Thursday, March 20, 2014

"Enemy" Review

 “Chaos is order yet undeciphered"

That quote appears at the beginning of "Enemy" and it should be taken as a warning. Throughout its 90-minute running time, Enemy takes you down an unsettling path and doesn't let up until its shocking final shot. This film is director Denis Villeneuve's follow-up to "Prisoners", which came out last Fall, and if you thought the ending to "Prisoners" was baffling, it's child's play compared to this. As that quote suggests, no matter how crazy the final shot of Enemy seems on the surface, everything will start to make sense once you decipher it. It's a clever conclusion to an often tricky, clever little film, but the ultimate question is... does it all work?

"Enemy" stars Jake Gyllenhaal. This is his second collaboration with Villeneuve, after "Prisoners"(Enemy was shot first), and it's clear that the two have developed a great rapport with each other. What's remarkable about Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy is that he plays two roles and gives each character just enough subtle differences that helps you tell each one apart. He's very intriguing to watch in this film and he gives Enemy the necessary edge that it needs to keep it from falling apart. Enemy's premise is a bit too silly to justify the tone that Villenueve's going for, but Gyllenhaal is what makes the film consistently watchable.

Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal's primary role) is a history professor at a small college in Toronto. When he's not lecturing his students about fascism, Adam lives a very cyclical, monotone life. Every day, he's teaching, grading papers, and having meaningless sex with his girlfriend (played by Melanie Laurent). He occasionally gets a phone call from his mother, but feels no reason to return her calls. He's very sheltered, almost trapped in his little world, but this all changes when a colleague of his randomly recommends a movie to him.

Adam takes him up on the movie suggestion, but when he watches it, he notices something very odd: one of the characters in the film looks exactly like him. At first, he's just in disbelief, but his world quickly turns upside down when he eventually meets his doppelganger face to face.

Denis Villenueve demonstrates a remarkable sense of craft and style in this film, adding just enough visual flourishes to keep you hooked. Enemy's score, written by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans
consistently gives the impression that something strange is happening. It has a very uneasy, nervous, and paranoid feeling----which is exactly how Adam Bell feels.

Still, I could not help but feel that this serious exploration in style comes as quite a contrast to the actual story that's taking place. We hardly get a chance to explore the film's central premise before it all comes to a head. And while there are surely many context clues to help you understand what the film's going for, from a thematic standpoint, Enemy is a little too emotionless to let it all sink in naturally.

No matter how hard you try to piece this all together, you will never see the film's ending coming. I guarantee it. It's so sudden, so out of left-field that it really took me aback at first. The ending will baffle you, confuse you, it might even anger you. While there are definitive thematic implications surrounding the film's final shot, I keep thinking to myself whether the film really earned this shocking moment. Enemy is a very tricky, twisty thriller but there doesn't seem to be an emotional core. It has this thematic undercurrent of individuality and fascism, but there's not enough of an emotional pull to help you understand Adam Bell's struggles with the philosophical implications of what he's going through.

With Prisoners and Enemy, the one director that Denis Villeneuve reminds me of is David Fincher. This is definitely an apt comparison. They both are interested in exploring the thriller genre and their visual approach is actually quite similar. But whereas Fincher's style has become so intrinsically linked with the story and characters, Villenueve seems much more interested in theme. I would argue that Villenueve's interest in theme actually hurts both films. While I really enjoyed Prisoners, much more than Enemy, I often felt that the film's themes and characters were so closely linked together that there was very little room for these characters to breathe. They, in effect, become so single-minded in their actions that they start to feel secondary to theme.

By contrast, Fincher's Mark Zuckerberg and Lisbeth Salander feel much more free and open in their own cinematic worlds. While Zuckerberg may be a bit monotone and emotionally closed off from everyone else, you do get the sense that this is a three-dimensional character. Lisbeth Salander also feels like a character who brings more to the table than just being a tool to carry the plot forward. As much as Fincher is a visual master, he's just as interested in character, which is a very underrated aspect of him as a filmmaker. Villenueve has not really hit the sweet spot, that balance between theme, character, and story at least not between Prisoners and Enemy. If he were to let his characters breathe a little more in his story, allow there to be time to break through the rigid tone of each film, then I think he could wind up with something really fantastic. 

