Birdman – Film Review

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At the beginning of the new comic/drama Birdman – full title Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – you see a shot of a falling comet about to crash and burn.   It’s a quick image and one you might forget seconds after the seemingly single, two-hour tracking shot begins; but later, when you look back at everything you now know, the visual metaphor suddenly makes sense.   Like that falling comet, Riggan Thomson’s acting career is crashing and burning.

Thomson (Michael Keaton) was once a famous Hollywood actor.   He was Birdman, a big screen superhero with superpowers who could actually fly, but that time has long gone, and even though audiences still appear to want to see the actor don that infamous black costume with wings and a mask for a fourth Birdman adventure, Thomson’s not interested.   He wants to prove his worth.   He needs to feel relevant, and his intended comeback has nothing to do with the movies.   Like many actors whose ultimate dream is to appear in a Broadway play then eventually take it to London’s West End to make that opening night magic happen all over again, Thomson wants to be on the stage.

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Thomson continually insists that it was author Raymond Carver who inspired him to become an actor in the first place, and now the one-time Hollywood star is going to use one of Carver’s short stories as a means of finally proving his acting chops.   The chosen work is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a short story of four people sitting around a table talking about – just as the title suggests – love.   On the table is a bucket of ice and in the ice stands a bottle of gin.   Those familiar with the short story should revel in the brief adapted scenes portrayed in Birdman, including the newly invented gun-to-the-head conclusion written into the play, plus the fact that one of the actors, Mike (Edward Norton) in his ever annoying attempt to find the honesty in every scene, gets drunk by drinking from a real gin bottle while on stage.

The bulk of the action takes place in and around Broadway’s St. James Theatre during preview week.   Thomson’s vanity project – he’s the writer, the director and the star – is already falling apart.   When Edward Norton’s Mike is hired at the last minute after an on-stage accident results with a cast member’s exit, box-office sales leap, but despite his talent, Mike is nothing short of a massive, theatrical headache.   When Thomson rants against Mike for his unprofessional behavior during a packed preview and his on-stage outburst of having that bottle of gin removed, Mike dismisses both the incident and the audience.  “Those people paid half price to watch a rehearsal,” he declares.

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But despite the endless litany of problems Thomson is enduring with the disastrous previews, not to mention those with his cast, his lawyer and his daughter, the real problem is Thomson’s state of mind.   The deep throated voice of his Birdman character continually speaks to him, questioning why the actor is even attempting Broadway when a Hollywood superhero character is calling, plus Thomson appears to be able to move objects by thought, levitate when meditating and fly when thinking back to his Birdman days.   In truth, he’s doing none of those things, but everything we see and hear is done from Thomson’s point of view and to our alarm, he might actually believe he has the power of telekinesis.

When the film version of Broadway favorite Les Miserables was released, much was made of the hype regarding how the actors sang live in front of the camera while performing and emoting.   This prompted a remark from Neil Patrick Harris when hosting the Tonys stating that actors on Broadway don’t require close-ups to prove they’re singing live: they do it eight shows a week!   Despite the comment’s snarky observance, it’s also undeniably true.   Plus, the movie hype never mentioned that if a big screen Les Miz singer ruined the live rendition, there was the retake before shouting print, something a Broadway performer will never know the luxury of having.   This leads us to consider the following.

Even though Birdman is a film, its continual tracking style of making everything appear as though the action takes place in one, long continuous take ensures that the actors here have to perform before the camera in the way a theatre actor has to perform in front of a live audience; in long, continuous, unbreakable flows.   Like a live production, the judgment of a performance comes directly from the actor.   There are no edits, cutaways or reaction shots to give the moment that added sense of drama; it’s all there, before you.   And here the performances are uniformly top-notch.

