Sirens Sing No Lullaby

Lorelei

by Hope Madden

Dolores (Jena Malone) is a mess. Her past, her present, even her future: a mess. Shacking up with her high school boyfriend – just released from a 15-year stint for armed robbery – hardly seems like it will improve things for Dolores or her three children.

But bubbling beneath the surface of filmmaker Sabrina Doyle’s messy, sometimes frustrating feature debut Lorelei is enough magic to make redemption possible.

It helps immeasurably that Jena Malone plays the single mom who named each of her children after a different shade of blue. Wayland (Pablo Schreiber) had held out a hope that the eldest—a 15-year-old boy named Dodger Blue (Chancellor Perry)—might be his, but the truth is that none of Dolores’s kids are Wayland’s. All three should have been, but Wayland, in his own way, got out and Dolores did not.

Malone’s commitment is mesmerizing. In her hands, Dolores is never one-note white trash, nor is she by any means an example of the noble poor. Instead, she’s all love and resentment, wonder and self-destruction.

Schreiber (Liev’s brother) balances her electricity with quiet awe. He’s a physically imposing presence, especially opposite the petite Malone, but he never falls back on the gentle giant cliche. He fills Wayland’s inner conflict with remorse, loss and tenderness.

Though Dolores’s trio of Blues (Perry, Amelia Borgerding and Parker Pascoe-Sheppard) showcase genuine talent from three young performers, the same can’t be said of the entire ensemble. Many struggle with Doyle’s sometimes stilted dialog and her tendency to toss in minor characters with little purpose but exposition. Between that and the film’s sometimes frustrating structure, Lorelei can be cumbersome.

But there’s no denying the central performances or the beautifully messy image of family the film delivers. Though at its heart Lorelei offers a blue-collar romance, this is less a traditional love story—albeit one on society’s fringes—than a declaration about unconventional families.

In fact, in that way alone Doyle manages to make Lorelei’s flaws work in its favor.

Make America Great Again

Antebellum

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

The past is not dead. It’s not even past.

That Faulkner quote gets a lot of action in writers/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s social nightmare Antebellum.

The titular term describes the period in American history just prior to the Civil War. That’s where this thriller finds its horror, and where a prominent, present day African American sociologist/activist/author wakes up to find herself trapped.

Janelle Monáe crafts an impressive lead as Veronica, a PhD beaten, branded and forced to accept a slave name in a film that plays out like a disturbingly relevant Twilight Zone episode.

Enslaved on a reformer plantation, “Eden” works to stay alive long enough to plan an escape and outsmart two Confederate officers (Eric Lange, Jack Huston) and the mysterious mansion mistress (Jena Malone).

The hideous rise of white nationalism is the true nightmare here – fertile and bloody ground for horror. From Godzilla to Get Out, horror has always brimmed with social commentary and anxiety, so it should come as no surprise that a genre film tackles America’s racist shame this directly.

And while this approach certainly grabs your attention with its boldness, Bush and Renz can get too caught up in obviousness and speech-making. The second act suffers most from these heavy hands. The modern day shenanigans with Veronica and two friends (Gabourey Sidibe, Lily Cowles) push too hard, last too long and say very little.

But as much as Spike Lee has recently connected the past and present of racism with layered nuance, Bush and Renz go right upside our heads. Pulpy exploitation? It goes there. It’s a horror movie.

Horror movies exist so we can look at the nightmare, examine it from a distance, and come out the other side, unscathed ourselves. Antebellum is acknowledgment and catharsis, and not only because all those Black people being terrorized on the screen are fictional, instead of real victims in another cell phone crime scene. The film’s true catharsis – a highly charged and emotional payoff – lies in Act 3: comeuppance.

And it is glorious.

There are stumbles getting to the fireworks, but for sheer heroic tit for tat, Antebellum delivers the goods.

The Grapes of Something Something

The Public

by George Wolf

Emilio Estevez just does not do nuance.

The Public marks his fifth feature as writer/director, and it sports the conviction of his best work while also suffering from his familliar lack of restraint.

