Category Archives: Reviews

MSN TIFF Review: ‘The Act of Killing’

Everybody loves the movies in this terrifying documentary of monsters and art

Rating: 4/5

(“The Act of Killing” opens on Friday; this review is from last September’s Toronto International Film Festival.)

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing,” presented here at the Toronto International Film festival in its world debut, is impossibly difficult to watch. It should be. Oppenheimer — at great risk for he and his crew, too many of which have to go anonymously in the credits for fear of their very lives — approached Anwar Congo, an elderly man in Indonesia. In 1965, when a military coup overthrew the elected presidency and replaced it with a military dictatorship, Congo was a young man, who made money scalping movie tickets and through other petty crimes.  In the next year, over one million ‘communists’ — any enemy of the state or irritant to its agents — were killed. And criminals like Congo were the killers, and those who stood by and let them kill gained power, and have stayed in power.

Oppenheimer and his crew asked Congo if he’d like to film his recollections, his experiences and his actions during anti-‘communist’ purges; he chooses to film adventure sequences, nightmares of his own death, noir­­-styled scenes of his capture and interrogation and musical numbers set to the muzak-like sounds of “Born Free” where his victims take the wire strangling-nooses he used to kill off and thank him for sending them to heaven …

– Excerpted from my MSN review, which can be found here

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Fantastic Fest Review: Paranormal Activity 3 (3.5/5), MSN Movies

One of the traditions of Fantastic Fest is the secret screenings — kept a mystery from all attendees until, ideally, the last moment between the theater being filled and the lights going down. Earlier this week, the crowd took in Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In” as the first secret screening of Fantastic Fest 2011; yesterday night — or, for that matter, this morning — the midnight crowd were told that they’d be seeing an unfinished cut of “Paranormal Activity 3,” the latest installment of the low-budget/high-effe​ct horror series begun in 2007 by Oren Pelli.

Unfinished, yes, but not unwelcome; whether you like the first “Paranormal” or consider it a warmed-over mix of “Poltergeist” and “The Blair Witch Project,” it’s worth noting that for all of their jumps and jolts , the “Paranormal” films traffic more in tension than in gore, more in half-seen shades of grey than mere crimson blood. Starting with glimpses of the first film’s Katie (Katie Featherston) and her sister, the second film’s Kristi (Sprague Grayden) as they hand some storage boxes between each other, we see a huge stack of VHS tapes. We then jump back to 1988, where Featherston’s and Grayden’s mother (Lauren Bittner) is a young mom with a loving boyfriend, Danny, who makes his money filming wedding videos and two darling young daughters, Katie and Kristi … and a beautiful home full of love and laughter and odd nightsounds that, as fans of the series know, will only grow louder as we skip through the tapes …

The conceit of the series — that all of this is found footage, assembled after the fact, in an attempt to explain the death and terror and unexplainable events they capture — is either slightly annoying or lightly maddening. For one example, the slow-hand marketing of the film means that I have no way of naming the actor who plays Danny, and must apologize to both him and you. That conceit also means that you spend no small amount of time thinking “Dude, put down the camera …” when, say,  Danny is running through the house when he thinks — quite rightly — that his girlfriend’s daughters are in peril.

Directed by “Catfish” filmmakers — the debate if they’re documentarians or con artists will be settled another day — Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, “Paranormal Activity 3″ nonetheless overcomes the problems with the franchise’s central mechanic by both delivering serious scares and, more often than you might think, a few laughs. (Joost and Schulman mess with our heads with gags that revel in the awareness of how the previous “Paranormal” films worked without ever leaning on it too heavily.) There’s also a few nice nods to “Poltergeist” — TV’s on to static in the middle of the night, creepy toys (including, in a very era-appropriate touch, Teddy Ruxpin) and young parents unwinding with a little reefer.

But the films most often in the mix here are the previous “Paranormal” movies, and screenwriter Christopher B. Landon fills in what we know about the haunted, hounded sisters we’ve seen as adults with glimpses of their childhood — specifically, Kristi’s imaginary friend Toby, who is neither imaginary nor friendly. The effects are applied with a delicate hand — except when they aren’t — and as we go from superbly mixed distant creaks that may or may not be happening in the far reaches of the home to  reality-defying catastrophes that crash in front of us to dizzying and startling effect, you can feel Joost and Schulman ratcheting up the tension in this brisk, brief 85-minute striptease of gooseflesh, where you never quite see everything and yet you’re still acutely mesmerized.

