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SXSW ’17 Review: ‘SMALL TOWN CRIME’

The great John Hawkes was relegated to character actor status for far too long. That wiry, weaselly-looking fella who’s cropped in all those movies and tv shows you love who you can never put a name to? It’s probably John Hawkes. In 2010, Hawkes received some long overdo attention with an Academy Award nominee for his portrait of an unsettling redneck in Winter’s Bone, helping pave the way for his arrival in Small Town Crime, the excellent neo-noir from writer-director sibling team Eshom and Ian Nelms. Read More

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Sundance ’16 Review: ‘THE FREE WORLD’

Jason Lew presents a bleak world of second chances and doomed romance in impact drama The Free World. Lew’s feature gives a Bonnie and Clyde twist to the “Romeo and Juliet” story and those willing to overlook some obvious symbolism will find a feature rich in subtext and striking performances. Featuring the always phenomenal Elisabeth Moss and a breakout performance from Boyd Halbrook as a pair of social outcasts who’ve found each other (and themselves) on the wrong side of the law – one an ex-con, the other the (ex-)wife of a violent cop – The Free World explores the spiritual poetry of redemption and religion through the lens of besting your former shadow. To quote Hemingway, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility to being superior to your former self.” Again, this idea of self-transcendence isn’t necessarily broached with a fistful of subtlety but the thematic elements are bolstered by the two convincing, whirlwind performances at its center. Read More

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Out in Theaters: GET ON UP

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Get On Up
doesn’t know how good Chadwick Boseman is. Bursting with energy, filled with soul and one-hundred-and-sixty-nine percent committed, Boseman is a firecracker. Hell, he’s straight dynamite. How appropriate that he plays the man they once called Mr. Dynamite. It’s a certifiable shame then that the movie that surrounds Boseman’s accomplished concerto of a performance is overstuffed, poorly edited and, like the king of soul himself, doesn’t know when to quit.

Tate Taylor‘s (The Help) second feature starts, as all musical biopics apparently must, with the long, lonely saunter up to a final show of sorts. Old and beleaguered with regret, the icon is but a silhouette dwarfed by the enormity of a vacant hallway. Cut to Old Man Brown quite apparently hopped up on something of the Schedule 1 variety ranting at a room full of bootstraps-business folks and waving a shotgun over his head. This made-up Boseman’s all gums and shades but the scene only manages to paint the man as a Looney Tune.

Cut to bedazzled, toe-tapping Brown all get-up and no humility barking at a press conference. Cut to 6-year old Brown and his backwoods family eking by in some pinewood shanty. His momma turns to prostitution and his daddy beats him raw. All he wants is a lullaby. Cut to a teenage Brown stealing a three-piece suit and getting five to 13 years for it. Cut some more.

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Cut, rinse, repeat. Cut, rinse, repeat. It allows for some mighty good scenes but makes for some mighty long-winded ones too. And while there’s lots rave-worthy stuck in there like gummies in a Cadbury Black Forest bar, the convoluted mess that is traveling from one scene to the next is an exercise in reckless abandon.  

If only the editors had the good sense to slash 30 minutes of the film, we could have been dealing with something great. Had he tightened it up like Brown did his facial skin around the 90s, Taylor might have been working towards a gold statue nomination. Trim the fat, Tate. Trim the fat.

As is, Get On Up is a mostly pleasing patchwork of scenes that each contribute to a time, a place, and a feeling that then gets all that jumbled up and mismatched. Elephant heads end up on rhino bodies. A scene where friends feud with no sign of respite fades into them being immeasurably close confidantes. It’s not that we’re not smart enough to connect the dots, it’s that we shouldn’t be forced to do that work for Taylor and co. It’s like watching someone try to piece a puzzle together with one bright, shining star at its center; a star so massive and so bright, it apparently blinds, distorts and sucks in everything around it.

