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Ballet 422 Film Review

My review for Ballet 422

Ballet 422 chronicles 25-year-old choreographer Justin Peck’s choreographing of the New York City Ballet’s 422nd ballet. Black Swan this is not, nor should it be, but while cinema verite at its finest, the film dances around any real engagement with the viewer.  Austere and skeletal, it tends to run a bit like a dancer’s diary. There is nothing here to draw a “lay” audience in and little to indicate story-telling on the director’s part.

Jody Lee Lipes offers a behind-the-scenes look at one of the world’s most prestigious dance companies. Justin Peck has two months to create the piece for the company’s winter 2013 season. A member of the Corps de Ballet, he is also a dancer; in fact, in the final scene, where we see him leave the premiere of his piece to change into his dancer’s costume is a wry nod to superheroes of all ilks.

Ballet 422 really does not offer us even a modicum of psychological insight into any of the characters. There are no interviews, no insights. In fact, even though putting on a ballet in 2 months is clearly a Herculean task, this is hardly palpable here.  We never get a sense of the enormity of Peck’s or the dancers’ accomplishments.

Peck appears somber most of the time, and smiling is hard to come by in this film, on all sides. Uber-seriousness rules the day. This makes for a very isolating feel to the documentary. It’s almost claustrophobic. It is hard to see why we should care about any of the characters, devoid of any information about any of them. An upside is that we are not presented with the dictatorial, (megalo)maniacal choreographer trope that seems to be the hallmark of most art films (i.e., Whiplash).

What is perhaps even more frustrating is the purposely-choppy flow of the film. We only get glimpses of rehearsals, glimpses of costume design, glimpses of the orchestra. And in the end, we do not even see the entire ballet.

Ballet 422 does offer an intimate, albeit limited, look into an art form of breathtaking beauty.  Sadly, there is dearth of insight into the creative process or into the thoughts of any of the performers or Peck himself. Austere and stiff; it suffers from an odd determination to make even the most graceful and awe-inspiring clinical. In a sense, because we do not see too much of the struggle, it risks diminishing Peck’s and the dancers’ accomplishments. If the mark of the professional is to “make it look easy,” then Ballet 422 should receive ample accolades. In all other regards, this runs like nothing more than the skeletal, scribbled notes of someone putting something together.



Human Capital Film Review

My review of Human Capital

Looking for some sort of parable on the divide between the haves and have-nots or trenchant social commentary on the evils of the spoiled rich? Human Capital comes up short. If you’re looking for a not-thoroughly-boring whodunit that also riffs a bit on the ol’ “eat the rich” trope, you might have some better luck finding that here.

In Human Capital, the destinies of two Italian families become intertwined after a hit-and-run accident that kills a bicyclist. Director Paolo Virzì adapts Stephen Amidon’s 2004 novel, Human Capital, into a story told from the perspective of three of the main characters.

One of the families is spectacularly rich; the other… hopes to become so via its tenuous association with the spectacularly rich. That’s about the extent of the social commentary in the film.

The two families meet after their children begin dating. Buffoonish real-estate agent Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) is portrayed in a rather caricature-like way as a blustery, uncouth, wanna-be-nouveau-riche. Cultured he is not, but he knows an opportunity when he sees one, or so he thinks. He buys into the exclusive hedge fund of Giovanni (Fabrizio Gifuni), the father of his daughter’s boyfriend. At the point, it is impossible for the audience to suspend any kind of disbelief as the next plot development is literally emblazoned on the screen in a giant flashing neon sign. (No) surprise—he is not going to get rich quick.

Human Capital doesn’t stray too far from familiar stereotypes. The rich family are not particularly loathsome–their lives are what we would expect.  Carla’s “slammed” days consist of shopping, getting massages, and pet art restoration projects.  To its credit, the film actually shines in that regard. We are not asked to think, “Oh, they are rich, but LOOK how unhappy they are.” We don’t get the sense that they are particularly unhappy. We do understand, however, that their being inured to this lifestyle is actually a sort of a liability: when it looks like when they might lose even a fraction of their enormous wealth, they appear hopelessly childlike, lost, and incapable of living the life of “normal people,” almost as though they have forgotten how to.

