary opening-credits designer Saul Bass, who has a great title sequence here.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)Still, it’s Spielberg’s balancing of tones that keeps the whole thing marvelously afloat. There are moments of sorrow and depression and we do get our heartstrings sufficiently pulled. But Spielberg also knows not to dwell on the darker aspects of the story for too long. Instead, he keeps the movie flying smoothly and steadily, like one of the Pan-Am planes Frank pilots. Catch Me If You Can may appear to be a “minor” work by a great director, yet it entertains us (without dinosaurs!), moves us (without Nazis!), and holds us in utter fascination for it’s entire two-and-a-half hour length, not unlike Frank held bankers, pilots, doctors, and the government in awe.


Waking Life: An Ambling Animated Opus from Richard Linklater (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 27, 2015 | Add Comments

Waking Life (2001)Waking Life (2001, streaming on Netflix), Richard Linklater’s ambling animated opus, is the kind of film that will put some to sleep and enthrall others. It’s a brilliant, bizarre, and utterly one-of-a-kind trip.

Waking Life (2001)With a script by Linklater, the film has almost no “plot”, at least in the conventional sense. It’s a chatty, meditative, intellectual feast made up of bite-sized episodes of conversational philosophizing. The film follows a twentysomething drifter (Wiley Wiggins) as he navigates his own dream, listening in on the thoughts of a cast of diverse and unusual characters. A university professor expresses his frustration with the shiftless new generation. A monkey projects and narrates a film. Two friends discuss the possiblities of cinema, then turn into inanimate cloud-statues of themselves. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), from Linklater’s Before trilogy, talk about the last 6-12 minutes of brain activity a dead human has, after the body shuts down. The director Stephen Soderbergh shows up to tell a story about Billy Wilder. And Linklater himself has a fascinating and slightly disturbing story to tell about author Phillip K. Dick.

What makes Waking Life such an innovative, imaginative achievement is the format Linklater chose to make the movie in: rotoscoped animation. First, he filmed his actors the way he would, more or less, in a live-action film. Then a team of Austin artists (largely not computer animators), led by the pioneering Bob Sabiston, animated over that footage using some average Apple computers and a software called Rotoshop. The result is, at first, disconcerting and distracting, even irritating. But, soon enough, you latch into the free-flowing vibe, and marvel at the bizarre beauty that surrounds you. Animation styles sometimes change from scene to scene, while some shots have a bouncy, slightly wobbly effect. The general style is that of a Picasso painting, a Monet masterwork, some modern graphic novels, and maybe some drugs stirred together, and then splattered around with unfettered enthusiasm. It’s so completely different, so fresh, so unlike anything else.

Waking Life (2001)

As for the little episodes that make up the film, some are engrossing and profound, others exhausting and perplexing. There are some scenes of philosophers (mostly non-actors) talking so quickly about such highbrow, scientific ideas that just about anyone without a Phd. in everything will begin to lose interest. It’s also a little pompous that Linklater seems to assume everyone has something grand and genius to say about the universe. And for the first half of the film, the nameless protagonist doesn’t really respond to any of his dream-characters; he just sits, listens, and nods. For a while, this near-wordless blank-slate of a central character is a frustration. With so much going on around the character, it would’ve helped if Linklater had fleshed this guy out, and given us someone to hold on to. Though, that may be the point: we could kind of be following anyone. And  the film gets stronger as it progresses. The protagonist starts speaking, and says some  fascinating things about the consciousness and reality of dreams. Fascinating and more intelligible characters appear, and then disappear, because this is, alas, a dream. Eventually, we’re left with a lovely last shot that takes you up, up, and away.

Waking Life (2001)

Perhaps Waking Life shouldn’t be critiqued as a movie, but debated over as a deep-dive into a director’s brain. All the characters seem to express little thoughts, theories, and ideas Linklater has had, making them more jumping-off points for intellectual analysis than actual characters. Taken for what is, which is a peculiar and rather astounding trip through the mind, Waking Life is a marvel. Imperfect, not for everybody (probably not for most), scattered in every direction? Yes, yes, and yes. But our dreams aren’t supposed to make sense to us, let alone entertain the world. When the movie finishes, you don’t just walk away and move on with your life. It consumes you, fills your brain with new ideas, gets you thinking and dreaming and hoping for more movies like this one, movies so daringly free of constraint and convention.

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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