movie reviews July 2014

obvious childbegin againthird personDawn of the planet of the apesThe Purge: AnarchyVenus in fur

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Venus in Fur
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Venus in Fur is one of those rare adaptations of a play where the claustrophobia of having two people stuck in a locale for 90 minutes is actually an asset. Thanks to a pair of stellar performances from Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric, there's little need to "open up" or expand on the Tony-winning American play by David Ives.

Director Roman Polanski has moved the play from New York to Paris, but handles the material so effortlessly; it's hard to believe the material went through any contortions before its present form.

On paper, the tale is simple. A frustrated writer and novice theatrical director named Thomas (Amalric) is attempting to mount a new adaptation of Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch's 1869 novella Venus in Furs.

The tale about an idle aristocrat who wants a widower to make him her sex slave wound up leading to the term "masochism" (after von Sacher-Masoch) and even inspired the Velvet Underground's creepy classic tune of the same title. Lead singer Lou Reed even cites the characters in the book by name.

While von Sacher-Masoch's tale is an established, if controversial, literary property, Thomas finds locating a suitable leading lady consistently frustrating. After a long, rainy afternoon of watching unsuitable auditions for the role of the widowed Vanda, Thomas is eager to get home to his fiancée. Although none of the actresses are depicted, the weariness on Amalric's face indicates they've all been inadequate.

Before he can leave the run down theater for the night, a scantily clad woman emerges from the downpour. Vanda (Seigner) is nowhere on his appointment sheet, even though she repeatedly apologizes for being late for the audition. Because of her unsophisticated manner and seeming lack of familiarity with the material, it's hard to tell if she's an actress or simply a wannabe wasting yet more of Thomas' time.

It might not be an encouraging sign, but Wanda has brought her own 19th century gown. Once she puts it on, she instantly nails the dialogue and seems eerily at home playing the imaginary object of von Sacher-Masoch's affection.

From here, the situation gets predictably but delightfully twisted. Because Thomas is feeding Vanda her cues, it's hard to tell when either one of them is moving into and out of character and who is actually in charge of the situation. As the two discover, being submissive can be a type of sadism because it places an uncomfortable burden of leadership on a partner.

Thanks to Ives' ever twisting logic, Venus in Fur never feels lacking despite the fact that only two performers ever appear on screen. Because of the audition environment, Amalric and Seigner are actually playing several roles and roles-within-roles in the 93-minute film. Watching the two embrace and even thrive on the challenge is the primary delight in Venus in Fur.

It also doesn't hurt that Ives and Polanski fill the proceedings with a mischievous wit that keeps the film from ever becoming stiff or dull. There's also a consistent sense of menace that keeps viewers wondering if Thomas and Vanda have gotten themselves into a situation that could overwhelm them.

Polanski is an old hand at creating unsettling atmosphere. Thankfully old doesn't mean worn out. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 07/25/14)

Venus in Fur

What's painful for a
lover is fun for any
one watching this film.

The Purge: Anarchy
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

With this sequel, writer-director James DeMonaco takes another crack at the provocative allegory that fueled last year's The Purge, yet merely confirms that this franchise was out of ideas before it started.

Like its predecessor, events take place in a future America governed by a collective ominously titled "The New Founding Fathers," which preserves social order by offering citizens an annual "Purge," one night a year during which all crime is legal. These purges have led to record low crime and unemployment rates.

Sure, as a premise, it's flawed (The films focus on vivid personal violence, but sidestep less flashy, more insidious crimes like extortion, coercion or robbery. If a business owner is forced to sign over his company to you on Purge night, is it still yours the next day? Is a Purge night shotgun wedding valid?), but it certainly suggests plenty of social and political overtones.

The first film wasted this premise by confining its action to one household, creating what was essentially a run-of-the-mill home invasion thriller. This time around, DeMonaco wisely broadens the scope, following several parties stranded outside during the Purge. Sympathetic African-American single mother Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and her obnoxious teen daughter Cali (Zoe Soul) are driven from the safety of their apartment by armed commandos. Unlucky and unlikable couple Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) encounters the quintessential horror movie dilemma — car trouble (Granted, it's no accident, though that creates its own logical inconsistencies).

