Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Movie Review: Wild

Wild
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée.
Written by: Nick Hornby based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed.
Starring: Reese Witherspoon (Cheryl), Laura Dern (Bobbi), Thomas Sadoski (Paul), Keene McRae (Leif), Michiel Huisman (Jonathan), W. Earl Brown (Frank),Gaby Hoffmann (Aimee), Kevin Rankin (Greg), Brian Van Holt (Ranger), Cliff De Young (Ed), Mo McRae (Jimmy Carter), Will Cuddy (Josh), Leigh Parker (Rick), Nick Eversman (Richie), Ray Buckley (Joe).

Perhaps the worst thing that happened to Reese Witherspoon’s acting career is that she, and everyone else, discovered just how great she is in romantic comedies. There really is no denying that Witherspoon was made for those movies – she’s pretty, funny and smart and she handles the roles well. There is probably no other actress who is better suited for the romantic comedies Hollywood was churning out a decade ago than Witherspoon. Even after winning an Oscar for Walk the Line, she continued to churn out romantic comedies, until they fell out of favor in Hollywood. She has been struggling the last few years to find good roles. But with Wild she has finally role a perfect for her – that brings her back to the more interesting, even edgy, actress she was earlier in her career – when she made movies like Freeway and her best ever performance in Alexander Payne’s Election. Playing Cheryl Strayed, a woman who after the loss of her beloved mother, spirals downwards into drug addiction and promiscuity, ruining her life and her marriage, who decides to walk 1,000 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail, one year to get herself back on track. Cheryl is far from perfect – and Witherspoon doesn’t attempt to sand off her rough edges. For those who only remember the romantic comedy Witherspoon, her numerous sex scenes, and drug scenes, seem shocking. To those of us who remember just how good she can be in the right role, Wild doesn’t shock – but it is a welcome return to form – something that some of us have been waiting for more than a decade.

Witherspoon, who also produced, did a smart thing by hiring Quebecois filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee to direct the film. He’s best known for his last film – Dallas Buyers Club – but in two of his previous Canadian films – CRAZY and Café de Flore – he has shown his ability to handle movies somewhat like Wild – films that don’t really have that much of a plot, but are really more journeys of discovery for the lead characters. Not much happens in Wild – she walks the trail, meets some people, but is mostly by herself, with a running monologue in her head. The film uses cues on the trail to flashback to certain scenes in Cheryl’s life – with her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern) as they suffered under the hands of an abusive husband and father, and later when Bobbi leaves, and starts to rebuild her own life through education, through her mother’s illness and death, and through scenes where Cheryl spirals downward, and ruins her marriage. The scenes on the trail are mainly linear, but the flashbacks aren’t necessarily that way. Vallee, who also co-edits under an assumed name, edits intuitively and this helps build the films underlying emotions. Nick Hornby’s screenplay helps as well – yes, there are a few clunkers in the dialogue department that sound more like inspiration quotes than anything else – but for the most part, he doesn’t overdo it with the dialogue – he never feels the need to sell it.

For that, the film has Witherspoon, who truly is great in the film. She doesn’t overdo it either – she prefers quiet, natural moments to overdone histrionics. She has her share of scary moments on the trail – involving snakes, and men – but basically she is by herself, trying to figure out who she is, and what she wants to do next. That probably sounds horribly clichéd – and it easily could have been – but here it works.

When I reviewed John Currans Tracks a few months ago – starring Mia Wasikowska, which is about a young woman who hikes across the Outback, I wondered about Wild – I thought that Tracks, which is an indie, would be the better, more subtle, more confident film, and Wild would be the more Hollywood version. To a certain extent, that is true – Wild is more classically structured, and does answer the question as to why Cheryl went on the hike in the first place, which Tracks doesn’t bother with. But Wild is also the better movie – and isn’t nearly as clichéd as you may expect. Witherspoon is brilliant – but the whole film is pretty damn good.

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Directed by: Peter Jackson.
Written by: Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Starring: Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Richard Armitage (Thorin), Ken Stott (Balin), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), William Kircher (Bifur), James Nesbitt (Bofur), Stephen Hunter (Bombur), Dean O'Gorman (Fili), Aidan Turner (Kili), John Callen (Oin), Peter Hambleton (Gloin), Jed Brophy (Nori), Mark Hadlow (Dori), Adam Brown (Ori), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Evangeline Lilly (Tauriel), Lee Pace (Thranduil), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Ian Holm (Old Bilbo), Mikael Persbrandt (Beorn), Sylvester McCoy (Radagast), Luke Evans (Bard), Stephen Fry (Master of Laketown), Ryan Gage (Alfrid), John Bell  (Bain), Peggy Nesbitt (Sigrid), Mary Nesbitt (Tilda), Manu Bennett (Azog), John Tui (Bolg), Benedict Cumberbatch (Smaug / Necromancer), Billy Connolly (Dain).

After three films in three years, running just under 8 hours combined, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit finally comes to an end. There is no denying that this trilogy has not been as satisfying as Jackson`s previous Tolkien movies – The Lord of the Rings – was. But perhaps some have been a little too hard on these movies as well. Yes, they are ridiculous drawn out – taking  story that probably could have been told in one three, perhaps four hour movie, and making every scene last a little too long. Yet, watching all three of the movies in recent weeks – after a first rewatch of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in years – I have to say that in many ways the Hobbit are close to the quality of The Lord of the Rings movies. Jackson is still an expert at using special effects, and he still directs large scale action sequences well – with none of that kind of rapid fire editing that mars Michael Bay movies. And the Middle Earth Jackson and his collaborators have created is a nice place to spend a few hours each year. I’m not saying that this story needed anywhere near the treatment that Jackson has given it – I think the movies could be a hell of a lot better if there was a hell of lot less of them. Still though, I`m going to miss this cinematic universe.

The third Hobbit movie, The Battle of the Five Armies, is basically a two and half hour epilogue to the first two films. The previous installments have spent a lot of time talking about Smaug – the dragon who sleeps atop the Dwarves treasure in The Lonely Mountain that they need to enter if Thorin (Richard Armitage) is to regain his rightful throne. The last movie ended with Bilbo and the Dwarves awakening Smaug, who isn’t happy about it, and who is on his way to Lake Town to show just how unhappy he is. The ending of that movie led us to believe that the third was going to be all about Smaug, and the effort to take him down – but that`s over even before the subtitle of the movie appears on screen. What this movie is really about is the battle for the treasure of the Lonely Mountain. The Dwarves now have control, but Thorin has started to go slightly insane – he cannot find the Arkin Stone, which he needs to lead. He also will not honor his deal with people of Lake Town, who have lost everything. He has also angered the Elves, who want jewels that they say belong to them. And of course the Orcs are still coming. All of them – plus others – will eventually clash.

