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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

Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken: An Imperfect but Indisputably Powerful Tale of War (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 4, 2015 | Add Comments

Angelina Jolie's Unbroken (2014)Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s inconceivable based-on-a-true-story tale of WWII heroism and endurance, isn’t flawless but even it’s detractors must admit it is an indisputably wrenching epic. Jolie does fall into the cliche-pitfalls that plague the inspiring-biopic genre, but the film leaves a lasting sting that can’t be ignored.

It’s fitting that Unbroken opens with wonder that quickly dissolves into violence. The first shot, which begins with a lovely sky suitable for framing, is the start of a nerve-wracking plane battle that plunges us into World War II combat. For most of the men aboard these aircrafts, this is more than enough horror to endure. But one of the American bombardiers, Louis Zamperini, the film’s subject, is only beginning his story.

Interspersed with this jolting action set-piece are flashbacks to Zamperini’s conflicts with kid-bullies and police as a young Italian immigrant growing up in California. He’s hopeless and helpless, until his older brother gives him some inspiring encouragement. After that, he puts his liquor-swilling, money-swiping shenanigans aside, and commits himself to being a runner. By age 19, he’s achieving impossible feats of athleticism at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Later, at war, one of his plane’s crashes and he finds himself at sea, accompanied only by two fellow survivors, a few pieces of chocolate, and an ocean of sharks. 47 days later, help comes in the form of hell. Taken to a Tokyo P.O.W. camp, he’s beaten, bruised, and bullied by Watanabe, a barbarous guard known as “The Bird”. All the sweaty triumph of his youth is knocked out of him. “You are nothing” he is told.

“Stranger than fiction” only begins to describe the implausibility, inspiring story of Louis Zamperini (enough material for three films). Jolie and her screenwriters, adapting from Lauren Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography, were wise to focus on the most eventful decade of his life. Of course, all that running, fighting, enduring, and triumphing leads to the expected moments of swelling orchestral heart-tugging and brotherly words of wisdom, and the early scenes suffer especially from some expected triteness. The running sequences, while exciting, are devoid of any danger, and the slightly ridiculous Olympics scene has an unauthentic CGI gloss. Once Zamperini moves past his pre-teen mischief, Jolie finds little imperfections to show us in the character. And the final scene, meanwhile, ends on an overly positive note.

As a director, Jolie has a tough time avoiding conventionality though her filmmaking style is admiringly old-fashioned, brawny and sincere in ways that recall classic Hollywood tales of heroism. Yet it’s hard to imagine a 1940’s film with prisoner-camp scenes of such bitter brutality and unflinching power. Much criticism has been heaped upon the scenes of Zamperini taking a beating, and then another and another. It’s a hard thing to critique. Zamperini suffered through a few years of being tortured and we spend a couple hours watching a movie-version of his ordeal from the comfort of our comfy, cushioned seats. I think Jolie’s inclusion of such extensive scenes of savagery is an attempt to make us feel a smidgen of what Zamperini felt, and she might’ve worried that couldn’t have been achieved with tamer, shorter scenes of violence. Ultimately, the 140 minute Unbroken is overlong, not in specific scenes but as a tiring, weakening whole.

Angelina Jolie's Unbroken (2014)

Though it wouldn’t have hurt to have include some witty intelligence to even out the violence (what were the Coen brothers waiting for when they re-wrote the script?), there is much to admire. Jolie is as capable with tension-escalating action scenes as any seasoned male helmer, as proved by the rousing war set-pieces. But, amidst the not-too-amusing crew quipping, she also places in moments of uneasy apprehension to combat. And the sea-set scenes, which recall the recent Kon-Tiki and Life of Pi, are some of the most moving, thoughtful, and cleverly constructed in the whole movie. That’s due in no small part to cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose forceful frames beautifully capture the transition from sun-dappled optimism to watery isolation and later grimy gloom.

Jack O’Connell’s performance as Louis Zamperini, his first Hollywood lead after a few acclaaimed British dramas, has the charisma, grit, and sentimentality the role calls for. It’s a brazenly physical performance and we watch in awe as his taut physique, slick hair, and dumfounded smile fade away. The bones weaken, a beard grows messily, and his gaze loses it’s former spirit. But sheer commitment aside, O’Connell impresses most with his sheer acting chops. He’s cocky and troublesome, then thoughtful and tough, and eventually weak and frail and faded. Miyavi, as the vicious “Bird”, succeeds at getting us to plain hate him, without turning into an inane caricature. As Zamperini’s fellow survivors, Domnhall Gleason, Garret Hedlund, and Finn Witrock, bring heart-rending humanity to their vital roles.

Unbroken may be prolonged and predictably made, but Jolie’s unflagging commitment to this vast, incredible true story largely pays off. At once a predictably traditional Hollywood epic and a wrenching, undeniably powerful film of pulsing immediacy, it is an imperfect but inordinately affecting accomplishment.

