Monthly Archives: May 2013

Review: Gimme the Loot

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Graffiti tagging is all about making your mark; it’s not the art, it’s the people behind it and their signature style. Similarly, “Gimme the Loot” is about its actors and not its almost nonexistent plot.

Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington) are a graffiti gang determined to tag the giant apple that pops out every time the Mets score a home run at Citi Field. Except it will cost $500 just to bribe their way on to the field; no wonder why this is a glory that graffiti artists have been chasing after since the 1980s but with about as much luck as William Tell. So they steal and scam their way around New York City trying to raise the funds.

Although the film sets up an intriguing conflict, it’s more of 79 minutes of an ethnography of the Bronx: bodegas with back door dealings, street slang so infused with obscenities that it’s hard to find a line of dialogue without one, pick-up basketball games between rival graffiti gangs and more. Director Adam Leon paints a gritty portrait of NYC street life so rarely depicted in films.

Our guides through the Bronx are the vivacious Malcolm and Sofia. The latter is the ball-busting brains behind the plot, and Washington is fierce, frank but with occasional moments of vulnerability that make her relatable, if not likable. The sweet Malcolm is a charming conman, especially as he pursues a rich girl Ginnie (Zoë Lescaze) he deals pot to in order to steal her jewelry for the apple fund. The three have a raw chemistry that propels the film forward even as the plot stalls.

The characters are compelling even as they lie, cheat and steal, but this is not enough to compensate for the aimlessness of the movie. In order to inject some conflict, Leon creates an awkward upstairs/downstairs dynamic between Ginnie and Malcolm, which might be honest but ultimately feels cliche. The conclusion of the film isn’t surprising for anyone, and we’re left feeling as dejected as Sofia and Malcolm- is this all there is?

There seems to be an interesting trend of white hipster directors making films about distinctly working-class black neighborhoods (see Benh Zeitlin’s excellent but problematic “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”) Although no one has argued that these directors have inaccurately portrayed these cultures, they seem as if they’re fetishizing the culture and mildly exploiting it. As fun and lively as “Gimme the Loot” is, it also falls into this troubling category and adds a certain uneasiness to its viewing.

Review: The Sapphires

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The premise sounds a tad imperialistic: a white Irishman teaches an Aboriginal girl group how to be soul singers in the 1960s. Except “The Sapphires” is too self-aware to be racist, and that white Irishman is played by the eternally amiable Chris O’Dowd, which makes “The Sapphires” one of the most feelgood films of the year.

When we first meet The Sapphires in 1968, they are three scrappy sisters whose harmonizing is only heard in Cummeraganja, Australia until they decide to attend a local talent show. Unfortunately, there are more racial slurs than accolades in the all white crowd, except for the show’s rough-and-tumble host, Dave Lovelace (O’Dowd) who sees their potential. He rebrands the country band, The Cummeraganja Songbirds,  (“You’re black and you’re singing country and western music. It’s just wrong.”) into the sexy soul group, The Sapphires, and lands them gigs in Vietnam. It’s not all sequins and solos, though, as the film explores the nuanced racism of what it means to be Aboriginal all while bombs are going off in Vietnam.

The plot might be predictable, but its actors aren’t. The four Sapphires initially come off as “Glee” archetypes: Julie (Jessica Mauboy) the young talent, Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) the sexy siren, lost cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) the racially conflicted Aboriginal who looks white and Gail (Deborah Mailman) the protective older sister of the group who is more competent at managing than Dave is. All of the actors add a freshness to the hackneyed story, but it’s the forceful Mailman who stands out as the whip smart but overbearing Gail. Her bossiness and sassy attitude are the perfect foil to schlubby alcoholic Dave. O’Dowd’s great comic timing not only saves the film from its melodrama but adds an edge and unpredictability that lead to some truly laugh-out-loud moments. Expect to see him as more than just an off-kilter love interest in future films; he has the charisma and zany energy to make a real comedy career.

Sure you’ve heard the film’s soundtrack before and can probably see where it’s going, but what’s not to love: vivacious renditions of soul classics, a charming true story and Chris O’Dowd. Don’t miss out on one of the most delightful films of the year.

Review: The Great Gatsby

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Baz Luhrmann has more in common with Jay Gatsby than he should admit. Both men have a flair for ostentation (gratuitous 3D), conspicuous consumption (the film had a $127 million budget) and forget that emotions matter more than money. The final point is the biggest problem with his adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” in which Luhrmann emphasizes the “Great” over the actual man behind it.

The nauseous 3D swoops in at the beginning of the film to remind you that this is not Robert Redford’s quaintly boring 1974 version. Instead it’s a sensory overload of jazz-tinged rap (the Jay-Z-produced soundtrack is one of the best parts of this adaptation’s modernization), zipping cars, costumes that shine like diamonds, corks popping and Gatsby’s mansion looking like some Disney castle on acid. This version of the 1920s roars so much it gives you a headache; it’s visually stunning but renders everyone else flat.