There isn’t much story in this third Hobbit movie. It basically covers only about fifty pages of the actual novel. Thorin seems to be slightly schizophrenic at times here – which they explain away as `Dragon Sickness`- but I was more confused by the fact that Bilbo seems to admire and love Thorin as a great man – since Thorin has basically screamed at him for three movies now. I was also somewhat disappointed that the movie called The Hobbit that Martin Freemans Bilbo seems to get lost in the shuffle through much of the movie. He basically only has one key thing to do in the plot – which he does about half way through – and then he’s just kind of there for the rest of it.

There is a lot to admire about the film though. Jackson has always been at his best in these films filming large scale battles – and the film ends with one of the biggest in all of his Tolkien films. There are multiple battles going on, on multiple fronts, but Jackson is skilled at cutting back and forth to all of them so nothing gets lost. Like everything else in The Hobbit movies, it goes on for far too long, but hell it’s well done.

Looking back over the three Hobbit movies, I think it’s safe to say that taken together they are far better than they are as individual movies. Unlike the three Lord of the Rings films, they don’t really work very well on their own. The first film just kind of ended just as things were getting warmed up. The second film had a similar problem – not ending at a natural point, but rather trying to do a TV season finale like cliff-hanger. The third film disappoints in fulfilling the promise of that cliff-hanger – and basically doesn’t have any real arch at all. Taken as a single work however, the films are bloated, sure, but they`re also well made, well-acted and entertaining. After watching all six of Jackson’s films in recent weeks, I think that while the Lord of the Rings movies are undeniably better, The Hobbit films are worthy companions to the earlier series.

Movie Review: Dear White People

Dear White People
Directed by: Justin Simien.
Written by: Justin Simien.
Starring: Tyler James Williams (Lionel Higgins), Tessa Thompson (Sam White), Kyle Gallner (Kurt Fletcher), Teyonah Parris (Colandrea 'Coco' Conners), Brandon P Bell (Troy Fairbanks), Brittany Curran (Sofia Fletcher), Justin Dobies (Gabe), Marque Richardson (Reggie), Malcolm Barrett (Helmut West), Dennis Haysbert (Dean Fairbanks), Peter Syvertsen (President Fletcher), Brandon Alter (George), Kate Gaulke (Annie).

Justin Simien’s debut film Dear White People is a smart, funny satire on race in Obamas America, that doesn’t pretend to have any answers, and doesn’t really blame anyone for everything that is still wrong in America in regards to race, and neither does it let anyone off the hook. It takes place on the campus of fictional Ivy League University, Winchester, The school is still largely white, although they pride themselves on their diversity – with the President, and many of the white students, seemingly believing the lie that we now live in a post racial society. The black students are not fooled however. The movie gets its title from the radio show – and internet videos – by Sam White (Tessa Thompson, in what should be a star making performance) where she addresses the white students on campus and calls them out on all the condescending ways that they show their tolerance and acceptance of blacks – and black culture.

Sam is a self-stylized militant – one who wouldn’t be out of place in an early Spike Lee movie, like School Daze (an obvious inspiration for this film). If Sam doesn’t quite have the same kind of overt racism to fight against, she still has her share of beefs with the ways things are being run. Sam, who is bi-racial, may in fact be overcompensating for her own insecurities – she hides her white boyfriend, and her love of Taylor Swift (and Ingmar Bergman) as she makes her speeches, plans her protests and makes her militant films for class – like Rebirth of a Nation, a silent movie parody with white people, in white face, crying over the Obama administration (it should be noted that a student film that Spike Lee made while at NYU imagined an all-black version of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation).

Surrounding Sam are a few different black characters – all of whom struggle with identity, much like Sam does, but in completely different ways. Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) wants to be the anti-Sam – she wants to assimilate herself into white culture, and essentially become just like them – and resents the fact that people see her as different. Troy (Brandon P. Bell) is the popular, charming poli-sci major, who dad is the Dean (Dennis Haysbert) – who has big plans for her son, as he basically wants him to be the next Obama – something that he never got a chance to do. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is black and gay, but doesn’t fit in with either group – when he has problems with his dorm, the Dean suggests him moving into the historically black dorm, but Lionel at first resists – saying the worst part of his high school years were the other black students. Lionel, at first, doesn’t much care about the racial politics in school – he just wants to be seen as Lionel. The major white character is Kurt (Kyle Gallner), who runs a Harvard Lampoon-like paper on campus, and it must be said is kind of an asshole, and as close as the movie gets to a racist character (although he doesn’t see himself that way). It is a horrifying, but all too real, that his staff throws that brings the climax of the movie coming. Kurt is the son of the University President – which is why he can get away with everything he does.

The movie is extremely entertaining, and often quite funny, but there are real issues underneath that is sure to inspire a lot of post-viewing debate among viewers, which will lead to some uncomfortable, but necessary, conversations. While the movie is called Dear White People, and certainly addresses issues like institutionalized racism and cultural appropriation, that goes well beyond appreciation, and into racist territory as well, Simien certainly doesn’t let the black characters off the hook either. The movie is largely about the pressures black people place on each other – the desire to be seen as black enough by some, and not too black by others. The movie also addresses the black community’s stereotypical homophobic attitudes. The films of Spike Lee hang large over the film – aside from the already mentioned references, Simien also recycles one of Spike Lee’s most controversial remarks – that black people cannot be racist, because racism implies systematic power to back it up, which black people do not have. But like the films of Lee, Dear White People is a lot more thoughtful than it will likely be given credit for – a film that asks real questions of all of its characters – and of its audience. You may not come away agreeing with everything the movie has to say – Simien has structured it so that the movie deliberately contradicts itself, so you’re never quite sure where he comes down on any given issue. I don’t say this as an insult to the movie – but rather to praise it. It asks questions that need to be asked – but doesn’t pretend to have the answers.

Movie Review: Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea
Directed by: Tomm Moore.
Written by: William Collins
Starring: Brendan Gleeson (Connor/Mac Lir), Fionnula Flanagan (Granny/Macha), David Rawle (Ben), Lucy O’Connell (Saorise), Lisa Hannigan (Bronagh), Jon Kenny  (Ferry Dan).

Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea is one of the most beautiful animated films in recent memory. The story is straight ahead, modern day fairy tale stuff – it doesn’t deviate too much from you expect from the outset – but it is a simple story well told. And the reason to see it isn’t the story anyway – it’s the stunning animation, which uses richly detailed background, and simple character design to stunning effect. Like Moore’s breakthrough film, The Secret of the Kells, the film is utterly charming from beginning to end – and further solidifies him as one of the best directors working in animation today.

The film is about a young boy – Ben, around 9, who lives with his mute sister Saoirse and his depressed father, Connor. Ben hates Saoirse because he blames her for the death of their mother all those years ago – which is also why their father is so depressed. Their grandmother doesn’t think that Connor is doing a good enough raising them – and doesn’t think their house, in a lighthouse on a small island, is an appropriate place for them either – so she takes the pair away to the sister. But Ben is determined to get back home – to their father and his beloved dog Cu – and Saoirse tags along with him. Along the way, he discovers his sister’s mystical powers, which helps guide them home, and puts the stories his mother used to tell him in a different light. He soon realizes that his sister, and their mother before her, are a selkie – creates who are seal in the water, and humans on land. Ben has to get Saoirse home quickly – she needs her special coat, so she can save herself, and all the other mystical creatures who have been turned into stone by the witch Macha and her owl minions.

