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Updated: 2016-12-05T06:15:00-06:00

 



Making Something Out Of Nothing: Will Speck and Josh Gordon on “Office Christmas Party”

2016-12-05T10:33:01-06:00

Will Speck and Josh Gordon’s “Office Christmas Party” is the cinematic equivalent of a holiday bonus for everyone involved. It features an ensemble packed with performers who have had a great year, such as Jason Bateman (“Zootopia”) and T.J. Miller (“Deadpool”), as well as Courtney B. Vance (“The People v. O.J. Simpson”) and Kate McKinnon (“Saturday Night Live” and the best part of “Ghostbusters”), both fresh off their Emmy wins. Miller plays the manager of a company’s Chicago-based branch that is in danger of being shut down by its CEO (Jennifer Aniston). In a desperate act to impress a potential client (Vance), the co-workers turn their annual Christmas party into a lavish free-for-all that threatens to spiral out of control. There are several good laughs peppered amidst the silliness, and Chicagoans will especially appreciate (or perhaps, wince at) the moment when Miller spots a burning car and exclaims, “Did the Bears just win?” Speck and Gordon spoke with RogerEbert.com about their approach to comedy, their love of the Windy City, and their film’s subtle nod to “The Apartment.” I’m always fascinated by people who have an innate understanding of what is funny. Jon Heder’s wing-flapping choreography in your 2007 film, “Blades of Glory,” makes me laugh just thinking about it. Will Speck (WS): Josh and I felt like the skating sequences in that movie were really the icing on a dense cake. Once we cast Will and Jon, we looked at their strengths as people and as actors, and figured out how we could start to choreograph a routine that took advantage of them. Jon is such a good dancer. We saw “Napoleon Dynamite” before we had cast him, and we were amazed by how funny he was with his body during the climactic dance scene. There’s also something very graceful about him, and that’s how we came up with the idea to make him a bird, which we ripped off from Johnny Weir’s swan outfit at the Olympics. That provided our choreographer, Sarah Kawahara, with a jumping off point and together we brainstormed about what a beautiful peacock dance would look like. Jon just took the idea and ran with it. In contrast, we knew that Will was going to be full of sexuality, and sort of a brute force while still being very clumsy and charming, which is what Will Ferrell is. That’s an example of how we approach finding what is funny. We identify something in an actor that they do really well, and we try to figure out how we can subvert it. Josh Gordon (JG): This sounds pretentious, but I think it’s an ephemeral thing—it’s a vibration. When people are performing in a musical, everybody is intuitively drawn to the right pitch. You don’t want to be too broad that people can’t relate to it, so it has to have some grounding in the real world. We always talk about “Blades” as basically being a documentary about the ice skating industry.   Your first directorial efforts were the short films “Angry Boy” and “Culture” [co-starring Philip Seymour Hoffman], which both won prizes at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1997. JG: Will and I met each other at NYU Film School. When we first came out to LA, we had day jobs. I worked on a TV show, Will worked for a producer, and every night we would come back and write our scripts. The only things that we knew how to make were short films, because that’s what we made at school. Our first short was “Angry Boy,” which was produced through the Fox Movie Channel. We made that film with some friends, and it was a very short piece. “Culture” was a much more ambitious film, and went on to get nominated for an Oscar. That film felt like a feature that just happened to run for 30 minutes and we poured every last dollar we had into making it. Both shorts were comedic, and they were the first times we expressed our sensibility on film.What drew you back to Chicago for “Office Christmas Party”? WS: This isn’t lip service—it was very important for us to set the movie in Chicago. We don’t want to say the cl[...]



An Emotional Journey: "Jackie" Gets a Special Screening in Washington, D.C.

