January Blindspot: Defiance (2009)

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Release: Friday, January 16, 2009

[Netflix]

Written by: Edward Zwick; Clayton Frohman

Directed by: Edward Zwick

Defiance at the very least satisfies a certain curiosity I had about a film that featured Daniel Craig not in a suit and tie, and as of this posting — admittedly a time-sensitive and quite frankly rushed one — I feel more inclined to recommend it more on that basis rather than for its dramatic credentials. I mean, Defiance isn’t a bad film but it’s just not a great one and that’s kind of a shame.

Really, the most damning thing I can say about it is that in hindsight I would replace this film with something else for my January Blindspot — but, well, that wouldn’t make this a very blind Blindspot list, now, would it? Defiance is well-made but pretty forgettable, and while its lead man seems outwardly appropriate for the part of Tuvia Bielsky, a Polish Jew who helped thousands of refugees escape the death camps and ghettos of Nazi-occupied Europe, Craig once again makes it obvious he works best in roles that don’t require him to adopt an accent. Yeesh.

When Edward Zwick’s film premiered in 2009 it apparently caused quite the kerfuffle. Polish columnists in particular brutalized Defiance, accusing it of the sorts of things directors like Peter Berg and Michael Bay are regularly found guilty of today: xenophobic tonality; the glorification of violence; the oversimplification of extraordinarily complex circumstances. I didn’t find Defiance damaging or incompetent as others have, but its issues are obvious. Despite the fertile historical ground in which his material is rooted, Zwick bogs down an urgent tale with direction that largely feels uninspired and repetitive.

As his film notes during the end credits, the Bielski partisans — four brothers who amassed a secret community of some 1,200 homeless Jews in the depths of the sprawling Naliboki Forest, a near impenetrable mass of evergreen and marshland encompassing northwestern Belarus — never sought recognition for their heroic actions during some of the darkest days in human history. Zwick felt it was high time they received a little.

The narrative primarily focuses on the rift that develops between the two eldest brothers, Tuvia and Zus (Liev Schreiber) who, when brutal, violent oppression finally hits home differ in opinion over how they should respond. Tuvia, despite an early scene of bloody retaliation, insists on avoiding confrontation and becomes the de facto leader of the camp. Zus on the other hand feels strongly about seeking vengeance and joins a local Communist troupe, vowing to take the fight right to the Nazis.

The events depicted in Defiance occur over the course of a year. We watch as conditions within Tuvia’s faction deteriorate as winter sets in and as impending Nazi forces constantly force them to move around within the forest. They battle against starvation, exposure and the inevitable in-fighting as the need to stay hidden intensifies with each passing day. We cut back and forth between this sad scene and Zus’ predicament as he finds himself surrounded by “comrades” who don’t necessarily share the same sympathies toward the Jewish refugees. They do, however, eventually agree to provide much-needed medicine to Tuvia in exchange for help in knocking out a radio transmitter that is interfering with the Russian’s communications.

The film rides a fairly strong wave of emotion on the back of solid performances most notably from Craig, Schreiber and Jamie Bell, the latter finding a way to come into his own as he finds himself mounting a last-ditch defensive stand when German tanks appear in their neck of the woods. (Sorry.) Mia Wasikowska also leaves an impression as a love interest for Bell’s courageous Asael. Their blossoming romance quickly yields a wedding ceremony in one of the film’s defining moments, a tender act of love nestled at the heart of a narrative shrouded in darkness.

I’d feel better closing this piece on a note of positivity rather than with more complaints about how the film perpetually shirks its responsibility of authenticating events as detailed in the 1993 novel by Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, upon which Zwick’s movie is based. Of galvanizing survivors with a story that does history proper justice. Defiance isn’t that film. It’s something more closely associated with typical action fare, with the kinds of movies you expect Daniel Craig to star in. As Tuvia he is more James Bond than Moses.

No, allow me instead to wax poetic about the film’s visuals for an easy out. Even several days after, that wedding ceremony remains burned into my memory. The snow coming down, in all its cheesiness. The intimate gathering. The golden sunlight. Eduardo Serra’s camerawork simply stuns; he seizes the opportunity to capture the forest in all its eerie beauty, offering Defiance this compelling but disturbing dichotomy between the enchanting allure of nature and the ugliness of humanity. Who would have thought we would have ever heard the words ‘Mazel tov’ uttered in this place, in this time?

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

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3-0Recommendation: I can’t help but feel disappointed by Defiance but this is far from a bad movie. It just isn’t a very ambitious one. Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell are the clear stand-outs (even if the former’s accent is horrendous at the best of times). But as a visual display, the film earns a fairly strong recommendation from yours truly. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 137 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.uk.pinterest.com 

Split

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Release: Friday, January 20, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: M. Night Shyamalan

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

THIS REVIEW INCLUDES A MAJOR SPOILER

You just have to admire the child inside that M. Night Shyamalan has refused to abandon. His passion hasn’t always translated into quality entertainment but “going through the motions” isn’t a complaint you can lodge against the director. The fire keeps burning, even though the winds of critical and commercial failure keep trying to blow it out.

Amidst a climate of sudden optimism, it would seem Shyamalan has rediscovered his mojo, having delivered two consecutive products that have not become both the joke and the punchline (with last year’s The Visit garnering more positive reviews than his previous three efforts combined). Split, his most recent provocation which concerns three young women abducted by a man with multiple personalities, has people talking excitedly again.

