Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Movies Monthly - April - Part 2: Under the Skin

On the surface, there isn’t much to Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s enigmatic, mind-teasing science fiction art film, but in comparison with all my viewings this year, including The Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s the most dazzling thing I've seen and definitely the most profound.

For the most part, the dazzle comes from Scarlett Johannson’s understated performance as an alien seductress trolling the streets of Edinburgh for human victims for some purpose left up to your imagination. Using her eyes and a soft voice that develops empathy, Johannson demonstrates she can carry what is essentially a single-performance film.

Accompanying this performance, majestic shots of the Scottish wilderness provide a dramatic setting for a mysterious alien experiment from which Johannson’s unnamed character strays as she becomes fascinated by what makes human’s click, and what makes them work under the skin. An episode on a rugged beach is the setting for a powerfully visceral shocker.

This is the kind of film that makes you scratch your head from time to time, but it perplexes in a good way. It’s the kind of film you want others to see so you can discuss its mysteries. One critic I read said that the opening images are inscrutable, but I know exactly what’s going on – though my theory might be totally antithetical to what other viewers might conclude. Under the Skin challenges the viewer to settle into its often uneventful progress and ponder what it's all about.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Movies Monthly - April - Part 1

Mise-en-scène is the main attraction in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s whimsical, imaginative, fantastical farce that takes place in an extravagant old-world hotel in a fictional central European country in 1932. Characters pass briefly through rooms so meticulously conceived and presented that you almost cry out for the characters to slow down and pass through the rooms again. Unfortunately, the painstakingly rendered hotel never becomes a character. Only a small portion of the action takes place there. Meanwhile, M. Gustave, the intrepid concierge, wonderfully performed by Ralph Fiennes, becomes embroiled in a plot involving murder and a murky inheritance, taking him to an opulent mansion, a prison, and an alpine monastery.

The film presents splendid images – I love the totalitarian grimness of the prison gate; excellent performances – I enjoyed newcomer Tony Revolori as Zero the lobby boy, and his relationship with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), the baker girl, is quite charming; and some engaging moments – the prison escape, as a process, is carried out with typical Wes Anderson style and humor. It is clear, with its cast of exotic characters, and its attention to 1930s film style, with the film presented in classic 4:3 aspect ratio, that Anderson is passionate about this genre and its time period. Ultimately, however, the film falls flat, so smothered by its own clutter of visual detail, its overwhelming verbiage, and its distracting, endless string of cameo appearances by Anderson favorites that the film doesn’t have the chance to be compelling or touching in any memorable way.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Movies Monthly - March - Part 2: Darren Aronofsky's Noah: Cubits Redefined

Whenever I think of the Biblical story of Noah and the Ark, I think of the old Bill Cosby comedy routine.

“No – ah!”
“Yes, Lord?”
“Build me an ark.”
“Yeah, right . . . what’s an ark?”
(And after the Lord describes the dimensions of the ark . . .)
"Yeah, right . . . what's a cubit?"

Fortunately, Darren Aronofsky's epic Noah is not as funny as Bill Cosby's comic piece, though the trailer seemed to promise an unintended comedy of ludicrous proportions. Nevertheless, it certainly redefines the length of a cubit. The set for Noah's ark is gargantuan! (Where the hell did they find all that pitch?) But this gargantuan wooden rectangle, that bears no resemblance to the classic image of the floating barn with a pair of giraffe heads sticking out of a window, is in keeping with Aronofsky’s unique, mind-boggling vision.

Here, in the look of the film and the elements of the story, Aronofsky is going for an entire re-imagining that transforms the classic Bible story into a whimsical science-fiction adventure echoing 2012 and The Lord of the Rings. At the beginning it even evokes the post-apocalyptic genre as Noah and his family wander across a wasted land. In this sequence, Aronofsky throws in a whimsical animal that’s a cross between a coyote and an armadillo. In Aronofsky's Bible world, an evil army is accompanied by robotic walkers; a single seed sprouts a lush forest from the desert; Tolkienesque, Transformer-like creatures of rock step in as Noah’s workers and soldiers; and the famous animals-two-by-two spend the tempestuous voyage in a homeopathic cryogenic sleep. In a whimsical Zen moment that I enjoyed, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) relishes the taste of a single berry as he embraces the great inundation.