2016-12-03T12:28:00-06:00

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy returned to Washington, D.C., on Thursday night, thanks to the magic of the movies. Bigwigs—both the Hollywood kind as well as those who hail from politics, journalism and the military—came out for a premiere of the expected awards contender that features Natalie Portman in the lead role. Many probably turned out just for the chance to see the 2010 Best Actress Oscar winner for “Black Swan,” unmistakably pregnant with her second child as she dutifully worked the press line and posed for photos at the Newseum.  “Jackie” is a revealing intimate portrait of how JFK’s widow coped with grief—both hers and the country’s—in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. When I had seen the film at an earlier showing before the recent presidential election, the events shown onscreen re-awakened memories of not being much older than 35th president’s daughter Caroline and son John Jr. as I observed their reactions beside their mother during this tragic period. Like everyone else, my family was fixated on the news coverage on the Big Three TV networks, especially the solemn funeral procession through the streets of the Nation’s Capital. The big-screen re-enactment, shot on location last winter, brought back that sense of heavy sadness and loss of innocence that I felt as a kid. But watching the same movie post-election a little more than a mile away from where President Obama and his family were lighting the White House holiday tree on the Ellipse for the eighth and final time, the film stirred a different type of unsettled feeling, one that often accompanies great change and facing the unknown. The screening sponsored by Fox Searchlight and its parent company, 21st Century Fox, along with the Motion Picture Association of America attracted a packed bi-partisan audience including former Attorney General Eric Holder, Ambassador Peter Selfridge and senators Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, and Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut. Eleven members of the House of Representatives also were in the auditorium alongside such notable journalists as Maureen Dowd, Sally Quinn, Nina Totenberg and Howard Fineman. In his intro, Rick Lane—senior VP of government affairs for 21st Century Fox—saluted the late Jack Valenti, who was a special assistant to JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, describing him as a close friend and mentor when he later became head of the MPAA from 1966 to 2004. As played by “Jackie” actor Max Casella, who was in attendance, Valenti comes off as an aggressive LBJ loyalist and not entirely likable as he butts heads with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and, to a lesser extent, the now-former First Lady over when the itching-to-take-charge newly sworn-in president could occupy the Oval Office. In fact, the biggest laugh during the screening came when Bobby tells everyone in a room to sit down after a panic erupts when JFK’s accused shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald, is shown being gunned down on TV. President Johnson glares at Kennedy’s brother, scowls and says, “Excuse me?” But Bobby simply repeats his command and Lady Bird Johnson encourages her husband to do as he is told. For most of the running time, however, the crowd was reverently silent—save for their audible surprise and amusement when an implacable Jackie takes charge of a magazine interview and decides the direction it will take. Most of the audience stayed for the Q & A session with Portman, director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter and former “Today” show producer Noah Oppenheim conducted by Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus—if only for cellphone photo ops.Portman, whose arrival onstage post-screening was greeted with a chorus of loud cheers and hearty applause, discussed the difficulties in bringing to life an iconic figure that had such a distinctive look and voice. “The biggest challenge was playing a character that people know so well. Of course, you have a threshold of believ[...]



