Titane

Release: Friday, October 1, 2021 (limited)

👀 Theater

Written by: Julia Ducournau

Directed by: Julia Ducournau

Starring: Agathe Rousselle; Vincent Lindon; Garance Marillier; Bertrand Bonello; Adèle Guigue

 

 

 

*****/*****

Really the best way to follow up a critical success is to make another, while further pushing boundaries to see what you might get away with. Titane certainly tests some limits. This is a potent, unpredictable and morally challenging exhibition that will either have you recoiling or marveling at the audacity of the artist.

A story involving cars, sex and violence sounds pretty mainstream but then this is Julia Ducournau, far from your garden variety director. Thus, gearheads and Fast & the Furious fans need not apply. For the moment, Ducournau seems enamored with transformative narratives that fixate on the body and alienate her protagonists from their own skin. But where her cannibalistic début feature Raw was more literal, in Titane it’s more about skin as one’s interiority, their sense of self. Though vaguely thematically related I suspect not even Raw‘s hard-to-stomach content would serve as adequate prep for the wild and uncomfortable ride she offers with her follow-up.

Titane deals with a young woman named Alexia who we first meet as a child (chillingly played by Adèle Guigue) in the jolting opening sequence — a car crash caused by her distracted father (Bertrand Bonello) which leaves the little girl with a titanium plate in her skull. Jumping forward in time Ducournau’s camera shadows older Alexia (Agathe Rouselle) as she heads in for another shift as a sexed-up model working seedy auto shows. When not writhing around suggestively on top of shiny hoods she’s signing autographs for desperate dudes . . . and murdering them when they try to get cute.

Indeed, it doesn’t take long to appreciate Alexia’s wired differently than most, the scar on the side of her head a kind of red marking to warn off her prey. And her prey turn out to be alarmingly susceptible. Acts that begin in self-defense become upsettingly random. We also quickly learn her sexual preferences are in constant flux and, uh, exotic.

There’s a girl, Justine (Garance Marillier), and a steamy moment where you begin to believe the movie is about to course-correct into a more familiar drama about being lost and desperately hoping to be found. However all bets are off when lovemaking with a car turns out far more productive than with her coworker, the former leaving Alexia pregnant and the latter devolving into a multi-room, multi-victim bloodbath that forces her to go into hiding by committing to an elaborate ruse that will have profound physical and psychological impacts.

Though the surreal, foreboding atmosphere never relents and disbelief and discomfort remain constant companions, Ducournau’s monstrosity (a term of endearment, in this case) evolves as a tale of two measurably different halves, distinguished not by quality but rather purpose as well as a noticeable shift in tone away from something fiercely feminine and toward brute masculinity. All the while this moody, bathed-in-neon head trip also morphs into something that for awhile seems out of reach; it becomes relatable.

French screen veteran Vincent Lindon provides a crucial link and the sledgehammer performance needed to match his co-star. He plays an aging fire chief who continues to mourn the disappearance of his boy Adrien ten years ago while blasting himself through with steroid injections, often to the point of collapse. When Adrien seems to reappear in police custody joy is soon replaced by concern over his son’s mute, sullen behavior. He attempts to integrate Adrien back into society, with mixed results.

In only her second film the 37-year-old provocateur is a rising star in her own right. The fact that she manages to turn so many negatives into a small but notable positive takes serious talent. But let’s not get things more twisted than they already are. There are many aspects that help inform the off-kilter vibe she’s going for — the rattling, industrial score and disturbing make-up work loom large — but not one thing, not one person commands your attention like newcomer Agathe Rousselle, an androgynous actor who burns up the screen, leveraging her lack of A-lister conspicuousness into one of the most compelling characters and performances this year has to offer, one that’s hauntingly human-adjacent.

The Palme d’Or winner at Cannes 2021, Titane might be memorable for timing alone, winning in a year in which the pomp and glam returns to the French Riviera after the event’s first hiatus since World War II. But Ducournau has the bizarre content and undeniable confidence to justify the strong reaction. Titane isn’t a crowdpleaser, it’s a crowd shocker, designed to start a conversation or quite possibly end one.

Not quite Titanic

Moral of the Story: I stop short of saying best movie of the year because ‘best’ is such an awkward term to apply to something so uncompromising and unusual, a movie touting a very challenging character to root for, no less. So to be more accurate Titane sits comfortably among the most unique cinematic experiences you are going to have in 2021. For all that is bizarre and unpleasant, I put it in the category of must-see-to-believe (or not). A stunning effort from a name already making noise in the industry. Spoken in French with English subtitles. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “My name is Alexia!” 

Strap in and hold on for dear life in the Official Trailer from Neon Productions here!

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; www.chicago.suntimes.com

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #1

After a monthlong delay prompted by my own disorganization, I am happy and excited to get into another new Actor Profile, this blog’s fourth such feature and the second to spotlight an actress. Check out the tab below the banner to access the others!

Born in Manhattan in 1984, Scarlett Ingrid Johansson is among the most recognizable faces in the film industry, no small thanks to her involvement in the phenomenally successful Marvel Cinematic Universe in which she portrays the spy Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. It’s a role that has taken her to another level of stardom, though you could hardly call it a break-out role, as she had proven herself an A-list caliber actor long before that. It was in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) where she made a big impression on me, her chemistry with Bill Murray cementing that film as one of my all-time favorites.

