Aneesh Chaganty

Posts Tagged ‘mad review’

The Place Beyond the Pines | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on March 31, 2013 at 8:40 PM


The Place Beyond the Pines

(2013, US, d. Derek Cianfrance)

A cross-generational epic far different from its trailers yet far better than any expectations I had, The Place Beyond the Pines is a moving, thrilling, and thought-provoking film from Blue Valentine writer/director Derek Cianfrance.

To give much of the plot away woud be a disservice to what Cianfrance tries to accomplish. Told through three separate, but intertwining stories, The Place Beyond the Pines chronicles the complex, violence-ridden personalities in the small town of Schenectady, New York as well as the consequences of those characters.

Ryan Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a motorcycle stunt rider who visits Schenectady on a carnival tour. To his surprise, he receives a visit from Romina (Eva Mendes) – a woman we’re led to assume Glanton had a fling with the last time he was in town. It’s unclear what Romina’s intentions are with the visit – especially considering that she has a new husband and a son – but Glanton can’t get her out of his mind.

The next day, Glanton quits the carnival business, his mind set on creating a stable life for Romina. Jealous of her husband’s ability to provide for her, and torn by Romina’s conflicting emotions, Glanton is swayed into a get-rich-quick scheme proposed by Robin (Barry Mendelsohn), a shady and highly amusing local: rob a bank. What follows are some of the most high-octane and heart-stopping action sequences even Hollywood pros would swoon over.

To get into more of Glanton’s story would be giving away too much; be wary of any reviews that do. From there on in the film, we’re introduced to Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious police officer forced to face the consequences of a police incident at the beginning of his story arc. As he tries to move on past the event, a series of obstacles – both internal and external – block his path to moving on.

There are a few other surprises here as well, but I don’t want to get into them as much. The most you’ll get out of this movie will only come from knowing the least about it, which sort of puts me into an uncomfortable position. But enough about the plot.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a touching, sobering, hypnotic and beautifully photographed experience, more lyrical than formulaic. Don’t let the marketing campaign fool you: this is a quiet picture, but it’s a picture with a lot to say. About guilt. About absence. About fatherhood. About love.

Derek Cianfrance seizes full control of the camera’s motion, taking overused tricks and employing them slowly and effectively to increase tension and illuminate character. His wide, repetitive sweeping shots capture immense arrays of emotion, underscore the mirror-relationships of the three stories, all the while still staying true to the heart of the constantly evolving picture. In fact, for as poetic as this film is, there are enough plot-twists to keep a popcorn audience coming back for more.

Powerfully acted, intimately told, and painfully moving, The Place Beyond the Pines marks a significant milestone for Derek Cianfrance’s career. Transitioning from the scale of Blue Valentine to this isn’t easy, but he makes it look that way. I guess that’s what happens when you spend 30 drafts and 5 years on a script. In any case: keep a keen eye out for this film. 

As early as it is, I have a strong feeling this may end up at on the higher side of my Top 10 of the year list. It’s just that good.


Spring Breakers | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2013 at 2:17 AM


Spring Breakers

(2013, US, d. Harmony Korine)

Welcome to the overwhelming and hypnotic world of neon-lights, Florida beaches, unnerving techno soundtracks, booze, drugs, vandalism, sex, teens, parties, and violence. For many of us, that’s just too much to handle. But for the four young women at the center of this film, that’s just a week of Spring Break.

Spring Breakers is the new film from director Harmony Korine (Gummo, Mister Lonely) and producer Megan Ellison (Zero Dark Thirty, The Master). Part social satire dipped in a lot of Natural Born Killers, Spring Breakers is the kind of film you’d expect Sofia Coppola to make had she been raised on nothing but Girls Gone Wild and Cops. Covered head to tail in top-40 tunes and uniquely edited to never actually let you sit back and just observe what’s going on, the film is quite a challenge to the average viewer. Yet despite the compliments the movie’s been receiving, don’t expect that to be a sign of whether you’re gonna like this movie. In fact, most of the people in the theater I saw the film with hated it. 