Why Critics Should See Bad Movies

2016-12-02T08:09:43-06:00

I rush from a fancy office holiday dinner to see “The Ringer,” further delaying my Christmas break. A friend and I head to a crumbling multiplex next to the Garden State Parkway to endure “13th Child: Legend of the Jersey Devil.” I spend a Sunday afternoon, following a week of business travel, at a sneak preview of “Raising Helen.”    One of the great, enraging falsehoods about movie critics—or anyone whose opinion goes beyond “it’s cute” or “it wasn’t my thing”—is that we hate movies. Why would anyone waste time, the most valuable commodity, for little to no money to do something they hate? Think of a movie released from August 2000 to October 2006 that made you want to punch a wall. There’s a good chance I was there on opening weekend—or soon after—for the (sadly) defunct Filmcritic.com. Every hastily put-together cartoon, low-budget, low-scare horror movie, and ill-advised relaunch was destined for me. I mean, I sat through two Uwe Boll movies. Voluntarily. Many of the site’s writers lived in cities with advance screenings. I lived in event-free Central New Jersey, an hour train-ride away from Manhattan, stuck in jobs with unforgiving hours. I had to take what I could get, like tackling “Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2” and “Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid” in a single weekend. The most I made for a review, I think, during that time was $12. Even then, I paid for my own tickets. I never felt a moment of remorse. A bulk of that era of not-so good feelings I spent as a municipal newspaper reporter and a trade magazine editor, two occupations that flushed creativity from the soul. Bad movies were the IV drip. Maybe they weren’t entertaining, but I felt something. As a thank-you, I would fashion an obituary to remember. I wrote that the only thing saving “Never Die Alone” was “a caring projectionist, a lighter, and a trashcan.” “An American Haunting” was “like spending an afternoon in the world’s lamest haunted house.” If we were going to go down, the band would play full blast. I never saw a movie out of spite or to bask in the superiority of a pithy line; the same applies today. When you have 600 words to file in two hours, you quickly learn that straight bile only takes you so far. “The Honeymooners” fails because it has nothing to offer a current audience or fans of the TV show, plus Gabrielle Union (playing Alice Kramden) looks like she hasn’t scrubbed a pan in her life. Boll is a terrible director because his cuts are so abrupt and his camerawork is so shaky he makes Michael Bay look like Fassbinder. My experience as a moviegoer improved. I was actually taking a class every time that I saw a bad movie. Explain why this movie is terrible. Find the source of your aggravation, and use as many adjectives as you can. Show your work. Trying to meet the challenge became a treat. As someone who loved movies, I knew a surprise could emerge after the lights went down. Being told what to see brought a new intensity because I went in blind nearly every time. It’s all about the chase to find that high—and then sharing it with readers. Sometimes you find it. Sometimes you don’t. I know why so many critics cram in meals between film screenings or stay two to a hotel bed at Sundance. It’s why I happily frittered away sunny weekends and potential happy hours in mall multiplexes. The beautiful part of seeing everything was that snobbery wilted and died. No longer constrained by what I wanted to see, I now sought the best experience. The good movies shone brighter. I loved “Freaky Friday” for the deft comedic performances of Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan, who teemed with charisma, and its sly humor. I was floored. The poster, with Lohan looking like an intern at “L.A. Law” and Curtis dressed like Avril Lavigne’s mom, promised misery. I filed the lesson away: Dismissing a movie because of its marketing was like writing off the 1998 Yankees because pinstripes aren[...]



Jackie

2016-12-05T06:18:17-06:00

There are two movies in "Jackie," Pablo Larraín's film about Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) immediately before, during and after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. One of these movies is just OK. The other is exceptional. The first one keeps undermining the second.  Movie number one is a fictionalized biography in which a famous subject sits for a long interview, here with a magazine reporter played by Billy Crudup (unnamed but based on biographer Theodore H. White, who wrote “For President Kennedy: An Epilogue," a Life article that ran one week after President John F. Kennedy's assassination). This one is a movie where an important person contemplates his or her place in history and tries to control how they are perceived. It's fuzzy and overreaching and has been done better elsewhere. The individual scenes in this "historical figure contemplates self" film are competently done and sometimes a good deal more than that, thanks to undertones of empathy and condescension in the dialogue. The reporter is often condescending to the former First Lady. Sometimes he even interrupts her when she's speaking or tries to put words in her mouth or dismiss her concerns, which shows how not-powerful even a very powerful woman can be when she's in a room with a man who's been told since birth that his words and actions are inherently more important than any woman's. This material in this second film connects to moments in the inevitable flashbacks to Jackie's heyday in Camelot and right after John F. Kennedy's murder. We see Jackie, often the lone woman in a room full of men, trying to assert herself and say what she wants and needs, only to be told (by White House staffers, military people, even her RFK) that it's impossible—because of security or protocol or precedent or simply because the men just mysteriously know better than her—and she should give up.But the framing device is not ultimately necessary (few are, alas) because, whether the reporter and Jackie are talking about what's on the record or off the record, and whether what Jackie is saying is objectively true or merely self-serving, we have already seen everything both of them might have had to say illustrated, in a more immediate and often wrenching way, by the flashbacks. The flashbacks constitute a second, far superior film, one that has the shock of revelation: we've seen this tight, crucial chapter of history re-enacted many times from all sorts of vantage points, but rarely in depth and mainly from the point-of-view of Jackie, who had to go through the gist of what everyone goes through when they lose a mate, only on the world's largest stage. But whenever Larraín and his cast and crew build up a head of dramatic steam in the "past" (which feels far more "present" than the interview stuff), and keep building it up until it starts to feel like the raw material for an unwritten opera or an unmade psychological horror movie, "Jackie" fecklessly yanks us out of that emotional head-space, and returns us to the reporter and Jackie hashing over what it means.  The second movie in "Jackie" is new and often powerful, and it derives all of its newness and power from specifics. This "Jackie" is the story of a woman who suddenly, violently lost her husband, then had to figure out how to get through the next few days of her life without surrendering her sanity along with whatever power she once had. The mundane nature of this second movie is what makes it feel so eerily accurate. Details such as the specific bloodstains on Jackie's clothes and the bruise revealed on her shin as she takes her stockings off, the point-of-view shots of Jackie looking at all those men who have concluded they should decide her fate for her, the catch in Jackie's voice as she tries to tell her children that their father is dead without using the word "death," the way she goes into a depressive reverie and starts going through her clothes and trying on var[...]



