Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Early Christmas Break Pocket Reviews

I'm so behind on reviews! Here are my two cents on the past eight films I've seen in theaters:

In the Heart of the Sea 

Following RUSH, Ron Howard adds another Chris Hemsworth film to his diverse oeuvre. IN THE HEART OF THE SEA charts the alleged true story that inspired Herman Melville's "Moby Dick." The whale sequences are intense, and the drama mostly works thanks to Hemsworth and a terrific supporting cast. Sometimes in between whaling scenes can be a bit of a slog. Practically no humor and many of the interpersonal relationships among the men on the ship are undercooked. Also, I don't think the film says quite as much about humanity or the human spirit as this kind of story demands. It's worth seeing in theaters for the whaling scenes, but if you have a decent home setup, wait to rent it.


CONCUSSION is an excellent story told in a way that's far more vanilla than it deserves. Even Will Smith's best performance in years isn't quite enough to elevate CONCUSSION to must-see awards contender. Too often the film doesn't know whether to be a football drama, a biopic of Dr. Bennett Omalu's life, or a hospital thriller in the vein of ER. As the narrative careens from one big event to the next, it's hard to get emotionally invested in anything besides the occasional shot of game film which is, more often than not, played for simple shock value. If nothing else, though, the movie succeeded in getting me to rethink my Sunday afternoon priorities.


Spike Lee's latest joint is his funniest and most urgent in ages. CHI-RAQ is a modern day retelling of the Greek play "Lysistrata" by Aristophanes. In the film, gang violence cripples several south-side Chicago neighborhoods. In order to reach peace, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) organizes a sexual revolution. The boyfriends/husbands of the neighborhood won't get any until they put down their guns and stop killing one another. For me, the film actually slows down a bit when the revolution finally gets into full swing. The concerned men of the neighborhood are somehow far less interesting to watch than Lysistrata and the rest of the women. Nick Cannon, of all people, is actually the standout male actor here. As the gang-leader/rapper boyfriend of Lysistrata, he deftly embodies the emotional struggle between the call to peace and honesty versus his obligations to the streets, the only life he knows. His character changes the most from beginning to end, and Cannon plays it with as much nuance as some of the finest actors working in film today.

Fair warning that the entire script is written in the same style as the original play. That means the whole thing is spoken in rhyme. This may be distracting to unversed viewers, but you should know what you're getting into by seeing "Lysistrata" in the byline.

Star Wars: Episode 7 - The Force Awakens

Well, you should know by now whether you're going to see STAR WARS or not. Without spoiling anything, it's the best since EMPIRE. Newcomers John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are wonderful. They suit the STAR WARS universe perfectly and are poised to become the next in-demand superstars. My biggest issues with the film were that J.J. went a bit too heavy on the nostalgia bait and that it was way too funny. STAR WARS was never this hilarious until it was spoofed by Mel Brooks. I also docked the film a few points for not really having an original bone in its body. They just essentially remade A New Hope. This didn't distract me from the exciting fact that we finally have a good STAR WARS movie again, but it left me concerned that episodes 8 and 9 might copy the same formula as their predecessors. Let's hope that isn't the case.

The Big Short


FOXCATCHER was no fluke. Steve Carell stands out once again in awards-hopeful THE BIG SHORT. It's about the select few individuals who predicted the burst of the housing bubble and 2008 economic collapse. Director and frequent Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay does his best Scorsese impression here; it's easy to make comparisons to THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. Between the two, there's plenty of fourth wall breaking, F-bombs, and freeze frames. If I had to choose between the two, though, I found THE BIG SHORT to be a more focused production and thus far more enriching in the end than WOLF OF WALL STREET. The entire cast (Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt) shines along with a host of impressive supporting players and stellar cameos. Sometimes the quasi-GOODFELLAS approach takes you out of the story, but in all honesty, who can resist a shameless cut to Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining how sub-prime loans work?


Director Justin Kurzel presents what is perhaps one of the most compelling examples of "cinema as art" of the past several years. Shakespeare's classic tragedy is brought to vivid life by Michael Fassbender in the title role and Marion Cotillard as his muse Lady Macbeth. Both players are revelatory and fit the material beautifully, even if some of it is occasionally too dense and dour to keep up with. If Chivo weren't back in the awards race this year for THE REVENANT, surely MACBETH would be the Oscar frontrunner for best cinematography. If nothing else, the look of the film is simply sublime; like a colorful homage to Bergman. 


