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Out in Theaters: ‘T2 TRAINSPOTTING’

Eternally a stylist, Danny Boyle returns to the primordial ooze that made Danny Boyle Danny Boyle with T2 Trainspotting, a self-reflective reality check of a sequel, one that dwells on past wrongs and potential paths forward, undercut with themes of addiction and redemption. Boyle’s penchant for flash won’t go unnoticed, with the very grain of the film busting with an artist’s eye. Strung out in the kind of manic urban setting that Boyle has mastered over the years, T2 is a somber meditation on regret fused with an upbeat saga of reconciliation, all told with Boyle’s vibrant knack for blaring soundtracks, an escapist kinetic energy and daring visuals. Boyle’s first sequel doesn’t always work, frequent callbacks land with various success, but when T2 is on point, his dizzily dosage of electrifying cinema can be quite inebriating and an unexpected shot to the heart.   Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’

Don’t mess with a good thing, so croons an age old adage and Beauty and the Beast, the most recent live action Disney remake, is exemplary of that statement. A near-perfect update of the beloved animated Disney classic, this live-action contemporary version is in many ways a literal note for note transfer, with everything from story beats to musical runs to the lavish costumes tracing 1991’s hand drawn offerings but despite its reciprocal, borderline redundant nature, Bill Condon’s product feels sumptuously loved nonetheless. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT’

Director Rodrigo García claimed two themes interested him most in his articulation of Jesus’ untold 40 day fast in the desert. The first: the primordial idea of how a boy becomes a man, a step that Garcia contents happens “with or without his father’s help of permission.” The second theme surrounds the notion of creationism, both in a spiritual and storyteller’s sense. García himself underwent a creation process in the construction of Last Days in the Desert, weaving a fictitious narrative out of a notable absence in Jesus’ origin story – only mentioned in passing in the Gospels but entirely bereft of detail. This absence of a story drew García to the project, offering him an entrance into a narrative that felt to him inspired, fresh and wildly important.   Read More

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Blu-Ray Review: ‘JANE’S GOT A GUN’

Synopsis: “Natalie Portman is Jane Hammond, a frontierwoman who enlists the aid of a disgruntled former flame (Joel Edgerton) when a rowdy gang led by a ruthless but charismatic killer named John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) plots to axe her outlaw husband (Noah Emmerich). Using a combination of her feminine guile and a sudden disposition for weapons and explosives, Jane must fight off the clan of invading Bishop Boys while also coming to terms with the losses in her past that have made her the woman she is today.” Read More

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Sundance Review: LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT

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Director Rodrigo García claimed two themes interested him most in his articulation of Jesus’ untold 40 day fast in the desert. The first: the primordial idea of how a boy becomes a man, a step that Garcia contents happens “with or without his father’s help of permission.” The second theme surrounds the notion of creationism, both in a spiritual and storyteller’s sense. García himself underwent a creation process in the construction of Last Days in the Desert, weaving a fictitious narrative out of a notable absence in Jesus’ origin story – only mentioned in passing in the Gospels but entirely bereft of detail. This absence of a story drew García to the project, offering him an entrance into a narrative that felt to him inspired, fresh and wildly important.  

In Last Days in the Desert, the first theme is tackled with obvious symmetry. On the last leg of his sandy spirit journey, Yeshua (Ewan McGregor) a.k.a. Jesus is heading home to Gaililee, a community that has praised and forsaken him in equal measure. Entering the home stretch and somewhat disappointed that his Dad has gone all hush-hush on him, Jesus feels just the slightest bit forsaken. His food- and spirit-hungry skepticism is only exacerbated by the arrival of the Devil (again, Ewan McGregor) a personified shadow demon whispering doubt at the robes wearing deity.

As his faith is bent but not broken, he comes upon the desolate home of a few essentially human folk, barley living off the arid sterility of this harsh desert land. Soon, his spiritual self-actualization is at odds with his inherently human desire to help these people in needs. Deciding to give himself over to the toil of these hard-working but flawed mortals, Yeshua must remain focused on his own metaphysical well-being while playing mediator to the internal familial strife of these desert clan (problems that include stilted interpersonal relationships and a dying matriarch.)

As Yeshua contents with the difficulty of his own distant, difficult to please father figure, the offspring of this newfound family, a boy known only as Boy (Tye Sheridan), struggles with his own unideal paternal rapport. The boy projects a warm intelligent in his penchant towards self-satisfied riddles and Sheridan ably reflects a brand of hushed  acumen. Wanting to travel to Jerusalem to take on an apprenticeship doing anything other than this deserted carpentry, he asks to take up with Yeshua on his travels, offering to abandon his family in the night and pretending to be his son. There’s no WWJD contemplation as the little-big-man-upstairs gives him a brusk “Uh uh.” Sensing his son’s withdrawal, the father (Ciarán Hinds) seeks advice on how to bond with his son, eventually proving that even the best riddle cannot bring together two men clashing over something as fundamental as maturation.