Big Night (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 1, 2015 | 1 Comment

Big Night (1996)Big Night is a humble but delectably sumptuous indie. Directed by actors Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott with a fierce passion for culture and cooking, it’s about the communal joys of a large meal, as well as the creative conundrums chefs face. Genial and suspenseful, though slightly overcooked, it’s a filmmaking feast too delightful to miss.

With a script by Stanley Tucci and Joseph Tropiano, the film (released in 1996, streaming on Netflix) is based around an intriguing central concept that builds and builds and then, almost like theater, plays out with a group of characters in a single setting. It’s 1950’s New Jersey, and two Italian immigrant brothers have conflicting views on their failing family restaurant. Sensible but unsatisfied Secondo (Stanley Tucci) has just talked with his banker, who’s posed an offer: if he doesn’t pay his debts by the end of a month, the restaurant closes. But his brother Primo (Tony Shaloub), the chef, is unwilling to compromise his cooking. When an American customer unhappy with her risotto requests spaghetti and meatballs as a side, Primo refuses. They don’t serve meatballs, and risotto doesn’t go well with spaghetti anyway.

Still, something has to be done. Well-connect restaurant competitor Pascal (Ian Holm) asks Secondo if he’d like Louis Prima, who’s coming to town, to dine at the restaurant for a publicity boost. He agrees, and Secondo and Primo gamble it all on one big night. Everyone’s invited: Secondo’s girlfriend Phyllis (Minnie Driver), Primo’s flower-designer crush (Allison Janney), a persuasive car dealer (Campbell Scott), Pascal, and just about everyone else in the movie. Of course, there are complications: while Primo toils away on timpano pasta, Secondo lusts after fancy cars and cheats with Pascal’s wife, Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini). It’s only food, sure, but everything’s at risk.

The film’s central conflict (creative perfection at odds with the hard facts of life: money, changing tastes, competitors) will be all too familiar for artists, and plenty fascinating for everyone else. Secondo, with his relunctant business sense, seems like the sane one, but there’s something about Primo’s exacting love for the food of his home that’s utterly persuasive. It’s helpful that both actors seem indistinguishable from their characters: Tucci makes Secondo, practical in his work but less so in his personal life, a living, breathing protagonist. And Shaloub captures the tragedy of the Primo character: his aversion to change, his love for Italy, his difficult-to-watch perfectionism. The other actors have less complex roles, but still imbue their characters with personality and humanity (Scott’s deadpan wit; Rossellini’s subtle mix of anger and caring; Holm’s wild, deceptive charisma) .

Big Night (1996)Tucci and Scott are, for the most part, fine filmmakers. They’re old-fashioned storytellers with an understanding of and fascination with the most primal and complex parts of life (food, family, art, work, love), they get all-around terrific performances from an ensemble cast, and have a spot-on ear for jazz in film. Working with cinematographer Ken Kelsch, they create a look that’s both gorgeously delicate and boldly crisp. They employ long takes that last minutes to capture the ongoing pressure of the kitchen and the free-flowing beauty of the town. And then, for the dinner scene, they unleash a fabulous flurry of cuts and camera angles that capture the surprise, satisfaction, and pure joy of the final meal.

Like it’s characters, and the meal’s outcome, Big Night is not faultless. Tucci and Scott raise the story’s stakes higher and higher throughout the film, until the beach-set finale shows the melodramatic strains in the script (actors doing something operatic…who’da thunk?). It’s like a perfect dinner that ends with climaxes overdone last course…but finishes with a terrific dessert.

The final scene of Big Night, a near-wordless one-take five minute sequence too good to ruin, is an understated encapsulation of everything the film is about. Al dente.

The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: John Hughes on Netflix (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 30, 2014 | Add Comments

John Hughes' classic teen dramedy The Breakfast Club (1985)For many, the holiday season means ample time for movie viewing at home and, in our digital world of always-on screens, on Netflix. Two teen classics from the 1980’s prime of writer-director John Hughes – The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – are streaming now, but only one is worth your time.

The Breakfast Club will turn 30 years old in two months, but, to the eyes of this thirteen year-old, the film’s biting humor, soul-bearing honesty, and wonderful ear for teen talk pack an uproarious, tear-jerking punch on first viewing. The film opens, along with the thumping drums and yearning vocals of Simple Mind’s hopelessly, delightfully cheesy “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”, with Anthony Michael Hall’s voice-over: “You see us as you want to see us…In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.” For the rest of the film’s pensive but goofy 97 minutes, the five students (nerdy but wounded Brian (Anthony Michael Hall); pressured jock Andrew (Emilio Estevez); lying loner Allison (Ally Sheedy), beloved rich kid Claire (Molly Ringwald), and rebellious delinquent Bender (Judd Nelson) perpetuate and then shatter these stereotypes during an 8-hour Saturday detention. They’re forced to write a 1,000 word essay, but they end up doing anything but. The kids get high, tell lies, wander the hallways (and the ceilings), share their deepest secrets, and wonder…when they come back to school on Monday, will anything be different?