On the other hand, as far as thrillers go, Human Capital is quite a good one! It is not at all apparent who hit the bicyclist and from that perspective, it does hold the viewer’s interest. Serena (Matilde Gioli), Dino’s daughter, is, as a character, the most compelling and well-developed. Unlike just about everyone else in this film, she seems to be the only one with a backbone and passion for, well, much of anything. An added bonus–the quirky art dude might get the girl and not the rich heir.

In a somewhat heavy-handed way, Human Capital showcases how the one percent really cannot at all relate to the life of the ninety-nine percent. Literally and figuratively removed from the rest of society, they appear woefully stuck in their glass palaces. At least the film does not seek to elicit our pity for them. The value of Human Capital is certainly not in its novelty or cleverness, as there is no emotional richness to be found here. It certainly does offer a good bit of suspense and entertainment, which makes it definitely worth checking out.

The Hundred Foot Journey Film Review

My review of The Hundred Foot Journey

The Hundred Foot Journey (executive produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg) is part of the same flavorless, homogenized pedigree of culinary tale that Chocolat (director Lasse Hallström’s previous film) belongs to. And like every other film about Western interaction with Indian cooking and culture (Bend It Like BeckhamEat Pray Love, and other similarly insipid fare), it inevitably fetishizes and exotisizes. In other words, prepare to be really impressed by the use of cardamom… in everything. Talk about a massive reduction.
The film is about a clash of culinary cultures: the spicy and hearty Indian vs. French haute cuisine. Somewhere in the mix is also a homily on “why can’t we all just get along?” The generally amiable vibes and lush cinematography make the movie palatable enough, but don’t look for too much zest or plot innovation.


Gifted young chef Hassan (Manish Dayal) and his family move to Europe when their family restaurant in India is uprooted. Hassan’s father, played with winsome comedic flair by Om Puri, has his heart set on a French farm house. Hence, the title of the movie, a reference to the divide between Maison Masala and Madame Mallory’s (Helen Mirren) Michelin-starred French restaurant Le Saule Pleureur. The competition between the two makes for some amusing moments, replete with Helen Mirren’s endearing turn as the droll Madame Mallory; she has a penchant for verbal barbs of the “Your cooking, like music, could use a little turning down” ilk. Hassan has mastered Indian cooking, but he has his sights set on the French “classics” as well. In an (un)surprising turn of events, he ends up under Madame Mallory’s stern tutelage and then goes on Paris. But is molecular gastronomy enough to stoke the culinary fires in his heart? I think we already know the answer to this one.
Hassan meets Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), Madame’s sous-chef, and professional and romantic sparks fly…or so we are to believe. For a film dedicated to sensory pleasures, this is one tepid romantic concoction. Their chemistry is so off that, even in the scene where Marguerite tastes the French sauces that Hassan has made for her, all we are left with is feeling nice yet terribly unfulfilled.
The Hundred Foot Journey attempts very earnestly to convey the sheer magic of cooking to the viewer. It wants to remind us that cooking is about memories and life experiences a lot more than it is about pure gastronomic enjoyment. Luckily, the main characters of Papa and Madame Mallory are incredibly compelling and watchable; the rest is only so much trite fluff. The film attempts to tackle more serious issues like ethnic tensions and discrimination against immigrants, but lacks the chops to really address them more than merely as an aside.
And the cooking—well, for newbies, it is enjoyable enough, but for serious gastro aficionados (notice I avoided using the dreaded “foodie”), it will leave you groaning at the idea that Indian cooking is “cool” because it involves sprinkling cardamom on everything, adding fresh cilantro to an omelet, or even worse, making “curries.”
The Hundred Foot Journey is undoubtedly pleasant and, mercifully, not too maudlin. It is not terribly thought-provoking or interesting, but it is tasty enough of a morsel for you to savor at least superficially.