“Paranormal Activity 3″ is mostly only lightly undermined what it is — a lather, rinse, repeat three-quel  that continues the aesthetic and characters of films we’ve seen before. At the same time, better the scares and startles of the “Paranormal” series than the gore and gross-outs of, say, the “Saw” films or Rob Zombies bloody, boring “Halloween” retreads. I’d be quite happy if this were the last “Paranormal” film — the only places to go are, I should imagine, back to a past of pioneer days or forward to a future of jumpsuits and food pills, and I can’t quite imagine either working — but also because it would be nice to have a horror franchise go out not with a whimper but a bang.

From my review at The Hitlist

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TIFF 2011 Review: Wuthering Heights (4.5/5)

As many books as have been burnt by fascists and fearmongers, it’s safe to suggest an equal number have been ruined not by hatred but, rather, by admiration — placed on a high shelf where they can’t be touched or broken or sullied or, eventually, seen, and so we pass them by with a vague notion of what they’re about each time we breeze by them. Much like this year’s earlier adaptation of “Jane Eyre” from Cary Fukanaga, Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” takes Emily Bronte’s sole 1847 novel and reclaims it from that sealed vault of veneration, the airless, sealed space where so much of the canon is placed so the books might be unharmed but instead merely ensures that the books are unread and unappreciated.

After “Red Road” and “Fish Tank,” Arnold’s low-fi, high-intensity superb urban dramas, one could be excused for thinking that “Wuthering Heights”‘ doomed 19th Century love on the moors between the moody brooding Heathcliffe and the gentle, graceful Cathy wouldn’t be a fit — and yet Arnold makes it a fit. Previous film versions of the story gave us the starched collars and yearning in Bronte’s novel, but Arnold finds the bone and the blood beneath those things, a world of rain and mud and wind and darkness.

In Yorkshire, the Earnshaw family takes in a lost boy, Heathcliffe. In Bronte’s book, Heathcliffe is a gypsy, dirty, an outsider. In Arnold’s film, Heathcliffe is black. Played by the young Solomon Glave and, later, by James Howson, Heathcliffe is beaten and battered, abused  by all — except his foster sister Cathy, played by Simone Jackson and later by Kaya Scodelario). With both silence and scars as his gifts from life so far, Heathcliffe’s toil and sorrow are broken only by Cathy’s joy and warmth — for a time. Eventually, he leaves to make his way in the world; eventually, he returns to both heal old wounds and re-open them with snarling teeth.  (Some critics have said that the film’s transformation of Heathcliffe makes his later fortune hard to believe. I instead choose to think about how fiercely this Heathcliffe must have fought to rise, and how driven he must have been to succeed.)

Shot in an old-fashioned Academy aspect ratio — the almost-square shape of so much old film and pre-HD television — Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” doesn’t function as a series of moving postcards and costuming displays or a slow-pan screensaver. At the same time, there are shots here of the Yorkshire moors that are stunning and breathtaking, and all the more so because you do not feel an over-avid director clumsily fumbling to earn your attention. Most literary adaptations, trying to turn the real world epic, render it in the cliché visions and tones of films we’ve seen before. Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” finds the epic in the real.

Much as in Malick’s “Tree of Life,” (but with, bluntly, more focus), life in the state of nature is a character in itself here, with all the other character in accord or clashing with it. Some critics have referred to Arnold’s effort as more a visual treatise than a narrative work, more concerned with hawks wheeling in the windy sky or the futile twitches of rabbits in Heathcliffe’s snares than with Bronte’s novel, “a series of photographs inspired by ‘Wuthering Heights.'”

But Arnold’s version made me truly think about what I truly knew about Bronte’s work and the times it depicted, and truly feel for Heathcliffe’s doomed passion and Cathy’s impossible love.  The performers are fascinating — Howson’s Heathcliffe is a glowering force of nature, Scodelario’s Cathy a pale shimmer of pure feeling poured into the knots and constrictions of a lady’s dress.

Visually, the film is a marvel, shot through with the raw, stark sense of sense that Arnold brings to her work — the feel of wet earth, the cold of an abandoned room, the lush crimson of Cathy’s riding coat, the blasted vastness of the windy moors. Atop the hill where they looked out over the countryside as children, battered and shaken by the wind and the passage of time, Cathy makes what’s almost a joke: “How could you leave all this?” Then she breaks: “How could you leave me?” throughout the film, the cool remove of watching passion and feeling through cinema becomes simply passion, feeling and cinema. Arnold could have stayed in what seemed to be her métier of urban grit and modern trials, low-income housing and low-outcome lives. Instead, she’s at a stroke reinvented herself, from a director to watch to a major talent, her past ability and intellect and feeling opening up with a burst of new energy that gives her potential future work — and her current admirers — a dizzying sense of possibility.

