30-for-30: Fantastic Lies

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Release: Sunday, March 13, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Marina Zenovich

Marina Zenovich’s Fantastic Lies establishes one simple truth that cannot be disputed no matter what your feelings are towards Duke University and the air of superiority it cultivates. The scandal that rocked the Durham-based university in March of 2006 and the manner in which it was handled became nothing short of a farce.

Zenovich is primarily linked to her documentaries centered around filmmakers and entertainers, most notably director Roman Polanski and comedian Richard Pryor. She turns to sports in her most recent effort, sorting through the chaos that ensued when three players from a high-profile men’s lacrosse team were implicated in the alleged gang rape of an exotic dancer hired for a team-sponsored party. Fantastic Lies premiered on March 13, 2016, 10 years to the day of the event.

Driving the narrative is the frenzy generated by national media who were convinced the story had but one logical conclusion: Duke was guilty. What had long been feared to be festering below the surface finally had manifested publicly. A culture in which the privileged were given every benefit of the doubt had finally run amok. Along with the media circus, so too descended upon campus countless social activists who had been waiting for something like this to happen to Duke. Fantastic Lies, then, is as much about separating fact from fiction as it is about the media and the role they continue to play in shaping public perception; how, in this case, a “tragic rush to accuse” created such a toxic atmosphere protestors (some even Duke students) called for the castration of the players responsible.

The Blue Devils’ on-field triumphs are shoved so far into the background they almost don’t exist. Fantastic Lies engages in an altogether different and more sobering manner, developing into an often disturbing legal drama that very matter-of-factly presents the investigation and subsequent fall-out as the witch trial it was. In fact the only way in which athleticism factors into Zenovich’s film is in the context of how the team’s reputation had endeared them to the community. Their 2005 campaign is touched upon briefly, a season that unfortunately ended with a loss to rival Johns Hopkins University in the championship round. It’s also made clear only two things are taken more seriously on these hallowed grounds: men’s basketball under the immortal Coach K, and academia.

Yet an interview with a student who once lived next door to some of the players reminds us that not all who have been fortunate enough to be accepted into this prestigious community — Duke infamously rejects something like 75% of all valedictorians who apply — buy into that hype. If you do manage to slip the surly bonds of Ordinariness there’s no compulsion to embrace every aspect of campus life. It’s okay to hate jocks here, too; though you might well be identifying yourself as part of an even more elite group in your refusal to attend a single sporting event. Crucially this perspective is added to impress upon us how seriously the odds were stacked against Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans when they became the players identified as the assailants of Crystal Mangum.

Mangum, an African-American woman struggling to make ends meet, was one of two dancers hired by the team and who had been paid $400 for a two-hour performance. When they refused to continue after five minutes, the mood soured and soon racial epithets and drunken threats were being thrown around. The players felt they had been hustled. Mangum proceeded to dial 9-1-1, claiming she had been sexually assaulted in the bathroom of a house belonging to captains of the Duke lacrosse team. It would take over a year of court battles, the dismissal of the head coach, the surrendering of the entirety of the 2006 season and the disbarring of a district attorney before the truth of what actually transpired in the moments before the call was finally recognized. In April of 2007 all charges were dropped against the players. Not only were there no traces of DNA found on Mangum — none belonging to the players anyway — there was compelling evidence none of the boys named were even in the house at the time of the phone call.

Zenovich does well in laying out the labyrinthian legal process in a way that’s both interesting and digestible for those not familiar with the judicial system. A significant chunk of the narrative focuses on District Attorney Mike Nifong, the man hired to represent Mangum and who was using the case to build a platform for his campaign for a higher public office. Confident the act was a hate crime, Nifong’s crusade, with the help of some corrupt cops, would soon prove to be an egregious example of how human nature can obstruct justice. The probe thus became an immensely flawed process that violated the accused’s fundamental right to due process. As one source puts it, that process would have been a comedy of errors if any of it was funny.

Of course the situation was anything but comical. Mangum’s false accusations bruised Duke’s reputation and irrevocably changed the lives of the three players and their families forever. If you aspire to become a professional athlete one thing you absolutely cannot afford is to become implicated in a rape case. And despite being found innocent, Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans are never going to be able to escape the stigma attached to their days at Duke. There has, however, been a silver lining to their trials and tribulations. These experiences had a transformative power, particularly for Seligmann who ended up transferring to Brown University to finish his undergraduate studies before pursuing a law degree at Emory University. In addition to his plans to pursue a career in law, he also has become an active member in the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization committed to exonerating the wrongfully convicted.

Fantastic Lies is a highly emotional documentary that to some degree feels like a peace-offering to the families of these students. Zenovich’s unbiased approach seems to uphold every major tenet of good journalism. There is truth and accuracy, humanity and fairness in her reporting. That this installment feels less like an ESPN film and more like a particularly twisted episode of Law & Order indicates the director felt no obligation to adhere to a certain formula. This is an independent voice, free of bureaucratic input. This is the bald-faced truth. If it isn’t, she and only she will remain accountable for further muddying the waters. The power of the account proves Zenovich is all too aware of this.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

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Recommendation: Incredibly complex legal case proves to be a consistently absorbing watch. Bolstered by an emotional intensity and featuring an almost overwhelming amount of fact-based evidence to support the notion Duke had been victimized of a vicious smear campaign, Fantastic Lies feels as though it’s in another class when it comes to ESPN films. This is a remarkable work that should be seen by everyone who believes they have the Duke student body completely figured out. A must-see documentary that is as upsetting as it is vital. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 102 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone . . .]