For a star-studded Hollywood comedy, this is deep, dark, low-key stuff. The film, which revolves around five characters talking, owes much of it’s success to writer-director John Hughes’ fresh, authentic, insightful, and hilarious dialogue (legend has it he wrote the script in two days). What he lacks in cinematic style, he certainly makes up for with his singular, distinctive voice.

Luckily, he also found the right actors to bring that voice to the screen. The ensemble cast of budding Brat Packers have a surprising knack of comic timing, a keen sense of affecting but not sappy sentimentality, and genuine chemistry. The cast takes Hughes’ vibrantly written characters and gives them faces: Michael Hall and his injured geekiness; Estevez with his misleading shield of athletic strength; the unpredictable bizarreness of Sheedy; Ringwald and her privileged warmth; and, of course, Nelson’s teasing, alarming, utterly confident stare.

Five teens bare their souls in The Breakfast Club (1985)

For some, the kids may be too anti-authoritarian, or the humor too crude, or the film too sappy. But, for me, Hughes hits just one sour note (spoilers follow). In the final minutes of the film, Ally Sheedy’s Allison gets a makeup makeover from Claire; her dandruffy, Gothic strangeness dissolves into smiley lipstick gloss. She walks over to Estevez’s Andrew (who’s only talked with her briefly during the film) and he’s blown away, completely speechless. Kudos to Hughes for not predictably coupling up Estevez and Ringwald, but this spur-of-the-moment scene is at best a last-minute stretch, and at worst a way of telling teen girls: you’re not pretty if you don’t look like everyone else.

Everything great about The Breakfast Club (the cast, the dialogue, the humor, the heart) reaches a deeply poignant, but hysterically funny, high during the soul-bearing finale, as the five kids admit their reasons for getting detention. It’s a scene of heartbreaking confessions, but also riotously vulgar humor, and the actors improvised it!

Mathew Broderick crashes a parade in Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1985)The unpredictable comedy and honest emotion of The Breakfast Club is sorely missing from John Hughes’ cutesy, meaningless 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. How has this shallow, trivial, largely not-as-funny-as-it-thinks-it-is film achieved “modern classic” status? If you haven’t seen the film in a while, you may be questioning me. But the memories of over-nostalgic Gen-Xers shouldn’t cloud judgement of a film. A movie should be critiqued based on how it holds up today. By those standards, why are we even talking about Ferris Bueller?

“Bueller…Bueller…Bueller?” a dull high school teacher asks in a monotone voice. But Ferris Bueller is, of course, is sick. Well, not really sick. He’s tricked his doting, rich parents into letting him stay home for the day. And what a day he’s planned… After he picks up his troubled best friend Cameron and loving girlfriend Sloane, the trio embark on a series of wealthy adventures: speeding around in the pristine Ferrari of Cameron’s father; visiting a museum of fine art; eating at the fanciest restaurant in town; crashing a downtown parade; and evading the school’s scheming principal, Edward Rooney.

Honestly, the stakes couldn’t be lower, the characters couldn’t be simpler, and the story couldn’t be more banal, obvious, and unexciting. While The Breakfast Club was something of a social commentary on the American teenager, Hughes doesn’t seem to have anything to say here, except “Enjoy life, do expensive things, and avoid anything remotely difficult or demanding.”

The movie coasts by on Mathew Broderick’s assured, nonchalant charm. He’s completely convincing as Ferris: careless, likable, slightly irritating. His fourth-wall smashing monologues are the apotheosis of his slacker-king cool. The rest of the cast makes little impact, though they’re given broadly-drawn, one-note cliches to play.

Amidst the mildly worrying materialistic morals, there are moments of sheer, weightless joy. The showstopping parade musical number, during which Ferris lypsyncs to “Danke Schoën” and “Twist and Shout” may be the film’s peak. It’s meaningless, but good fun.

Ferris and his friends in Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1985)That’s the difference between Ferris and Breakfast Club. With the former, Hughes wants to do nothing but entertain us, and fails. But with the latter, he meshed comedy with drama, social commentary with character study, populist fun and frankly-stated big ideas. I’m looking forward to spending a little more time with his films.

The Imitation Game: Benedict Cumberbatch Amazes in Chilly, Cerebral, Cliched Biopic (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 27, 2014 | Add Comments

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) creates a machine to stop a deadly Enigma machine

The Imitation Game, Morten Tydlum’s chilly, cerebral new film, is about one of history’s greatest enigmas. At first glance, the film is puzzling, too. Structurally, Tydlum’s film is a combination of the typical biopic, with revealing flashbacks and character cliches, and something more structurally paradoxical and politically progressive. It opens in 1951, as police investigate the house of British mathematician/computer-scientist Alan Turing, who’s recently been robbed. We then skip back a few years, to Turing’s job interview with the no-nonsense commander of group of codebreakers hoping to solve Enigma, a deadly Nazi machine. Turing’s personality becomes immediately clear: he’s prodigiously brilliant and blazingly confident, but his machine-like intellect lacks any basic understanding of humor and social norms.

