Saturday, December 7, 2013
Masterfully and vividly, Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace renders two sordid worlds: a depressed Pennsylvania steel mill town and the seedy hillbilly locales of the New Jersey Appalachians. Shots of Braddock, the mill town, will remind you of the memorable depiction of the steel mill town in The Deer Hunter; the plot will remind you of Cimino's film as well. A roadside hangout and a rotting crack house are memorably portrayed in the New Jersey scenes. Thus, the film is visually gripping from beginning to end – scene after scene.
In addition, the film provides a feast of talented, naturalistic acting by Woody Harrelson, Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, and Sam Shephard. The acting is tremendous. Bale portrays Russell's development throughout the story very well, and I am always riveted by Casey Affleck's acting. Love the scene in which Russell meets the New Jersey boss (Harrelson) and they stand, faces inches apart, Harrelson sucking on a lollipop. "I'm supposed to think he's a badass because he sucks on a lollipop?" I love Casey's understated delivery and his uneasy smirks or half-laughs.
Within a running length of 116 minutes, the film is epic – following Russell Baze in his attempts to save his brother, Rodney, (Affleck), traumatized by his experiences in Iraq, from compulsive gambling that leads him into the dangerous world of bare-knuckles boxing – a competition ruled here by a mean son of a bitch from New Jersey (Harrelson), whose conscienceless brutality is established in the film’s outrageously shocking opening scene. The story takes Russell to prison and back to Braddock where he devotes himself to saving his brother, which leads him into the hellish den of New Jersey degenerates that spell Rodney’s downfall.
I was gripped by visuals and performances throughout two thirds of this film. Then, when things get inextricably hopeless for Russell, the plot doesn’t really know where to go – or it knows where to go and doesn’t go there expeditiously enough. Too bad. For the majority of its length, this is one of the best films I’ve seen all year. But it takes you on an epic journey into a present-day hell only to leave you hanging in an unsatisfying limbo.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
At first, watching Disney’s new animated feature Frozen, a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Snow Queen, you’ll feel like you’re back watching Disney’s Tangled. Anna (Kristen Bell) is secluded in the castle (just like Rapunzel in her tower) because no one is allowed near her older sister, Elsa (Idina Menzel), who has a bad case of the icy touch that turns everything frozen. Then she sings “For the First Time in Forever,” a rousing, touching piece – but it sounds too much like the hit song, “I See the Light” from Tangled. Like Rapunzel, Anna dreams of escape so she easily falls in love with the handsome and charming but ultimately treacherous Prince Hans (Santino Fontana).
So far it's a case of déjà vu, but then Elsa submits to fear and anger and all frozen wasteland ensues! When Elsa runs away to the mountain, and Demi Lovato sings “Let it Go” as the Snow Queen transforms the top of the mountain into a dazzling palace of ice, the film achieves a spectacular moment of song and stunning images. There are lots of funny moments with Anna and her faithful hunky Norwegian mountain man, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), but Elsa steals the show when she wields that icy touch that threatens to bury her kingdom in a polar icecap.
As for the ubiquitous Disney movie sidekick, I just don't get Olaf, the sharp-angled snowman with the big mouth who keeps losing his head or his butt. The Lion King has a warthog and a meerkat who fit right into the trappings of the African setting. The Little Mermaid has a Jamaican crab. Mulan has a sassy ornamental dragon, albeit voiced by Eddie Murphy. But this goofy snowman just doesn't look like he fits into a film whose art direction captures the color, textures, and images of its Norwegian setting and its fairytale world. Amidst the film's classic fairytale aesthetics, Olaf just looks like he belongs in a cheesy Christmas special with songs by Burl Ives.
Monday, December 2, 2013
The Book Thief, directed by Brian Percival, is a beautiful movie about death. But this is not a failing. As narrated by Death (Roger Allam), the film adaptation of the classic young adult novel is a piercingly poignant treatment of growing up during wartime as seen through the eyes of a young Liesel, an illiterate girl who learns to read and learns the power of words over the injustices of Hitler’s Germany and the tragedies that ensue. At the same time, in contrast with the scenes of death, fear, and intolerance, this is a very visually pleasant film, thus providing dramatic visual irony.