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And boy oh boy is Boseman a star. As the one, the only James Brown, he’s surpassed impersonation, he’s transcended imitation. He lives and breathes James Brown. Every rubbery dance move, every superhuman split is Brown’s. That sagging eye and sneering falsetto; bonafide Brown. His salt-and-pepper speech crackles like a record player. I can’t tell if he’s actually singing or just doing the world’s best lip-synching. In all aspects, he’s Brown reborn.

Usually cloaked in beads of sweat, the character even gestures towards the camera every once in a while, occasionally monologuing in head-shaking fourth-wall breakage, but Boseman’s so catastrophically good that you actually welcome it. And props to the makeup team who for once hit the nail on the head when they age the 32-year old talent well past his prime. He doesn’t look the flour-face abomination that is Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar. But then again, Brown 55-year old visage looked like a drooping eggplant anyways. He’s a supernova but he’s paying the hefty price of admission for it. You can’t be a sun and not get burned.

But again and again, we must reckon with the fact that Boseman is merely the Shamu to Get On Up‘s Sea World. He’s a mighty presence but you’ll soon discover there’s not much else to the park. His role in Get On Up is the equivalent of using morels to make a cream of mushroom soup. You’ve got the finest ingredient in the world and you’re watering it down with a pool of a blasé, sometimes even flavorless, base.

It’s as if the editors found his each and every scene too indispensable to hack so they just shrugged and left it all in there. But you’ve got to trim even the prized rose if you want to win the trophy. Taylor seems too scared to bust out even the measliest of trimmers and ends up stabbing himself in the foot for it. His repetition of form is so ad nauseum that you’d think the prankster was trying to rickroll us. But goddammit if Boseman is not his savior; his knight is shining purple sequin. He’s so good, I can’t help but hyperbolize some more.

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As Brown, Boseman’s got the magnetism of Tom Cruise, the jitters of Jagger, the paranoia of Scarface, the drive of Jordan Belfort and the moves that only Brown can call his own. He’s plays the Godfather of Soul like a black Marlon Brando. Commitment is his cup of tea. You believe it when he tells you he feels good. He even manages to dance circles around Academy Award-nominated co-stars Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis. And how perfectly suiting for a story about a man who the world could never keep up with.

And as much as it’s the story of Brown’s triumph, it’s also the story of his defeat. About his pride getting in the way of friends and family. About his shark and minnow relationship with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and how that would become the defining relationship in a string of failed ones. After all, you can move a million miles a minute but what’s all that fancy footwork worth if you don’t have anyone to share it with at the end of the day?

C+

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Out in Theaters: SNOWPIERCER

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Global climate change threatens the way of life as we know it (just ask Bill Nye for proof of that.) But not every ailment has an ointment as not every disaster has a solution. Snowpiercer examines a world where a fix-all mechanism for global warming has gone horrible awry and left the world as we know it in frosty tatters, where the only few survivors occupy a train that hasn’t stopped circling the planet for 17 years. It’s a bleak glance into a natural disaster the scope of which we can forecast but not prevent but the true terror lies not in the world outside the train, but the social order which takes hold within it. It’s a distinctly international story (with a cast that’s one gay guy shy of a Benetton ad) about standing up for what’s right and blowing shit up when it refuses to nudge. Rife with sociopolitical commentary and brimming with one-of-a-kind world-building, South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho looked like the perfect guy to take on a thinking man’s actioner of this breed. After all, who else would have dared to end this movie like he did?

When a Doc Brown of an experiment gone bonkers has blanketed the world in sub-zero temperatures and snowbanks the height of The Wall, the only survivors are forced to live out their existence on a deus-ex-machina of a bullet train called the Snowpiercer (from which the movie takes its namesake). The Earth we once inhabited is now one big snowy tundra, a white-washed arctic plains that you wouldn’t last a minute in without being transmogrified into a human popsicle as if from a spell cast in Frozen.  While all forms of life outside the confines of Snowpiercer’s steel belly have turned to ice sculptures, the engine – a figure of Godlike worship – keeps the remainder of humanity shielded from the chilly blast of frozen-over reality lurking just outside.