Nonetheless, Turing wins the job and is soon seen frustrating his colleagues, including the prickly Hugh (Stephen Goode), who toils away at breaking the code while he builds Christopher, a mysterious early-computer that may offer the only chance of solving Enigma. But time is running out, and Turing’s big dreams are ruined when authorities shut down his dream projet. Not one to be thwarted so easily, he convinces his team and his commanders to give him one month to crack the code of Enigma and prove the 100,000 pounds poured into Christopher were worth it. Turing and his team, along with a new code-breaker, Joan (Keira Knightley), work against time and authority to stop the war. But there’s more to the man than sheer mathematical genius; his romantic relationship with Joan masks his closeted homosexuality. For Turing, keeping his colleagues on speaking terms and his sexuality secret is as much a challenge as winning the war.

At The Imitation Game‘s center lies Benedict Cumberbatch’s poised, posh lead performance. With his perfectly combed wisps of hair, frighteningly focused green eyes, and obsessive, stammering voice,  he’s captures the brainy, unstoppable intelligence and oblivious social awkwardness of a misunderstood genius. He’s adept at code-cracking, but irony confuses him. And if he has a chance of achieving greatness, why be kind to colleagues? Cumberbatch gets it all right: his pin-point braininess; his unstoppable perfectionism; his incompatibility with coworkers; his closeted sexuality. This is a flawed film, but it’s hard to imagine anyone giving a more perfect Turing performance.

Turing works with a team of several codebreakers, but director Morten Tydlum only attempts to distinguish one: Joan Clarke, played with surprising strength and compassion by Keira Knightley. Instead of playing the oblivious one-note love interest, Knightley matches Cumberbatch’s intelligence but has the humanity he lacks. Knightley proves she’s capable of emotional depth we haven’t seen from her before, the kind missing from the rest of the supporting cast.

Director Morten Tydlum has been directing film and television for two decades, and he capably mixes elements of the biopic, the thriller, the period piece, and the war movie to create a tension-filled, emotionally-complex character piece. Working with cinematographer Oscar Faura, he gives the film crisp, attractive, but rarely noteworthy Downton Abbey-like visuals (Downtown‘s Allen Leech adds to the vibe). For a period-film, Tydlum’s one is fairly progressive, particularly in it’s frank acceptance of homosexuality, and as historical drama, it’s never less than fascinating. The film’s framing device, while initially confusing, makes for an intriguing opening, and the scenes of code-cracking have an illuminating scientific seriousness missing from this fall’s other math-genius period-piece The Theory of Everything. For the average holiday filmgoer, unfamiliar with the story, The Imitation Game will more than suffice. But Alan Turing, with his intellect, social skills, work ethic, and sexuality, was a singular man at odds with the times. This is a film, fine though it may be, that is at times frustratingly adherent to the biopic in hypocritical ways; such an unusual man deserves a more unusual film. Imagine if Tydlum had gone darker and deeper (Turing’s suicide is mentioned as an after-note), and deployed his visuals to go further inside the man. Cumberbatch’s performance would fit nicely into such a murky psychological tragedy, but a director with more filmmaking sophistication would be appreciated.

Joan (Keira Knightley) and Alan (Benedict Cumberbatch) hide their secrets in The Imitation GameInstead, we’re left with a riveting, informative, respectably crafted historical drama that ticks all the right boxes for an Oscar-baiting Weinstein crowd-pleaser. Benedict Cumberbatch’s phenomenal performance makes the film worth seeing on it’s own, but the polish-over-artistry filmmaking will leave some hungry for more. The Imitation Game breaks allthe codes to reach audience’s hearts and awards voter’s ballots, but a few puzzles remain unsolved.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: A Pointles Farewell to Middle Earth (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 21, 2014 | Add Comments

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesAt 144 minutes, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest Middle Earth movie by fifteen minutes. That’s a puzzling fact, because of all the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, none have been as deafeningly, tediously pointless as this one. It’s 144 minutes too long, and you’ll be wondering what has happened to Peter Jackson, who so brilliantly pulled off the Rings trilogy but left audiences puzzled and exhausted by a numbing three-part Hobbit trilogy that dwindled in quality as it continued.

Jackson picks up right where we left off, with a dragon face-off that hits you over the head, sets the bombastically dull tone, and made me wonder why this scene wasn’t included in the last film. Perhaps Jackson was fretting over a lack of action? Nope. The entire film, as evidenced by the title, revolves around one long battle. After Smaug the dragon is killed by a shot to the neck from Bard the Bowman, the gold-filled lair of the dragon is up for grabs. Thorin, leader of the dwarves, is obsessively determined to keep it all for himself, but Bard and his group of humans from the recently destroyed Laketown, demand their fair share, which Thorin promised. The elves do too, and they have an army to back them up, which leads to (you guessed it!) war. How could I forget the title of the film? There are five armies, which means orcs and more dwarves and Gandalf and some other nasty creatures appear for the solitary reason of stretching the film’s running time to ridiculous lengths.