Estevez also stars as Stuart Goodson, a dedicated, stoic manager at the Cincinnati Public Library. While Stuart and his staff deal daily with an array of homeless citizens using the library, he finds himself a “good son” under fire when complaints about body odor lead to one vagrant’s eviction – and a lawsuit.

And then things get complicated.

Beyond the free computer use, the library also offers respite from the bitter winter cold, and when a deadly deep freeze grips Ohio, Stuart sits at the center of an armed standoff between the city and homeless folks needing shelter.

And it’s not just the homeless question The Public is addressing. From addiction and recovery to tabloid journalism, political cowardice and civic (ii.e. “the public”) responsibility, Estevez has plenty of heart available for numerous sleeves, getting admirable support from a solid ensemble cast including Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, Jeffrey Wright, Taylor Schilling, Michael Kenneth Williams, Gabrielle Union and the ever-ageless Jena Malone.

Characters and subplots converge through dialog that’s too often desperate for authenticity, and a film that decries “intellectual vanity” seems overly proud of its own moments of clumsy enlightenment.

Case in point: a callous TV reporter (Union) is pumped at the social media traction she’s getting for her live reports from the library conflict. While her cameraman points out the plight of people at the heart of the story, she stays glued to her phone.

Point made, but Estevez can’t leave it there.

“Huh? What?” she answers, then a cut to the cameraman rolling his eyes. Second that.

Similarly, the stunt Estevez engineers for the big resolve gets a bystander explanation that is not only unnecessary, but factually dubious at best.

It’s just a culmination of the slow slide from good intentions to self-satisfied finger-wagging. The film has a respect for books and libraries that is indeed admirable, but by the time Goodson starts reading from Steinbeck on live TV, it becomes painfully evident what The Public wants to be when it grows up.

 





The Master Returns

Inherent Vice

by Hope Madden

Where Inherent Vice most succeeds is in proving that both Joaquin Phoenix and filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson can do anything.

Phoenix and Anderson collaborated on their 2012 masterpiece The Master, but the spawn of their latest partnership couldn’t be any more different. You know Phoenix – brooding, troubled, powerful – but comedic? Likeable? Sort of weirdly adorable, even?

That’s what you’ll find in this film.

Phoenix plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, an inebriated private detective working LA in 1970. Sweeter than Hunter S. Thompson, edgier than Dude Lebowski, Doc swims in the vaporous haze of every drug he can grab while he muddles through a series of interconnected and apparently non-paying cases.

Though the screen mostly brims with light hearted debauchery, expect a handful of truly powerful, even difficult scenes. Such tonal shifts can become cinematic weaknesses, but in hands like Anderson’s they pull in the darkness that underlies the choice or circumstances that delivers a person to this life on the fringes.

It comes as no surprise that Anderson can work magic where other directors might falter; the man’s a flawless filmmaker. He’s never made a film that was anything shy of brilliant. Even the Coen brothers made a handful of only-adequate films (The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty). Not Anderson.

Not only can he direct, he can cast. Inherent Vice is an ensemble piece boasting a host of memorable if often tiny (and in some cases possibly imaginary) roles. Reese Witherspoon is a stitch as a straight laced assistant DA. She has a soft spot for loopy hippie PI’s, but draws the line at dirty feet.

Equally fun are Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone and Martin Short. (Martin Short!) But Josh Brolin steals the show.

What each is doing can be a bit fuzzy, but then Doc’s usually a bit fuzzy, and therein lies the genius of this film. It opens, hardboiled noir-style, with a dame from the past showing up on this dick’s doormat with a story to peddle and a request to make.

But from there, puzzling out the details and conspiracies becomes as tough for the viewer as it is for the detective because Doc is as high as a kite.

Rather than a true mystery, the film offers a wonderful image of the political, social and cultural tensions of an era without pointing out that intention. It’s nutty, brilliant stuff.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





Those Meddling Kids

 

Teenage

by George Wolf

“Those who get the youth, get the future.”