Inside the Snowpiercer though, a new social order has taken form, mimicking the unjust class ladder of society’s past. Not an improvement of civilization pre-Snowpiercer so much a magnified extension of it, the sociopolitical climate inside this Energizer bunny of a train is as icy as the winter chills outside it. In the front, passengers throb in beat-dropping clubs and eat their bi-annual plate of sushi while the tail section contains a gang of inexplicably reviled third-class citizens; they’ve no voice in their destiny, sparse food aside from black, gelatinous bars and often no extremities. This seems to be because whenever these tailies act out, a toothy bureaucrat (Tilda Swinton) plugs a metal band around their arm and pops it out of the train. Rather than turning dark with frost bite, their snow-blasted limbs take on a White Walker cool and are promptly ice-picked from their bodies. It’s no question that social justice has no chance to spark amongst the ranks of the have-nots.

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Their soot-faced languor and impossible quality of life catalyses an insurgency amongst the more able-bodied ranks, including Curtis (Chris Evans aka Captain America himself). Even in the face of C3PO-esque unlikely odds, this Winter Soldier has the brass to incite a doomed riot, leading a band of roguish anarchs that includes Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and quite limbless John Hurt towards the Snowpiercer’s engine and their ultimate redemption.

Along the way, Joon-Ho’s customary political undercurrents rage strongly but his critique is more wide ranging – and potentially even more damning – this time round. Snowpiercer is not a condemnation of government misconduct and fallibility (see: The Host) but of humanity itself. His latest film seems to say that humanity and inequality exist in symbiotic harmony and that one simply cannot exist without the other. Darwin’s survival of the fittest has never felt so punitive.

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The horrors of a socially enforced caste system are all the more distressing when magnified to this degree and Snowpiercer‘s cross section of inequality reveals spurring commentary on global disproportion that exists today. Sometimes you have to strip back the world to see the festering rot scurrying beneath and sometimes you have to cover it in ice to cull the warmth hidden inside. This way, it’s all the easier to pluck out the icy hearts that steer our world – or is it train? – towards a skewed and skewered social order from the fiery passion of human’s softer, more admirable side. It cuts in two ways: there’s always someone at the front of the train whose convictions have to be as chilly as their resolve in order to keep this train running. Is it then a coincide that injustice is spelled in just ice? (Sorry for the bad pun.)

And nothing speaks to this tattered circumstance more than the adroit set design from Ondrej Nekvasil who carves the train into reality without much use of CGI while amplifying the underlying themes of class oppression. If not entirely realistic (where do they all sleep?!?!), it’s still mighty impressive to behold and a lot of fun to journey through.

Using this mesmerizing set to the advantage of his storytelling is Joon-Ho’s strong suit just as his lack of knack for action is his Achilles’ heel. In the big spectacle scenes, his frantic camerawork proves that his ability to direct action leaves much to be desired. Though it may seem amiss to be complaining about these blockbusting portions of a movie clearly operating on more political tracks, the fact of the matter is that when Joon-Ho does take to showman scene work, he slips as if on black ice. And that’s not his only misstep.

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The language barrier between him and his cast seem to have gotten the better of some scenes, with hammy dialogue that just doesn’t roll off the tongue throwing a palpable stick in the spokes. While some of the performers are better able to gnaw into the campy dialogue (see: Swinton and her scene-chewing chompers), others, such as Evans, look caught off guard and quite frankly look silly when spewing a mouthful of affected jargon. It’s a relatively minor complaint in a movie that sees a frickin’ never-ending train as the means for surviving the next Ice Age but it was a hang up I wasn’t able to fully ignore.

This all comes to a head when you really stop to dissect the many parts and pieces of Snowpiercer but – much like the train itself – I can’t help but admire what an unconventional product it really is. Joon-Ho is as eccentric a filmmaker as you can get – after all he did make a monster movie that shifted towards the South Korean government being the ultimate baddie. This being his first go in English with a cast of this caliber, it’s no wonder that he’s got a little slop-rock in his ballad. But even the finest of tunes have a wrong note here and there. As such, Snowpiercer‘s messy but beautifully imperfect. After all, you can’t have your ice-cream cake and eat it too.

B

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