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Allied

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Release: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Steven Knight

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Brad Pitt finds a new ally in Marion Cotillard in his post-Angelina Jolie world. Sad face.

Actually, those were just rumors. And this isn’t a gossip column.

On the other hand, the two are pretty convincing playing a pair of lovestruck assassins whose loyalty to one another constantly competes with their loyalty to their own countries. Robert Zemeckis’ homage to classic wartime romantic epics is undeniably better because of the effortless charm of his leads, though Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh they are not. Not that that’s exactly a fair comparison. Allied isn’t setting out to reinvent the wheel; it rather feels more like a new tire with fresh tread. Perhaps it is better to consider the film more in the context of how it measures up to the classics found in Zemeckis’ back catalog as opposed to where it lies within the genre.

The film opens with SOE operative Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachuting into the sand dunes of French Morocco. It’s 1942 and he’s on a mission to take out a Nazi ambassador in Casablanca. He’s to work with French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), who narrowly escaped France after her resistance group became compromised. On the assignment they pose as a married couple and are successful in eliminating their target and escaping with their lives.

What begins as merely a cover story develops into the genuine article, and soon Max and Marianne are married and settling down to start a family in London. In a particularly memorable scene they welcome their daughter Anna amidst the chaos of another aerial raid accompanying the German blitzkrieg that devastated the East End. Even under normal circumstances the birthing of a child is an event that tends to really bring a couple together, so I can only imagine going through that experience literally on the streets while debris and gunfire are raining down around you would do wonders for your ability to commit to your significant other.

The intensifying pressures of the war make Max’s job a living hell when he is told by an officer that outranks both himself and his direct superior Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) that his wife is a suspected double agent who is actually working for the Germans. He is ordered to trick Marianne into playing into a trap and once it’s proven she is indeed a German spy he must execute her himself or face being hanged for high treason. Behold, the great sacrifices that must be made in love and war. Or in this case, love during war.

Old-fashioned romance is shaped by two terrific performances from Pitt and Cotillard who once again remind us why they are among the industry’s elites. The heartache accompanying Max’s dilemma is compounded when you take into account how good their characters are at what they do. The performances within the performances are compelling. Steven Knight provides the screenplay, tapping into the psychological aspect of a most unusual and highly dangerous profession. The first third of the film makes a point of fixating upon that idea, of how trust is so hard to come by when you’re a professional spy.

That same third is a good barometer for how the rest of the film will play out. If you’re expecting bombastic, flashy displays of wartime violence you may need to look elsewhere, although the aforementioned blitzkrieg provides some pulse-pounding moments. Knight’s story ditches numbing CGI in favor of a more human and more intimate perspective. It’s an approach that admittedly contributes to a slower paced narrative but one that never succumbs to being boring. This is a film that’s more about the way two people look at each other rather than the way entire nations fight each other. On those grounds alone Allied feels like a throwback to war films like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, and where the former lacks the latter films’ sense of grandeur it more than makes up for it in nuance.

Ultimately Allied finds its director working comfortably within his wheelhouse while offering  a darker, more subtle story that’s well worth investing time into.

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Recommendation: The trifecta of a steadily absorbing narrative, plush cinematic texture that contributes mightily to the mise en scène, and excellent performances from two seasoned pros makes this an easy recommendation. Especially if you are partial to Robert Zemeckis’ compassionate voice. Every one of his films have been tinged with a romantic element but whereas The Walk, his penultimate release, suffered from an over-reliance on it (to the point of schmaltz, in this reviewer’s opinion) his 2016 effort uses it to its advantage, creating an ultimately enjoyable and often surprising wartime drama that will reward repeat viewings.

Rated: R

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Hey, what happened to my kiss?” 

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Sing Street

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Release: Friday, April 15, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: John Carney

Directed by: John Carney

John Carney returns to the emerald-green shores of his native Ireland for his latest quasi-musical/romantic comedy Sing Street, his third such feature after 2007’s Once and 2014’s Begin Again. Though it possesses many of the traits that made his higher-profile, New York-set dramedy an inspired blend of genre-blurring cinema and original sound, Sing Street is a woefully misguided venture that suggests people who form bands are really just in it for the notoriety and not the craft.

The film may be set in 1980s Dublin but the whole enterprise reeks of that part in Van Wilder where Ryan Reynolds professes his loneliness to some passing stranger — a college sophomore with a cute face — through the majesty of Air Supply’s ‘All Out of Love.’ Far from being the only flick to feature a boy trying to win over the girl by strumming a few chords on a Gibson acoustic, even in the context of that particular lampoon the level of cheesiness was shameless. But at least it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. In Sing Street it is. This is a matter of love-and-death, a 14-year-old boy’s whole-hearted attempt to half-ass a band just enough to impress The Cool Chick fulfilling not only plot but thematic components.

Irish musician and singer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo makes his acting debut as Conor, the youngest of three in the Lalor clan, spearheaded by patriarch Robert (a criminally underused Aidan Gillen) and wife Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) who all throughout are falling out of love. With his family also plagued by financial hardship Conor finds himself transferring into Synge Street CBS, an inner-city public school where he is met on a daily basis with ridicule and hostility, most notably from bullying archetype Barry (Ian Kenny) and school principal Dr. Baxter (Don Wycherley), a disciplinarian plucked straight out of Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall.’