The story is rather straight forward – and goes in precisely the direction you expect it to. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t completely charming from start to finish. Like some of the best films by animation master Hayao Miyazaki, the film is a gentle fable – nothing too scary here for children, as the film is more interested in evoking a precise moment of childhood than anything else narratively speaking.

The animation is the real star of the film. The film has a simple look on the surface, that gets stunning detailed the more time you spend looking at it. The character design in particular seems rather simple – and yet the characters are varied enough in appearance to be distinctive – and some of the mystical beings are utterly unique (like the man with a very long beard). The backgrounds are more complex than the characters – with details filling each and every frame. As the movie goes along, it becomes even more beautiful, as it adds more and more mysticism to the mixture – and it culminates with an utterly beautiful, and tear jerking, finale which actually earns those tears.

Song of the Sea is the type of animated movie that Hollywood either doesn’t know how to make or doesn’t seem much interested in making. Most of the animated film from the studios – even the good ones – use non-stop action, blindingly bright colors, and off color humor in an effort to appeal to both children and adults. Few movies actually get that balance correct. Song of the Sea doesn’t bother with that – it tells a story simply, and beautifully, so that anyone watching – children or adult – will be utterly transfixed and moved by it. Apparently, with their star director, Miyazaki, retiring, Studio Ghibli is stepping away from feature animation for a while at least. That is disappointing news to say the least. But the emergence of Moore at least gives us something to look forward to.

Movie Review: The Homesman

The Homesman
Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones.
Written by: Tommy Lee Jones & Kieran Fitzgerald & Wesley A. Oliver based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout.
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones (George Briggs), Hilary Swank (Mary Bee Cuddy), Grace Gummer (Arabella Sours), Miranda Otto (Theoline Belknapp), Sonja Richter (Gro Svendsen), David Dencik (Thor Svendsen), John Lithgow (Reverend Dowd), Tim Blake Nelson (The Freighter), James Spader (Aloysius Duffy), William Fichtner (Vester Belknap), Jesse Plemons (Garn Sours), Evan Jones (Bob Giffin), Hailee Steinfeld (Tabitha Hutchinson), Meryl Streep (Altha Carter).

As a genre, the Western has never been particularly kind to women – often seeing them as either a reward for the male characters who behave well, or else nothing but trouble for the men. Westerns that actually do anything of real interest with their female characters – films like Johnny Guitar (1954) or Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) or The Missing (2003) – are few and far between. To a certain extent, Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman looks to redress this historic wrong – telling the story of three women who have been driven made by life on the frontier, and their abusive, uncaring husbands, and one woman who agrees to take them across the plains to a place where they will be cared for, when none of her husbands are willing to go. The portrait of women in the West is the most interesting thing about the film – so it’s unfortunate that the movie digresses from what makes it so unique much of the time.

In the opening scenes of the movie, we see how three women (played by Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer and Sonja Richter) are driven crazy by their lives in a small, Nebraska town – how they have babies who die, husbands who abuse and rape them, and don’t give them a thought other than that, etc. These sense flash by in a matter of minutes, and for the rest of the movie the three actresses are not given much to do except to act like characters from Once Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the background. The movie focuses its attention on another woman – Marry Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) – another frontier woman, but unlike the women who have gone crazy, she seems to be able to hold things together. She is a woman of means – and has a nice spread – but she’s “plain”, and not exactly young so she does not have a husband – and her options are slim. She volunteers to take the women from Nebraska to Iowa – where their families are originally from – but it’s a long, dangerous journey for anyone – especially a woman. She comes across George Briggs (Jones), a claim jumper in the process of being hung – and offers to save him if he will accompany her on the journey. To sweeten the deal, she will give him $300 when they get there. He agrees.

At its best, The Homesman is a dark Western – there is nothing romantic about Jones’ view of the Old West, like we see in many Westerns. Rodrigo Prieto’s excellent cinematography makes the West look like a cold, barren, desolate place – and the men in the movie are horrible to such a degree that the fact that the women have gone crazy makes a lot of sense. For much of the running time, The Homesman seems to be about two examples of the opposite of the rest of the characters – a tough as nails woman who can not only survive the sexism of the West, but thrive in it, and a man who doesn’t immediately treat a woman as nothing more than a sex object (when one of the women runs off, and Jones confronts the man who has her –played in another great, dirty performance by Tim Blake Nelson telling her she isn’t in a condition that anyone would want her, Nelson’s response is “She can spread her legs, can’t she?”, which shows, in one blunt line, what most men in the movie see women as). Eventually though, things happen that complicate both major characters.

The problem with the movie is that Jones struggles throughout to find a consistent tone. The movie veers wildly from disturbing tragedy to almost outright comedy, often right next to each other, and the film feels rather schizophrenic. An obvious inspiration for the film would be True Grit – more the Coen’s version, than the classic John Wayne one, with Swank – in her best performance in quite some time – essentially playing a grown up version of Maddie, and Jones going over the top as a character not unlike Rooster Cogburn. The Coens were better able to juggle the violence and the comedy in True Grit than Jones is – at least in part because True Grit never gets as dark as The Homesman gets (a baby is thrown down the hole of an outhouse after all), and never gets as broadly comedic as The Homesman does either.

The last act of the movie is more consistent in terms of tone – dark – than the first two, but also rather less daring. The most interesting thing about The Homesman is its view of woman in the West – something that has never really been addressed in an American movie, and while the last act has some of The Homesman’s best moments – in particular a cameo by James Spader – it is also abandons what makes the film as interesting as it had been to that point.

But while The Homesman is not close to a great film – it’s too uneven for that – it is an interesting one, and a great one to look at. The Western is all but dead – and American movies are poorer for that – but at least The Homesman attempts to do something different. It doesn’t quite pull it off, but I admire the effort.

Movie Review: Why Don't You Play in Hell

Why Don’t You Play in Hell
Directed by: Shion Sono.
Written by: Shion Sono.
Starring: Jun Kunimura (Muto), Fumi Nikaidô (Mitsuko Muto), Shin'ichi Tsutsumi (Ikegami), Hiroki Hasegawa (Director Hirata), Gen Hoshino (Koji Hashimoto), Tomochika (Shizue), Itsuji Itao (Masuda), Hiroyuki Onoue (Detective Tanaka), Tak Sakaguchi (Sasaki), Tetsu Watanabe (Detective Kimura), Tasuku Nagaoka (Mitsuo Yoshimura).