From my review at The Hitlist

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TIFF 2011 Review: Hysteria (3.5/5)

Even watching “Hysteria,” I could get a sense of the challenge facing the filmmakers. Inspired by Dr. Joseph Morton Granville’s radical therapy for “Female Hysteria” in the Victorian era — “curing” listlessness and general lack of sexual satisfaction by the application of stimulus, not with the prior era’s technique of the gentle touch of a doctor but, rather, with the speedy buzz of a high-tech (at the time) device. Hugh Dancy (who, despite my never having seen a picture of the real good Doctor Granville, I bet looks nothing like the good Doctor Granville) is a doctor and scientist tired of the Victorian era’s repressions and ignorance — a superior at a hospital is unconvinced by germ theory and the need to wash hands and change bandages. All a doctor needs to offer, he says before firing Granville, is “…a steady air of calm assurance and the occasional bleeding.”

So Granville finds himself joining the practice of Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce, looking more than ever like an owl in a suitcoat), administering “hysteria cures” to women and getting embroiled in the lives of his younger dutiful daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) and firebrand reform-minded daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal). But it’s labor; suffering from a pioneering case of sex-related carpal tunnel syndrome, a pained and disgraced Granville, inspired by his confirmed bachelor mad scientist friend Edmund St. John-Smythe (a bearded, brisk Rupert Everett) and a failed attempt at an electric feather-duster, invents the vibrator, turning hours of effort into startling results within moments. “Three paroxysms…within five minutes,” Granville tells Dalyrimple, who sees a vision of humanism and pound notes hovering before him.

But the invention of the vibrator comes nearly an hour into the film, after extensive set-up about the practice and Charlotte and Granville’s high ideals and Dickensian circumstance. I thought I wish the main thrust of the plot had come in a lot earlier than this; I would have liked more of that before the film’s climax. And then I thought How do you write “Hysteria” — never mind write about “Hysteria” — so that it doesn’t become a 95-minute long ‘That’s what she said!’ joke in vests and petticoats? Well, in part, you make it about the fact that, in Victorian England, you couldn’t make a ‘That’s what she said!’ joke, in no small part because she was expected to keep quiet.

Director Tanya Wexler does a masterful job of just that, making sure the sexy stuff is all offscreen but for comedy-orgasm montages involving a Cockney maid and an opera singer. I do not expect historical verisimilitude from a film that has Rupert Everett as a cross of Jules Verne and Paul Lynde, and Gyllenhaal’s political-protest subplot gives a little foundation to the faster-paced machinations of the plot. (Accused by Granville of being a socialist, Gyllenhaal’s Charlotte snipes back: “And what if I am, sir? Are there not eight men rowing on a crew?” Charlotte is also the kind of socialist who looks great in a sleeveless dress with a velvet choker later on, proving that Wexler understood her film had to be about many different meanings of “happy ending.”)

“Hysteria” isn’t as badly-structured as a past Toronto ‘big Victorian ideas’ film “Creation,” which is ostensibly about Darwin writing the most important scientific work of all time and ends with him mailing the manuscript off in the post. Nor is it as seriously-made, or seriously-minded as Croneberg’s Freud-and-Jung drama “A Dangerous Method” which is also at TIFF. And the idea of a sex comedy of ideas — about an era in human history when women couldn’t learn, couldn’t vote, couldn’t hold elected office and, as the unkindest cut of all, couldn’t come — is a welcome diversion in a film industry that too often treats sex as slapstick or humiliation, or treats the past solely as a place to wrest reverence from. “Hysteria” may not have too much staying power, a sense of humor, a sense of history and a tasteful amount of discretion — plus some zesty moves and eager energy and a willingness to please. To paraphrase Victoria herself, we are not aroused — but, while “Hysteria” is working, we are amused

From my review at The Hitlist

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Review: Cool-Kids-Who-Kill ‘Violet & Daisy’ From ‘Precious’ Writer Isn’t What You’d Expect (C-)

After winning an Oscar for his screenplay for “Precious,” Geoffrey Fletcher probably had options. The fact that directing “Violet & Daisy”—a candy-colored crime story about two teen girl killers and their latest target—was his ultimate choice is worthy of note in and of itself. Fletcher could have stayed in the vocabulary and landscape of “Precious”—or, less charitably, thrown a rock and hit another indie film tale of life in the big city—but instead stepped up, and out, to do something completely different as his directorial debut.

Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) live in a big city in a shared apartment. They’re besties. They’re different—Violet, who’s been working for longer than her partner and roomie, has a more cynical edge where bon mots pop out of her mouth like snapping gum, while wide-eyed Daisy, who just turned 18, peppers her conversation with words like “dang” and “swell.” They work as killers, skipping down the street to their jobs and then shifting into a reptilian silence of sign-language communication and unity of purpose until the job is done, then back home for take-out and pillow fights. They get a new target—and their favorite pop star Barbie Sunday has a new dress line, so they need the money—and find that the man they’re sent for, who greets them with a tray of fresh cookies and the sleepy smile of a bear awoken from a pleasant dream, is more than ready to die.

From the outset, Fletcher is trying three sub-genres here—the armed fable, the teen-girls-who-kill action film and the existential noir pitch of the assassin’s target welcoming the appointment in Samarra with death. And these essential ideas have challenged more experienced filmmakers, and some films made with them have also been very good. From “Sucker Punch” to “Hanna,” “Battle Royale” to “Dick Tracy”—there’s a lot at play in here, in tone and construction, and you lean into the world of the film. (An early music cue, for example, is just the eerie, haunting wintry sound of the introductory bars for “Figure 8” from “Schoolhouse Rock!”)

The production design, for example, is by Patrizia von Brandenstein, whose credits run from “The Candidate” to “Deception.” And we get a city that feels like Jim Jarmusch were directing Damon Runyon stories with a re-write by Patricia Highsmith. The girls are part of a conspiratorial organization of killers, with contacts and promotion and dangerous management who clearly used to be labor; Gandolfini’s unnamed character has wronged the wrong men. There’s always a danger in the poetic action film—the delicate foam of whimsy is wiped away by the flow of crimson blood—and if Fletcher doesn’t quite pull that off, that may say far more about my tastes than his execution.

In his TIFF introduction of the films’ world premiere, Fletcher noted that he’d become aware of Bledel from “Sin City”—and you can make the connection with the bright strokes and bold hues of the film’s feel. Bledel’s Violet essentially looks and acts like a doodle of herself raised on B-movie tough talk, while Ronan also makes an impression depicting Daisy’s pastel serenity in a world made of Crayola colors, occasionally bent into herself like a question mark. And Gandolfini turns acceptance and sorrow into a slow series of small farewells, with no small amount of good humor.

It’s easier to imagine a faster, wackier version of “Violet & Daisy,” but not so easy to imagine what could turn the film towards drama. The big reveal about Daisy’s work habits will be found at the top of the wreckage of our suspension of disbelief. And if you have an Oscar, why not plow it into a film you’re excited about, with much of it unfolding in one small apartment? Fletcher’s own enjoyment of and excitement with the world he’s created is palpable, and we could not help but feel some connection to it from time to time.

“Violet & Daisy” is, in many ways, about girls and death and pop culture and friendship, and you may find the distracted profusion of dramatic elements doesn’t match the articulate expression of Vanja Cernjul‘s camerawork, Joe Klotz‘s editing and von Brandenstein’s set design.  In “Precious,” Fletcher tried to make the audience enter into a world; with “Violet & Daisy,” he tries, not without some success, to pull the audience into a dream.

From my review at The Playlist

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TIFF ‘11 Review: Butter Tries To Carve Up Edgy Laughs But Goes Soft By The End (C)

A political satire set in the competitive world of butter-carving at the Iowa state fair, the script for “Butter” was so ballyhooed and praised of that it wound up on The Black List, the annual underground buzz list of unproduced screenplays based on a straw poll of agents, development executives and insiders. (As a side note, we must say that The Black List is only interesting as a barometer of quality insofar as you trust agents, development executives and insiders to be able to tell good from bad, which much of Hollywood’s output suggests is not actually the case.)

Jennifer Garner is an ambitious, cold, harridan married to Ty Burrell‘s 15-time butter-carving champion—an event worthy of note anywhere, but especially in Iowa. As Garner notes in voice-over: “More people see the Iowa State Fair butter carving winner than do the Super Bowl—but you wouldn’t know that from the Liberal media, not with its bias.”

