Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Three Tries

Three character-driven films include strengths but fail to become compelling overall.

The best of the three - A Walk Among the Tombstones - features Liam Neeson in his usual guise as the tough-guy-who-feels-pain-both-inner-and-outer as he searches for and fights two gruesomely psychotic serial killers. There is a taut showdown among the tombstones, but the final act turns unnecessarily lurid and derivative.

In the same way Neeson’s guilt-ridden Matt Scudder bonds with a young outcast in a diner, Denzel Washington’s smoldering loner Robert McCall strikes up a relationship with a teenage hooker in a diner in East Boston in The Equalizer. Denzel’s diner scenes with Chloe Grace Moretz are superbly shot and performed. The rest of the film turns into an excessive, often silly, deluge of blood spilt as McCall sets out to eradicate all the bad guys involved in victimizing the “innocent” girl.

Finally, Gone Girl is mostly a dull ride as Ben Affleck goes through the motions as the framed hubbie, and Rosamund Pike comes off as mostly unchilling as the cold-blooded "Amazing Amy" Dunne. What happened here? Part of the problem is that the novel is a long and drawn out melodrama that stretches credibility to the snapping point. David Fincher seemed promising as the kind of director who could turn it into something visually arresting and disturbing, but Fincher is tame until a stand-out scene of orgiastic blood-letting that certainly woke me up. Ultimately, however, the film as a whole is a bland disappointment.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Terry Gilliam's The Zero Theorem

In The Zero Theorem Terry Gilliam borrows way too much from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (overcrowded megacity glutted with advertising; the meaning of existence; blonde in tight skirt; pigeons) and his own film Brazil (bureaucratic dystopia; totalitarian control; bizarre computers; unlikely relationship; escape into fantasy; tubing) to be an experience as refreshing and original as The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. In addition, Gilliam allows his performers to slip into weirdness to the detriment of the story's essential seriousness. Here, Christoph Waltz plays an agoraphobic, misanthropic computer hacker assigned the job of proving a perplexing theorem that suggests that life has no meaning – while at the same time trying to determine the meaning of life. Despite a promising first scene, and a number of arresting images, Gilliam leaves us with a disappointing resolution, whereas a more spectacular denouement seems to be promised by the film’s opening image. Still, I can’t help but marvel at the amazing detail and outlandish, Pythonesque weirdness of Gilliam’s expansive imagination.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Teen Summer

This summer, the big, loud action blockbusters came out roaring, booming, and punching, but they subsided quickly into the vast realm of the forgettable. Meanwhile, teen-oriented films based on popular young-adult novels offered viewers some lasting emotional impressions. The Fault in Our Stars, The Giver, and If I Stay all have their silly moments, but two of them offer fine performances, by Shailene Woodley and Chloë Grace Moretz, and all of them provide touching moments that are a refreshing break from the ubiquitous blockbuster action made up of extravagant explosions and endless, pounding fisticuffs between heroes and villains. In addition, this summer, Boyhood, a realistic, touching examination of a boy growing up into teenhood, drew young viewers to “art-house” theaters.

We are in the midst of a growing trend. The thriving young-adult fiction market churns out dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and romance novels that get teens reading and hankering for the inevitable film version of the more popular ones. Teen viewers might complain that the filmmakers left out or changed this or that scene, but they love visualizations of their favorite books, and the only pounding is the pounding of their hearts during the romantic scenes – which tend to have a more lasting impression than the noisiest action and the biggest explosions.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

