Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Two fine performances from Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby can't quite save Touched With Fire (opening today) from itself.
Based on the book "Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament" by psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, we glimpse into the lives of two individuals battling the illness - a man and a woman - as we get to experience the highs and the lows that their afflictions bring. Katie Holmes plays Carla Lucia, a once-successful poet who has swung towards depression and who desperately is seeking to find meaning and a cause for her mental instabilities. Completely opposite of her, you have Luke Kirby playing Marco, a deranged man who calls himself "Luna" and who is obsessed with cosmos. Both Carla and Luna find themselves in a mental ward, where they bond over their shared love of poetry, discover their similarities within the disease, and try to navigate their lives toward a happier state of being.
First-time writer/directer Paul Dalio has experience with bipolar disorder and you can feel the authenticity of the topic. But he clutters his debut film with way too much "beat-you-over-the-head" symbolism that borders on pretentiousness. There is a lot of talk about "flying too close to the sun" and references to Icarus, the Greek mythological figure whose hubris brought upon his downfall. Carla's last name "Lucia" in fact, means "to illuminate, shine, flaunt or affect" in Spanish and she is represented in the film as the sun...Luna of course, represents the moon, the yin to Carla's yang.
Anyone who knows or suffers from bipolar disorder knows that it is a constant battle. The extreme highs are met eventually with extremely devastating lows. The book (and this film) discuss the fact though, that great artistic achievement can be obtained when bipolar individuals are riding the highs...that in fact, several of history's most accomplished, legendary artistic figures are said to have been bipolar, like Friedrich Nietzcshe, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and Edgar Allan Poe. More recently, it has touched geniuses of our time, like Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and Robin Williams.
While in their bipolar state, the illness tells the individual that this unique greatness is only achievable because of their condition. The film tackles this debate head on, eventually concluding that - like other severe afflictions like alcoholism or drug addiction - it takes concentrated, daily efforts in order to stay centered, but that our minds are capable of all kinds of wondrous things.
Carla and Luna fall in love, fall into the pits of hell and then climb out again. But Dalio's film seems shockingly superficial. As mentioned both Kirby and Holmes dig deep into their portrayals, but I'd like to assume that their is more depth and facets to a person with bipolar than just their disease. In this film, they are defined by their diseases and the film itself seems like some sort of existential experiment. There are some touching scenes with the peripheral players in their lives, like Carla's parents (Christine Lahti and Bruce Altman) and Luna's dad (Griffin Dunne), but not nearly enough of them. The film is so focused on the minds and inner-workings of its main characters that it seems to miss the forest for the trees.
Touched With Fire may be one of the more legitimate takes on bipolar disorder to hit the big-screen, but it doesn't quite burn as bright as it feels like it should.
Genre: Romance, Drama
Run Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Katie Holmes, Luke Kirby, Christine Lahti, Griffin Dunne, Bruce Altman, Alex Manette
Written & Directed by Paul Dalio (feature-film debut)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Race (opening today) is the biopic of legendary Olympian Jesse Owens, and it's one of the most strangely-constructed sports movie you might ever see.
Stephen Hopkins plays Owens, whose name we learn actually wasn't "Jesse" but rather "J.C." which stood for James Cleveland. He is of course one of the most acclaimed, infamous athletes of all-time, who at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, won four gold metals (100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4 x 100 meter relay), while Adolf Hitler watched from the stands. Not sure if you've heard of that dude, but if you have, you can only imagine what Owens did to Hitler's mythos about Aryan supremacy.
Like most every other biographical movie, it starts early on before Jesse gained fame. Jesse migrated towards track and field when he was admitted to Ohio State University. There was of course heavy doses of racism that he dealt with on a daily basis, and we learn that many black men went into track because they had not yet been allowed to play football. Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis, playing it straight) was a former runner himself who narrowly missed Olympic glory for himself, who was now the Head Coach at Ohio State. Seeing Owens' raw talent, he befriends him and becomes his mentor.
What is strange about this story is how easily success comes to Owens. He may have been God's gift to athleticism, but his breezy awesomeness is something we're not accustomed in sport movies, where we are used to rooting for the under-dog, or watching someone push themselves over the limit...stories of hard-work and perseverance being the only path to victory. There are no Rocky Balboa training montages here. Owens simply laces up his shoes and then goes out and blows away his competition. Off the field too, he has no problem attracting the ladies, and seemingly has all he wants and needs back home with his young daughter and eventual wife, Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton). Where is the conflict or the glory in watching a guy who is at the top of his sport from the very beginning?