As Liesel, Sophie Nélisse is charmingly beautiful in her touching performance of the little orphaned girl who lives in a small German town full of ordinary people who suffer because of a war brought on by the evils of Nazism. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are also memorably touching as the parents who adopt her.
With its images of snow and the shops and houses of a quaint German town – with its central image of a blonde-haired girl with dazzlingly big eyes learning the wonders of reading – even with the juxtaposition of sinister yet colorful Nazi flags – the film takes on the look and feel of a fairy tale, much like the story told by Liesel in an underground shelter to take people’s minds off the bombs. And in this fairy story atmosphere, Liesel is an enchanting fairytale princess, brave and noble, in a story in which not everyone lives happily ever after.
Narrator Death takes pride in that the soldiers charging into battle or not running toward glory; they are running toward Death. And Death exacts his toll with ease, but he admits that he is “haunted by humans.” Indeed, he should rightly be haunted by the strength of young Liesel that shines through her fairy princess beauty. Sophie Nélisse's performance is beautiful. She portrays Liesel’s strength of soul in every scene. She makes the film a very touching experience, while the film's attention of detail, lighting, and color make this a film worth watching.
Monday, November 25, 2013
I have read all three books in The Hunger Games series, and I enjoyed them, although Collins could have easily combined all three books into a fast-paced one-off novel that would have been a much more satisfying reading experience. But, as money-making strategies would have it, trilogies – even stories that don’t warrant a trilogy – are the thing these days in the struggling publishing industry. Unfortunately, the book-movie trilogy, with the final book divided, oh horrors, into two movies is also a thing in the movie industry. Profits and the fans demand the cinematic clones the books they love with a passion, in this case, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Indeed, those fans are passionate, flocking to opening night and chuntering over any omissions from the story. Consequently, what you get is a bland, visually uninteresting, crippled story, performed by stilted or unrestrained performers, that plays like a TV episode.
There is nothing touching, compelling, gripping, or remarkable about Catching Fire. In every scene, Jennifer Lawrence as the girl-empowering character Katniss Everdene looks as puffy, uncomfortable, and gaudily costumed as Elizabeth Taylor in the epic bomb Cleopatra. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, the baker boy who really has no talent when it comes to gladiatorial combat, looks like he belongs in a surfer movie or a movie about a preppie college grad trying to make it on Wall Street. In supporting roles, Stanley Tucci as the game show host overacts so much he has trouble keeping his feet, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the game-master, looking like he's not even wearing a costume, delivering his lines tonelessly, is nearly invisible. The bland sets look hastily fabricated. One shot of chariots parading around a vast CGI race track, reminiscent of Ben-Hur, is briefly thrilling. The final gladiatorial combat is brief, gimmicky, and unexciting. In a lapse of sanity, the writers include the gimmick of the arena sections rotating like a clock, but then they do nothing dramatic with the infernal gimmick.
Whose fault is cloning books as movies? Was it Peter Jackson who kowtowed to Tolkien fans to make three endlessly faithful installments out of Lord of the Rings? Was it that Twilight thing? Or can we blame it all on Harry Potter? Why do we need movies that are essentially clones of the book? I don't understand. Perhaps books like Twilight and The Hunger Games are not substantial enough to be lastingly satisfying in themselves. Reading a book like that, you get the feeling of wanting more because there just isn’t enough there. Not getting enough in the book, fans yearn for more in the book-movie clone, one of the many genre mutations, along with sequels, TV show adaptations, and superhero episodes that seem to make up the majority of movies released during the year.
Saturday, November 23, 2013
In his epic examination of an 18-year-old girl named Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) who discovers her attraction to other women and immerses herself in a passionate love affair with an older woman named Emma (Léa Seydoux), director Abdellatif Kechiche favors close-ups and realism. Consequently, you get a lot of close-ups of eating, especially shots of people stuffing themselves with huge forkfuls of spaghetti and, of course, you get close-ups of kissing and nearly real-time lovemaking between Adèle and Emma. You might think the film didn’t need so many shots of eating or kissing or sucking, but all of the eating and lengthy lovemaking are part of the film’s effective naturalism that successfully portrays the intensity and emotion of Adèle’s love for Emma.