The writer-director wastes precious little time in getting to work, introducing us to the three targets, led by Anya Taylor-Joy‘s moody Casey, before promptly throwing them down the rabbit hole. Her acquaintances, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) — and they are verifiably more acquaintances than friends, based on a few buzzwords we hear in the opening scene, like “mercy invitation,” “obligation” and “weirdo” — are here to offer contrast, particularly in the way the girls respond to threat. Casey stands out as both outcast and survivor, the prototypical Shyamalan protagonist.

Their abductor is played by James McAvoy, whose dramatic chops are put to the test in a performance that requires him to evoke the quirks and mannerisms of at least eight distinct personalities. He plays a mentally ill loner named Kevin Wendell Crumb who suffers from a real disorder called Dissociative Identity Disorder, which has actually rendered 23 different identities in total. They range from obsessive-compulsive disciplinarians to matronly caretakers to naive pre-teens. Given the complexities of such a role, this could be the Scot’s finest hour.

Because it would be unreasonable to expect the actor to portray all of the personalities living inside his character — not to mention confusing for the audience — only a handful of them are paraded in front of the terrified girls who all the while can’t agree on an escape plan. The well-adjusted reason that physical confrontation is inevitable while Casey thinks it’s better to be patient and use Kevin’s condition to their advantage, believing their best chance for survival lies in their ability to manipulate Hedwig, the nine-year-old boy.

Shyamalan ranks among the best in the biz when it comes to generating suspense and making audiences dread what lies around the next corner. Split is more of the same in that regard, but it also has the added bonus of McAvoy’s stunning performance and Taylor-Joy’s nearly-as-impressive portrayal of a troubled teen with a dark secret, one that slowly gets teased out throughout the course of the film. But the thing about Shyamalan is that his childlike enthusiasm for sharing his gift for storytelling often undermines his seriousness of purpose. He is often too clumsy, too ambitious, too obsessed with artifice. Some of his decisions have proven disastrous. Split is not a disaster. In fact, 90% of it manifests as a really interesting psychological thriller that stays well below the usual threshold of silliness.

But that 10% is what is always going to keep Shyamalan a few steps short of greatness. And it is frustrating, because he is quite literally less than a few steps short of delivering his most satisfying psycho-thriller since Unbreakable, now 17 years old. It’s what he does to wrap things up that proves his undoing. Again. The ending is a complete betrayal of the reality in which his new film is based. I’m not concerned about the science that Split manipulates for its own agenda. A) It’s par for the course for fictional works to take dramatic liberties. That’s why it’s called fiction. And B) Kevin’s psychologist (played by Betty Buckley) isn’t the key to unlocking the film’s secrets.

No, that’s why we get Bruce Willis. You have got to be kidding me. I’m now waiting the ultimate plot twist wherein I wake up from all of this madness.

aw-hedwig

2-5Recommendation: When compared to his most recent output, Split feels like a much more accomplished film. And for the most part it does impress, locking the audience inside a pressure cooker from which escape seems highly unlikely. Wonderfully atmospheric and well-performed, the guillotine that Shyamalan runs into at the end is just so regrettable. Two-thirds a return-to-form, in my book. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “The broken are the more evolved.”

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

#OscarsSoPredictable

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On Sunday, February 26, the spectacularly cavernous enclave that is the Dolby Theatre plays host to yet another parade of pretty people in expensive garb and jewelry, boasting all sorts of hair-do’s (and don’ts), sharing a laugh over that one time they embarrassed themselves in front of their director — generally doing things to humanize themselves, to ease the tension that invariably arises on this day when famous people, who are about to become more famous, try not to act so famous.

I am left with but a few familiar questions as to how it all goes down this year.

What will the controversy be this time around? What wardrobe malfunction shall befall which hapless celeb?

How awkward will the evening get when Jimmy Kimmel runs out of funny?

Do we really have to wait until February 26 to watch La La Land collect all the gold, or will I need to go back and give this entire post a new title? How predictable will the Oscars be this year?

Will there be enough of the world left this time next year for another one to be held?

Without placing too much emphasis on the term ‘deserving,’ of the names that have been deemed worthy of inclusion, here are those that I feel have the greatest odds of actually taking home a statuette that night in ten categories I consider the most interesting of the night.

Best Picture

The cast and crew of La La Land will skip merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily up on stage because life is but a dream. Never mind the fact it is directed by Best Director lock Damien Chazelle, chances are if you make a musical in today’s day and age and it doesn’t suck, you will probably get an Oscar.

My preference (of those selected): Moonlight

My preference (of those not selected): Swiss Army Man

Directing

This is one of many for jazz lover Damien Chazelle (La La Land). 2017 is his year. I can’t say it’s entirely undeserved. He has crafted a passionate, joyous ode to a cinematic trend that has seemed for awhile to be done and dusted, and makes the entire enterprise look effortless — which probably only he can confirm was anything but.

My preference (of those selected): Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

My preference (of those not selected): Jeff Nichols, Loving

Actor in a Leading Role 

It has to be Casey Affleck for his bruising portrait of a man in a deep, unshakable funk in Manchester By the Sea. I’m raising hell if Ryan Gosling gets the call. (And I love Ryan Gosling.)