These unfortunates find themselves unarmed and unprepared in a city where the only citizens venturing outside are bent on "releasing the beast": rapists, thugs, and an inordinate number of youths donning creepy masks (If crime is legal, why wear a mask?) and bearing the least effective weapons available — machetes, clubs, and knives. Oh, and those anonymous, black-clad paramilitary squads, outfitted with automatic weapons and armor-piercing ammo.

Fortunately, along comes the one righteous man known only as Sergeant (Frank Grillo), who alone appears to have if not a justifiable motive to purge, at least an understandable one. Armed to the teeth and driving a custom armored sports car, Sergeant reluctantly takes them under his wing.

When more car trouble leaves them all stranded, the film morphs into a fairly standard action flick like The Warriors or Escape From New York, except with far less interesting characters and action.

DeMonaco’s biggest problem, however, is that he doesn’t seem to know what sort of a movie he’s trying to make. The realistic protagonists face highly stylized miscreants once they take to the streets. Attempts to address the class and race issues raised by the premise are similarly exaggerated. Michael K. Williams (Omar from HBO’s The Wire) is wasted as a web-based Malcolm X, calling for a literal and seemingly contradictory war on The Purge while a group of cloistered 1-percenters using the poor for their own version of The Most Dangerous Game are so over-the-top, they seem to be in a different, maybe even a more interesting, film.

When morning finally dawns, an on-screen clock starts ticking down to the next Purge Night. For this franchise, however, let's hope time has run out. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 07/25/14)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

One sign of a good allegory may be its ability to weather changing times and cultures.

While the original film of the Pierre Boulle novel (and its most immediate successors) reflected an American society seemingly turned upside-down by the Cold War, rock 'n' roll, and the Civil Rights movement, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes reflects an even darker post-9/11 world threatened by global, ideological terrorism.

If Franklin Schaffner's 1968 film was a not-so-veiled warning, this modern take on the ape allegory is essentially a question: Why? Why do we go to war? And why can't we stop? In the course of answering these questions, director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) has crafted a gratifyingly atypical summer blockbuster, by turns dazzling, thoughtful, and moving.

Ten years after the events of 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the retroviral drug that made apes smart and killed humans — now dubbed the Simian Flu — has wiped out most of Earth's human population, leaving only small outposts of survivors.

Meanwhile, the apes have prospered, creating an idyllic society within the Muir Woods, to which they escaped over the Golden Gate Bridge at the end of Rise. This sylvan republic is presided over by Caesar, the ape who was raised by a human scientist and led the simian revolt. We are introduced to this paradise in an opening wordless scene as simian hunting parties stalk deer, communicating solely through gestures, subtitled sign language, and facial expressions.

Yes, facial expressions. One of the wonders of this film is the degree to which motion-capture technology has advanced, even in the few years since Rise. Effects supervisors Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon of Peter Jackson's WETA Digital studios have improved this technique to a level that transcends the term "animation" and constitutes an actual acting "performance." The subtleties of non-verbal behavior and, especially, eye contact create distinct, vivid simian characters that evoke strong emotional responses as we watch them interact as friends, comrades, and families.

Into this ape paradise stumbles a rag-tag scouting party of humans in search of a hydroelectric dam that represents their last hope to preserve any remnants of technology in their San Francisco enclave. It's been years since the species have crossed paths, so suspicions and resentments are rekindled on both sides.

The leader of the band of humans, Malcolm (Zero Dark Thirty's Jason Clarke), however, forges a tenuous truce with Caesar, allowing them to stay long enough to get the dam running. Such cooperation is doomed, of course, but it is just this inevitability that elevates Dawn from simple action flick to the level of tragedy.

You see, along with increased intelligence and rudimentary speech, these apes have also developed the very human traits of bigotry, ambition, and deceit. Ape lieutenant Koba (Tony Kebbell), who carries the literal and figurative scars of his experience as a lab animal, is unable to see humans as anything but evil, while ad hoc comp commandant Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) blames the apes for the virus that killed his family.

Despite the best efforts of Caesar and Malcolm, inter-species war erupts, and it is to the credit of screenwriters Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Mark Bombach that this conflict doesn't celebrate violence, but mourns it. Despite some arresting images — utterly convincing apes riding horseback into battle and a 360-degree tracking shot as Koba commandeers a tank turret — this warfare clearly represents a failure, not a triumph, leaving the audience ambivalent about who to root for … or whether to root at all.

