Category Archives: Reviews for CLR

These film reviews were originally published in the California Literary Review, an online arts periodical, between 2010 and 2013 (Paul Comstock, Editor).

Movie Review: Mud

by Dan Fields
First published April 25, 2013 by the California Literary Review

Today’s Tom Sawyer (Mean, Mean Pride)

With just three feature films to his name, writer and director Jeff Nichols has already set himself a high standard. Both of his previous works, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, are strong dramas with compelling characters, dark intrigue and impressive economy of style. With Mud, Nichols has progressed from making a good film to making a great film.

Mud concerns a community of Arkansas river folks, and among them a pair of teenage boys who find a dangerous secret hidden downstream. More broadly, it chronicles a young man’s tentative first steps toward understanding how the rest of his life will work. The story hearkens frequently to classics of American literature, most notably the river adventure stories of Mark Twain. Though Nichols, at least in the case of Mud, shows more hope for mankind’s fate than Twain typically did, his storytelling style bears traces of the romantic recklessness and moral uncertainty which the author often underscored as those things which make even the best of us all too human. Continue reading

Movie Review: Spring Breakers

by Dan Fields
First published March 23, 2013 by the California Literary Review

Bad Girls Go Everywhere

Harmony Korine’s work has never been, and may never be, easy to digest. The writer and director of such dreary, stomach-turning misfit dramas as Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy and Trash Humpers has now completed his most mainstream, accessible film to date, but that still gives Spring Breakers elbow room to assault the senses and values of an audience without mercy.

We begin on the grounds of a nearly empty college campus. Faith (Selena Gomez), embodying the struggle between strong traditional values and a restless teenage spirit, has elected to set out on a classic Florida spring break trip with her wild-side friends Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine, wife of the director). Faith ostensibly has a benign and constructive wish to broaden her horizons, even as her church friends warn her about the dangers of falling in with the wrong people far from home. Whatever heights of liberty and abandon she expects from spring break, she appears to operate under the optimistic illusion that good clean fun will win out, or at least that four friends sticking together could not possibly let any harm come to one another.

Faith is soon to learn that her chosen companions have a more reckless agenda in mind. Surely she must have wondered at their inclination to practice making out with one another, for when boys will inevitably ask them to do so. If not, then alarm bells ought to have sounded within once the group decided to stage an armed heist in order to supplement their vacation fund. Surely. No? Okay, we are criminals now. But it’s Spring Break! Kids are expected to overcome inhibitions and push boundaries. How much further, Faith must suppose, could things really go? Continue reading

Movie Review: Beautiful Creatures

by Dan Fields
First published February 15, 2013 by the California Literary Review

My Supernatural Sweet Sixteen

The advertising campaign for Beautiful Creatures was abysmal. The film’s producers and their editors made it look like a secondhand bid for the dollars of weepy tweens still grieving for the end of Breaking Dawn. This is not meant to pillory the Twilight franchise, but to say that this movie looked like something thrown together in haste, which fans of that departed series might like, but which had zero chance of attracting the rest of the viewing public.

Skeptics, be comforted! Remember those enticing teasers for the inept gun drama Killing Them Softly? Fortunately, the principle of false advertising can run both ways. The big secret is that Beautiful Creatures is no melodramatic suicide pact slouching in the shadow of Twilight. It is more akin to HBO’s madcap ghoul opera True Blood, in a version scaled back so that a family could enjoy it together. Scripted and paced with impressive skill and thoughtfulness, this movie manages to be witty, racy, and thoroughly weird without getting crass. Innuendo is such a wonderful spice in the hands of capable writers and actors. Adapted and directed by Richard LaGravenese (P.S., I Love You) from a successful young adult novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, this movie has “sleeper” written all over it. Continue reading

Movie Review: Mama

by Dan Fields
First published January 16, 2013 by the California Literary Review

Mama Don’t Allow

For any director hoping to bring visions of terror and wonder to the screen, the patronage of Guillermo del Toro is a good place to start. Several years ago, director Andres Muschietti made a tiny and very creepy short film called Mamá about two little girls fleeing from something whose appearance is a crude mockery of what children should call by that name. Now, with del Toro as producer, he tackles the subject again at thirty times the scale. Mama is a movie of weight and a certain dark beauty. It is unlikely to change history, and has a handful of minor problems, but it deserves more than a January release, the exile by which many unwatchable horror movies go to die quietly. Mama is not only watchable, but engaging and at times even powerful.

Victoria and Lily are sisters who, when scarcely more than toddlers, become abruptly orphaned in the woods one day. The family crisis that got them there is rather graceless and contrived, but basically the standard parental element failed them in a big way. Alone and vulnerable, they come into the care of an indistinct but monstrous entity which they learn to call “Mama.” Over several years, the girls regress to a feral state in the idyllic squalor of the forest, little suspecting that civilization wants them back. Continue reading

Movie Review: Killing Them Softly

by Dan Fields
First published September 22, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Everything is Rotten in the Parish of Orleans

Australian writer and director Andrew Dominik built himself a respectable filmmaking foundation with Chopper and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. His dour outlook and unflinching presentation are pleasantly comparable to the rise of contemporary Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, of Bronson and Pusher fame. However, Dominik’s latest foray into the semi-mainstream, Killing Them Softly, is no counterpart to Drive. In fact, the only award-worthy member of the Killing Them Softly crew is the one who cut the trailer.