My preference (of those selected): Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea

My preference (of those not selected): Tom Hanks, Sully

Actress in a Leading Role

We might have the biggest controversy on our hands with this category. The unconscionable exclusion of Amy Adams for her work in the impossibly human drama Arrival (about aliens) has managed to annoy everyone. But if there’s anyone here who could help us possibly get over that farce, it’s Ruth Negga as Mildred Loving. What a wonderful performance. I couldn’t get enough of it.

My preference (of those selected): Ruth Negga, Loving

My preference (of those not selected): Amy Adams, Arrival 

Actor in a Supporting Role

First of all, what is Dev(elopment)* Patel doing in this category? If he’s not a leading role in Lion, who is? Are you telling me his child counterpart is the lead? That there are no leads in this film? What’s going on here . . . But in all reality, it’s irrelevant because he’s not winning this anyway. That honor is going to Mahershala Ali for his sturdy but immensely flawed supporting character Juan in Moonlight. Ali seems to be on the rise, and quickly, ever since I saw him on House of Cards. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you free yourself from the shackles of an Underwood-run White House.

My preference (of those selected): Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

My preference (of those not selected): Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man

How many have noticed this guy missing on the ballot? How many of you are surprised?

How many have noticed this guy missing on the ballot? How many of you are surprised?

Actress in a Supporting Role

This is too hard to call with any degree of accuracy. But my gut instinct — first of all, it’s going to come down to a head-to-head between Viola Davis (Fences) and Naomie Harris (Moonlight) — my gut instinct tells me the odds are in Harris’, no, wait — Davis’ . . . no, Harris’ favor. Ah, screw it. Can we split the award this year? I cannot choose. But because I must, Naomie Harris as one nasty mama in Moonlight. Damn, was she fierce.

My preference (of those selected): Naomie Harris, Moonlight 

My preference (of those not selected): Lupita Nyong’o, Queen of Katwe

Animated Feature

Zootopia seems to be the frontrunner in this category, and that plays right in to my theme here. How very expected, especially during the times in which we are currently living.

My preference (of those selected): Moana

My preference (of those not selected): The Little Prince

Cinematography

One of my favorite “non-major” categories is that which recognizes outstanding achievement in cinematography. I’m a person who responds strongly to the visual appeal of things. (I’m also a visual learner.) There are a lot of great selections this year, so this one is another that’s going to be tough to predict but my gut is telling me Linus Sandgren’s ability to capture La La Land in ways we have rarely seen before is going to score big.

My preference (of those selected): Rodrigo Prieto, Silence

My preference (of those not selected): Emmanuel Lubezki, Knight of Cups

Costume Design

Here’s a category I actually do not pay much mind to, but the results are always interesting at the ceremony. The obvious choice to me is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Ornate and fun, Colleen Atwood’s wardrobe for this Harry Potter spin-off film is sure to receive confirmation that at least her efforts were worthwhile.

My preference (of those selected): Consolata Boyle, Florence Foster Jenkins

My preference (of those not selected): Timothy Everest and Sammy Sheldon Differ, Assassin’s Creed 

Production Design

Production design and set design are major elements to consider as well, and yet I rarely address them in my reviews (probably an oversight). It’s another of those categories that seems to only become relevant when design elements seem to be the only thing going for a particular movie (like the slightly disappointing Coen brothers’ tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood, Hail, Caesar!) Their farcical celebration of a bygone era is my dubious pick for the Oscar this year.

My preference (of those selected): Jess Gonchor (production design) and Nancy Haigh (set decoration), Hail, Caesar!

My preference (of those not selected): Craig Lathrop (production design) and Mary Kirkland (set decoration), The Witch

* This is an inside joke I share with an longtime follower of my blog, the result of what I would consider one of the best typos of all time.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Patriots Day

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Release: Friday, January 13, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Peter Berg; Matt Cook; Joshua Zetumer 

Directed by: Peter Berg

The latest in Peter Berg’s identikit tributes to American heroes deals with the events and aftermath of the April 15, 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that resulted in three deaths and the injury of at least 280 others when two separate explosions occurred at the finish line. The end result is a harrowing, emotional saga that provides audiences ground floor access to what has been widely considered the worst act of terror committed on American soil since September 11, 2001.

The film, so named after the Massachusetts state holiday that commemorates the anniversary of the first battles of the American Revolution, finds Berg once again channeling his own reverence for the stars and stripes through the universally adored Boston-born Mark Wahlberg, who plays an amalgam of real BPD personnel in Sergeant Tommy Saunders. It is an action thriller of masculine construction and appropriate intonations — even if Berg is occasionally overbearing in the way he stresses the importance of honoring the resilience of communities like Boston who have responded to acts of hatred with gestures of love and compassion and unity.

Patriots Day is as adept at championing the human spirit as it is timely. I could have sworn only yesterday this was a trending topic. Few actors feel more of the zeitgeist than Marky-Mark. It’s also no accident we have a police commissioner portrayed by the reliable but distractingly famous John Goodman and an FBI special agent played by Kevin “Serious Face” Bacon. Michelle Monaghan (arguably less visible than every one of her co-stars) plays Wahlberg’s equally fictional wife. Even the humble Watertown sarge who gets his five minutes of fame is physicalized by the likes of J.K. Simmons. There’s a lot of heavy air and the script’s clunky, yet several of Hollywood’s heavyweights do not disappoint.

