A Trip To The Movies: Review – “The Gift” 8.29.15

Mega Sized Movie Poster Image for The Gift

My friend and I happened to decide on this film, after we showed up at another, only to find out that it was sold out. Initially I was reluctant – as even despite of seeing its many fine cumulative scores on the movie websites I frequent, it just looked like something that all seemed just a little bit too familiar like something I’d seen before. That, and while I really like 2 out of its 3 main leads in both Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”, “The Town) and Joel Edgerton (“Animal Kingdom”, “Warrior”, “Zero Dark Thirty) who also wrote, starred in, who made his directorial debut with his film here. It’s also Edgerton’s second writing credit, as he also co-wrote 2014’s “The Rover” collaboratively with his “Animal Kingdom” director – David Michod. Though outside of this, and probably my major reason for my reluctance to wanting to see it, was the casting of Jason Bateman. An actor most known for his work in comedy (and mostly bad comedies might I add) and who I really couldn’t possibly envision playing a serious role such as the one it looked like he played in this. This idea of my not wanting to see a film because it has a specific actor or actors is somewhat of a new thing for me (at least in the past few years). Bateman is among that list of actors alongside Vince Vaughn (who in my humble opinion was terribly miscast in season 2 of this year’s “True Detective”).There are a slew of other actors like Bateman and Vaughn, who have made a string of so many bad films, that I develop what I call my own form of “blacklisting”, in that I don’t even have to hear anything about a certain film if I know it stars one of these actors of which I am referring to. That said, this looked to fit into a genre of which I personally can attest to really liking – the psychological, thriller, mystery one. And given Edgerton’s already proven gifts of being a proficient actor and writer. I was able to overlook the fact that it starred Bateman and walked into it with a clean slate, not really knowing anything about it other than it was Edgerton’s directorial debut and the 3 main leads who starred in it. That, and I read one blurb that described it as this year’s “Gone Girl” (2014) so I was intrigued.

“The Gift” centers around a young married couple named Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), who at the start of the film, are relocating back to California from Illinois because of a huge promotion that Simon has received. This said town in California is also very close to where Simon grew up before him and his wife moved to Illinois several years back. After some setting up of the story, mainly the introduction of the married couple and their characters. Simon has a chance encounter with a former acquaintance from his former school days, the slightly off-kilter Gordo (played by Edgerton). Edgerton seems incredibly happy to reconnect with Simon and starts showing up unexpectedly, always bearing gifts. To Simon, he feels threatened by this. Whereas his wife, Robyn, while admitting it is slightly strange, likes to think a bit more highly in people and views Gordo’s gifts as just good faith gestures and simply nothing more than that. So when the gifts start piling in more and more and certain valuables of theirs go missing, Simon becomes more and more increasingly threatened. And somewhat to the dismay of his wife, let’s Gordo know explicitly that he is no longer welcome at their house. This sets off the wheels in motion for the rest of the film, as secrets are exposed and lies covered up, and as Simon and Robyn distance themselves further and further from one another as certain truths are brought into light. We as an audience learn that there are layers and layers of lies and deceit that unfold as we try to figure out who’s responsible for all of it.

The film wound up being a highly rewarding experience even given that my expectations of it were admittedly slightly below average going into it. It took me by quite a surprise in several different areas. It’s a fine example of a of the “stalker” family drama genre. Drawing comparisons, at least to me, to the 1990 film “Pacific Heights” that starred Michael Keaton, Melanie Griffith, and Matthew Modine. Another film about an unsuspecting couple who deals with a rather unruly tenant who is willing to go to any lengths or cost to expose the truth. Bateman does a serviceable enough job as the husband, and doesn’t necessarily add or detract (which I thought he would) from the film. As does Rebecca Hall as his wife, an actress who, at least in my opinion, always brings her A game to whatever project she involves herself in. But the real credit here is due to writer, actor, and director Joel Edgerton, who in his directorial debut, handles a rather complex and intricate script with a deft hand and a sense of confidence in his cat and mouse setup. The thing I personally would like to highlight about the film, which I personally feel like only the best ones do, particularly of films of this genre, plays with audience expectations and keeps them second guessing throughout almost the entire duration of the film. Just when I thought I had the film figured out within its first act, the film defied everything I thought it was going to be about, and proves to be a smart and refreshing psychological suspense thriller, with a creepy and dark tone throughout like last year’s aforementioned “Gone Girl”. Where we as a viewer (and I will say we because the rest of the theater patrons seemed to have a similar response – at least from the vocalizations I could hear from those seated around me) are stretched out like a rubber band and left on the edge of our seats trying to figure out the many of its plots intricacies. Even given that it got a wide release (probably because of the casting of Bateman), it still felt entirely indie, and none of it (and I mean none) played to audience expectations like so many other films do. It takes a lot of work on behalf of the viewer to constantly disassemble and reassemble its many different changes and shifts in plot developments. Which I personally thought was its greatest strength. And despite it becoming slightly confounding towards the end, it’s something that I think I would and could recommend to just about anyone.