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Michael Keaton’s manic, rapid-fire delivery backed by a seemingly permanent nervous tick is there both back in the dressing room and when he’s on stage as Thomson acting in his own play, yet you can see an immediate dividing line between the two as he switches from one to the other.   On stage he’s a mediocre actor with a mannered delivery, when off he embodies Riggan Thomson to such a convincing degree that by default you might be thinking you’re really seeing the real Michael Keaton, particularly in light of the fact that Keaton’s real life big screen career hit a high with Batman then seemed to tank once he said no to sequels.   It wasn’t quite like that, but it may be impossible for some to shake that notion from their mind when watching him wander the backstage hallways of St. James as if the theatre was a never-ending maze, facing conflict after conflict as he goes.

The support is also first class, from Ed Norton’s indulgent, obsessive actor always in search of the truth of the scene but having no clue of acceptable behavior when off-stage, to Andrea Riseborough’s likable Laura.   There’s also Lindsay Duncan’s New York Times’ theatre critic and her negative attitude of Hollywood movie stars hired for Broadway marquee value, Zac Galifiankis’ surprisingly effective turn as Thomson’s lawyer, and Naomi Watts as the epitome of a performer hungry for Broadway but full of doubts.   “Why don’t I have any self-respect?” she asks.   “Because you’re an actor,” comes the reply.

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The revelation, however, is Emma Stone as Thomson’s daughter, Sam.   This is the performance of her career, beyond a doubt.   The scene where she finally unloads, telling him, “You’re not important, okay? Get used to it!” is stunning.   It’s not just the delivery; it’s after the tirade when we see the look of hurt, not anger in her eyes that grabs your attention.   Plus, the irony of the casting should not escape you, either.   Besides Keaton’s Batman, Ed Norton was Hollywood’s Hulk while Stone’s career was given that A-lister boost with the recent Spiderman reboots.

Birdman probably won’t succeed with mainstream audiences.   It’s art-house style not to mention the subject matter of east coast versus west – here being the division between Hollywood and Broadway – may not be fully appreciated by those with only a casual interest.   The more you know about both the movies and theatre going in, the more you’ll get out of it.   It doesn’t altogether exclude outsiders but it doesn’t hold your hand, either.   Plus the ambiguous ending of Thomson’s fate in the final scene will divide.   Logic dictates the obvious, but the film takes its own flight of fancy.   It’s the kind of ending that is sure to inspire discussions and debates, and that’s all part of the fun.   But one thing’s for sure when trying to decipher the significance of the fade out; like that falling meteor during the opening seconds of the film, you’ll suspect it’s not only Thomson’s career that has crashed and burned.

MPAA Rating:  R   Length:  119 Minutes   Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

John Wick – Film Review

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Considering the economy of dialog, the never-ending pile of dead or mutilated bodies and the fact that there’s not a single good-guy character in the whole film – everyone’s bad – not to mention it stars Keanu Reeves, why the new action thriller John Wick is so unabashedly entertaining is difficult to say, but it is;  it really is.

John Wick (Reeves) is a retired contract killer whose wife (Bridget Moynahan) has just passed away.   At the rainy-day funeral, a black suited Wick, complete with black shirt and black tie, continues to stand at his wife’s graveside after everyone else has gone.   “What are you doing here, Marcus?” Wick asks the other guy with the umbrella hanging around the cemetery.   “Just checking on an old friend,” Marcus (Willem Dafoe) replies.

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What follows is a thirty minute set up to a revenge plot that’s no more complicated than Wick pulling himself out of retirement to kill the son of a Russian mobster and murdering everyone who gets in the way.   With Wick, it’s not so much a case of shoot first then ask questions.   Wick has nothing to ask.   He wants that son of a mobster, and that’s it.

The issue surrounds John Wick’s prized ’69 Mustang and his new pet beagle.   When filling up at a gas station, a cocky young Russian tough-guy (Alfie Allen) admires Wick’s vehicle and asks, how much?   Wick thanks him for the compliment but tells the guy the car is not for sale.   “Everything has a price, bitch,” the kid replies with menace.   Later that night, the Russian bursts into Wick’s home, beats him with a baseball bat, takes the car keys and – get ready for this – kills the dog.   And it should be pointed out, this isn’t just any dog.   This is the dog that was given to Wick by his dying wife; the last gift she would ever give.   To Wick, this cute, beagle puppy is everything, and the Russian kid just killed it.

