Friday, May 23, 2014

Review: Locke

Movies can be viewed either on the big screen, small screen, a tablet or a tiny smartphone screen, but obviously the best way to experience most of them is while sitting in a comfortable seat in a darkened theatre. For the new film Locke, where you see it does matter. In other words focus is your friend, and a trip to the multiplex will pay dividends.

In Locke, only one character appears on screen and the action takes place entirely inside his moving car. That may not sound like much to sustain a viewer, but it serves this film extremely well. Locke is compelling, touching and satisfying, with plenty of twists and turns. However, it demands your attention (so stop texting, put down that smartphone and focus on the driving!).

Ivan Locke, a dependable and highly respected construction foreman, is going through a personal crisis that, because of his actions and other factors beyond his control, has also turned into a serious professional crisis. As he drives his BMW from Birmingham to London late one night to lend support to a former lover in serious need – he is partly to blame for her plight – almost everything in his life begins to unravel. The desperate state in which he finds himself is entirely foreign to someone so organized and methodical. He’s trapped in his car when he needs to be elsewhere, and he can’t calmly, rationally execute a sound plan. Out of his element, he scrambles to do the right thing while trying to preserve the up-to-now ordered yet fulfilling life he’s built around him.

Locke is played by Thomas Hardy, whom you might remember from Christopher Nolan’s Inception, where he played an impersonator with a talent for manipulating others inside their dreams. In Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, he was unrecognizable and unforgettable as Bane, a villain whose face is mostly obscured by an off-putting apparatus that provides pain-killing gas and has helped him survive since he suffered some horrific injuries as a young man.

As an actor, Hardy stepped into a major challenge as Ivan Locke. A lesser actor could not lug around what Hardy seems to effortlessly balance in one hand here, with the other tied behind his back. His character seems almost expressionless on the surface at times, but when you look closer you perceive deep levels of pain, frustration and regret. Hardy has to convey this with only subtle body movements, tiny facial changes and his voice. Though Locke works hard to retain his composure on what must be the most painful night of his life, the turmoil inside is evident. Some call this type of acting minimalist, or economical, but that makes it sound uninteresting to watch. The opposite is true.

The beauty of Locke is the way the story unfolds in real-time and how new plot morsels are doled out through Locke’s stream of hands-free conversations with his loved ones and colleagues. Oddly, even though we can’t see them, these secondary characters don’t feel detached from the action. We feel their happiness and pain through their voices, through Locke’s reactions, and because of the power of the screenplay, which does so much despite so many limitations resulting from the story’s setting.

Another oddity is that the main character, though responsible for his plight, remains almost completely reactive. When adversity presents itself it’s lobbed at him like little time bombs he must defuse. The more he struggles, the grimmer things become. Does he realize it’s futile to keep trying to press on? Is it futile? Can he change his course after he’s fully committed himself to it, right or wrong? Will he let everyone else in his life down in order to stay true to himself and his moral code?

No matter what happens, it’s thrilling to watch an actor inhabit a role so completely. And, when great acting is melded with an interesting premise that is so well executed, you’ve got yourself a gripping movie-watching experience. Like Ivan, I suspect you’ll be on the edge of your seat.

4.5 stars (out of five)

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Friday, April 12, 2013

Movies: can a reviewer step out of his or her own way and write an objective review?

You know what they say about opinions: they’re like belly buttons – everybody’s got one. (I may have substituted “belly buttons” for some other orifice). Regardless, a successful movie review typically includes a healthy dose of opinion.
As a result, if you regularly read the work of a trusted movie reviewer you probably have a pretty good sense of his/her likes and dislikes. These may not be openly declared, but they will certainly filter out through the various reviews over time.
Whether those personal preferences get in the way of a good review is the question I’d like to address.