Seeming to know that this may be a problem, Race tries to create struggle outside of the track. Jeremy Irons plays Avery Brundage, a man involved in America's Olympic committee and who is responsible for fielding the 1936 team (for reasons completely unknown to me, William Hurt is also in this movie). On the brink of WWII, we learn that there was a lot of politics going on that almost resulted in America pulling out of the 1936 Games altogether. This is all interesting on the surface, but doesn't play out well as cinema, especially when Irons reads his lines as if he was still playing Scar in The Lion King.
Race is structured like most every other sports film we've seen, with the begrudging relationship between coach and athlete gradually turning into true friendship, and where everything seems to be building towards one massive, climactic winner-takes-all conflict. But while everything feels familiar with the framework, Race is hollow inside. He dominates the Olympics and never really faces adversity within his sport. And wait, he becomes best friends with his German rival? That's not what happened in Rocky IV.
There is no question that Owens was an important figure inside and outside of the Olympic Games, and that he must have battled diversity to obtain four Gold Medals (and how he broke three World Records and tied a fourth, all within a 45 minute span, while at a meet in Ann Arbor, MI). But unfortunately this movie is too washed and tidy to really portray any of this. I'm sorry, but a PG-13 rating (which this film carries) does not provide the proper environment for a story of this nature to be told. The real conflict of Owens story was in the stuff dealing with Nazi/American relationships, and the racism that existed within our own country, let alone abroad. Not being able to ramp up these parts of the story, I believe, was a major miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers.
Speaking of filmmakers, there is also a wasted sub-plot dealing with German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), who was there making a film for the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics and who is responsible for the great footage that exists of Jesse Owens' triumphs. This story-line and how it is handled is further proof of how Race was severely watered-down. I'd say it was plain vanilla, but even vanilla has flavor. Jesse Owens deserves an impactful, powerful, meaningful and memorable film. Unfortunately, Race isn't it.
Genre: Biography, Drama, Sport
Run Time: 2 hours, 14 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Eli Goree, Shanice Banton, Carice van Houten, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt, David Kross, Jonathan Higgins
Written by Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse
Directed by Stephen Hopkins (Under Suspicion, Lost in Space, Blown Away, Judgement Night, Predator 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Michael Moore may be an acquired taste, but at least you know where he stands at all times. The world's most recognizable documentary film-maker once again builds a strong, well-thought-out argument in Where To Invade Next? (opening today), a film that attempts to answer some of our country's greatest problems. Like all of his films, Moore provides us with a thoroughly engaging, funny piece of "docu-tainment" and urges its viewers to not sit idly by, but to take action to create real change. And like all of his films, it will be adored by the left and mocked by the right...which is unfortunate this time around, because Where To Invade Next? deserves to be seen by anyone claiming to possess common sense, a virtue that Americans on both sides of the political fence purport to be fluent in.
As always, Michael Moore is front-and-center in his film and is at the center of the journey that he takes us on. His premise this time around is to travel around the globe to try to figure out how other countries do things, and to "steal" their ideas to bring back to America. Playing with words and our country's reputation for involvement in foreign conflict, Moore looks to "invade" these countries to find answers, or as he says, "To take the things we need from them, and bring it all back home to the United States of America."
His travels take him to countries like Italy, France, Portugal and Finland. In Italy, he examines how Italian workers get two months of paid vacation per year. In France, we learn how school lunches are a major priority, where children are given edible cuisine that focuses on balance and nutrition. In Finland, its all about public education standards while in Slovenia, Moore shows us that university education is free...and prosperous.
Moore's journey results in a dizzying conglomeration of progressive ideals. It's not a new tactic of his either. In his film Bowling for Columbine, Moore went to Canada to explore their gun laws and culture, to contrast them with the failings of the U.S. on those fronts. His detractors have called this anti-American. His supporters see the points that he's often trying to make. Because the truth is, Michael Moore is as American as they come and anyone who watches his films should know that he loves this country, he may just love it different than you. Moore just aches to make it a better place, and his way is to show our country's potential for greatness by comparing our problems through a global lens.