Where did you get that car?” asks John Leguizamo with immediate concern as soon as he sees the mustang in his shop.   Leguizamo is the guy who takes stolen vehicles, repaints them then sells them; only this time he’s not seeing dollar signs.   He knows John Wick, and he knows what’s going to happen.   The first thing Leguizamo does is call the Russian mobster boss and inform him there’s going to be trouble for the boy.   “Why?” asks the mobster (Michael Nyqvist).   “Because he stole John Wick’s car, sir, and killed his dog.”  The mobster’s voice then drops.  “Oh,” is all he can say.

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From there, we’re off.   For the following hour, the bodies fall.   With a clear vision and a guilt-free conscience, Wick swiftly dispenses his form of justice killing hoards of Russian bodyguards and anyone else who gets in his way.   Evidently, everyone in the gangster trade, with the exception of the young Russian with the baseball bat, knows John Wick and he’s the guy you don’t want to know.   If there was a boogeyman, Wick was the guy you send to kill the boogeyman.

Like Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, Reeves has found in John Wick a part perfect for what he can do without underlining his limitations.   He still can’t deliver a line without it sounding as flat as a pancake – which is fortunate because here he doesn’t have a lot to say – but he looks great holding that gun and wearing that nicely fitted suit as he jumps around the room with the athletic ability of an Olympic champ and starts firing without either mercy or a moment’s pause.   He embodies that all important male-fantasy figure of someone who can’t be beat; the guy most guys who love guns would like to be.   In fact, if the film makes any wrong moves it’s Wick’s occasional moment of vulnerability.   In this kind of film, with a character like John Wick who can kick monumental butt, audiences neither want nor need vulnerability.   It doesn’t add to the tension, it just spoils the flow.

The world of John Wick has nothing to do with our world.   It doesn’t exist.   Think of everything happening on some doppelganger planet in another galaxy, far, far away that just happens to have a New York City of its own, only in that world practically everyone is a villain, including the Catholic priest who uses his church as a front for hoarding the mobster’s money.   There’s also the upscale hotel in the middle of downtown managed by Ian McShane that acts as a safe haven for killers with a code.   If you book a room, it’s agreed that no bad-guy business is conducted on the premises.   You can make a reservation, walk out the front door and shoot whomever you please, but don’t bring the work home with you.   Break the rule and heavy penalties follow.

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And finally there’s the look of the film.   With solid, widescreen framing in its cinematography by Jonathan Sela, under David Leitch’s no-nonsense direction, John Wick proves that fast-paced action with fights and shootouts can still be effectively shot and viewed without the need of frenetic, hand-held, chaotically edited sequences where you’re never quite sure where you are.   With John Wick you know where everyone is in relation to each other during gun play without it seeming pedestrian.   This is how action should be filmed.

A film like this would normally come under the heading a being a guilty pleasure, except here there’s no guilt to be had.   With the exception of the having the cutest puppy in the world killed in the first ten minutes – I’m still not quite over it – John Wick might be total nonsense but it’s also a great knuckleheaded time for a shoot ‘em up without thought at the movies.

MPAA Rating:  R   Length:  96 Minutes   Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Whiplash – Film Review

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When feared music instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K.Simmons) enters the room, everything stops.   Students immediately end their warm ups and stare at the ground.   For those first few moments, there’s no eye-contact.   No one would dare.   And Fletcher doesn’t just enter; he bursts through those doors with all the dramatic flare of a dangerous gunman about to open fire in a crowded room, demanding instant attention and knowing full well the level of intimidation he creates from the moment he appears.   Fletcher is a monster.

In the new drama Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, Miles Teller plays Andrew Neyman, a first year jazz drummer at one of the most prestigious music schools in the country.   He dreams of greatness.   His inspiration for becoming the best is spurred on by the fact that he comes from an average family that has rarely achieved anything out of the ordinary.   “I wanna be one of the greats,” Andrew tells his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) which is why he’s breaking with her.   He doesn’t want the relationship to get in the way.   “And you know I’d stop you from being that?” she asks with the undeniable sound of hurt in her voice before leaving him for good.