Reviewers’ likes and dislikes can evolve from simple preferences and they can be quite innocuous, as when your friend declares her favourite colour is red. How can you really argue for or against the merits of a colour? And if so, would it make compelling reading? Likely not.
More powerful – and potentially damaging – preferences are generally derived through prejudices, as when a reviewer makes preconceived judgements toward people or a person because of gender, social class, age, disability, religion, sexuality, race/ethnicity, nationality or some other personal characteristics.
These can add a new, unwanted dimension to a review, especially when the prejudice is not openly revealed. For example, imagine you’re reading a review about a Julia Roberts movie, written by a man who’s hated her since the days of “Pretty Woman” because he thinks she’s a showboating, man-hating ego-maniac. He’s probably not going to mention his prejudices because they could be seen as unprofessional and taint any future review, especially of a Julia Roberts movie. Or maybe he doesn’t mention them because he thinks he can look overlook them and judge any film fairly. Highly doubtful.
Some say prejudice refers simply to unfounded beliefs. Amusingly, pioneering American psychologist and philosopher William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) once said: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” You could apply this statement to movie reviewing.
The bottom line is this: every reviewer has preconceived judgements about other people and the artistic and creative decisions they make. It’s human nature.
So, when do a reviewer’s prejudices become a problem? How about if your reviewer is unable to put himself in the position of his/her readers when discussing a film? After all, understanding your readership is a key requirement for any writer, including an entertainment scribe. 
Most important, being able to imagine how a member of the opposite sex would react to or experience a movie is essential if one is to tailor reviews to the other both halves of the population.
Can a 49-year-old white, straight male empathize with a 16-year-old lesbian character who is struggling with bullying and discrimination while in high school?
Alternatively, if a woman over the age of 50 has to evaluate movies geared to 14-year-olds boys, can she remain open to enjoying, for example, Adam Sandler’s juvenile characters and often downright silly films. (I may have just revealed a bias of my own there, but then I don’t think Sandler would dispute this assessment.)
What’s the answer then? Should reviewers offer full disclosure every time they knowingly hold a bias or are prejudiced about some element of the work being reviewed? No, it wouldn’t work. Sometimes we don’t like an actress simply because she reminds us of someone who jilted us in high school – but we don’t consciously know this is the reason. And some people just don’t like westerns or documentaries or subtitles. These aren’t good reasons to punish films in reviews – but it happens.
Remember that reviewer prejudices and preferences are constantly at work, shaping every film review you read. If you can’t spot these over time in your trusted reviewer, maybe you share similar views. Or maybe you’ve been missing out on some terrific movies!
The best policy, I believe, is to read a variety of reviews, as many as possible. If a wide range of people, having a wide range of likes and dislikes, agree that a film is great – or awful – it probably is. Use this as your guide going forward… with one caveat. 
If you love Bill Murray and would see him in anything, don’t let anyone stop you from going to see his latest movie – even if it’s a documentary about the ups and downs of the pulp and paper industry. In other words, don’t overthink it. If you love something a film, an actor, a director, a screenwriter or a genre go ahead and love it unconditionally. 
But remember, that’s just your opinion.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine: Review

My theory when picking Hot Tub Time Machine as my Friday night 'just-for-fun' flick was that I'd have a good time no matter how silly it was, because clearly it was supposed to be silly. Unfortunately it was not very silly. Perhaps I was silly for thinking it would be. Well, you can slap me silly, because it was my fault. After all, I looked at the poster and watched the trailer.

Now John Cusack has the right to star in a goofy movie when he wants to. Heck, Con Air was gloriously, hilariously over the top. I haven't seen 2012, but I understand it's got its share of preposterous scenes too. Unfortunately sitting through Hot Tub Time Machine was just not a pleasant experience, and I think that's down to a few basic errors.

Error number one: Apart from Cusack, the acting of the principal characters was bad.
Error number two: The story was basic - by design, sure - but it really didn't take the viewer anywhere. It felt pointless, nothing beyond what the title promised.
Error number three: It just wasn't that funny - and that's unforgivable.

I could have overlooked errors one and two if the laughs were there.

Hot Tub Time Machine, like Snakes on a Plane before it, telegraphs its plot in the title. The trailer, one assumes by watching it, promises hijinks, time travel, a hot tub, and some offensive - at least original - humour. The reality: not so much.

So Cusack's character Adam is a 40-something dude who's forgotten how to have fun, or something like that, and his two best friends Lou and Nick are living in the past and/or wishing they could return to it. Though Adam wouldn't really know since he no longer keeps in touch.

But when one of them, a frighteningly kooky but one-note Rob Corddry, goes through a "did he or didn't he try to" suicide attempt, the decision is made to go back to where they experienced their most gnarly times 24 years ago: a ski lodge called Kodiak Resort that, in 2010, has become run-down, decrepit and dirty. But at least the room has a magic time machine. Will it bring them all happiness? Can they fix past mistakes without altering, even jeopardizing their futures? Will they get home?

Don't care. Character development was insufficient, direction was uninspired, acting was often shoddy, and like I said, laughs were hard to come by.

This didn't even rate next to a fluffy-flick I recently saw called She's Out of My League that was definitely silly for silly's sake. That one also had a little something to say and had a heart. Plus, it made me laugh.