For those of you who like your political allegories obvious, Garner’s character is presented as a power-hungry Conservative, with the long flowing hair and the short rigid ideas of someone like Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman. She intends to enter the butter-carving competition in Burrell’s stead, seizing glory and founding a family dynasty of butter-carving victory. There are two impediments to this plan, though. One is Burrell’s wandering eye, which brings him afoul of exotic dancer Olivia Wilde—who promptly sets out to extort, humiliate and shatter Garner and Burrell’s marriage, even seducing their daughter, Ashley Greene.

The second, more innocent complication comes in the form of Destiny (Yara Shahedi). Destiny is being bounced between foster families—the implication suggesting that being African-American in the lily-white wilds of Iowa is bad enough—but she’s finally found a place that makes her happy with Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone. And she’s a natural at butter carving. So natural that Garner can’t have it.

With both Garner and Shahedi providing voice-over, the small-town stakes and the big thematic ideas, “Butter” feels like someone trying to create the lemonade tang and quenching zest of, say, Alexander Payne‘s “Election.” It’s too bad director Jim Field-Smith and writerJason A. Micallef essentially add four excess cups of sugar to the pitcher of their movie, drowning any tartness and bite in syrupy sentiment. Garner’s character is so irredeemable (until the film’s de rigueur third-act moment of redemption) and Shahedi’s character so immediately likable that of course we side with Shahedi, despite her penchant for saying things no 11-year-old would say, like “Can you believe these crackers?” and “White people are weirdos” and using “Ninjas” in the place of that other, more attention-getting N-word.

It’s a shame, because Garner is so fully committed, Corddry so warm and Shahedi so winning that you wish they were in a better movie; the production design, props and costuming are tops, too. It’s not just that the film’s butter-carving team recreates one of the 20th century’s saddest moments in butter; it’s that it’s matched in the competition’s finale by another butter carving that, against all logic and sense, is somehow emotionally moving. And Wilde and Burrell make what they can of under-written parts.

We don’t know the exact etymology of the word “satire”—something to do with satyrs, we’d guess?—but we do know that the word is not Latin for “something with a happy ending that includes a hug.” “Butter” tries so hard to bring its characters together—and give each of them what they want—that it has to give up jabbing with its fists to hug with open arms. We, for one, wanted the film to stay cold and hard—the application of artificial warmth makes it a bit gooey and shapeless, its potential edge turned into a blunt lump.

Director Smith previously made the Jay Baruchel rom-com “She’s Out of My League,” another imperfect film with a good idea and plenty of charm behind it; at some point, through, you hope Smith stops making movies that are better than you might have feared and start making movies that are better than you might have hoped. “Butter” may have had plenty of buzz when it was a hypothetical possible smash, but what wound up on screen suggests that buzzing will wind up turning in to the scattered sound of a few laughs and some half-uttered, half-hearted praise as the audience leaves the theater.

From my review at The Playlist

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TIFF 2011 Review: Alps (4/5)

“Dogtooth” had the evident vast amount of talent — and just as importantly, a vast amount of time — to make a splash on the film festival circuit, where it played Cannes, Toronto and South By Southwest. That slow-motion assault stretched from 2009 to 2010, culminating in a deserved but inexplicable Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination. Among those for a taste for cinema both strange and strong, eyes were focused on director Giorgos Lanthimos’ next film. Would it continue the surreal startling strength of “Dogtooth?” Or would it move in its own direction as something new in the face of expectation?

And the answer is yes, and no. “Alps” is remarkably like “Dogtooth” in staffing (Lanthimos again teams with Efthymis Fillippou as his co-writer, and again features Aggeliki Papoulia in a lead role) and thematic and plot elements (we again have dancing freakouts, pop culture as psychic wound and cranial injury as how men assert authority). And at the same time, “Alps” is more open than “Dogtooth,” and takes place in a fractured and dark version of the real world in a way that that film’s sealed and antiseptic small-scale dystopia did not.

Four people — nurse Papoulia, paramedic Aris Servatalis, teen gymnast Ariane Lebed and her coach Johnny Vekris) — gather together in what could be either a small business, a support group or an improbably sensitive conspiracy in the name of helping people move on after the death of their loved ones. Not by talking, or by small gestures of support but instead by acting, and acting out, as the people who have passed. A bereaved family who’ve lost a young daughter, for example, recreate a nice day at the beach with her, as Papoullia splashes in the surf and say what they want her to say in the name of replication and relief.

