Tuesday, November 17, 2015

International Flair!

The last few days have been hard. The icy talons of terrorism have attempted to rip Paris asunder and that's caught the attention of the US in ways that other attacks have not. What action to take and when and how are questions that have yet to be answered, but I suspect that we've entered a whole new chapter in the "War on Terror" and wars are never clean-cut and upright as we'd like to think.

So, in the meantime, three movies to consider.

First up, the new James Bond action flick, SPECTRE. James Bond has always been about undeclared wars - espionage as a less-bloody substitute for Flanders Field. I've enjoyed Daniel Craig as Bond - he's brought a certain weariness to the role and, if his Bond isn't quite as superhuman as previous models, he's also more realistic while still retaining elements of the "gee, wow!" variety. For me, Skyfall is still the high-water mark of the Bond films, but SPECTRE is quite respectable. (Should that be "re-spectre-ble"?? No. That won't do.)

I have a suspicion that pre-production on a Bond film must involve a meeting of the higher-ups who say, "All right, then. Where do we want to visit under the guise of filming this time?" SPECTRE has some lovely scenery in it, beginning with a massive Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico. All sorts of hijinks ensue and Bond winds up saving the day. Honestly, if you like Bond films, you'll love this one. If you don't, you won't.

Next, the "didn't we see this happen live?" movie The 33. This dramatization of the 2010 Chilean miner rescue had a number of hurdles to overcome. The world watched this happen (it's estimated that one billion - yes, with a "b" - watched at least part of this event), so the director was going to have to make us forget that we knew the outcome. It's an international cast and Mexican-born director Patricia Riggen insisted the actors speak English as well as Spanish with a Chilean accent. The real-life leader of the trapped miners, Mario Sepulveda (played with intensity by Antonio Banderas) served as supervisor of the extras on the film and several other miners had production roles as well. The film features and international cast including American James Brolin (it's a small role, but he plays it with relish), Frenchwoman Juliette Binoche (who plays Maria Segovia, whose kid brother is one of the trapped miners), and Irish Gabriel Byrne as the chief engineer trying to free the miners. This is a movie that gets faith right - I've complained loudly about the low-quality of many "faith-based" movies in which nonbelievers as well as the faithful are cardboard cutouts. In The 33, faith is an integral part of the miners' lives - you see it in the shrine at the mouth of the mining shaft, the rosaries most of the men wear, the prayers that are offered up by family members, and so on. It's just there, so it doesn't have to be remarked upon. While the film takes dramatic license with a number of events (and people!) to fit 69 days into 2 hours, it contains some lovely scenes, including one in which the trapped miners hallucinate eating their favorite foods with their loved ones as a Bellini aria soars upward. The 33 says some wonderful, lyrical things about family, love, and tough times drawing people closer. I say go see it. If for no other reason, it was the last complete film James Horner (Avatar, Titanic, Braveheart, Aliens and more than 150 more) scored prior to his death earlier this year.

And it contains this bit of wisdom: "You're going to hug her and cry like a baby. You'll forgive her for everything she's ever done and you'll pray to God that she forgives you."

Last, one from the vaults. Jean Renoir's (yes, the son of the Impressionist painter who liked pretty places and prettier people) anti-war film from 1937, La Grande Illusion. So much has been written about this film that I'm only going to hit the highlights. It's a war film without combat. It's the first film selected to be part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. It was the first foreign film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. It indirectly caused the Cannes Film Festival to come into existence. (Really. When the film had to share top prize at the Venice Film Festival with Reifenstahl's hymn to Nazism Olympia, organizers thought there had to be a better way. Oh, and the film didn't get the original top prize at the Venice festival, since the Mussolini Cup (what?!?!) couldn't very well be given to a film that was banned in Italy.)

La Grande Illusion takes on the notions of class and a vanishing way of combat. Fighter pilots tended to be officers and officers tended to be aristocrats, so there are touches of civility in the decidedly uncivil occupation of war - for instance, the Germans send a lush memorial wreath to the French in a gesture of honoring a fallen enemy that is downright Klingon in its heart, if not its tone. What characters have in common has far more to do with their calling and class than their nationality. It's truly a film that film lovers should see, for La Grande Illusion is the beginning of what can be called humanist cinema.