But out of the bunch, only Wahlberg seems truly connected to the material, as reflected in a performance that ranks among his most emotional. But, and somewhat ironically, in order to actually justify the existence of the character/to give the actor something more to do than simply stand around Looking Official, Berg crowbars in a redemptive arc for the recently disgraced Tommy Saunders. Facing punishment having demonstrated insubordination towards his superiors he finds himself working crowd control at the finish line. By the end of the exhaustive, citywide manhunt that consumes much of the film’s second half, he will have played a substantial role in bringing the bad guys to justice. The invention is almost shamelessly predictable.

Wahlberg’s not always the focus, even if he seems to be at just the right place at every critical moment. Several threads develop to varying degrees of success throughout. A young couple who start the day happy wind up in different area hospitals simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time; a father standing feet away from the blast becomes desperate having been separated from his infant son. A Watertown police sergeant becomes the proverbial last sheriff standing in the way of the outlaw Tsarneav brothers, while an Asian MIT student lives to tell about the night he was carjacked at gunpoint. An interrogator feigns Muslim beliefs to get a suspect to talk. Each of these harrowing stories carry weight, however they invariably take a backseat to Saunders’ improbable ubiquity.

Those called upon to bear the burden of portraying terrorists deserve unique recognition. The Georgia-born Themo Melikidze portrays the older and nastier Tamerlan Tsarnaev as an extremist who cannot be reasoned with. He is a problem. The actor fully embodies evil and often dishes the most punishing sequences of discomfort Patriots Day offers up. Meanwhile Melissa Benoist challenges herself in the role of Katherine Russell, a white woman thought to have been radicalized by Tamerlan, her husband. (As of the publication of this review no charges have been brought against Russell, who apparently now lives a quiet life in New Jersey.)

Patriots Day is often confronting stuff. Adrenaline spikes frequently arise throughout this potent recreation of a dark day in American history. It’s also nothing if not familiar, as the ‘Bergs’ at this point now feel like a package deal. The director’s tribute to the people of Boston is his third consecutive tribute to bravery and resiliency and it is probably his most cohesive and balanced. Though I can’t help but feel the looming shadow of Hollywood distracts a little too much from the reality of what it means to be Boston Strong.

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3-5Recommendation: Sincere, intense and passionately acted, Patriots Day is a certifiable crowd-pleaser that serves as Peter Berg’s most solidly crafted tribute to human resilience in several outings. Mark Wahlberg’s great performance makes the watch worthwhile as do a number of convincing turns by famous people playing less famous Bostonians. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “We got multiple explosions. We need help down here!” 

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 

Wiener-Dog

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Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Todd Solondz

Directed by: Todd Solondz

This review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. Please feel free to leave a comment here or on the original article. Thanks as always for featuring me, James! 

Wiener-Dog is a tough film to like. You certainly can’t, or maybe aren’t supposed to, love it. I’m actually pretty sure you’re just supposed to be shocked by it. It’s about a dog who gets shuffled from weirdo to weirdo who in some way or another finds their life affected by its presence.

Put that way, it kind of sounds like Air Bud or any other Disney-like movie about someone befriending a lovable canine.  Put that way, it sounds fun. This movie is neither of those things.

Wiener-Dog is an unrelentingly dark, bleak comedy peppered with unlikable characters and some sequences that are just begging for animal rights groups to petition and denounce Todd Solondz’ work à la Heaven’s Gate. Yes, a dog may be man’s best friend but in Wiener-Dog he is also man’s metaphorical punching bag. The film isn’t interested in subjecting the animal to physical cruelty but it surrounds the poor thing in a world of misery, disappointment, regret and general negativity.

That the dog often serves as our most relatable character says everything about Solondz’ disdain for the human race. He thrusts the dog (the audience) upon the kinds of dysfunctional individuals you only ever encounter in the movies, while insidiously breaking the spirit of dog lovers everywhere who were foolish enough to think this movie might be cute.

The innocence and naivety of animals subservient to man offers a point of view that over time becomes increasingly absurd. You’re meant to be experiencing the film through the eyes of the dog — at various points appellated ‘Wiener-Dog,’ ‘Doody’ and ‘Cancer’ — but it’s confusing because the movie isn’t so much about the day-in-the-life of man’s best friend. It’s more interested in using the dog as a vessel to transport us through the wreckage of these ‘ordinary’ lives.

The dog begins her journey with a wealthy family. Patriarch Danny (Tracy Letts) has brought home a puppy for son Remi who has been battling cancer. Dina (a loathsome Julie Delpy) isn’t a fan of the idea. She goes out of her way to tell her son that spaying a dog is the only way to prevent the dog from suffering various horrible fates. Everyone should have a mom just like her. After some time Remi’s lone source of happiness proves to be a pestilence and Danny decides it’s time to put it down.

Luckily for Wiener-Dog a sympathetic nurse snatches her out of the veterinary clinic. This saint is Dawn Wiener, an introvert to the extreme. Greta Gerwig plays the character who has been reprised from an earlier Solondz film, Welcome to the Dollhouse. She one day runs into an old acquaintance named Brandon (Kieran Culkin) and they embark on a road trip to Ohio to see Brandon’s family, to whom he must deliver some bad news. His brother and his wife — both with Down Syndrome — soon find themselves in possession of the dog when Dawn feels their home is a better place for her briefly beloved ‘Doody.’