You've heard of a one-joke movie? Usually this refers to a plot-dependent, central gag that gets overused. Hot Tub Time Machine has one good joke but it's secondary at best: Crispin Glover is a one-armed bellhop in 2010 but has two arms in the past. How did it happen? Finding out is fun. I know that sounds disgusting, but in fact it was just plain silly - with the added bonus of being funny. I wish the whole movie had been.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Up In The Air: Review

In the new film "Up In The Air," the air-miles-addicted Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, lays out his theory on life for all when he asks his paying seminar audience "How much does your life weigh?" His view? Family and friends and their constant demands put such a drag on a person that eventually every movement becomes a chore. This extraneous baggage must be jettisoned for the good of the traveler.

It's a compelling theory and it permeates the movie.

But what's wrong with this Bingham guy? Is he a bitter, angry jerk? Not really, although his relationships only go topsoil deep. He is aloof and cold, but he's not a monster. He genuinely likes his life of airports, airport lounges, rental cars and hotel rooms.

Bingham's contentedness is surprising when you consider it's his job to travel across the United States firing people - sometimes 20 or 30 a day - for bosses who are unable or unwilling to do it themselves. It's not the kind of career most people could stomach. The pain on the faces of these layoff victims is excruciating to watch - especially in this economy, when such real life scenes are all too common.

Maybe Bingham took this job and it made him the disconnected traveler he is. Maybe he signed on because he knew it would already fit him perfectly. He is certainly an expert at jetting to his next destination unencumbered, physically and emotionally.

But Bingham does have a dream. He wants to hit 10 million air miles. He wants to get the ultimate loyalty card from American Airlines, which involves meeting the pilot during his winning flight and the notoriety of having his name put on the side of one of the company's planes.

It's an odd goal. Clearly very few people would share it. What isn't so clear is just how aware he is of this fact. What happened to him that made him the way he is? Oh, and how long can he go on unencumbered in his life?

It's a great set of questions. Unfortunately, trying to get the answers isn't as much fun as it might be.

The co-writer and director of this film is Jason Reitman, and his two previous films, "Juno" and "Thank You For Smoking," were entertaining and fueled by unique characters, clever dialogue and great stories. "Up In The Air" offers up two of the three. The story, adapted from the novel by Walter Kim, has a theme that is in fact well worn. Watching cold, lonely characters slowly thaw out is entertaining. Clint Eastwood's grouch in "Gran Turino" and Mickey Rourke's tortured boxer in "The Wrestler" are just two recent examples - among many.

What's unique about the movie is its realism. In fact, many of those fired in the movie were regular Americans who really were fired some months before. The reactions of these people, while more thought out than those occurring at their actual firings, are real.

This helps and hinders. Reitman has said in interviews that he wrote the script before the economy tanked and the firing scenes were to be played mostly for laughs. After the financial crisis hit, the scenes he filmed became far more serious. The tone of these scenes leaves the viewer unsure whether to laugh, cry or cringe. And they hurt the flow by stifling the fun that is going on in the movie outside of the boardroom. So, while nothing in the story is too telegraphed, and that is good, the humor never rises above the guffaw/chuckle point.

Still, good performances are the trump card in "Up In The Air." Clooney is very good. Vera Farmiga is wonderful as his fellow air mile-collecting enthusiast (and more). And Anna Kendrick owns the movie as Natalie Keener, the upstart at Bingham's office who, without malice, may bring an end to Bingham's current job and by extension, his lifestyle.

But the laughs, stifled by the general disconnected tone of the movie and its main character, are needed. It's such a shame none of them hit hard enough to let the audience cut loose. Then they could jump back into the bleaker bits and just relax. In the end, the non-funny side of "Up In The Air" weighed too much for the funny side. Luckily the extra baggage didn't crash this flight, but it held it back from truly soaring.

***1/2 stars (out of five)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Review: (500) Days of Summer

If the new film "(500) Days of Summer" were a chocolate from one of those Pot of Gold-type boxes, it would be a perfectly-sized, succulent little nougat-covered cruncher, but one in which you'd find surprising tartness.

This anti-romantic-comedy, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, has a lot to say about fate, faith, love and the idea of love, and refuses to resort to cheap tricks to say it. Nor does "(500) Days" wrap tidy little bows on everything so we can go home and ignore the questions it suggests we ask ourselves. That's a good thing.

Our hero, Tom Hansen, is a greeting card writer trained as an architect (so, frustrated and pretty bored with his job) who is smitten when a girl named Summer Finn joins the firm as his boss's assistant. After some delays, often played for laughs, they find out they share a love of the Smiths - and that's when their 500 days begin.