There is a lot to like about Shion Sonos Why Don’t You Play in Hell – even if the movie ends up spending more than two hours to get basically nowhere. The over length of the film is certainly felt in its first hour, where the film deliberately keeps its two competing storylines – one involving an simmering gangland feud between two rival yakuza clans, the other involving a group of would be filmmakers, who have been trying for a decade to make a great film, and not coming close (because, it must be said, they don’t really have a lot of talent). We can sense that the two storylines are going to come together – there are actresses in the yakuza plot, and violence in the moviemaking part, but Sono keeps them apart for far too long. In the last 45 minutes, when the two finally merge, we get a ridiculously fun finale. But the film takes too long to get there, and even if the finale is fun, it really isn’t saying very much. It’s an interesting film, to say the least – I just wish it was a little bit better.

The movie opens with a toothpaste commercial, which has a jingle that becomes lodged into the heads of most of the characters in the movie, and will likely stay there for you as well. The performer is the young Mitsuko – the daughter of a Yakuza boss, Muto (Jun Kunimura). A rival gang, led by Ikegami (Shin'ichi Tsutsumi), targets Muto and his family for elimination – but the assassins he sends underestimate Muto's wife, who brutally (too brutally in fact) slaughters them all. Meanwhile a group of high school filmmakers, led by director Hirata, and star Sasaki, who they dub the next Bruce Lee, who have dubbed themselves the Fuck Bombers, want to create the greatest movie ever made. Most of the action takes place 10 years after this – with Mitsuko (now played by Fumi Nikaido) is about to star in a bigger movie, and perhaps become a star just as her mother gets out of jail for that brutal attack on the assassins, and the tensions between Muto and Ikegami are boiling over once again. Meanwhile The Fuck Bombers still think they can make the best film ever made, even if Hirata is more Ed Wood than Martin Scorsese. They come into contact with Mitsuko, who introduces him into the world of her father – and he decides that he can make the movie he has always wanted to by filming the upcoming gang war. He takes to Muto about the best way for his men to fight for it to be more cinematic – and then reaches out to Ikegami to do the same. The ensuing war, and its aftermath, is far and away the best part of the movie.

The problem with Why Don’t You Play in Hell is simply that it drags everything out too long. You can feel Sono's love for this material – and that, like Hirata, he is so in love with this material, he wants to accomplish it all in one film. The film is at once a yakuza film, an over the top comedy, a tribute to moviemaking, and a love letter to 35MM film, and a whole hell of a lot else. The movie lacks any real focus. At its best, all that enthusiasm Sono feels for the material comes through. At its worst, the film simply repeats itself over and over again, and doesn’t end in a place that makes it all worthwhile. There is a lot to like about Why Don’t You Play in Hell – but more to kind of shrug your shoulders at, and then move on.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Movie Review: Exodus: Gods & Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings
Directed by: Ridley Scott.
Written by: Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian.
Starring: Christian Bale (Moses), Joel Edgerton (Ramses), John Turturro (Seti), Aaron Paul (Joshua), Ben Mendelsohn (Viceroy Hegep), María Valverde (Zipporah), Sigourney Weaver (Tuya), Ben Kingsley (Nun), Hiam Abbass (Bithia), Isaac Andrews (Malak), Ewen Bremner (Expert), Indira Varma (High Priestess), Golshifteh Farahani (Nefertari), Ghassan Massoud (Ramses' Grand Vizier), Tara Fitzgerald (Miriam), Dar Salim (Commander Khyan), Andrew Tarbet (Aaron).

Ridley Scott has done his best over the past 14 years to keep the old school epic alive. In the past 14 years, Scott has made films like Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Robin Hood (2010) and now Exodus: Gods and Kings. I was never a fan of Gladiator – I know many love it, but to me it was overlong and over dour, and I didn’t think his attempt to make Robin Hood into Braveheart really worked very well either. The Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven however is one of the best epics in recent years – bland lead Orlando Bloom aside. Exodus: Gods and Kings is his attempt, along with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, to bring back the Biblical epic to the big screen. This is, inarguably, an attempt by the studios to tap into the Christian audience that feels underserved by Hollywood studios (because they are). What Exodus shares in common with Noah are that both attempt a more serious, less preachy Biblical epic than we are used to seeing. As with Russell Crowe’s Noah, Christian Bale’s Moses has more doubts, is more flawed, more human than we are used to seeing in movies of this nature – or at least that is the attempt here. But Scott isn’t very good with this human side of his Biblical figures. While he uses special effects effectively, and gets many of the “big” moments in the film right, he gets almost all the quieter, more human, more introspective moments wrong. There are moments in Exodus that are almost laughable – and it becomes impossible to take it seriously. If you believe Howard Hawks’ definition of a great movie serious – three great scenes, no bad ones – than Exodus is perhaps half a great movie – it certainly does have three great scenes. The problem is most of what surrounds them is bad – really, really bad.

The movie opens when Moses (Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are already adults – and it quickly establishes their character – Moses is strong, brave and principled, Ramses is vain, egotistical and rather petty. Although Ramses’ father, Seti (John Turturro), says the two are as close as brothers, there is no real evidence of that in the film – Moses clearly likes Ramses, and does save his life, but from the get go, Ramses seems to view Moses with suspicion – as if he knows that one day they will come into conflict. Moses doesn’t know his real life story – how he can to be raised in the royal family, even if he’s outside of it. It isn’t until he goes to see the Viceroy (Ben Mendelsohn), who is charge of the Hebrew slaves, and finds him to be corrupt. He also talks to some of the Hebrew elders – one of whom, Nun (Ben Kingsley), tells him his true origin story. Of course, this gets back to Ramses, who banishes Moses – who goes off and lives his life, still keeping his origin secret, marrying and having a son. He doesn’t return until God – oddly in the form of a British child – speaks to him, and tells him to lead his people. This sets off the part of the story we all know – the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, etc.

It is in these big moments where the movie works quite well. Scott uses CGI well, and the Red Sea sequence is quite thrilling, if completely unbelievable. Even better is actually a quieter sequence – when the plague of the first born dying, which is done in darkness, and features the only moment of Edgerton’s performance that is effective – when he comes in to find his infant son dead. It is a masterful moment. The problem is, even though much of the CGI and action work is well done, that quiet moment is the only quiet one that actually works.

Part of the problem is the performances. Bale has a tendency to be a little too serious in his roles – sometimes it works, but here, his Moses is, like Russell Crowe in Gladiator, a downer for most of the movie. You cannot say he’s a whiner, because he never whines, but his yelling sounds a lot like whining. The movie hints at some of the same things that Aronofsky’s Noah does – that perhaps Moses wasn’t chosen by God, but is just insane, but Bale doesn’t go as far as Crowe did in that movie. Edgerton is given a pretty much unplayable role – his Ramses is so poorly conceived on the page, that I don’t think he ever really had a chance to deliver a good performance. The same could be said of Aaron Paul as Joshua – whose role seems to be to walk in on Moses every time he’s talking to God, and then slowly backing away. The two best performances are by Turturro and Mendelsohn – and for the same reason. They seem to understand how ridiculous the movie is, and how even more ridiculous their characters are, and rather than try to sell that, they play it to the hilt Yes, they go over the top – but that’s precisely what the roles need.