Your commitment to oddball black comedies faces its toughest test when the dog inexplicably falls into the lap of depressed screenwriting prof Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito). This bucket of pure misery epitomizes the film’s agonistic, misanthropic tonality. He is also Solondz’ most obvious middle-finger to his fellow man, in this case, prospective filmmakers who think they have the right stuff to launch a career. “It’s not that easy to be a creative genius. You have to be daring,” Solondz says with a bomb strapped to the titular dachshund in a scene you will have to rewind and watch again to believe.

Last and absolutely least the dog finds its way into the house of elderly Nana (Ellen Burstyn). The poor old thing can’t catch a break! Nana is visited by her awful granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet) who expects her Nana to relieve her bank account of 10 grand so her beau Fantasy (Michael Shaw) can get his latest art exhibit up and running. You’re at a point in the picture where caring is so optional it’s not really even an option.

At the end of the day, Wiener-Dog is meant to inspire us to continue taking life as it comes to us, the good and the bad. If you aren’t as cynical as Solondz and you’re trying to make it to the end of his movie, you might find yourself having to be your own cheerleader. Keep telling yourself it isn’t always going to be this bad. You’ll eventually get to the end.

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2-0Recommendation: This is apparently Todd Solondz’ eighth feature film, and it’s my first time watching his work. It has a style and tone that gives me the impression he has his own cult following. If you count yourself among those people, you’ll probably lap up Wiener-Dog in all its weirdness. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “A dog is not human. It’s an animal. Nature doesn’t care about them. It’s sad, but true. We’re dogs’ only friend.” 

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 

Lost in London (Live)

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Release: Thursday, January 19, 2017 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Woody Harrelson

Directed by: Woody Harrelson

Has Woody Harrelson just reinvented the wheel? Or just lost his mind? One thing is for certain: he has taken risk and vulnerability to an entirely new level with his decision to direct, write, and star in the first-ever full-length feature film to be live-streamed into select American cinemas (approximately 500 nationwide, with one international location in London).

The unlikelihood of this film happening hits you over and again as you watch rehearsed chaos unfold in real time. Never mind that the shoot had to be adjusted to accommodate a police investigation into the discovery of an undetonated World War II bomb found at the bottom of the Thames.* Or that a 100-minute-long, single shot necessitated every cast and crew member to be on form like they had never been before. One stumble, one forgotten line, one unforeseen development (I guess I mean besides the unearthing/unwatering of an archaic explosive device) would spell disaster.

Lost in London is a dramatization of a little run-in the actor had while visiting the city back at the turn of the century. Harrelson was on a trip to take his family to the set of the Harry Potter films. This was of course before he experienced a career resurgence that now finds the former Cheers star taking part in iconic blockbusters like Star Wars and the rebooted Planet of the Apes sequel. It details, apparently, “the worst night of [his] life” when he had an altercation with a cab driver and then the coppers after becoming belligerent and destructive. He spent a night in jail. As repentance, he offered to take his jailor and his son to the set as well (or at least he does in the film).

That what you are witnessing is taking place at that very moment elevates the experience. Perhaps that’s something that only holds intrigue for the millennial, and the gimmickry tends to bring attention to itself when parts of the film slow to a crawl as it’s clear the filmmakers are trying to just make it through the shoot without any foul-ups. In his holding cell, the actor is visited in his sleep by the “Dalai Lama of Texas” himself, Willie Nelson. He’s a welcomed presence but he comes into a part of the film where the story seems to be running out of gas. Even still, there’s a surprising amount of narrative cohesion and laughter to be had in this self-deprecatory examination of how Hollywood celebs are viewed in other countries. Owen Wilson features prominently as well, playing up the personal relationship he has shared with Harrelson for over two decades. Wes Anderson is frequently cited (natch).

Lost in London is absolutely a vanity project but it works on so many levels it would spoil the fun to question why the popular Hollywood A-lister felt the need to present himself in this way and to put himself under such incredible stress for the sake of reinvention. This is more than a gimmick; this is a potential gateway to the future. And to think so many of your fellow thespians doubted you, Woodrow. Actors know that taking risks is vital for personal and professional growth. It’s time now for you to sit back, relax, and reap the rewards. You’ve created something that’s not only unique but damn well entertaining.

* My screening experienced a 15-minute “delay,” which meant we had actually missed something close to 15 minutes of the film. I would like to think the snag had something to do with this incredible development but in all likelihood it was probably the result of AMC employees not doing their job. We will never know!

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3-5Recommendation: Fans of Woody Harrelson are in for a treat. Since the film was a one-time live-event hosted by Fathom Events I’m unsure how to point those fans who didn’t get the opportunity to check it out when it debuted in the right direction, but I’m sure someone has bootlegged the thing and put it on YouTube. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

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

Photo credits: http://www.current.mnsun.com; http://www.empireonline.com 

Live By Night

live-by-night-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 13, 2017

[Netflix]

Written by: Ben Affleck

Directed by: Ben Affleck

Even when Ben Affleck is off his game he still makes more thoughtful, involving pictures than many others who give it their all. Live By Night isn’t an example of Affleck giving it his all, but because the writer/director just does not know how to make something that’s not intriguing on some level his latest is a modest success.