Don't expect a linear storyline. We jump to day 488 and back to day 5, then to 221, 222 and 43. It sounds incredibly distracting, but it isn't. It's fun. And it's effective because it allows you (and director Marc Webb) to focus on certain themes collectively, rather than revisiting them several times over the course of the film. The effect is both powerful and clarifying.

Webb's direction is inspired too. He shifts between many styles and uses black and white for comedic effect. Sometimes scenes blend into gorgeous, arty stills that, if we're paying attention, give us some insight about what the characters are going through or thinking about at the time.

It's a rather beautiful movie, tragic and funny and, believe it or not, very romantic. Casting Zooey Deschanel was clever, because her past roles might lead you to assume that there isn't much more to Summer than what meets the eye. She has played her share of breezy, free-spirits. This gives her the wiggle-room she needs to keep the audience on its toes.

Speaking of toes, this film also contains my favorite scene so far of 2009. It involves a dance sequence, Hall & Oates and a generous amount of glee - but I don't want to spoil it for you. You'll want to see that yourself.

The supporting players, mainly Tom's friends and sister, bring a lot to our enjoyment of this film, letting us into Tom's struggles and making us laugh about all the pain and pleasure they bring.

I'm sure there's a lot of Tom in all of us. Whether that's a good thing is something I believe "(500) Days of Summer" is asking us to decide.

**** stars (out of five)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The resurgence of the TV sitcom

Every summer a thorny set of TV critics decides their take on the fall preview will be to bemoan the lack of high-quality shows set to air in the coming September and (their words, not mine) the dearth of worthwhile situation comedies.

Sometimes these jaded scribes will cross the line from pathetic to pretentious by actually declaring the sitcom officially dead.

But if they really believe that, I think they should probably check their pulses; it’s possible that they are the departed. At the very least their funny bones have been badly broken.

I say if you can’t find something both original and funny on TV today you’re not looking hard enough. In fact, I’d argue that there’s been a comedy resurgence over the last five years. I offer two stellar sitcoms under the age of six to prove my point: How I Met Your Mother and The Office (US).

How I Met Your Mother offers a most original device in the way it plays with time, shifting from present-to-past-to-future and back again in a single episode. The storyline’s pieces are purposefully jumbled up and thrown in the air for viewers to catch and lovingly put back in order. It’s a daring way to tell a story and, for the viewer, highly satisfying.

Ted, the main character/narrator, tells stories to his kids in every episode about how he met their mother, who is never named. The young, hilarious cast, which includes Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segel, brings Ted’s memories to life. The “Is that her?” guessing game piques our curiosity but it’s also what keeps propelling the series forward.

The Office (US) is an American take on a successful UK series starring the cringe-inducing specialist Ricky Gervais, so it’s not a unique concept. Still, the US series, about a mid-level paper company, has made its mark in several ways.

The UK version offered up a total of 12 30-minute shows and two 45-minute Christmas specials – albeit by design; it’s a typical series length for many UK-based shows filmed for the BBC – but the Office (US) has managed to stretch the concept for 100 episodes and five seasons, and it’s almost as fresh now as it was in season one.

It also assembled a better cast, having nabbed the super-hot Steve Carrell as its lead just before his movie career exploded, and hired a supporting cast of near unknowns who act so bravely silly that you can’t look away.

The show’s ace in the hole is its documentary style. Cameras follow characters almost everywhere. Some of the funniest scenes are meant to look like they’ve been surreptitiously shot, through the partially obscured glass office windows. The combination of intentional and (seemingly) unintentional laughs is unusual and irresistible. There’s no laugh track, and there doesn’t need to be.

So take another look before you trash all sitcoms, critics. There are a lot more quality laughs to be had than you think. Oh, and you might want to get an X-ray for that funny bone.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Room hits Toronto this Friday (July 24th)

My last post was about Tommy Wiseau's "masterpiece" "The Room."

You may be excited to hear that the film will finally make its Canadian debut this Friday (July 24th) at 11:30pm, in the first of three scheduled showings at Toronto's Royal Cinema (College St. and Clinton).

Sure, it's a late start time, but if you're looking for a unique movie experience you've found it! A movie this bad doesn't come along very often. In fact, a movie this bad usually has to be rented in order to be seen. It's definitely got to be seen to be believed. Anyway, "The Room" is tailor-made for this type of Midnight Madness showtime.

If you love bad films - and trust me this one is bad - you'll love "The Room."

Showings are also scheduled at the Royal for August 21st and September 25th.

Oh, and if you end up going to one of these shows, please be sure to let me know what you thought of it!

Media Mel