Reviews

Review: Amira & Sam

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Amira and Sam 

Romantic comedies are not exactly known for being rooted in realism. Movies in this genre always include an element of fantasy, whether it is minor or major, to make viewers wonder if it could ever happen to them. There are elements to Amira & Sam that feel surprisingly authentic and even when it begins to feel a little contrived, I do think its heart is in the right place. 

Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks) is Sam, an army solider who has recently returned home and is struggling to reassimilate. He returns to civilian life by working security as a doorman for a highrise apartment building. One night, he makes the mistake of chastizing an elevator full of privileged assholes after seeing one of them urinate outside the front door. They mockingly call him a "redneck cop" and dare him to do something about it. Sam lets the elevator doors close, but quickly shuts down the elevator banks, trapping them while he grabs a mop to clean up the mess. 

Sundance Review: Tangerine

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Tangerine Still Photo

Tangerine captures a seedy side of Los Angles rarely seen on film, in the bowels of a subculture that was not of personal interest until I watched this crudely engaging tale at Sundance Film Festival.

Transgender prostitute Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) has just been released from jail on Christmas Eve when her best friend and fellow sex worker Alexandra (Mya Taylor) reveals that Sin-Dee's pimp boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been sleeping with a meth addict "fish," Dina (Mickey O'Hagan), during Sin-Dee's incarceration. Sin-Dee strikes out with Alexandra in tow to find both Chester and Dina so she can settle matters.

"There is nothing out here but the hustle," states Alexandra, and that's what the pair do as they embark on a fast-paced journey through the streets of Los Angeles. Their stories are intertwined with that of Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who has a weakness for transgender prostitutes, and especially for Sin-Dee. Days spent dealing with difficult customers and nights with his overbearing mother-in-law have Razmik desperate for his own release through carnal pleasure.

Slamdance Review: Bloodsucking Bastards

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Bloodsucking Bastards Still PhotoThe 2015 Slamdance Festival opened on Friday night with a splash -- or rather copious amounts of blood -- in Bloodsucking Bastards, a horror comedy directed by Brian James O'Connell and penned by Ryan Mitts and the Dr. God comedy group. The well-attended opening-night party included the cast and crew in attendance, and plenty of complimentary libations for attendees.

Not since the Spierig brothers' 2009 vampire horror movie Daybreakers have I witnessed such a deluge of fake blood, but the action and humor keep the gag reflex at bay in this film that has been aptly described as "Office Space meets Shaun of the Dead," but with vampires instead of zombies.

Fran Kranz stars in Bloodsucking Bastards as Evan, the acting sales manager in a regional office of a big corporation. He is frustrated with his current work situation with his co-worker and ex-girlfriend Amanda (Emma Fitzpatrick), as well as his slacker buddy Tim (Joey Kern) and the rest of the underperforming sales team. When his boss (Joel Murray) brings in his old nemesis Max (Pedro Pascal) to take on the sales manager position, officemates begin acting strangely and some even go missing. It's up to Evan to convince everyone that an evil force is taking over the office and more than just their jobs are at stake.

Review: A Most Violent Year

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Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year

We may currently be in the midst of a pop-cultural infatuation with the antihero archetype, but A Most Violent Year presents us with a more elusive figure. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis) is surrounded by those who want to bring him down to their level, where firearms and shady business practices abound. A wealthy owner of a heating oil company in 1981 New York, his trucks are carjacked, his workers attacked, and his business investigated by a power-hungry DA (David Oyelowo, Selma). Morales is determined to stay above it all, working hard to respond in a way that’s legal and yet still gets results.

Review: Blackhat

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BlackhatAs someone whose alter-ego has a career in IT, I approach a film about hackers with lowered expectations. I don't want to dislike it, but I certainly have a heightened expectation that I will dislike it due to glaringly inaccurate portrayals of people doing things that to a trained eye are utterly ridiculous. What I never expected was that Blackhat would maintain an above-average level of accuracy in its portrayal and that my problems would mostly be the more mundane complaints a critic might have for any film that is just not very good.

My largest complaint is a technical problem that has little enough to do with computers. The film is, even to a lay person,  unfinished. A subpar audio mix makes dialogue at times difficult to understand. Poor or incomplete color correction results in inconsistency in the picture, which in the final action scenes looks exactly as if we're watching at home on a television with a 120fps frame rate enabled. This was the first movie that director Michael Mann shot completely without film, but his first digital outing is no excuse for failure to remove the "stock footage" watermark from a shot in the first five minutes of the film.

Reflecting on the experience, it seems as though Mann must have been in a tug-of-war with writer Morgan Davis Foehl, as he takes a methodical, largely boring script with uninteresting paper-cutout characters and tries to pull from late 80s and early 90s influences to liven it up. The camera zooms past a technician onto a keyboard and then inside a computer to a circuit board and then still deeper to a microscopic level where we see pulses of energy travelling through individual transistors in a chip. I could have almost thought for a moment I was watching Lawnmower Man or Electric Dreams.

"Blackhat" is a term applied to computer hackers who use their skills for good instead of nefarious purposes, staying on the right side of the law, a fact not mentioned in the film. The fact is also not precisely applicable to star Chris Hemsworth's character Nicholas Hathaway, a felon convicted for hacks that cause millions of dollars in damages to several banks. Actually, Hathaway, with skills that supposedly make him the only man capable of helping the FBI (in the form of Viola Davis) track down the bad guys, doesn't really do much in Blackhat that even qualifies as hacking. His biggest feat is tricking a director of security at the NSA into clicking an email attachment that wouldn't fool my mother.

