Netflix Movie of the Week #21: Frida

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After last year’s Oscar season, I was so sick of biopics I wanted to puke. But for every Unbroken, and American Sniper, there’s a film like Frida waiting just around the corner, or in this case, just around the Netflix instant streaming side-scrolling thing. Frida—as in Frida Kahlo—manages to hit that biographical sweet spot by being both surprisingly informative and hugely entertaining in its own right.

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American Sniper

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Now, I’ve seen a good number of movies in my time, and I fully admit that I’m probably a little jaded, but I can’t be the only one frustrated by the insurmountable arduousness of this whole Oscar season in general and American Sniper specifically. The professional news sources will tell you that Mr. Eastwood’s latest opus has broken all kinds of box office records and has made more money that God at this point; but after having put quite a bit of thought into my review of the film, I honestly couldn’t tell you why. It irks me that original and imaginative movies like Birdman only end up raking in a fraction of the cash that something like American Sniper does, but that’s people for you—forever loath to get out of their tiny comfort zones.

Clint Eastwood is a very old man—he’s eighty-four, according to Wikipedia—and it seems to me that a lot of his later work, and American Sniper specifically, is mired in a lot of really uncomfortable old-world machismo and outdated nationalism which manifests itself and a weirdly earnest “us vs. them” mentality that seems singularly out of place in this Web 2.0 world. Eastwood’s actual technical direction isn’t as much at fault as the writing is, which usually what it comes down to with these kinds of things. Weirdly, a lot of the special effects in the film look laughably fake, and I’m reminded specifically of one sequence in which Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller are trying to have a serious exchange, but they’re very clearly handling a fake Fisher-Price baby; and I’m sitting in the theater all the while, barely stifling laughter.

Cooper, playing real-life American sniper Chris Kyle (whose biography inspired the film), does a pretty fair job, though as I mentioned before, a lot of the problems I found with the movie stem from the protagonist coming across as a bit of a bully and more than a little dense, which proved problematic as the film progressed, as Cooper’s was of course the character the audience was meant to identify with. Cooper is joined by a host of more or less low-key actors, who all give serviceable performances, though playing the gritty, emotionally detached soldier is probably one of the easier jobs as far as acting goes.

This particular review will probably be a little more subjective than normal—you know, since usually my reviews are models of level-headedness and non-partisanship—but the problem that one runs into a lot of the time with character driven films like American Sniper is that the success of the movie lives or dies on whether or not the audience can connect to the protagonist. I had the same problem with David O. Russell’s 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook, also starring Cooper. It wasn’t a terrible movie, per se, but the fact that I found the main character almost totally un-relatable was what killed it for me, and I think the same idea applies to this film as well.

Apart from having a rather dull protagonist, the film mostly consists of a series of factual events from the life of Chris Kyle, occasionally spiced up with some classic Hollywood sensationalism. While the aforementioned nationalistic pride is certainly there, I think the Eastwood may have missed an opportunity to make a broader connection in the form of Kyle’s role in a much larger and increasingly ambiguously defined conflict. It’s pretty obvious the American Sniper wants to be something like The Hurt Locker, but the fact that if writer Jason Hall had entertained even for a moment the idea that his writing ability is on par with that of someone like Oscar-winner Mark Boal, then he’s got another thing coming.

Despite the earth-shattering commercial success of the film, I mostly found it pretty lacking. Maybe that’s my inborn desire to be contrary about everything speaking, but I really feel that the majority has really missed the mark on this one. I’ve seen good war movies, and I’ve seen bad war movies, and I’ve seen shocking war movies, and I’ve seen emotional war movies, but American Spectrum falls right off the spectrum, right into the pit where the downright bland and mediocre war movies reside, hopefully never to see the light of day again.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Big Eyes

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Big Eyes is one of those movies that managed to fly right under my critical radar until shortly before its release, despite it having been stuck in development hell since I was thirteen. The property changed hands a number of times, until it finally landed in Tim Burton’s lap in 2010, and it would take another few years and multiple actors slated and scraped for the lead roles until finally arriving at its present state with Burton at the helm and Christoph Waltz playing opposite Amy Adams. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Big Eyes proves to be not only Burton’s most grounded and sober film to date, but succeeds in its attempt at telling humanistic, engaging, and often hilarious biographical drama.