Adèle Exarchopoulos, easily my choice for Best Actress so far this year, with her soft, dark eyes, her round cheeks, and her full lips, fares well in all the close-ups and delivers a performance so real that you find yourself wishing she’d wipe the snot from her lip when she sobs over her break-up with her lover. As a teenager finishing high school, focusing on French literature, Adèle loves reading, loves eating – which she does a lot – and yearns for companionship. She hangs around with a clique of friends, but they are none too sensitive or helpful when it comes to Adèle’s search for her identity and her yearning for sensuality which, I suppose, is what the eating is all about. In one excellent scene, she finds herself in an explosive argument when her so-called friends accuse her of being a lesbian. It is the most realistically staged heated argument I've seen in a while.
But Adèle doesn’t stay with these friends for very long. She falls in love with Emma, discovers an insatiable desire for sensuality, becomes a teacher, and demonstrates a penchant for teaching little children. In another realistically staged scene involving a lengthy party thrown by Emma for her artsy friends who ramble on about existentialism and orgasms, Adèle starts to realize that Emma's world might not be the right fit for her. Adèle is growing up, learning her place in the world, and making mistakes that lead to a lot of emotional pain for her. Throughout this three-hour odyssey, Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adèle is always engaging as an actress. She makes it impossible not to care about this young woman learning the hard way who she is and what her place in the world might be.
Saturday, November 2, 2013
Steve McQueen’s powerful film 12 Years a Slave works best in its minimalist single-shot scenes without dialogue.
When Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiotor), a freeman kidnapped and sold into bondage, resists the brutality of an overseer (Paul Dano), his owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) is forced to leave him hanging by the neck with only the pressure of his toes in the mud preventing him from strangulation. Behind him, slave women go about their chores, too afraid to show sympathy.
In another shot, Solomon simply stares out across the plantation, his eyes looking for hope but seeing none.
Indeed, Ejiotor’s performance as Solomon is excellent. He does a tremendous job of etching Solomon’s growing anguish in his face. Meanwhile, the scenes of cruelty that Solomon and other slaves are subjected to are very difficult to watch - but that's as it should be, and I'm glad they're difficult to watch.
Another consistent strength is the atmosphere established by the film’s authentic settings. Here, everything looks lived in, which is very much unlike many highly acclaimed historical films – especially films that depict slavery. Every scene has a realistic gravity to it and an atmosphere you can feel. As the drone of the cicadas grows louder and louder – a sound effect that suggests this film would do quite well without a musical score – you can feel the humid air and smell the mold and rot. In an early montage, the clash of a stoker's shovel and the rhythmic splashing of a riverboat's stern wheel accompany Solomon's descent into slavery in the South and suggest the throbbing of his petrified heart. As for the music, Hans Zimmer borrows heavily from his score for The Thin Red Line, and although that score’s quiet but brooding strains are appropriate here, this did more to irritate me than settle me into the drama.
In a film that seeds name actors throughout a story played mostly by lesser known actors or unknowns, one hopes the stars, whose faces we associate so much with now, won’t disturb the film’s ability to take us back in time to then. Paul Giamatti, as a slave dealer, is disguised enough and restrained enough in his performance that the power of this disgusting sequence is not diluted. Of all the stars, Benedict Cumberbatch, as a reluctant slaver owner, detracts the least from the film’s gravity and provides touching commentary on what it must have been like for someone morally opposed to a pernicious institution that so many people accepted. His performance is sensitive and subdued. Paul Dano as a sadistic, hickish, degenerate bastard of a racist borders on caricature and jolts you out of the drama’s grasp. Michael Fassbender’s character is a fascinating one: Edwin Epps, a Bible fanatic whose obsession with his power over human slaves has turned into aberrance and perversion. But some of his scenes go on too long, as Fassbender leans toward overacting, and some of Epps’s perversions lean toward the kind of one-sided propaganda typical of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that drove Southerners wild with rage.
Though not a perfect triumph, 12 Years a Slave is still a significant success for Ejiotor’s performance and the film’s uncanny ability to depict a sordid chapter in our history that we’ve seen so memorably in period photographs but have never seen as convincingly in a film.