Wednesday, August 21, 2013

On "Lee Daniels' The Butler"


From The Dispatch:
It mostly feels like a lot of stunt casting, which is part of what makes "The Butler" so hard to take seriously, but it's just so earnest, so completely invested in its story, that it's hard not to get caught up in it. This is a film with a huge heart, and while it may seem a bit like "Forrest Gump," Daniels and his sprawling cast throw themselves into it with such conviction that it works in spite of itself. 
Click here to read my full review.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

On "Elysium"


From The Dispatch:
The film certainly looks great and features a terrific score by newcomer Ryan Amon, but the characters feel like laughable caricatures, woefully undeveloped and cartoonish. The action sequences are so frenetically edited that they lack cohesion, leaving the film without a narrative drive. 
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

On "Fruitvale Station"


From The Dispatch:
What one takes from "Fruitvale Station" depends a lot on what one brings to the table. It is a relentlessly devastating film, a film of great sadness, acted and directed with great dignity and a remarkable frankness. Jordan is terrific as Oscar, but Octavia Spencer's performance as Oscar's mother is truly heartbreaking. 

Click here to read my full review.

On "The Wolverine"


From The Dispatch:
It lacks the ambition and scope of many other recent superhero films, but that's what sets it apart from the pack. "The Wolverine" is content to be smaller, more intimate, not trying to outdo its predecessors but scaling back the action to focus on one single character's journey. And in Mangold's capable hands that journey is a compelling one, making "The Wolverine" a breath of fresh air for a tired genre.
Click here to read my full review.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Quick Review | "Drug War"

DRUG WAR
Directed by Johnny To
Stars Louis Koo, Honglei Sun, Yi Huang, Michelle Ye
Not Rated

"For whoever wills to save his soul, destroys it; but whoever will give up his soul for my sake, this one saves it.” - Luke 9:24

Such is the case in Johnnie To's explosive new film, Drug War, a smoldering, exhilarating work of top notch action that transcends its genre roots and achieves something much greater.

As Steven Soderbergh's Traffic once reminded us, no one gets away clean, and in Drug War that rings even more true. The film follows a drug dealer who, in order to escape China's mandatory death penalty for drug dealers, strikes a deal with the police to become a mole and help expose a powerful crime boss who is holding Hong Kong in his grip.


Honor versus dishonor. Law versus lawlessness. To's flawless direction explores a world  colored in shades of gray that everyone involved in sees in black and white. Drug War is essentially a morality tale, but it's also a crackerjack action film, perhaps one of the great action films of the new century. The blood soaked finale is absolutely masterful filmmaking, but To especially excels in the film's quieter moments. Each moment means something, each cut, each shot - To crafts his film with great attention to detail so that nothing is wasted. It's economical filmmaking, but also brilliant filmmaking. To is a born storyteller, and his work here is nothing short of astonishing. Drug War is a great film - a film that takes a deeply complex subject and turns it into compelling drama without sacrificing its thematic integrity.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Now playing in select cities.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Review | "Viola"/"Museum Hours"

Art imitates, informs, guides, and ultimately enriches life in the two latest cinematic offerings from Cinema Guild, Viola and Museum Hours.

In Matías Piñeiro's lovely, enigmatic Viola, the art in focus is the work of William Shakespeare, whose comedy, Twelfth Night, is being performed by a group of actresses in front of a small audience. The size of the space makes for an intimate evening of theatre, so much so that the actresses can very easily see a peculiar audience member near the stage staring intently at one of them in particular.

The man in question turns out to be the boyfriend of Viola (which, incidentally, is the name of the lead character from Twelfth Night), the proprietor of a black market DVD burning business. Plot details are beside the point here because Piñeiro isn't concerned so much with a typical narrative. He's here to explore an idea rather than a story.

Agustina Muñoz (Cecilia) and María Villar (Viola) in Matías Piñeiro's VIOLA.
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Throughout Viola, Piñeiro picks up tiny story threads, dropping some, following others, feeling its way through a world unwittingly connected by Shakespeare. It's like a less obvious, more subtle version of a Paul Haggis film, where seemingly unconnected characters are joined by some unseen force, except here the connections are much more difficult to spot. Sometimes it's just the shadow of an idea, a kernel of a Shakespearean theme that takes hold in unexpected ways through the characters' own philosophical musings. The final scene is perhaps one of the most thrilling of the year, and it is built completely on idea put forth by one of Viola's friends to test whether or not her relationship is still fresh. The suspense of waiting for the key moment becomes one of the film's defining moments, and the denouement manages to be both joyous and heartbreaking. Even at only an hour long, Viola manages to pack an unexpected emotional wallop.

Jem Cohen's Museum Hours is less outwardly emotional, but perhaps even more thoughtful. There is quite a bit to chew on in its hour and a half running time, much of it spent in quiet reflection at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna, Austria.

Born out of Cohen's love of museums, the film centers around a guard who spends his days admiring the paintings and observing the patrons who come and go on a daily basis. His life is filled with art, day in and day out, but it isn't until he meets an eager foreigner that he begins to see his world through the eyes of someone discovering it for the first time.

But this seemingly romantic non-romance isn't really the focus here. As a tour guide explains of the art of Pieter Bruegel (whose work also inspired Lech Majewski's lovely film, The Mill and the Cross, just last year) to a know-it-all tourist - sometimes what seems to be the center of the work sometimes isn't meant to be the focus at all.

Bobby Sommer in Jem Cohen's MUSEUM HOURS.
 Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Such is the case with Museum Hours. It's more about the art, really, than the people. But what museum isn't? It is the work that has survived, and given pleasure to countless generations, and you can feel Cohen's love for it radiating off the screen. It's a mesmerizing meditation on the nature of art and the transience of human existence, as patrons come and go, the art remains - timeless, unchanging. Is art merely the trash of another time like our own? Will the discarded remnants of modern life one day be held in such high regard by the people of an unknown future? Life in transition slowly moving toward antiquity marks the core of Cohen's sublime and quietly engrossing exploration of the power of art to bind people together across the ages.

The same could be said of Viola as well - art is a universal constant, be it on stage or on a canvas or, in this case, on celluloid. The two films make a great double feature, two riffs on two strikingly similarly yet differently realized themes, once again demonstrating the great power of art to say things in a unique and memorable way while uniting human experience into something tangible Such is the hallmark of great filmmaking.

VIOLA - ★★★ (out of four)
MUSEUM HOURS - ★★★½ (out of four)

Both films are now playing in select theaters from The Cinema Guild.