When Conor spots the mysterious Raphina (Lucy Boynton) standing on her stoop just across the street from his school, he’s instantly smitten — so much so that he tells her that since she’s aspiring to become a model in London she should appear in a music video he and “his band” are about to shoot. What he doesn’t tell her is that he is yet to form a band. So he sets about recruiting fellow classmates who might have some musical talent. It’s not so much recruitment as it is serendipity. A drummer, a keyboardist/pianist and a bassist all fall right into his lap. Oh, and there’s also Eamon (Mark McKenna, a 19-year-old who simply “has that look”), whose multi-instrumental abilities instantly liberate the band from sonic stodginess.

Carney strings together a few fun musical sequences where we see the band starting to find their groove. They dub themselves ‘Sing Street’ in an ironic gesture to the miserable school they attend. What begins in a back alley as a cringe-inducing exercise in amateur cover-band antics soon develops into a more unified, distinctive and fashionable quintet playing original songs. Such change is encouraged by Conor’s older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), a college drop-out who knows a thing or two about how this whole life thing works. Because music. Because records. Reynor is a wonderful presence, fully supportive of his brother’s decision to pursue music as a way to melt Raphina’s heart. Who knows, maybe Conor will end up finding success and breaking out of the depressing hole that is Dublin circa 1985.

Once more viewers will leave the theater with much of the soundtrack stuck in their head. And the way Carney infuses the work of real-life, established bands into the mix — Duran Duran, The Cure, The Clash, Genesis and others are called upon here — remains a strong draw. All the same, the very premise Sing Street runs with smacks of pretension. At its core Carney’s latest rings totally insincere. The music is good — often great — but the story is . . . well, it’s something else. Something kind of the opposite of good.

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Recommendation: Sing Street is bound to appeal to fans of John Carney’s previous outings as it stylistically shares a lot in common with Begin Again (this reviewer has yet to track down Once but I’d venture a guess that it’s more of the same) but the story is just god-awful. Unless you enjoy watching serendipitous little confections that make you roll your eyes so much they end up flipping backwards into your skull I gotta say give Sing Street the ole swerve. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “When you don’t know someone, they’re more interesting. They can be anything you want them to be. But when you know them, there’s limits to them.”

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Bleed for This

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Release: Friday, November 18, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ben Younger; Angelo Pizzo; Pippa Bianco

Directed by: Ben Younger

Bleed for This is an intense title for an underwhelming boxing movie. Its hyperbolic nature suggests a scream-o/punk-rock band’s new single when really it’s meant to describe the mentality of one Vinny Pazienza, a boxer from Providence, Rhode Island who returned to the ring after being involved in a car crash that brought him within inches of total paralysis.

Ben Younger’s third directorial feature takes a rather subdued, psychological approach in retracing “The Pazmanian Devil”‘s remarkable return to the championship ring, a transformation that has been widely regarded as one of the most remarkable in all of sports history. It offers viewers the chance to share the headspace of a boxer who managed to hold world titles in three separate weight classes — one of an elite few who have ever managed to do so — all while making them acutely aware how heavily the odds were stacked against him in his mission to “come back from the dead.”

Going into a film with these sorts of things in mind, it’s difficult not to set expectations high. Plus, star Miles Teller has proven that his scintillating performance in 2014’s Whiplash wasn’t a fluke. He may not have been captivating us quite as intensely since but he continues to give the impression he’s turning a corner in his career, taking on characters more complex than your hard-partying teenage waster. Frustratingly, Younger sets about presenting Vinny’s miraculous story in a very workmanlike fashion, and while it is true many boxing films are genetically similar, the best of them know how to work within the confines and use tropes to their advantage. Bleed for This is unable to rise to that challenge by featuring a narrative that, rather than being complemented by a few clichés, ends up drowning in too many of them.

We first get an impression of the kind of theatrical, charismatic performer Vinny was in his prime in the opening scene, set in Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. Teller, who underwent extensive physical training and dieting to look the part — he dropped from 19% to 6% body fat — swaggers his way on to the scene, late for the weigh-in and nearly becoming disqualified for the next day’s match. He’s fun to watch from the get-go and one of the few aspects of the film that actually feels inspired. Throughout much of the picture Vinny’s flanked by his (many) fleeting girlfriends, a revolving door of Italian stunners — and his father Angelo (a very good Ciarán Hinds), whose level of emotional support is matched only by his blue-collar boorishness.

In the aftermath of another embarrassing ass-kicking and in spite of the consensus opinion that Vinny is washed-up, he begs to be put into another fight. He seeks the support of Kevin Rooney (thank goodness for Aaron Eckhart, who looks like he’s having some fun playing a really, really out-of-shape trainer), whose first appearance tells us everything we need to know about how his career has been trending. Kevin believes Vinny can succeed in a different group and the two set out to prepare for an upcoming light middleweight match, which turns out to be a victory. Things are now looking up for both parties. And then, of course, the accident — by all accounts a fairly tough thing to watch given that this really happened.

I don’t need to tell you what happens from circa the halfway mark onward because if you have seen just one boxing movie you already know. And even if you haven’t, you still already know. Bleed for This, like its star, wears its heart on its sleeve and in so doing advertises the Big Payoff in bright, flashing casino-style lights that are impossible to ignore. What we’re provided en route to Fight #3 (a.k.a. The Moment of Redemption, which always comes last and typically off the back of the fighter’s lowest moments) manifests as little more than tiresome filler material aimed at exposing that which made this athlete unique; that which drove him to the edge of potential destruction — had Vinny actually paralyzed himself in the process of training I hate to think of what would have happened to him then — and how his attitude more than anything helped him overcome.