Besides affording a number of eye-opening visual twists, Aronofsky’s re-imagining generates gripping drama with Noah’s inner conflicts. Apparently God has called upon Noah to preserve the nature of Eden, but he intends that Noah’s family will die out without progeny, and “man” will disappear from the world. When the adopted Ila (Emma Watson) becomes fruitful, Noah fully intends to slay her newborn if it is a girl. Throughout the film, Russell Crowe does an excellent job of showing Noah's transformation from an aggressively protective family man to an Ahab-like character obsessed with God's grim command. During his transformation, Noah descends into hell. In the film's grimmest moment, Noah infiltrates the vast barbarian refugee camp where he witnesses a ghastly cannibalistic frenzy.

Playing freely with the Bible to an outrageous extent, Aronofsky throws in a monstrous villain, Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), who seems to be the embodiment of all human evil. Then he throws in a battle that’s straight out of The Lord of the Rings, but the film as a whole works quite well.

It works because of its visual dazzle: expansive vistas of rugged landscape filmed in Iceland along with an animated sequence in which the silhouette of an ancient soldier changes into countless soldiers from time periods throughout two millennia of history. My favorite sequence is a spectacular rendition of the creation story that resembles the creation sequence in The Tree of Life played in fast forward. Another standout image shows the last desperate survivors of the Flood clinging to a mountaintop, an image that echoes classic paintings of this iconic Bible moment, a vision set in grim contrast to the film's dazzling final image of hope and salvation.

Most crucially, Noah works because of Russell Crowe’s invested performance as the conflicted Noah, supported by Jennifer Connelly’s earnest performance. (Connelly redeems herself for a dreadful performance in the recent Winter's Tale.) Meanwhile, Emma Watson, allowed to play comfortably with her English accent (her American accent seems to hobble her in recent performances such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower), is excellent as Ila, the young woman who becomes pregnant through a miracle only to face the possible extermination of her twin baby girls at the hands by the God-driven Noah.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Movies Monthly - March - Part 1

Non-Stop plays on our nervousness about flying in the post–9/11 world, along with normal trepidations about sitting helplessly in the confines of an airliner from New York to London, and delivers pretty much non-stop suspense laden with plot twists and turns, with rugged Liam Neeson in the center of the action as an aging, worn-out air marshal, who drinks and harbors an ironic fear of flying. The motivations of the bitter soldiers staging a threat that involves killing someone on the plane every twenty minutes are shaky to ridiculous – but these are not revealed until close to the end, and by that time the suspense has been built up and we are along for the ride with this doomed flight until the very end. I am impressed by Neeson’s staying power as a graying but very believable old tough guy. He keeps delivering the goods as the rugged protagonist in action/ survival vehicles.

After those tenacious Spartans bite the dust of Thermopylae, the massive Persian fleet is out to destroy the Athenians. In 300: The Rise of an Empire get depictions of the Battle of Marathon, in flashback, and the culminating sea battle near Salamis that are sheer historical fantasy, but the visuals are dazzling, albeit clearly right out of a computer. You might almost feel like you are playing a video game with your face pressed against the computer, and the countless splatters of blood from stabbings, dismemberments, and decapitations become monotonous, but there’s nothing CGI about the appearance and the performance of Eva Green as the evil Persian naval commander Artemisia. She mesmerizes simply by walking or sitting, and she exudes menacing sexuality when she and Themistocles give up trying to bargain with each other and take out their aggressions toward each other in a bout of rough sex. Green's performance is a definite highlight of the year so far.

I guess the fascination for fast cars is a guy thing – though I don’t share the fascination. Need for Speed aims to appeal to the guy thing by packing itself with a heavy dose of guy-stuff and fast cars beginning with a race through an upstate New York town; followed by a grudge match race that ends in a death; followed by a transcontinental chase from New York to San Francisco; culminating in an illegal race from Napa to Mendicino. Wow! Lots of fast cars! But there are tremendous shots of grand American landscape, and there’s the beautiful face of British actress Imogen Poots as the sidekick of our hero, Tobey Marshall, played by Aaron Paul, a very unlikely macho racecar ace. As Marshall, Paul is a very poor actor who does not stand out. He has zero presence, a weak voice, and a globular forehead under a receding hairline – a distraction throughout the entire movie.