It takes a few minutes to get a handle on Teenage, but don’t let go. His methods may be a bit  outside the norm for documentaries, but director/co-writer Matt Wolf (no relation) ultimately creates a captivating look at the evolution of the teenage experience.

Mixing classic newsreel footage with fictional recreations and celebrity narrators (Jena Malone,Ben Whishaw) Wolf overcomes moments of pretension to deliver a vibrant collage of history lesson, art film, and political statement.

The film reminds us that, hard as it may be for Beliebers to belieb, “teenager” wasn’t always a thing. Starting with the period before child labor laws and working forward, Wolf illustrates how societies in both Europe and America slowly began to recognize adolescence as a separate, and viable, stage of life.

Phrases such as “our music made the feet of the world dance” may be a bit dramatic, but then, so are teens. The dramatic details the film provides, from the birth of the Boy Scouts to Vietnam, do much to overcome the heavy handed moments.

Wolf seems to realize he’s bitten into a big subject, one he can’t begin to encompass at the pace he settles into. While some historical periods do get short shrift, Teenage becomes an effective highlight reel, one that sparks your curiosity for more.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 

 

 





State of the Art Gaming

 

by George Wolf

 

When a movie runs two and a half hours, yet the ending arrives as an unwelcome surprise, you know that film has done something right.

The Hunger Games:  Catching Fire is that film, one that manages to do just about everything right.

From the start, it raises the stakes from last year’s franchise debut. While The Hunger Games was certainly a competent adventure, it was content (perhaps understandably) to work within the “young adult” parameters of Suzanne Collins’s source novel.

Catching Fire deals in more mature themes and sophisticated ideas, weaving an intelligent script, impressive direction and superlative performances into a massively entertaining blockbuster that leaves you anxious for the next chapter.

The story picks up with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on their victory tour, accompanied by their ever-present handlers Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks). While the group is away, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and new chief game maker Plutarch (these names!) Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) worry that Katniss has become a symbol of hope for the common people, a symbol which could spur another uprising.

Planning to eliminating that threat, Snow declares the next Hunger Games will be played only by former victors,  which means Katniss and Peeta will again be fighting for their lives.

While this sounds like just another empty rehashing of a successful formula, Catching Fire‘s scriptwriters, following Collins’s lead, have more on their minds.

Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire/127 Hours) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine/Toy Story 3), both Oscar winners, fill their script with the emotional heft needed to create a sequel which immediately creates potential for a truly memorable trilogy.

We connect with the characters on a deeper level, the sociopolitical undertones carry greater nuance, and there are even some sly parallels offered between the superstar status of Katniss and the actress playing her.

Speaking of Lawrence, well, if you’re sick of hearing she’s great, call a doctor. She grounds Katniss in vulnerability while never relinquishing the character’s heroic status. Perhaps more impressively, she sells the love triangle, making Katniss’s conflicted feelings for both Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) totally believable. And not a shirtless wolf-boy in sight..who knew it was possible?

The strong supporting cast is peppered with new faces, such as Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, and Jena Malone , who plays against her former child star type as the edgy Johanna. Keep an eye out for her elevator scene, one of the film’s lighter moments. It’s a scream.

All the separate elements are wrapped in a nice holiday bow by director Francis Lawrence (no relation). He smoothly guides the film from spectacle to solitude and back again, providing some arresting visuals in the process (see the IMAX version if you can). Despite director Lawrence’s heretofore lackluster resume (Constantine/ Water for Elephants), the choice to keep him at the helm for the Mockingjay finale (to be split into two films) now seems totally justified.

Okay, Catching Fire does stumble here and there. The scenes of Haymitch introducing Katniss and Peeta to their new opponents seems more fitting for an American Gladiators reunion and…well, that’s about it.

Fans of the book should expect a fantastic realization of the world they imagined, while those who haven’t read the novels (like myself) get to fully enjoy the delicious twist at film’s end, one that may invoke memories of a certain empire striking back.

Either way, The Hunger Games:  Catching Fire is rousing, epic entertainment.

 

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keT5CRhhy84