V.O.D. Review: 29 To Life


Superficially, 29 To Life looks like an indie cinema attempt at the typical Hollywood romantic comedy. Not so fast. Pleasantly, unexpectedly, it cuts much deeper than that.

Murphy Martin (compelling and rangy) plays a man of the titular age who, despite some moderate success as a chef, can’t seem to get his life together. He lived with his parents in the Los Angeles suburbs until they had enough and booted him out of their house and into a “mobile home”—his Jeep, which has also seen better days.

One of the things I like most about Alex Magaña’s debut feature is its freshness. 29 To Life is the type of movie up-and-coming producers should take interest in, and that’s because it’s a cinematic feast of notable young talent.

Lead actor ­­­­­­­­­­­­­Martin, steps up more often than not in a tricky role that’s more nuanced and risky than the average romantic comedy lead. In certain angles, he reminds me of a young John Doe, the veteran actor and L.A. punk rocker. So there’s definitely some grit behind Martin’s comedic grins.

Two or three of the characters miss the mark and the supporting actors playing them, too. Most of the supporting cast, though, plays well above average and some stand out strongly. Again, these folks are ripe for the picking. I can imagine all types of meaty roles for the savvy actor J.R. Ritcherson, who plays a store manager interviewing Barnaby for a job. Magaña also scored big landing Diana Solis for the role of Barnaby’s faithful high school buddy Madison, who knows how to steer him in the right directions. Solis, who appeared in the critically acclaimed CW series Jane The Virgin, is note-perfect in a key role that required a balance of charm, genuine affection, humor, sincerity, and vulnerability.

29 To Life features dramatic evocations, notes, and turns that piqued my curiosity more than once as to what might be next from the intriguing Angelino writer/director Magaña. He seems to possess that artistic power to see (feel, intuit, touch, smell, taste) things that most of us don’t.

Barnaby’s values pop up in his interactions with former schoolmates, prospective employers, and loved ones. He seems to suffer from some type of  mild, unnamed personality disorder that keeps his motivation on an endless rollercoaster ride. The refreshing part is his easy honesty with people he genuinely cares about. That’s the beginning of this movie’s real saving grace—it’s good-hearted.

There’s a sprinkling of comedic genius on display here, and the script offers some quirky chuckle-lines and scenarios that reveal a burgeoning comedy-writing talent. Out of nowhere, for example, the hapless Barnaby decides it’s a good idea to start drinking. He’s not particularly good at even that, and his drunky missteps show Magaña’s maturity and insight, both of which would go a long way in larger quantities. It feels real that an almost-thirty-something living out of their car and collecting aluminum cans out of the garbage would also grab a liquor bottle for a nip at some point. A bar scene where Barnaby gets handed a delicious opportunity to turn the tables on a wannabe alpha-male satisfies with a couple of hearty laughs.

Ultimately, 29 To Life won me over. Somewhere in the second act, the chemistry between Murphy and Solis becomes irresistible, in large part because we’re then witnessing a tender bond between two characters who are unusual, but in polar-opposite ways. What it comes down to is that this film’s many flaws are small, and they don’t have to detract from its heart, which is huge.

3 of 5 stars

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Copyright 2018 by Andres Solar. All rights reserved.

Miami Film Festival

Jason Reitman’s Tully to open 35th Miami Film Festival on March 9th

The filmmakers of the critical darling Juno (2007), which effectively launched the successful careers of Ellen Page and Michael Cera, follow up the 2018 Sundance world premiere of their film, Tully, as the opening night feature of this year’s Miami Film Festival.

Tully, about a mother of three young children who is surprise-gifted a night nanny by her brother, stars Academy Award-winner Charlize Theron. Written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, the film appears to offer twists and offbeat relationship dynamics similar to its beloved cousin Juno, if the trailer is any indication.

Copyright 2018 by Andres Solar. All rights reserved.

Courtesy of Miami Film Festival
Film Reviews

Film Review: Phantom Thread

US-based writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest period piece—set in 1950s London—offers the filmgoer so much that I have to rate it among the most generous movies I’ve ever seen. Phantom Thread is about an artist, his quirks, and his neediness, yes, but it’s also about a whole lot more.

On the surface, a successful and phenomenally fastidious fashion designer/dressmaker in London wakes up to find his soon-to-be-former love relationship has become shapeless and threadbare. His business manager/sister/co-cynic “Cyril” (Lesley Manville, a powerhouse) suggests he take a day off in the country, wherein he meets a waitress of considerable clumsy charm.