ROOM tells the story of a young woman (Brie Larson) and her 5-year old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) who have lived in captivity for years. When they escape the enclosed surroundings that Jack has known his entire life, the fragile pair try to acclimate to life back in the real world. Easily one of the best films of 2015. This is a strong, emotional story that never panders us with clichés and is impeccably acted by Larson, Tremblay and Joan Allen as "Grandma." All three deserve awards consideration; Larson especially will likely have it for Best Actress. ROOM would make a great double feature with Denis Villeneuve's PRISONERS


In SPOTLIGHT, a team of Boston Globe reporters investigate a scandal within the local Catholic archdiocese. For me, I think this is it. This is the film to beat this year. Not only that, but it's probably in my top 5 of the last several years. The ensemble cast is marvelous, working from a near-perfect script by Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy. The film takes an honest approach to the world of journalism and doesn't attempt to make idols of the heroes or total pariahs of the villains. I can't help but think what David Fincher might have done with this material, but I appreciate McCarthy's honest, straightforward approach. There's really not enough of that in movies these days. See it ASAP and expect it to have a big presence at the Oscars in February. 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

"Krampus" Review

Writer/director Michael Dougherty decided to put Trick 'r Treat 2 on hold for another couple of years in order to bring us Krampus, a Yuletide horror-comedy about a dysfunctional family struggling to find the Christmas spirit.

Something we can all relate to, yes?

When the family's youngest son, Max (Emjay Anthony), tears apart his wish list for Santa Claus, he unwittingly conjures something far more "naughty" than anyone could have bargained for. 

Like Dougherty's Trick 'r Treat, I think Krampus has cult status written all over it. I see myself enjoying it even more with perennial viewings. It's as though Christmas Vacation, Gremlins and Jumanji all got into the egg nog together and birthed this raucous family film. It's on par with those beloved family classics in terms of humor, horror and excitement.

Dougherty displays a delightfully grinchy attitude that stands in refreshing contrast to the saccharinity of most of the films people will be watching this season. There is perhaps a not-so-subtle poetry behind the slow-motion, Black Friday binge scene set to Bing Crosby's soothing "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." Krampus really works because of this kind of dark, cynical mentality that everyone has about Christmas, to a certain extent, that makes the film so funny, so relatable and so frightening. In other words, Dougherty is saying what we've all been thinking for years. Very few Christmas movies have had the balls to do that. The ones that have are now considered classics (Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, etc). Soon enough we'll see if time is equally as kind to Krampus.

My only real complaint is that it has a bit of a convoluted ending. It feels like a cop-out but is also one of the oddest and possibly most satisfying resolutions of any mainstream film this year. Certainly repeat viewings will help.

Kudos to Dougherty for getting an excitingly original genre piece out in theaters at this time of year.  


Thursday, December 3, 2015

"A Matter of Perspective" - A Curation on Voyeurism in Cinema

To paraphrase Laura Mulvey, it is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it...

That is the intention of this blog post.

To understand voyeurism is to understand a little bit of psychoanalytic theory...

Stay with me...

Scopophilia - "taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze" (3).

Norman Bates did that with Marion Crane in Psycho.

What's interesting here is that director Alfred Hitchcock creates tension by simple camera placement.

Notice in this scene how the perspective switches from a medium shot of Norman looking through the peephole to a seemingly first-person view of what Norman actually sees. This implicates the audience as the violators themselves; we become unwittingly responsible for the sin of scopophilia, not Norman!

Voyeurism itself is slightly different from scopophilia...

Scopophilia = objectification
Voyeurism = obsession

Merriam-Webster defines a voyeur as "someone who enjoys seeing and talking or writing about something that is considered to be private" (4). Scopophilia seems to always focus specifically on the objectification of one person by another.

Mulvey, on voyeurism:

"The mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic fantasy" (3).

In her article titled "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Mulvey also speaks specifically on the implication of the audience's voyeuristic tendencies by noting that "conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world..." (3).

Voyeurism usually has sexual connotations, but it isn't always like that...

Checking in on the "private world" of Truman Burbank

If to be a voyeur means to derive pleasure from seeing something considered to be private, then anyone around the world who enjoys watching the reality television program "The Truman Show" is a voyeur. 

In the film The Truman Show, there are two levels of voyeurs within the world of the narrative: the "creator" in the television studio (Ed Harris) and the audience of viewers at home.

