The Kansas City Film Critics Circle gave out its 47th Annual Loutzenhiser Awards on Sunday, December 15th. Go here for the full list of winners.
At KC Active this month:
Me = One Happy Geek!
I did an interview with Jen Chaney for The Dissolve, about critics’ awards. I just got one quote, but it’s good publicity for the KC critics.
My latest in The Star
Occasionally, I read books that deal with movies or movie-related themes, and I think “Gee, other people might want to know about these!” So, this page will feature information and brief reviews of books of special interest to aficionados of cinema.
First up, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film.
When the daughter of cult filmmaker Stanislas Cordova commits suicide, journalist Scott McGrath is certain there’s more to the story. Disgraced after making unproven accusations against Cordova years ago, Scott is determined to uncover the “truth” about this mysterious character, whose films are so disturbing, they literally change the lives of those who view them.
Cordova is sort of a cross between David Lynch, Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke, and his fans give new meaning to the word “fanatic.” As he investigates, Scott is pulled deeper and deeper into a world that messes with his sanity, and Pessl uses faux newsclippings and film stills to provide a spooky backdrop throughout (get the print version, not the e-book).
Night Film isn’t give-you-nightmares scary, but it is plenty creepy, a neo-Gothic mystery that may or may not have supernatural elements. Pessl is cagey about that last point, dragging the story out to a vague conclusion that I’m still not entirely sold on. Up until that point, reading Night Film is a harrowing, ultimately cathartic, experience, not unlike Cordova’s movies are reputed to be.
Read It If You Like: Freaky cult filmmakers, freaky cult fans, heavy atmosphere, partial resolutions.
Would It Make a Good Movie?: Absolutely. Some Cordova-like director should get on that.
I review Gravity, Prisoners, Enough Said, Don Jon & Inequality for All
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s triple-threat debut:
Originally published in The Kansas City Star
August 30th, 2013
CARS ARE STARS
In this formulaic chase thriller, the actors are just along for the ride
- 2 out of 4 stars
Getaway would make a great video game. It’s basically a 90-minute version of the “crash mode” from Burnout, which awards points to players for causing vehicular mayhem. Instead of points, former pro driver Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke) is awarded the chance to keep his kidnapped wife alive.
Yes, it’s another movie about a man spurred to action by a threat to his woman, who cries and simpers prettily while being held hostage by a mysterious villain. Her captor knows that Brent once had a promising career, and he engaged in some shady activities when that career ended. So, he orders Brent to steal a tricked-out Shelby Super Snake Mustang and start smashing up the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria, in a seemingly random series of missions. When an unnamed teenager (Selena Gomez) jumps in-to the car, she becomes both a hostage and an accomplice (and a lure for audiences who think Hawke is “old”).
The kid has her reasons for being there, but they’re as senseless and convoluted as every other Getaway plot point. Even video game designers come up with better story lines than this. Director Courtney Solomon (An American Haunting) and writers Sean Finegan and Gregg Maxwell Parker stop occasionally to explain what’s happening, which serves only to make you wish they hadn’t. There’s car crashing to do, after all, and that’s the one thing this movie does well. Solomon avoids computerized effects, using multiple cameras (including several mounted on the cars) to capture some truly spectacular stunt driving.
Getaway rarely stops moving, and it always goes at top speed, just like its star. Obviously, that star is the Mustang, not Hawke, who does nothing but yell and drive. He and Gomez give adequate performances, but their characters have less personality than their sweet ride. Besides, they know what kind of movie they’re in. Like the audience, they just buckle up and enjoy the mayhem. – Loey Lockerby
Original published in the Kansas City Star
August 16th, 2013
THE BUTLER DID IT
Forest Whitaker leads a star-studded cast in a moving look back at the struggle for civil rights
- 3 out of 4 stars
In many ways, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is similar to its title character, Cecil Gaines. It looks like a bland awards-bait drama, the kind of movie everyone admires but no one loves. Similarly, Cecil makes his living by blending into the background, maintaining an air of deferential respectability. But he is a thoughtful, complicated man, and the film he anchors has similar unexpected depths.
Forest Whitaker stars as Cecil, a fictionalized version of longtime presidential butler Eugene Allen. Escaping a horrific Southern childhood, he makes his way to Washington, D.C., where his service skills land him a position in the Eisenhower White House. He stays on, through six more presidents and countless historical events, always following the advice of his first employer (Vanessa Redgrave): “The room should feel empty when you’re in it.”
That doesn’t sit well with Cecil’s oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who rejects his father’s belief that a black man who works hard within the status quo can ever gain equality. Louis joins the Freedom Riders and later the Black Panthers, instigating a familial rift that mirrors the countless real-world debates over when, where and how people should advocate for their rights. Neither side gets off easy in Danny Strong’s script, and the conflicts that erupt have a cringe-inducing authenticity (a kitchen-table argument about Sidney Poitier is truly something to behold).
