Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: Lovelace (2013)

Directed by Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Starring Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick
Rating: 5 out of 10

There’s an interesting, perhaps even good, movie to be made from the story of Deep Throat and its star, Linda Lovelace. Even though it has moments of almost brilliance and some fine performances, Lovelace’s scantily clad script does a disservice to the story behind the world’s first mainstream porn film.

In fact, Lovelace, which was released yesterday to VOD, iTunes, and theaters, isn’t sure what story it wants to tell: scintillating behind-the scenes tell-all or a cautionary tale of a small-town girl being lead astray by the wrong guy? It actually tries for both, separating the film into two acts told from different perspectives.

Act One is the love story between Linda and her husband, Chuck Trayner, who convinces a starry-eyed girl with an unusual talent to give pornography a chance. She auditions, cute as a button, the proverbial girl-next-door. She gets the part and finds herself in a limelight she didn’t ask for but that she seemingly embraces, running in circles that include Sammy Davis Jr. and Hugh Hefner.

Cue Act Two. Linda and Chuck’s story is actually a nightmare. He controls and dominates her, forcing her into pornography to pay off his bad debts. She makes $1250 for her work in Deep Throat. (The movie goes on to gross upwards of half a billion dollars.) Hubby borrows more, creates an industry around the degradation of his infamous wife. When she speaks out of turn, dares to take a moment to enjoy her new found stardom, or, goodness forbid, talks to others about the money she might earn, he brutalizes and humiliates her. Eventually she gets away (even though the film never addresses how), marries another man, has a child, and writes a book about her horrific marriage and her, as it’s put in the film, “17 minutes working in the porn industry.”

Both acts run about 40 minutes each. Maybe there wasn’t enough time. Maybe the filmmakers were too ambitious to try and tell Linda’s story as well as that of Deep Throat’s. Maybe I’m just making excuses. Ultimately, there’s no meat (sorry, bad pun…not the first here and it won't be the last) to either story. So much could have been done with Linda’s story alone: here was a woman who was exploited in the worst possible way. She was forced into pornography by an abusive husband and kept under his thumb by a society—even at the height of supposed sexual and feminist revolutions—that valued and forced a woman’s deference to her man. But, somehow, despite these odds compounded by the allure of stardom, she got away and found a way to find herself and a normal life. THAT is the movie I want to see. Lovelace is a squandered opportunity.

That isn’t to say there isn’t something to like about Lovelace. That something, or someone as the case may be, is Amanda Seyfried. I remember her mostly as the eldest daughter on HBO’s Big Love and while she was fine there, she’s stellar as Linda—her doe eyes are perfect to convey the innocent-cum-seductive nature of Linda. Even though she isn’t given much to work with, Seyfried makes Linda feel like a real person, someone who is bigger and more important than the porn film for which she's best known.

The supporting cast is also strong, especially Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick as Linda’s long-suffering mother and father. There’s one scene in particular in which Linda’s father admits to having seen his daughter’s film that’s heartbreaking and hints at what this film could have been.

Overall, Lovelace isn’t a disaster; at times it’s even interesting, but it’s not the film this story deserves. Lovelace was caught in production hell for a couple of years. At one point, the train-wreck-formerly-known-as-Lindsey-Lohan was cast as Linda. Lindsey, in her sober days, might have been able to pull off the role and do it well, but producers clearly saw a need to move on with someone new. It’s just too bad they didn’t do the same after re-reading the script.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 in Review: Most Disappointing

Let's get this out of the way: Most Disappointing doesn't mean "worst." I actually hate "worst films of the year" lists for this very reason: the films that end up on them are either obvious (e.g. Scary Movie 27) or are blockbusters or  high profile films that weren't terrible, but simply not good enough.

The films that appear on this list--which are, by the way, in no particular order--aren't bad movies. As a matter of fact, I'd encourage you to see any of them, but a word of caution: keep your expectations reasonable.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Directed by Lynne Ramsey
Starring Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly
Available on DVD, digital download

This one is a bit of a cheat: We Need to Talk About Kevin came out in 2011 but was only released wide to theaters early in 2012 after strong critical acclaim and a screening at the Cannes Film Festival that stunned the audience.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is based on a book of the same name by Lionel Shriver. The novel is written as a series of letters by a woman named Eva to her estranged husband. The letters reflect on their life together, the love they shared, and the guilt she feels for how things turned out, especially in regards to their son, Kevin, and an event she only refers to in the vaguest of terms until the end of the book. I adored the novel; it was one of those rare books that made me literally laugh and wept. By the end, I cared for Eva and her family--even Kevin, who, for many reasons, doesn't deserve much sympathy.