As it is, I don't think Enemy is a bad film, but it's not particularly good either. It's an intriguing film and it's topped off by a fantastic performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, but at a brisk 90 minutes, I definitely feel the story could have been fleshed out just a little bit. Melanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon barely have much to do other than to be sexual objects for both Gyllenhaal characters. Isabella Rosellini's character feels even more marginalized.

Once the initial shock of Enemy's ending begins to wear off, the film doesn't really leave much of an impression over time. I was definitely engrossed by the film throughout its running time and think that Villenueve's style is very intriguing. Knowing that Prisoners was filmed after Enemy, I get excited when I think about what this director is capable of. Maybe Enemy isn't as clever or sophisticated as it thinks, but with the right material, Denis Villenueve is on the verge of making something that will really knock us off our feet. Enemy feels little more than an intriguing stepping stone. Worth the watch, but proceed with caution.

Grade: B-

Monday, March 10, 2014

Nymphomaniac vol 1 review....

Since Nymphomaniac has been ripped in half and volume 1 is just half a movie, I'll wait until I see volume 2 and then I'll talk about Lars von Trier's latest.

That cool?

As it is, there are parts I like in volume 1 and parts that I'm not quite as enamored with. I'd give it about a B- so far, but it's ridiculous to grade half of a movie so, I'll hold my tongue until then.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

10 Famous People You May Have Forgotten Were Oscar Winners

My latest WhatCulture article:

Bad Words review

Is it safe to say there's a lot of good will directed towards Jason Bateman? Can anyone honestly say that they dislike the actor? He seems like such an affable guy and was so great in "Arrested Development" as Michael Bluth - the exasperated son of a family full of over-privileged idiots - that it's hard to be mad at him. He's the perfect "straight man." He's a self-less actor; he always seems willing to let someone else steal scenes from him. He made Will Arnett and David Cross five times funnier on the show. In movies, he's tried to be the same guy: letting Melissa McCarthy, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis be the "funny" ones while he plays the character that keeps it all together.

But Jason Bateman's movie choices have been far from perfect. He's been in many critically-panned comedies over the years; most notably, "Identity Thief" which co-starred the aforementioned McCarthy. With "Bad Words," Jason Bateman's directorial debut, you get the feeling that he feels your pain and wants to make it up to you. "Bad Words" feels like Bateman's earnest attempt at trying to make a good comedy. For the most part, he actually pulls it off pretty well thanks to a tight script, but it's clear that Bateman wanted to direct and star in this movie because he, for once, wants to play the "bad guy." And while there's nothing overtly wrong with his performance, it's a role that doesn't pack as big of a punch as you'd hope.

The premise is simple enough. Jason Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old high school dropout who decides to enter a spelling bee for kids, after finding a loophole which allows him to participate. Of course, his presence in the spelling bee incites the wrath of many parents. Thanks to his photographic memory, Guy wins spelling bee after spelling bee with great ease, which only pisses off these parents further. Throughout the film, Trilby is a mean, foul-mouthed jerk who refuses to befriend anybody until a sweet little Indian boy comes along who manages to soften him up slightly.

Guy Trilby isn't just entering these spelling bees for no reason. He's not a complete sociopath. But we don't find out the real reason why he's doing this until the very end. Too much of the film's 88-minute running time is spent wondering why Guy is doing what he's doing. Once it's revealed what his actual plan is, his actions suddenly seem much more understandable. However, one wonders if withholding this key piece of information for nearly 80 minutes was completely necessary. Does it not hinder the film that Guy Trilby is so single-minded in his actions? His revelation may be... revealing, but I would argue that it doesn't help to make his character seem that much more multi-layered, especially when we don't find out until very late in the game.

Jason Bateman does a solid job with the character, but my problem is that he tries too hard to justify Guy's actions. From the beginning, as he narrates, he assures us that there's a reason for his behavior. And then, sure enough, we find out that reason at the end. While I was charmed by Guy Trilby's crazy, childish antics, I didn't like how long I was forced to be left in the dark about what was wrong with him. Kathryn Hahn plays Jenny Widgeon, a reporter who follows Guy around and tries to get his story straight. At a certain point in the film, she finds out the key piece of information too in one of the few scenes where Guy Trilby is absent. And still, we're left in the dark. The ultimate reveal, while surprising, wasn't worth the 80-minute wait. We don't get enough time to ponder what it all means.