On that note of positivity, Bleed for This isn’t totally without merit. Dramatically speaking it may be underachieving and formulaic, but the story’s not without heart and some compelling ‘twists.’ For one, it is refreshing to watch a boxer (read: any athlete protagonist) who doesn’t come completely undone at the seams when things do not go their way. When the darkness comes, there’s very little wallowing in self-pity, and that much can be appreciated even by non-sports fans. I mean, the guy returns to his work-out bench in his basement a mere five days after leaving the hospital having broken his neck, for crying out loud. And the screenplay, while far from original, impresses when it deals in specifics, such as the inherent difficulties of a boxer transitioning from a lighter weight class to a heavier one. (Fair warning: there’s also some pretty squirm-inducing stuff if you don’t like medical procedures, particularly when Vinny decides to forego anesthesia for the removal of the Halo, the apparatus that has been keeping his spine from breaking.)

In a nutshell, Bleed for This would be more appropriately titled Determination: The Movie. That’s certainly more generic — laughable, even — but after my experience, that would be more faithful to the style and tone of this would-be heavy-hitter.

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Recommendation: Sensational true story isn’t done proper justice by a mediocre screenplay and a dearth of predictable elements. Good performances keep it just above totally forgettable. Fans of Miles Teller, boxing and sports movies in general will probably come to appreciate something about this film while others are probably going to need to keep on browsing for something else. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “I know exactly how to give up. You know what scares me, Kev? It’s that it’s so easy.”

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Paul G — #10

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Last time we were here, Paul was drawing comics — dark and sort of depressing ones, but successful ones nonetheless. He was portraying Harvey Pekar, author of the underground comic series ‘American Splendor,’ autobiographical accounts of an ordinary and, yes, depressing life. (Hey, he was from Cleveland.) But now the plot thickens as we turn the page to a new role that’s both in itself complex and embroiled in an altogether more complicated and slightly more romantic story. Let’s play cops and illusionists in this month’s Paul G, shall we?

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Paul Giamatti as Chief Inspector Uhl in Neil Burger’s The Illusionist

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama/mystery/romance

Plot Synopsis: In turn-of-the-century Vienna, a magician uses his abilities to secure the love of a woman far above his social standing.

Character Profile: Chief Inspector Uhl, loyal servant to the brutal Crown Prince Leopold of Austria and an intelligent man to boot, is due for a promotion. When Sophie, the Duchess von Teschen, is apparently murdered at the hands of the very man she was to marry the inspector is called upon to get to the bottom of it, a task that soon proves difficult when he must contend with the mystic powers of the infamous Eisenheim, with whom the Duchess shared a history. A first encounter with the performer proves tense though ultimately innocuous, with the inspector pressing to find out the secrets behind Eisenheim’s tricks. As the story plays out, Uhl proves to be quite the complex character, seemingly unable to avoid becoming seduced by the magician’s transcendent abilities, while trying to remain as ever simultaneously committed to Prince Leopold and to his duties as an officer of the law.

Why he’s the man: Chief Inspector Uhl is yet another great example of Giamatti’s ability to walk a fine line between being a guy we’d like to hate or see fail for some of his actions or the way he seems to sympathize with terrible people, and being someone who manages to convince us he’s ultimately out for the greater good. Uhl is on more than one occasion left between a rock and a hard place, having to demonstrate his loyalty to the Crown by tracking down and arresting Eisenheim for his spirit-summoning performances — the most egregious offense is when he seems to reincarnate Sophie who says she was indeed murdered but there has been a fall guy involved — all while abiding by a strict moral code of conduct. As an officer of the law he can leave no stone unturned, and Giamatti is fantastic in convincing us of the dilemma he finds himself in. An intriguing role made all the more so by the ever-dependable Paul G.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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Arrival

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Release: Friday, November 11, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

I’m just going to say it: Arrival is magnificent. It’s also: 1) another grand gesture from the visionary Québécois Denis Villeneuve that’s both sophisticated and stylish; 2) a film that really “makes you think;” 3) the antidote to the last several days in which the world has been watching and weighing in as the “United” States of America may or may not have been tearing itself apart when Donald Trump went from real estate mogul to president-elect.

Of course, the film has no interest in making a political statement but it is interested in bringing us closer together as a global society. The one thing it is really good at is reminding us of our ability to empathize and cooperate with one another in times of hardship, even when there are competing interests, values and perspectives at play; that the way we communicate is as important as what we are communicating. Arrival, based upon the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, promotes language as the ultimate tool and weapon mankind has and will ever have. It’s both our currency for clarifying all that is foreign and unfamiliar but just as easily it can create barriers if in no other way than when we use it to obscure what we really feel.

In some sense Arrival feels allegorical for a modern society wherein the furor of social media tends to bring out the worst in people. It uses an alien encounter to elucidate both the simplicity of the act of communicating and the infinitely more complex process of understanding and interpreting. The chronicle centers around an expert linguist, a Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), recruited by the U.S. military to decipher alien code they’ve received from a massive egg-shaped monolith in Montana, one of an apparent dozen that have suddenly appeared at seemingly random locations across the globe. The end game of course is to find out just what they are doing here, on this planet, but along the way we become privy to an altogether unexpected series of revelations.

Villeneuve’s latest is not merely a message film fitted into a pretty frame (although it very much is that). It offers a thrilling and profoundly personal adventure, one that more or less hits the ground running and remains comfortably paced throughout. An ambitious narrative is met with an appropriate sense of scale: Bradford Young’s panning cameras hint at the crippling notion that we may be alone in the universe, brilliantly reinforced by how deserted the college campus looks when it’s evacuated. Then there are the ships themselves — empyreal in their gently curving architecture. We call them ‘shells’ because labels are easier and they somehow feel comforting. Finally, news reports of mass riots and looting in poorer nations set the narrative against a backdrop of fear and panic. These bits serve as the most indicting evidence of what happens when we misconstrue things that are said, done or merely suggested.