I don’t really want to damn with faint praise something I quite enjoyed but there’s ample evidence throughout his second adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel — this time a Prohibition-Era, Florida-set thriller about a rum runner and reluctant gangster — to suggest Affleck is running a little low on the creative juices. Live By Night is a fine way to spend two hours but there’s not even an outside chance Affleck finds himself back up on the stage in the Dolby Theatre this February. The tale simply is unable to find any separation whatsoever from like-minded mob movies.

Live By Night opens as Affleck’s Joe Coughlin has returned to his native Boston from the Great War, scarred by the loss of life around him and by what he did — mercifully he never shows us what that was. He leaves that to our imagination. In a voiceover Joe reflects on how he has come back a changed man, vowing to never kill again. Perhaps the real erring on the part of Affleck, commander in chief, is in his failing to safeguard against our intense skepticism.

In fact the moment he tells us he won’t kill again is the same moment we become convinced that he will. This is that type of film, where the inevitable is just so obvious when it finally happens it is sort of underwhelming. The prodigal son of police captain Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson) finds himself blackmailed into doing the dirty work for a violent Italian mafia boss when he’s caught in a love affair with the mistress of a rivaling, Irish mob leader by the name of Albert White (Robert Glenister). Joe’s girl is an Irish immigrant, like himself, played by the chameleonic Sienna Miller. Joe must eliminate White, or face being . . . well. Yep.

His fortunes change when he is sent to Ybor City, a rough area just northeast of downtown Tampa, where he finds success expanding his employer Mr. Pescatore (Remo Girone)’s rum empire. With the help of his partner Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), Joe helps to secure much of the southeast as a viable marketplace for other business ventures like gambling and drugs. But Joe constantly maintains he will have no part in the murderous aspects of his trade. He insists on being considered less a gangster and more an outlaw. He’s one cape and cowl away from becoming a bootlegging vigilante.

Speaking of outfits, everyone who appears in the film comes dressed to the nines. The costuming and production design are so authentic you feel as though you are walking these streets and enduring these hard times along with the characters. A few of the get-ups verge on the ridiculous — see Affleck in a white suit that’s the equivalent of NFL jerseys back in the ’80s and ’90s  — and more often than not you can’t help but think the lavish design is meant to distract from the lack of original material.

The trappings of the hard-knocked life are all here: the threats, the beatings, the back-stabbings. The boozing and the repentant behavior that’s far too little too late. The latter is of course what we’re ultimately anticipating, and what presumably Lehane’s book builds toward as well — the price tag attached to all this moral turpitude. In Live By Night it comes in the form of Chris Cooper‘s Sheriff Irving Figgis and his goody-two-shoes daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning), both devout Christians whose own moral fiber becomes tested when daughter ships out to Hollywood only to return a drugged-out prostitute. At the behest of her father Loretta starts preaching the good word in Ybor City, vowing to put a halt on the development of the very casino Joe and his cronies are working to build.

Whatever is a non-violent (but very violent) bandit supposed to do when he’s shouldering the burden of one crime lord to get back at another? Turn to the Lord? Fall in love with another woman in a place where he is becoming a nuisance? (Spoiler alert: he does one of the two.) As with a great many gangster dramas, religion and family play a prominent role. There must be consequences to our actions. Affleck obligingly includes those elements as a measuring stick to help us judge how bad Joe really is, despite how gentle and caring he may seem when not on the clock.

Admittedly, subtlety is not among Affleck’s many (strong) suits this time around. Live By Night does not bow out gracefully. The way it ends is something close to terrible but it’s not quite enough to bring down the entire thing. It does, however, add an exclamation point on the argument that this is nothing more than a generic crime thriller. If you’re looking for shock value or inventive deaths, twists and turns you never expected — you won’t find them here. It’s not even really that violent. The action is kept to a minimum, which is actually refreshing in the sense that it allows Affleck to explore moods and mindsets rather than showcase how scary bad men are with guns.

Live By Night won’t be remembered for much, but it’s by no means a sign that Affleck has become truly lost (cue Liam Neeson from Batman Begins). It demonstrates a clear appreciation for the kinds of people and experiences that have shaped the nation into what it is today. Affleck taps into a period in American history in which drinking was outlawed but racism and violence were given the thumbs up. There’s something beautifully contradictory with the way he juxtaposes these realities. I just wish he did so with a little more inventiveness.

live-by-night-1

3-5Recommendation: Far from original or top-notch Ben Affleck in terms of his directorial prowess (though his performance is appropriately ice-cold, and in the same fascinating way he was in The Accountant as an anti-social enigma), Live By Night should suit fans of the writer/director/actor as well as those who don’t set their standards too high when it comes to the genre. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “This is heaven. Right here. We’re in it now.”

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 

Silence

silence-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 13, 2017 

[Theater]

Written by: Jay Cocks; Martin Scorsese

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Marty’s new film is so tonally different from what he last put out it made me feel like I was atoning for all those good times I had with Jordan Belfort and company in his Wall Street-based bacchanalian. Silence is such a brutal watch I left the theater pining for them good old days of Leo snorting coke off of Margot Robbie’s chest. Fortunately Scorsese finds a way to make the suffering not only worthwhile but essential viewing.