("This is boring! Why can't we get selected for the Hunger Games?")

At times interesting, at times very silly, Divergent is moderately entertaining, though sometimes it gets weighed down by its fizzbins, which are typical of YA literature from The Giver through the Harry Potter saga all the way into the rash of post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian literature and movies out there today.

What’s a fizzbin? Fizzbin, n. A contrivance; a gimmick, as in the Royal Fizzbin made up by Captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek episode “A Piece of the Action.”

My, oh, my, Divergent includes quite a number of fizzbins, and the subsequent episodes in the trilogy are so full of fizzbins I had trouble comprehending the synopses for the later installments, Insurgent and Allegiant. Indeed, in comparison, Divergent goes light on the fizzbins. It starts out with the Five Color-Coded Factions of Society: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. (Guess there's no faction called Artistic.) Are you selfless, kind, honest, brave, or smart? Somehow, being one is supposed to avoid conflict and create a utopian society. Go figure! Yet, being in factions already seems to cause prejudice and ostracism. Members of each faction make jokes about the others, and everybody’s afraid of the Dauntless who wear tight black clothing, sport cool hairdos, and run around like hooligans. Dauntless never walk, and they jump off moving trains instead of waiting for them to stop.

Another fizzbin: Choosing Day. Yeah, just like choosing Slitherin or one of those other houses in the Harry Potter books and movies. This ceremony involves five bowls symbolic of each faction, and each chooser selects a faction by placing a drop of blood in the bowl of choice. This doesn’t happen, however, until after the Aptitude Test – a mind surveillance procedure that delves into a person’s mind to see which faction you are best suited for. Needless to say, Tris's test is inconclusive. "Inconclusive!" Ooh, ah, that means she's Divergent, which means she is dominated by more than one characteristic. Apparently, this is rare. You'd think this wouldn't be so rare, but I guess the residents of this futuristic Chicago are kind of boring. Indeed, they are very boring. Dauntless are rowdy. Erudite are snobby. Abnegation are SO Amish!

Then comes the Training Program – most teen films-from-novels of this ilk include the militaristic training program so that Tris can learn to kick butt and throw knives and shoot a gun. The fizzbin of this is the rating system. If you are listed low in the rankings, you get kicked out of Dauntless and you live the rest of your life with the Factionless outcasts. The training session fizzbin is de rigueur – because all teens understand earning low grades, failing classes, getting kicked out of school. The training program for Dauntless ends with a final test involving a serum that sends the trainee into his or her “fear landscapes” (think, computer game) which he or she must navigate as a true, brave Dauntless should.

The final, very wieldy fizzbin that turns the film’s climactic action into a very sluggish finale is the Mind-Control Serum. Each graduating member of Dauntless is injected with what they are told is a tracking device, which it ain’t. It’s a serum that allows Kate Winslet (the Erudite boss) to control the Dauntless gunmen from her computer so she can use them to wipe out Abnegation, the ruling faction. Shades of the Holocaust! Hitler would have loved that mind-control serum. Wait a sec, he had one! Anyway, don’t worry, Kate is thwarted by Tris, aided by Four (think Edward Cullen and Jacob Black in one). With disaster averted, Tris and Four and other Divergent outcasts jump a train to ride it beyond the wall to whatever lies out there beyond the horizon. I’ve only read the first book, but I’ve read the synopses for the other books, so I already know what they’ll find out there. Yep, you guessed it - a whole head-spinning entanglement of very contrived fizzbins. I kind of get it, but what I don’t get is who the hell is driving the trains and why don’t they stop if hooligans are jumping on them to escape the five boring factions?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Movies Monthly - February

The Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney, is the silliest World War II picture I have ever seen. Each scene is flat, ineffectual, and totally lacking anything of interest to listen to or look at. I was struck by how the first three scenes established zero atmosphere, tension, or information.