Arrival feels grandiose even if the story sticks close to Dr. Banks as she is awoken from another troubled sleep by the surly Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) telling her the world needs her help. On the way to Montana, the sole American sighting, she meets theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who will prove a calming presence in an otherwise chaotic and prejudiced environment. It is these characters, plus a few faceless soldiers, with whom Dr. Banks will enter the ship in an attempt to open a line of communication. Arrival might be at its most compelling when that first contact is established, when we are formally introduced to the Heptapods — serious out-of-towners with seven tentacle-like appendages from which they shoot a black inky substance. After a failed first trip, nerves eventually calm and Dr. Banks’ intuition proves extremely valuable as work begins in earnest.

Several weeks of sleepless nights and haunting visions of her deceased daughter begin weighing heavily on our ambassador. Making matters worse, China is demanding an ultimatum from our squid-like visitors after one particular translation (‘Use weapon’) incites worldwide panic. In a race against time, Dr. Banks must determine what connection, if any, her visions of Hannah has to what she is doing here in the present. The results prove to be both heartbreaking and galvanizing, the drama culminating in an Interstellar-esque reveal that’s altogether satisfying insofar as it is surprisingly coherent. And almost 100% convincing. Arrival risks devolving into abstraction but the genius lies within the screenplay, courtesy of Eric Heisserer [Lights Out; The Thing (2011)]. It engages intellectually while structurally providing enough of the tangibles — flashbacks become a motif — to support its lofty ambitions. And all-around terrific performances, most notably Adams and Renner, send us out of the theater on a major high.

In a way this film isn’t about an alien encounter at all — it’s certainly not an invasion, per se; rather, this is a forward-thinking, socially responsible drama that celebrates the best of humanity.

Recommendation: A movie for the thinking-man, undoubtedly, Arrival continues the ascension of one Denis Villenueve as it captures him working comfortably within the realm of psychobiological science fiction. It features stellar performances and a great alien presence. Regular collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson is on hand to bolster the atmospheric feel of the film with a cerebral and moody score, so if you’re needing any other reason to go see this you might see it for that, too. This is one of my favorites of 2016, absolutely. A very exciting film. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “Now that’s a proper introduction.”

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Hacksaw Ridge

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Release: Friday, November 4, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Andrew Knight; Robert Schenkkan

Directed by: Mel Gibson

Unlike the hero at the heart of Mel Gibson’s first directorial effort in a decade I went into battle fully protected by a weapon: my overactive imagination. Turns out, psychological preparation is kind of necessary as you enter the gauntlet of Hacksaw Ridge‘s final hour. Things become real, and in a hurry. Of course there is violence and gore characteristic of war films but this is Mel Gibson we’re talking about.

But this is also the Mel Gibson I’ve been waiting to see for a long time. In spite of the way he once again seems to enjoy flagellating audiences with punishing sequences of human cruelty Hacksaw Ridge ultimately is worth the toiling. The paradoxical sense of uplift we feel in the moments where we are also suffering the most makes his return to filmmaking a welcomed one. I was so moved by this I couldn’t help but applaud during the credits. Meanwhile everyone else quietly filtered out. Did I feel awkward? Yes. Yes I did. But it was still the right thing to do.

Desmond Doss (portrayed by Andrew Garfield in one of the most sensational performances of the year) felt a tremendous sense of moral obligation — a sense of doing what is right not just for himself but for his country — when he enlisted as a medic in World War II. Hailing from a humble community tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, Doss became the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor after pulling 75 men off of Hacksaw Ridge during the Battle of Okinawa, one of the bloodiest confrontations in the Pacific Theater. A devout Christian whose violent upbringing at the hands of his alcoholic, war-scarred father irrevocably changed him, Doss’ enlisting became the stuff of legend when he told his commanding officers the Sixth Commandment forbade him from lifting a weapon; that he could serve his country by saving lives as opposed to taking them.

Hacksaw Ridge is somewhat a tale of two halves — one is noticeably stronger than the other and unsurprisingly the drama genuinely becomes compelling in the latter half, when we dive headlong into hell with Private Doss, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and a company of men who haven’t exactly taken a shine to the Bible-thumping pacifist. Like the brave men who took to the cargo net for the Ridge, Gibson’s cameras charge into battle with a gusto that’s immediately met with some of the most grisly war action you’re likely to ever see. It’s a breathless, chaotic and disturbingly realistic account of the bloody affront to the Japanese who were slowly losing control of the island, despite heavy losses on the American side.

While the film that precedes the fight itself feels much more compressed — particularly the budding romance between Doss and the nurse he meets at the town hospital where he decides he will donate blood, the beautiful Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) — there’s enough there to build a foundation for empathy. Perhaps this is a convenient time to forgive a film for being so contrived, but Palmer and Garfield’s chemistry feels appropriately based more upon a certain Look and Feel — both actors look of the era and their sweet romance feels unpretentious, genuine. They’re wonderful together. And while their passion for each other is palpable it’s more about the way the soldier was raised that offers the most compelling angle.