The customarily near-three-hour running time (which is totally justified and passes by in no time at all) encapsulates a journey the auteur has been wanting to share with the world for some time — nearly 30 years as a matter of fact. Silence is no doubt a passion project for a director renowned for depicting complex morality tales fueled by themes of guilt, corruption and redemption and it carries the kind of weight that suggests this is what he has been building towards throughout a protracted and distinguished career. Whether it’s the director’s crowning achievement is debatable, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Silence is no ordinary theatrical release. It’s a transcendent experience that will haunt you long after viewing.

Scorsese adapts his material from the 1966 novel of the same name by Japanese author Shūsakū Endō, who identified as a Roman Catholic. Endō’s sprawling saga told of the life-altering journey undertaken by two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan from Portugal in search of a mentor who goes missing and supposedly apostatizes under extreme duress. The book has inspired two other cinematic adaptations over the years but it’s hard to imagine either of them achieving the same magnitude of emotional and psychological discomfort the noted (and self-confessed lapsed) Catholic has here.

In 1600s Japan Christianity is outlawed, yet small factions still practice in secrecy in the mountainous regions surrounding colonial Nagasaki, where the Spaniard Saint Francis Xavier had decades earlier attempted to plant the seeds of Catholicism in a country that already had an established national belief system. Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has for all intents and purposes vanished. Scorsese wants to know what kinds of forces would be necessary to shake a man of his beliefs.

Now we watch as Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) similarly attempt promulgation as they are led deep into the mountains by an alcoholic fisherman named Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a Judas-like snake in the grass who vacillates between denying his Christian roots and wanting desperately to repent. He is an enigma not worthy of our trust, unlike the rest of these “hidden Christians,” who simply yearn for a conduit through which they can confess their sins to God.

Scorsese’s meticulous, methodical direction complements an altogether brilliant screenplay that barbarically strips away hope and conviction from those who find themselves at the center of a bitter ideological conflict. Co-written with three-time collaborator Jay Cocks, Scorsese’s appropriately expansive treatment deals with some upsetting material in a refreshingly blunt but unbiased manner, as emphasized by the numerous observational shots taken at a distance from the violence visited upon the innocent by merciless shogunates like Inoue The Inquisitor (Issei Ogata). As the story unfolds we are challenged to question how much suffering is too much suffering. At what point does a cause become lost?

Several conversations take place that delineate the fundamental disagreement between practicing Buddhists and Catholics. These conversations are simultaneously fascinating and devastating to behold. Whereas Buddhists believe the individual can liberate himself from the perpetual cycle of ‘rebirth’ and ‘death’ (samsāra, which shouldn’t be literally translated as ‘suffering’ but rather a state of bliss that can never last) by choosing not to become obsessed with the material world, Christianity teaches that man can achieve salvation by governing their lives in a manner congruous with that of Jesus Christ. Of course, we all know how complicated it becomes when interpreting what is meant by following in his footsteps. All bets are off when what we’re arguing is whether or not being on Earth is merely another train station or the final destination.

Those conversations are largely what make Silence such a tough watch. Sure, the movie is violent and cruel in ways that you probably have never imagined, but it’s the stalemate we arrive at time and time again when neither party can convince the other. When no concessions can be made. What fuels emotional devastation is a combination of our steadily accrued respect for the priests and the narrative’s balanced perspective. It neither vilifies the Japanese nor glorifies Western influence. No party is entirely right and no party is completely off-base. We listen, we observe. We try to understand both views, though ultimately we are meant to empathize with one side more than the other.

Garfield, on the back of his portrayal of a similarly beleaguered soul in Mel Gibson’s tribute to real war-time hero Desmond Doss, essays a role for the ages as the Christ-like Father Rodrigues. Perhaps it’s worth noting how good Scorsese is in bringing out the absolute best in his actors, lest I lay too much at the foot of the budding British actor. Still, this is Garfield like I’ve never seen him before and it is an utterly heartbreaking performance that almost assuredly promises a nomination. Long gone it seems are the days of slinging webs in Manhattan.

If his co-star occupied the same amount of screen time, he too might’ve found himself on the ballot. Perhaps he still will. Driver’s contributions to the story, in particular that first third, are invaluable. Even though neither actor can quite convince us of their Portuguese descent — accents most notably slip when emotions run high — Driver in particular is good at reminding us of the flesh that lies beneath the cloth. He exudes self-doubt and vulnerability, at least more readily. Indeed, these are just men caught up in some extraordinary circumstances.

The mortality of these priests is what challenges us to really embrace the existential crisis at the heart of Silence. Scorsese of course is not asking the audience to do anything crazy like renounce their faith in a movie theater but he is challenging us to ponder ‘what if.’ That almost assuredly is the direction he gives his two leading men. What if what these priests are doing is actually causing more harm than good? What if you surrender everything you have known to be true for the sake of sparing others of their pain? Does self-doubt mean you have compromised everything? Does a simple physical act confirm what you feel in your heart?

Few of these questions come with answers. If we’re to pursue them, we’re better off trying post-viewing. That’s assuming answers are to be found at all. That kind of open-endedness could prove frustrating for some viewers, but I found it cathartic. Silence is a monumental achievement you have to experience for yourself, no matter what your beliefs are.