Even if the messages are heavy-handed at times (Caesar smashes one rifle to bits and heaves another into a lake), kudos to the filmmakers for breathing new life into a still-relevant allegory, and franchise. (PG-13)
Rating: 4 (Posted on 07/13/14)

Third Person
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Oscar-winning writer/director Paul Haggis (Crash, In the Valley of Elah) makes films in accordance with the Scottish savory pudding of the same name, also an acquired taste. Both are a mélange of entrails sheathed tightly in guts, but the films are more awful than the offal. And Haggis’ latest, a clumsily pretentious meta-fiction, bungles its own philosophy through broadly drawn characters and hackneyed reveals.

What seem to be separate storylines starring Adrien Brody and Moran Atias in Rome; Mila Kunis, James Franco and Maria Bello in New York and Liam Neeson and Olivia Wilde in Paris are in fact sections of a novel. The kicker is that this novel is being written by Neeson, essentially playing two characters: the writer who has completed the novel in which all but a few of the film’s characters reside, as well as the fictionalized version of himself, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, as his young striving mistress (Wilde) repeatedly reminds him, who writes about himself in third person in his journal and whose main character in his most current novel within the other novel can feel only through the characters he creates.

This may seem complicated, but it’s really not. In fact, Haggis simplifies his conceit to the point of insult, or he entirely misses the point. Instead of exploring the metaphor of his own making, Haggis eschews conversations about imagination and creation that go hand-in-hand with the very idea on which he based his movie. Instead, he offers point-by-point literal connections between the “characters” and the novelist. Child endangerment, infidelity, even incest are all included in the most obvious way. And when Haggis stumbles on an interesting idea, such as Kunis playing a former child actor hired because she could cry on cue, he doesn’t even use it. Later, there’s no hint of counterfeiting in her breakdown.

It’s not enough that Haggis uses postproduction methods to meld the disparate storylines together, the result of which is surprisingly effective and if left alone would have been quite moving, but throughout the movie he hints at the conclusion, and in the end can’t help but give it all away.

His manner of storytelling doesn’t allow for any other conclusions to be drawn. He’s like a jokester who can’t stop himself from explaining the joke and then jabbing you in the ribs to ask if you got it. We got it; but that doesn’t mean we liked it. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 07/13/14)

Begin Again
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Begin Again falls short of writer-director John Carney 2006 busking musical Once. That said, he remembers enough of what made the previous film work and comes up with enough new delights to make the new effort worthwhile. While the lightning has escaped from the bottle, the bottle itself is interesting enough to hold a viewer's attention.

With Once, Carney lucked into two appealing leads with Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who also happened to be talented musicians capable of writing catchy, memorable tunes. Both are apparently too busy recording tunes with their band The Swell Season to do another film, so Carney settles for working with folks that act for a living this time.

As a result, the music by former New Radical Gregg Alexander (the mind behind "You Get What You Give") is occasionally infectious, but leading lady Keira Knightley is merely capable behind a mike.

Then again, she's not supposed to be Beverly Sills here. Instead, she's Greta, a British songwriter whose compositions who pens songs simply for her own pleasure. Because her American boyfriend Dave Kohl (moonlighting Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine) has started enjoying some hits wailing her tunes, she's content to stay out of his spotlight.

When she discovers that Dave has let success get to his head by cheating on her with a record company employee, Greta finds herself stuck in the Big Apple, eager to return to England to forget how her relationship fell apart.

When her amiable expatriate British pal Steve (James Corden) forces her to do one of her compositions in front of an indifferent crowd at an open mike night, she immediately regrets it. In the crowd is Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a former record company executive who has a knack for hearing how a song can become good and possibly great.

Like her, he could use a break.

His wife (Catherine Keener) has all but dumped him, and his teen daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) seems embarrassed by him. Part of her shame may stem from the fact that he's managed to drink his way out of the record label he cofounded. Nonetheless, he understands that Greta's tunes are his ticket to salvation, even if his old label refuses to take a chance on her.

Undeterred by the rejection, the two decide to record her tunes on the streets of New York, in public, instead of in an antiseptic studio. With money loaned by a rapper (CeeLo Green), the two hit locations across the city laying down tracks before the cops can stop them.

That's about all there is to the plot. Once didn't have a detailed storyline, either. Carney correctly figures he can get by with engaging characters and infectious songs. It also doesn't hurt that he approaches his "Hey, Kids Let's Put on a Show" tale creatively, presenting incidents from up to three points of view. Potentially unlikable characters like Dan become more sympathetic when we learn they can do more than empty beer bottles.