Gibson zeros in on two pivotal moments in Doss’ childhood — moments that, aside from his unwavering devotion to God, inform almost every decision he makes as an adult. One is an early scene in which Desmond and his younger brother Hal get into a play fight that turns ugly when the former smacks his brother in the head with a brick in an attempt to claim victory. Young Desmond, haunted by the fact he could have killed Hal, instead of taking a long hard look in the mirror takes a long hard look at a picture on their living room wall, a list of the Ten Commandments in a moment of silent and sincere repentance. Then, later, Doss finds himself stepping in between his father (a heartbreakingly good Hugo Weaving) and mother (Rachel Griffiths) during yet another bout of domestic violence. A pistol becomes involved. Plagued by his experiences in World War I, Tom Doss embodies the soul-crushing effects of survivor’s remorse. Desmond seems to take more after his mother, who is a strong and positive influence, despite her suffering at the hands of an unstable husband.

There’s an argument to be made against Gibson injecting blood and violence into almost every possible scene — did we need to see the needle pierce the skin? Ditto the leg injury sustained by the local mechanic, did we really need that? Words like gratuitous, self-indulgent and perverse frequently have popped up, but I’d wager this grim foreshadowing is actually not only creatively inspired but it helps prepare the viewer mentally as we leave behind the quaint Virginian town and journey out onto a smoky battlefield. Those spurts of violence are perpetuated as Doss’ idealism is met with hostility by his fellow soldiers and his commanding officers at boot camp. Watching him getting harassed unmerciful isn’t exactly pleasant.

In fact much of Hacksaw Ridge is far from comfortable viewing. As it should be. Gibson brings the horrors of war, and particularly this violent confrontation to life in a stunningly authentic and emotionally robust portrait. His first film in 10 years reminds us what made him a compelling filmmaker: his passionate touch, his ability to channel emotion through the lens, his eye for the beautiful as well as the barbaric. Amidst the loss of life there grows a flower. Doss’ heroic actions deserve to be celebrated and it would be something of a disservice not to show us precisely what kind of odds he was up against. What a powerful story.

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Recommendation: As both a tribute to a real war hero and a bloody depiction of war, Hacksaw Ridge manifests as one of the most punishing but ultimately rewarding film experiences of the year. The emotional and visual components match up favorably with Steven Spielberg’s seminal war film Saving Private Ryan, though I personally stop short of saying it tops that epic. I just have to recommend you bear down and watch this one. It’s an important film and a remarkable true story of courage and remaining true to one’s self.

Rated: R

Running Time: 131 mins.

Quoted: “Lord, help me get one more. One more.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Darkest Universe

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Release: Friday, November 4, 2016

[Vimeo]

Written by: Tiani Ghosh; Will Sharpe

Directed by: Tom Kingsley; Will Sharpe


The below piece is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings, a site run by James Walpole that you really need to check out if you haven’t already. I’d like to give a shout out to James for making this one available for me to check out.


The Darkest Universe, from BAFTA-nominated Will Sharpe and Tom Kingsley, is a thoroughly original British independent release that identifies the young directors as a tandem to keep an eye on.

Not only is their second effort (their first being 2011’s Black Pond, for which they were nominated) able to pull off that oh-so-tricky juggling act of remaining relatable while reaching for profundity, The Darkest Universe also carves out a narrative that never compromises and rarely, if ever, confesses to whatever budgetary and other technical limitations it faced.

The story, co-written by Sharpe and Tiani Ghosh, tackles heavy themes such as death, loss, grief, obsession and idealism, but skirts around melodrama as it details a mysterious procession of events in which a young man named Zac Pratt (Sharpe) launches a desperate campaign to track down his sister after she goes missing along with her new boyfriend on a narrow boat on the English canals.

There’s more than a hint of Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special here. There’s something magical about the power of suggestion in both productions and the similarities are more acute than that even; in the same way Nichols’ tiptoeing across Texas tantalized audiences with glimpses of an otherworldliness so too does The Darkest Universe, if only to a much subtler and perhaps slightly less assured degree. If there’s anything that hints toward a limited supply of resources it’s these more fantastical sequences. Nevertheless, the film’s prioritization of character over spectacle is enough to smooth over some dodgy special effects.

Two timelines build gradually toward a deeply moving finale, one that manages to somehow be both open-ended and definitive — if only in the sense that it is definitely romantic. One follows Zac in the present as he becomes frustrated with efforts on behalf of local police that he views as minimal at best; the other provides context, delineating a pained history with his wayward and often frustrating younger sister Alice (Ghosh). It’s a flashback-heavy narrative but the execution is efficient and confident. It’s also a creative way of generating suspense as we build towards the big reveal. Because a boat can’t just disappear into thin air.

In those flashbacks we come to view Zac as a high-strung, obsessive sort with a tendency to be controlling. In the present we see not only those traits manifest themselves in the way he treats Charlie (Raph Shirley), the brother of the also-missing Toby (Joe Thomas, of The Inbetweeners fame), but more disturbing symptoms of someone nearing a psychological breakdown. While we learn that perhaps the disappearing act could well be a response to her brother’s behavior, it’s difficult to still not feel badly for Zac as he slowly unravels.

The Darkest Universe is also a well acted ensemble piece. A variety of British talent is on hand to surround Sharpe on screen, be they strangers or relatives. Bonafide independent productions aren’t typically known for their star-making performances. Sharpe and Knightley’s sophomore effort seems to be one of those exceptions. Ghosh and Thomas in particular are memorable as the young lovers at the center of this universe. Sharpe’s pretty brilliant as well in this intensely obsessive, racked-with-guilt performance.

The drama’s authenticity is perhaps most impressive of all. We’re consistently invested in the emotional trajectory of Zac that we never stop to question what we’re witnessing. We want to believe that things like this really can happen. Romantics no doubt want to believe it badly. The whole thing culminates in an experience that’s worth having again and again.