Though she describes her childhood as “very ordinary,” her extraordinary adult life seemed predetermined by birthright, hailing from a family of screenwriters, actors and producers. She caught the acting bug at a very early age, putting on song and dance routines for her family, who were supportive of her dream to become an actor. When a talent agent signed her brother before her, that desire only intensified. Her goals became more crystallized when she figured out shooting commercials was not her thing. So she enrolled in the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in Manhattan, circa age 8. Her first public performance was in an off-Broadway production called Sophistry alongside Ethan Hawke. She had a total of two lines of dialogue. Her first film role was in the 1994 adventure film North, directed by Rob Reiner, and the first time she garnered awards attention was for her performance in Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of Daniel Clowe’s graphic novel Ghost World (2001).

The role I’ve chosen for this month is one of her absolute best. And quite possibly one of the most difficult for me to approach since I am not qualified to talk about the challenges that come with being married. I have also been very fortunate to have been raised in a stable household with two parents who remained together through thick and thin. Yet I appreciate that a lot of marriages don’t carry out that way — in fact the divorce rate in America is alarmingly high, third highest of any country in the world. But I do know a good performance when I see one and this powerfully emotional showcase is legitimately one of the best I’ve ever seen from anyone since I started really paying attention to the intricacies of filmmaking.

Scarlett Johansson as Nicole Barber in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: Noah Baumbach’s incisive and compassionate look at a marriage breaking up and a family staying together. (IMDb)

Character Background: One of the most impressive things about Baumbach’s screenplay is the balanced perspective. It does not “take sides,” but instead gives equal weight to both Nicole and Charlie’s concerns. Because this feature is about one actor in particular, I am obligated to focus on Nicole’s perspective.

The opening few minutes of what turns out to be an emotionally gory drama are precious. They offer a treasure trove of insight into who Nicole is, particularly on a personal level. Marriage Story begins with her husband Charlie (Adam Driver) listing all the things he loves about his wife. Importantly there are a few honest criticisms sprinkled in amongst the compliments: “She makes people feel comfortable about even embarrassing things. She really listens when someone is talking,” though “sometimes she listens too much for too long.” She’s “a good citizen” and a very present mother. She gifts interesting, thoughtful birthday presents — a trumpet for Charlie to help him expand his creativity. Then there are the big things, such as the sacrifice she’s made in forgoing an acting career in Hollywood in order to help Charlie mount his avant-garde plays in New York, where she’s become her husband’s favorite actor.

Professional ambition is what fractures the relationship: Nicole, a former teen film actress, aspires to step out of the shadow cast by her husband. Once the love of Charlie’s life, it has become increasingly clear to Nicole his own obsession with preparing for Broadway has blinded him to his wife’s own career goals.

What she brings to the movie: From a young age Johansson had a passion for musical theater, and Nicole allows her to tap into her early professional experience as a stage actor. There’s a tremendous amount of range in this Oscar-nominated performance, from the nuanced expressions of remorse, resentment and anger to the more dramatic and demonstrative (see the scene below). There’s a level of physicality to the performance that I think is underrated.

In her own words: “What I was so attracted to and what I could relate to in this was actually what remains between the characters, which was a lot of love. It actually felt very much like a love story to me, which of course is heartbreaking but also so much more poignant than a film about two people who have just grown to hate each other, because that’s not really what this is about.”

Key Scene: The argument scene is undeniably one of the best in the whole movie. It’s probably THE scene everyone remembers, however it’s not my #1 choice because it’s really about the couple. I wanted to feature the scene where Scarlett Johansson goes on a long monologue when her character meets Laura Dern’s lawyer, Nora, for the first time. Because it’s not only a triggering event but one of the scenes where her character is opening up to someone else. Unfortunately I couldn’t find that clip anywhere.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: IMDb

Uncut Gems

Release: Christmas Day 2019 

→Theater

Written by: Ronald Bronstein; Josh and Benny Safdie 

Directed by: Josh and Benny Safdie

If they have proven anything in their last two movies it’s that few filmmakers stress you out quite like the New York born-and-bred Safdie brothers. Uncut Gems is, in a word, intense. This is a very aggressive mood piece that puts you in the headspace of a man losing control — of his wares, his sanity, his life. Relentlessly paced and cacophonous at almost every turn, the provocative presentation tests your nerves from the opening frame to the very last.

Starring Adam Sandler in a rare dramatic turn, Uncut Gems is the sibling’s follow-up to their attention-getting Good Time (2017). Indeed, if you watched that movie and noted the irony of the title as you watched things go from bad to worse for Robert Pattinson, you’re better prepared for the gauntlet that comes next. Uncut Gems throws us into New York City’s Diamond District and up against walls as Howard Ratner, a high-end jeweler and compulsive gambler, frantically runs around trying to pay off old debts by incurring newer, bigger ones. He’s in deep with the mob, but he also must contend with a wife who hates him, a girlfriend on the side, a basketball player’s superstitions and a doctor with news about a certain body part. It’s probably never been great being Howard but he’s certainly seen better days.

As for the guy playing him? You’d have to go back to the start of the new millennium to find a time when there was this much love for “the Sandman.” He became a critical darling for his work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (2002) and the praise is arguably even more deserved 17 years later; the 53-year-old is a hurricane force in Uncut Gems. He’s playing a version of characters that have made him a household name in silly comedies galore, but this is one perpetual screw-up whose failures are decidedly unfunny. Not even Barry Egan’s life was this messy. And Sandler really seems to be having fun looking ridiculous, blinged out head-to-toe and sporting extra-curly, extra-greasy hair and a set of fake pearly whites that really pulls the sleazy image together nicely. The wardrobe department helps him look the part, but it’s up to Sandler to walk the walk and talk the talk — and oh boy, does he “talk.”