In this clip, the "creator" orchestrates a moment of beautiful emotion for the program's millions of viewers to enjoy:

Notice the intense focus of the "creator" throughout the scene. He is slightly obsessed with choosing the proper tools to create this moment of catharsis between Truman (Jim Carrey) and his long-lost father. Thus the "creator" is the ultimate voyeur to Truman's world. What's more is that director Peter Weir cuts between the studio and the actual live moment of Truman meeting his father. In doing so, he allows us, the spectators of the real-life Truman Show film, to derive the same sense of emotional release and pleasure as the audience in the story world viewing "The Truman Show" television program.  

In The Routledge Encyclopedia of Film Theory's entry on "film and enunciation," theorist Christian Metz speaks on why we, and essentially the fans of Truman's television show, derive pleasure from watching fiction programs like The Truman Show and Psycho. There is a level of suspense derived from the seemingly illicit viewing of another person's private life. Metz says that voyeurism works in fiction film because "the mechanism of satisfaction relies on my awareness that the object I am watching is unaware of being watched" (1). 

"...the mechanism of satisfaction relies on my awareness that the object I am watching is unaware of being watchted."
- Christian Metz (1)

Perhaps that's how Rear Window's L.B. Jeffries begins his obsession of watching his neighbor's curious goings-on...

Voyeurism and Gaze Theory

In keeping with the Hitchcock theme...

In Hitchcock's film Rear Window, photojournalist L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) is sidelined with a broken leg, which confines him to a wheelchair in his small apartment with little to do but gaze at his neighbors and live vicariously through their experiences. He believes that the man living across the way, Mr. Thorwald (Raymond Burr), is acting suspicious. What's more is that the man's wife doesn't seem to be around anymore. What starts as an innocent hobby soon becomes an obsession for Jeffries as he works with his girlfriend Liza (Grace Kelly) to unravel the mystery of Mrs. Thorwald's disapperance.

Jeffries himself becomes a voyeur with his obsessive peering through the windows of his neighbors, especially those of Mr. Thorwald. 

However, especially in Hitchcock's work, the voyeuristic gaze becomes a defining characteristic of gender within the text of the film.

Jeffries' caretaker notices his leering at the sexy "Miss Torso"

We get the sense that Jeffries may be girl-crazed from the start.

Who can blame him?

Hitchcock films Kelly in close-up here to emphasize her beauty. Theorist Linda Williams is cited in The Routledge Encyclopedia by saying that "while the voyeuristic male gaze derives pleasure from the fetishistic distance between the spectator and the filmed image, the body genre's pleasure can often be found in the very lack of distance from the filmed image that makes the body genre so captivating" (5).

In this case, the closeness between the viewer and the filmed subject (Kelly) puts us in Jeffries' shoes and forces the audience to identify with the male's perspective. For anyone viewing the film through a heterosexual male lens, this approach to the voyeuristic gaze is just as titilating, if not more so, as Metz's idea that pleasure comes from the subject's naïveté about being watched.

When bae agrees to help you solve a murder mystery...

Everything about the way Liza is framed and lit throughout this film highlights her sex appeal. Just look at the way Jeffries literally gazes at her!

Mulvey muses on the male gaze theory in an entry in the Routledge Encyclopedia:

"The determining male gaze projects its phantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote 'to-be-looked-at-ness'."
- Laura Mulvey (2)

That's why Hitchcock always makes his women look appealing

Mulvey also says that "the image of woman as passive raw material for the active gaze of man takes the argument a step further into the structure of representation," but we'll leave that for another curation post (2).


1.Metz, Christian. "Film and Enunciation." The Routledge Encyclopedia of Film Theory. Ed. Edward Branigan and Warren Buckland. New York: Routledge, 2014. 158. Print.
2. Mulvey, Laura. "Gaze Theory." The Routledge Encyclopedia of Film Theory. Ed. Edward Branigan and Warren Buckland. New York: Routledge, 2014. 225. Print.
3. Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. Jahsonic. Web. 3 Dec. 2015. <>.
4.  "Voyeur." Merriam-Webster, Inc, n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2015. <>.
5. Williams, Linda. "History of Feminist Film Theory." The Routledge Encyclopedia of Film Theory. Ed. Edward Branigan and Warren Buckland. New York: Routledge, 2. 198. Print.