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Whiplash is about how far one goes to be the best when the road to achieve that greatness comes at the cost of everything else in your life.    Andrew is willing to go the distance and endure the worst kind of humiliation and bullying from Fletcher to get there, even if it means playing while his sweat and blood drips in pools from his hands and fingers and splashes across the snare drum and cymbals.   And it’s at that point that Flethcer drives Andrew even more.

Fletcher’s nerve-racking method of teaching is reprehensible.   He’s a cross between I.U.’s famed coach of the past, Bobby Knight and a drill sergeant not unlike the R. Lee Ermey character in Full Metal Jacket.   Unlike Knight, the instructor doesn’t limit his throwing things to chairs; he’ll throw anything within reach – cymbals, drum sticks, music books; everything – plus he berates his students with such a never-ending torrent of foul-mouthed, homophobic abuse he crushes as many dreams as he thinks he’s inspiring.

I was there to push people beyond what was expected of them,” he would later explain, as if his intentions somehow justified his atrocious method.   When Fletcher hears a flat note in the rehearsal studio he homes in on the horn section and narrows it down to a single trombone player.   “Is that you, Elmer Fudd?” he demands of the frightened student, now reduced to tears in front of everyone else.   When the player indicates he can’t hear the flat note, Fletcher throws him out of the class.   In an instant, he crushes a student’s musical dream forever.   The instructor then announces to the class that the flat note wasn’t really played by the now absent and humiliated trombone player but that… “He didn’t know, and that’s enough to throw him out.”

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In his way, you begin to see that Andrew isn’t altogether too different from Fletcher.   The student not only forces himself to meet Fletcher’s unreasonable challenges head-on, he practically embraces them, believing that if he pushes and pushes himself to the point of fingers bleeding all over his drum kit he’ll get that much coveted position of core drummer in Fletcher’s jazz band, and maybe the greatness of the Charlie Parker and Gene Krupa kind.   But because of this single-mindedness that alienates friends and family, it also succeeds in alienating the audience.   At a family dinner table scene, when Andrew tries to explain his musical achievements, no one seems to either get it or show anything other than a surface interest.   Andrew retaliates by berating the achievements of the student football players at the table.   His remarks are snarky and unkind, yet Andrew shows no remorse after letting the insults fly, and our feelings towards Andrew changes considerably.   Rather than root for the character, you suddenly keep him at arms length.

It’s this unexpected development of viewer loyalty that changes how you perceive the remaining events of the film and it’s something that maybe the film had not intended.   By losing Andrew and having no character to back, a distance develops between you and the screen.   Instead of feeling involved and supportive of Andrew’s potential, you’re left with passively watching two characters go at each other as though they’re sparring in a deadly sport but without the enthusiasm of getting behind either.   You’re interested enough in knowing the outcome but the emotional investment has gone.

As Fletcher, this is J.K. Simmons’ career changing role.   From the moment we first meet him he demands our attention as if he’s grabbed our throats, establishing a character who works from a position of someone who instills fear and creates power over everyone.   But this is also Miles Teller’s film.   Previous roles in The Spectacular Now, and to a lesser degree Divergent, have earned Teller notice, but its here as the jazz drummer with a myopic determination at the cost of all else to be great where he excels.

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Like Frank Zappa’s earlier foray into jazz, Whiplash has an uneven rhythm that makes things hard to predict.   Just before the third act, the beat changes in an unexpected way, making you wonder where things are going.   After all, there’s a still a whole third act to complete.   If you had any reservations of leaving the theatre in a downward swing, the film redeems itself with a climactic drum performance from Andrew that is inspiring, appreciated best perhaps by anyone who has ever attempted to tap a cymbal or bang a drum stick on a snare.   Shot in a manner suggesting the well choreographed style of cuts and edits Bob Fosse used in both Cabaret and Lenny, cinema has never presented a drum solo on screen quite like this, and it’s riveting.