Moore himself, in the film, tells us that his job is to "pick the flowers, not the weeds." He admits that there are no easy answers, no quick fixes, to the problems that our country faces. In true Michael Moore dramatic fashion, he compares our current issues to the Berlin Wall...an immovable, seemingly impenetrable structure that was slowly chipped away at, stone by stone, until it finally came crashing down. He sees the same potential for the U.S.
Where To Invade Next? is vintage Michael Moore, but it should be seen as more than just liberal propaganda. He may be focusing on the "flowers" but these flowers actually exist in the world...he is not making them up. So if these great ideas are possible in other parts of the world, what is preventing their growth in the U.S.? It may not happen over-night, but Moore is determined to have a hand in planting the seeds.
Run Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes, Rated R
Directed by Michael Moore (Capitalism: A Love Story, Sicko, Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, Roger & Me)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
There is definitely no shortage of Holocaust films. Revisiting the most horrific occurrence in human history is definitely understandable and important, forcefully pushing these unthinkable events back into the viewing public's consciousness from time to time. Hungarian writer-director Laszlo Nemes chooses this unsettling topic for his very first film, Son of Saul (opening today), which was just nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. And while it is actually considered the front-runner to win in that category, Son of Saul is one of the least-effective Holocaust movies in quite some time, precisely due to Nemes's gimmicky visual style.
he story unfolds inside of the Auschwitz concentration camp and follows (literally) Jewish prisoner Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig). His face is in the frame for the entirety of the film, following his journey as though a GoPro was strapped to his head. At first, this unusual and intimate framing works to put us smack-dab in the middle of Saul's horrendous circumstances, and creates a truly unique perspective that has never been brought to the genre. But soon the trick wears thin, becomes a bit claustrophobic, and results in a pretty bland movie-going experience as I found myself just wishing the camera would pull back just a bit to let some air in. Yes, in attempting to go for this up-close perspective, the film actually becomes less personal as it slogs on.
Witnessing countless murders and other atrocities first-hand, and being forced to burn his own kind, Saul watches as a young boy is killed within Auschwitz. This boy was at first found alive after surviving the gas chambers. Saul takes the dead boy on as his son, and makes it the sole purpose in his life to find a rabbi somewhere within the camp that can give his son a proper Jewish burial.
Rohrig's performance is quite remarkable, carrying the emotional weight of the entire Holocaust in his facial expressions, and considering that he never leaves the camera frame from start to finish. But again, this device works against the movie eventually.
Son of Saul wants to be a fresh take on the barbarity of the Nazis during WWII and attempts to make the experience personal. But it fails to cover any unfamiliar ground or unearth any new emotional nuances of the Jewish experience during those cataclysmic times. The result feels wholly ordinary, considering the context.
Genre: Drama, History
Run Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Geza Rohrig
Co-Written & Directed by Laszlo Nemes (feauture-film debut)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
As a movie-lover, it's always great to spend some time in Old Hollywood, and with the Coen Brothers' latest film, Hail, Caesar! (opening today), we get immersed in it. Hail, Caesar! looks, feels and sounds like a Coen Brothers movie, which is very surprising to me because...I actually liked it. A lot.
If that sounds sacrilegious, it may very well be. As I am required to say every time I review a Coen Brothers movie, I have never quite connected with any of their films, much to the chagrin of my colleagues, family and friends. I was eight years old when I saw Raising Arizona, and despite my thoughts on it, I still went on to love movies. I absolutely despised O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a film that still stands as one of my least favorite films of all time. When I thought the Coens were given way too much credit for True Grit, I was ridiculed (much of the "Coen-esque" dialogue that they were praised for, even earning an Oscar nomination for, was actually present in the 1969 film version, and the novel that preceded it). And by the time I gave a middling review to the critical darling, Inside Llewyn Davis, I was pretty darned certain that I had just been born without the Coen Brothers gene.
None of this makes me proud, none of it is meant as film snobbery. Like every movie - yes every movie - I enter with the hope and intention to love it. The Coens and me, in that sense, have been in quite the abusive relationship. To the rest of the world, they are heroes, but to me, a massive, constant disappointment. I was content to accept that maybe we just aren't a good fit. Ethan, Joel, it's not you. It's me.