The Signal Film Review

The Signal

The Signal, directed by William Eubank, is a stylish sci-fi thriller that epitomizes the “less is more” ethos the genre could use a lot more of. It has a singular visual style, reliant on fairly minimal CGI that nevertheless packs a serious punch, quite literally–the scene in which one of the characters punches the ground is breath-taking in the most subtle of ways. The trailer of the movie riffs on some familiar Matrix-like motifs, not the least of which Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus-channeling turn as a Hazmat-suit-wearing doctor. Yet, you are not watching The Matrix nor District 9, as the surprising ending reveals.
The Signal starts amiably enough as a road trip movie of sorts: M.I.T. students/hackers-in-training Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) are driving cross-country to help move Nic’s girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke), to California. Along the way, they are taunted by a mysterious hacker named Nomad, whom they trace to a remote area in Nevada. What they encounter there is…a Catfish scenario gone really, really awry.

Nic wakes up in a secure underground facility, surrounded by Hazmat-clad scientists. Haley is in a coma, and Jonah is only able to communicate with Nic through an air vent. In the mean time, Dr. Damon (Laurence Fishburne) asks Nic such trenchant questions as “are you from Earth?” and “how many toes do you have?” and informs him that the group has made contact with an “extraterrestrial biological entity.” The interaction between Nic and Dr. Damon is especially compelling and leaves the audience unsure of what is actually taking place or has happened; at first glance, the “bad guy” appears to be, yet again, “the government.” The set up is Area 51-like, where Nic and his friend are trapped and made to roam in a particularly cruel game of cat and mouse/lab rat.
Yet, the end of the film will have you talking about it for hours as you unpack all of the clues that led to a fairly innovative take on the alien trope. The cinematography is breath-taking and perfectly in sync to the adagio of the plot line. The biggest challenge for the viewers is to not leave the theatre with the same sinking feeling we were left with on the season finale of The Sopranos and to instead take the time to unpack the trail of clues. While a lot of the recent alien movies have sought to make bad guys out of either the humans or the ETs, The Signal manages to rather elegantly dodge that concern in favor of exploring the more interesting territory of “what do we have that is of interest to the aliens?” The Signal seems to point to some unexpected emotional terrain.

BYT Spring/Summer 2014 Film Guide

The dynamic Georgetown alum duo of Mike Cahill and Brit Marling is back with the follow up to their brilliant Another Earth, I Origins. Expect more of a thinking man’s sci-fi, where science actually helps us learn more about being human. In I Origins, a molecular biologist (Michael Pitt of The Dreamers fame) and his lab partner are experimenting with giving non-functioning-eyed organisms sight. The eyes/Is have it.
Sexy Beast–in one word, unnerving. Director Jonathan Glazer is back after 10 years with similarly unsettling matter with Under The Skin, “a horror with a heart,” starring Scarlett Johansson as an impossibly mesmerizing and prepossessing alien with a British accent. “You don’t really want to wake up, do you?” I am sure most audience members would agree.
Director Sydney Freeland filmed Drunktown’s Finest near the Navajo Reservation she was raised in. It’s a film about young Native Americans, with some of the themes you would anticipate–alcoholism, poverty, search for an identity, finding one’s place. Yet, there is a certain levity that links the stories of Sick Boy, who has enlisted in the Army to support his family but is at risk of getting booted before basic training, Nizhoni, who was adopted by white parents and spent most of her adolescence in faraway private schools, and Felixia, a pre-op transsexual who secretly turns tricks while living with her tradition-minded grandparents on the reservation.

BYT Fall Movie Guide

Contribution to the BYT Fall Movie Guide:

Spark: A Burning Man Story (VOD-theatrical release TBD) – This documentary by Steve Brown rekindles the bright-eyed dreamer ethos that we want to believe is what the giant festival in the desert is all about. In recent years, Burning Man has been much maligned for its seeming descent into the dreaded c-word (commercialization) and for no longer being the counter-cultural celebration of a Mad Max-like dystopia it once was. Spark will make a believer out of you; a celebration of the artists who toil assiduously at making the giant sculptures that end up destroyed in a pyre of glory, it is a true roots revival of what Burning Man is still really about.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (November 1) – If you don’t know who Slavoj Zizek is, well, he is probably the coolest academician around at present, even if you won’t find him giving TED Talks. The irreverent and brilliant Czech philosopher/ideology-unraveler follows up The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema with yet another thoroughly engrossing and entertaining film (and don’t call this a documentary…it’s a one-man show). Joining forces with filmmaker Sophie Fiennes, it runs like a cultural studies student’s wet dream, a parsing out of ideology in the most gloriously hilarious way. 