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In Christian Scripture, 40 days and 40 nights is the gold standard for spiritual enlightenment – with Moses also forgoing food and company for a 40 day stretch before penning (hacking?) the Ten Commandments – but García’s Last Days in the Desert wrapped in just five weeks. Filmed mostly in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park of Southern California, Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman) adds his own signature touch to the visual flourish of García’s gazes into gritty nothingness. Though his product here is a distant cousin to the uninterrupted camerawork of both Birdman and Gravity, Lubezki illuminates the desert into otherworldly effect, predominately only with the use of natural light.

Unlike those aforementioned features that were by definition go-go-go, Last Days in the Desert is periodically immobilized by its sense of stagnancy. Through solid performances, dazzling cinematography and an alluringly minimalist narrative, it closely resembles the devil on Jesus’ shoulder in not ever being quite bewitching enough to fully tempt us onto its side. Though it does get tigerishly close.

García delivers some surprisingly compelling, though sleepy, material for a “Jesus in the Desert” art film but his post-screening testaments that this is a tale of unquestionable divinity (he contents that the Yeshua onscreen is most definitely a God, and not just a man. Here, I was thinking he was telling the story of a man, and only a man) only managed to chill my lukewarm reception of this sun-scorched film even more.

C+

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Out in Theaters: AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

“August: Osage County”
Directed by John Wells
Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard
Comedy, Drama
121 Mins
R 

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If you had told me going into August: Osage County that I was in store for two of the finest performances of the year I probably would have scoffed. But after having gone through the dirty laundry with the Weston family, I can assure you that it certainly does. The ever-dependable Meryl Streep is on top of her game here and, surprisingly enough, Julia Roberts does more than just hold her own against the queen of Hollywood. In fact, she’s nearly just as great.

As acidic matriarch Violet (ironically one letter away from violent) Weston, Streep puts in the kind of work that put her on the map. Although she’s as despicable as the worst of the year, there’s just as much going on behind Violet’s pill-faded facade that she doesn’t reveal. Too bad her automated knee-jerk reaction is to lash out at her family because, with a performance like Streep’s, you can see the suffering in this cantankerous crustacean. She just can’t help but fight.

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At times reminiscent of Ellen Burstyn‘s monumental performance in Requiem for a Dream, seeing Streep’s crumbling mental barricades is no fun task but it is still no less a marvel. Playing opposite her, Roberts is a wonder as well. It’s been a long time since Roberts has had anything legitimate to offer so it’s a welcome change that she taps us on the collective shoulder, reminding us that she can indeed act with the best of them.

Filling out the terrific supporting cast is a perpetually clueless and never amiss Juliette Lewis, a self-righteous and awkwardly tweened-out Abigail Breslin, a powerful beyond the pages performance via Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale doing Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor in a complicated but not completely fulfilling role, the always delightful Sam Shepard in a small but important role, and a bumbling, insecure and totally unexpected Benedict Cumberbatch as none other than the aptly named Little Charles. Calling it a stacked cast is an understatement, especially with so much prominence placed on the performances. These people aren’t here to sell you on name recognition. They’re here to act.

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The events that gets the whole gang together begin when Violet’s husband (Shepard), and father to the three girls (Roberts, Lewis, and Julianne Nicholson) suddenly disappears. He’s a drinker, she’s a pill popper and their relationship is hovering somewhere in the red zone of the domestic-abuse-o-meter. So no one is surprised that he’s up and left without so much as a note. But as the events of his disappearance start to become clear, rather than coming together as a family as one might in the midst of loss, the emotional explosions just get more volatile.

Each time the family gets together, it’s like setting a ticking time bomb and waiting to watch it explode. Whenever they sit down at dinner, each comment is a turn in hot potato as we wait to see which of the family will explode in an emotional meltdown first. Their sanctimonious battles are at once hysterical and revolting, making you thankful that you’re not a part of the Weston clan but also reminding you of your own family battlegrounds.

Much like real life, throughout the film, the closer we are to the dinner table, the more tension seeps in. Accordingly, the more people at the table, the more riveting and on edge the film is. Without a place to run, you stew like a sack of potatoes, until blam! You never quite know who or what is going to pop out when they’re stacked around that unchivalrous table of food. Word for the wise: around the Weston household, tread lightly. But as we fade away from that central table – that catalyst of action – things do tend to get a little flabby.

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But aside from a few minor complaints revolving around a splattering of moments of unnecessary melodrama, August: Osage County is a surprisingly good film that I can find little to criticize. However, if you’re the sensitive type who like things wrapped up in a neat package or are uncomfortable with watching a family bicker for two hours and not really resolve anything, this probably isn’t the film for you. So I guess this really isn’t a film for most people.

Although the icky subject matter will be enough to turn general audiences away, those looking for a bonafide acting showcase need look no further than this Southern familial upset. Although director John Wells has done a great job of adapting the energy of Tracy Letts‘ source material, it still feels very much like a theater performance. Between the explosive and deeply personal acting, tightly confined spaces, and webs of dangling intermittent issues, in August, we feel like we’re in the midst of a really great play.

B+

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