The theft of a big chunk of stone from the Welo mine in Ethiopia sets the wheels in motion for one wild, turbulent ride. This stone contains pockets of rare opal and is what they call in the trade an uncut gem. Its very existence seems to inspire chaos as we watch crowds swarm around a miner who has just broken his leg in an attempt to extract it. Given the way the movie opens on a different continent, I feel like there’s meant to be some quasi-Blood Diamond commentary here on the real human cost of the gem trade, how first-world materialism is inextricably linked to the suffering and exploitation of the third world, but there’s not quite enough content here to support that wild theory. Ultimately the opening sequence is more effective at establishing aesthetics rather than ethics. There is a hyperactive quality that extends to the rest of the film, particularly in the way people interact, that never allows us to get comfortable. Characters yelling over each other will become an anxiety-inducing motif.

We shift from Africa circa 2010 to America two years later via a crafty (and kinda gross) opening title sequence married to the curious synths of Daniel Lopatin (a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never)’s explorative electronica. The New York captured in Uncut Gems is shaped by the Safdie brothers’ experiences growing up with a father who worked in the Diamond District and has a very specific energy that cinematographer Darius Khondji helps convey through his frenetic camerawork. As it is set in a part of town largely characterized by family-run business, the filmmakers restrict the cityscape to a claustrophobic network of small, private rooms where access is a privilege and often a source of frustration.

Howard’s gem store, a cozy little nook where the world’s creepiest Furby dolls reside, is one such hallowed space. Though we pass through the malfunctioning security vestibule without complication, we are immediately bombarded with Howard’s problems. It’s a particularly bad day today because his debt collectors have come calling. He owes a six-figure sum to a nasty loanshark named Arno (Eric Bogosian), who also happens to be his brother-in-law. He’s bad news enough, but his enforcer Phil (Keith Williams Richards) is the kind of guy whose phone calls and texts you avoid to the detriment of your face. Together these two make for some of the most memorable thugs in recent movie memory — arguably since Daniel Kaluuya went all bad-boy in Steve McQueen’sWidows.

Howard just may be able to save himself when he procures that precious infinity gem stone. He’s confident it will sell in the millions at auction. As we quickly learn his clients have deep pockets — he caters mostly to rappers and athletes, no small thanks to the hustle of his assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) — so he just can’t help but show off the product to Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett, who expresses interest in purchasing it. After listening to Howard wax poetic about its mystical properties KG becomes convinced being in possession of the opal will elevate his game in the NBA Playoffs. To placate the seven-footer (who is actually very good playing himself), Howard agrees to loan him the rock for a night, taking his 2008 championship ring as collateral. He then deviates from his original plan by pawning the ring to place a large bet on the upcoming game. If there’s one thing Howard is more aware of than the danger he’s in it’s the opportunity to make a little profit.

The Safdies actually wrote this screenplay ten years ago, along with frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein. They’ve created a deliberately circuitous narrative to reflect the sloppy manner in which Howard conducts his business, at the office and elsewhere. Nothing goes smoothly. There are so many intersecting dynamics and diversions and dead ends along the way it’s amazing we even have the time to see what his family life is like (spoiler: it ain’t pretty). His long-suffering wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) knows all about the affair he’s having with his assistant Julia (newcomer Julia Fox). She has agreed to wait until after Passover to divorce him but the way work keeps following Howard home — the little incident with the car trunk, for example — just may expedite that process. Meanwhile his kids don’t really fit into his busy schedule. Of course the neglected family dynamic is a familiar trope, but the Safdies — and particularly Menzel who is really fun to watch — creatively thread it through the narrative to give us a better understanding of how much Howard is truly losing here.

In the end, Uncut Gems offers a unique but pretty uncomfortable viewing experience. The truly nerve-wracking climax simulates the thrill of a gambler’s high. This confronting drama is a curiosity you admire more than you purely enjoy, though I personally did get a kick out of seeing sports radio personality Mike Francesa pop up in a cameo as one of Howard’s restaurateur friends, Gary — just one of several non-professional actors involved. Uncut Gems is a perfect reminder that being entertained can sometimes mean feeling like you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown for two straight hours.

“I’m not smiling inside.”

Recommendation: Like its protagonist, Uncut Gems is by and large caustic and unpleasant. Sandler acquits himself very well, playing a character you really can’t take your eyes off of even when you want to. Yet for a movie whose style is very in-your-face, it’s the abrasive dialogue that you may have a harder time getting out of your head. To put it magnanimously, the colorful language comes across as authentic New Yorkese. To be more honest: it is the single most compelling reason for me not to sit through this ordeal twice. Please understand this Recommendation section is not written on behalf of Common Sense Media — I’m not one to complain about swear words or someone who evaluates all movies for their Family Values appeal, but in Uncut Gems the f-bombs are excessive to the point of becoming a distraction. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “Come on KG! This is no different than that. This is me. Alright? I’m not an athlete, this is my way. This is how I win.”

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Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb

The Birth of a Nation

the-birth-of-a-nation-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 7, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Nate Parker

Directed by: Nate Parker

It’s all but inevitable making comparisons between Steve McQueen’s 2013 Oscar-winning adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir and the debut feature from Nate Parker. Some have even gone as far as to regard the latter’s work as the 12 Years a Slave of 2016, which, in hindsight, seems a little hasty.