So, yes, my expectations were high. And, maybe that's why the final product was such a disappointment. To my mind, the film missed an opportunity. The book's tone is harrowing and emotional, but it asks a very important question: are monsters born or made? What responsibility does the parent of a killer have? The film adaptation simply dips its toe in the water in this regard.

I also didn't understand some of the filmmakers' creative choices. For example, the first third of the movie--before you really understand why we need to talk about Kevin--is bathed in a sea of crimson foreshadowing the horror to come. I felt like I was being beaten over the head with the implications. (Look! Eva has what looks like blood on her hands!)

The always amazing Tilda Swinton as Eva and John C. Reilly in a rare dramatic role as her husband lead the fantastic cast. The performances are spot-on, but they aren't enough to save the effort, which feels hollow as the story's nature-versus-nurture theme is lost in the shuffle of art house parlor tricks.

The Dark Knight Rises
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Available on DVD, digital download

I realize it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for Nolan to top, or even match, what he accomplished with The Dark Knight--a near perfect superhero movie, realistic without being too self-conscious, true to the comics without being self-indulgent. Even giving Nolan & Co. the slack they deserve, The Dark Knight Rises is a tepid, muddled affair that isn't a worthy ending to the trilogy.

Logic also takes a vacation (spoilers incoming): Batman/Bruce Wayne takes an 8 year hiatus (really?), holed up in a corner of Wayne Manor no one dares to tread--except Selena Kyle aka Catwoman, who steals the Wayne Family jewels while taking Bruce his daily bread. Bruce becomes intrigued, decides to rejoin society only to discover Wayne Enterprises is practically bankrupt (no one thought to tell him?). Meanwhile, new nemesis Bane (a highlight of the film, played by Tom Hardy) attacks the Gotham stock exchange, terrorizes the traders, and has a program installed that will wipe out Wayne's fortune. Apparently no one ever told him about the virtues of working remotely. Anyway...despite the fact that obviously an evil mastermind was behind Bruce's sudden poverty status, the power company shuts off the lights at Wayne Manor and Bruce gets it on with a mysterious, wealthy woman who wants to invest in Wayne Enterprises and take charge of a secret, energy project the company was overseeing. The sex is good and she gets her wish, but it turns out she's evil and she wants to use that secret energy project to destroy Gotham. Turns out Bane and mystery lady kinda-sorta grew up together so she employs Bane's services to take over all of it. He blows up bridges leading out of the city and a football field just to show he's serious. Oh, and all 3,000 (yes, you're reading that number correctly) of Gotham's police officers were under ground at the time of the explosion effectively imprisoning them. Now, that's some poor planning. But, it's worst for Bruce Wayne whose existential crisis on the meaning of being Batman allows him to be lead to Bane's secret lair by Selena Kyle, who's trying to curry favor to get her hands on some mythical computer program that will allow her to erase her past. Bane breaks the Bat, throws him down a hole in a prison in the middle of the desert--which appears to be just outside of Gotham--and for the next 30 minutes Bruce can only watch (the prison in a hole in the desert gets cable!) Bane terrorize the dear citizens of Gotham he cared so much about that he took a 8 YEAR VACATION. Finally, Bruce finds his inner Bat, defeats Bane, and commits "suicide" aka making baby eyes with Selena at a cafe in Italy.

The Dark Knight Rises isn't a bad movie, but it's silly. This trilogy deserved a better ending.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman
Now in Theaters

The Hobbit, as a book, is about a quarter the length of The Lord of the Rings, the inspiration for Jackson's last trip into the world of hobbits, dwarves, and wizards from the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien. Three films were needed to tell that story--the same cannot be said for The Hobbit. What made The Lord of the Rings trilogy such an astonishing film experience was the depth of its story-telling. Peter Jackson brought the world to life, but it was the source materials that gave the films its soul.

Likely because of the lack of material to cull from, The Hobbit's first of three installments--An Unexpected Journey--commits the greatest sin a movie like this can: its boring. It doesn't help that it clocks in at a mind-bogglingly bloated 160 minutes. Scenes stretch on and on, unconstrained and without purpose.