In what I view as a positive development in Burton’s artistic maturation, Big Eyes takes a slightly more realistic approach to its visual style and tone, while still managing to distinguish itself unquestionably as “a Tim Burton film.” Likewise, Danny Elfman’s instantly recognizable score serves to reinforce the idea that we’re dealing with the same old Burton that we all know and love. Though a lot of Burton’s characteristically dark and surreal imagery has been restrained in order to facilitate an emotional connection with the characters, Burton is by no means afraid to dive right back into his comfort zone when it serves the story, like when Amy Adams’ character undergoes a bit of guilt-induced paranoia, for instance.

Adams, portraying the aspiring artist Margaret Keane, gives a praiseworthy performance, thanks in large part to her open, expressive face, which allows the audience to guess what her character might be thinking and feeling, even when there is little-to-no dialogue—an especially crucial trait during Adams’ many introspective scenes. The real breakout star, however, is undoubtedly Waltz, who steals every scene he’s in and seems incapable as coming across as anything other than incredibly genuine, even when he’s lying through his teeth. By the end of the film, Waltz’s character is so gleefully despicable that I was captivated simply by the prospect of what he might do next. In my humble opinion, Waltz has absolutely earned an Oscar nod for his portrayal of one of the best antagonists in film this year. Also worth mentioning, simply because I’m personally a huge fan, Jason Schwartzman appears in a cameo for about four minutes, and it’s just as glorious as you would expect.

A couple of aspects that I especially enjoyed about the film were the full and compelling emotional arcs undergone by both of the lead characters. What’s more, there were no exposition dumps and just a smattering of expository dialogue, and the audience got a sense of who the characters were through their interactions with one another. The interplay between Adams and Waltz and the strange, emotionally taxing dichotomy between the two was more than enough to keep the film going on its own, but the fact that we gradually begin to see Waltz’s true Walter Keane emerge from beneath the layers and layers of cons and façades, and Adams’ Meagan Keane as her own guilt and unfulfilled aspirations begin to chip away at her.

A few relatively minor criticisms include the third act digressing a bit and dragging on a tad too long for my taste, as well as the establishment of a frame narrative told from the perspective of a minor character. It’s strange, because I don’t think that the narration, sparse as it is, doesn’t seem particularly relevant or necessary, and really only succeeds in adding another degree of separation between the characters and the audience.

These quibbles are fairly easy to overlook, however, and didn’t detract from the film’s strong and engaging story. Big Eyes might stand as my favorite (and probably the best) of Tim Burton’s movies to date, and thanks to the forceful focus afforded to the characters and their struggles, I’m quite interested to see what Burton comes up with next.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Dallas Buyers Club Review

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2013 has been a year abnormally bloated with biopics. Jobs, 42, Rush, Kill Your Darlings and a host of others having already been released, and the highly anticipated Saving Mr. Banks slated for release in late December- Dallas Buyers Club proves to be yet another late addition. Astoundingly little press has been generated in support of the film (the first trailers having been released in August) which makes one wonder if word of mouth alone will catapult it to commercial success. In any case, let me get on with this poor excuse for consumer advice and do my part as a cog in the promotional machine.

Canadian filmmaker Jean-Mark Vallée directs this production, centering on the struggle of one Ron Woodroof as he struggles to remedy his HIV and subsequent AIDS infection through the use of non-FDA approved drugs. Interestingly, Vallée seems to have a bit of a penchant for exploring homophobic intolerance in overwhelmingly conservative environments- see his 2005 film C.R.A.Z.Y as a prime example- so the story contained within Dallas Buyers Club seems to be a natural fit in retrospect. The film likewise incorporates some impressive camerawork from cinematographer Yves Bélanger which serves to emphasize Woodroof’s increasingly deteriorating mental and physical health to some degree.

The film stars Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof and Jared Leto as the drug addled transvestite Rayon, both of whom were charged with losing massive amounts of weight for their respective roles. Many have praised McConaughey for giving the performance of his career, which isn’t particularly saying all that much, though I admit that his talent and physique are both ideal fits for the broken wreck of a man that is Woodroof. McConaughey takes us, with impressive verisimilitude (if you’ll excuse the pretension), through the various stages of coping with his disease, from denial to depression to defiance, and finally to resignation as he wages his war, motivated both by humanistic compassion and the pursuit of a little cash, with the FDA.