Again, Lanthimos and Fillippou don’t spoon-feed us backstory or explanations, and they are not afraid of showing how modes of communication — talking, sex, society — can go horribly amiss. Servetalis and Papoulia have very different ideas about the group’s aims and methods, and the schism between them becomes bizarre and bloody. If “Dogtooth” was a David Hockney painting of summer lawns and swimming pools sent to hell, then “Alps” is more of an Edward Hopper painting — the dark spaces of the urban night, full of the walking wounded. And yet there aremoments of bleak comedy in “Alps” — from the dementia of Papoulia’s dedication to the cause to Lebed’s ardent desire to do her gymnastic routine to pop music, not the pounding strains of “Carmina Burana,” only to be told by her coach “You are not ready for pop.”

It’s a weird joke, but the dark sorcery of Lanthimos’ brand of mad magical realism is that it actually pays off; in many ways, “Alps” is about good and bad ways of moving forward, and about if you can change who you are by being someone else so much you lose sight of both the real and the fake. “Dogtooth” was a perfect convergence of pop culture and politics, theme and technique, allegory and art — and also benefited from being a welcome surprise in a European cinema dominated by either sickly sentiment or frosty emotionless terror, by the confections of Christophe Honore and Jean-Pierre Jeunet or the cold empty plates of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier. “Alps” is a strong, strange follow-up, and if it does not burst in the brain like Lanthimos’ previous film, it’s hard to deny that its fractured, flawed characters — the emotionally wounded trying to heal the emotionally wounded, at great cost and greater danger — haunt and hound your imagination, feelings and intellect.

From my review at The Hitlist

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TIFF ‘11 Review: Jeff Who Lives At Home Takes The Duplass Bros Mainstream For Their Best Film Yet (B+)

As surreal as it is to see a micro-budget Duplass Brothers film start with the stars and mountainous terrain of the Paramount logo, in many ways that contradiction and clash sets the tone for their new comedy “Jeff Who Lives at Home.” Strange things are afoot in the cosmos as Jeff (played with affable confusion and large-framed, good-hearted charm by Jason Segel) is trying to keep his eyes open for what the universe might be telling him, in terms of his destiny and purpose. Also, his mom Sharon (Susan Sarandon) would like it if he could get his ass off the couch in her basement and go to Home Depot to get wood glue to fix a broken pantry door slat …

It’s that mix of the big and small, the micro-to-macro zoom of the plot and themes, that makes “Jeff Who Lives at Home” as appealing as it is. Co-writers and co-directors Jay and Mark Duplass specialize in social discomfort (see “Cyrus”) and long takes of awkward social anxiety, and while that still applies here—when Jeff’s brother Pat (Ed Helms) tries to rationalize the purchase of a Porsche to his long-suffering wife Linda (Judy Greer), the laughs and cringes come in equal measure—there’s also something intangibly kind about the film.

The interconnectedness of all things and the nature of destiny are tough pitches for comedy—philosophy and pratfalls often don’t mix especially well—but as Jeff deals with his odyssey for wood glue and Sharon is confronted by a secret admirer and Pat discovers Linda has things she wants too, the movie becomes a philosophical comedy. It’s all in the vein of (if not quite at the level of) “Groundhog Day,” combining the Jungian idea of there being no coincidences and the Zen idea of being present to see the universe unfolding through those non-coincidences. The film takes place in a world that runs as if cause and effect took a couple of bong hits, and then got confused about which of them was supposed to do something and in what order.

Segel’s large, befuddled demeanor serves him well here—Helms at one point refers to him as ‘a sasquatch,’ and we laugh not only because it is unkind but also because it’s what we’ve all been thinking. For all of the film’s bigger broader bits—from Segel being drafted by a pickup basketball game, to an automotive disaster, to Helms doing the least subtle tail job ever captured on film—there are nice small moments here too, like Sarandon trying to dissuade a secret admirer over IM (“I’m old and I’m getting flabby …”) or the play of confusion and realization across Segel’s face repeatedly throughout. The cinematography, by Jas Shelton, relies on sudden shifts and zooms to re-set perspective, and you soon settle into the same rhythm as the film, where quick realizations mean fast changes of thought.