Two Trains Runnin'

2016-12-02T08:07:22-06:00

“Two Trains Runnin’” intermingles two completely unrelated non-fiction threads which converge in the state of Mississippi on June 21, 1964, One of them is triumphant, the other tragic. One is a well-known story, the other is a mystery whose outcome is not so well-known. Both sections feature idealistic, college-aged White men from the North whose quests could not have been more different: One group came to the segregated South looking for music while the other sought justice. Those Holy Grails are by no means equivalent, but director Samuel D. Pollard and his editor, Dava Whisenant, expertly weave these two threads into a thematically rich whole cloth. Hidden similarities emerge as “Two Trains Runnin’” rides towards its final destination. “The US was a segregated nation at the time,” Phil Spiro tells us when we first hear his voice on the soundtrack. “But I was a prototypical White college kid at MIT, so it didn’t impact me very much.” This would explain why he, and two other people he recruited, would venture into Mississippi to search for an obscure blues musician who hadn’t recorded in 30 years. Unbeknownst to Spiro, Mississippi had a reputation as not only the most racist state in the Union, but also the least welcoming to outsiders of any hue. This was the year of the Freedom Summer. People were coming into the state to register Black voters, which was seen by Mississippians as the next wave of Northern Aggression. If you were a White out-of-towner, the residents would think you were planning to, in their words, “mess with our Nigras.” Spiro and company had no such agenda, but three Jewish guys in a Volkswagen with New York license plates were definitely going to raise the eyebrows under a Mississippi state trooper’s hat. Spiro’s love of old Delta Blues records from the 1920’s and 1930’s was enough to get him to quit MIT and take a job coding for one of the world’s first computers. The gig allowed his nights to be free to pursue his musical obsession, Son House, a contemporary of Robert Johnson whose records were so powerful they gave Spiro goosebumps. Acting solely on a hot tip regarding House’s whereabouts that he received from a recently found blues musician named Booker White, Spiro went to Mississippi. He was accompanied by Dick Waterman, a journalist whose paper would publish the story if House was found, and Nick Perls, a guy who has a car, a tape recorder and a lot more money than Spiro anticipated. Perls is rich enough to live above a gallery of expensive art works. While Waterman and Spiro have difficulty putting into words just what drew them to not only Son House’s music, but to the Delta blues music of the era, African-American author Greg Tate offers us a theory: “It spoke to another way of life that was more expressive, more erotic, more dangerous.” And yet, as many of the blues performers in “Two Trains Runnin’” point out, these Depression-era blues musicians were quite often singing about universal things like money and relationship problems. It only seemed exotic when viewed from within the bubble of privilege Spiro alludes to in his opening lines of dialogue. At the same time Spiro’s Volkswagen was leaving New York City, John Fahey, another blues-loving musician, left California en route to find a musician named Skip James. James was reportedly even bigger and badder than Son House—he played guitar and piano and his songs were rough and dark. Fahey was the more experienced of the two musician hunters, having been to Mississippi previously on one of these missions. Fahey went to Bentonia, Mississippi, not too far from where Spiro will eventually wind up. “Two Trains Runnin’” documents these journeys with excellent animated sequences. They’re flawlessly integrated with the talking heads and the newsreel footage, and are just as compelling. One scene, involving a Black musician and a truckload of White field workers, i[...]