[strong B]

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A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Magic in the Moonlight’ 10.10.14

Anyone that knows the film lover side of me knows how much I absolutely adore Woody Allen. My first introduction to him was in a film class in my late teens when one of my teachers showed the class “Annie Hall” (1977). A film that struck such a chord with me and left such a mark that even 15 years later I still consider it to be one of my 5 favorite films of all time. In the several years following I’ve immersed myself in almost every Allen film. At one point a couple of years back, if my mind serves me correctly, I think I remember counting that I had seen 37 of his 44 films. His films have become something much deeper than just movies. In fact, they’ve gotten me through some really difficult times in my life. I almost use them as a therapeutic tool. They’re my version of what I consider to be “feel good movies”. Even though underlying them there’s a sense of cynicism and sadness about his views on life. In my eyes, I look at life very much through what I now consider to be almost an “Allen-like lens”. Given the fact that at this point I feel like I practically know the guy being well aware and knowing that I only know him as a writer, actor, director, comedian, and musician. The best thing for me is that I know each and every single year I will be given a new Woody Allen film. His creative output is only matched by the Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, who used to release a film a year. And, who non coincidentally, also happens to the director who Allen cites as his biggest influence. Now I can’t really say I had the highest hopes going into his new film, as the trailer just screamed out “minor Allen”. But being in that he’s one of my top fave favorite film makers, I just knew that I had to see it.

The film starts off in Berlin circa 1928 where we first meet a seemingly famous magician named Stanley (played by the great British actor Colin Firth). Our initial impression of him is that he’s quite full of himself. He’s pompous, self absorbed, and a total narcissist. A longtime friend and admirer of his work employs him to travel to the southern coast of France to expose a clairvoyant named Sophie (played magnificently here by Emma Stone, in what might be her finest work to date), who specializes in being able to raise the dead through the ritual of seances. Since he himself is considered to be one of the finest magicians of his time, his employer hopes that he can debunk her and show that’s she’s really just a fake. Stanley arrives to France under the guise of a businessman, but after some time of him and Sophie getting to know one another, she recognizes who he really is and through intuition correctly guesses what his motivations are. But it also seems as if she is smitten by him and doesn’t really seem to care or not that he’s there to expose her. That, and he is fascinated by her too. So while they both know that he’s there for reasons to ruin her they grow a deep affinity and admiration for each other and one another’s work. As their relationship grows so do their affection for one another, but because of their age difference (Stanley’s much older) and the fact that both of them are already in committed relationships, it doesn’t seem like this is a possibility. Except by maybe an act of fate. At the core it may sound like a simple love story but in typical Allen fashion, there winds up being much more involved than what meets the eye.

This wound up being an enjoyable film that I had a fair amount of fun with. Even if it does fall into the more “lighter fare” category. But it is “late Woody Allen”. Who in much of his recent efforts, with the exception maybe last year’s splendid “Blue Jasmine”, more or less reflects the tone of a lot of his latest work. Emma Watson is enigmatic here and a true delight to watch. Colin Firth also seems fitting for the role, and while although I wouldn’t put it up there with his best work (see 2009’s “A Single Man”), he certainly does a decent enough job where I thought he was a good casting choice. The two lead actors obviously seem to have a lot of fun with another one of Allen’s consistently good scripts and provide some great on screen chemistry. Also, as is with a lot of Allen’s more recent work, which acts as an almost travelogue since he films all over the world, he shoots the coast of southern France beautifully with some absolutely gorgeous and stunning photography. The music is also a highlight, as is with most of Allen’s films, he has a great ear for old school big band jazz sounds of the early 1920’s and thirties. My only criticism of the film is that it almost felt a bit “too” light. Like it was trying to pander a bit to the audiences heartstrings. Which is not something I’m used to with Allen. If anything I’ve often felt like his work is the exact opposite in that it tries not to even remotely pander to what he thinks the audience might like. It’s also cute and charming but not very funny. Which I was fine with as I don’t think its intention really was to be funny. At least not laugh out loud funny. However, I look at both of these things as minor critiques and that for the most part, I was able to overlook because of the other elements that I liked. This is slightly above average “late Woody Allen” and is more aligned with his post-aught films like “Match Point” (2005) or “Midnight in Paris” (2011) than it is with his stronger films like “Vicky Christina Barcelona” (2008) and “Blue Jasmine” (2013). It’s a film that even an Allen admirer such as myself can certainly recommend to others who are just looking for an enjoyable evening out with a delightful and charming film which even despite it’s more lighter leanings, succeeds on a lot of levels.

Grade: B