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Out in Theaters: ‘WAR ON EVERYONE’

John Michael McDonagh stepped out from the shadows of filmmaker young brother Martin McDonagh, who’s crafted such cult modern classics as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, in 2011 when he debuted The Guard. That film went on to mild box office success (overseas) and general critical adoration, though I’ll admit the deadpan acidic humor never quite reached me the way that it had so many others. McDonagh’s latest, and his first film set on American soil, is War On Everyone and represents a clear, though offbeat, progression of the director’s interests. Within, he declares war on traditional narrative constructs of law and lawless, cops and robbers, good and evil, giving a grand total of zero fucks along the way. Read More

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SXSW ’16 Review: ‘WAR ON EVERYONE’

John Michael McDonagh stepped out from the shadows of filmmaker young brother Martin McDonagh, who’s crafted such cult modern classics as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, in 2011 when he debuted The Guard. That film went on to mild box office success (overseas) and general critical adoration, though I’ll admit the deadpan acidic humor never quite reached me the way that it had so many others. McDonagh’s latest, and his first film set on American soil, is War On Everyone and represents a clear, though offbeat, progression of the director’s interests. Within, he declares war on traditional narrative constructs of law and lawless, cops and robbers, good and evil, giving a grand total of zero fucks along the way. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘THE MARTIAN’

Ridley Scott’s most mainstream-minded movie in years, The Martian is 80 percent more Apollo 13 than it is Duncan Jones’ similarly themed (but wholly superior) Moon. Like Moon, The Martian involves a Starman (David Bowie’s space anthem of the same name is used tremendously in Scott’s film) contending with crippling solitude and psychological tremors when he’s left for dead on Mars. Unlike Moon, the narrative is a straight-forward locomotive, employing the mantra “I think I can” to such a degree that you can be almost one hundred percent confident that everything is going to work out in the end. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ANT-MAN

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I’ve always wondered where our preoccupation with size came from. Maybe cause I’ve never been the biggest, or because I’ve always been more taken by the diminutive: as a self-entitled critic, attention to detail is my craft. Fortunately for movie-goers, so it goes for the folks at Marvel and Ant-Man director Peyton Reed. This edition’s got a new musk, and underneath that an exoskeletal husk of comedic explosion and graphic excitement that rivals its full-sized super-compatriots. With Ant-Man, the folks at Marvel forgot how to make a superhero movie as usual, and pumped out one of the best Marvel adaptations yet. Read More

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Out in Theaters: FURY

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You don’t have to consult Fury to know that brutality is an inherent vice in us humans. What started as an instinctual necessity built into our animal genetic programming – case and point, you never see a polar bear grant mercy to its victims – brutality has become a defunct and dangerous emotional appendage for humankind. Modern normative behavior tends towards passivity. The act of civilizing quells our need to destroy. As functionless as those pesky wisdom teeth and as potentially explosive as your appendix, the tendency towards violence is all but forbidden in 2014. Like planes into a building, fury is civilization’s undoing. In shaping the way of the modern world though, it was what separated the conquerors from the conquered. The writers of history from the victims of it. In a bit of “well duh” war wisdom, Brad Pitt‘s Wardaddy tells us, “Ideals are peaceful but history is violent.” This only scratches the surface. In the 236 years that America has been a nation, it’s been at war for 214 of them. That’s almost 90%. If our history were a soup, the stock would be so overpoweringly bloody any rational person would tuck their tail and go vegan. Brutality, it would seem, is all encompassing.

In Fury, David Ayer addresses the art of war with iron-knuckle tact and unrestrained brutality. He takes on wartime mentality and masculinity with an iron stranglehold, questioning what place brutality has in our lives. He delivers his answers like a punch in the face. Followed by a punch in the gut. If you’re not on the edge of your seat, you must be broken. Written and directed by Ayer (End of Watch), Fury is a rare he-man weepy; an unrelenting emotional powerhouse that’s part perfectly-paced marathon of mud-soaked barbarity and part meditation on the dopey writs of men of war. A scene where Pitt’s brusquely named commander forces a new recruit to execute a POW is Ayer’s visceral response to the cold chill of war. The devil is in the details, stopping a war is trumped up janitorial work. Clean up on aisle Berlin. Ayer’s aisle is the final Allied push in Germany as WWII runs to a close. The crew, a ragtag assemblage crammed in a junky USA Sherman tank.