Incarnate

2016-12-03T15:45:54-06:00

Blumhouse Productions is a filmmaking entity that first hit it big in 2009 with the release of “Paranormal Activity,” the out-of-nowhere horror hit that tapped into our inexplicable appetite for watching camcorder footage of two oafs being spooked by weird noises in their suburban home. Flush from the success of that film and its inevitable string of sequels, the company began an ambitious program of cranking out a large number of low-budget genre items in the hopes of hitting it big again, and found success with the likes of “The Gift,” “The Visit” and the “Purge” and “Insidious” franchises. However, there have been a number of failures as well (“The Green Inferno” and “The Darkness”), many Blumhouse films not even deemed worthy of a theatrical release and instead went straight-to-video. Having seen a number of those films, I can easily understand why they were deemed unworthy of getting an actual theatrical distribution. But what I can't begin to fathom is why they decided that their latest effort, the dunderheaded demonic possession saga “Incarnate,” deserved just such a release. This film seems to have been designed to defeat even the most meager expectations one might have towards a cheapo “Exorcist” knockoff, released on one of the slowest moviegoing weekends of the year and with barely any warning. That said, you don’t want to mention the “E” word around Dr. Seth Ember (Aaron Eckhart). While he has the power to rid people who are possessed by demons, he disdains organized religion as a whole and instead refers to what he does as, if I recall correctly, the eviction of parasitical entities. With the aid of his two hipster assistants, he accomplishes this by lowering his heart rate so he can be as close to death as possible. From that point, he can enter the possessee’s subconscious dream state and convince them that what think they are experiencing is all a lie. He is driven to do all of this in the hopes of one day tracking down and destroying one especially all-powerful demon, known to him as Maggie, who caused the car accident that killed his wife and son and left him in a wheelchair. To be fair, I am probably not explaining this very well but to be honest, neither does the movie. One day, a representative from the Vatican (Catalina Sandino Moreno) shows up with a suitcase full of money in order to buy his help. An 11-year-old boy (David Mazouz) who has been possessed by a demon and will die in roughly three days otherwise. At first, Ember isn’t interested at all but when she mentions that the demon in question may in fact be the elusive Maggie, he eventually agrees in the hopes that he can get his revenge. While the Vatican observer and the boy’s mother (Carice van Houten) look on, Ember and his team begin their work and the early rounds are all with Maggie—his first contact is a total failure and his attempt to break Maggie’s hold by bringing in the kid’s drunken, abusive and estranged father likewise does not go off quite as planned (unless the plan was to kill off an otherwise completely disposable character to create the illusion that something of interest has happened). Luckily, for his final confrontation with Maggie, Ember has something up his sleeve—a serum derived from the blood of another possessed person that will provide just enough clarity within the dream world to help him somehow defeat the demon once and for all.  Although the screenplay by Ronnie Christensen steals material from any number of sources, the most obvious inspiration for “Incarnate” is, of course, the “Exorcist” films. You can’t really blame director Brad Peyton (the auteur of the equally ludicrous “San Andreas”), as countless movies have been doing that for the last 40-odd years or so. But based on the evidence presented here, it appears to be the first time someone has tried to do that after only watching the o[...]