To a cheerful, sprightly tune that sounds like a cross between the theme for Hogan's Heroes and the theme for Patton, Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, and others, cruise around German-occupied zones in war-torn Europe as casually as a bunch of good old boys on a road trip. Similar to Spielberg's silliest depictions of Nazis in his Indiana Jones films, The Monuments Men wallows in all the cliches. Themes suggesting malevolence introduce the Germans. The Russian officer racing to intercept the Americans saving artworks snarls like he has an itchy butt.

In one of the silliest scenes, John Goodman and his buddy drive a jeep into a meadow between hedgerows. When Goodman's character sees American soldiers waiting in ambush in the foliage and pointing across the meadow, he and his buddy realize they have stepped into the middle of a fight about to happen. Fine. Some suspense. Sad when the buddy gets riddled with bullets when the Germans open fire. Then Goodman's man drives away, and the American soldiers break cover and march across the meadow as openly as British soldiers at Bunker Hill.

I struggled to remain seated throughout the whole movie. It wasn't that I had any inkling of a hope that the film would get better. I was just fascinated by how bad it kept getting.

Wow! As I write the above, it is February 14th and I've only seen one movie in theaters! I'm going to the movies tonight, and I'll see at least one or two more movies before the end of February, but that's not as many as I usually see in a month! Guess I've been busy. Or the releases have been bad!

Winter's Tale is intended as a fantasy-romance taking place in an alternate New York City in the early 20th century where a white horse can fly and the demonic bad guy (Russell Crowe), whose face splits with fiery gashes when he grows wrathful, is the righthand man of Lucifer, played by Will Smith as a mild-mannered New York cool cat.

Fine. I can get behind a bit of dazzling magic and touching romance, but the story of the undying love between a thief (Colin Farrell) and an attractive young woman dying of consumption (Jessica Brown Findlay of Downton Abbey, fans!) is so slow, bland, stilted, and silly that it never dazzles, never touches your heart. In fact, the dialogue is so stilted that it seems like the actors are performing live and having trouble remembering what to say next.

But the film's most disturbing element is Farrell's hairstyle: a buzz cut on the back and sides with a thick helmet of hair flopping down like Three Stooges Moe's Hitler mop. Ee, gads, man! I wanted to reach into the screen, yank him out, and rush him to Supercuts! Not only does he torment his viewers with this tonsorial atrocity throughout the early 1900s portion of the story, but when he appears in present-day NYC, he's still got the same haircut!

There is no magic in the world that could save this movie!

Paul W. S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator - the other Paul Anderson) delivers action, adventure, and visual spectacle in his swords-and-sandals-disaster epic Pompeii. The story moves expeditiously from the massacre of the family of a young Celt (Kit Harrington) in Britannia to gladiatorial games in Pompeii to falling in love with Cassia, a wealthy Roman girl (Emily Browning), to the machinations of an evil Roman senator (Kiefer Sutherland) – and after a few warning quakes and spouts of steam, the volcano doesn’t take long to erupt, right after the epic gladiatorial battle – just like in the classic film The Last Days of Pompeii (1935). The eruption of the famous volcano offers dazzling visuals – though the various stages of the eruption are timed to fit between segments of action involving Milo the Celt’s rescue of Cassia –and we get a dramatic variety of deaths by collapsing buildings, earthquake fissures, raining rocks, a tsunami-like flood, molten boulders, and the culminating pyroclastic (fast-moving wave of ash and rock) flow. (Actually, it was the heat 572 degrees Fahrenheit that killed most of the people.) This movie is all about entertainment, and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius is worth seeing.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Movies Monthly - January

Last year I posted on just about every movie I saw in theaters, shortly after viewing each. This year, my 6th year of movie blogging at Little Worlds, I plan to post a monthly review of all the movies I see in theaters.

2014 began with viewings of 2013 movies that saw wider release in 2014.

I really enjoyed Her, Spike Jonze’s poignant mix of fancy and romance with Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a lonely man who conducts a romantic relationship with his highly intelligent operating system, OS1 (voice by Scarlett Johansson) who calls herself Samantha. The film explores what constitutes love. Could you fall in love with someone who is just a voice? Well, considering that empathy, common interests, and listening are crucial elements in any relationship, I think it is totally possible. Without a doubt, I could fall in love with Scarlett Johansson’s voice. I also enjoyed the film’s very possible sci-fi technology: voice-control operating systems. Liked the scene in which Theodore downloads the snazzy-looking software. Love it when Theodore gets jealous about Samantha spending too much time hanging out with “other operating systems.” Yikes! Those other OS’s were studs!