Throughout this Hobbit finale, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Peter Jackson and his Hobbit trilogy has failed at nearly everything that made The Lord of the Rings great. Remember the characters (Frodo, Sam, Gollum, Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir) and all the tiny moments of friendship and humor and bravery they shared? Remember the battle scenes, (Helm’s Deep, Pelennor Fields) which Jackson filled with a scope and seriousness lacking in most blockbusters? The trilogy wasn’t without it’s flaws (The Two Towers was a deeply overrated sequel), but audiences were left with unforgettable scenes (“My precious”; “Here at the end of all things”; “Not this day”) that put the series in the pantheon of blockbuster franchises that Star Wars reins over. Alas, Jackson followed in the footsteps of George Lucas’ galaxy too well. Not content with ending the series on a high note, he delivered his own trilogy of completely inferior prequels.

The dwarves in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesFive Armies puts Jackson’s two greatest weaknesses at the fore: dull, talky build-up and action sequences that just don’t stop. He has a self-indulgent penchant for relishing in every extraneous detail in Middle Earth (these movies involve excessive amounts of battle-planning, alliance-making, and fantasy politics). Worse, he expects non-Tolkien diehards to care (or so one would suppose, based on these running times). The previous Hobbit films haven’t held a candle to The Lord of the Rings with their action scenes, but Jackson had a big chance to stage some engaging, impressive fight scenes with this big finale. Instead, we get blurry, incoherent slashing, hammering, yelling, and crying involving characters we’ve barely gotten to know over eight hours. If the IMAX audio systems weren’t so deafening, you might fall asleep.

Jackson’s attempts at emotionally attaching audiences fail too. The film’s non-action scenes involve an awkward elf-and-dwarf love triangle, speeches of loyalty and courage, and many scenes of Thorin moping in the dragon’s lair. The script’s dialogue, never his strong suit, is clunky, obvious, and laughably humorless, while the ensemble cast of dwarf and elf actors blend into the hollow CGI universe surrounding them. Martin Freeman, who brought wit and charm to the other films, is relegated to the backround and refused opportunity to lighten up the film.

Too bad. The Battle of the Five Armies could’ve used some laughs, or some originality, or some intelligence, all of which it is lacking. There is one rewarding sequence, though. When Bilbo returns to his Shire home at the end of the film, you feel Jackson’s filmmaking muscles ease up with the familiarity of returning to a location often seen throughout the series. For a few moments, the film has the lovable warmth of The Fellowship of the Ring‘s early scenes. Ultimitaely, it just reminded me how much better those Lord of the Rings films were, and how much of a failed opportunity The Hobbit is.

The Theory of Everything (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 6, 2014 | Add Comments

The Theory of EverythingStephen Hawking, who was diagnosed with ALS disease in 1963 but conquered his two-year life expectancy and became an influential theoretical physicist, is not your average scientist. Luckily, The Theory of Everything, which chronicles Hawking’s marriage to Jane Wilde and significant scientific achievements, is a more sophisticated, contemplative biopic than one might expect.

As the film begins, Hawking is a socially awkward, slightly clumsy, and rather directionless Cambridge undergraduate. He meets Jane Wilde at a party, and they’re instantly charmed by one another. Then, after an ugly fall, Stephen is diagnosed with “motor-neuron disease” and told his ability to talk and walk will quickly decline. He’s confused, he’s angry, and he wants to shut out Jane from his life. She won’t let that happen, however, and promises to help him through the challenges that lay ahead.

That all sounds predictably inspiring, and it is, but the film reveals new layers as their marriage continues. As the years wear on, Jane endures alongside Stephen and suffers with him.  Eventually, she, and the audience, ask: how much of herself is she sacrificing? The youthful, unwavering love the couple initially shared becomes more fraught with tension, yet becomes something deeper, with the passing of time.

Anthony McCarten’s screenplay, adapted from Jane Hawking’s memoir, gives equal attention to both Jane and Stephen, providing a fleshed-out, two-sided relationship without male or female cliches.

It’s the performances that really make or break this type of film, and The Theory of Everything has two great ones. As Hawking, Eddie Redmayne gets ample opportunity to display his acting talent, but it’s his subtlety that makes the role heartbreaking. As his eager, intelligent vigor fades into weary sickness, Redmayne undergoes a remarkable physical transformation. His head slumps down, his hands scrunch up, and his speech slurs. Remarkably, his intellect remains untouched. Jane’s confidence, however, does not. Actress Felicity Jones shows us all her roles: loving wife, persevering companion, and apprehensive, frustrated woman. Her role may be less physically demanding than Redmayne’s, but it’s just as emotionally testing.