I Give It A Year–Movie Review

My I Give It A Year film review

Hey, look, a droll and properly cheeky romantic British comedy! Simon Baker, the scion to High Grant’s romantic lead throne—check! I Give It A Year, the new film by Borat writer Dan Mazer attempts to upend traditional rom-com plot structure by literally going about it backwards; instead of the ineluctable march to the altar, we have our characters walk away from it, literally and metaphorically. The question is whether this premise reversal alone helps the film escape well-trodden, trite territory. I gave it an hour and thirty minutes.

Newlyweds Nat (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Rafe Spall) appear to be as well matched for each as a Date Lab couple; following a seven month courtship, their marriage appears rather ill-conceived and, well, inevitably doomed. Nat works in brand management (how’s that for a nod to new media?) and Josh is an oafish writer with a Three Stooges-esque sense of humor and white boy dancing moves. Which brings us to the point of the profuse amounts of eye-rolling in this film: Nat is rolling her eyes at her hubby’s antics even at the wedding! This sort of Daria-esque behavior is so pervasive throughout I Give It A Year, with all the couples seemingly hating each other to no end. Mazer hammers the point that being married sucks so resoundingly that the cliché denouement rings hollow even by rom-com standards.


But back to the movie—Mazer has literally jam-packed it with one liners, as in think every line is a one-liner. Zingy indeed. It’s meant to be jaunty and light-hearted, but some it comes off as heavy-handed and contrived. Bawdy humor abounds, too, complete with the requisite, “Oh, look, I am in awkward threesome,” and, “Oh, no, our parents saw the dirty pictures from our honeymoon.” And Minnie Driver’s character has a ridiculous crush on Justin Bieber, so she affectionately calls her husband a bell end. Occasionally, Mazer runs up dangerously close to clumsy Mr. Bean territory, as in the scene where doves are released in a room and the results are less than romantic, shall we say. All the married couples in the film are not exactly a glowing commentary on the institution, either, with the marriage counselor of Nat and Josh’s husband-bashing proving to be one of the comedic highlights.
One surprising place where I Give It A Year is quite trenchantly on the mark is its commentary on the state of modern marriage (yes, seriously). The past several years, a lot of movies have been made with the rather melodramatic trope of, “We are so impossibly in love, but now we hate each other’s guts and we won’t explain to you why. Just watch and share in our joint misery.” Good examples are Blue Valentine and Like Crazy. I Give It A Year presents the more humorous answer to that very same phenomenon: Nat and Josh are at a crossroads because they were so desperate to get married in the first place! All of the characters in the movie keep referring to the dreaded 30s like some death knell, tolling for the immediate donning of a ring and latching on the nearest future wife or hubby. In modern romantic parlance, I  think we can all agree that the 30s have been identified as the, “You must settle down age.”
One only needs to take a look at My Friends Are Married to see that the non-married 30-somethings are still somewhat of a minority and rom-coms would have us think that single 30s somethings should make it their life’s goal to reverse their dreadful state of single-dom. As Nat explains to her better-matched romantic interest, “You are a Ferrari and he is a Volvo. I needed a Volvo.” Hardly romantic but definitely something we recognize; without meaning to, perhaps, the film offers some rather astute observations on relationships. The rush to the altar proves rather unwise for our leading couple, but I Give It A Year is still a nod to romance, as one would expect from flicks of its ilk. It offers a good bit of unusual British humor that proves to be amusing… most of the time.