Outmatched by the far superior German Tigers, the Shermans were a patchwork of scrap metal and bolts; a power keg waiting to be lit. Inside, our half-witted heroes bond. Their company the only solace afforded in war. And from LaBeouf to Bernthal, the ensemble is simply stunning. Each performance literally floored me. Floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee, the many top tier performances of Fury will beat you down and bruise your soul.

The film is devised of three well-articulated acts, each circling the inevitable inner transformation of newcomer Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) as he settles into his new life as a unwilling tank gunner. At first, Norman refuses to fight. He pussies out and almost gets his crew killed. He’s the laughingstock of half of Nazi Germany and a liability as dangerous as Mecha-Hitler and his legion of flying SS officers. Even benevolence cannot go unchecked, Fury suggests. Morality can only exist in a vacuum. Some men just deserve a bullet. Even if they’re on their knees. Crewman Grady Travis, for one, adheres to this callous sentiment.

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As the venereal Travis, Jon Bernthal is a rabid Lenny. He’s brutish and wild-eyed; a heavily armed savage dullard. Thick-skulled but just sentient enough to register as a legitimate threat, he slobbers like a beast foaming at the mouth. His guffaws are filled with malice and yet he’s willing to die for his brothers. In the confines of society, he’d be a menace. Here in the theater of war, he, like the rest of the crew, are tight on Wardaddy’s leash. Bernthal’s is a revolutionary performance in a film filled with them and as the least household-friendly of the bunch, his should be a name Fury launches into more pronounced roles.

Bible-thumper Boyd Swan, played by an overly committed but nonetheless revelatory Shia LeBeouf, is just as vivid and colorful. An uncommonly complex character, Boyd is one given equally over to the word of God and the spoils of war. He’s the kind of guy who will engage in depravity, almost as if a hostage to his own body, but weep through doing it. Tragedy reigns surpreme. But Boyd is such a compelling character because he can stand there and dish Bible verses while sharpening a knife or reloading tank armaments. He’s an inherently disjointed man. As a result, he’s a perfect representation of our incoherent national values.

David Ayer had the crew fistfight on set every day in order to create a sense of camaraderie amongst them. Maybe that’s what spurred Pitt, now famously, to comment that LaBeouf was one of the best actors he’s worked with. Overstatement? Sure. Is this his best stuff yet? Absolutely.

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Though Norman is the beating heart of the troop, I think I fell for “Bible” Boyd most and that’s a testament to LeBeouf’s spirited performance. And yet still, I couldn’t stop thinking about those self-inflicted facial wounds. The thirst for self-destruction is strong with this one. His recent arrest saga (and rich telling of the story on Jimmy Kimmel) should prove that the fury of man lives on in him.

But society loves a louse. Nowadays, those brutal tendency that once kept us alive and outside the tangle of some saber-tooted creature or other is nothing more than a modern flaw. Kids are sent packing to therapy if they display aggressive behavior. Students are expelled for schoolyard brawling. Young girls are (finally) embarrassed of their Justin Bieber tattoos now that he’s a known scoundrel. Resolving any form of conflict through fisticuffs – be it at a bar or with Orlando Bloom on the streets of Ibeza – is entirely unacceptable and antisocial behavior. It’s a mark of the misanthropic. Were Bernthal’s “Coon-Ass” Travis outside the combat zone, he’d probably be padlocked in some jail. Violence is to be caged until it’s forcibly unleashed. Then what?

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Lerman’s Norman is a child of coddling; the anti-soldier. A learned youth. A wannabe pacifist. His moral integrity is respectable anywhere but on the battlefield. And yet here it’s as useful as a pin-less grenade on your belt. On a global scale, physical force is the only way conflicts are ultimately resolved. History (sadly) suggests there is no alternative. The self-propelling force of violence cannot be quelled. Fury requires force and force requires fury.

Hitler required more than a stern talking to. Mussolini needed that noose like Michael Fassbender needs an Oscar. The time for spanking Kony has come and gone. In schools, we punish the bullies. In war, they’re awarded metals of honor. In politics, they move their way to the top. The dichotomy of war and peace, of good and evil, becomes foggy in the midst of mayhem. Good and bad lose meaning. There’s victory or there’s defeat. Mussolini’s ragged body was displayed for the world to see. Even the pacificts cheered. Men abandon their Christian names in favor of war names like snakes shedding their skin. Only on the front line is Wardaddy an agreeable, if not entirely complimentary, moniker.