But it’s not just the sights and sounds of the solo that make the emotions in that lengthy conclusion soar.   When dad, Paul Reiser, watches his son through a crack of the curtain from the wings, you sense that the man realizes he’s now witnessing a greatness in his boy he had never before recognized.   Then there’s Fletcher, whose initial intention behind inviting Andrew back on stage to play with the band was to humiliate and destroy.   Watching the ear-pounding, pulsating performance he suddenly overcomes his immoral need for revenge and believes he’s discovered something in his ex-student he’s been looking for all his collegiate life.   It’s enough for the monster to change tactics and actually encourage, if only for a few seconds.

MPAA Rating:  R   Length:  106 Minutes   Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Ouija – Film Review

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If there were two things we learned from the mother of all demonic possession movies, The Exorcist, it would be the following:  1) Don’t believe what an evil spirit tells you – it lies, and 2)  never play with a Ouija board.   Evidently, the principle teenage players in the new horror adventure Ouija have never seen The Exorcist.

A small group of well-scrubbed and above average looking teenagers, interchangeable with the cast of the next Final Destination movie, unleash the power of something that now wants to kill them and they did it by playing with an old Ouija board found up in the attic.   Where else?   Now, one by one, whoever it is, or whatever it is, is terrorizing those nice kids by playing with the front door, turning gas cookers on, leaving signs that read Hi Friend everywhere, then scaring them to the point where they eventually take their own lives.

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The problem begins when the first teenage victim breaks one of the three rules associated with the Ouija.   You must never play in a cemetery; never play alone, and always say Goodbye when you’re finished.   The teenager’s problem wasn’t that she played in cemetery or didn’t have the good manners to say Goodbye;  she broke the middle rule.   She played alone, and that sealed the deal.   “Get rid of the board,” declares one of the adults with an ominous, no-nonsense glare who obviously knows about these things.   “I promise,” replies lead teen Elaine (Olivia Cooke), though, of course, she doesn’t and the scares keep coming.

The game, if that’s what you can really call the spirit board, came into being around 1891 and was developed for home entertainment and had little to do with spirits.   Along with other more innocent board games like Monopoly and Clue, Parker Brothers continued the marketing of the Ouija throughout the sixties until it was finally sold in the nineties to Hasbro.   The name is a combination of the French and German word for Yes, Oui and Ja, though that doesn’t explain why most of us pronounce the word wee-gee and not wee-gah.   The Planchette, that little heart-shaped object you use to move around the board that spells the letters, is French for Little Plank (of wood), though the one that always came with the Parker Brothers version was usually plastic.

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Ouija is the kind of horror film aimed squarely at young teenagers – principally young female teenagers – who have presumably never seen the classics, have no idea what’s a rip and what isn’t, and love to scream.   To add to the been-there-done-that feel, even the haunted house where the spirit resides appears to have the same floor plan as the one used in Insidious.

To its credit, there aren’t as many easy-to-scare-you Boo moments, those sudden bursts of noise used to maximum annoyance to make you jump as in The Conjuring or the more recent Annabelle.   There are certainly scenes of something unexpected happening but director Stiles White holds back on the screechy violins or a sudden blast of the horn section on the soundtrack to make you jump, and that’s a positive.   On the downside is just about everything else.

The film runs for only a brief 83 minutes so events and situations are quick and direct with little build-up.   When the teenagers hit the board, spooky stuff happens immediately; there’s little time for slow burns or padding.   There’s also little time for investigating and doing the required detective work in order for the teenagers to find out the history of the terrorizing spirit.   Elaine, the main character, conveniently finds an old box of photographs in the attic.   Within moments, she’s looking something up on the Internet and within less than three minutes she’s found out the complete backstory to everything she needs to know.

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In short, Ouija isn’t particularly good but at least it knows its PG-13 audience, plus there’s a small injection of humor from time to time to make teenagers laugh between the nervous giggles and the occasional scream.   When one of the disbelieving kids doubts the ability of the board game to contact the dead, she makes a 4G reference by exclaiming, “This house is really bad, I can only pick up one bar in here.”