As with his previous movie, Carney manages to coax some solid performances from both the professional thespians and the folks who really make their living as musicians. Knightley and Ruffalo can play wounded and vulnerable in their sleep, but thankfully don't. There's also enough "will they or won't they" tension to keep the film moving along between songs.

Levine may be playing off his reputation for behaving badly, but he's consistently convincing even when he stops singing. The same can be said for Green, who is believable as a generous, if self-impressed mini-mogul.

The "recording" sequences are relatively convincing even if they don't look as organic as the ones in Once. Thankfully, New York proves to make a lively and scenic backdrop. Carney's Brooklyn may not be as gritty as his Dublin, but it's fun to see a movie where the cops in the background don't look or act like extras. You can see them leading perps away or helping strangers find their way around.

This spontaneity helps keep Begin Again from seeming stale or implausible. Yes, this was probably pre-recorded, but Carney and his cast manage to throw in enough surprises to keep the film from becoming a lengthy music video.

I still can't get "Falling Slowly" from Once out of my head after all these years. That's probably why the song won an Oscar. It may be unfair to expect the same from melodies offered here, but time might prove me wrong. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 07/06/14)

Begin Again

I'm debating if
I want Keira's album, but
the movie's still fun.

Obvious Child
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Obvious Child, written and directed by newcomer Gillian Robespierre, is far from the issue-centered, feminist manifesto that the talk about its resolution suggests. There’s an abundance of profanity in the film, most of which could be classified as equal opportunity gross-out humor that wouldn’t be out of place in a Judd Apatow movie, except that it’s about female anatomy, which Apatow saves for shock value and not laughs. But overall, it’s a fairly conventional, albeit transposed — meaning girl meets boy instead of boy meets girl — romantic comedy.

Whether the film charms or grates depends less on political leanings and more on the estimation of its lead, aspiring stand-up comic Donna Stern, played by Jenny Slate, who stumbles her way through a quarter-life crisis. This is a showpiece for Slate, who in 2009 proved she was not ready to be one of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players on “Saturday Night Live” when during her debut on the live broadcast let slip an F-bomb. It could be a testament to our changing times that Slate wasn’t immediately dismissed after the episode, as was Charles Rocket following a similar slip of the tongue in 1981. However, Slate was let go at the end of the season, learning of her expired contract online (such are the changing times indeed). Eventually, Slate returned to stand-up and then television, most recognizably as the obnoxious, cartoonish Mona-Lisa on “Parks and Recreation.”

Aided by Slate’s baby-voiced delivery, Donna’s shtick is the wide-eyed telling of truths about her life, however embarrassing to herself or those close to her. She’s without a filter both on stage and off, which works really well in some instances, such as lengthy descriptions of underwear that mock decades of marketing efforts by Victoria’s Secret, but in others just make her seem like an immature jerk. But her family and friends, particularly her best friend sidekick Nellie, played by a stunning grown-up Gaby Hoffman, and gay bestie Joey (Gabe Liedman) like to reassure her that it’s a quality to be admired and loved. It’s not.

This could be a result of Robespierre taking this story and chewing on it like a dog with a bone. She adapted this feature length version from the 2009 short film she made in conjunction with Anna Bean and Karen Maine; that version based on a story by Maine and Elisabeth Holm. Through all this, Donna remained not unlike the typical protagonist in the type of movie she claims she can’t relate to and that this movie is attempting to subvert. She wears mismatched knitted outfits and sits in boxes. She even has the typical rom-com job at an independent bookseller that just happens to be closing its doors in two weeks. Robespierre hasn’t eliminated the manic pixie dream girl; she’s put her in charge.

It doesn’t help that Slate’s range is somewhat limited. Her drunken crying seems inauthentic. Still she’s great at being pathetic standing outside of her ex-boyfriend’s apartment. And she plays off other actors well. The scene in the actual abortion clinic is necessary, but even more moving are the discussions she has beforehand with both her mother (Polly Draper) and Hoffman’s Nellie.  These are the moments that make this film an important one to see. It’s not that Donna goes ahead with the procedure; it’s that the other women in her life are willing to talk about theirs too. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 07/02/14)


Dan Lybarger can be contacted at
Beck Ireland can be contacted at
Mike Ireland can be contacted at


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