The auteur Anderson adopts a measure of the main character’s perfectionism, and all these proceedings look exquisite. His trademark, carefully considered camera movements, in these opulent settings, exhilarate on their own. Add to that the deeply inspired, richly layered story; lively, often hilarious characters; and Jonny Greenwood’s lavish, jazz-and-classical-inflected score, and Phantom Thread becomes a ravishing model of haute couture cinema. Especially in the opening sequences, the old-Hollywood feel permeates. The fabric of this instant classic is shot through with filaments from The Lady Eve (1941) and Roman Holiday (1953).

Though Anderson has expressed his admiration for certain “90-minute romantic comedies” (see his homage to them in Punch-Drunk Love [2002]), Phantom Thread is not exactly that. For starters, it’s not one second too long at 130 minutes. The laughs come unexpectedly and steadily, though effortlessly. The writer fashions art out of dialogue, and here his punk rock ethic contrasts well with the formal, olde-style English verbiage of Hitchcock, say. From your seat in the house, you’ll notice the laughter emerges in pockets and sprinklings, refreshingly, instead of in the unanimous roars of ordinary comedy fare.

As much as Daniel Day-Lewis perfectly astounds in his masterful performance, the venerable actor is also the consummate team player. The fruits of his openness to what his fellow actors are doing and to the purpose and effect of each scene are palatable on the screen—deliciously so. The chemical reactions between his “Reynolds Woodcock” (Anderson credits Day-Lewis’ and his sense of humor for the character’s name) and love-interest “Alma” cause simmering, smoldering, and surging. Vicky Krieps, an intriguing, magnificent actress from Luxembourg, brings to Alma subtlety, humor, and surprising powers that are crucial for Woodcock’s muse and occasional foil.

The director wisely intuited the importance of their chemistry in fully fleshing out his enthralling tale. He knew the breadth, height, and depth of Day-Lewis’ onscreen presence and his counterpart had to be unflinching. Krieps’ Alma barely blinks at Woodcock’s bluster, and when she does it signals a confident potency of her own.

The results of their emotional dueling are dual: first, a grand, finely tuned examination of power dynamics in romantic relationships; second, a tension necessary to the film’s conflicts and suspense. For his multi-faceted master-craftsmanship, Anderson is rewarded with a hauntingly beautiful film which also works as a love/hate yarn for the ages.

The writer/director has long been at, or close to, the top of the list of American, world-class filmmakers, so one must look at his films as parts of his canon, too. In the more serious aspects of Phantom Thread, Anderson considers the legacies of deceased parents, continuing his long-running exploration of difficult parent-child relationships. His interest in this area is so strong and complex that it has informed every single one of his eight narrative films, and there’s no reason to expect he’ll ever eschew such themes. Parent issues, especially paternal—though in this work he takes a decidedly maternal tack—seem built into his creative life. Anderson’s visiting and revisiting family problems afford his films cores of timeless truth and scenes of devastating passion.

He seems obsessed with—young or adult—children confronting their living-but-absent, dying, and even dead parents to express their deepest-seated emotions—often rage, but sometimes adoration and yearning. It’s as if Anderson himself is seeking an answer through his art and, as his partners in crime, we benefit also, from the films’ effective thought provocations and spine-tingling disturbances.

A New Year’s Eve party scene here recalls not only The Godfather Part II (1974), but Anderson’s own Boogie Nights (1997). The director loves the symbolism of the boisterous countdown and the enthusiasm and romantic idealism of the partygoers. But especially the visceral angst of the forlorn and lonely in the midst of bubbly, magical optimism. Visually thrilling and evoking a lover’s yearning to physically and emotionally find their straying partner, the scene feels like a classic to be enjoyed over and over, and indeed so does the whole of Phantom Thread, in the final analysis. Anderson fans will also be tickled by Day-Lewis briefly channeling William H. Macy’s “Little Bill” in the parallel Boogie Nights New Year’s Eve party scene.

5 of 5 stars

Copyright 2018 by Andres Solar. All rights reserved.

Film Review: Acts of Violence

“Good guys”: Ostensibly badass Police Detective James Avery (Bruce Willis); supposedly even more badass Afghanistan war veterans, the double-barreled brothers Deklan (Cole Hauser) and Brandon (Shawn Ashmore); the vets’ other brother Roman (Ashton Holmes); Roman’s fiancée Mia (Melissa Bolona).

“Bad guys”: Cocaine kingpin Max Livingston (Mike Epps) and his henchmen.

That’s really all there is to this movie.