The biggest problem here, I think, might be Peter Jackson. Brilliant director, no doubt about that, but as someone who has already been there and back again into the world of Tolkien, he might just be too close to the material to do The Hobbit justice. It doesn't feel like its own movie, but, rather, a dull retread of where we've already been.

Coming Up: My Favorite Films of 2012

Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in Review: Most Surprising

2012 was a good and surprising year for film. As the year draws to a close, it's the surprises I want to focus on first. I love it when a film is more than I expected or different (in a good way) than I hoped.

Here's a look back at my biggest cinema surprises of 2012:

The Queen of Versailles
Directed by Lauren Greenfield
Available on DVD, digital download

During 2012's divisive Presidential campaign, a timeshare mogul named David Siegel sent a letter to his employees telling them it was in their own best interests to cast their votes for Mitt Romney. You see, according to Siegel's logic, another Obama term meant higher taxes for the wealthy so that meant he would have to begin to lay people off. So the message was: my guy wins or you lose your job.

The Queen of Versailles began its life as a way to document Siegel, his wife, Jackie, and their attempts to build the largest house in the United States--a 90,000 square foot behemoth the couple dub "Versailles" after the royal chateau in France. In the middle of construction, the financial crisis necessitates a very different type of film. As Siegel's timeshare business feels the crunch of banks turning off their spigots, construction stops and the family must face some harsh financial realities.

While nothing about the Siegels is subtle and its hard to feel sorry for a family whose idea of cutting back is having to continue to live in their 30,000 square foot home, The Queen of Versailles does a good job of providing a bit of humanity to the so-called 1%. While I will never support or be able to grasp the arrogance of David Siegel's election email to his employees, The Queen of Versailles helped me understand why he did it: survival.

Directed by Rich Moore
Featuring the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch

I never thought I would be able to say this, but am pretty happy I can: this year, with Wreck-It-Ralph, Disney came out ahead of Pixar.

While Pixar's Brave was a disappointment--plodding and obvious--Wreck-It-Ralph was full of unabashed joy. This story of an old-school video game villain searching for his place in the (virtual) world is a charming confection full of fun and funny. Wreck-It-Ralph went retro to capture the hearts of nostalgic adults with nods to Nintendo and Atari (a down-and-out Q-Bert!), but also included more contemporary video game staples, including Calhoun, a bad-ass sergeant (voiced by the fabulous Jane Lynch) trying to stop a big, bad bug invasion within a Candy-Land-like racing game.

Calhoun wasn't the only great female in Wreck-It-Ralph: Sarah Silverman plays Vanellope, a candy-colored would-be race driver who discovers what she's truly capable of. In a year where Pixar wanted little girls to connect with Brave's Merida, Wreck-It-Ralph offered better female role models and more for everyone to cheer about.

Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Daniel Craig, Judy Dench, Javier Bardem
Now in Theaters

Before I talk about Skyfall, I want to address Quantum of Solace--Bond's last outing. I didn't get it at first. It's a heavy film; one that's much more severe in tone than any other Bond. Since that initial viewing, I've had the opportunity to see Quantum as it was intended: as an extension of Craig-as-Bond's first film, Casino Royale. Quantum picks up as Royale ends with Bond looking to understand the betrayal and death of Vespa Lynd, a woman that had him convinced to give up Queen and Country. Both films feed into one another with the tone coming around to a much more somber and subdued Bond than we've seen before.

And that's what made Skyfall such a surprise.

While Skyfall starts with a brooding and broken Bond, he finds his wry wit again setting up future Bond films for a much a lighter and familiar tone (although think more Sean Connery than Pierce Brosnan). Add to that: a fabulously devious and not-to-be-forgotten villain (Bardem), solid pacing, and action enough to make the film feel brisker than its 143 minute run time.

I do have a few complaints--most namely the end of an era (if you've seen the movie, you'll known what I mean)--but Skyfall made me excited to see what happens next.

Stay tuned--my favorite and most disappointing movies of 2012 to come!

G.B.U. Review: Looper (2012)

Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels
Now Available on DVD, Digital Download

Gordon-Levitt and Willis star as young and old versions of Joe, a "looper"--basically a hitman whose targets are sent back in time to him from the future by his employer, an all-powerful crime syndicate. The pay is good, but the benefits suck: A looper's contract is up when he's forced to kill his 30 years older self aka "closing the loop." Needless to say, Old Joe refuses to go quietly into that good night. 