There is plenty of evidence that supports the notion the two films are cut from the same cloth. Both pieces center on fairly young, literate black males who endure uniquely brutal circumstances in the antebellum South. 12 Years may be more notorious for its unflinching depiction of violence, but The Birth of a Nation is no slouch, offering up a similarly sweeping, damning indictment of society by channeling the greater travesty of institutionalized racism through a singular perspective. Nation even compares favorably to its spiritual predecessor in terms of emotional heft and the authority it carries — these are very serious films with conviction to match and an unusual ability to break your spirit through sheer force of realism.

They are also deeply personal works, helmed by capable filmmakers whose vision and whose commitment to that vision seem to go unquestioned. Parker proves himself an indispensable asset, serving not only as Nation‘s director, writer and producer, but fulfilling a substantial lead role as Nat Turner, an enslaved man who inspired a bloody uprising in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. Unlike McQueen’s third effort, one that followed a free man’s descent into hell having been abducted and sold into slavery, Parker’s debut begins in the muck, gradually building toward a rebellion that caused the deaths of an estimated 65 whites, while retaliatory action on behalf of white militias and mobs cost the lives of roughly 200 African Americans, both freed and enslaved and many of whom had never so much as raised a pitchfork in (righteous) anger. There’s an appalling reality we must face come the end credits, too. A brief title card lets us know just how barbaric life would become in this region in the aftermath. And after being captured we’re told Nat was hanged, beheaded and then quartered, and parts of his corpse were “repurposed” in an effort to eliminate any trace of his existence.

Appropriately, a sense of martyrdom permeates the drama, though this is also the very rough, blunt edge that comes to define the blade of justice Parker is attempting to wield. That the portrait desperately wants to be at least something like The Passion of the Christ when it grows up — Parker clearly regards the figure as more Jesus Christ than Dr. Martin Luther King — doesn’t necessarily make the film profound. It does make it rather clumsy and pretentious though. His introduction, The Birth of a Leader as it were, is far from being a stroke of subtlety, and it’s a moment that we’ll frequently return to during the longer paces of the second and third acts. There’s a mystical quality to the way we’re introduced to Nat as a young boy running from something (presumably violent) through the thick, dark woods. He stumbles upon a small gathering of prophets (as one does) who see the boy growing into a man of considerable influence and power. The only thing they don’t say is specifically how the plot is going to develop.

Nation is a beautifully realized production, from its musty yellow/gray/brown wardrobe to the McQueen-esque shots of a southern landscape that stays still as a painting, hauntingly indifferent to the passage of time. Set against this backdrop are universally committed performances, with Parker offering one of the year’s more morally and emotionally complex protagonists. As a black preacher afforded certain luxuries (you might call them), like maintaining a borderline friendly relationship with the proprietors of this particular plantation to which he has drifted and for whom he picks not-so-endless supplies of cotton, Nat is an immediately empathetic character even if his saintly aura feels awkward. Armie Hammer, who plays Samuel Turner, also turns in strong work, managing to effect a slave owner whose humanity may still lie dormant but is constantly being ignored in favor of simpler, more immediate solutions — getting drunk as a way to deal with his economic woes, and taking out his problems on what he calls his property. Yes, it’s all very Edwin Epps-ian.

Like many plantation owners Samuel and his wife Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) are enduring very harsh economic times and they are looking for other ways to raise money. A local reverend (Mark Boone Jr.) suggests they employ Nat’s gift to help suppress unruly slaves elsewhere. Sure enough, as we travel with him and Samuel to various plantations and experience the atrocities ongoing there, it becomes clear the young man has a certain power that can pay dividends. But it comes at a hefty price for Nat as the psychological torment of remaining obedient spreads like a cancer throughout his soul, while the contradictory, physical act of standing before his people while he suppresses them with scripture hurts him as much, if not more. It’s a perfectly twisted nightmare, one that comes to life powerfully and memorably via the conviction of a freshman director.

The narrative swells almost ungainly to encompass Nat’s budding romance with the newly arrived Cherry (Aja Naomi King), a quiet but beautiful woman who is taken by Nat’s kindness and confidence. And so we’ve reached a point where the more predictable stuff starts to happen: as Nat’s preaching continues he finds his popularity growing, but also finds his fiery sermons are only inflaming wounds rather than healing them. Violence is visited upon Nat’s home as Cherry, now his wife, barely survives an assault from three men, one of whom is Jackie Earle Haley’s detestable Raymond Cobb, the same man who had years ago murdered Nat’s father right in front of him. Tacked on for good measure are the moments of suffering that now feel de rigueur for the genre — an off-screen rape, the whipping at the post, lynchings. Not that these moments are ineffective or that we once think about dismissing them, but the bluntness with which Parker inserts these moments of torture overrides the film’s more compelling epiphanies, like him discovering that for every verse in the Bible that supports strict obedience to a higher power, there is one condemning man for his violent and hateful behavior.

It’s also unfortunate the road to rebellion isn’t realized as fully as one might expect from a film so provocatively titled. There’s a sense of unity in a few of the ending scenes, but it feels rushed and secondary to the personal stakes that have been ratcheted up by each act of cruelty Nat witnesses; nevertheless it’s not a stretch to imagine these quiet rumblings later erupting into full-fledged war as the country tears itself apart from civil unrest. And Parker even directly addresses those connections by depicting a young boy briefly glimpsed sitting by becoming a soldier on the front lines. While compelling in its own right, transitions like these have little nuance and feel clunky, evidence of a director still finding his style.

