Thursday, September 25, 2014

Cut Bank [film review]

Cut Bank, from rookie feature director Matt Shakman (a veteran TV director), squanders an impressive cast that features Billy Bob Thornton, Bruce Dern, John Malkovich, and Oliver Platt in a small-town crime noir story that falls well short of its Coen Brothers-level ambitions. Set in the titular Montana town, Cut Bank centres around a fraud plot gone wrong that ends up leading to all sorts of unpleasant business. That foursome of seasoned actors all turn in solid performances with the thin material, especially Malkovich as the comic relief-providing sheriff who's seemingly out of his element, even though he's been doing the job for years. Dern, Platt, and Thornton all have more limited roles, however, leaving far too much screen time for Liam Hemsworth, who barely registers in his performance as a mechanic dreaming of an escape to the promised land of Hollywood with his girlfriend. Michael Stuhlbarg's unhinged town oddball makes things a tad more interesting whenever he's around, but the disjointed and undercooked story eventually goes off the rails, as Cut Bank and its quirk-heavy characters and plot twists end up leaving little impression.   

Rating: C-

Friday, September 19, 2014

Whiplash [film review]

Whiplash, directed and written by Damian Chazelle, began as an 18 minute short film that dazzled at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it scored the financial backing to turn it into a full-length movie. Shot for a little over $3 million in 19 days, the 106 minute feature premiered at Sundance a year later and took home a rare double win for best drama from both the festival jury and audiences. Whiplash's inspiration came from Chazelle's own experiences as a drummer in an ultra-competitive high school jazz band, with the setting now shifted to an elite New York City music college. 19-year-old Andrew Neyman (played by Miles Teller), a highly ambitious drummer with visions of being the next Buddy Rich, lands on the radar of the conservatory's feared jazz band conductor, Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons), who offers the first-year student a chance to prove himself in his ensemble. Given what may be Miles' best opportunity to catapult himself to the legendary status he covets, much blood (literally) and sweat is in the offing for the youngster.

The film's two leads give exceptional performances, each emanating considerable intensity, but in different ways. Simmons played one seriously intimidating dude in Vern Schillinger, the head of the Aryan Brotherhood on HBO's prison drama Oz. Vern, however, seems positively demure compared to Terence, whose teaching methods are akin to those of a sadistic drill sergeant. Terence isn't above hurling emasculating, homophobic, and racist inventive at students not performing up to his almost impossibly high standards, as Andrew quickly finds out. That only pushes Andrew harder and it's thoroughly fascinating being submerged into the world of someone so driven by a dream that they'll endure such hell and have their life absolutely consumed with their passion. An effective minor romantic subplot with a nice performance by Melissa Benoist only reinforces that latter point. Teller's percussive skills merit mention, considering he played all the drum parts in the film (much of it very technically demanding, which I can attest to as an amateur drummer myself). A rock drummer who had played in several non-serious bands over the years, Teller had a mere three weeks to learn a completely new jazz playing style and the film's music, which is ridiculously impressive. 

My only reservation (and it was fairly minor) prior to watching Whiplash was whether or not my lack of interest in jazz would be an obstacle to enjoying the film and it most certainly was not. I surprisingly enjoyed much of the music, particularly the composition by Hank Levy that gives the movie its name. I do wish Chazelle had taken a different approach than the one he conceived for the movie's dramatic crescendo, but that's about the only negative thing I can write about the outstanding Whiplash, which features possibly the best performances by a pair of leads in a film that you'll see this year.

Rating: A  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Adult Beginners [film review]

Adult Beginnersplot: After becoming a pariah to just about everyone he's connected with after a failed product launch, self-centred entrepreneur Jake (played by stand-up comic Nick Kroll) returns to his childhood home where his sister, Justine (played by Rose Byrne), and brother-in-law, Danny (played by Bobby Cannavale), live with their three-year-old son. As Jake licks his wounds and contemplates his next step, he comes to appreciate the value of family and the virtue of humility.

Kroll would seem to be an unlikely candidate to play a character who rediscovers their humanity in a comedic film with touchy feely leanings like Adult Beginners, considering the abrasive nature of his stand-up act and his television roles on The League and Kroll Show. His snide personality is intact initially, mind you, but that edge is gradually dulled as Jake is welcomed into his sister's home and takes on the nanny responsibilities for his nephew. The fish-out-of-water scenario rarely yields impactful results, however, be they of the moving or comedic variety, and the movie rarely goes anywhere you're not expecting it to. Kroll acquits himself decently with the limited material, as do Byrne and Cannavale, who are given their own marital issues to wrestle with as a subplot. Peripheral characters played by Jane Krakowski, Josh Charles, Paula Garces, and Joel McHale barely register, although one scene with Saturday Night Live's Bobby Moynihan playing a former classmates of Jake's delivers the movie's best laughs and will ring true for anyone who's had one of those run-ins with someone from your past that you wouldn't even want as a Facebook friend. 

Adult Beginners disappoints with its skimpy joke-to-laugh ratio and ability to move the viewer with Jake's transformation, adding up to a slight movie that's unlikely to stay with you for very long.

Rating: C                

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Tusk [film review]

Kevin Smith, whose repeated threats in recent years of permanently exiting the world of filmmaking have taken on the dubious credibility of retirement announcements from, say, most classic rock bands, has apparently found his creative mojo once again with the batshit crazy Tusk. Smith's previous film, 2011's Red State, was justifiably poorly received by critics and audiences, souring him even further on the filmmaking process. Then in 2013, a bizarre discussion on an episode of Smith's SModcast podcast hastily inspired him to write and direct Tusk, a high-concept movie (in more ways than one, I'm sure) that can be summarized with one sentence: Los Angeles podcaster visits Manitoba and gets kidnapped by a lunatic who turns him into a walrus. Still with me? Smith, during the film's second TIFF screening I attended after its world premiere the night before, joked that he had reached the point in his career where "I don't give a fuck anymore", but just because Smith has reached a bitter crossroads in his career that's resulted in quite literally one of the worst movie experiences I've ever sat through doesn't mean you should also be subjected to the man's lack of impulse control. 