The climax of ‘Jeff’ will be argued over by the film’s fans—is it a too-big moment that punctures the amiability and shaggy-dog realism of the story thus far, or is it the ultimate point of what’s gone before? This writer is in the latter camp, but either way it’s worth noting that the climax—spoken of in broad, none-too-specific terms—is a quantum leap forward for the brothers Duplass in terms of technical resources and scale of filmmaking—no, they won’t be making a sequel to “The Fast and the Furious” anytime soon, but compared to the small-room scale of their earlier works “The Puffy Chair” and “Cyrus,”  “Jeff Who Lives at Home” feels like “Avatar.

In the denoument, the film doesn’t suddenly break your heart, but, rather, it suddenly heals it—with a moment of such delicacy and sincerity that you feel lucky to witness it. Human and heartfelt filmmaking is rare at any level of the industry, and even rarer in comedy—but the Duplass brothers manage to get laughs without resorting to cheap tricks or broad flailing. So many indie directors brush against big-studio Hollywood and get shattered by it—Justin Linwith “Annapolis,” Kevin Smith with “Mallrats.” But “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” brings big-studio moviemaking and big-name stars to the Duplass brothers, embracing their sensibilities and style without smothering them, and we in the audience benefit.

From my review at the Playlist

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TIFF Review: Shame (4/5)

Someone wiser than I am pointed out that the best reason “Trainspotting” worked as the greatest-ever film about drug addiction was specifically because it took great pains to convey the kick, the high and the fun alongside the crash, the low and the doom. You could argue that Steve McQueen’s “Shame” — reuniting him with Michael Fassbender from “Hunger” — does the same for sex addiction. Fassbender is Brandon, a young and well-off New Yorker whose life is controlled by sex — not just having it, but, worse, the hint of it in the air. Much like a shark can sense a drop of blood in the ocean, Brandon can pick out notes of want in the seething humanity of Manhattan.

And let us make no mistake; there is something powerful and unrelentingly cruel in “Shame.” The film begins with 19th-Century classical music, intercut with the tickticktick  of a clock as time runs by fast. Brandon has a seemingly comfortable life — it’s only later we glimpse how his problems really aren’t hidden at all from anyone else in his world — that’s disrupted by the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), just back from L.A. and looking for  a place to crash. There’s something going on between the two — some sense of past tragedy or the jagged pieces of something broken long ago  hidden under a thick woolen blanket of not talking about it — and they alternate between comforting and confronting each other.

McQueen’s “Hunger” was a completely unexpected meshing of the personal and the political; “Shame” works as an exploration of the inner and outer world. Yes, as you’ve read in the gossip headlines, there’s plenty of sex and nudity here — all of it shot and written  in a way that reminds you how most American films treat sex as if they were written by a scandalized 13-year-old boy who feels far more comfortable with murder  and violence than nudity or passion. If there’s one quibble here, in fact, it’s that at times “Shame” feels less like a cautionary tale about sex addiction and more like a seductive, superbly-shot argument for it. Fassbender is excellent, and passionate and raw, but the fact is that “The Adventures of the Good-Looking Sex Addict” is a premise lacking in a certain degree of tension; I couldn’t help but imagine a better version of “Shame” starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti or John C. Reilly or some other actor who could depict a more treacherous chasm to be bridged between desire and fulfillment.

Mulligan is excellent, rich and wrong in a way her normally-precious porcelain demeanor does not show, and there are standouts in the supporting cast, like James Badge Dale as Brandon’s pathetic-but-less pathetic boss and Nicole Behare as a co-worker Brandon is attracted to. (It also seems silly to single her out for praise, but Lucy Walters has two scenes and not a line of dialogue — yet makes a hell of an impression.) Cinematographer Sean Bobitt and Editor  Joe Walker return to collaborate with McQueen again, and the three craft a beautiful and terrifying film, possibly the best-shot NYC indie since Soderberg’s “The Girlfriend Experience.”

There’s something sharklike in “Shame” — its unrelenting forward motion, its dead-eyed cruelty, how its sick stiff slickness as it swims between damnation and redemption has the wet flex of cartilage and not the clean snap of bone.  McQueen is telling a story of addiction here, and rarely overplays his hand — a scene where a gay bar is presented as a new circle of Dante’s inferno is made up for by the quick-cut brilliance of when Brandon tries to throw out all of his porn in the name of getting clean with the grit-jawed determination of a junkie giving away his needles. “Shame” is tough stuff, but oddly tender — it has no small amount of sympathy for Brandon and Cassie, even while conveying the aerobic and callisthenic grind of Brandon’s futile lust and the cost of his pleasures. 

