Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dallas Buyer's Club / **** (2013)

Actors of our generation often minimize their talents by making dubious career choices, and when the right path emerges even fewer of them follow it for any stretch of significance. One could argue that has usually been the case with Matthew McConaughey; once the obscure rising star of minor roles in films like “Dazed and Confused” and “Amistad,” the chiseled and fetching screen personality quickly surrendered to the influence of a Hollywood inundated by cheesy romance comedies and preposterous blockbusters in the years that followed. In rare instances – as with the masterpiece “Frailty” – we caught glimpses of impeccable possibilities; but for every endeavor of merit there were three or four more that contradicted it with absurd intentions. Yet inexplicably, this very trend that kept him gainfully employed in the movies for over two decades seems to have subsided in recent memory, revealing a buried fervency that has emerged to full disclosure with the likes of “Mud,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and, now, “Dallas Buyer’s Club.” What inspired the wisdom and foresight to move forward, especially now? If age does indeed inform us to be better decision makers, then this is a man whose past has apparently prepared him for what will become a much more striking second act.

Monday, February 24, 2014

All That’s Golden… Is Still Golden: 2014 Oscar Predictions

Like friends who move in and out of your life because of changing paths, Oscar and I haven’t seen much of each other in a while. Notable disagreements put a wedge between us over several years, and from that conflict there came a lack of enthusiasm in maintaining a presence at his parties beyond superficial observations and cynical sound bites. Yet somehow, even when our relationship reached a pitch of unfortunate discord, I always figured we would connect again, with little doubt in the reasoning: the mutual love of the movies we both share always unites us as a consequence, just as it does to everyone who goes to the cinema.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Captain Phillips / ***1/2 (2013)

One key moment in the life of Captain Richard Phillips necessitates the need for a movie about his misfortune. It occurs early on, when an American cargo ship just off the coast of Somalia spots two small speeding boats on the horizon, and binoculars reveal a threat impossible to ignore: potential piracy seizing the vessel. Superiors over an intercom dismiss a distress call as “probably nothing serious,” and we guess that their disillusion comes from the infrequency of security breaches with cargo vessels (it was, after all, over twenty years since one was hijacked). If the events of 9/11 taught us anything, however, it’s that our defenses have to be on guard even in moments when the feeling of safety masks the actuality of it. The biggest question that remains at the end this chronicle is not how we could have prevented the ensuing hostage situation, but how anyone sitting at the controls could live with themselves after knowing the mortal danger that befell an entire crew based on their decision to remain complacent in a deciding moment.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Frenzy / ***1/2 (1972)

Some movies depend, in a way, on the right man standing behind the camera. Alfred Hitchcock’s calculated demeanor often meant he was the only director skilled enough to undertake some of the endeavors he did, and that notion is never more obvious than in the two hours that “Frenzy” occupies our attention. The core values of a film like this are often written in an intricate language that requires a precise marriage of mood and style, and in the wrong hands any director could sabotage the momentum by simply striking the wrong chord. By the time the material arrived in the hands of the master of suspense, however, his knack for evoking wit and irony in the shadows of intensely bleak premises had already been long perfected. Most filmmakers would have succumbed to the challenge of balancing the right notes for this story, but for him, we get the sense that the result was essentially a mere reflex for his sharpened artistic sensibilities.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Labor Day / ** (2013)

Movies like “Labor Day” come along in frequent intervals, and when they do they hit us like nagging reminders of the brief lapses in intelligence that sometimes afflict even the most well-intentioned filmmakers. Jason Reitman, who wrote and directed the movie, has come to occupy a space of resounding affection with moviegoers in the recent years; after making the audacious “Thank You For Smoking,” the charming “Juno” and the brilliant “Up in the Air,” there is more than just mild enthusiasm in our eyes when the prospect of a new endeavor of his reaches our knowledge. But what in the world inspired him to choose Joyce Maynard’s novel for his latest cinematic outing? Did he anticipate his interpretation would somehow be inspired and meaningful in the face of its melodramatic nature? The characters in his pictures often rise above the formula of their plots because they have experienced enough of life to find the humor in their own existence, but the three primary protagonists in this story are so weathered by the cruelty of the world around them that it leaves them submissive to the action, until eventually they are relinquished to the standard of a plot that has no drive to look past its own manipulative outlook.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Rope / **** (1948)

What a fascinating challenge the central characters in “Rope” place upon themselves. Having just strangled one of their popular classmates in their lavish upstate New York apartment, they stash his body in a chest in the living room, and proceed to host a dinner party for family and friends in the victim’s honor – all without any of them knowing his tragic fate. A maid ignorant of the ghastly deed arrives soon after the murder and prepares a feast, serving it all at the beckoning of her bosses on the very piece of furniture that houses the corpse. An air of engagement hides subtle suggestions that there is gloom hovering over one of the killers, but the other stimulates their collective dialogue with thinly veiled riddles that act like dangling bait. What does poor David Kentley inspire to make him a target of homicide for two men and yet great admiration for others? Why is he so uncharacteristically late to a party that seems to be held in his benefit? And when the victim’s fiancée and her former lover commiserate over their bond for the missing guest, what exactly does the elusive Brandon suggest by hinting that he is “out of the way?”

Friday, February 7, 2014

Marnie / **** (1964)

“Men and a good name don’t go together.” The words are not exactly prophetic in the life of Marnie Edgar, and she quietly recognizes that from the very moment her mother allows them to escape her lips. What they suggest, instead, is that a long history with the opposite sex has made this an unspoken reality, and minds are often overdue for reminders. The audience does not question their certainty, but knows there are deeper issues fueling that cynicism. Why are their interactions reduced to innocuous exchanges and awkward dialogue? What does her mother fear, exactly, when Marnie approaches her with a yearning for affection? And when daughter confronts mother with a hard round of questioning meant to resolve their fragmented relationship, is mother’s violent outburst a result of undermined respect, or a sudden need to create silence in order to prevent more intimate matters from surfacing between them?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street / **1/2 (2013)

A lively television ad during the opening shots of “The Wolf of Wall Street” refers to the world of investing as a “jungle,” a suggestion that is used ironically as a way of appealing to middle class investors who are intrigued by the stock market but too alienated by the wild mentality of the industry to trust their money in the hands of commission collectors. The sales pitch for the firm known as Stratton Oakmont is less ominous in context; from the mouth of its wealthy founder Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), investing should be a fun (if competitive) enterprise, and his highly experienced staff of professionals is precisely what the average Joe seeks in dabbling into stock trading.  What Jordan doesn’t reveal in his public monologues – yet has no problem admitting in private – is that his eager brokers all work from a generic script perfected by him in his early years with the business, and in flashback sequences we observe the evolution of this calculated civility as he pitches obscure stocks to middle class buyers under elaborate ruses, insisting that potential payouts could help them erase debts and move into higher financial brackets.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967 - 2014

Gone. Just like that. At age 46, still in the prime of a life enriched by marvelous screen achievements and a presence straight out of the golden age of Hollywood, Philip Seymour Hoffman has fallen silent. The news has hit us like a tidal wave of grief, and amidst early reports that his demise may be related to a drug overdose, an added layer of shock overwhelms the mourning process. How is it possible, or fair, that such a bright star could be gone so early in his promising life? What solace could there be in dealing with this news, and what does this do for the films left incomplete by his sudden departure? Reasons, cause, fault – all of those emotions are irrelevant in this one somber moment. What we are left with is a career that would be the envy of any aspiring thespian in an industry inundated by mere dialogue readers and half-serious underachievers mugging for the camera.