Two main things drew me to Tusk: 1) I was a modest fan of most of Smith's work (which you probably can't tell from the contempt being leveled at him in this review, but that just speaks to the permanently scarring effects of this abomination) and 2) the film is mostly set in Manitoba and promised plenty of Canadian references and jokes. The humour, like almost everything else in Tusk, never works, however. I can count on one hand the number of times I laughed during the film and I was surprised, frankly, that Smith, a man with both a sharp wit and an extensive knowledge of this country (as he'll gladly point out any chance he gets about the latter), stooped to such lazy and predictable jokes about not loving hockey and the word "aboot". Johnny Depp shows up briefly to chew scenery as Guy Lapointe, a quirky Quebec detective constructed entirely of French-Canadian stereotypes that become tiresome very quickly. For further evidence of the film's humour deficiency, the name of the comedy podcast hosted by protagonist Wallace Bryton (played by Justin Long, who goes heavy on the douchebaggery) and his sidekick, Teddy (played by The Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment), is "The Not-See Party", whose theme finds the hosts making fun of people they've read about or seen on the internet. That kind of half-assed and witless screenwriting also extends to key plot points, like the one that conveniently allows Wallace to contact his friends after being kidnapped by the deranged Howard Howe (played by Michael Parks, who's decent performance is the only thing remotely redeemable about the movie). I could go on about how the supposed big payoff of seeing Wallace transformed into a walrus disappoints mightily with shoddy special effects (the sight of him is slightly disturbing, but not Human Centipede-level disturbing), or how the tease of some much-needed action at the movie's end is practically over before it begins, or how the dreadful final scene provided a fitting end to this turd of a film…but I'm sure you've gotten my point. As I write this, I've gotten six days of distance from watching Tusk and having to revisit it for this review has genuinely made me feel, well, annoyed. 

That annoyance was felt during the screening, too, as a packed audience heavy on Smith fanboys and fangirls at the sizable Bloor Hot Docs Cinema inexplicably laughed and cheered throughout the movie. Normally I stick around for festival Q
A sessions, but as the credits rolled and Tusk was met with rapturous applause, I couldn't head for the exits quickly enough to get as far away as possible from Kevin Smith and anyone who thought his latest film was worthy of such adoration. And fair warning: Smith has two more films in the pipeline that'll complete what he's calling his "True North Trilogy". Yoga Hosers is currently shooting and centres around the pair of surly teenage girl convenience store clerks (played by Smith's and Depp's daughters) that get about five minutes of forgettable screen time in Tusk, to be followed by a Jaws-inspired movie about a killer moose. God help us all. 

Rating: F         

Black And White [film review]

A drama dealing predominantly with the topics of race and a custody battle over an adorable 7-year-old girl is inherently fraught with potential hazards for any filmmaker. Screenwriter and director Mike Binder (a former stand-up comic who also created and starred in HBO's underappreciated dramedy series The Mind Of The Married Man in the early 2000s) is more than up to the task, however, drawing broadly from his own experiences as the adoptive father of a bi-racial child to inform the narrative of the excellent Black And White, which had its world premiere at TIFF. Producer and star Kevin Costner, who reteams with Binder after the pair collaborated on 2005's The Upside Of Anger, believed in the project so strongly that he took the uncommon step of financing the indie's $9 million budget himself after studios both big and small shied away from the movie's racially-charged subject matter.   

Costner plays wealthy L.A. lawyer Elliot Anderson, a man who's a little too well-acquainted with fresh tragedy in his life. Black And White's opening scene finds Elliot having just lost his wife in a car accident, relatively soon after his teenage daughter died whilst giving birth. The couple had been raising their mixed-race grandchild, Eloise (played by Jillian Estell), since the drug-addled father had ended up in prison. Elliot's navigation through his grief and mourning is complicated by his new responsibility as Eloise's sole caregiver, an escalating drinking problem, and soon a custody dispute with Rowena (played by an efficient Octavia Spencer), the paternal grandmother of Eloise who feels her granddaughter would be better off living with her side of the family.

Black And White raises numerous thoughtful points about race and prejudice, most notably during an Oscar-bait courtroom scene where Elliot speaks at length on the topic with a reasoned perspective that also reflects the character's flaws. It's Costner's best role in ages, as he plays Elliot with a perfect balance of deep vulnerability and brusqueness. Newcomer Estell demonstrates impressive range that helps elevate Black And White above the trappings of over-sentimentality that frequently torpedoes films centred around cute kids. Also strong in supporting roles are Toronto's Mpho Koaho as an overqualified tutor and driver hired by Elliot and stand-up comedian Bill Burr as a law associate and friend of Elliot's. Burr, whose hilarious Monday Morning Podcast I'm a regular listener of, shows surprising depth in a meatier role than he got to play on the other acting gig he'd be best known for, as one of Saul Goodman's henchmen on Breaking Bad.

Black And White tastefully deals with its delicate subject matters of race, loss, and family strife, resulting in a touching and powerful film. And aside from an ill-advised final act action scene that allows one character an opportunity at redemption, Binder's screenplay and his character's performances feel very relatable and grounded in reality.    

Rating: A-

A temporary return…

Attending the 2014 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival over the past week has stirred up my creative impulses a little bit, so I'm temporarily back with upcoming reviews of the five films I saw at TIFF.