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Want more? Check out the interview I conducted with the directors — here


Recommendation: This is one of the most romantic movies I’ve seen in some time. I loved it. It’s got all the ingredients I love about indie filmmaking, minus many of the accompanying weaknesses that you can’t really blame creators working with low overheads for not being able to avoid. But this is solid work, top to bottom. Conceding some cheesy special effects and the odd moment where the budgetary restraints are pretty apparent, The Darkest Universe functions extremely well within the framework of true independent filmmaking. Will Sharpe and Tom Kingsley have potential to go really big some day. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 83 mins.

Quoted: “I mean, the conclusion was she is just an unusual person. Some people are like that you know. Some people just don’t fit in the way the rest of us do. I used to say, you know, that they’re a few sandwiches short of a picnic. And then there’s Alice, which is ‘I don’t have any sandwiches at all, what am I doing standing in a field?'”

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Photo credits: http://www.britflicks.com; http://www.twitter.com 

Cemetery of Splendor

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Release: Friday, March 4, 2016 (limited) 

[Vimeo]

Written by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul 

Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul


My  first review of a Thai film is brought to you courtesy of Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. James is the guy running the show over there and he graciously made this incredibly unique and moving film available to me. Please check out his site if you have a few moments. 


The transition from movie back to reality is rarely as jarring as when you are forcibly removed from the most recent effort of (judging by one film) cinematic poet Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Cemetery of Splendor (Rak ti Khon Kaen), the Bangkok-born filmmaker’s eighth directorial credit, plums the depths of the soul in a meditative and meandering narrative that simply defies categorization.

Let’s get one thing clear: if you’re searching for the literal, the low-hanging fruits of traditional storytelling — a conflict that arises that must be resolved, barriers to that attempt to overcome, resolutions that, tidily or not, seal the deal in one fell swoop — you’re probably going to hate Cemetery of Splendor. I mean hate it. On top of that, patience is absolutely key; this is a very deliberately paced production. At times it can be testing. It might be evident how radically different an experience we’re in for judging merely by the way Weerasethakul starves us for the very first image in an unusually protracted cold open — heavy machinery digging a big hole adjacent to a hospital in the Thai village of Isan — and how deliberately the vast majority of his shots remain static, filmed at a distance such that viewers must pick and choose what it is in the frame that interests them most.

This makeshift hospital is where our journey begins. We’re not traveling far and wide; rather we’re delving into the human consciousness, into the dreams of a man who has been struck with a mysterious sleeping sickness and who gains the friendship of a kindhearted volunteer named Jen (Jenjira Pongpas Widner). In this hauntingly quiet space we see several cots lined up with bodies in each one, all on the drip and seemingly lifeless. They’re soldiers but they’re not dead, nor do they seem like they’re suffering from physical ailments. Instead they’re sleeping — all day and all night. The camera eventually settles on one man all the way in the back corner, a man named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) who has had no visitors. Jen decides she will take care of him.

This seemingly innocuous facility — a school that has been converted into a temporary clinic — has been said to possess ethereal power, having its foundations built directly upon the graves of ancient kings. The juxtaposition some believe is the very cause of the soldiers’ sickness: their strength in the real world is being manipulated by these kings who remain engaged in an eternal spiritual war. The clinic’s staff, housewives who are volunteering perhaps for no other reason than out of the goodness of their heart, have taken numerous approaches to ease their suffering. The most striking and perhaps most abstract method is their light therapy technique in which vertical tubes of neon light are placed beside each bed, the colors ever so slowly transitioning between red, green and blue.

Theoretically each color holds some sort of cultural and/or political significance (red symbolizes national pride; green represents Thailand’s military forces and blue indicates royalty and privilege), though if anything their application in this film contributes most apparently to the physicality of the experience. As Cemetery of Splendor opens up, these colors begin bleeding into the film reel itself, affording a psychedelic quality to proceedings. Even more experimental than this technique is Weerasethakul’s bold decision to have his actors reenact the process of communicating with the spiritual world. Early on we are introduced to a young woman named Keng (Jarinpratta Rueangram), a medium who helps visitors reach out to their loved ones — those soldiers imprisoned by silence. She decides to use her extraordinary gift to help Jen interact with Itt.

In one of the film’s most ambitious sequences, Jen and Keng take a walk about the quaint village, through a wooded park that’s more like a relic of a forgotten history than some place families go to take a stroll. And so develops a scene in which words simply do not do justice; in fact to actually detail what happens here would be ultimately to spoil its essence. Suffice it to say the moment is seized brilliantly by all involved, the actors bravely trusting in their director that they won’t look silly demonstrating what could arguably be the most complicated and most abstract concept any filmmaker could imagine recreating.

Here we have our best shot of actually witnessing the spiritual and the physical world colliding, at least thematically speaking. The young soldier, vicariously through Keng’s gentle mannerisms, “reveals” to Jen — whose American husband, by the way, has been intentionally kept out of sight throughout most of the narrative to give the impression Jen’s personal life is a wee bit complicated — precisely what he’s experiencing in his sleep. It is also in this protracted scene where we find out the devastating truth behind Jen’s physical deformity. One of her legs is significantly shorter than the other, which has prompted her to get around on crutches and with a specially-fitted shoe to help her balance. Heretofore the issue has gone unaddressed, but Weerasethakul has patiently waited for the right moment to drop the bomb.