There is an intriguing story hidden in away somewhere inside Killing Them Softly, and perhaps the source novel – Cogan’s Trade by George Higgins – made its point better. It is a meditation on the impact of a tanked economy on the criminal class. At best, it could be a thinking man’s bloodbath on the level of the original 1972 version of The Mechanic. However, despite a high-profile cast and several well-staged scenes of violence, this movie is largely toxic and indigestible. Continue reading

Movie Review: Anna Karenina

by Dan Fields
First published November 23, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Double Icing On Half A Cake

Joe Wright established himself practically overnight as a strong force in period drama based on popular books. He wowed with the relentlessly dour Atonement and then soared with a superb riff on Pride and Prejudice. Couple these efforts with the spunky, bizarro thriller Hanna and you should have no trouble seeing that Wright is a filmmaker both exuberant and offbeat.

His Anna Karenina, based on Leo Tolstoy’s monumentally acclaimed novel, is a parade of elegant design and intricate staging. It is not difficult to guess which Academy Award nominations its makers have in mind. By enclosing the cultural volatility of 19th-century cosmopolitan Russia in an ever-shifting magic lantern, those responsible get to show off and share some cutting insights on the artifice and deception required to sustain imperial high society.

Wright sets the epic tragedy of Anna, a fallen woman if ever there was one, almost entirely within a spacious theatre hall, with the main action unfolding on an impossibly marvelous series of collapsing and interlocking sets. The wings and backstage area become private places of intrigue and the catwalks above serve as sordid back alleys. There are trains and horse races and all the bustle of Moscow and St. Petersburg contained behind a single curtain. The complexity and perpetual motion of this living stage is nothing short of stunning.

The hard truth, impossible to dodge, is that this is not Tolstoy’s world. It is more like Hugo Cabret’s world, and from time to time it even flirts perilously with becoming Baz Luhrmann’s world. Tom Stoppard’s script, though consistently bright and entertaining, abridges the story painfully to fit the stylish construct. Anna Karenina may be the title character, but she need not be the sole focus of the plot. The supporting figures in her life lend important dramatic context to her abasement. Continue reading

Movie Review: Paranormal Activity 4

by Dan Fields
First published October 19, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Keep A-Knockin’ But You Can’t Commit

It is almost Halloween, which means time for one more Paranormal Activity at least. This year the ghost train (or demonorail) has broken out of Carlsbad and turned up in lovely suburban Nevada. Apart from that, little has changed. In most respects, this franchise has even gone back a few paces. So much for the train metaphor.

For those who came in late: Paranormal Activity is the continuing saga of a family whose long history with the occult has led to a spate of possessions, polter-violence, and vigilant home surveillance. Series creator and producer Oren Peli constructed the concept around handily placed cameras capturing “true life” hauntings with a seemingly bottomless barrel of visual tricks. Now, however, one can hear distinct scraping sounds as the bottom comes into view. Continue reading

Movie Review: End Of Watch

by Dan Fields
First published September 22, 2012 by the California Literary Review

The Street King Rises

End Of Watch is a perfectly serviceable drama. It is also a bait and switch job. Writer/director David Ayer, whose chief preoccupations are Los Angeles street life and the pitfalls of upholding the law, set out to create a different kind of cop movie and succeeded. This means that the ads linking this film to Ayer’s breakout script Training Day are inappropriate. The twisted secrets and perilous standoffs promised in the trailer take up a surprisingly small percentage of the story. Advertising End Of Watch as a movie that takes its sweet time might not sell as many tickets, but it would lead to less grumbling among the fans who showed up strictly for police corruption and crack cocaine.

Officers Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña) are LA’s finest – a pair of patrol cops who face a sordid and dangerous world with guts and good humor. Zavala has a family, Taylor is looking to build one, and they have forged a solid kinship as partners and brothers in arms. The trouble with a cop drama is that the good guys always have so much to lose, and the most dangerous thing for a peace officer to do, especially in a David Ayer project, is crusade for justice with an untainted soul. Continue reading

Movie Review: The Expendables 2

by Dan Fields
First published August 18, 2012 by the California Literary Review

The Only Prescription is… More Van Damme?

Sylvester Stallone chose not to direct the sequel to The Expendables, his 2010 class reunion of great action movie stars. In both films, Sly heads a team of edgy, ultra-dude mercenaries who excel at daring daylight raids and wholesale destruction. They butcher the terrorists and military oppressors of the world with alarming speed and ferocity, hardly ever putting a scratch on hostages or innocent bystanders. It sounds too outrageously fun to be true, and it is. What Stallone achieved two years ago was a pitch-perfect homage to the peak achievements of the boys-and-their-guns genre, which thrived in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was a return to the world of Tango & Cash, Delta Force, and Raw Deal.

For the sequel, Stallone handed the reins to British director Simon West. For a sample of West at his most focused and effective, try The Mechanic, a Charles Bronson remake starring Jason Statham as a vengeful hitman. The Expendables 2 leans closer to West’s problematic breakout feature Con Air, but are you really surprised to hear that? Continue reading

Singin’ In The Rain: A 60th Anniversary Celebration

by Dan Fields
First published July 13, 2012 by the California Literary Review
Last night, Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events sponsored a special screening of Stanley Donen’s 1952 MGM film Singin’ In The Rain, starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. Considered by many to be the greatest musical comedy of all time, the feature played in select theaters nationwide, and after more than half a century it remains an enchanting cinema classic.

Gene Kelly stars in and co-directs Singin' In The Rain Continue reading