Less a southern drawl, Pitt steps into the similarly-sized Nazi-hating shoes that Aldo Raine once occupied and though less pulpy and chewy, Wardaddy is a character with three dimensions. He commands his platoon with the unrequited cool of a Mohawk. Each of his subordinates refuse to fight for anyone but him and we believe we know why. His battered war scars go unexplained. His search for goodness goes unrewarded. He is the crossroads of peace and war.

Just as his ragged band of brothers refuse to quit on “the best job they ever had”, Ayer refuses to speak with a whimper. Loose flaps of facial features debunk Spielbergian romanticization of the past. Tank-flattened bodies take it a step further, screaming out just how menacing (and nonchalant about its menacing) antiquity truly is. It’s so far worse than buck up or die. You have to shrug too.

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Half-way through, Ayer taunts us with a flicker of normality. Wardaddy and Norman play house with a pair of defeated German vixens. The holed up frauleins shutter at what Dennis Reynolds would refer to as “the implications.” But as Wardaddy disrobes from his camos, he becomes Don Collier. Humanity hides behind a uniform. Uniformity hides our humanity. Sans his battle wear, Don Collier is just another man in desperate search of normalcy. But entropy rules all and unless you’re Sergeant Keck blowing off your butt, you can’t contain a bomb in war. While War Horse neighed it’s way to an Oscar nom, Ayer presents War Whores before blowing it all up. Our orchestrated response is the difference between sentimentality and sin mentality. Only when every last sacred thing is destroyed do we fully become monsters.

To boil Ayer’s masterful Fury down to “war is hell” is to ricochet off the mark. To call it a movie without subtext is to poke holes in a block of swiss. The themes stare you in the face, they thump into your cranium and they sick in your soul. They bear witness to wartime masculinity pig-piling on itself in a nasty, self-fulfilling prophecy that causes and perpetuates war. The rally speeches become just as dangerous as the nuclear weapons. The hoorahs build into their own Manhattan Projects. It’s only when people are faced with making a humane decision out from under the proverbial spotlight that they can choose to not necessarily be the monsters that they pretend to be. A final moment circles this truth and provides a poignant and biting truth. Hope exists.

With Steven Price‘s smoky, chanting, eerie and entirely unsentimental score ripping through, we see but a faint gasp of humanity under the malevolence of battle. The largest blow back of war is not the death of humans, Ayer reiterates, but of humanity. With Roman Vasyanov elevated cinematography, Ayer shines a light into the maw of hell and but doesn’t necessarily report back what he sees. Maybe it takes silence to overcome the cycle. Because if violence begets violence, world politics is on an infinite domino track. The next 236 years of America will likely be uninterrupted wartime. The continuum is a Rube Goldberg of death and destruction that always circles back in the end. Fury rules all. The bullies in life may find themselves suspended but they’ll likely end up policing the world.

Fury harnesses the spirit of war, of unchecked testosterone, of sacrifice and mayhem, wads it up into a spitball and blows it in the face of the politicians, the warmongers and the jingoistic, all of whom, ironically enough, will probably love this film. Though my thoughts on it are yet to be fully fully formed, it’s a film that I absolutely loved every second of. I’m still working through some of the thematic elements that many others have hurriedly pushed off to the side. One thing is certain: Fury houses the best ensemble cast 2014 has yet seen. Each blew me away in one form of another. If my thoughts seem scattered, it’s because they was forged in an emotional whirlwind. Even five days later, I’m still spinning.

A+

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SXSW Review: CESAR CHAVEZ

“Cesar Chavez” 
Directed by Diego Luna
Starring Michael Pena, Rosario Dawson, John Malkovich, America Herrera, Kevin Dunn, Mark Moses, Michael Cudlitz
Biography
PG-13

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For a biopic about a man with steely resolve and an unflinching soul, Cesar Chavez lacks the laser focus and steadfast heartbeat of an exemplar, or even a worthy apprentice. It’s a soft-skinned take on a boulder of a man, a notebook sketch of a behemoth. Not fearless enough to nose the camera in the dramatic mire, like a soldier to the cause in a personal guerrilla war, Diego Luna‘s film beckons a paint-by-numbers summary of the man’s greatest achievements, the spark notes of a six-plus year period that glosses all with thin coats, rarely taking the opportunity to remain in the moment and settle in with the hard-won emotional beats of the characters.  

