Wild and Crazy Movie Review: Anna

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CREDIT: Shanna Besson

Luc Besson’s Anna features the most time-establishing title cards I have ever seen in one movie. We jump five years ahead only to ten minutes later skip back three years back (i.e., two years after when we began.) Do you think we skipped something important by shooting forward six months? It turns out you’re right, so let’s return to three months ago. This at first feels like self-parody (possibly intentional, possibly not), but it ultimately all slots everything into place and becomes the jigsaw puzzle construction that ensures this film’s modest pleasures come into focus. We needed some sort of experimentation to liven up this otherwise straightforward take on yet another “poor Soviet village girl self-actualizes by becoming a KGB spy/double agent/triple agent,” which there probably aren’t that many examples of, although it feels like there’s a ton. It’s that whirligig approach that makes Anna fun enough. Also, it features montages set to “Pump Up the Jam” and “Need You Tonight,” which is hardly groundbreaking but plenty welcome.

I give Anna 30 Helen Mirren Cigarette Drags out of 50 Helen Mirren Russian-Accented Sick Burns.

This Is a Movie Review: Affairs Are Revealed and Philosophical Rejoinders Are Dispatched at ‘The Party’

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CREDIT: Roadside Attractions

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Timothy Spall, Kristin Scott Thomas

Director: Sally Potter

Running Time: 71 Minutes

Rating: R for Pretentious Strong Language and Furtive Cocaine Bumps

Release Date: February 16, 2018

If you want to make the case that The Party is a worthwhile viewing experience, you must remember that Patricia Clarkson is playing a cynical realist and that Bruno Ganz, as her estranged significant other, is playing a spiritualist. (There is another couple made up of an idealist and a materialist, but their philosophies don’t make as much of an impression.) Now you may be thinking, what is a fight between academic theories doing in a movie that is ostensibly about people? And initially, as I realized that wow, this is really going directly after that lecture hall crowd, I was just as disturbed as you may be. But it soon becomes clear enough that I do not especially care what is going on with these people and therefore pompous piffle like commenting about behaving in a “20th-century postmodern post-post-feminist sort of way” actually serves to lend this whole affair some personality.

The occasion for the titular get-together is Janet’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) appointment to shadow minister of health as a member of the British opposition party. As she is getting ready in the kitchen and chatting with April (Clarkson), her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) is in the living room, staring vacantly into the distance of the backyard, while Gottfried (Ganz) observes him with curiosity. Some more guests arrive: Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who announce that their in vitro fertilization efforts have finally taken; and topping it all off is Tom (Cillian Murphy), with promises that arriving later for dessert will be his s.o. Marianne, who remains a topic of tension-spiked discussion throughout.

Then, as cinematic soirees tend to go, secrets are revealed and grievances are aired, much of it having to do with affairs. Ultimately, it appears that everyone has slept with the same person or slept with someone who has slept with that someone. Confined to the location of Janet and Bill’s home, The Party often feels like a play, and a one-act one at that, clocking in at just over 70 minutes. There are not many stylistic touches that require this drama to be on film instead of on a stage, save for the black-and-white photography (which does not serve much thematic purpose anyway). At least the short runtime is appreciated. The tone is too caustic for my tastes to be bearable for too long, and since there are no genuine characters, just a bunch of types, it helps that it makes its point quickly and then makes a hard exit.

The Party seems to be commenting on its own shallowness in the banter between April and Gottfried, as she constantly upbraids him for his frequent use of aphorisms, while she continues to make smug, pretentious remarks that are not helpful in any practical way. But Gottfried wins me over right away, because he is just happy-go-lucky while spouting clichés even as his partner constantly insults him. April, however, is too cold to embrace at first. But once it is clear that the film does not exactly agree with what she is saying, you can enjoy her for her ridiculousness and for the relish with which Clarkson spits such venom.

The Party is Recommended If You Like: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Attending university philosophy lectures

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Burnt Pastries

This Is a Movie Review: Only Christopher Nolan Could Make a War Movie as Intricately Crafted as ‘Dunkirk’

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This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2017.