BYT Spring/Summer 2013 Movie Guide

BYT Spring/Summer 2013 Movie Guide

The East (May 31) – Brit Marling’s latest movie, The East, sounds like an incendiary amalgamation of The Edukators and If A Tree Falls, with a dash of Fight Club-esque nihilism for good measure. In Sound of My Voice, she played a cult leader and the protagonists were the infiltrators; here, she is the infiltrator, attempting to gain access into an “eco-terrorist” group that launches attacks against major corporations (I use quotation marks as I am not quite sure the rather-easily-slapped-on terrorist label should be bandied about quite so freely in cases involving environmental issues). The East finds Brit teaming up with long-time collaborator and fellow Georgetown alum Zal Batmanglij to once again explore the more subversive side of life (they also co-wrote and produced Sound Of My Voice). Alexander Skarsgård plays the group’s firebrand (ha!) leader and Ellen Page one of its members. The East promises to be a thrilling take on some very cogent, all too terrifyingly real issues and if Brit’s past work is any indication, expect this to be thoroughly and I do mean thoroughly engrossing. The trailer alone will give you chills.

Passion (September 7) – Brian De Palma knows a thing or two about the lurid, with a resume featuring Scarface, Carlito’s Way, and Carrie. Rachel McAdams (yes, the ebullient girl next door Rachel McAdams) and Noomi Rapace (yes, the girl with the dragon tattoo) star in De Palma’s remake of the 2010 French thriller Love Crime, which follows two women playing games with each other in a business setting. Think The Devil Wears Prada with a lot more violence and sex, maybe? While things start out with a little good ol’ taking credit for someone else’s idea – Rachel McAdams’ character takes credit for her underling’s work – they quickly escalate. I mean, didn’t Desperate Housewives teach you the jump from casserole bickering to murder isn’t all that great!? McAdams and Rapace could be the new Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis from Black Swan: things are looking pretty steamy, lack of leotards and anorexia notwithstanding.

Film Review: Mama

My review of Mama

Like one of the child protagonists in Mama, the movie cannot find its legs, wildly scampering about and moving from a promising premise to a kitchen sink approach in a desperate play to make this a full-length movie. Based on a brilliant, intensely creative 3-minute short by Andres Muschietti, the full-length Guillermo Del Toro-produced film careens from presenting one red herring after another and loses grasp of the crux of Muschietti’s idea, the fairly innovative “Mom is mad at us. But wait… Mom is actually a ghost.”
The movie opens in a straight-out-of-Let The Right One In wintery scene, with a financial-crisis-aggrieved father, having just murdered his estranged wife and business partner, driving on a snowy road with his scared two little girls in the back seat. There is a grim finality to his intentions, undoubtedly, since he’s a broken man on a tortuous road with a dead end. Muschietti’s cinematography is absolutely phenomenal, with a crispness and an enthralling clarity not commonly seen in ghost story flicks. Dad’s plan is thwarted by Mama, who as the little girl points out, “does not walk on the ground.”
Five years pass. The girls, Victoria (Megan Carpenter) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), are discovered, having somehow survived alone in the wilderness, turning feral in the process, crawling and scampering about on all fours, scared at any sound and barely human. They are taken in to live with their Uncle Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his rock-band-playing girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), to whom this all seems like one big nuisance putting a damper on her bon vivant lifestyle. Obvious nod to a familiar trope: when was the last time in a horror film that adopting children was a good idea? This is the first major issue with the film. The very Flowers In The Attic set-up is ripe with psychological material for exploration. At the same time, there is a fine line to tread between queasy voyeurism of the results of child neglect and a compassionate inquiry into it. Most of what we are presented with is through the lens of the girls’ sessions with a therapist, who we later come to realize has some questionable fame-seeking tendencies, and this is the part of the movie where things start to hit the hokey spectrum fast. Speaking of the therapist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), displays some typical horror movie inanity. He runs out of the house as soon as he gets a whiff of Mama, but then right away goes in search of her in the abandoned creepy cottage in the middle of the woods, of course. Because we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Another major flaw with the film is that less than even half way through, the audience already knows what Mama is searching for when a well-meaning librarian ominously declares that a ghost is an “emotion bent out of shape, bound to repeat itself until the wrong is made right.” Therein is the crux of the problem with Mama. For the first good three quarters of the movie, it is eerie and atmospheric and scary and then all of a sudden, it bafflingly turns into a sloppy hodgepodge of clues meant to somehow make the story more believable but are really *gaping* plot holes that serve to unravel it and make less believable instead. Oh, Mama is a ghost, but she needs a hole in the wall to pass through!? No, seriously. Oh, Mama is searching for something but when she is handed it, she quickly tosses it aside. Oh, the Doctor tells Mama he has something that she is looking for, but oopsie daisie, he forgot it in the office. And the ending will literally having you howling with laughter as it looks plucked straight out of where-CGI-goes-to-die-archives, soft light glow bathing things, things breaking up into dust particles and butterflies, and the family clinging to each other at the edge of the cliff, literally.
The ingeniousness of the original short lies in the interaction between Mama and the girls. It had the absorbing and equally disturbing absurdity that the very banal “Mama is mad at me,” situation takes on when Mama is not human. There is enough horror even in the opening of the closet door. It would be intriguing to explore how Lilly and Victoria respond to her differently. All of this rich material seems left to languish, untouched, in favor of vapid scare tactics. Mama has so much potential that ends up ghostly vanishing into thin air, but it does offer some good old-fashioned, mercifully-gore-free frights.