As we get deeper into the plot, which I won’t bother recounting because we all read this book in high school, Luhrmann lets his actors do the work. Leonardo DiCaprio captures the vulnerability and compulsiveness behind the enigma that is Gatsby. More importantly, you can see why he would fall in love with the beautiful but careless Daisy. The role is hard to pull off without making Daisy flat or flip, but Carey Mulligan delicately conveys her inner conflict. The supporting actors are the best cast: Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan is ferocious but surprisingly sympathetic, Elizabeth Debicki has both the look and attitude of the snarky Jordan Baker down pat, Isla Fisher is as garish and tragic as Myrtle Wilson is meant to be and her poor husband, George, is played wistfully by Jason Clarke. It’s the actors that keep the film true to novel, and when they’re are the focus, it’s riveting to watch. That being said, there is one miscasting.

Luhrmann makes one of the cardinal sins of novel-to-film adaptations, equating the narrator with the author (who was an alcoholic that died of a heart attack at 44.) Nick, one of the most famous first-person narrators in history, is reduced to a maudlin metafictional device as he recounts Gatsby’s story at a sanatorium some time in the 1930s, his prose cornily floating across the screen. The character is poorly written, but not as bad as Tobey Maguire’s portrayal. Maguire adds an offbeat sense of comic relief to almost every scene he’s in. With Nick’s over-the-top narration, we’re blinded with the green light. Fitzgerald was never one for subtle symbolism to begin with, but Luhrmann gives us the SparkNotes version.

Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” gets too caught up in West Egg debauch and forgets the people living there. Like Daisy’s voice, the film is full of money but ultimately hollow.

Review: Iron Man 3

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Tony Stark is dating the most beautiful woman in the world (if you believe People magazine.) He recently saved New York City from alien invasion and nuclear attack at the end of “The Avengers.” He is also having panic attacks. It’s normal for a super hero to have an identity crisis (Emo Peter Parker, anyone?) or get a little moody (What would Bruce Wayne’s psychiatrist say about him?) but PTSD? Jarvis can’t fix that problem.

“Iron Man 3” is less about the iron and more about the man behind the suit.  At the beginning of the film, though, Tony is hiding behind his iron men (he’s building a robot army) to avoid confronting his anxiety and the concerned Pepper, who is basically running Stark Industries for him. Enter the latest villain- the theatrical terrorist the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who has dubious origins but sounds like the Baptist preacher next door. After the Mandarin’s attacks leave Tony’s head of security, Happy Hogan, (Jon Favreau) in a coma and destroy his home, Tony is believed to be dead but is actually alive and ready to get revenge. Tony doesn’t have his suit anymore and is a lot more interesting because of this.

A super hero film without any super heroes might sound dull but is actually the film’s saving grace. Without any gadgets, Tony is left to face his fears. Downey Jr. veers well between Tony’s flippant sense of humor and his existential crises, especially in a delightful interaction with a young scientist Harley (the winsome Ty Simpkins). The 10 year old helps Tony rebuild his suit and sanity, as the two mock their budding father-and-son relationship. It brings a sense of heart that was missing in the first two films.

The studio must have told director Shane Black to get back to the explosions, so the rest of the movie gets a little chaotic and predictable: there’s the standard good but over-the-top special effects, Pepper playing the damsel in distress and too many supporting actors- Don Cheadle is always woefully underused as Col. James Rhodes, and Rebecca Hall plays a smart and sexy scientist ex-girlfriend who might be able to stop the Mandarin if she were given more screen time. I won’t give away too much about a rogue scientist played by Guy Pearce, other than that it’s good to see Pearce back on the big screen. As a result, the ending feels overstuffed yet anti-climactic.

“Iron Man 3” is Tony Stark at his worst but Robert Downey Jr. at his best and consequently the best film in the franchise so far.

Review: The Company You Keep

-4Robert Redford runs like an old woman in “The Company You Keep.” It’s an apt metaphor for the film too because even though we have to admire a 76-year-old man’s noble effort at a chase scene, it’s clear he’s past his prime as both an actor and director.

Redford plays a former Weather Underground activist Nick Sloan, who went on the lam after a 1970s bank robbery left one man dead. He’s refashioned himself as a lawyer with the second sleazebag marriage and young daughter, whose relationship with him seems as fake as his identity. Life is as idyllic as it can be when you’re a 70-something raising a 10-year-old girl, until a pesky young journalist Ben (Shia LaBoeuf) uncovers Nick’s real identity and sends him on the run again.

This is run down memory lane as much as it’s away from the FBI. Every former Underground activist that Nick catches up with is an Oscar winner or Hollywood favorite: Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon. Ben tries to crack the story, but we’re always a step ahead of him, which kind of takes the suspense out of the suspense thriller this film is meant to be. Instead, the only surprises are which famous friend Redford casts next- Stanley Tucci as Ben’s editor, Chris Cooper as Nick’s brother, Terrence Howard as the incompetent FBI agent on the case, Anna Kendrick as Ben’s college-fling-turned-FBI-contact etc. These are some talented actors, but they are mere roadsigns in this movie, as if Redford is trying to remind us he was once good and can attract the star power to back that up.

Except “The Company You Keep” is like a half-baked rehash of some of Redford’s better films. He apparently still has a lot to say about journalism, but Ben’s reporting techniques are stuck back in the “All the President’s Men” era as his Allen Ginsberg hipster uniform is. As Nick is trying to escape his 1970s past, you get the impression that a film like this was better made in that decade.

“The Company You Keep” is a B-list film with A-list actors. It’s fun, but ultimately, another vehicle for Redford’s preachy politics.