Criticism, Movies

Jennifer Lawrence Pouts and Protests Through ‘Mockingjay – Part 1′

No Comments 21 November 2014

Mockingjay“Now I’m condemned to a life of jumpsuits,” complains Tribute Escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) early on in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. She might have been referring to the entire third part of what is now, unlike the book trilogy, a four-part saga in the Twilight mold. And this dark-and-dour installment suffers from saga sag, which is the effort of the Hollywood studios to stretch a stirring girl power series with a monster fan-base beyond reasonable limits for the sake of lucre.

As the movie opens, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is in a state of nervous collapse having been plucked by rebels and dumped in the totalitarian District 13 in the middle of the rigged Quarter Quell. Since it has been twelve months since the audience saw her in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, it’s an awkward emotional pitch at which to reconnect. She’s freaking out but we just sat down with our popcorn.

The good news: Katniss, a potential poster child for the rebels against the fascist forces of the Capitol, has been reunited with her family and big hunk Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The bad news: her home district has been levelled to pixie dust and Panem’s reptilian President Snow holds little hunk Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) captive.

I’m a fan of the books, which are so much better written than Twilight, not to mention emotional satisfying and less drippy. (I know I’m inviting haters, so hate away). But even Katniss, who enters the movie at such a level of despair, seems diminished in Part 1 by all the efforts to replace narrative momentum with unconvincing CGI action set pieces.

Many of the familiar characters have returned along with Trinket, including Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch Abernathy, Sam Claflin’s Finnick Odair, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee. But they enter and exit like guests on The Love Boat. Even the fabulous Stanley Tucci as ringmaster Caesar Flickerman is seen at a remove – an image on a television screen within the larger action.

[RELATED: Michael Keaton Pecks at Fame in ‘Birdman’]

Returning Director Francis Lawrence seems more concerned with making it appear that the late Hoffman lasted through the entire production, than in breathing life into the surviving human interaction. The intimate moments between characters seem unaccountably rushed. A scene where Katniss and Gale pause while hunting seems unnecessarily brief – are the sparks still there? What, besides history, does Gale offer Katniss that Peeta cannot? They only just alight at a romantic stream when his beeper goes off. Is that CGI action calling?

Meanwhile, Julianne Moore appears as President Alma Coin (oh, that name – soul versus money). Moore plays the leader through a veil of two-toned gray hair, sexless and drab as those jumpsuits, all taut looks and emotional control. This may be consistent with Coin’s killjoy persona in the books, which invited the involvement of Everdeen’s more charismatic Mockingjay as a focal point of the rebellion, but I would have welcomed Tilda Swinton as Coin to give her some contrast. Not quite Swinton’s clownish Snowpiercer character but one equal to the smarmy evil of President Snow.

While I praise the fictional inclusion of a female political leader (rather than de facto male), I would have liked Coin to be less shut-down emotionally – to be a woman and a leader. How did she become top dog in District 13 – where is that backstory written on her flawless face?

On the subject of gender, it’s interesting that the character of the video director within the movie is female: Natalie Dormer’s tattooed and asymmetrically coiffed Cressida. And we know that Suzanne Collins wrote the source material. And, yet, in actuality, a man stood behind the camera making the movie, flanked by male screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong. And they are supported by largely male studio heads and financiers in the Hollywood machine.

Why should this gender imbalance be important, I mean, it’s an archer goddess heroine with a chick political leader? When will I be satisfied? Isn’t this enough?

Well, no, if that flaming girl power spirit has been co-opted. The female empowerment that drove the series’ popularity has been effectively neutered in this third outing under a sensibility that values action over intimacy.

I never thought I’d be missing those violent-yet-riveting Hunger Games that dominated the first two films and are missing here. But, for the most part, the violence in those long gladiator sequences was intimate. Each time Katniss pulled her bow, or Peeta covered her ass, it tied back into her character’s coming of age. Like the novels, we were miraculously in the head of this prickly, unpretentious teenaged girl struggling to assume adult responsibility and assimilate mature emotions of love and desire.

In Part 1, blockbuster CGI spectacle overshadows Katniss and, by extension, the merely mortal Lawrence. When, early on, Trinket promises Katniss that “we will make you the best dressed rebel in history,” it reflects the beginning of the end of the revolution, the mass absorption of a radical ideal.

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Criticism, Movies, Oscar Race

Oscar Winners Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones Amaze in ‘The Homesman’

2 Comments 14 November 2014

American Maverick Tommy Lee Jones shines light on Hilary Swank

American Maverick Tommy Lee Jones shines light on Hilary Swank

With The Homesman, Director/Co-writer/Star/Texan Tommy Lee Jones confounds again, making brilliant American cinema on the back of the blockbuster dime he earned for Men in Black and The Fugitive, among many others. His taste is no-nonsense, astringent in its view of human nature, and unsentimental about the American West. As we learned in his less mainstream 2005 film with the unpronounceable title, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Jones is not about currying favor with the audience: ride along if you dare, and you’ll discover something authentic and unexpected. And, in both films, the performances are exceptional, from Melissa Leo in Estrada to Hilary Swank in The Homesman.