In the end, I think what sinks Exodus: Gods and Kings is that it never really decides what it wants to be. It’s stuck between being an old school epic – which presents everything as given, and something more complex, and thought provoking. The film swings back and forth, and never really finds it footing. Yes, there are some good moments sprinkled throughout – but Exodus makes the case as to why Hollywood doesn’t make these movies very often anymore – they’ve forgotten how.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Movie Review: Top Five

Top Five
Directed by: Chris Rock.
Written by: Chris Rock.
Starring: Chris Rock (Andre Allen), Rosario Dawson (Chelsea Brown), J.B. Smoove (Silk), Gabrielle Union (Erica Long), Romany Malco (Benny Barnes), Anders Holm (Brad), Cedric the Entertainer (Jazzy Dee), Karlie Redd (Rhonda), Hayley Marie Norman (Tammy), Annaleigh Ashford (Michele), Ben Vereen (Carl), Michael Che (Paul), Sherri Shepherd (Vanessa), Jay Pharoah (Mike), Tracy Morgan (Fred), Hassan Johnson (Craig), Leslie Jones (Lisa).

Chris Rock’s first two films as a director, Head of State (2003) and I Think I Love My Wife (2007) are both okay films – that are enjoyable, but it seemed like in both Rock was somewhat neutering himself to try and gain more mass popularity. This is something he doesn’t do in his brilliant stand-up routines – which has made him one of the most loved comics of his generation. But neither Rock, nor any other director, was ever really able to translate that energy into a movie. With his third film, Top Five, Rock has finally succeeded. He doesn’t seem as worried about mass appeal this time – which ironically, could end up being his most successful film. That is because it finally taps into what makes Rock such a great standup. The film is funny throughout, but it also has an edge, and it also seems distinctly personal – as if Rock is finally channeling something of himself into his movies. A few missteps aside, Top Five is one of the best comedies of the year.

In the film Rock plays Andre Allen, a famous standup, who became a movie star with some awful looking movies, where he plays a cop who is also a bear. A recovering alcoholic, Andre now longer wants to do “funny” movies – he wants to do something more serious – like his new film about the Haitian slave revolution (which, by the way, looks just as bad). He is also about to marry Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), a Kardashian-like reality show star, in what will be a major television event. On the day his latest movie is to open, Andre has to go around New York and do a lot of press for the film – and he has his bachelor party, which of course will be filmed, that night as well. At the end of the day, he’s going to get on a plane and go to LA for the wedding. And against his better judgment, he has agreed to be followed around by a New York Times reporter, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). To his surprise, he actually has a connection with Chelsea – a recovering alcoholic herself, also going through some personal issues herself. And because of that, she gets him to open up more than he usually does – certainly more than we see in his other, junket style interviews.

Andre Allen, of course, does bear a resemblance to Chris Rock himself – which is allows Rock to essentially be himself on screen for the first time (or at least, be his onstage persona). There are times when Rock almost seems to be doing standup more than making a movie – a large get together with his childhood friends is a perfect example of this. This would be a problem if it wasn’t so funny – which it is, and not just because of Rock, but because he allows those supporting players to have some great moments as well. Much of the movie is made up of Rock and Dawson walking the streets of New York (or in the back of the car), just talking, and Rock indulges himself a little bit in these scenes as well. But the best thing Rock does in the film as a writer and director is to create a real role for the immensely talented Dawson to play – if Rock is ever in danger of spinning out of control, Dawson reels him back in. She is whip smart, funny, sexy and challenges Andre the way no one else ever really does – and this both interests him, and at times angers him. But it allows Andre, and Rock, to be more honest than I’ve seen him in a movie before. Rock is hilarious, playing a thinly veiled version of himself, but Dawson’s is far and away the better performance. And Rock is generous with the supporting cast as well – with great roles all around, perhaps none better than Cedric the Entertainer as a Houston promoter who Andre meets in a flashback sequence.

Top Five takes a few missteps along the way. I’m not sure I quite agree that a subplot involving Dawson’s boyfriend is homophobic – but it certainly borders on it, and is unnecessary to boot. And a third act plot twist, which is easy to see coming, is more than somewhat ridiculous, and unnecessary. I also would have loved to see more of Gabrielle Union – who we only see on the phone, and for the most part looked like a shallow, superficial punching bag – but has one scene where she shows an unexpected depth that made me want to see more of her. But she’s almost an afterthought, because the chemistry between Rock and Dawson makes it obvious where the movie is heading.

Still, Top Five is one of the most enjoyable comedies of the year – and the one that shows that if Rock wants to be, he could become a great writer-director-actor. The film reminds me of Woody Allen (in some ways, you could compare it to Stardust Memories), but with a definite Rock-twist. After two bland movies in the director’s chair, Rock finally figured out what to do himself. Let’s hope he keeps going.

Movie Review: The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears
Directed by: Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani.
Written by: Bruno Forzani & Hélène Cattet.
Featuring: Klaus Tange (Dan Kristensen), Ursula Bedena, Joe Koener, Birgit Yew, Hans De Munter, Anna D'Annunzio, Jean-Michel Vovk, Manon Beuchot, Romain Roll, Lolita Oosterlynck, Delphine Brual, Sam Louwyck, Sylvia Camarda.

There is a plot in The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears – but directors Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani are not much interested in it. Basically, they use their bare bones of a plot to string together a series of striking visuals and set pieces inspired by giallo horror movies from Italian masters like Mario Bava and Dario Argento. A man, named Dan (Klaus Tange), comes home to his apartment to find his wife has gone missing. He investigates the disappearance – and deals with a cop who shows up at inopportune times – to try and figure out what happened. This investigation brings him into contact with his strange neighbors – and also causes some hallucinations and dreams, which is where the bizarre visuals and set pieces come into play. Eventually, the movie does commit to its narrative – kind of anyway, in its closing act, but even then, the movie remains a visual experience, not a narrative one. This isn’t so much a problem with the movie, as much as an observation. The problem is that the visuals start to repeat themselves, everything becomes fractured, and the individual moments – as stunning as some of them can be – never really cohere into a meaningful whole.

Movies like this are difficult to review. You cannot really talk about the acting, because the movie barely requires the actors to act (according to IMDB, only one character even has a name) – they are props as much as anything. You cannot talk about the narrative – because there isn’t really one. So what you are left with is talking about how it all looks and feels.
 
It must be said that the film does look amazing. There are striking images throughout – from an opening image of a blade and a women’s breast, to a masterful sequence of an older couple searching for something. The movie connects sex and violence, and is also about voyeurism. But horror movies have been doing both of things for decades now, and the film doesn’t really have anything of interest to say on either subject – it simply presents them over and over again, and then moves onto the next sequence, where they’ll do the same thing again.