“Shame” is another tough and transcendent drama from Fassbender and McQueen — and after a summer of seeing Fassbender clutch fingers to his temple and furrow his brows towards a greenscreen in the shabby, stupid “X-Men: First Class,” it’s a pleasure to watch him sincerely and actually act again. “Shame” ends with nothing promised, nothing delivered: its ideas and images even now battle in my head, lust and trust and want and worry, and for a film this good to truly look at the wonders and terrors of desire is a rare triumph worthy of recognition and appreciation. 

From my review at The Hitlist

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TIFF Review: Chloe Moretz Is Trapped In The Unclean, Clammy Coming-Of-Age Indie Hick [D-]

Later, there will be a brief discussion of how literature is not film and how some actions and themes do not survive translation from the page to the big screen because our mind can better deal with envisioning them than it can with actually seeing them Before that, though I feel I have to pause and note that “Hick,” adapting Andrea Portes’ novel for the screen under the direction of Derick Martini (”Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire,” “Lymelife”), is one of the most unclean and clammy films I’ve ever had to endure at a film festival. Not because it was incompetent and not because it deals with violent and sexual material but, rather, because it is both incompetent in general and even more incompetent specifically when it is concerned with violent and sexual material.  We’re supposed to be watching the cross-country adventures of 13-year-old Luli (Chloe Moretz, who clearly needs to fire both her management and her parents) as she sets out for Las Vegas and leaves her drunkard parents behind in Nebraska. What we get is a chronicle of physical abuse, drug abuse, murder and sexual assault all involving a minor, which then tries to lighten the mood with cutaways to Luli’s sketches and a jaunty score with pedal steel guitar accents.

Chloe Moretz is as charismatic and talented as ever, but, much like “Kick-Ass,” she is trapped in an idiotically foul and shoddy script. Posing and preening in a tank-top and panties, Luli poses and plays with a gun she was given for her birthday—quoting “Dirty Harry” and “Sunset Boulevard,” winking into the mirror. And indeed, that winking is what undermines “Hick,” as the whole film does it. Yes, Luli gets a pistol in the film’s first five minutes as a 13th birthday present but—wink—she looks so charming brandishing it. Yes, people die, but—wink—Luli gets to be happy. Yes, Luli is raped but—wink—all we see is rustling leaves in a cornfield, while voice-over suggests that Luli is doing what she must to survive the experience. It’s this cowardice on the part of “Hick”—its insistence on turning ugly matters into a Hallmark card—that ultimately undoes it. I’m sure that, on the page, Portes’ novel reads with poetry and grace and emotion; on-screen, we do not get poetry and grace and emotion. We get a 13-year-old being raped.

The supporting cast is either present for a scene or two—Juliette Lewis as luli’s drunkard mom, Alec Baldwin as the one decent human Luli gets to meet—or entirely too present, as Eddie Redmayne‘s sneering sociopath (presumably a big, big fan of Martin Sheen in “Badlands”) drags Luli across the west alternating sociopath’s charm and brutal violence. Blake Lively plays a party girl who offers Luli hard-headed advice, fashion tips and cocaine; familiar-face character Ray MacKinnon tries to bring a preening patriarch to life, but is hemmed in by the script.

Portis and Martini adapted her novel, and perhaps a less sealed community of creation—other writers working for director Martini or Martini and Portis writing for another director—would have avoided some of the film’s more grotesque missteps. As it is, Martini’s affection for his own work is a demonstration of the fact that, all too often in filmmaking, the question is not “Who wrote this garbage?” but, rather, “Who read this garbage?” Making a film is a Herculean effort, requiring massed sacrifice and collective exertion. I cannot conceive of why any literate person of average intelligence would put that effort into “Hick”‘s script.

With its voice-over and faux-Americana soundtrack of pedal steel and twanging banjo, with its phony accents and fake moments, with its ugly insistence on showing the worst of human behavior and intercutting it with road-movie montages and ‘comedic’ relief of Lively trying to move in her tight dress and heels, “Hick” stands alongside other film-festival laughingstocks and flops like “Houndog” and Joel Schumacher‘s “Twelve” as a classic example of how not to handle transgressive material involving teens and pre-teens—and as an object lesson for a young filmmaker in what mis-steps and clumsy errors to avoid. “Hick” was intended to be a calling card for all parties involved to point at as evidence of their talent and bravery; instead, it’s a black blot of shame for everyone who had a part in its making.

From my review at The Playlist

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