While the movie is nothing like what you’d expect from the teasers, this is a both a good thing and a bad thing. For those coming in to enjoy a glorified version of Girls Gone Wild: Spring Break Edition, enjoy the first 7 minutes; exit signs are located around you. For those coming in thinking they’re actually about to watch something really artistic and out there…try and enjoy the rest.

The biggest problem with Spring Breakers is that, despite what it achieves artistically (I’m not being sarcastic with that statement), it’s never actually enjoyable. It gets off to the right start, though. After a 5 minute montage of what everyone expects a wild college kid’s spring break to consist of on a Florida beach, we’re introduced to four childhood friends stuck on a lonely college campus in the middle of nowhere at the start of break. Meet Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) – the strangest girl-group we’ll probably meet on screen this year.

The group desperately wants to make it to the beaches of South Florida for break and join the throngs of wild kids their age. And let me be clear: these are not the kind of girls who act innocent and then end up having a wild time. Their dirty and extreme intentions, from the first few minutes, are excruciatingly clear. But the problem is: the girls don’t have enough money to get there. So what’s a few broads to do in that situation? Of course: just rob the patrons in a local restaurant! That should do the trick.

If almost feels like the end of the movie here, because once they’re in Florida, they’re having the time of their lives. You almost wish you could join them on the beaches, by the apartments, and in the ocean as they drink, laugh, snort, hook up, and accomplish every secret item on any spring breaker’s bucket list. But that’s when things start getting weird.

Meet Alien (James Franco), the “wangsta” stranger who bails out the four girls after they’re arrested for an afternoon of cocaine and debauchery. After getting over the initial hump of fear and suspicion when you first hang out with a cornrowed, silver-toothed gangster with a penchant for anything materialistic – no matter how violent the tool (we’ve all been there, right?), the girls soon discover that Alien embodies everything they’ve been taught to love. Soon, the girls (of the ones that remain) take one step after another, furthering themselves into the underbelly of South Florida crime- providing new meaning to what constitutes as “vacation”.

Spring Breakers is a unique character study – unafraid of not answering questions, but also of asking them in the first place. Rather, it simply depicts – with as much wide-eyed energy and color it can – the behaviors and desires of the modern young adult. In an interview at the ArcLight Hollywood Theater, director Harmony Korine dismissed any claims that he was trying to bring out any truth or “reality” with the film. Rather, his goal was to, in fact, make the film as “unreal” as possible.

Yet despite his own intentions, its difficult to not walk away from Korine’s film without garnering some meaning – especially when most of your leading cast has made a career out of being “good, Disney girls”. I have to admit: it is a a bit surreal watching Gomez and Hudgens commit every sin under the South Florida sun, make out with other women, and have a ball while they’re at it.

But here’s the honest truth: apart from the first 30 minutes (which includes an incredible one take shot involving a car circling a restaurant), I didn’t actually enjoy the movie. It was alienating, jarring, and tonally uncomfortable. At the end of the day, I happened to be just another one of those people who expected something far different than what actually came out.

But different doesn’t mean bad. In this case, it actually is worth a ton of worthwhile thought. And though commendable on its own right, I can’t imagine recommending Spring Breakers to anyone looking for a fun time at the movies.


The Incredible Burt Wonderstone | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on March 21, 2013 at 8:08 PM


The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

(2013, US, d. Don Scardino)

As geeky as it is to admit, magic tricks have always been a low-key passion of mine. With the right trick, the audience is left with the unique feeling of having just witnessed something paranormal while their minds struggle to find a rational explanation for those events. It’s a feeling of awe and wonder – both for the spectator and the magician.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone gets off on the right foot. For a second there, it actually convinces you that, at its core, the story is about capturing that magic. In the opening frame, we’re introduced to the elementary-school version of the title character (Mason Cook) as he runs away from bullies. It’s Burt’s birthday, and just like everyone at school, even his mother can’t make time for him. But in her place, Ms. Wonderstone leaves a present that will change Burt’s life forever: a magic kit created by the world-famous magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin).