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5-0Recommendation: Whether you identify as devout, agnostic or atheist you owe it to yourself to see Martin Scorsese’s historical/religious epic. It is going to be one of the hardest movies you’ve ever tried watching but come the end of it you’ll be glad for the opportunity. As for replay value, however, Silence might prove less successful. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 161 mins.

Quoted: “I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?”

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.rogerebert.com 

Welcome to Thomas J!

Hello everyone.  I thought I would tip my readers off to something subtle going on here. My blog is changing. I’m finally re-branding.

I know, I know. It’s been Digital Shortbread for over half a decade now.

Risk much? Yes. Yes it is.

Work much? Yes, yes it also is.

Worthwhile?

I’ll leave that one open-ended. But I’m excited about this new journey through film, everyone. I really am. I’m psyched on the new theme, too. WordPress offers us SO many cool options. For those curious, I’m now surfing the ‘Hemingway Rewritten’ theme. A change of theme means a change of a lot of things, so you’ll have to pardon my dust as I try to assimilate the entire site to Thomas J. That means newcomers are probably going to stumble upon remnants of the old — the Digibread Awards being a big one (don’t worry, I’m not scrapping those posts) — and some things are going to look out of place for a while.

But this is it. I’m doing this. This is the future of film blogging for me. For the time being my URL will remain the same, but it will soon change to reflect the blog’s new identity. I’m not sure if that will screw with everyone’s WordPress reader or if people are going to get confused but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

I hope you are going to come along for the ride. Please, tell your friends, family and your pet raccoon about the news!

Blindspot 2017

blindspot-logo

Peer pressure strikes again, people. I’m doing a Blindspot list this year. That’s right. Twelve films, one reviewed per month. I’ve seen so many fascinating lists over the past several years and finally I think I’m ready to tackle one of my own. It’s an inspired idea, and someone should get a sticker or something for conceptualizing this popular blog trend. What a great way to discipline yourself into tackling that ever-growing list of Movies I Should Have Watched, Like, Yesterday. It’s also a good way of diversifying your tastes. I’m not sure if any title on this list is a real stretch for me, many of them fall under genres I’m predisposed to enjoying anyway, but the vast majority of this list is comprised of things I know I absolutely should have seen by now — barring one or two curios I’ve been interested in ticking off even knowing they are going to be, in all likelihood, somewhat forgettable. The goal wasn’t to create a list of potentially life-changing films. No matter their relevance or durability, I’m motivated to get started here! I hope you all will follow along with me.

I present to you my Blindspot list for 2017*:


January 

defiance-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 16, 2009

Plot Synopsis: Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe escape into the Belarussian forests, where they join Russian resistance fighters and endeavor to build a village in order to protect themselves and about 1,000 Jewish non-combatants.  

Review now available here 


February

alive-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 15, 1993

Plot Synopsis: A Uruguayan rugby team stranded in the snow swept Andes are forced to use desperate measures to survive after a plane crash.

Review now available here


March**

trainspotting-movie-poster

Release: Friday, August 9, 1996

Plot Synopsis: Renton, deeply immersed in the Edinburgh drug scene, tries to clean up and get out, despite the allure of the drugs and influence of friends.

Review now available here


April

metropolis-movie-poster

Release: Sunday, March 13, 1927

Plot Synopsis: In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city’s mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.

Review now available here


May

what-about-bob-movie-poster

Release: Friday, May 17, 1991

Plot Synopsis: A successful psychotherapist loses his mind after one of his most dependent patients, an obsessive-compulsive neurotic, tracks him down during his family vacation.

Review now available here


June

once-upon-a-time-in-the-west-movie-poster

Release: Friday, July 4, 1969

Plot Synopsis: A mysterious stranger with a harmonica joins forces with a notorious desperado to protect a beautiful widow from a ruthless assassin working for the railroad.


July

swingers-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 18, 1996

Plot Synopsis: Wannabe actors become regulars in the stylish neo-lounge scene; Trent teaches his friend Mike the unwritten rules of the scene.

Review now available here


August

Imprimer

Release: Friday, January 7, 2011

Plot Synopsis: A cop turns con man once he comes out of the closet. Once imprisoned, he meets the second love of his life, whom he’ll stop at nothing to be with.


September

reservoir-dogs-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 23, 1992

Plot Synopsis: After a simple jewelry heist goes terribly wrong, the surviving criminals begin to suspect that one of them is a police informant.

Review now available here 


October

cujo-movie-poster

Release: Friday, August 12, 1983

Plot Synopsis: Cujo, a friendly St. Bernard, contracts rabies and conducts a reign of terror on a small American town.

Review now available here


November

the-usual-suspects-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, August 16, 1995

Plot Synopsis: A sole survivor tells of the twisty events leading up to a horrific gun battle on a boat, which begin when five criminals meet at a seemingly random police lineup.

Review now available here


December

downfall-movie-poster

Release: Friday, December 31, 2004

Plot Synopsis: Traudl Junge, the final secretary for Adolf Hitler, tells of the Nazi dictator’s final days in his Berlin bunker at the end of WWII.

* subject to change based on availability 

** not original line-up; I have switched out March and May, in anticipation of the Trainspotting sequel  


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