In spite of its clumsiness and familiarity Nation feels weighty and you can sense the rage steaming off the pages of this script. You can smell the ink, taste the sweat and the tears that were poured into this labor of love. Yes, the film left me feeling profoundly sad, and I would be lying if I said I wanted to see it again. Yes, the narrative could have (and probably should have) been more subtle with its paralleling of Nat’s suffering to the final hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, I am aware that the director’s public image as of present isn’t exactly of the sort you want to tout during awards season. (I find the latter tidbit interesting insofar as it is curiously poor timing for Parker.) Still, there’s enough here to distinguish the film as a unique vision, and one that gains some points for poignancy as nationwide protests continue to dominate headlines as more and more black athletes take a knee. That Colin Kaepernick felt he had to do something symbolic during the National Anthem is evidence that not much has really changed. Meanwhile the red on the flag continues to run.

nat-turner-and-aja-naomi-king-in-the-birth-of-a-nation

Recommendation: Hard-hitting, violent and downright nasty at times, The Birth of a Nation is not an easy watch but it is an important film. It’s an interesting one to watch given its pronounced spiritual roots, even though I personally think the Jesus Christ parallel is a bit much. I am not ready to proclaim this a must-see; it’s not quite as masterfully created as Steve McQueen’s film but at the same time I also get the comparisons. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “Submit yourselves to your Masters, not only to those who are good and considerate. But also to those who are harsh.”

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

Paul G — #8

Paul G logo

Last time we were here, Paul had turned to the dark side in the animated wonder The Little Prince, playing the part of a harsh(ly shaped) Academy instructor who enjoyed scaring children into becoming workaholic machines. This month let’s turn our attention to . . . well, another role in which he’s playing a rather confronting individual. This time, much more so. In keeping with last month’s theme of talking about stuff he’s recently been in, I’m going to be diving into a role that’s hot off the press, his turn as a psychiatrist brought in to help a corporate risk manager decide whether or not a scientific experiment is still worth pursuing or must be shut down.

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Paul Giamatti as Dr. Alan Shapiro in Luke Scott’s Morgan.

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Sci-fi drama/horror/mystery

Plot Synopsis: A corporate risk-management consultant must decide whether or not to terminate an artificially created humanoid being.

Character Profile: Arrogant psychologist Alan Shapiro has an important job to do: he’s charged with evaluating the mental state of Morgan, the brilliant but potentially dangerous end product of an advanced scientific project that has created a human-like being out of synthetic DNA. After a violent outburst revealed Morgan’s capacity for anger, the corporation responsible funding the project orders a psych evaluation. In walks Shapiro, initially taken aback by the fact the scientists at the lab would ever have him try to communicate with Morgan behind a glass wall. At his insistence, they allow him to have a face-to-face in the same room as a potential killer. Shapiro opens a line of communication fairly casually but before long he is diving headlong into an intense interrogation, wanting to know what Morgan actually thinks about her “life” and her living conditions, about being stuck in a holding cell. He challenges her further, asking what she would do if he recommended that she “be terminated.” Still believing he has things under control, the doctor begins to scream at Morgan, borderline threatening her. What will Morgan do?

Why he’s the man: In a film that generally fails to mine the best out of its talented cast, Paul Giamatti shines the brightest here as a rather confronting (borderline chilling) psychologist who manifests as a major catalyst in determining the kind of fate Morgan and her “captors” await. He may not have much time on the screen, and yet it is stunning how quickly his character is able to get under your skin and chill your blood. Morgan isn’t a film with many happy or pleasant characters, and Dr. Alan Shapiro is a particular stand-out, lighting the screen up with incredible intensity, a seething disdain for the government project that sits before him. It’s really strong work from one of the most reliable character actors we have right now.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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Photo credits: http://www.foxmovies.com 

Don’t Breathe

'Dont Breathe' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 26, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Fede Álvarez; Rodo Sayagues

Directed by: Fede Álvarez

Don’t Breathe, the sophomore effort from Uruguayan director Fede Álvarez, is what you’d get if you expanded into a full-length feature that scene from The Silence of the Lambs in which Buffalo Bill stalks a terrified Clarice Starling with night vision goggles while his prey helplessly fumbles around in the pitch black. This is, of course, to say that Don’t Breathe is relentlessly intense almost start to finish, marking it as one of the most effective thrillers to hit theaters this year.

In it, a trio of burglars are scraping together enough money so they can flee the dying suburbs of Detroit by looting homes and getting cash for valuable possessions pillaged. When they discover a rundown home belonging to a war vet rumored to be sitting on $300k in settlements from an accident that claimed the life of his daughter, they assume they’ve hit the jackpot. Especially when they figure out the dude is blind. But we all know what assuming does, don’t we?

Small-time crooks turn into big-time prey as they casually waltz into a trap thinking the job is a done deal. It is in this suffocating space of decrepitness and unpredictability where we more or less remain for the duration. We’re briefly (and just barely sufficiently) introduced to the gang in the opening twenty minutes, right before Álvarez flips the switch and plunges us all into the depths of a home invasion gone horribly wrong. Front-and-center is Jane Levy’s Rocky, who’s desperate to leave behind an abusive home for the sun-kissed beaches of Califor-ny-yay with her younger sister. Then there’s her main squeeze “Money” (Daniel Zovatto), a terribly nicknamed character who doesn’t at all make for a subtle metaphor or, quite frankly, a memorable character. Dylan Minnette rounds out the crew as the slightly more likable Alex.

It isn’t really their movie, though. Don’t Breathe inarguably belongs to a man and his dog. Stephen Lang plays The Blind Man, an unsuspectingly agile old git who can navigate the interior with his other, much keener senses — sound and touch, most notably — and who keeps a Rottweiler handy in case of such emergencies. (Puppy credits go to three separate, extremely well-trained animals, each getting their moment to shine. And I’m assuming their Cujo-like presence is what earns the film its horror label; otherwise that classification is something of a misnomer. Kind of like me calling these big boys ‘puppies.’) Indeed the kids become a lot more interesting once we see them forced into action against a trained killer — better make that plural — and pressured into taking drastic measures to ensure they not only escape with their lives but with the money as well.