Soon after, Wonderstone is enveloped in the world of magic. At school, he is finally able to make his first friend: Anton Marvelton (played by Luke Vanek, one of the strangest-looking but amusing child actors to grace the screen in awhile). As Anton and Burt become best friends and more and more obsessed with magic, the film transitions to years later – where an adult Wonderstone and Marvelton (Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi, respectively) awe an audience at their Las Vegas show.

Soon, we discover that the magic, however, has long worn off. Wonderstone and Marvelton are barely on speaking terms and Burt seems to have traded any fascination he had with magic for a masochistic, and agressive personality. Meanwhile, their age-old act is threatened when “street magician” and self-proclaimed “brain rapist” Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) enters the scene of Vegas magic shows. Sounds funny, right? Keep reading.

Wonderstone is eventually cast out of his gig, and begins the inevitable, formulaic journey of reconnecting with what made him love magic in the first place and appreciating those around him to finally stage his comeback.

It’s a role that screams “Carell”. Carell’s wonderful chemistry of aggression and egocentrism, knack for comedic timing, and intuition for character seems like the perfect ingredients for Wonderstone. But for some reason, Carell is the first one to misstep. Here, he feels stilted. His eyes wildly motion to the audience, trying to let the us know how much he doesn’t want to be in this movie and how much he knows it’s gonna suck. Unfortunately for the example, whether Carell had fully committed or not doesn’t change how mediocre this film was bound to turn out.

Sloppy editing, a formulaic script devoid of any heart, and uninspired direction work closely together to defeat the talents of its incredible cast. Even Olivia Wilde, who does nothing for the story but serve as eye candy and an easy screenwriting tool, couldn’t get my attention off how much better this film could have been. But boy, does she serve as eye candy!

Apart from the refreshing soundtrack (most of which was just taken from Spotify’s Top 100), Jim Carrey provides the only honest moments of comic relief. Though his scenes are few and sparse, Carrey steals the show with every line he’s given. Steve Gray, like Wonderstone, seems written for Carrey. But unlike Carell, Carrey is able to make it work – even whilst winking to the audience, acknowledging his own preposterousness.

At the end of the day, what disappoints me the most is that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is built on promising and unique foundations, but consciously tries to sabotage itself by rearranging its pieces into something that would fit the structure of a Hollywood film.

Unfortunately, unless you’re looking for some sparse laughs, the trick to this film is looking elsewhere.

The Last Stand | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on January 21, 2013 at 6:46 PM


The Last Stand 

(2013, US, d. Kim Ji-Woon)

Kim Ji-Woon’s first foray into Hollywood storytelling is The Last Stand, a shoot-em-up story about ex-LAPD-narcotics-officer-turned-small-town-sheriff Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Owens, after discovering that a fugitive is on the run from LA to the Mexican border in a high-speed vehicle, decides to stop him in a stand-off in the small town of Sommerton, Arizona.

Director Kim Ji-Woon has a very impressive resume, featuring one of my favorite films of the last decade (The Good, The Bad, and the Weird) and a variety of other acclaimed ones (I Saw the Devil, A Tale of Two Sisters). But the problem with foreigners making American films that are so innately American is that there’s very little to culturally ground the story. I’m not saying there aren’t positives to the endeavor. In fact, Ji-Woon, like many of his South Korean filmmaker peers, is able to tell stories from unique perspectives and deftly carry unique tones throughout a movie.

The problem is that The Last Stand is a modern-day western. And there is nothing about this film that suggests any sort of basis in American culture, whatsoever. Despite its protagonist (who’s walked straight out of a John Wayne film), it’s setting (a small desert town in Arizona), it’s antagonists (Mexicans), its conflict (escaped prisoners), and its method to overcome its obstacles (a plethora of weapons), this film couldn’t feel more foreign than it does.