I cannot fully dismiss the film – it does look amazing from start to finish. But what the film made me wish more than anything is that filmmakers would, next time out, not just string together a series of visually striking set pieces, disconnected from each other and everything else, but apply their obvious visual skills, and try to come up with a narrative to match it. Because they didn’t do that this time, what we are left with is a visually stunning movie that despite all the sex and violence is actually quite dull. It would play better as a museum installation piece, where you can see some of the great work, and move on, than as a movie where you sit there and watch it from 100 minutes straight.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Movie Review: Mommy

Mommy
Directed by: Xavier Dolan.
Written by: Xavier Dolan.
Starring: Anne Dorval (Diane 'Die' Després), Antoine-Olivier Pilon (Steve O'Connor Després), Suzanne Clément (Kyla), Patrick Huard (Paul), Alexandre Goyette (Patrick), Viviane Pascal (Marthe).

25 year old Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan is constantly experimenting with his style, hoping genres with each film, and mixing in different elements, and inspirations, in each of his first five films. His first film, I Killed My Mother, was made when he was just 19 – and he wrote, directed and starred in it – and announced him as a major talent. His next three films, Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm, haven’t quite lived up to his debut – but they were all interesting, and all showed a willingness to experiment. His fifth film, Mommy, returns to the themes addressed in his first film = and may well be his best work to date. The film is wildly ambitious, and if it has a tendency to repeat itself a little too often, and perhaps spends a little too much time showing off stylistically, it’s also Dolan’s deepest, most heartfelt film to date. In many ways, he is making a big screen soap opera – which may explain his choice of a strange 1:1 aspect ratio, most common in old TV, and once again Dolan wears his most obvious influence on his sleeve (in this case, early Pedro Almodovar). But Dolan earns his stylistic excesses, and his influences, by delivering a film that is full of life and emotional upheaval – one that constantly threatens to, but never quite, goes over the top.

The film stars Anne Dorval, who delivered a great performance in the title role of I Killed My Mother, and outdoes that here, as Diane – a lower class widow, with a troubled teenage son – Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). As the movie opens, Steve is being thrown out of a group home because of another violent outburst – leaving Diane with only two options, take him home herself, or use a controversial new law to commit him (the film opens with a thoroughly unnecessary preamble about a new law coming into effect after the 2015 Canada Federal Election – don’t give Harper any ideas!). She elects to take him home – but it quickly becomes apparent the danger Steve represents. He can be sweet, kind funny one second, and then fly into a rage the next – strangling his mother, going on a hate fueled, racist rant on a cab driver, smashing a glass table, etc. Diane tries her best with Steve – but it’s hard. She’s lost her job, she’s lost her car, and she simply isn’t equipped to handle Steve – despite how much she obviously loves him. A little bit of hope is represented when they meet the neighbor across the street – Kyla (Suzanne Clement), a stuttering teacher on “sabbatical”, with her own family issues and traumas. But she bonds with Diane, and later Steve – and even takes up the task of homeschooling Steve – something Diane is clearly incapable of. And Steve seems to be doing better – but Steve being Steve, he’s constantly at risk at doing something that will screw everything up.

Dolan, who has always been guilty of stylistic excess (which is forgivable when it works – and it mainly works here) took the odd step of shooting the film in a narrow 1:1 aspect ratio – one that resembles old school TV, which is oddly appropriate since he’s basically making a soap opera here. But the 1:1 ratio does something else to the characters – it traps them in the frame, gives them nowhere to go, no space to move around in. There are two moments when Dolan expands the screen to a more traditional, wide ratio – and they are two moments when Steve and Diane feel happiness and freedom, which is a rare occurrence for them.

Mommy has its fair share of problems – at two hours and twenty minutes it’s a little long for a movie that doesn’t have much of a plot, and the film has tendency to repeat itself. There are a few too many musical montages littered throughout the movie, and a few too many meltdowns by Steve as well – Dolan doesn’t need to labor over either the good or bad of Steve, because it’s clear fairly early. As an actor Antoine-Olivier Pilon isn’t quite up to the level of Dorval or Clement – these are three big roles, but you never catch Dorval or Clement ACTING – something you do catch Pilon doing several times. Then again, that could be because the two female performances are so good, that it would be hard for any young actor to hold their own against them. Dorval in particular is brilliant as Diane – a woman who would be struggling with her life even if she didn’t have Steve to contend with. She’s smart, but not educated, and has to hustle to get anything out of life. She’s trying her best, but near the end of her rope. She does something late in the film that will be controversial to some audiences – it certainly is to Kyla – but her scenes after that make it clear precisely why she did it – and why she felt she had to. It is a great performance.
 
Whatever the flaws in Mommy are, the movies attributes more than make up for them. There is a brilliant sequence in which Diane imagines what Steve’s life would be like in a perfect world – a romantic, hazy delusion that allows Diane a few minutes of peace – before the whole thing comes crashing down around her. The movie is about both of those sides of Diane – the one who wants to believe that her son will be okay, and the one who knows he never will.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Movie Review: Serena

Serena
Directed by: Susanne Bier.
Written by: Christopher Kyle based on the book by Ron Rash.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (Serena Pemberton), Bradley Cooper (George Pemberton), Rhys Ifans (Galloway), Toby Jones (Sheriff McDowell), Sean Harris (Campbell), Sam Reid (Vaughn), Blake Ritson (Lowenstein), Ana Ularu (Rachel), David Dencik (Buchanan).

It’s never a good sign when a movie is delayed more than once, and pushed out of not one but two different years. However, once in a while those oft-delayed movies end up being masterpieces – David Fincher's Zodiac, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Ken Lonergan's Margaret spring immediately to mind. More often than not however, being delayed that often is a sign that the movie has problems. I first heard about Susanne Biers Serena following Silver Linings Playbook – as the film reunited the two stars, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, of that film. There were even images from the film posted. But then the film just didn’t come out – it was expected in 2013, and didn’t come out. It was expected on the festival circuit this year, and didn’t get there either (it did, finally, play one this fall). Now it has been delayed in America until 2015 – where it will go VOD and hit theaters at the same time. Oddly, however, the film is getting a fairly wide release in Canada. I went, more out of curiosity than anything else. And now I know why the film was so often delayed – it’s quite simply an awful film.

Set in 1929, in Carolina, the film stars Cooper as George Pemberton – a would be timber baron. But with the recent stock market crash, and the fact that the government may reclaim his land and make it into a National Park, things are on uneasy ground. George has some land in Brazil he wants desperately to log – but he needs to make money first, so he`ll do whatever possible to make it work. One day, he meets Serena (Lawrence), the daughter of a timber baron herself, who had her entire family wiped out in a fire when she was only 12, and immediately falls in love. Serena is as smart as she is beautiful – and starts to change George's business for the better. But from the start, there is something not quite right about her. She doesn’t seem to mind the girl, Rachel (Ana Ularu) that George knocked up before they met (and who, now that she is pregnant, George is virtually ignoring) – but she eyes her uneasily anyway – especially once she herself becomes pregnant. When Georges partner (David Dencik) threatens to expose his corruption, Serena goes full Lady Macbeth with George – but feels no guilt, and tries to push things farther.