Don’t Breathe simmers in a stew of sociological, economical and psychological ingredients. It’s a morality play involving characters whose chance for survival is perpetually undercut by their own actions. Greed, selfishness and desperation invariably imprison characters we weren’t ever supposed to “like” in this fortress, even magnetizing them to it. And it’s Lang’s full-on committal to a relatively silent role — in fact the best bits of the film languish in the choke of dead air — that simultaneously rebuffs the invaders and causes us, the anxious voyeurs, to question just what we would do in such a situation. Utterly compelling stuff.

Stephen Lang in 'Don't Breathe'

Recommendation: Think of it less as a true horror film and more of a thriller, the likes of which made me, personally, feel like I had chugged one too many cups of coffee. I watched my hand on the steering wheel as I drove home from my local theater. My knuckles were all jittery. What the fuck man. It’s just a movie. Granted, a very, very good one. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

Trivia: Stephen Lang has a total of 13 lines of dialogue, the majority of which are reserved for the ending moments. 

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

The Infiltrator

'The Infiltrator' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, July 13, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ellen Brown Furman

Directed by: Brad Furman

Brad Furman wasn’t looking to infiltrate more elite groups of directors who had earlier tackled the gritty but ever fascinating subject of the drug trafficking epidemic in America when he paired up with Bryan Cranston. That much is clear just based on the relative nonchalance with which The Infiltrator plays out. Things certainly become tense, but it’s nigh on impossible believing our beloved Walter White is ever in any real danger.

That’s probably because we’ve already watched that character endure five seasons of pure adrenaline-fueled drama. Everything we watch U.S. Customs Service special agent Robert Mazur (alias ‘Bob Musella’) go through here as he gets cozy with high-ranking members within the Colombian drug cartel only to bust them in the end, is accompanied by echoes of Breaking Bad, some of which are really loud. In that way The Infiltrator does feel less threatening, and it loses even more leverage given just how strictly it adheres to formula to get the job done. Just don’t call the film uninspired because you know as well as I that Cranston would never let such a thing happen.

The actor manages to convert what ends up being by and large predictable into a fascinating study of character. Mazur enjoys his job even with the danger it brings, but he doesn’t commit to high-risk jobs as a way to escape the doldrums of his home life — he’s happily married with Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) and dearly loves his daughter Andrea (Lara Decaro). He enjoys what he does for a living because he’s also very good at it. The movie, his “last assignment,” keeps the perspective limited to his own, making all the mingling and consorting and bribery a devoted family man finds himself so naturally doing all the more unsettling.

Also adept at faking the hustle is Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), a stark contrast to Mazur’s poker-faced professionalism. He’s a loose cannon who embraces the potential thrills offered by new assignments. This one could be the mother of all thrills: a take-down of high-priority Colombian drug traffickers working for the one and only Pablo Escobar, ‘El Zar de la Cocaina.’ Their target is Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), Escobar’s main merchandise handler. Leguizamo is a nice touch as he adds a vulnerability that often veers into comedic relief but the funny is never oversold. Lest we forget, there’s little time for laughter when you’re neck-deep in people who have made careers out of making other, usually more innocent people disappear, often in horrible ways.

The story is fairly straightforward and there will be no surprises for those even moderately well-versed in crime dramas. And those who are probably know that these kinds of movies are only as good as the threat that our good guys are up against. The Infiltrator comes heavily armed with Bratt’s quietly brutal Alcaino and a whole assortment of unstable, varyingly psychotic drug-addicted personalities. Villains are more than just caricatures; the seedy side of life is depicted matter-of-factly and bloodshed isn’t shown to up the thrill count. It’s there to shock and shock it does: the “auditioning” scene is a particularly blunt and cruel microcosm of the world into which Musella has stepped.

The Infiltrator is universally well-acted. On the home front, Aubrey’s Evelyn is a fiercely strong woman who must confront the realities of her husband’s unique profession. Not knowing what kind of a person she’s going to be greeted at the door with night in and night out evolves into a narrative of great concern and Aubrey sells that anguish well. Mazur/Musella reports regularly to Special Agent Bonnie Tischler, played by a possibly never-better Amy Ryan who clearly relishes the opportunity to play the golden-gun-carrying, tough-as-nails U.S. Customs special agent who takes no bullshit from anyone. And Diane Kruger rounds out a strong ensemble playing Kathy Ertz, an agent who’s never gone undercover before and finds herself helping Mazur keep his own story straight.

Stylish, genuinely gripping and sensationally well-performed, Furman’s exploration of the American drug trafficking epidemic can’t escape familiarity but it doesn’t have to when it’s so successful proving why certain well-traveled roads are the ones to take. I loved this movie for its complete and utter lack of pretense. It never tries to be anything it’s not.

Bryan Cranston gets mean in 'The Infiltrator'

Recommendation: Fun might not be the best word to throw around when talking about the escalating drug trafficking crisis but The Infiltrator makes the experience . . . shall we say, worth the while. As if there were any doubt, the performances are what make this movie a must-see for anyone who enjoys what the former Malcolm in the Middle dad is doing with his career these days.

Rated: R

Running Time: 127 mins.