Things to Come

2016-12-05T06:17:46-06:00

"The future seems compromised." That line, in Mia Hansen-Løve's "Things to Come," is spoken by an editor at a publishing house, explaining to author Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) why her popular philosophy textbook needs some serious revisions, maybe even an entire "re-branding." The words make sense in the practical context, but when telescoped out into the themes of this beautiful film they take on enormous relevance. The future that Nathalie believed in now "seems compromised." Hansen-Løve's gift is in presenting this vast internal journey with elegance and clarity, resisting the urge for scenery-chewing catharsis, and always examining just how much time operates as a force in our lives (whether we acknowledge it or not). In one way or another, Hansen-Løve's films are all about the passage of time. Nathalie and Heinz (André Marcon), both professors of philosophy at universities in Paris, have been married for 25 years, and have two adult children. There is a comfort in the family dynamic coming from the assumptions of continuity. The kids come over for dinner. No tension swirls beneath the surface. Until one day, Heinz tells Nathalie that he has met someone else and will be moving in with her. The ensuing conversation is not accented by tears being shed or crockery being thrown. Nathalie is shocked and blindsided ("I thought you would love me forever," she says, stunned), but it takes a while for the reality to really sink in. Meanwhile, life, in all its complexity, continues. Time, like the cliched river, keeps rolling on. When Fabien (Roman Kolinka), her former protégé, asks her how she is doing, she says, “It’s not that serious. My life isn’t over. Deep down, I was prepared. I’m lucky to be fulfilled intellectually.” You believe her. However, life is not just one thing, life is made up of many parts. Hansen-Løve's narratives are about the many parts. During the year of time "Things to Come" takes place, Nathalie experiences the dissolution of her marriage, the dawning realization that her high-maintenance mother (Edith Scob) can no longer take care of herself, the changing of the guard at her publishing house and the troubling implications of that, and a new friendship with Fabien, a writer of great promise now living in an anarchists' collective in the countryside. She also has to figure out what to do with Pandora, her mother's independent-minded black cat. (In "Elle," released last month, Isabelle Huppert also shares the screen with a memorable cat in a key co-starring role.) This type of story—long-time marriage falling apart, 50-something woman now on her own and hanging out with her 20-something former student—comes with expectations attached. We think we know what we are going to see. But Hansen-Løve avoids all of it with “Things to Come.” Instead of the cliché, the film—brisk at points, leisurely in others—presents a real-life rhythm of events. People discuss Rousseau and Günther Anders, they argue about the purpose of philosophy and political action. Nathalie’s generation is haunted and defined by the upheaval in 1968. She looks at the idealist young anarchists, sitting around the table discussing the concept of “authorship,” fighting over how to create an alternative paradigm to the only one offered, and she sees herself in her “radical” youth. But this is not the misty nostalgia of a Baby Boomer. At a family dinner, she says to her kids that, unlike the Stalinists she had been surrounded by back then, she “read Solzhenitsyn, end of story.” She tosses that off casually as she puts the food on the table, but it’s one of the many evocative details in the script that rings so true, providing the texture and context for Nathalie’s world and experience. (Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was published in 1973 and for many it completely detonated any lingeri[...]