But it’s those really irritating moments of sheer character stupidity which for some reason is a requirement in teenage horror that spoils the flow.   Question:  If you just experienced contact with the dead after playing with a Ouija board and you were physically assaulted by the said spirit, accompanied by the sound of screams and moving objects, wouldn’t you leap from the house and go running as fast as you can to the nearest priest for protection?   Of course you would.   But what do these teenagers do?   They leap from the house, then gather on the outside porch right by the front door, inches from the dangerous spirit on the other side, and have a conversation.   It’s that kind of movie.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13   Length:  83 Minutes   Overall Rating:  4 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Stonehearst Asylum – Film Review

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Those familiar with Edgar Allan Poe’s dark, short story The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Father may be surprised how closely Stonehearst Asylum, the new Gothic mystery from England with the all-star cast, resembles the author’s original work.   The French location is now a place in rural England and the situations and outcomes are expanded to fill out a full-length movie, yet the overall theme and the brooding sense of being trapped in a situation with little hope of escape is all there.   So why doesn’t it work?

Believe nothing what you hear and only half of what you see,” explains Brendan Gleeson as an instructor at Oxford University in 1899 to a room full of eager student physicians.   Gleeson, seen only here and at the film’s conclusion employing a clipped English accent rather than his native Irish brogue, is using the unfortunate story of Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale) as an example of insanity that might mislead you into thinking she’s okay when in fact she’s really insane.   At least, that’s how she’s being presented in a macabre form of show and tell in front of the country’s future doctors.   Watching her exclaim to the attentive and somewhat shocked students that, “I’m not mad. Help me,” while knowing she’s been injected with heroin to calm her down leads us to immediately doubt the insanity accusation.

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The initial twist in the plot comes early, plus it comes as no surprise if you know Poe’s short story and you’ve studied the poster closely enough.   True to Gleeson’s earlier instructions, when young doctor Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arrives outside the gates of Stonehearst Asylum on a foggy Christmas Eve it’s immediately obvious that nothing what the young man hears and sees is quite as they seem.   “Welcome to our little madhouse in the wilderness,” greets groundskeeper Mickey Finn (David Thewlis) as he unlocks the gate and allows Edward to enter.   From the outset, Finn’s mocking tone and his overly unprofessional, almost threatening manner, delivered with a smile, signals that something’s already wrong.   Against his better judgment, Edward enters.

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After meeting the man in charge, Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley) and the various nurses and assorted helpers within the enormous mansion, including Beckinsale’s Eliza, it soon becomes obvious what’s happened: the lunatics have taken over and those poor souls locked down in the basement, including Michael Caine as Dr. Salt, are not the patients but the staff.

The setting is the Christmas week leading up to New Year’s Eve, though there is little goodwill to all men.   “An Oxford man is always welcome here,” Lamb tells Edward as he takes the young doctor on a tour of the premises.   It’s only later when Edward’s real intention of wanting to visit Stonehearst is revealed; he’s there to rescue the beautiful Eliza.   “Listen to me,” he implores the young woman. “The lunatics are roaming the asylum.”   “I know,” she responds, “And I’m one of them.”

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There’s no doubting the pedigree of a first-class cast of great British thespians from both stage and screen appearing in the same film, including the film’s attention to detail, its well framed, atmospheric widescreen cinematography by Thomas Yatsko and its period costumes, both above and below the floors of the asylum, yet director Brad Anderson fails to flesh out the one element Stonehearst Asylum truly needs in order to click:  that black, comedic though horrific tone of Poe’s original work.   You may get the feeling that the end result is not what was originally intended, plus knowing that the film’s original title was Eliza Graves suggests that perhaps Anderson’s hiring was one of rescue rather than artistic inspiration.

There’s also the issue of Bulgarian locations used to substitute for rural England.   That enormous, cavernous drop off the side of a mountain by the side of the asylum grounds restricting a patient’s ability to escape may add to that sense of being trapped, but in England?  I don’t think so.   Lunatics took over the job of location scouts as well.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13    Length:  112 Minutes   Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Dear White People – Film Review

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Dear white people,” broadcasts the sultry sounding voice of college student, Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) over the campus radio.   “The minimum number of black friends needed to show you’re not racist has been raised to two.” She then adds, sounding like a late-night FM jock announcing dedications between love songs, “And sorry, your weed man Tyrone does not count.”