In the name of hyperbole, words will inevitably fail me when a friend asks what this movie is all about. I’m of a mind to tell them that it’s about everything. That’s simultaneously the least satisfying and the most accurate (and most concise) way of putting it. Unsatisfying in the sense that it’s hardly a descriptive response and it seems cheaply broad; accurate in that Cemetery of Splendor opens up so many doors for viewers to walk through and interpret things as they see them. This is going to be a different film to different viewers. Or I could be completely wrong and Weerasethakul actually has a much more specific, narrowed focus. I, a Westerner, might just be the guy who came before King Arthur who tried to wield Excalibur.

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Recommendation: An exquisitely complex, psychosomatic kind of experience that I am hesitant to say is one of the best films of 2016. I hesitate only in the sense that not everything in this Thai film will translate well (if at all) for international audiences. But Cemetery of Splendor is undoubtedly one of the most unique and entrancing films I’ve yet seen. Even if I don’t personally fully grasp it. This is nevertheless an incredibly profound piece and further confirmation that some of the most original works really do stem from foreign markets. If I were pressed to make comparisons, Terrence Malick and Nicolas Winding Refn come to mind.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “I’d prefer a European husband. Americans are too poor. Europeans are living the American Dream.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.recentmovieposters.com; http://www.imdb.com

Inferno

inferno-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 28, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: David Koepp

Directed by: Ron Howard

Ron Howard is a fairly prolific filmmaker, having maintained a schedule of roughly a film every two years throughout a 40-plus-year long directorial career. He’s not quite Woody Allen but his oeuvre is extensive enough to suggest the guy just likes staying busy, and it certainly explains his involvement with fluffy B-movie action schlock like Inferno.

Howard’s third cinematic translation of Dan Brown’s popular thrillers is pretty much business as usual as it once again follows Tom Hanks‘ Professor Langdon on a globetrotting adventure in search of some historical artifact/macguffin that becomes a particular point of interest, stringing along a female companion who goes from being incidental to the plot to playing a significant role in the way the mystery unfolds. Inferno shares in its predecessors’ sense of reckless abandon, often falsifying or embellishing historical fact for the sake of advancing (or even resolving) the conflict the world’s most famous symbolist finds himself in.

Unlike in The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons our trusted Harvard prof starts off in between a rock and a hard place, waking up in a hospital bloodied and completely oblivious to the events of the last several days. Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) informs him that he has temporary amnesia as a result of a bullet grazing his head. While trying to make sense of the moment, a member of La Polizia Municipale shows up on the scene and it quickly becomes clear she’s not here for questioning. The pair manage to escape to the doctor’s apartment, where she immediately demands answers.

Dr. Brooks’ apartment is where our adventure begins in earnest. An unlikely starting point, but that’s part of what makes these films entertaining. Langdon remains an unreliable protagonist for much of the first half of the film, his inability to shake visions of what appears to be Hell on Earth making for a refreshing change of pace from the infallible history geek he usually is. It’s no coincidence that the film begins with a fire-and-brimstone lecture delivered by billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zubrist (Ben Foster) on the matter of mankind’s imminent demise. His extreme views — he essentially plans to halve the global population by releasing a virus, the Inferno virus, in a popular tourist location — position him as the film’s obvious antagonist, but the story takes an unexpected turn when he commits suicide.

Langdon finds himself caught in a race against time when he learns that the maniac has left a trail of breadcrumbs for someone else to follow. The clues begin with something Langdon finds on his person, a pocket-sized digital device that has the image of Dante’s Map of Hell stored inside. From there they bounce between the crowds of Florence and Istanbul, having to contend with the interests of other organizations like the World Health Organization and shady underground entities like Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan)’s Consortium, a private security firm. These people have their own, equally convoluted agendas. Double-crossers like Omar Sy’s Christopher Bouchard only serve to make matters more complicated.

Along the way the familiar beats are delivered: a few twists, some pulse-pounding chase sequences, a lot of conveniently timed revelations and of course an inconveniently timed betrayal. All of this would have resulted in some fairly entertaining viewing, but unfortunately Inferno becomes bogged down by a plethora of technical issues that consistently undermine the film’s raison d’être, which is to provide easily digestible, easily disposable entertainment. We haven’t witnessed a production so disorganized and incoherent since Howard attempted to mount a sophisticated kind of situational comedy in the baffling and underwhelming The Dilemma.

Here, Howard almost comes across amateurish: Inferno‘s direction is spastic and, well, directionless; action set pieces are rushed and largely forgettable while the fundamental reason we are all here — the fun in solving the puzzle (possibly well ahead of the characters) — is all but sidelined in favor of an obsession with style and adrenaline-spiking editing. It gets to the point where many of the scenes depicting Langdon’s mental anguish feel like they’re sampled from a tutorial in iMovie. Those flourishes also present far too often, disrupting whatever flow the narrative is able to build while Hans Zimmer’s score is little more than a collection of uninspired electronic sound samples whose cacophonous presence only compounds the headache.

Suspension of disbelief has always been requisite of this franchise, whether you’re turning pages or experiencing Howard’s interpretation of them. You usually have to take these pseudo-intellectual adventures with a grain of salt, but Inferno will demand you swallow the entire damn jar. Hanks’ predictably amiable performance and some fun supporting performances, namely Khan’s scenery chewing, almost — ALMOST — make that kind of dry mouth worth it, but not quite.

inferno

Recommendation: Inferno‘s slapdash construction gives the impression it was thrown together last-minute. Absolutely a lesser Ron Howard film and perhaps one of his worst. The things I can recommend about it are basically limited to Tom Hanks and Irrfan Khan. Maybe Felicity Jones. These three seem to give it their all but the story around them and some atrocious editing sadly let them down. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “The greatest sins in human history were committed in the name of love.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com