The Good: Looper offers an interesting, if thin as presented, premise. Johnson creates a world that looks a lot like our own, but--given the year is 2044--adds enough touches to remind you that you're in the future. He imbues everything with the same sodden colors and heavy atmosphere as his previous films, such as the fantastic Brick. The acting is all fine, but the scenes with Jeff Daniels bring a much needed lightness to an otherwise very somber film. 

The Bad: The last third of the film focuses on a subplot involving a little boy who may or may not grow up to be a killer crime lord that's prematurely closing loops in the future. While this does come back around to the main story about Joe, the introduction of the boy and his mother (played by Blunt) feels slapdash--like I was watching another movie laid over the original. 

The Ugly: While I appreciate the filmmakers attention to detail, Gordon-Levitt's prosthetics to make him look more like Old Joe, that is Willis, were a bit distracting. 

The Bottom Line: There's a great film in the idea of having to kill your future self (and that future self knowing you're coming), but Looper isn't quite it. Despite my misgivings though, Looper is still a really solid and entertaining entry in the sci-fi genre. 

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Review: Django Unchained (2012)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Rating: 9 out of 10

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is everything fans of the writer/director have come to expect: violent, offensive, and uncomfortably funny. It is also an important and brutal film about America’s uneasy relationship with slavery and racism. 

The second film in what Tarantino calls his “revisionist history” period, Django Unchained begins in the dead of night with German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter, Dr. King Schultz (another brilliant performance from German TV star, now Tarantino favorite Christoph Waltz), stopping a couple of slave traders taking their bloody and bound “property” through the backwoods of Texas. Schultz is looking for one specific man--Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave whose previous owners are wanted for murder. 

Schultz, who sees the parallels between what he does and slavery (“I trade bodies for money.”), nevertheless finds the idea of and the people connected with slavery abhorrent. He is the film’s reluctant moral core even as he admits that purchasing Django--despite his intention to give the man his freedom--will allow Schultz to make money by identifying and killing his bounty. 

Eventually, the two find Django’s previous owners and, while Django earns his freedom, the former slave shows a natural marksman talent, making him a perfect partner for Schultz, who feels a strange responsibility for the man he once, albeit briefly and for a singular purpose, owned. That partnership grows into a friendship as Schultz agrees to help Django find and buy freedom for his wife, Broomhilda--a former house slave who was so brutally punished for an escape attempt that her scars only make her acceptable for the job of providing men “comfort.” 

She is owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a charming and giddy man who treats black people like dogs and commodities, seeing no issue with fighting them for his own amusement while pondering why they don’t rise up and kill their owners. Schultz and Django hatch a plan to make them the welcome guests of Candie’s southern plantation (appropriately named “Candie Land”) and, hopefully, through a fair amount of subterfuge, buy Broomhilda her freedom. 

With Django Unchained, Tarantino has made, what in modern times and on paper, must have seemed like an impossible film. It's unflinching in its portrayal of America’s relationship to slavery. Even in the film’s most absurdly hilarious moments--there’s one in particular involving a discussion of KKK masks--there’s an underlying heartlessness and cruelty that makes the laughter awkward and frightening. While the film is never uncomfortable with itself, it wants its audience--no matter their race--to feel uneasy.  Unlike historical dramas, Django holds a mirror up to the audience, not allowing them to take a scholastic approach to slavery and the backwards ideas that allowed it to happen. 

By being so entertaining, Django makes the audience complicit in the history, in the brutality. In this way, Tarantino has pulled off something amazing--a film that deserves more than cult status, one that should be studied and talked about. One that could have been a masterpiece. 

And then Tarantino got self-indulgent. 

Sadly, the last 20 minutes of Django devolve into a revenge fantasy. This is all the more disappointing  because these waning moments begin with a stunning and powerful scene between Candie and Schultz--two men who have vastly different relationships to slavery but have both used it as a means to an end. It could be argued that given the fact that Django is intended as a throwback to spaghetti westerns that Tarantino’s choice to make the main character something just short of a superhero in the final frames could be excused.  But, given what comes before it, I would have preferred an ending that was less bloody and not as neatly wrapped up. 

Django Unchained is and will continue to be a controversial film. It can’t be easily categorized or discussed. There are few heroes and some of the monsters are easier to like. It is a challenging and violent film that won’t be for everyone, but wrapped not-so-tightly in Tarantino’s signature dialogue and humor, is a conversation about our past and what it says about our humanity.