There’s a lot more going on, as Cecil deals with the pressures of his job while worrying about the kids and his alcoholic wife (Oprah Winfrey, reminding us that she’s a terrific actress). A parade of famous faces appears as White House denizens, some more convincing than others. James Marsden and Minka Kelly are well-cast as the Kennedys, but you never forget that you’re watching Robin Williams instead of Dwight Eisenhower, or John Cusack instead of Richard Nixon. All the actors are good — it’s just distracting to play “spot the celebrity” every 15 minutes. The Butler benefits greatly from Whitaker’s subtle, grounded performance, which seems to bring every other cast member down-to-earth, including big stars playing historical icons.
Cecil seems to be in the room for every major race-related discussion in the Oval Office, nearly matching Louis’ tendency to be on the front lines of the civil rights movement (he’s close by during the murders of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X). There are several such convenient Forrest Gump-like coincidences, with plot developments pushing each other along like carefully arranged dominoes.
Daniels has a penchant for melodrama as well as predictability (see his Oscar-nominated Precious), and he struggles to balance this with the complexity of his subject matter. He succeeds by looking squarely at America’s racial history, providing a provocative history lesson cloaked in the white-gloved prestige of Oscar season. – Loey Lockerby
Director: Klay Hall
Writer: Jeffrey M. Howard
Voice Cast: Dane Cook as Dusty Crophopper, Stacy Keach as Skipper, Brad Garrett as Chug, Teri Hatcher as Dottie, Roger Craig Smith as Ripslinger, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Rochelle, Carlos Alazraqui as El Chupacabra, Priyanka Chopra as Ishani, John Cleese as Bulldog
Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes
IMDB page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1691917/
Plot: Lowly crop duster Dusty dreams of flying in an around-the-world race, and enlists a retired fighter plane to help him prepare.
I can just imagine the pitch meeting for Planes. “You know how Cars is nobody’s favorite Pixar movie? Let’s make another one just like it, but with airplanes and less famous actors!” Dane Cook’s Dusty Crophopper isn’t nearly as arrogant as Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen (maybe it’s the difference in star power), he still follows the template of oh-so-many cartoon heroes before him. In fact, all the characters are pretty much interchangeable – with previous variations and with each other.
Despite its flaws, Cars engaged in the inventive world-building that has always made Pixar’s efforts such a joy to watch. Even Cars 2 continued that thrilling visual style, as muddled and overblown as it was in every other respect. Planes doesn’t bother making the effort, except to give eyes and voices to every vehicle. The animation is only impressive when it’s moving, especially in the POV aerial shots, which will make you want to get a pilot’s license. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend paying extra for the 3D, but those scenes are damned impressive in the format.
As far as the plot goes, Planes is the movie Cars 2 should have been. It has an admirable efficiency, sticking to the race storyline with few distractions. That doesn’t make up for the lack of imagination, but it does make the blandness go by a little faster.
Originally published in the Kansas City Star
July 19th, 2013
- 3 out of 4 stars
The Conjuring has very little gore or adult language, and only the tamest implied sexual content. Yet, the MPAA ratings board, which views nearly every film released in the U.S., gave it an R for “sequences of disturbing violence and terror.” Translation: This movie freaked out people who have seen EVERYTHING.
The story is based on the actual case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, husband-and-wife paranormal investigators whose work also inspired The Amityville Horror and The Haunting in Connecticut. How seriously you take the “true story” premise will depend on how seriously you take the Warrens. Their belief system is full of notions like Satan-worshipping “witches” and demonic infestations, always presented with the utmost sincerity. Director James Wan (Insidious) follows their lead by playing everything in The Conjuring completely straight.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are smart and sympathetic as Ed and Lorraine, who help the Perron family deal with strange occurences in their Rhode Island home in 1971. Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger (Ron Livingston) Perron are a struggling blue collar couple with five daughters, who can’t afford to move, even when they begin fearing for their lives. They actually have a good reason to stay put, and their plight makes them much more relatable than the irresponsible dummies who usually populate films like this.
The suffocating inevitability of the Perrons’ torment gives The Conjuring much of its creep factor. Wan builds suspense until it’s almost unbearable, then adds a little more, just to make sure the audience is as terrified as the characters. Even if you’re a total skeptic, there’s no denying Wan’s skillful pacing and creative use of an old building’s creaks and corners. Hide-and-seek is one nerve-shattering game when you live in a haunted house.