The Stars at Night: Desk Set

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Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, Sue Randall and Katherine Hepburn in DESK SET

By the 1950s, Texas-raised actress Joan Blondell (see earlier column) must have resigned herself to filling supporting roles in film. In 1952, the former Miss Dallas received her lone Oscar nomination for her work as supporting actress in The Blue Veil. Five years later, she appears as Katherine Hepburn's wisecracking best friend, Peg Costello, in Desk Set. Her character may not be the focus of the comedy, but Blondell helps make the movie memorable.

I chose Desk Set for this month's column as a sort of counterbalance to the hoopla surrounding the 2014 film The Imitation Game (Marcie's review). This movie is a more humorous take on the early days of computing machines, and actually includes more than one woman in its plot -- whereas the British biopic ignores the many women who worked at Bletchley Park.

In the 1957 film, four reference librarians work for the fictional Federal Broadcasting Company, answering random questions that come up in TV productions. Hepburn’s Bunny Watson is the managing librarian, stuck in a static years-long relationship with a network executive (Gig Young, That Touch of Mink, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?). Spencer Tracy plays a curious older man named Sumner whom the women assume is preparing to cancel out their jobs and replace them with a machine.

Review: Selma

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Colman Domingo, David Oyelowo, Andre Holland and Stephan James in SELMA

"What we do is negotiate, demonstrate, resist."
-- Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma

Director Ava DuVernay and a combination of other talent create in Selma a deeply emotional, standout work about a short moment in history: the early months of 1965. The historical drama, attributed to screenwriter Paul Webb although DuVernay herself rewrote most of it, revolves around Martin Luther King, Jr. (British actor David Oyelowo, Lincoln, Middle of Nowhere) and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as they plan nonviolent protest in Selma, Alabama.

At this point in history, segregation had been outlawed, but county clerks continued to turn away black Southerners who attempted to register to vote through "literacy" tests and other deceptive means. In the movie, activist and preacher King pleads with President Lyndon Baines Johnson (British actor Tom Wilkinson, Belle, Michael Clayton) to enact voting rights legislation.

Review: Big Eyes

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Cristoph Waltz and Amy Adams in Big Eyes

Twenty years after his only other biopic (Ed Wood), director Tim Burton returns to the genre with the movie Big Eyes. Co-writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who also wrote Ed Wood) combine elements of the fantastical with the all-too-real story of a man taking credit for a woman's work. Amy Adams (American Hustle, The Muppets) stars as Margaret Keane, whose paintings of haunted-looking children were all the rage in 1960s America ... but her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained) passed them off as his own.

Burton tells Keane's story using a bright palette, giving a smooth look to his 1960s San Francisco setting, growing even bolder in color when the setting moves to Hawaii. There's a blithe feeling to Big Eyes, even as the movie tackles serious issues of the male-dominated mid-century canon of modern art and this female artist's loss of power in the face of her smooth operator/con artist husband. Adams as Margaret speaks with a soft Southern cadence opposite a strident Waltz, whose own bizarro accent here signals that he can't decide which part of the States his character is supposed to be from. 

Review: Into The Woods

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Into The Woods Still Photo

Fairy tales may appeal to young and old alike, but before the contemporary sanitized versions many of these stories, deeply rooted in centuries old folklore, were quite grim and complex with both obvious and not-so-obvious meaning.

In the 1976 book Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim analyzed the symbolic motifs and emotional importance of fairy tales, including those collected and published by the Brothers Grimm. He opined that the darkness and brutality of abandonment and death gave children the ability to process their fears and learn from the moral of each story.

The film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim 1987 musical Into the Woods weaves several favorite tales into one complex story for adults with many of our favorite characters. The base story created for this production is that of "The Baker and his Wife," a barren couple (James Corden and Emily Blunt) who desperately want to have a child.

Review: The Imitation Game

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Although working at this year's Austin Film Festival had many great perks, one of the not-so-great parts was missing out on some of the highly-anticipated marquee films.  This is why I jumped at the chance to see The Imitation Game, though I now see that maybe I didn't need to jump so quickly.

It's clear that Benedict Cumberbatch (famously known for his role on Sherlock) carries this film -- not just because the story focuses on his role as Alan Turing, but because his performance stands out amongst all of his famous castmates, including Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode and Charles Dance.  

That said, it seems that Cumberbatch's snarky demeanor as Sherlock Holmes is what got him cast in this role. The Imitation Game seems a fitting title because his performance is not unlike the role he's portrayed for the last three seasons on Sherlock. If you're unfamiliar with the show, then perhaps you will not notice this similarity; being a big fan myself, it stood out almost instantly. In fact, most of the cast seemed to be cookie-cutter replicas of characters they have played before: stale, expired and certainly not fresh.

The story is strong, yet it doesn't know which theme it relies on.  Focusing on Turing's famous crack of the Enigma coding machine during WWII, the film stays on course -- until it takes a few pit stops to reflect on Turing's struggle with homosexuality. Although it's a powerful performance, I felt confused on what emotion to resonate with throughout. It seems as if the filmmakers were taking on some sort of studio note to try and make Turing more sympathetic. Although it does achieve this, it feels forced.

It surprises me that The Imitation Game is making its debut on Christmas Day.  Perhaps a marketing team felt that Cumberbatch and Knightly would draw in ticket sales, but the film itself doesn't have that grandiose feel most holiday releases have.  It does seem that this role will probably draw some Oscar buzz for Cumberbatch -- it already seems to have drawn an 8.4 rating out of a scale of 10 on IMDb. Maybe I'm just a holiday release Scrooge; maybe a box-office Christmas miracle will happen after all.