Man Down

2016-12-02T09:25:46-06:00

PTSD is a real, national crisis. It is something that is not openly discussed enough nor adequately handled by our government and those in charge of taking care of our veterans. The number of homeless vets and those suffering from PTSD in silence should be a priority for a country that wants to call itself civilized. None of these facts make Dito Montiel’s “Man Down” a good film. Actually, the fact that it uses PTSD as a hook, as something to give its drama a sense of weight and importance that it doesn’t otherwise earn, is one of its many problems. If you’re going to make a film about PTSD, treat it with the respect it demands, not as a clichéd, melodramatic device. By doing so, one actually damages the cause they claim to be attempting to defend, turning something serious into something manipulative. “Man Down” is a bad film, but it’s made even worse by the taste it will leave in your mouth regarding its silly handling of a very serious issue. Montiel's latest takes place in what appears to be four separate periods in the life of Marine Gabriel Drummer (Shia LaBeouf). We see him with his buddy Devin (Jai Courtney) in a post-apocalyptic future, as the pair tries to track down Gabriel’s son Johnathan (Charlie Shotwell), crossing paths with a drifter named Charles (Clifton Collins Jr.), who may know where the boy has been taken. The landscape they cross is desolate and empty. Where are they? What happened to Johnathan? What happened to everyone else? It's purposefully vague and confusing.We flash back to basic training, featuring scenes so dense with military clichés they should have all been set to “Fortunate Son.” Working slightly better as drama, we experience an extended conversation between Gabriel and a superior, played by Gary Oldman, that seems to take place after the young man has become a Marine but before the world ends. This scene as a whole is far and away the film's best as it escapes the plot and allows the two actors some semblance of character. Without it, the movie would verge on unbearable. And then we flash back further to Gabriel’s life just before joining up, in which we meet his wife Natalie (Kate Mara) and enrich the bond between Gabriel and his son. The haphazard, choppy editing of “Man Down” is designed in such a way to replicate the confusion and twisted reality associated with PTSD, but its effect is opposite in that it feels entirely like cheap, manipulative devices instead of anything insightful about the human condition. “Man Down” is one of those scripts that plays games with viewer awareness, forcing us to ask what’s real and what’s not, and keeping a mystery what happened to Gabriel’s son or while he was serving our country. Consequently, there are no real people in “Man Down.” There are no characters. There are merely cogs in the plot device machine. The sad thing is that LaBeouf does admirable work to try to correct for the lack of depth in Adam G. Simon and Montiel’s script. He commits to the role completely, never betraying the film’s shallowness or clichés, and trying his best to find something worthwhile in terms of character. He makes some decisions in the extended scene with Oldman that totally work. He looks like a broken man, cracking from the inside out. There’s a good LaBeouf performance buried deep in this film, and it almost makes the clichés around it more frustrating because of the honest work they smother. Montiel has proven himself an interesting filmmaker when it comes to analyzing the alpha male in films like “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” and “Fighting,” but he never figures out the right approach for "Man Down." At times, the dialogue is so clichéd—“This area’s secure.” “We’re at war, Marine. Nothing’s secure.”—that it approaches parody, and I wondered if that wasn’t intentional. T[...]



The Eyes of My Mother

2016-12-02T08:07:22-06:00

Arthouse horror flick "The Eyes of My Mother" actively alienates viewers by presenting episodes in a woman's life from a post-human, God-like perspective. Sometimes. Usually. Probably?Writer/director Nicolas Pesce generally favors black-and-white long takes and static camera compositions, a distinctive style that confronts viewers immediately with its artificial point-of-view. When you see Francisca (Olivia Bond and then later Kika Magalhaes), a shy, emotionally disturbed woman who grows up alone after her parents' sudden death, you don't see her from a subjective point-of-view, but rather from the perspective of a distant, omniscient observer. The film is divided into three chapters, as if we're looking at snapshots from a morbid scrapbook. In that sense, Pesce doesn't encourage viewers to get inside Francisca's head, but rather to see her as a beautiful dust mote: she looks small when filmed in landscape shots that emphasize waving tree branches, distant shapes and the passage of time. Pesce's style is not necessarily uninteresting, but it does get frustrating when you consider how it's applied to Francisca's narrative. We watch as young Francisca suffers a series of escalating traumas: her mother (Diana Agostini) is murdered by a sadistic traveling salesman (Will Brill) shortly before her father (Paul Nazak) dies quietly in his sleep. Francisca then preserves her father's remains in the bathtub, but only after she ties her mother's murderer up, strips him, and keeps him captive in her basement.Now, you might have a number of questions, like "Can you repeat that last part" or "Why didn't you start with all the weird stuff?" A better question would be: is this Francisca's story or a story about Francisca? Do events just happen to her, or is she in charge of her story? Short answer: I'm not sure. Francisca's mother tells us early on that our eyes are where the soul resides. So it's telling that Francisca blindfolds her mother's killer. But what does it mean that we see Francisca's world from a macro scale? Is this how Francisca, a withdrawn character whose selfish actions are downright sociopathic, sees herself? Or maybe this is her way of avoiding seeing herself, like she's trying to excuse her more disturbing actions by putting them in the context of her environment. In her head, Francisca (sometimes) feels small. She (usually) feels the weight of time passing. And her desires are (probably) mysterious to herself.Still, it's hard to tell what exactly "The Eyes of My Mother" is trying to show us since it's never clear just how much agency Francisca has. Viewers don't get to see Francisca spending much time with her parents, but we do get the vague sense that she is a product of their personalities. Mother is clinical but warm while father is distant but stubborn. Francisca's brief, pre-traumatic interactions with her parents therefore establish a precedent for actions that cannot be reduced to post-traumatic shellshock. She's not a victim, but she's not all there either.Neither is Pesce's vision. When I watched "The Eyes of My Mother," I spent way too much time trying to figure out why I was looking at certain events, and not simply absorbing information. Note: my difficulty reading the film isn't just an isolated critical disorder specific to people who get paid to think about movies, but rather a problem with the film's dispensation of information. Sometimes, we're clearly seeing events from a subjective point-of-view, as in the opening scene where a trucker discovers a lone woman stumbling around in the middle of the road. But most of the time, it's unclear who's in charge: an authorial voice or a singular character. We never really know what motivates Francisca's actions, so watching her try to seduce a young woman, or talk about her parents is hard.[...]