But it's not so much that I'm a Coen Brothers-hater (although they are so revered at this point, to suggest that they are anything less that Gods gift to cinema is normally defined as heresy). I just have never quite been able to connect to anything they have ever done. They are gifted filmmakers, slick screenwriters and operating on the fringes of big Hollywood, it can't be argued that their films - good, bad or indifferent - are always distinctive.
Hail, Caesar! finally worked for me, in a big way, as a quirky comedy and also as a very sly satire of religion, politics and the movie industry. Until a Russian submarine shows up towards the end, it felt like their most constrained comedy ever, which perhaps is why it was more my taste. And it's beautifully shot by the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Coen Brothers' go-to director of photography who has worked on all of their films since Barton Fink in 1991.
It features an all-star cast, also full of go-to actors that have inhabited several Coen Brothers films. Josh Brolin plays real-life Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix, who is sort of the warden at the insane asylum known as Capitol Pictures. When famous actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is abducted by a group of Communist screenwriters, Mannix goes to work to get him back in the saddle before production costs on the studio's huge Ben-Hur-sized epic, "Hail, Caesar - The Tale of the Christ" balloon to equally epic proportions. There are a number of other actors, directors and players involved, representing various cross-sections of popular cinema at the time. DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is an Esther Williams-type actress who has gotten pregnant and might not be able to fit into her required mermaid costume (or "fish ass" as she calls it). Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is a Western star, roped by the studio into playing a dramatic film version of the musical, "Merrily We Roll Along," directed by (fictional) Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who opposes this "rodeo clown" being shoved into his masterpiece. Channing Tatum channels Fred Astaire the best he can, and has a hysterical musical number that more than suggests his character's sexuality. And then there is Tilda Swinton, playing the dual roles of nosy journalist twin-sisters, Thora and Thessaly Thacker.
All of this gives the Coen Brothers an opportunity to exalt and pay homage to movies of that era, and much of it works. In fact, there were several laugh-out-loud moments, and the film is at its best when it is finding humor in the old studio system, poking fun and creating mini films-within-a-film. When the cowboy Hobie Doyle utters the line, "It's complicated," that may have instantly qualified itself later in the year as one of my favorite lines of 2016 (see the film to understand just why this line is humorous).
But surprisingly (to me, maybe not to you), were the somewhat profound statements The Coens were making in this seemingly light- hearted romp. There is a very funny scene where Mannix brings in a bunch of religious leaders - a priest, a rabbi, etc. - to make sure that their script does not offend any "reasonable person" who may watch the film. During this scene, the rabbi mentions that according to his religion, God is never to be shown in the movie, by rule. Interestingly, Mannix's boss, the studio head Mr. Krank - like God - never appears in Hail, Caesar!. Subtle? Not so much, but it speaks to the entertainment industry and to the grand scheme of things within the studio system. Plus, is there a such thing as trying to discuss religion rationally, in a way that doesn't provoke or offend anyone at all?
There are several other interesting observations, like with Clooney's buffoonish character being abducted and then willingly becoming a Communist...as an actor, his head simply fills with the will of those around him. Or the duality of Thora and Thessaly Thacker - one a gossipy tabloid columnist and the other a "respectable" member of the press - both interested in the same trashy stories, with no discernible difference other than what they tell you they are. Or the guilt that Mannix feels about trying to kick his cigarette habit, hoping that God doesn't judge him too harshly for this yet never questioning that any of the other shady dealings he is involved in might be worthy of confession.
Many characters like Mannix in this movie are stuck in their own misguided sense of self. A Communist writer abducts a movie star by drugging him, but to share the ransom with the kidnapped star? That would be unethical, he says. All things in life, the Coens seem to be saying, are just a matter of perspective. Take the title of the film itself: A movie (the one being made in this film) is being made to honor and explain Jesus Christ...and it is not just called "Hail Caesar" but "Hail, Caesar!" That "!" is important I think, because it implies a fiercely stubborn, moronic, confidence...of which many of us choose to root our most closely-held beliefs.