"Bad Words" has a great cast overall. Bateman definitely knows how to properly utilize character actors. He wisely brought in Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall, and Ben Falcone who are each able to keep up with the darkly-comic tone of the film. Even the little Indian boy, played by Rohan Chand, gives a cute, spirited performance.

While Kathryn Hahn is definitely welcome in any movie she appears in, I was a little disappointed with how her character was handled in the film. We get very little insight as to why she's so nice to Guy's character, other than the fact that she's interested in his story. The film forces the two to have meaningless sex on multiple occasions, which are merely played for cheap laughs. There just doesn't seem to be much of a handle on her character. Guy Trilby just seems unnecessarily mean-spirited at times. Not just mean-spirited, but way too tight-lipped, which prevents Bateman and Hahn from developing any chemistry together. It should have been much more fun to watch Hahn and Bateman go at it than it actually was. And, by the end, Hahn's character seems to just disappear altogether.

Overall, "Bad Words" is really just a conventional comedy in disguise. You have the mean guy who gets softened up by the quirks of a little boy and he winds up growing a heart at the end. Even Hahn's character points out Guy's similarities to The Grinch. "Bad Words" tries to throw you off with its hard-nosed approach. It tries to show off how mean and dark it is by throwing in a slew of R-rated insults. Letting Bateman's character mouth off towards pre-teens can be fun to watch, but really, "Bad Words" unfolds in a way that's pretty predictable. There's just not enough of a bite, too soft of a punch, for the movie to really land on you. There are quite a few humorous moments and it's a likable enough film, but it could have been darker. It could have taken a few more risks. And Bateman could have been a little more fun.

Grade: C+

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Really quick! Oscar predictions!

My predictions are in BOLD

Best motion picture of the year

  • “American Hustle” Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison and Jonathan Gordon, Producers
  • “Captain Phillips” Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca, Producers
  • “Dallas Buyers Club” Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter, Producers
  • “Gravity” Alfonso Cuarón and David Heyman, Producers
  • “Her” Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze and Vincent Landay, Producers
  • “Nebraska” Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, Producers
  • “Philomena” Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan and Tracey Seaward, Producers
  • “12 Years a Slave” Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen and Anthony Katagas, Producers
  • “The Wolf of Wall Street” Nominees to be determined
Achievement in directing
  • “American Hustle” David O. Russell
  • “Gravity” Alfonso Cuarón
  • “Nebraska” Alexander Payne
  • “12 Years a Slave” Steve McQueen
  • “The Wolf of Wall Street” Martin Scorsese
Performance by an actor in a leading role
  • Christian Bale in “American Hustle”
  • Bruce Dern in “Nebraska”
  • Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street”
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave”
  • Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club”
Performance by an actress in a leading role
  • Amy Adams in “American Hustle”
  • Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine”
  • Sandra Bullock in “Gravity”
  • Judi Dench in “Philomena”
  • Meryl Streep in “August: Osage County”