Science geeks interested in gleaning some new information from a Stephen Hawking biopic will be thoroughly disappointed, but it’s hard to imagine others sharing such a sentiment (for those interested, there’s Hawking’s book “A Brief History of Time”.) Director James Marsh is far more interested in complex relationships and the limits of love than he is in mathematical equations that provide a theory for everything. He’s clearly adept at working with actors, and creating a believable human love story. But, thanks to cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, the film also has a muted, lush beauty. Marsh and Delhomme are keen visual thinkers, and they imbue the soft, enchanting frames with a hazy warmth, universal grandness, and ravishing romance (as Jane and Stephen tenderly kiss, the camera lifts upwards and floats away).

That’s not to say The Theory of Everything is without it’s flaws. Some plot strands, while effective, are repetitive, and the film feels a bit slow. And the inspiring, against-all-odds story of triumph and romance, while historical and illuminating, has been seen before.

The Theory of EverythingStill, it’s easy to fall for the film which, while often hard to watch, leaves you with a sense of hope for mankind. Die-hard physicists may complain, but it’s hard to imagine a more compelling version of Hawking’s story, made within the Hollywood boundaries. Then again, you may leave the theater unsure about the “biopic” genre. How many more films about historical icons can we watch? Why do some celebrities of the past get the movie treatment and not others? The Theory of Everything is a fine film, and it gives us new insight into a famous figure. But sitting at the dinner table, you may tell your friends “I really didn’t know much about Stephen Hawking, and the film was quite informative. Oh, and the acing was phenomenal.” But didn’t you say the same thing about Lincoln? Saving Mr. BanksThe King’s Speech? Surely filmmakers have original, fictions stories to tell too? Coming soon: The Imitation Game, Mr. Turner, and Unbroken… Hmm.

Bill Murray in St. Vincent: Contrived but Wonderfully Hilarious (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | November 29, 2014 | Add Comments

Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) bonds with Vincent (Bill Murray) in St. Vincent)On paper, St. Vincent sounds like a contrived, seen-it-before sap-fest. Yet, while you have seen this boy-melts-the-heart-of-old-grouch tale before, it works. Why? Among other things, two words: Bill Murray. He plays Vincent (everyone calls him Vin), a bad-tempered misanthrope who enjoys smoking, sleeping, and getting drunk. He spends his days doing laundry for his assisted-living-bound wife, who doesn’t recognize him, and with his cranky Russian prostitute sorta-girlfriend Daka (Naomi Watts). She’s pregnant, and, therefore, soon to lose her job (“Discrimination against pregnant woman!”, she gripes).

He’s woken up one day by the sound of a moving truck breaking off a tree branch… that falls on his car. That’s when he meets his new neighbors, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, playing it straight) and her son Oliver. Megan, estranged from her husband and working late hours at a hospital, needs a babysitter for Oliver. After a series of events, that job goes to Vin. As he takes Oliver to gamble at horse races, hang out at bars, and teaches him how to fight, a reluctant but irresistible duo forms.

Murray, with his badly-kept goatee and a cigarette dangling out of the side of his mouth, imbues Vin with humanity and humor, turning a cliche into a human-being. His comedic timing is impeccable, but it’s the way he manges to make the character both likable and despicable that truly surprises. As Oliver, Jaeden Lieberher has the spunky-cute attitude you’d expect from a child-actor, but he’s more genuine than you might expect. McCarthy, meanwhile, is  convincing as a struggling single-mom and Watts is absurd but hilarious as her character transforms from stripper to mom. Chris O’Dowd, in a small comic role, steals his scenes as Oliver’s caring, witty teacher.

St. Vincent is director Theodore Melfi’s debut feature and he proves himself as a capable, clever, though thoroughly uninventive, filmmaker. His script, which falls somewhere between inspiring family drama and raunchy adult comedy, has some wonderfully comical scenes and a tearjerking emotional payoff, though it would be nice to see him make something a little fresher next time. Still, as the film cuts between Oliver’s bully battles at school and Vin watching a pregnant Daka dance at a strip club, the film manages a kind of bizarrely delightful charm that’s sure to put a smile on your face. Melfi, working with cinematographer, gives the film an attractive, if unoriginal, look, imbuing neighborhoods, horse races, bars, and classrooms with color and life.

A scene from the drummed St. VincentOf course, you don’t go to this movie to marvel at the visuals. You go because you want to have your attention diverted by the story of how a bitter grouch learns to lighten up. Yes, the plot relies on narrative stretches, and there’s nothing to surprise you. It’s also hard to imagine Murray, who’s become increasingly choosy with his projects, reuniting with Melfi film after film the way he has with Wes Anderson, a filmmaker with the ingenuity and invention missing here (Vin may remind of you of a much better Murray role in a much better movie: Rushmore‘s Herman Blume). While you’re watching St. Vincent, however, you won’t care. You might roll your eyes, or you may burst into tears, but you’ll certainly walk out of the theater with a goofy grin spread across your face.