Another 2013 release I caught was August: Osage County, the film based on the Tracy Letts play. It features a cast of many talented actors and actresses, though Julianne Nicholson as the sensitive middle daughter, Ivy, and Chris Cooper as Uncle Charles stand out over the histrionics of Meryl Streep as the pill-popping Violet Weston. Have to say that Julia Roberts did a good job – one of her best performances. While not as compelling or even as funny and wild as the play – a typical Lettsian romp into extremes – this film version of the Broadway hit offers some memorably touching and funny moments. “Eat the fucking fish, bitch.”

In Lone Survivor Mark Wahlberg plays a sole-surviving Navy Seal in a squad that gets into trouble in the mountains of Afghanistan. Taylor (John Carter, Battleship, Savages) Kitsch plays the squad leader; I really like him as an action hero. Three of the heroes are transformed by graphic, very bloody wounds and their crucifixion-like deaths into Christ-figures flagellated by their suffering in a war in which they have offered themselves up as sacrifices. The movie features gorgeous outdoor exteriors of rugged mountains and some gripping action, but it ultimately deflates due to excessive patriotic propaganda and a final firefight in which the film turns into a montonous shoot-‘em-up and Wahlberg’s bad acting gets in the way.

Dallas Buyers Club is a touching but disturbing portrait of a man dying of AIDS as he endeavors to avail himself and other sufferers of the unapproved drugs that might help them. Following in the bony fashion of Michael Fassbender in Hunger and Christian Bale in The Machinist, Matthew McConnaughey must have starved himself to play the emaciated Ron Woodroof whose desperate entrepreneurial drive extends his own life and alleviates some of the torture that other victims are enduring. McC. is superb as Woodroof, as is Jared Leto as Rayon, a transvestite dying of the virus. The scene in which Rayon dresses in a male suit to beg his bitterly disappointed banker father for cash is a subtle, superbly rendered scene.

In The Invisible Woman, directed by Ralph Fiennes, Dickens comes to life, as portrayed by Fiennes, and Felicity Jones is perfectly cast as the young actress, Nellie Ternan, with whom Charlie carries on a clandestine affair during the latter years of his brilliant career. Though the relationship between Dickens and Ternan is not adequately developed, Fiennes’s performance and the rich art direction stand out as strengths. Fiennes invests himself heartily in the role of Dickens, showing how the gregarious genius encouraged parties to go on until 5:00 AM by captivating his company with his jokes, tales, games, and acts of mesmerism. The meticulously rendered sets and the palpable atmosphere transport the viewer as though by time machine to mid-1800s Victorian England. The film leaves you hankering to dive into a big fat novel by Boz.

Jason Reitman makes Labor Day a tense, visually poetic (shades of Malick) drama about a benevolent escaped convict named Frank (Josh Brolin) who hides out in a house with willing hostages Adele (Kate Winslet), a manic-depressive, agoraphobic divorced woman and her insecure son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith). The fine acting and the memorable atmosphere are strengths here – and even though this may not be one of the best films of 2013, it certainly has one of the most memorable scenes, a sensuous and sensual episode involving Frank, Adele, and Hank making a peach pie. Wow! Makes you want to dash to the kitchen and make a pie! But writer/director Reitman should have allowed this central scene to stand in isolation, and should have settled on an ambiguous ending. Instead, he ventures into a cutesy happy ending that takes the peach pie element and turns it into the kind of device book publishers, looking for readers’ club darlings, love to froth over.

I guess I started off the actual 2014 movie year with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Top-heavy title, top-heavy acting by Kenneth Branagh, but very snappy direction by Branagh. Chris Pine as hot-shot CIA agent Jack Ryan and Keira Knightley as his gutsy fiancé drive the action throughout this been-there-done-that plot. But there are some genuinely suspenseful moments.