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
  • Barkhad Abdi in “Captain Phillips”
  • Bradley Cooper in “American Hustle”
  • Michael Fassbender in “12 Years a Slave”
  • Jonah Hill in “The Wolf of Wall Street”
  • Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyers Club”
Performance by an actress in a supporting role
  • Sally Hawkins in “Blue Jasmine”
  • Jennifer Lawrence in “American Hustle”
  • Lupita Nyong’o in “12 Years a Slave”
  • Julia Roberts in “August: Osage County”
  • June Squibb in “Nebraska”
Achievement in film editing
  • “American Hustle” Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten
  • “Captain Phillips” Christopher Rouse
  • “Dallas Buyers Club” John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa
  • “Gravity” Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger
  • “12 Years a Slave” Joe Walker
Achievement in cinematography
  • “The Grandmaster” Philippe Le Sourd
  • “Gravity” Emmanuel Lubezki
  • “Inside Llewyn Davis” Bruno Delbonnel
  • “Nebraska” Phedon Papamichael
  • “Prisoners” Roger A. Deakins
Adapted screenplay
  • “Before Midnight” Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
  • “Captain Phillips” Screenplay by Billy Ray
  • “Philomena” Screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
  • “12 Years a Slave” Screenplay by John Ridley
  • “The Wolf of Wall Street” Screenplay by Terence Winter
Original screenplay
  • “American Hustle” Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
  • “Blue Jasmine” Written by Woody Allen
  • “Dallas Buyers Club” Written by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
  • “Her” Written by Spike Jonze
  • “Nebraska” Written by Bob Nelson
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
  • “The Book Thief” John Williams
  • “Gravity” Steven Price
  • “Her” William Butler and Owen Pallett
  • “Philomena” Alexandre Desplat
  • “Saving Mr. Banks” Thomas Newman
Achievement in production design
  • “American Hustle” Production Design: Judy Becker; Set Decoration: Heather Loeffler
  • “Gravity” Production Design: Andy Nicholson; Set Decoration: Rosie Goodwin and Joanne Woollard
  • “The Great Gatsby” Production Design: Catherine Martin; Set Decoration: Beverley Dunn
  • “Her” Production Design: K.K. Barrett; Set Decoration: Gene Serdena
  • “12 Years a Slave” Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Alice Baker
Achievement in costume design
  • “American Hustle” Michael Wilkinson
  • “The Grandmaster” William Chang Suk Ping
  • “The Great Gatsby” Catherine Martin
  • “The Invisible Woman” Michael O’Connor
  • “12 Years a Slave” Patricia Norris
Best foreign language film of the year
  • “The Broken Circle Breakdown” Belgium
  • “The Great Beauty” Italy
  • “The Hunt” Denmark
  • “The Missing Picture” Cambodia
  • “Omar” Palestine
Best animated feature film of the year
  • “The Croods” Chris Sanders, Kirk DeMicco and Kristine Belson
  • “Despicable Me 2” Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin and Chris Meledandri
  • “Ernest & Celestine” Benjamin Renner and Didier Brunner
  • “Frozen” Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and Peter Del Vecho
  • “The Wind Rises” Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki
Best documentary feature
  • “The Act of Killing”Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen
  • “Cutie and the Boxer” Zachary Heinzerling and Lydia Dean Pilcher
  • “Dirty Wars” Richard Rowley and Jeremy Scahill
  • “The Square” Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer
  • “20 Feet from Stardom” Nominees to be determined
Achievement in sound editing
  • “All Is Lost” Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns
  • “Captain Phillips” Oliver Tarney
  • “Gravity” Glenn Freemantle
  • “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” Brent Burge
  • “Lone Survivor” Wylie Stateman
Achievement in sound mixing
  • “Captain Phillips” Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith and Chris Munro
  • “Gravity” Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead and Chris Munro
  • “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick and Tony Johnson
  • “Inside Llewyn Davis” Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland
  • “Lone Survivor” Andy Koyama, Beau Borders and David Brownlow
Achievement in visual effects
  • “Gravity” Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk and Neil Corbould
  • “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and Eric Reynolds
  • “Iron Man 3” Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash and Dan Sudick
  • “The Lone Ranger” Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams and John Frazier
  • “Star Trek Into Darkness” Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann and Burt Dalton
Achievement in makeup and hairstyling
  • “Dallas Buyers Club” Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews
  • “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” Stephen Prouty
  • “The Lone Ranger” Joel Harlow and Gloria Pasqua-Casny
Best documentary short subject
  • “CaveDigger” Jeffrey Karoff
  • “Facing Fear” Jason Cohen
  • “Karama Has No Walls” Sara Ishaq
  • “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed
  • “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” Edgar Barens
Best animated short film
  • “Feral” Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden
  • “Get a Horse!” Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim
  • “Mr. Hublot” Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares
  • “Possessions” Shuhei Morita
  • “Room on the Broom” Max Lang and Jan Lachauer
Best live action short film
  • “Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)” Esteban Crespo
  • “Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just before Losing Everything)” Xavier Legrand and Alexandre Gavras
  • “Helium” Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson
  • “Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)” Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari
  • “The Voorman Problem” Mark Gill and Baldwin Li
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
  • “Alone Yet Not Alone” from “Alone Yet Not Alone”
    Music by Bruce Broughton; Lyric by Dennis Spiegel
  • “Happy” from “Despicable Me 2”
    Music and Lyric by Pharrell Williams
  • “Let It Go” from “Frozen”
    Music and Lyric by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
  • “The Moon Song” from “Her”
    Music by Karen O; Lyric by Karen O and Spike Jonze
  • “Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”
    Music by Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen; Lyric by Paul Hewson