Chavez himself earned popularity and legitimacy in the thick of the issues, making those things he stood for inseparable from his own problems. The issues of his brothers were not theoretical troubles but matters to immerse himself in. Rather than stand idle in the soft florescence of an office, Chavez took to backbreaking labor working the fields in the blinding California sun. But instead of going out to the battlefield and working shoulder-to-shoulder like the eponymous character, Luna’s film takes the straight and narrow, delivering a softball pitch right over the plate. Like Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom before it, Cesar Chavez tries to take on too much without ever going deep enough in any particular plot of emotional soil. Trying to sow too many acres with too small a hoe, Luna’s spreads his seed thin. Accordingly, his efforts rarely solidify into the powerhouse moments they ought.

Playing it close to his chest and obviously passionate about the subject, Luna’s intentions are in the right place, he just so happens to make a dire mistake. He memorializes rather than understands. Chavez is a gentle obituary, not the scathing meditation that makes for good film. As this fact solidifies, Luna’s attempts to piece everything together feels like the King’s Men playing at Dumpty Humpty. Chavez, in truth, is a series of vignettes, cut with the themes of self-sacrifice and family but these elements are left dealt with in afterthought, never something tight and essential to the piece.

When I heard that Michael Pena – a massively talented and massively underrated actor – would finally get a certifiable leading role, I was frankly delighted and my interest in this project spiked. But taking up the mantle of Chavez, it feels that Pena got too wrapped up in mimicry. Luna’s camera doesn’t help though, it’s too flighty for any of Pena’s dramatic gravitas to settle in. Bogged down in photocopying, impersonating Chavez’s choppy cadence, his signature blend of TexMex intonation and penguin-like gait, there isn’t room for honest emotional reflection. Even a dressed down Rosario Dawson, playing up the chameleonesque nature of her illusive roots, is robbed of a single moment worth remembering. Such is the nature of the performances here; they’re squashed, condensed and never given room to breathe. For all the opportunity Chavez ought to afford Pena to stand out in a harrowing and brilliant performance, he never really has much of a chance to shine. He’s a flashlight in midday, washed out by everything else, unnoticeable from twenty feet away. But Pena can’t truly be blamed for the pockets of problems Chavez runs into. The issues are inherent in a script this deferential.

Too often are biopics achieved as glossaries, skimping over events like a sleep-deprived college student licking their thumbs and skimming as hard as they can. The best film biographies though don’t worry about the events so much as the emotions behind them. They need characters, and if sometimes that means bending the rules, so be it. The reason The Social Network was so compelling was not because Jesse Eisenberg was a pitch perfect Xerox of Mark Zuckerberg but because we had a crystal clear notion of who he was, whether that was necessarily Zuckerberg or not. Watching Idris Elba do Mandela or Pena do Chavez means nothing if we never reach a greater sense of what makes these men tick. We know the history, now deliver the feelings.

C-

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Out in Theaters: AMERICAN HUSTLE

“American Hustle”
Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Pena, Robert De Niro
Crime, Drama
138 Mins
R
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However great all of the performances in American Hustle are, great performances do not a great movie make. This kooky tale of maladjusted thieves, sleezy politicians and unscrupulous government employees is rich with standout performances – particularly from proven powerhouses Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence – but director David O. Russell‘s identity as an “actor’s director” has taken precedence over his being an effective storyteller.

The film opens with a telling long shot in which Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld is going about the delicate process of putting together his elaborate comb-over. He’s got little hair to work with – and the thatched mop he’s got to work with is straggly and thin – so he glues clumps of hair-like substance to rake the real hair over. The final product isn’t pretty but it’s better than before. This strange but captivating opening scene is an unintentional metaphor for the movie at large – a little bit of story, padded with movie-like substance, and combed over with the icing that is these great performances. It may look passable when all is said and done but you have to know that inside, it’s a bit hollow.

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Post-comb job scene, we discover we’re in media res con, somewhere halfway down the line where Irving has teamed with  Bradley Cooper‘s Richie DiMaso and Amy Adams‘ Sydney Prosser. They’re on their way to bribe a pompadoured Jeremy Renner‘s Mayor Carmine Polito because… well we find out later. But rather than set us on the edge of our seats with this choice to begin in the midst of things, we’re only slightly intrigued and are hardly left anticipating what the hell is gonna happen next. This isn’t Fight Club. There isn’t a gun in anyone’s mouth. So why bother starting somewhere down the line at all if that moment is just arbitrary? While this hardly creates a huge issue story or structure-wise, it is a symptom of the larger issues at play.  