In the potent new and occasionally uncomfortably funny satire Dear White People, written and directed by newcomer Justin Simien, we steer our way through the halls of a primarily white college, here called Winchester University, and view it mostly through the eyes of the minority black students.   Sam uses her Dear White People campus radio show to drop some awkward truths on listeners, both black and white.   “Dear white people. Dating a black person to annoy your parents is still a form of racism,” she’ll say, or, “Dear white people. Please stop touching my hair. Do I look like a petting zoo to you?”

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It’s not that the black students at Winchester U. are denied the opportunities of white students; it’s more the issue of how they’re expected to behave, not to mention that the pressure of appearances and behavior comes not only from the white outside but also from the black within.   At one end we have the rebellious, though perhaps more belligerent activist style of Sam’s broadcasts while at the other we have Coleandra ‘Coco’ Connors (Teyonah Parris) who seems to have no time for anyone’s militancy.   “There is nothing ‘hood’ about me,” Coco insists wearing her straight weave when auditioning for a campus based reality TV show called potentially Black Face, White Place.

Tessa Thompson’s broadcaster Sam is such an interesting character with such conflicting traits, each time she appears you can’t help but feel a certain sense of excitement in anticipation of what she might do or say next.   With her old-fashioned home movie camera she pieces together a short film for campus viewing called The Rebirth of a Nation, underlining subtle and not so subtle elements in support of black culture and the attitudes of whites towards it while later revealing that she also kind of likes Taylor Swift.

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Then there are the white characters that just don’t get it.   Sam’s radio show can often offend those who hear but aren’t really listening, particularly when it’s pointed out that the comments are intended to be satire and that satire is really the weapon of reason.   When President Hutchinson (Peter Syvertsen) reacts to the observation, he responds with the generalization that “Racism is over in America,” sounding as though he’s probably heard too many white announcers on right-wing radio talk shows who make unsubstantiated sweeping statements without support, then adds without any sense of irony: “The only ones who think about it are probably Mexicans.

The film culminates with an offensive African-American party thrown by the white students who invite campus to come black face, dance and eat fried chicken and watermelon.   Coco attends the party having removed her black weave and replaced it with a blonde wig and defends the students, stating that, “These people want to be like us, and they get to be for one night.”

Director Simien’s debut outing is sharp, crammed with ideas and observations, delivered in titled chapters including a prologue and backed occasionally by Swan Lake making the overall feel of the film seem neatly composed and tightly presented.   Yet Dear White People still feels all over the place to the point where you’re not entirely sure where things are heading or what it wants you to take from it as you leave the theatre.

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Appearing unpredictable is a plus in age where the average Hollywood product is designed for its predictability, but here, as refreshing as the film sometimes feels, the movie is often on the verge of simply appearing a mess; a sense of clarity is missing.   Simien wants to inform and use satire in the same way the characters talk about the subject, as a weapon, but there’s also that pesky feeling that Dear White People wants to be angrier than the film is shown to be yet pulls back in order not to appear overly heavy-handed.   It’s admittedly a tough line for Simien to straddle but now and again you want the hammer to fall harder than it does.

Performances are good, particularly Tessa Thompson and a nice, underplayed turn from Tyler James Williams as Lionel, a black student who doesn’t quite fit in under any banner, perhaps proving that, black or white, we’re all individuals and should resist being shoe-horned under one single label by others.   Plus, in its favor, the film is also very funny, which, of course, it needs to be.   Paralleling the imagined racism of Gremlins is an angle of the 1984 comedic horror that students of film may never have before considered.   It’s comical but for a moment it’s also food for thought.   Then there’s the more obvious line of humor.   When an Asian-American League member hangs out at the Black Student Union get-together and is asked why she’s here and not with the whites, she responds with the classic, “You guys got better snacks.”

MPAA Rating:  R     Length:  108 Minutes    Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film