It’s not easy to make horror tropes believable, but the four leads — as well as the girls playing the Perron kids — sell every twist, no matter how outrageous. You feel for these people and hope they can overcome whatever is attacking them. Despite starting the “torture porn” craze by directing Saw in 2004, Wan shows remarkable restraint with this material. He knows what you need to make a truly scary movie, and it’s not blood and guts. The ratings board members could tell you that — as soon as they come out from under the covers. – Loey Lockerby
Originally published in the Kansas City Star
July 19th, 2013
- 3 out of 4 stars
Sometimes, the smartest thing filmmakers can do is stick with the formula. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who wrote and directed The Way, Way Back, realize they have a pretty standard coming-of-age story here. Instead of loading it up with twists and quirks, they focus on elements like character, dialogue and atmosphere — the things that really matter.
Like many teenagers, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is a mass of surliness and social anxiety. His divorced mother, Pam (Toni Collette), has taken up with a new boyfriend named Trent (Steve Carell) who bonds with his “buddy” Duncan by constantly criticizing and humiliating him.
They head to Trent’s Cape Cod beach house for the summer, and Duncan’s discomfort worsens with each new person he meets. At least the drunk, inappropriate neighbor (Allison Janney) has a cute daughter (AnnaSophia Robb) who will actually talk to him. That still doesn’t make the visit bearable, but things change when Duncan stumbles upon Water Wizz, a water park managed (sort of) by easygoing slacker Owen (Sam Rockwell). He and Duncan strike up a friendship, which pulls the kid out of his adolescent funk and gives him the confidence to start standing up for himself.
There’s something lonely about a town that has “seasons,” and it’s a perfect environment for Duncan, who seems only half-lived-in himself. Although it’s a little rundown, Water Wizz (an actual park in East Wareham) gives Duncan a chance to have uncomplicated fun with people who care about him and know how to show it. James is very likable, in spite of Duncan’s misery, and Rockwell steals the show with a steady stream of zany — and probably improvised — dialogue. Owen is the kind of guy who would rather join the kids on the waterslide than actually work, but he’s also caring and funny, unlike most of the adults in Duncan’s life
Even the less sympathetic characters have their moments, including Trent. He’s a passive-aggressive jerk and expects everyone to thank him for it, calling Duncan a “3” as a twisted way of encouraging self-improvement. He can’t hide his own insecurity, though, and Carell’s performance is a clever inversion of his goofy-loser comedic style.
Faxon and Rash won an Oscar for adapting The Descendants (and have supporting roles in this film, their directing debut), so it’s no surprise that their script is full of warmth and offbeat humor. They don’t glamorize teen angst, but they understand it and the adult dysfunction that always seems to make it worse. The characters in The Way, Way Back end up exactly where we expect them to, and it’s a genuine pleasure to watch them get there. – Loey Lockerby
I got to review Now You See Me, The East, Monsters University & Much Ado About Nothing
Originally published in the Kansas City Star
June 21st, 2013
- 3 out of 4 stars
Some people invite their bud-dies over to watch football or play board games. Joss Whedon has his adapt classic literature. Much Ado About Nothing was filmed in 12 days at Whedon’s Southern California home, an extension of informal Shakespeare readings he hosts regularly. It’s an odd choice for a follow-up to his mega-hit Avengers movie, but Whedon has never been known for conventionality. Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s more accessible plays, and Whedon brings a light, energetic touch to it.
In essence, it’s about two couples who can’t get their acts together without interference from their friends. Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) have been verbal sparring partners for years, and even (in this version) had a one-night stand. Yet they can’t publicly acknowledge their attraction without being tricked into it. At the same time, Beatrice’s cousin, Hero (Jillian Morgese), is set to marry Claudio (Fran Kranz), but the villainous Don John (Sean Maher) has set a plan in motion to ruin both their lives. It takes even more deception to fix that damage, and requires the involvement of bumbling constable Dogberry (the always-game Nathan Fillion) and his sidekick, Verges (Tom Lenk).
Whedon makes sure we know Don John is the bad guy by playing ominous musical cues every time he enters the frame, one of the movie’s few directorial missteps. Otherwise, Whedon’s work is fluid and fast-paced, with an obvious love for Shakespeare’s intricate language — no surprise from a man famous for great dialogue. By sticking to the original text, Whedon is freed from his own need to write something clever, and he can focus on showing off his house (in digital black-and-white) and letting his actors tackle the material with the enthusiasm of people simply having a great time.
There is no real effort to update the setting, beyond substituting text messages for letters and the like. That keeps Much Ado About Nothing out of the pantheon of great Shakespeare adaptations, since it lacks the sense of time and place that would give it relevance (think Ian McKellen’s ’30s-set Richard III or even Baz Luhrmann’s modern Romeo + Juliet). This is essentially just a glorified home movie. It just happens to be from the home of a gifted filmmaker and his talented friends. – Loey Lockerby
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