The Singer-Songwriter Romances of John Carney: Once and Begin Again

Posted on | November 27, 2014 | Add Comments

Two musicians (	Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) fall in love in OnceFor all their differences (in budget, star power, and setting), Once and Begin Again, both directed by John Carney, are remarkably similar. The two films each follow a singer-songwriter, post break-up, as they attempt to kickstart a music career, while bonding with a new friend/fellow musician/possible love interest. Do the two films prove Carney as the master of the modern musical? Seven years after it’s indie success, does Once stand up? And is Begin Again (now on DVD and available to rent) a promising follow-up?

You know the story of Once: a poor guitarist befriends a shy, Czech pianist and the two write songs and fall in love. It’s equally likely you’re familiar with the film’s success story: $150,000 indie manages to gross $1.9 million and win an Oscar. Watching the film for the first time, this year, I was surprised by all the acclaim for a enjoyable but modest film. While the songs (especially the beautiful “Falling Slowly”) are simply gorgeous, Once runs on humble charm rather than filmmaking expertise. It’s easy to see why audiences fell for the songs and the story, but Carney’s lack of directorial talent was too obvious for the film to work on me. Main problem: the over-used, almost infuriating shaky cinematography. Tim Flemming’s camerawork is rarely striking but constantly irritating; he moves the camera around so often, you get the sense he doesn’t know what to do with it. Carney’s script, meanwhile, is more premise than story but manages some raw, affecting moments of pure emotion. Luckily, leads Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, clearly unprofessionals, have some honest chemistry (especially when they’re performing). Maybe the Broadway show, with more music and less wobbly camerawork, would impress me more.

Gretta (Keira Knightley) and Dan (Mark Ruffalo) record an album around NYC in Begin AgainBegin Again, meanwhile, takes the simple premise of Once and piles on more characters, subplots, and a layer of distinctly un-Dubline-like pop-star gloss. Gretta (Keira Knightley), heartbroken after her chart-topping guitarist boyfriend (Adam Levine) cheats on her, is a singer-songwriter who doesn’t quite know what do with her music. Then she meets a divorced, drunken producer (Mark Ruffalo), who convinces her to sign on for a record deal. The (laughable cutesy) twist? To make their album, they record around outdoor NYC locations. It’s all only slightly less predictable than you’d expect (like Once, the ending favors the bitter over the sweet). Light, amusing, and easy to please, with an undercurrent of heartache, things rarely stray far from a gentle, hopeful, hummable tone. The issue is there’s no “Falling Slowly” here, and Knightley’s singing skills are meager. It’s also hard to believe the plot, which assumes an irony-free, unoriginal folk-singer could make a splash in the era of EDM (electronic dance music). If you take the jump, however, you’ll enjoy some clever music industry quips, a satisfyingly disappointing ending, and Ruffalo’s likable turn as a failed father and once-great producer struggling against the music industry’s changing tides.

After two music-romances, you’d expect Carney to try something new… And you’d be wrong: Sing Street, slated for next year, will follow a Dublin boy as he starts a band in London. The film is currently in post-production, so it may be too late to offer advice but let’s hope the songs are memorable, the script not too predictable, and the camera steady. Or else I’ll just stay home listening to this.

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | November 26, 2014 | Add Comments

Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) pushes aspiring jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) past the limit in WhiplashDamien Chazelle’s Whiplash builds from a terrific opening and just doesn’t stop: it’s always moving, building, and occasionally erupting, as it rivets and shocks and enthralls, takes sharp turns and big leaps, then astonishes with a grand finale that’ll leave you immensely satisfied yet queasily uneasy. Like a great drummer, the film sticks to a tempo but throws in plenty of surprises and flourishes, and never plays a note off.

Whiplash opens with a black screen, as a drum roll builds from an unsettlingly slow pace to an exhilarating explosion of pure, refined noise. Then, as the tempo reaches an unbeatable high, a bass drum slams and then we cut, quicker than the climactic hit of a crash cymbal. In a wonderfully immersive shot, the camera glides through a hallway, towards Andrew Neiman, our freshman protagonist, who’s practicing away on his drum kit. Then Terrence Fletcher, the school’s highly respected jazz conductor, enters the room and tests Andrew on his skills. In a few days, he’s earned a spot as backup drummer in Fletcher’s highly elite band.

At first, Andrew is thrilled, and why shouldn’t he be? His college, the fictional Shaffer Conservatory, is the best music school in the country but, suddenly, he’s placed at the top. Maintaining that position, however, will cost him everything. Fletcher, it turns out, is no smiley inspirational hand-holder. Instead, he’s an exacting, nasty, practically abusive oppressor who feels pushing people not to but past their limits is the only way to achieve great art. In his mind: if we don’t try harder than our hardest, we’re denying the next generation a fresh set of cultural icons. Instead of giving up on this seemingly unattainable pursuit of perfection, Andrew persists, giving his all in hopes of becoming the next Buddy Rich, his idol. “I want to be great”, he tells his less focused girlfriend Nicole. “And you’re not?”, she asks. “No, I want to be one of the greats.” And so, testing all of his relationships and forcing himself to doubt his own motives and common sense, he practices and endures, struggling to persevere and surpass Fletcher’s twisty, twisted jungle of psychological manipulation, physical exhaustion, and verbal abuse.