The plot, as deceptively simple as it is, does deserve a bit more attention. The film takes place in 1985 at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in America. Ron Woodroof, our homophobic, druggie protagonist is diagnosed with HIV and is given 30 days to live. As his disease develops, he becomes increasingly ostracized by his friends and relations due to the stigma attached to AIDS, at that time, as a “gay” disease. But old Woodroof is a defiant kind of fellow, and travels around the world searching for drugs to ease the symptoms of his illness. Eventually, Woodroof forms what’s known as a buyers club in order to sell his drugs to other victims of HIV/AIDS. Essentially, a buyers club allows and individual to pay a certain amount of money in membership dues to be a part of a club. In exchange, that individual can receive the drugs that they need for free- because selling the drugs is illegal, but giving them away for free is merely frowned upon.

So I’m five paragraphs in and I haven’t really stated whether the film is good or not. Here’s the thing- Dallas Buyers Club is a solid, emotionally compelling movie, but it’s ultimately forgettable. I have a suspicion that the majority of moviegoers will enjoy the film as they sit in the theater, but at the same time it won’t make it on anyone’s ‘top five’ list. Apart from some mild pacing problems (things tend to drag on in parts), there’s nothing that’s really glaringly wrong here, but on the other hand, I can’t really point to Dallas Buyers Club as a paragon of contemporary filmmaking either. If this film is to be remembered years from now, it will be for bringing into interesting relief a particularly dark time in the history of the US, and not for its acting, plot, or technical execution. And perhaps that might be enough, but only time will tell.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Jobs Review

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Yea, there’s no better indicator that Oscar season has arrived than the release of the first biopic. Jobs follows the story of Apple’s founder as he navigates the treacherous waters of the business world to ultimately mold his ‘little company that could’ into the international behemoth that it is today. Not having any vested interest in the success or failure of this movie, mainly because I don’t really care much about Steve Jobs one way or the other, I like to think that I’ve been able to take a marginally more objective approach to this review.

Directed by Joshua Michael Stern and written by Matt Whiteley, Jobs attempts to take a towering public icon who has essentially become engrained in 21st century society and shrink him down to a more human, relatable level. Whether or not the film succeeds on that count remains an exercise for the viewer. Nevertheless, I blame the writing more than the direction for much of the film’s shortcomings, and indeed, theres a lot to like here from a directorial standpoint. For instance, Stern has a wonderful eye for composition, and by that I mean that almost all of his shots seem to be very well balanced and visually pleasing, almost on a subconscious level. There’s a lot of interesting asymmetrical balance to the film, and if nothing else, the movie is interesting on a purely aesthetic level.

Starring Ashton Kutcher and Josh Gad as Steve Jobs and Wozniak, respectively, it’s certainly clear that the film is trying to maintain it’s relevance with some younger talent, especially after the release of so many financially draining summer blockbusters. While I can admit that Kutcher looks like Jobs almost to a T, I had an exceedingly hard time taking him seriously as this almost quasi-mythic figure. This is the same guy who did PUNK’D for the longest time, if you remember, and though his performance wasn’t bad or disingenuous by any means, it was certainly nothing to write home about.

As I mentioned before, I largely blame the writing for a lot of the problems with the movie. Frankly, I found the whole experience a little bland and superficial despite its subject being one of the most dynamic and conflicted individuals in the public sphere. I’m a little curious as to what Whiteley used as his source material. Jobs’s biography, perhaps? I mentioned that the film is superficial because I got a strong impression that whoever wrote the script had read a great deal about Jobs and his accomplishments but had never considered who this man was as a person. Rather, what we get is a somewhat one dimensional character- a clever, innovative guy with a penchant for dickishness- reacting his way through a series of barely connected events. This lacking sense of connectivity is not helped by some arbitrary jumps forward in time, to key moments of Jobs’s life with little to no context or indication of what happened in between.

The other glaring issue that many people had with the film was its tendency to be blatantly, aggressively inspiring to an obnoxious degree. There must have been at least six or seven instances of characters launching into these monologues for no clear reason, only to say something so saccharine and yet so irritatingly blithe that I almost had to cringe. Therein lies the real problem, I think. Even with the somewhat even portrayal of Jobs’s more negative attributes, the creative team behind the film still saw him as some kind of messianic hero, come to take us to the technological and social promised land.

What we’re left with is a bloated, shallow, somewhat bland portrayal of an otherwise interesting individual, further marred by some blatant idol worship on the part of the crew. More than anything else, I feel as though Jobs was a missed connection, flirting with yet far from achieving greatness. Visually interesting but fundamentally weak, Jobs is a bit of a miss.

Rating: 2 out of 5