Rust And Bone Movie Review

My review of Rust And Bone

Rust and Bone could not have had a more apropos soundtrack to its trailer than M83′s “My Tears Are Becoming A Sea.” It’s a love story, yet Rust And Bone will sweep you off your feet in the most unromantic of ways, as though being swept away by an inexorable tide. Director Jacques Audiard follows up his last film, the highly-lauded and Oscar-nominated A Prophet, by delving deeper into some more emotional territory. Whereas A Prophet was about an Arab man who finds himself working for a Corsican gang while in prison and found an incendiary intensity to it, it lacked a bit in its character-developing angle. Rust And Bone (the title refers to the taste left in one’s bleeding mouth after being punched) is a raw and visceral powerhouse of a film.

Matthias Schoenaerts (who brings more of the brutish relentlessness he employed in his lead in the much-acclaimed and Oscar-nominated Bullhead of last year) plays Ali, a former boxer. We first meet walking doggedly towards an unknown destination, trailed by his 5-year-old son, whom he barely knows. The two end up in the south of France, in Antibes, where they stay with Ali’s sister, whom he has not seen in five years. Yes, relationships are not Ali’s forte. He starts working as a bouncer, where he meets the brash and beautiful Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a whale trainer at Marineland, whom he literally rescues from a brawl she has incited. In his brutish, deadpan delivery, he remarks that she is “dressed like a whore,” and leaves his number with her matter-of-factly, expecting her to follow suit with all the other women who seem all to happy to fall in bed (not love) with him.
A freak accident at the marine park causes Stephanie to lose both of her legs. Despondent and literally broken, she reaches out to him, for lack of anyone else (pushing people away is definitely something Ali knows a thing or two about, also). Not one to let her guard down either, the two form a quiet bond: Ali never comments on her vulnerability or allows for any rumination on her new state, instead opting to build her up by simple gestures like bringing her to the beach and swimming with her on his back. Seemingly motivated out of nothing more than pure selfishness or lust, he nevertheless draws her out and away from a place of fissure.
Marion Cotillard’s performance absolutely steals the show. She portrays Stephanie’s fractured body and soul with a mesmerizing combination of vulnerability and steely strength. When Ali becomes involved in the brutal world of illegal street fighting, it is her singularity as “the woman with the steel legs” that allows her to enter it and give him the support his own broken self needs.
Rust and Bone does not mince any words; there are no sweeping, saccharine romantic gestures. The leads might as well be spitting “I love yous” through gritted teeth and blood-filled mouths. Both Stephanie and Ali are tough, barely reaching through to each other in the few chinks in their respective armors. Their characters, however, are very real, relentlessly and pitilessly so. Pulling no punches, this is a movie about fighting and surviving. While in some ways hearkening back to similar broken-body-and-spirit stories like The Wrestler, Rust and Bone is thoroughly unique in its ethos. The stunning cinematography of the sea and the fight scenes lend a cinema-veritas edge to the film that is equal parts beautiful and brutal. It is a haunting yet thoroughly engrossing film that stays true to Audiard’s oeuvre.