The atypical Western — and one of my favorite movies of 2014 — starts with a portrait of Swank’s plain-and-bossy Mary Bee Cuddy. She lives alone on the Nebraska prairie: driving a mule, fetching water, making supper. Her overly tidy cabin is an oasis of civilization that sets the scene for a muscular set-piece where Mary Bee invites a gristly neighbor, Bob Giffen (Evan Jones) to dinner and proposes to the man after a postprandial song that puts the sod to sleep. When Mary Bee says, “I can’t live without real music much longer” she’s not exaggerating.

This set-piece grounds us in Mary Bee, her virtues and flaws, an aching loneliness more ungovernable than the mule. She is a good woman in a setting that offers no rewards or solace for such purity. And while this dinner sequence recalls one of my favorite scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – the introduction of the Christoph Waltz’s Nazi Jew-hunter, a villain at the family table – Jones exercises restraint, letting the scene unfold without snappy dialog or swirling camera movements (Rodrigo Prieto is the cinematographer). It remains both intimate and devastating.

From there, the movie adopts the narrative form of a journey from the West to the East – against the grain of the typical Western. Mary Bee assumes the responsibility that no man in her small community will accept: taking three mad women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter, all terrific) back across the Missouri River to the relative sanity of Hebron, Iowa. As John Lithgow’s Reverend Alfred Dowd says, “Life gave them more than they could bear.”

Enter Tommy Lee Jones, hanging from a noose, as George Briggs, the sinner that Mary Bee’s saint recruits to be her wingman on this impossible journey with three justifiably feral women. Briggs is a wild, selfish, unreliable cuss, with wiry hair popping out of his brows and ears. Jones relishes the role. Somewhere, deep within this grizzled cowboy is a man that’s abandoned his humanity on the frontier. Can Mary Bee revive and lasso that soul? That’s just one of the movie’s questions, but redemption really isn’t what Jones is about.

Jones has the flashier role – he’s Gabby Hayes to Swank’s Randolph Scott – but Swank, a Nebraska native, has the lead. While she bears a little too much star charisma to be entirely plain, the reedy Oscar-winner (Million Dollar Baby, Boys Don’t Cry) demonstrates convincing restraint and unfashionable earnestness. Because Swank, Otto, Gummer and Richter (and Meryl Streep in a cameo) have full and juicy parts, I’m tempted to call The Homesman a feminist Western. There’s no need. That would be surrendering to a sort of Stockholm syndrome. We’ve gotten so accustomed to the underrepresentation of complex women in contemporary movies that when we see a drama like this we categorize it as “feminist” when we really should just embrace it as clear-sighted, intelligent and provocative.

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Criticism, Movies

Review: Can’t Beat it – Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in ‘Whiplash’

No Comments 08 November 2014

Blood on the skins.

Blood on the skins.

When ambitious young musician Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) strives to be a Buddy Rich class drummer, he nearly dies trying in a charged battle of wills with his thorny professor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). The buzzy Sundance hit that won both the Audience and Grand Jury Prize vibrates with life lived at fever pitch.

Speaking of pitch, while Whiplash takes its title from Hank Levy’s jazz standard, the rousing drama has the construction of a sports movie. The conflict between talented newbie Neyman and authoritarian Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) at a prestigious Manhattan music school mimics the locker room. Think of Neyman as the ace college pitcher that surrenders everything to go pro – and Fletcher as the crusty tough-love coach that throws every curve to break the rookie before he gets to the show.

Whiplash makes this point by opening with Neyman practicing on his drums, awash in sweat, before being interrupted – and dissed – by the muscular Fletcher. By the movie’s end, there will be buckets more sweat dripping off the cymbals and blood, too, lots of blood.

By singling out this drummer, talented writer-director Damien Chazelle shows the performer’s athleticism, the way that being a great musician requires integrating so many skills – physical, artistic and psychological. Chazelle pays homage to the hard work of the aspiring musician in a society that is increasingly disdainful of that profession.

[RELATED: Jake Gyllenhaal makes us crawl in LA noir ‘Nightcrawler’]

Teller — who broke out as a charming yet directionless high-schooler in last year’s indie drama The Spectacular Now — plays the fresh-faced Andrew with quiet ferocity and brutal physicality: His scenes on the drums find him beating not only the skins, but also his own body, leaving a trail of sweat and blood wherever he goes. It’s a performance you can’t get out of your head.