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

Star Trek: Beyond

'Star Trek - Beyond' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 22, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Simon Pegg; Doug Jung

Directed by: Justin Lin

If this is the movie in which we go where no man has gone before, why does it feel like we’ve been here already?

Star Trek: Beyond, a beautifully crafted feel-good blockbuster, the third such film in a post-modern interpretation of the world’s second most popular star-themed science fiction property, is undeniably an impressive visual spectacle and a lot of fun to boot, but if it had any interest in remaining a topic of discussion amidst all the excited chatter about the year’s two other significant event pictures — Suicide Squad this August and Rogue One (ya know, that Star Wars spinoff thing) in December — it needed to do more than just rely on old-fashioned cast-and-crew camaraderie. Despite a solid 120 minutes of action and intergalactic intrepidity, each aspect strong enough to elevate a lesser narrative on their own, the new adventures we’re sent along in Beyond just aren’t enough to send the film into another dimension of greatness.

The best thing that can be said about Fast-and-Furious director Justin Lin wrestling control of the captain’s chair from previous helmer J.J. Abrams is that he was at least willing to conform somewhat to the rules and pre-established formula. More crucially, he manages to avoid inflecting the wrong intonations, such as those found in a universe in which car enthusiasts with criminal records end up doing favors for government officials unwilling to get their own hands dirty. This franchise’s sense of identity is also not lost in the hands of writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, an impressive feat considering how often the former is writing out of his comfort zone — though let’s not kid ourselves, these new Star Trek films aren’t exactly the stuff of bonafide sci-fi drama — and how little experience the latter has in writing for the screen, particularly at the blockbuster level.

In Beyond events accumulate in a way that proves to be, so far anyway, the ultimate test of the moral, emotional and psychological fibers of the crew and leadership of the mighty USS Enterprise. It also poses yet another challenge to the structural integrity of that very ship, subjecting the iconic vessel to one hell of a spectacular crash sequence that is sure to remain on everyone’s minds come the end of the year. Halfway into a five-year exploratory mission, James Kirk (Chris Pine) has grown restless and jaded with his captainship. He’s thinking there could be other ways in which he can distinguish himself from his father, the great George S. Kirk.

When they dock for supplies and some much needed rest at a nearby hub called Yorktown — a floating city protected from the vacuum of space by a transparent spherical shield — Kirk seeks the counsel of Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo) as well as a promotion to Vice Admiral. It is here that Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) receives some life-changing (and potentially mission-altering) news of his own. Their uncertain futures become inextricably linked, leaving us to question whether one could survive, much less function, without the other. It’s entirely too easy to answer that.

Fortunately the considerably more intense, more tangible crux of Beyond does a lot of the heavy lifting. Beyond has a great big baddie in Idris Elba‘s menacing warlord Krall, on the hunt for some macguffin he needs to fire a weapon large enough to pose a serious threat to the continued existence of the Federation. After the Enterprise encounters and rescues a lone alien named Kalara (Lydia Wilson) who claims her ship has been stranded and needs help getting back, the crew are ambushed by a swarm of vessels that all but dismantles the Enterprise in one of the year’s most compelling attack sequences. There’s little you can do to prepare for these 15 minutes of pure drama. Even more impressive than the sheer scale and graceful movements of Krall’s battalion is the fact that the moment never disintegrates into a pixel party. State-of-the-art graphics rendering, the polished gem of a massive collaborative effort, makes you feel as though you’re swimming through stars and nebulae. (I didn’t see the film in 3D and now regret that decision.)

In the aftermath the crew find themselves disoriented and spread throughout the thick jungle of a nearby planet that they jettisoned to in their cute little individual escape pods. Not all of Kirk’s crew have remained out of Krall’s clutches, however, and the majority of what turns out to be a protracted second act finds the splinter groups trying desperately to reunite. Admittedly, the set-up allows us to become privy to a few conversations between characters we otherwise might never get, particularly between Spock, whose sense of humor is improving, and Karl Urban’s sardonic Bones.

Elsewhere, an isolated Scotty (Simon Pegg) encounters the mysterious Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). Boutella, covered in a striking combination of starkly colored make-up, instantly bolsters an already strong cast. As a warrior with a lot of pain and loss in her recent past following her own encounter with Krall, Scotty thinks she will be integral in helping the crew not only reunite but escape the planet. Despite her vows to never go near the prison camp Krall has established on this planet, Jaylah finds herself with no choice but to be brave, soon carving out her own role in the fight back against Krall’s plans to wipe out the Federation.

One thing that’s certainly surprising is how difficult it is to watch the film without thinking of the untimely passing of young Anton Yelchin, who has for three films enthusiastically embraced the spirited, brilliant Russian ensign Pavel Chekov, a character that in the long run is fairly minor. He has a significant role to fill here though and there’s no denying the tragic circumstances of his demise change the way we interact with him whenever he is on screen. We don’t so much watch him continue to build upon an innately likable persona as we do savor the opportunity.

Of course there’s more to cherish than the stereotype-shattering Russian who enjoys Scotch as opposed to vodka. In spite of itself Lin’s epic space saga often finds the time to thrill on ambitious new levels while paying tribute to the legacy that precedes it. If it can find ways to eliminate some of its more annoying habits like recycling boring clichés and hackneyed storytelling devices, then I see no reason why this franchise can’t live long and prosper.

Anton Yelchin and Chris Pine in 'Star Trek - Beyond'

Recommendation: Not the most inspired event film ever but it gets the job done and in style. Star Trek: Beyond works hard to deliver the fan service and in so doing tends to become something that will be harder to fall completely in love with for anyone who completely misses the significance of the unearthing of the USS Franklin. It is the beneficiary of some exemplary computer graphics technology and the action setpieces are universally thrilling, especially the final battle. If we’re to judge each of these entries based on that alone, this may be the best yet. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “This is where it begins, Captain. This is where the frontier pushes back!”

