Underrated: “The To Do List”
When it comes to girl coming-of-age comedies “The To Do List” is no “Whip It” or “Easy A”; Aubrey Plaza may be a thinking man’s pin-up but she doesn’t quite have the left-of-centre charm of Ellen Page or Emma Stone. However that doesn’t make her any less perfect (in my eyes at least) playing the competitive, goal-driven, Hillary Clinton-admiring over-achiever on a mission to de-virginize herself—usually viewed as a male concern, societally and cinematically. Reviewers have complained that film is confusing because it's unclear whether it is a criticism of enforced promiscuity or a blast of the feminist horn for sexual empowerment, which is an unfortunate black-and-white lens through which to the view the story, as is so often the case with a female-led cast with a female writer and director. Critics want to know “What's your agenda lady?” To be honest I like a gross-out comedy as much as the rest, but I enjoyed the character of Brandy more, who Plaza deadpan-delivers perfectly. She’s a girl who is less phased by “the virgin-whore dichotomy” than by getting what she wants (or at least thinks she wants) and maybe also learning along the way that you can be too goal-oriented. “The To Do List” is yet another female-led film (in our post-”Bridesmaids” era) that feels realer and more relatable. Sidenote: all the supporting cast also bring the lulz, so more of Alia Shawkat, Andy Samberg and Donald Glover et al. in 2014, please!
Overrated: "Only God Forgives"
I wasn’t sure if “Only God Forgives” actually was overrated (boo-ed at Cannes, savaged by critics, ignored by U.S. audiences) until I saw the Foreign Box Office for the film sat at just under $10 million, and realised just because everyone I know hates “Only God Forgives” doesn’t mean everybody else does (obviously). I mean I don’t know anyone that voted for crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, but he still got elected, didn’t he? Prior to watching “Only God Forgives”, I thought I was a fan of the Ryan Gosling x Nicolas Winding Refn combo—I mean I liked “Drive “at the time—but on reflection I think I just loved the opening scene and the soundtrack. “Only God Forgives” doesn’t have the soundtrack or a dynamite opening, all it has are pretty lights (courtesy of Bangkok) and Gosling's face staring blankly. And it turns out when he doesn’t have a really cool jacket on, his face is a pretty boring one, and won't carry a movie, even if it is only 90 minutes. “Only God Forgives” crawls along and for a film with almost no dialogue, the script that exists is incredibly awkward and stilted. Winding Refn even makes veteran Kristin Scott Thomas look like a hack, and all his efforts at shock e.g. making her say “cum-dumpster” come off as forced in context, which is a shame because I'll admit “cum-dumpster” is something I’ve found myself saying more than I expected after the screening. So there's that.
In an unpopular move, I'm electing to cover an "Underrated" pick and a "Disappointing" rather than "Overrated" pick. Reasons below.
Underrated: “The Past”
Follow-ups to great pieces of art are difficult to reconcile for audiences and critics alike. And while Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” is far from his second film, since the beloved and Academy Award-winning “A Separation” it was the first of his films to really pop internationally, “The Past” gets saddled with the sophomore album-slump, thematically and emotionally touching upon similar issues (“A Separation” is about a marriage coming to an end, “The Past” is about a divorce about to be finalized), and yes, “The Past” is not quite the A+ shot of cinema that its predecessor is. And yes, there’s a bit of an overly-involved mystery in the third act that’s arguably a bit overcooked, but Farhadi’s movie has tons of value. It’s a moving, memorable and powerful film about family, secrets and lies and perspective. It also features some terrific performances from its cast—not only the three leads, Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, but its lead children Pauline Burlet and Elyes Aguis who have to depict the trauma of being at the center of this marital maelstrom. Never shrill, “The Past” is emotionally messy, but don’t look at that as a knock. It’s a plus given the extreme situation of a wife and her new lover trying to briefly live together with an ex-husband. Part of “The Past” being overlooked is a function of following the aforementioned “A Separation,” but also having to compete for attention at the crowded Cannes Film Festival. Yes, Bejo took the best acting prize, but more noise was made about the polarizing “Only God Forgives” due to its divisive nature. This happens at every festival and to be fair, “The Past” is only hitting theaters this month. But the conversation for it has cooled off since Cannes and I believe the picture deserves more love, and a second look.
Disappointing: “Out of the Furnace”
Anything that's "overrated" or "underrated" is so subjective because the terms mean so many different things to so many people (just see this feature). And yes, "disappointing" generally falls under this same rule. But to me, Scott Cooper's "Out of the Furnace" isn't disappointing because of expectations (a crime drama from a sharp director with a stellar cast) but because the characters, themes and narrative themselves hold so much promise that’s never fulfilled. Modeled in the vein of "The Deerhunter" or even "The Godfather," via its brooding meditation on brotherhood, moral absolution and spiritual journey into darkness, Cooper understands the lost art of subtext which earns him innumerable points these days. And there are so many impressive emotional choices in the movie, so many moments left unsaid (and understood) rather than spoiled with words, because Cooper understands the power of expression and the moving well of unspoken body language; it takes a perceptive director to not only write this kind of material, but to pull it off as well. And for the entirety of the movie he pulls it off with terrific internalized performances by Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck and especially Christian Bale. But what the movie can’t do is coalesce these themes and reconcile them with a third act that instead becomes a rather generic revenge movie. It’s not even that the movie can’t stick the landing; its problems lie deeper. The movie tries to say so much about things like socio-economic class, poverty, salt-of-the-earth struggle, but does very little with those themes. Through Casey Affleck’s character, the movie paints a rather bleak portrait of a post-traumatic stress-afflicted Iraq war veteran with few options, but other than presenting his issues, the movie says very little about these issues. And that’s kind of “Out of the Furnace” to a tee, a movie with a lot of thematic texture to it, but one that rarely says anything meaningful or moving about it. Which in many ways makes the ultimate outcome of this otherwise auspicious movie a real shame, and certainly a disappointment.
Please keep in mind once again, that these are individual choices, so before you mash your keyboard in fury (or agreement), remember who to point your feedback toward.