Acts of Violence is a good-guy/bad-guy story concocted in the sewers of downtown Cleveland. That’s not the setting (though that might have been more honest); that’s where the hearts and minds of the writer and director appear to have done their work. Armed with action star Willis and a mind-numbingly dull, poorly written and, most of all, wholly uninspired script, the producers present a cheaply stamped out plastic product of no interest to the moviegoer of even the mildest discernment.

Though it hardly matters, bride-to-be Mia gets kidnapped by the henchmen at a nightclub during her bachelorette party (That way, she can be the sexy kidnapping victim in a tight, white-lace dress throughout the movie, see?) Blow-boss Max finds out about his lackeys’ extracurriculars, and he’s pissed. He expects more from his muscle. They should dress nicer and not kidnap young women. (Yes, it’s preposterous through and through.)

Meanwhile, by-the-book Detective Avery ain’t movin’ fast enough for lover-boy Roman and his jarhead bros. Move over Bruce Willis, and let the Army men take over the hunt for the kidnappers! Ex-military don’t answer to nobody. Take no prisoners and all that jazz.

Boilerplate cynicism. Automatic gunfire then, now, and always. Blood for blood’s sake. Yet it hasn’t the tension or power of an afternoon soap opera. Everything’s a given. The only unsettling angle is that a film titled Acts of Violence could be so thoroughly rote. The “body count,” a favorite Hollywood metric, is high in an unconscionable movie made by unconscious people. That’s disturbing—unlike anything in the film. As with other utterly vacuous action boondoggles (Olympus Has Fallen [2013] comes to mind), nothing is visceral here except the creepiness of the movie’s mere existence.

So, you know what? Fuck this movie. Fuck Acts of Violence and its misguided, cynical message, which is something like, “Violence is necessary and gun violence is cool. Might as well celebrate it.” Fuck that.

If this putrid product of Hollywood’s worst instincts is worth anything at all, it’s for its inadvertently reflecting the psyche of certain sick U.S. population pockets. The American hero of the past 10 years is the veteran of our petroleum wars in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In Acts of Violence, he is a better man than the workaday police detective and indeed, the action tells us, veterans of recent wars should replace regular police officers. In this way, the film is a work of yearning for militarism to imprison the nation once and for all.

“We, the paramilitary law enforcers of America, hate the limitations of laws, Bill of Rights and all,” this movie says. So, the dream of every police officer here (embodied in Bruce Willis) is to throw his badge at his superior, flip off the boss, and go “take care of business.” Business being shooting a “bad guy” in the head and then shooting him five times more for good measure—and doing so as that gem of American personhood: the private citizen with automatic firearms. Vigilante “justice,” military “justice”; that’s the Acts of Violence vision for America.

Or should we be grateful that anyone at all still joins the police department and attempts to work within the bounds of the Constitution? Is that this film’s cautionary tale? “Thank a cop because, if we had our druthers,.. heh-heh!”

I’m rooting against “Acts of Violence.” I’ll be following the film’s box office numbers and hoping it does poorly. Never a big fan of Bruce Willis anyway, I’ll avoid his projects and appearances more than ever now. Why pick on Bruce? This film would not exist—would never have been made—without his participation. Too often, that’s how Hollywood works. Star power combined with a formulaic project gets the green light. Bottom-of-the-barrel filmmaking—product assembly, to be more precise. These terrible films get made because people will go see “generic Bruce Willis action movie.” How many will actually go? I’ll keep you posted.

Whoever does see it will either feel like showering immediately afterward or—in the unlikely event they like it—will have become a slightly lesser person because of it. The abysmal acting alone is insulting. Not a single actor on screen seems to care a lick about the film they’re making, including Willis. I commiserate with them. Acts of Violence is dankly impoverished in language and style. It smells of mildewed basements and diesel exhaust, and the director is either high on the fumes or oblivious.

Why is a film critic rooting against a movie? In this case, it’s for the hope and satisfaction that would accompany an Acts of Violence flop. That would represent one less poison pill the American people will have willingly swallowed.

0 of 5 stars

UPDATE: After writing this review, I did a quick online search to see how Acts of Violence was faring since its limited release (which included South Florida) on January 12th. Nothing. I couldn’t find the movie playing anywhere. My first thought was that its distributor, Lionsgate Premiere, had pushed the release back. Still nothing. Then I saw the little banner on the movie’s page: “Watch Now from $6.99 on Amazon Video.” *critic chortles* In short, Acts of Violence didn’t even make it out of its limited opening weekend without getting pulled and banished to VOD-only. Nice work, America. Nice work.

Copyright 2018 by Andres Solar. All rights reserved.