The Duelist

2016-12-02T08:07:22-06:00

A tale of honor, revenge and violence in Czarist Russia, the IMAX-shot “The Duelist” is a spectacular, impressively realized period drama that’s notable not only for the talents of writer-director Aleksey Mizgirev but also the sponsorship of producer Alexander Rodnyansky. The latter may be the most ambitious and savvy of current Russian producers, having shepherded Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan” to international success and an Oscar nomination two years ago. With “The Duelist,” Rodnyansky is taking a more commercial turn, one that depends less on art-house refinements than on plush production values, action-movie tropes and a couple of stellar lead performances. Set in St. Petersburg in 1860, the film may look at first like a Masterpiece Theatre-style trip back to the gorgeous wardrobes and polite manners of centuries past, but this is by no means the Russian equivalent of a Jane Austen adaptation. As it unfolds, Mizgirev’s story reveals some of the entrancing complexities and astonishing twists of 19th century novels. But one is less likely to be reminded of Dostoyevsky or Turgenev than of, say, Alexandre Dumas. Throw in a bit of Quentin Tarantino and Sergio Leone and you’ve got a cinematic package that’s far more appropriately brutal than genteel. It’s interesting to contemplate the film’s appeal to contemporary Russian audiences since it leapfrogs over the Communist era to evoke a time when the country was ruled by a proud and wealthy aristocracy. Distinctions of class, in fact, are paramount in this tale, which is solely concerned with the prerogatives of the nobility. Among those, we learn as the film begins, are the rules governing dueling, the standard means for an offended noble to defend his honor. The code lays down an intricate array of rituals and restrictions, but allows that one party may sometimes be replaced by another nobleman. Thus do we enter the story of one Yakovlev (Pyotr Fyodorov), a professional duel fighter. When we first see him, Yakovlev is facing off against another man in an elegant room, accompanied by their seconds and those conducting the duel. Yakovlev apparently has nerves of steel: After the two men choose pistols, he offers his temple to his opponent. The man pulls the trigger and his gun doesn’t fire. Yakovlev then raises his pistol to the man’s forehead, fires and puts a bullet through his head. This is the first of several duels we see the film’s protagonist fight, and it’s soon clear that he’s at once skilled, shrewd and lucky. His intrepid and very illegal business is conducted with the help of a partner, Baron Staroe (Martin Wuttke), who arranges Yakovlev’s assignments. (This character and one or two others speak German throughout the film, for reasons that one assumes are mainly commercial.) And behind Staroe, there’s the shadowy figure of Count Beklemishev (Vladimir Mashkov), who has secretly masterminded Yakovlev’s recent career while also attempting to woo wealthy Princess Martha Tuchkova (Yuliya Khlynina), whose younger brother Prince Tuchkov (Pavel Tabakov) is soon to face Yakovlev in a duel. If you were to suspect that Yakovlev has big secrets in his past, that he and Beklemishev have a history, and that the puppet master and the puppet will eventually face each other on the dueling floor—you would of course be correct. “The Duelist” is, quite appropriately, one of those movies that resembles a Russian doll: there are machinations within machinations, plots within plots, secret agendas within secret agendas. Though the narrative conceits can sometimes begin to feel overly ornate, they generally adduce the kinds of pleasures such storytelling at its best entails, and occasionally touch on some genuine profundities of character and destiny. Mizgirev orchestrates all this with [...]