Beat it: Teller and Simmons throw down

Beat it: Teller and Simmons throw down

But it’s Andrew’s antagonist that has the stand-out role, freed of carrying the plot. Simmons, a familiar face (TV’s Law & Order, Spider-Man) if not a familiar name, is ferocious in the supporting role that will bring him an Oscar nomination. His dedicated and abusive music prof hurls racial and sexual slurs, and even chairs, to rip under the skin of his disciples. He’s not a character that fits in the politically-correct present, but the question the movie raises is whether the ends justify the means. Can his raging behavior turn raw talent into genius?

Whiplash has its flaws: the family and romantic subplots are sketchy, with Paul Reiser playing Andrew’s loving father, and Glee’s Melissa Benoist as his blue-eyed girlfriend. Both characters hover out of focus at the edge of the gripping central duel: the fraught battle to achieve greatness that defines both teacher and disciple, to make music together that’s not just beautiful but immortal, like that of Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker.

Whiplash expands on November 14th.

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Criticism, Movies

Review: Jake Gyllenhaal makes us crawl in tense noir ‘Nightcrawler’

No Comments 31 October 2014

Creepy Crawly Jake Gyllenhaal

Creepy Crawly Jake Gyllenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal, having gotten the blockbuster-hero thing out of his system with 2010’s Prince of Persia, is clearly interested in exploring new acting challenges, as his turns in last year’s Prisoners and Enemy proved. In director Dan Gilroy’s sleek crime-thriller, Nightcrawler, the 33-year-old star has found a role in which he can act against his good looks and buff bod. He throws himself out there and falls — until something darker and deeper kicks in.

Gyllenhaal plays unemployed Angeleno Louis Bloom, a marginal, big-eyed galoot, we first see stealing metal for cash. One night, he pulls his clunker off to the side of the freeway to gawk at a fiery crash. It’s one of those daily disasters that most commuters drive past and later watch on the local evening news. Bloom discovers the source of that TV footage: rogue stringers — called “nightcrawlers” — who roam the city, cameras in hand, after dark. It’s an “aha” moment.

Bloom steals a bike, and buys a camera and police scanner. He reinvents himself, selling his footage to a local TV news director named Nina (played terrifically by Rene Russo). And thus — in a twisted take on the American rags-to-riches story — a nightcrawler is born.

Written with a deft touch by Gilroy, who co-penned The Bourne Legacy for director-brother Tony (one of the film’s producers), the tightly-framed tale delves into the same voyeuristic themes as Blow-Up and Rear Window. We are watching footage of someone capturing footage of something forbidden yet thrilling.

Drawn to carnage like viewers of the nightly news, Bloom crosses the police tape, getting a narcotic thrill from his video safaris. And then he takes his nocturnal activities to a new and dangerous place, actually staging filmable tableaux, and, later, stumbling into an apparent home invasion. He becomes an active participant in the story rather than just a passive observer.

Fast-paced, character-driven and creepy (with appropriately lurid imagery from cinematographer Robert Elswit), Nightcrawler overturns familiar LAPD car-chase clichés, while still delivering a rush. We are drawn to Bloom’s voyeurism and repelled by his actions: a tension that builds to a sickening climax. We can’t look away.

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Criticism, Movies

Review: Keira Knightley Awakens Seattle in ‘Laggies’

No Comments 30 October 2014

Keira Knightley dresses down (and out).

Keira Knightley dresses down (and out).

“Suck it up, go with your gut.” That’s the advice Seattle late twentysomething Megan (Keira Knightley) gives to adolescent Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz) at the end of Lynn Shelton’s most commercial movie yet, Laggies. Shelton herself has followed that mantra, pioneering a successful indie career by going with her gut. She’s a generous filmmaker, giving female characters dimension and detail without sacrificing the crispness of her men.

Shelton has created a cottage industry in Seattle making films that are cool, contemporary, and just a little bit angsty without being all tattooed-edgy. I loved the sibling issues raised, and the actresses engaged — Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt — in the prickly yet tender comedy Your Sister’s Sister. I sighed during the uneven masseuse dramedy Touchy Feely, also starring DeWitt, a yeasty bread that refused to rise. Everyone makes mistakes, though women directors often don’t get a second chance.

But Shelton, who directs both TV (the upcoming Fresh Off the Boat) and has three film scripts in development, sucked it up, undeterred. And along came the Sundance hit Laggies, slang for folks that are lagging behind but don’t have the true philosophical entropy of slackers. It’s a more temporary condition.

The comedy, which Shelton directed from Andrea Seigel’s sexy, sweet-natured screenplay, opens briskly. Megan escapes a claustrophobic wedding reception in which her sympathetic beau (Mark Webber) has just tried to kneel down and propose. He’s doing the right thing, but Megan instinctually recoils: How can it feel so wrong? Is that all there is, my friend? What happened to flat-out fun on the modern woman’s rush to career, love, marriage, and a baby carriage?

Read More on IndieWire’s “Women and Hollywood” blog…

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