When the Moment Seizes You: Boyhood

Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s epic portrait of a boy’s life from age 6 to age 18, was filmed over a twelve-year period with Ellar Coltrane playing Mason, Jr., as the boy, while Ethan Hawke and Praticia Arquette play his divorced parents and Loralei Linklater plays his sister. As these performers age over the 12 years of filming, they play out a simple drama about everyday life. Mason Jr. wonders about the world, makes friends, submits to temptations, develops a passion for photography, has a high school girl-friend, breaks up, and goes off to college, all the while questioning the meaning of life and looking for his place in the world. What’s it all for? Meanwhile, his mother struggles as a single mother trying to get an education to get a better job; she also gets into, and out of, two bad marriages with alcoholic, abusive individuals. The boy’s father, Mason, Sr., played by Ethan Hawke, is a wandering free spirit, also looking for his place in the world. Though Hawke has played a similar sort of character in the Before Sunrse trilogy, he develops his character substantially over the twelve years of filming, and at times Hawke unifies a film with very little, if any, pervading conflict.

At times a little stilted and aimless, the film very effectively presents life’s mundane moments and real dramas, both painful and touching. Some of the film’s moments are so naturalistically depicted that, for example, you can smell the fried food in the restaurant kitchen where Mason Jr. flirts with a co-worker or feel the Texas sun on your back when the boy and his father take a dip in the water on a camping trip. The long tracking shot down an alleyway when Mason Jr. talks to a gossipy school girl as he walks next to her on her bicycle is sharply realistic and suggests the countless moments like this that make up a childhood.

Although not as expansive or awe-inspiring as The Tree of Life, another vivid depiction of growing up in a Texas town, Boyhood is awesome in its scope as it takes you convincingly from the moment when a young boy lies on his back and wonders about the universe to the moment when he goes on a hike with new college friends and wonders about a possible future with someone he seems to connect with. The film stresses the importance of each moment in life, and within its 165-minute length, it covers many of those moments in a twelve-year span with an honest minimalism.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Best Actor: Andy Serkis for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) the skillful agility and facial expressions of Andy Serkis, rendered by means of motion-capture CGI, brought the character of Caesar alive in a re-imagining of the Apes saga.

In this year’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Serkis continues to prove his talent for what is mostly silent acting, further developing the character of Caesar through expressive body language and subtle facial inflections.

At this point in the year, Serkis is my nominee for Best Actor, 2014. The new Apes film is not as taut or compelling as the first installment. Its first half is the better half as it establishes the visuals and atmosphere of the Apes’ colony in Muir Woods. The image of apes riding horses is an immediate reference to Planet of the Apes (1968), and I enjoyed visual touches like that. The film’s latter half, however, subsides into a clichéd battle between apes and men and comes to a climax with a combat between Caesar and his rival, Koba, that reminds you of every last boring fistfight between a long list of boring superheroes and their boring foes. Nevertheless, throughout the film, Serkis as Caesar is a compelling driving force.

For the inevitable sequel, I would like to see the dawn of a lot more imagination as the filmmakers re-imagine what comes next.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Recent Viewings

The Rover, with Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson, makes The Road seem cheerful. Well, not quite, but this bleak post-apocalyptic shoot-'em-up might even depress Cormac McCarthy. Pattinson does a good job of channeling James Dean as Lennie Small.

Excellent performances by Phoenix, Cotillard, and Renner in The Immigrant, the story of a Russian immigrant sacrificing herself to get her sister off Ellis Island. Superb art direction. Very authentic atmosphere that transports you to 1920s New York City.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are indeed hilarious together.

Yes, I saw it. And it took my mind off things for nearly all of its epic two hour and forty-five-minute length. Two hours and forty-five minutes! Geez louise! What temerity. But, I have to say, Mark Wahlberg carries you through it with his wide-eyed action movie sincerity, and he invests himself in his role as a father trying to save his daughter - and the world. "It's a transformer!" Who else could have said that with the same geeky passion? Also, there's some nice humor as he objects to his daughter's relationship with an older guy while they are running away from the bad bots. The film downplays the clish-clash cacophony of clattering contraptions constantly crumpling into cars - and we get some very interesting action aboard the huge, gothic alien spacecraft as well as a clever fight between good guy and bad guy in a high-rise slum in Hong Kong. All the action played out in Hong Kong is nicely filmed.