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

The Shallows

'The Shallows' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Anthony Jaswinski

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra 

Blake Lively vs. Huge Shark: The Movie is a pretty sweet little thriller, a self-contained enterprise that seeks to unnerve rather than terrify by tapping into human’s innate fear of deepwater-dwelling beasts like great whites (not to mention horrifyingly large jellyfish).

Jaume Collet-Serra’s tropical-set horror/thriller is a refreshingly slight film set adrift in a sea of complex, bombastic . . . well, I’m not gonna name names or genres but we all know where I’m going with this. The premise is simple, the cast is engaged and the cinematography transports us to ‘Paradise’ with Lively’s big-wave-seeking, medical-school-abandoning Nancy Adams who has been having a rough time since the passing of her mother. Nancy has seemingly inherited her mom’s love for surfing as she finds herself now on the sands of a secluded, nameless cove — apparently the very place her mom claimed as her favorite surf spot.

This really is Lively’s movie — okay, and the shark’s, yes how could I forget — because her interactions with others, including the local with whom she hitches a ride to the beach, are limited to a flurry of brief exchanges, most of which are designed to prove that Nancy doesn’t speak very good Spanish and the locals don’t speak good English. That particular communication barrier doesn’t really matter because no one speaks Shark and that’ll come in handy more than anything later.

The Shallows is indeed an intimate experience, reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s 2011 survival drama 127 Hours at least when it comes to the harrowing quasi-first person perspective. Serra’s vision is certainly fun and exciting, but it hardly effects the emotional and psychological involvement Boyle did when James Franco decided to throw down the performance of a lifetime. In fact, in spirit this shares more in common with the personal trials we endure with Reese Witherspoon as she attempts to reconnect with herself and her family by embarking on a bold solo hike in Wild.

As Cheryl Strayed, Witherspoon’s performance was informed by a mixture of guilt and bitterness as she continued along her journey, strong emotions that only fueled her to keep going. Lively’s Nancy isn’t so much bitter as she is guilt-ridden and still at a loss for words when it comes to talking about the past. We see it in the brief glimpses we get of her sister and father via FaceTime on her phone prior to her hitting the waves. She can barely hold a conversation with her father because the conversation about why she decided to drop out of med school inevitably surfaces.

It’s probably not worth delving into character development at any great depth since that’s pretty much the extent of it. Suffice it to say there’s enough here to actually make us feel something when Nancy finds herself, ironically much like Aron Ralston, stuck between (or in this case on) a rock and a hard place when the shark’s aggressive circling pins her to a small outcrop of rock that appears at low tide. She’s only 200 yards from shore but the shark is much too fast for that to be viable option. There’s a small metallic buoy about 15 yards from the rock she could swim to when high tide reclaims the rock.

Can Nancy out-smart her toothy predator?

Boobs. We’d love to find out the answer if the cameras weren’t constantly fixated on ogling Lively’s lovely beach bod. I had a lot of fun with The Shallows — the increasingly versatile Lively is certainly committed to the material and the movie looks glorious — but some part of me can’t shake the feeling this was kind of a pervy shoot. And that is a thought that somewhat diminishes the enjoyment I got out of a film that was never meant to be taken seriously.

blake lively in 'The Shallows'

Recommendation: More Deep Blue Sea than it is JawsThe Shallows manifests as a silly but ultimately fun bit of summer escapism, one shot confidently enough to ensure those who have a mortal fear of beaches will never go near one again. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 87 mins.

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

Paul G — #5

Paul G logo

Last time we were here, Paul was rocking a sweet silver hairdo, the trademark of famed music producer Jerry Heller whom he portrayed in his second collaboration with director F. Gary Gray. Let’s actually take a look at his first experience working with him in the excellent crime/hostage thriller The Negotiator, where Paul takes on the role of a sniveling man caught up in the crisis as one of the hostages. I believe this was the first exposure I had to the actor, so there are two great reasons to check out this dramatic outing.

Paul G The Negotiator

Paul Giamatti as Rudy Timmons in F. Gary Gray’s The Negotiator

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Crime thriller/action/drama

Plot Synopsis: In a desperate attempt to prove his innocence, a skilled police negotiator accused of corruption and murder takes hostages in a government office to gain the time he needs to find the truth.

Character Profile: A two-bit con-man with a penchant for confrontation, Rudy Timmons finds himself amidst a tense stand-off between hostage negotiator Danny Roman (an excellent Samuel L. Jackson) who has been set-up by members within the Chicago Police Department, possibly within his own team, to look like a murder suspect. Rudy, a sniveling little dweeb, establishes himself quickly as among the more vocal of Roman’s hostages, insistent he be let free and get as far away from this  situation as possible. Roman, unable to trust anyone, counter-insists that he stay right where he is. And in spite of rising tensions between him and the armed man whose credentials remain dubious throughout, Rudy finds himself playing a crucial role in getting to the bottom of this conspiracy.

Why he’s the man: While Paul may not factor into proceedings physically as much as the likes of his talented costars in Jackson, Kevin Spacey and David Morse, he nevertheless makes his presence felt. Ever good at playing that “sniveling little dweeb” type, Rudy’s transition from thorn-in-the-side to quasi-sidekick is exhilarating and that largely comes down to Paul G’s fairly solid grasp on the situation at hand here.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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