What stuck with me the most however, is what is said about film itself. The idea is presented on one side, that the main purpose of all art is to subliminally influence the masses to think and feel certain ways, versus the thought on the other side that says art is what inspires people and helps foster independent thought and expression. By going back to the old days of Hollywood - the 50s (the
decade in which the Coens were born) - in many ways Hail, Caesar! acts as an origin story...an unearthed blueprint of what our current entertainment industry was founded upon. Like many arguments in life, is there truth to be found on both sides of the coin? Have we been brainwashed over the years by the movie industry in subtle ways? That would explain to me the fervorous devotion that many feel towards the Coens. But have they themselves, through Hail, Caesar!, forced me to unplug from the Matrix and re-evaluate my own influences?
Trust me, there is some heady stuff going on underneath the seemingly fluffy surface of Hail, Caesar! and I find myself wanting to call it their best film ever. Coming from me, that isn't saying that much. My relationship with the Coens has just taken an unexpected turn, a promising step. I'm not quite ready to put a label on it, but I have started to feel the tingles in my stomach. Alas, I have finally felt a connection to the work of The Coen Brothers.
As this film implies, there is a difference between "not so simple" and "it's complicated"...it's all a matter of perspective. But if Hail, Caesar! worked for me, there is a great chance it might for you as well.
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Josh Brolin, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill
Written & Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit, A Serious Man, No Country for Old Men, Intolerable Cruelty, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Raising Arizona, Blood Simple.)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
If you are thinking that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (opening today) sounds more like a Saturday Night Live sketch than a full- length movie, your intuition is serving you correctly. Maybe not since Hot Tub Time Machine has a film's title been so incredibly clear as to what you can expect from it. Yes, this is the unexpected collision of two familiar settings: The esteemed stuffiness of 19th century England, as portrayed in several Jane Austen novels (credited as a "co-author" here) matched with the unkempt, chaos of a zombie apocalypse. It's based on a popular book (no not that one), by Seth Grahame-Smith that parodied Austen's classic work. Sadly - perhaps expectedly - this mash-up turns to mush rather quickly.
All of the familiar characters are present. The lively young lady, Elizabeth Bennett (played assertively by Cinderella and Downton
Abbey actress Lily James), the tall and striking Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), the Bingleys, the Bennetts, the Wickhams, etc. Inconveniently, they just happen to live in a world of zombies. These zombies are not as slow and eminent as in The Walking Dead...many of them can still speak and carry on with the living long after they are zombified. It's only when they get their first taste of human brains, do they become zoned-out, blood-thirsty killing machines.
One does not enter into a film called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies expecting all that much, but the first half hour or so proves that this was actually more of a missed opportunity rather than a flat-out bad idea. The Bennett sisters still giggle, joke and long to be married to a handsome (hopefully rich) fellow. But they also know how to kick some ass. In fact, killing zombies is just part of everyday life in this version of Europe, and the film starts off with some genuine laughs, and some genuine leaps, as in out of your chair...exactly what is required of a good horror movie. There is humor in the idea that these uptight noblemen and women are simply carrying on with human things - love, wealth, prosperity - before a pesky zombie shows up, requiring them to obliterate the lost souls in the most cartoonish of ways.
And just when you think that this film might surprise you as at least a clever, mildly-amusing romp...the tone begins to shift, continuing until their is nothing left to care about. The zombies - treated in the beginning like bits of comic relief - become a serious threat, requiring several of the characters to talk about rising up against them for several long stretches. The humor goes away, literally, as in there is not even a flat joke here and there that misses. Matt Smith (of Dr. Who) shows up and is amusing as the flamboyant Parson Collins, but the film relies way too heavily on him for levity down the stretch. And what is Lena Headey doing in this movie?
If the film isn't a parody meant to make us giggle, what is it? It definitely is not a real horror film, in that it does not try, nor does it result in, any scares. It is not a romance, because these characters are usually too busy sword-fighting and there is no chemistry to speak of between any of them. I'm not quite sure what this movie wants to be. But I know what it is, and I'm pretty sure I just stepped in it.
In the film, Mr. Darcy carries with him a vile full of flies, that he releases to detect when their is a zombie hidden among the living. Something tells me these flies would be attracted to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, just not in the way that Mr. Darcy intended.
Genre: Action, Horror, Romance
Run Time: 1 hour, 48 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Lily James, Lena Headey, Matt Smith, Douglas Booth, Jack Huston, Sam Riley, Aisling Loftus, Emma Greenwell, Bella Heathcote
"Based" on the novel by Jane Austen
Written & Directed by Burr Steers (Charlie St. Cloud, 17 Again, Igby Goes Down)
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