Since American Hustle is a story about con men told through the lens of various con men (Bale, Adams and Cooper each provide voice-over narration), we’re never really sure who is and who isn’t reliable narrator. While this worked wonders for the likes of The Usual Suspects (although I personally was never won over by that film), the effect here is exaggeratedly diminished and feels like a last-minute attempt to pull the rug from beneath the audience’s feet rather than an astonishing story turn.

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As for the variety of voice-over work that seeks to fill in the blanks on character’s histories, backstories, relationships and anything else that passes for pertinent information, there is definitely far too much on the table. Having one narrator is fine (in the right circumstances) but having three is plain overkill. If anything, it’s an indication that O. Russell needed to patch up the narrative and beef up scenes shared between characters. Infamous as a story crutch, voice over is very hit or miss and here, it’s mostly a miss. Show, don’t tell. It’s filmmaking 101.

Even with all the disappointment found in the story’s patchiness, American Hustle does have one thing in spades: fantastic performances. Everybody in the cast shines in their distinctive roles, each throbbing with eccentricity and lighting up the scenes beyond anything going on behind the camera. Assured yet another nomination at this year’s ceremonies, Lawrence proves that her Academy Award was no fluke. Her haphazard Rosalyn is a revelation and whenever she pops up she steals the scene. Her riotous “science oven” scene is sure to be the talk of the town come Christmas.

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Bale too is on his A-game, offering another performance in which he not only completely changes his body-type but his persona entire. Character-wise, he’s painted with complexity and jostles back and forth between empirical confidence and shady anxiety with the effortlessness of an acrobat. Physically, his swinty eyes and schlubby build is a whole new ballpark for the usually hunky Bale. Although he’s gained quite the reputation for his physical transformations, there’s always something more to his embodying his characters that goes far beyond physicality. The man is a chameleon and, once more, he’s able to convince us of that he is someone else entirely.

Cooper’s zany FBI agent Richie DiMago also steals scenes like its his job. His manic behavior and shotgun psyche are built for an actor’s showcase and Cooper doesn’t fail the character. While DiMago lacks the roundedness of Cooper’s Silver Linings Playbook headliner, Pat, he is truly an actor coming into his own, proving that he can be oh so much more than just a comic actor. For her part, Adams  also shows off why she is so valued in the thespian community even though the script doesn’t provide her with as many flashy moments as her co-stars. So though she tends to fall to the back of the pack in terms of wowing performances, she is still as solid as ever.

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Smaller bit roles from Renner, Louis C.K.Michael Peña, and a quick, uncredited pit stop with Robert De Niro all have their moment in the sun and help to shape American Hustle into what could confidently be called the best ensemble performance of the year. As I mentioned earlier though, great performances are only one faction of a film’s impact and although the acting is this movie is grade-A stuff, the story lingers around a C.

You could probably also say that my expectations were too high going into American Hustle (I was ready to jam it in my top ten before even seeing it) but I don’t think that really accounts for all the disappointment found here. Just writing this review and finding out that the movie was over two-hours long shocked me. I hardly remember it being nearing two-hours and there was surely no need for the length in a movie that already felt light on story. Then again, maybe that fact that I didn’t notice how long it was is an indication of my enjoying the film. And don’t get me wrong, the performances are inspired, fine-tuned, and just plain lovely and the film itself is a lot of fun. Unfortunately though, it stops there. Instead of reaching for the stars, it settles with being fun and stuffed with great acting. Next time, I hope O. Russell pushes for that extra mile.

B-

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Bale Leads Second AMERICAN HUSTLE Trailer

Christian Bale stars in 'American Hustle,' due out in December. 
As the Oscar race heats up more and more by the minute, American Hustle remains one of the biggest unknown contenders. Directed by David O. Russell and featuring a truly all-star cast of Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Robert De Niro, Michael Peña, Louis C.K. and Amy Adams, American Hustle could potentially be O. Russell’s third major Oscar player in a row. 

With a year crowded with great performances, there’s no saying if O. Russell’s acting nomination hot streak will continue or who of his cast will receive the bulk of the accolades. Taking a look at this second trailer, who do you think looks the most likely to snag a nom?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5Cb4SFt7gE

American Hustle is directed by David O. Russell and stars Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Robert De Niro, Michael Peña, Louis C.K. and Amy Adams. It opens in limited theaters on December 13 and opens wide on December 25.

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