All of that probably sounds rather interesting – like if nothing else, Serena would be a good soap opera. The ingredients are certainly there for this to be that kind of film – but that isn’t the film that director Susanne Bier has made. She takes the material far too seriously – and directs her actors to underplay everything. This is a subdued movie to the point where it’s almost comatose. With all the violence, sex and melodrama on display you would think things would be directed at a fever pitch – that the actors may in fact be in danger of going over the top. The reality is the opposite. Lawrence, who is normally a firecracker in her roles, has never been this quiet. She is capable of being subtle – her best work to date remains Winters Bone, which is her quietest great performance – but her she seems to be sleepwalking through the role – even as it requires her to go pretty much insane. Cooper is even worse – he looks dead inside here, which is perhaps where his character ends up, but certainly isn’t where he begins. Rhys Ifans is horribly miscast as the violent, psychopathic badass in the movie – a role his easy, funny charm just isn’t built for.

The film does look beautiful – set in the Smoky Mountains, the films cinematography certainly makes the most of its location. But the film doesn’t work on a dramatic or thematic level. Is the film supposed to be a There Will Be Blood like commentary on capitalism? A Gone Girl like thriller (without the satire), about a man who doesn’t know just how damaged the woman he married is? And old fashioned soap opera? I honestly have no idea, and I don’t think Bier did either. Bier is a talented director – Brothers, After the Wedding and her first English language film, Things We Lost in the Fire, are proof of that. But she has somewhat gone off the rails since winning an Oscar for the mediocre In a Better World (for foreign language film). Along with last year’s not very funny or romantic, romantic comedy Love is All You Need, this is two major whiffs in a row for Bier. Let’s hope she recovers for her next film – because Serena is one of the worst films of the year.

Movie Review: Penguins of Madagascar

Penguins of Madagascar
Directed by: Eric Darnell & Simon J. Smith.
Written by: John Aboud and Michael Colton and Brandon Sawyer and Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons based on characters created by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath.
Starring: Tom McGrath (Skipper), Chris Miller (Kowalski), Christopher Knights (Private), Conrad Vernon (Rico), John Malkovich (Dave), Benedict Cumberbatch (Classified), Ken Jeong (Short Fuse), Annet Mahendru (Eva), Peter Stormare (Corporal), Werner Herzog (Documentary Filmmaker).

I had low expectations for Penguins of Madagascar heading into the movie – I was really only going because my 3-year olds favorite animals are penguins – but the first few scenes in the movie had me thinking that perhaps the movie wouldn’t be so bad after all. The film opens with narration of a documentarian filming the penguins – and the filmmakers picked the perfect the person to provide that narration – Werner Herzog. His narration gave me more laughs than the rest of the movie combined, and I was sorry he was only in the first few moments of the films. The film then flashes forward to the end of Madagascar 3 – and again made me laugh, as our four penguin heroes express the same feeling I had about that film – namely get us the hell out of here. Unfortunately, from there the movie settles more into the same type of thing as the other Madagascar films – lots of fast moving action, blinding colors, low humor, etc. It’s still probably my favorite of the now four films in the Madagascar films – but that doesn’t mean that it’s very good.

The Penguins have always been people’s favorite supporting characters in the films – and they are better characters than the four main characters in those films, which have always been somewhat annoying to me. But as with other popular supporting characters in animated films – from Scrat in Ice Age to Puss in Boots from Shrek – supporting characters are probably where they should stay. A little of them go a long way.

This movie puts the four penguins – the leader, Skipper, the thinker, Kowalski, the muscle Rico and the cute but dim private – into a complicated action movie. Dave (voiced, brilliantly, by John Malkovich) is an octopus, with a grudge against penguin-kind – he has been jettisoned from every zoo because everyone wants to see the adorable penguins, and not a gross octopus. This all started with these four – and he is out for vengeance against them, and then all penguins. The four try and stop them – but also have to deal with North Wind – a secret organization out to protect animals who cannot protect themselves. But while North Wind may have all the technology they need – they aren’t as smart as the Penguins.

The movie moves very fast – and it is fairly entertaining. There is a running joke – a stupid one admittedly – that made me laugh every time, as Dave unwittingly says celebrity names as he is giving his minions orders. I have a hard time believing that kids aren’t going to enjoy the film – it certainly held my daughters attention throughout, who quite enjoyed it. And it’s not a painful experience, as some kids movies are, for the parents. But it never really gets to the point where the comedy is sustained – where older viewers can truly just let go and enjoy the insanity on screen. Its decent – it’s well done and mildly amusing – and a step up from the other movies in the series. It’s still not a very good movie, but it’s not that bad either.

Movie Review: I Origins

I Origins
Directed by: Mike Cahill.
Written by: Mike Cahill.
Starring: Michael Pitt (Ian), Astrid Bergès-Frisbey (Sofi), Brit Marling (Karen), Steven Yeun (Kenny), Cara Seymour (Dr. Simmons), William Mapother (Darryl Mackenzie), Archie Panjabi (Priya Varma), Kashish (Salomina).

For those who believe in Intelligent Design, the human eye is often uses as the prime example of why there must be a creator at some point along the line. It is so complex, that many do not believe that it could simply evolve that way – and hence, the human eye is proof of the existence of God. It’s a rather silly theory really – but then again, Intelligent Design isn’t not really based in scientific fact, but rather in theory. Mike Cahill’s I Origins, a follow-up to his excellent Another Earth, starts as a movie about Ian (Michael Pitt) – a scientist, studying the human eye, who hopes to once and for all end the debate, and prove that the eye could in fact evolve. What’s interesting about I Origins is that it never really takes a side in the debate at all – and ends, like Another Earth did, on an ambiguous leaving the audience wanting to know what happens next. Depending on your own beliefs, you can read the ending however you want. But unlike Another Earth, I Origins just isn’t all that interesting other than in its initial premise. It has a melodramatic plot that verges on the ridiculous. The film is so subdued, where all the characters betray such little emotion, even when they are supposed to be going through emotional upheaval, the whole movie left me cold.

Ian (Michael Pitt) is a young doctoral student, doing his work on the human eye – specifically how it has evolved. He attends a Halloween party, and is immediately drawn to the eyes of a beautiful young woman in a mask – the two have anonymous sex, with him never seeing her face, but being mesmerized by her eyes – which (in a sequence both too complicated and too ridiculous to explain) use those eyes to track the woman down. This is Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), who is just as beautiful as her eyes. The two fall in love – despite being complete opposites in how they view the world (this kind of reminded me of the relationship between Stephen and Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything). I don’t want to spoil what happens next – but the movie does take some strange turns, and ends up with Ian in India –trying to see if he can find an identical set of eyes to Sofi's – something he thought was impossible, as eyes are supposed to be like fingerprints – one of a kind.

I have always like Michael Pitt as an actor – he has a quiet, intelligent screen presence, that sometimes verges on comatose, but in the right role (like in Gus Van Sant's brilliant Last Days) he can be brilliant. Here, he isn’t much helped by the screenplay or the direction, and so he comes across more on the comatose side of things. The two main women in the film – Sofi and Brit Marling’s Karen (as Pitts assistant) are also not really helped – both are playing an idealized, unrealistic version of the perfect women – although to be fair, they are still as different as they can be while still being perfect.