First off, we have Peter Stormare playing Burrell, a Southern construction owner/gangster. Stormare is Swedish and for the duration of his speaking lines in the entire film, I was wondering what the hell is accent was supposed to be.

Secondly, there was no honesty in its portrayal of Somerset. It almost felt like we were watching a town through a museum glass. It had all the right parts, it looked the right way, and it was set in the right place, but there was something foreign and inanimate that swept over it all.

Oh yeah, and then there’s Schwarzenegger as the Sheriff. His first leading role since Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Schwarzenegger is at his best or worst here (depending on how you look at it). In a sure to be Razzie-nominated (if not Razzie-winning) performance of 2014, the ex-California governor botches every line, every piece of action, and every briefly emotional moment and turns it into something of an amusing spectacle. A train-wreck of sorts, that the audience watches over and over and over again with every new line.

Granted, it’s not like the script itself deserves much credit either. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine that writer Andrew Knauer (writer of the Slamdance indie hit “Ghost Team One”) took any longer than 2 hours to think of the entire plot of The Last Stand. Even if you take its heroes out of the equation, every other character was so poorly written, audience members in the theater were looking at me and asking me to lower my laughter during the dramatic scenes. That’s how bad it wasI won’t even get into the recycled set-pieces (But seriously: the entire premise of the film is based off the existence of a Corvette that can not only travel above 190 miles/hour but also, miraculously, never needs gas??!?).

Forest Whitaker has never been worse. Neither has Luiz Guzman. Even Johnny Knoxville, who I can’t stand, deserves better material than what he’s given here: a sort of fictional version of the idiot he plays in the Jackass series.

The most uninspired, unoriginal, bland, repetitive, and mindless piece of “entertainment” of 2013, The Last Stand is a sad blotch on an incredible director’s filmography.

The Intouchables | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on December 13, 2012 at 5:07 PM


The Intouchables 

(2011, France, d. Olivier Nakache and Éric Toleda) 

The Intouchables is a very emotional movie, and I tried hard to appreciate it on its own merits, rather than judging it on the socio-economic, racial, and “Hollywood” vision of the world it seemed at times to present. While the film does have its critics for these reasons, I found myself easily able to relate to its main characters and soon enough, swept away by their journey. 

The Intouchables tells the true story of Driss (played by Omar Sy) and Philippe (Francois Cluzet). Prior to the film, Philippe, a white aristocrat, suffers horrible injuries from a hang-gliding accident, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. But Philippe has it off a lot better than other tetraplegics – his enormous wealth is still able to provide him a taste of the better life. He obsesses over art, listens to classical music 100 decibels higher than anyone else in the house can bear, and reads ancient literature in his spare time. Of course, spare time is all he has. His house is equipped with a loving staff but he still needs a caretaker to perform basic duties for him – feeding him, bathing him, driving him, pushing him, etc… And that’s where Driss comes in. 

Driss is a lawbreaker, we’re lead to assume. He’s just on parole for a robbery he committed and, when we first meet him, is simply presenting his face at an interview so he can collect the employer’s signature to get unemployment benefits. He comes from a large family – though no one he lives with are his siblings or his parents. His aunt, a custodian, is the primary care-giver of the family and Driss feels no shame in living under her paycheck. Until she kicks him out.

Philippe is impressed by Driss’ forward nature. Driss makes jokes other candidates wouldn’t, hitting on Philippe’s secretary in front of him. But unlike any other potential care-giver, Driss never seems to care that Philippe is in a wheel chair. In fact, he makes fun of him for it. And though it comes as a surprise to Driss, he’s offered the job. 

Objectively, there’s a lot to critique this film. On the surface, you have another story about a stuck-up white man who’s shown the world by a poor but charismatic black man. Essentially, that is The Intouchables. And historically, middle-class audiences eat that stuff up. Furthermore, this film gives permission to laugh at disabilities – not in a mean way, but in an equalizing one. We do this through Driss, who’s the one poking fun at Philippe all the time. Philippe, being treated like a regular person for the first time since his accident, loves keeping him nearby. And while others would be perfectly in their rights to reject the film on those notes, I urge them not to. Because this film is far better than the sum of its parts. And it all comes down to the performances.

Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet carry this film. Sy’s humor, charisma, and lack of self-control are infectious. Every scene he’s in, he lights up. But despite the outer shell, Driss is hardly perfect. Here’s a man who needs directions – who needs principle. And Sy is able to convey this arc genuinely and naturally. It’s sounds a lot easier than it is. Let’s just say Chris Tucker has some big shoes to fill in the Hollywood remake. Cluzet, a lot like John Hawkes in The Sessions, is able to travel on his emotional arc without the movement of anything south of his neck. And that is exactly how hard as it sounds. But Philippe, in his own way, needs direction as well. To lead a life rather than searching through books, literature, and windows for it. 

The two are perfect complements. 

Despite its cliches, The Intouchables feels honest. And again, it would be within anyone’s rights to reject this film on its nature alone. But, having seen my fair share of “rich white person helps racial minority helps white person” movies, I can tell you this one is funnier, more touching, and – given its qualities – more subtle.

I may have even teared up at the end.  


The Sessions | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on December 8, 2012 at 4:02 AM


The Sessions

(2012, US, d. Ben Lewin)

Touted as a heavy-weight this awards season is The Sessions, the story of Mark O’Brien, a polio-stricken poet who hires a “sex surrogate” to lose his virginity. But despite the film’s hype and humble storytelling, I found The Sessions – though not without its clever and honest moments – to be an exercise in how not to write a screenplay. 

I’ll start with the bad stuff. Independent movies such as this don’t usually go wrong in the screenwriting. They fall apart in the production. I found the opposite to be true with this film. Filling a script with cheap tricks to get the protagonists to express their feelings is not good writing. It’s easy writing. And there were many times I felt that was the case with this film. 

I remember one moment particularly. After having had a sex session with Mark, Cheryl (played by Helen Hunt) picks up the phone to call her boss. Her boss, who the audience was barely introduced to in the film’s first act, asks Helen what she thinks of Mark. The film proceeds on a brief monologue that tells the audience exactly what Helen is thinking. I was shaking my head in the theaters.

It’s not like the film didn’t have the material to survive without moments like that. It totally did. And it helps tremendously when you have actors as talented and nuanced as Helen Hunt and John Hawkes anchoring the film. In fact, looking back on it, if there’s any reason to put The Sessions on a ‘must-see’ list, it would be for John Hawkes’ incredible performance. Immobile throughout the entire film, Hawkes stretches his acting muscles with apparent ease and conveys the emotional arc of a very complex character. 

Surprisingly, I wasn’t as much of a fan with Hunt’s performance. She’s been receiving lots of award attention this year but I really couldn’t tell you why. It wasn’t a bad performance. But I didn’t think it was anything special either. Maybe that’s because I couldn’t get past the insane amounts of makeup and/or face-work that had been done to her. It’s a shame: I wish older women could just be allowed to age gracefully in Hollywood instead of being forced to put on a face to keep work steady. But that’s a rant for another time. Let’s get back to the criticisms.

Going on with the theme of the screenplay, I thought – in addition to resorting to cheap tricks – writer/director Ben Lewin threw in some really strange attempts at humor. As if to tell the audience to relax. Not only were these scenes not funny, they really poked at the film itself, which was unable or unwilling to explore anything deeper than a surface-level (save for the performances).

Finally, William H. Macy. Usually a very reliable actor in any scenario, Macy’s character did nothing to serve the story apart from act as a forum for Mark to express his own feelings. It really wasn’t his fault. He was just trying the best with the material he had.

The Sessions did have its moments. Particularly in the beginning, Lewin does a very good job of setting the stage for what’s about to come. Unfortunately, he hits his peak early. 

And that’s all there is to that.