Andrew’s struggle in Whiplash has a constant sense of genuine immediacy, and there’s a reason. Director Damien Chazelle based the film on his high-school experience as a promising jazz drummer dealing with an abusive teacher. He wrote the script for Whiplash in 2012, then adapted it into a short film to attract funds for a feature. It won Best Short at the 2013 Sundance festival, and, when he returned the next year, the full length version garnered Best Film.

That’s a terrifically inspiring story of indie success, but it actually means something because Whiplash is a breathtakingly gripping, rush-out-and-see-it filmmaking triumph, with none of the amateurish shortcomings you’d expect from a director’s sophomore effort (his first release was the modest monochrome jazz musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench).

Chazelle’s style isn’t just polished and professional but also personal and distinctive. Working alongside cinematographer Sharon Meir and editor Tom Cross, he displays a masterly understanding of the camera and the edit, and how to fuse the two to create fireworks. To create a palpable sense of place, for example, he shows us the tiny details of a scene (the tightening of screws on a snare drum; the pouring of soda at the movies; a couple’s feet touching under the table) using just a few, carefully framed shots and some swift cuts. And during the performance scenes, particularly the finale, (the jazz soundtrack is delightful and often thrilling) he uses rhythmic bursts of cuts and angles to put us right on stage, behind the kit, with Andrew. While the musical prodigy plays stunning solos, the man behind the scenes is creating his own tour de force. (On a side note: while I’m no jazz purist, the soundtrack is delightful and often thrilling; the boundlessly energetic title track and sped-up Duke Ellington classic “Caravan” are highlights.)

The film may be a technical stunner, but it also proves Chazelle’s talent as a shrewd, thoughtful storyteller. His script, clearly a long-in-the-process labor of love, is brisk and sharp, laced with anxiety-inducing suspense, vile humor, and startling surprises. There’s not a wasted moment, and each scene builds upon the last, creating unbearably exhilarating tension. And the snappy, clever dialogue manages to be both honestly, awkwardly touching (Andrew asking out Nicole) and lightning-speed witty (a dinner table debate).

Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) shows no mercy to his jazz band students in WhiplashThe characters of Andrew, a tenacious workhorse, and Fletcher, the vicious instructor, are rather unusual, but Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons make them full-blooded, believable human beings. Watching Andrew’s innocent confidence transform into unstoppable determination is an awe-inspiring yet agonizing experience and Teller captures the youthful earnestness, insane drive, and unforgiving dedication with mesmerizing melancholy. Fletcher is a layered, difficult character, but Simmons nails the role. He’s ferociously intense, hurling wounding insults and music stands with unflinching brutality. But he also possesses an appalling, calculated cleverness that cuts deep (explaining what that means would ruin some great moments). And yet, for all his inhuman cruelty, there’s a bizarre reasoning to his methods of madness. Midway through, when he explains his reasons, the moment makes your jaw drop, because it’s not just impossibly despicable but also bizarrely rational.

That brings up the question that lies at Whiplash’s heart: in the quest for mastery, how much is too much? Undoubtedly, Fletcher’s tactics are nonsensical (in one scene, he repeatedly slaps Andrew to teach him to keep rhythm). Looking past his surface, you’ll find some debatable wisdom. Fletcher tells his class a story, often repeated though factually distorted, about a recording session during which Charlie Parker’s poor, off-key playing caused drummer Jo Jones to hurl a cymbal at his head. Parker was booed off stage, but he practiced mercilessly for the next year, eventually leading to his reputation as one of the all-time great saxophonists. “Imagine if Jones had just said, well that’s okay Charlie”, Fletcher tells Andrew. “Then Charlie thinks to himself, ‘I did do a pretty good job.’ End of story. That to me is an absolute tragedy.” Legendary musical virtuosity certainly doesn’t come without hardship and hard work, but pushing students to such extreme lengths is unreasonably harsh. Where’s the in between? How do you achieve mastery without going past the limit? Is that possible? That’s a question that reaches so far past music, past art, it reaches almost philosophical heights. To achieve the highest level of expertise, you do have to give your all, but Fletcher’s expectation that everyone will do anything to reach the top is ridiculous. Whiplash doesn’t really have an answer for that question, but it shows us the lasting scars and wondrous talent that insane exertion can result in.

Andrew (Miles Teller) unleashes a tour de force drum solo in WhiplashAll viewers will be thankful for whatever hardships Damien Chazelle endured in making Whiplash, because the result is an astounding two hours. Thorny, thoughtful, and thrilling, with crafty filmmaking cleverness, intelligent storytelling, and two astounding lead performances, it marks the arrival of a bold new directorial voice (Chazelle) and a brilliant new star (Teller). And it does what every movie should: hook you with its opening scene, and leave you gasping for breath until the intoxicating finale. This is independent cinema at it’s most exhilarating.

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