I also didn’t really buy the numerous twists and turns in the movie – all of which seem to be overly calculated and foreshadowed (I watched the film with my wife, and we both could see every twist and turn coming a mile away). That wouldn’t be such a bad thing, if the twists lead to some interesting material – but it doesn’t here. The closing scenes, with Pitt and a young Indian girl, are almost unintentionally hilarious (and, kind of creepy when you think about it).

Cahill is still a director I want to see more from. Like Another Earth, I Origins has a lot of interesting ideas running through it. But unlike Another Earth, the execution does not match the ideas. It’s a film that sounds really interesting – but doesn’t deliver on its promise.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Movie Review: Norte, the End of History

Norte, the End of History
Directed by: Lav Diaz.
Written by: Rody Vera & Lav Diaz & Michiko Yamamoto & Raymond Lee.
Starring: Sid Lucero (Fabian), Archie Alemania (Joaquin), Angeli Bayani (Eliza), Angelina Kanapi (Hoda), Mae Paner (Magda), Soliman Cruz (Wakwak), Hazel Orencio (Ading), Ian Lomongo (Cesar), Kristian Chua (Peryong), Noel Sto. Domingo (Salvador), Perry Dizon (Prof. Perry), Raymond Lee (Prof. Moira), Sheen Gener (Gina), Dea Formacil (Angela), Kristine Kintana (Tating), Lex Marcos (Kiko), Luis Galang III (Ferdie).

I have been reading about Filipino director Lav Diaz, in magazines like Cinemascope and Film Comment, for years now – but I have never had a chance to see any of his films until Norte, the End of History. Diaz makes precisely the films he wants to make, and doesn’t really care about commercial appeal. The previous film of his I had heard the most about was Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), which clocked in at 9 hours. By comparison, Norte, the End of History’s 4 hour and 10 minute runtime is positively svelte. The film is a classic example of “slow cinema” – a film that takes its time in its every scene, most of which take place in a single shot with either no camera movement, or very slow camera movement (because the camera doesn’t move very much, you notice when it does here – and it always moves with a purpose). It is inspired by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment – like that novel, the film centers on a murder, and its aftermath – with its main character, Fabian (Sid Lucero) spouting off about history and corruption in an attempt to justify his behavior. But unlike the main character in Crime and Punishment, Fabian is never even suspected of the crime he has committed – and while he does experience some guilt over what he has done, it doesn’t change his behavior by the end of the film. There are no consequences for him.

The crime is question is a brutal double murder that Fabian commits, more than an hour into its runtime. Up until that time, we basically see Fabian sit with his former law professors or fellow students (he has dropped out of school, with only a year to go) talking philosophy and history – and the need to eliminate anything that is corrupt is the Philippines is going to move forward. His friends seem to share some of his revolutionary ideas – but none of them want to actually take any action to make the revolution a reality. The irony is that when Fabian finally does take action – it isn’t to better anything in the Philippines, it’s to advance his own cause. He is in debt to an obsessed, vulgar loan shark, Magda, and brutally stabs her. When her sweet teenage daughter walks in on him, he doesn’t hesitate to kill her as well. He then walks away scot free – moves to another town, tries to find religion, and feels guilt – not enough to turn himself in, but some.

The murder is instead pinned on Joaquin (Archie Alemania), a poor man recovering from a leg injury, who also went deep into debt with Magda. When he realizes his wife Eliza (Angeli Bayani) has pawned her wedding ring to Magda, he tries to get it back – and when Magda refuses, he attacks her – before he also flees. Unluckily for him, it is that night that Fabian kills Magda – and since some people witnessed his attack on her, he is arrested and quickly convicted. While the first and fourth hours concentrates mainly on Fabian, much of the middle two focus on Joaquin’s brutal prison experience – which he handles with the patience of a saint – and his wife’s struggle to support their two children, working the lowliest jobs imaginable (which she also handles in saint like fashion).

This is a fully confident film by Diaz – who isn’t afraid to hold his shots long after most people would have cut away, and isn’t afraid to let long passages go with little to no dialogue. He uses space masterfully – the framing is precise, and when he moves the camera, it’s purposeful. He keeps the violence in the movie mostly often screen – the murder, two rapes and a horrific accident do not take place on screen (the accident isn’t even seen at all, unlike the murder and rapes, which happen just off-screen, so we hear much more than we see). The film is an examination of morality, religion, class (we learn, late in the game, that Fabian comes from a wealthy family) – and Diaz is fascinated with both absolute good and absolute evil.

In some ways, however, that exploration of absolute good and evil hurts the films a little when as the film moves along. In the first hour, perhaps two, it seems like both Fabian and Joaquin, are really complex characters – characters who contain both good and bad in them (Eliza is, sadly, a martyr from the beginning). But as the film moves along, Fabian and Joaquin become much less complex – Fabian moves a little towards redemption, before forever shutting the door on that path, while Joaquin keeps getting more and more saint like – leading to an art house cliché of transcendence.

Yet, Norte, the End of the History is still a near-great movie – masterfully well directed and shot, well-acted and always fascinating. After hearing about Lav Diaz for years, I am very glad I finally got a chance to see for myself just how good a director he is. Here’s hoping that it doesn’t take that long before another of his films becomes available for us to see.

The Films of Paul Thomas Anderson: Conclusion

Normally, when I do these career retrospectives, I include a ranking in my conclusion – but with just six films, that seems kind of silly. Besides, with the exception of Hard Eight, I think I could put his other five films in any order, and not be that wrong.

What’s fascinating to me about Anderson’s career is that I think each of the six films he has made shows growth from the one that came before it – that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better than the one before, but I do think each shows some sort of evolution for film to film. Yes, his first three films could all be described as Altman-esque – with Hard Eight being something akin to California Split (1974), Boogie Nights like Nashville (1975) and Magnolia like Short Cuts (1993) – but the Altman influence, while undeniable, is also somewhat misleading and limiting – Anderson is hardly copying Altman in those films (and I assume, will not just be copying Altman’s masterpiece, The Long Goodbye (1973), in Inherent Vice – although, once again, the connection is undeniable.

Just as there is a connection between There Will Be Blood and The Master – both of which look back into the past to show the wounded masculine psyche in modern America, and use a pair of characters in each who go at each other throughout. The Master is a more mature, assured film – he makes both Hoffman and Phoenix characters equals, something he didn’t do with Day-Lewis and Dano’s characters in Blood. And the final scene between the two men in each film is similar – even if one ends in violent bombast, and the other not, they are similar. But both films are radically different in their own way as well.

To this point in his career, Anderson has shown time and again a willingness to take chances, to push himself, and take his time if needed to make his films. No, I don’t like having to wait 5 years between Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood, and another 5 between that and The Master – but as long as the result is a film as good as either of those two, well, I guess we’ll just have to wait.

I continue to look forward to what Anderson will do in his career next. He’s a one of a kind filmmaker – and there are far too few of those working in American film today.