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, James D’Arcy, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, Barry Keoghan

Director: Christopher Nolan

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for All the Moments That Make You Duck and Cover

Release Date: July 21, 2017

Christopher Nolan has established his reputation as filmmaker by tweaking the genre formulas of noir, superheroes, and mindbenders, inventing new dialects within pre-existing cinematic language. A war movie would not seem like the most obvious next logical step for him, as it would not seem to invite such inventiveness. But Nolan does indeed apply his puzzle-box approach to Dunkirk, and the end result makes perfect sense. The rescue of hundreds of soldiers after a massive military defeat is an attempt to impose order on a fundamentally chaotic situation, and accordingly, what Dunkirk accomplishes is a union of control and constant unease.

Nolan’s method of choice for dramatizing the 1940 World War II evacuation from the titular French beaches is ingenious, but it could have just as easily been a folly in less steady hands. There are three intercut portions: taking place over a week, the boys on the shore waiting to be rescued; taking place over a day, a mariner navigating his fishing vessel across the English Channel to provide support; and taking place over an hour, Air Force pilots clearing the skies to make the rescue easier. The order of events is accordingly difficult to keep track of, and ultimately beside the point. Dunkirk is about the overwhelming experience, as it asks the audience to simultaneously intuit both sustained and short-burst tension.

While the acting is uniformly solid, no single character makes much of an impression, unless you count the music as a character. The dialogue is perpetually difficult to parse: the accents are thicker than your average Brit, the constant dusk and frequent profile shots make it hard to lip read, Tom Hardy wears a mask. But it is Hans Zimmer’s relentlessly thrumming score that gets most in the way. A constant tick-tick-tick is the new BWAHHH. According to Christopher Nolan’s analysis of war, the fight to defend ideals is often cacophonous and rarely allows for relief.

Dunkirk is Recommended If You Like: Saving Private Ryan crossed with Inception, Their Finest

Grade: 4 out of 5 Open-Faced PB&J Sandwiches

This Is a Movie Review: Free Fire

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This review was originally published on News Cult in April 2017.

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor

Director: Ben Wheatley

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R for Living Up to the Promise of Its Title

Release Date: April 21, 2017

Free Fire dresses up an illicit arms deal in fancy ’70s formalwear and then bloodies up the pretensions with unrelenting chaos. The trick to making all this pleasant – or at least attempting to do so – is an equally endless stream of witty rejoinders. This technique is strongest between the odd couple pairing of Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer. The former is all high-wire, unpredictable energy. The latter is all suave unflappability. Both are thoroughly confident in their own skins. I would be happy to watch these two volley back-and-forth all day. But I gotta ask, is it necessary that their team-up occur amidst such a destructive hail of bullets?

The obvious antecedent, when it comes to a crime gone amok leading to ultraviolence and goons yammering on, is Quentin Tarantino’s breakout Reservoir Dogs. The difference is that QT’s characters have an inherent point of view, whereas Free Fire co-writer/director Ben Wheatley’s crew mostly just screeches hysterically (not always literally, but it feels like it). There can be humor found in the panic that sets in when a dangerous situation goes pear-shaped, but Free Fire too often confuses nastiness with lunacy. I don’t oppose on-screen graphic violence as a rule, but there ought to be a good reason for it. In this case, it feels like an excuse for a movie that hates all of its characters to just pick them off one-by-one.

Getting back to the folks populating this film, there are several more hooligans besides Copley and Hammer, among them Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, and Sing Street’s Jack Reynor (who often strikes me as Ireland’s less schlubby answer to Seth Rogen). The fun of these players is primarily geographical. Their dispersal around the warehouse after the shots start firing creates a sort of constantly shifting maze. The narrative thrust is basically sorting out this puzzle. Who makes it out alive? Who cares! What matters is the physical space and the treachery between these dots of human beings. But that’s small change. Let’s cut to the chase and get to work on the Copley-Hammer follow-up.

Free Fire is Recommended If You Like: Pulling the Heads Off Bugs

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 V Necks