And I think we could all use a little humanity right about now.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Oscar Bait - Round One

During the last quarter of the year, studios begin bringing out their "prestige" pictures, which are films designed to catch the fancy of the awards-granting community. Often, these films are more serious in tone, anchored by A-list performances, and intended to be far more "arty" than the summer blockbuster season.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

 From the trailer, you could be forgiven for thinking that Guillermo del Toro's gothic Crimson Peak is a horror movie. Indeed, there is gore and scare here, but this film is far more melodrama than horror - and I mean that in a good way. If you're expecting Pan's Labyrinth 2, you'll be disappointed. (Then again, why would you expect that? Del Toro doesn't repeat himself.) Peak is delightfully over-the-top in terms of taking stock characters - the blonde damsel, the penniless cad, the raven-haired spinster sister, the honest doctor, etc. - and giving them dark, dark twists. Melodrama is characterized by moremoreMORE! and Peak has that in bundles. The decrepit mansion hiding a sinister secret! The isolated countryside! And more Georgia clay that you'll find in Gone with the Wind. If you go into Peak knowing that you're going to see something that is far more Grimm fairytale crossed with Wuthering Heights than straight-up horror decked in lace, you'll  probably find yourself enjoying it tremendously. Marvel at the inability of homeowners to patch a hole in the roof! Cringe at the combination of open flame and waist-length tresses! Speculate on the sheer amount of yardage in the costumes! And be on the lookout for butterflies and moths! I say catch this on the big screen just for the visual feast that del Toro has provided to you - Peak is lush, rich, and unlike anything else you're likely to see this year. Featuring Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, and Mia Wasikowska.

Steve Jobs, on the other hand, left me a bit confused. Michael Fassbender does a fine Job here (sorry - bad puns sometimes sneak in), Kate Winslet is having fun as his long-suffering (funny how everyone in Jobs' inner circle can be described as "long suffering." The man may have been an obsessive visionary, but he was also an ass), talk-him-down-from-a-ledge, right hand Joanna Hoffman, and Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels turn in solid performances, yet the film just doesn't seem to really go anywhere. The film, which is based off Walter Isaacson's 2011 book, covers the period from 1984, when the highly-touted Macintosh was launched (which nearly destroyed the company) to 1998, when the iMac was launched. This gives the audience ample time to see Jobs be a jerk to his co-founder and best friend, his CEO, his engineers, his assistant, and his daughter. The use of product launches to frame the events of the film is interesting, but ultimately, it doesn't help the film progress in any way other than marking time. Truly a puzzlement. Rent it if you like, but it's also fine to pass on this one. Directed by Danny Boyle.

Burnt - ah, this is a fun one! My co-host and I have been agreeing too often lately and Burnt breaks that streak decisively. Everything I enjoyed about this film, Ensley hated. Not disliked - actively hated. (Which should at least make for an interesting show when we review it!) No doubt about it, Burnt is Oscar bait for Bradley Cooper, an incredible actor who has been nominated for three consecutive acting Oscars but has yet to take the award home. Here, he plays a superstar chef (Adam Jones) who has thrown away his opportunities through addiction (far more common in the restaurant world than you might think, by the way - it can be a hard-partying life when your work ends after midnight) and general bad-boy behavior. He's burned every bridge he had and done a sort of self-imposed penance (also, he fled to avoid some bad debts) and wants back into the world of Michelin-starred, incredibly high-end restaurants. His addictions are under control (and he's blood-tested weekly to make sure of that), but he's still a raging jerk to others around him. The behavior is tolerated for the sake of that elusive third Michelin star and people will overlook a lot when they think you're pursuing perfection. I thoroughly enjoyed Cooper's performance; Ensley wanted to walk out. I agree that Burnt celebrates the bad-boy chef (sort of like Steve Jobs does, only here Adam Jones actually makes the things he's obsessing about) and there is a romantic subplot that feels terribly tacked on and is a waste of Sienna Miller, but I can't help it - it's fun seeing Cooper rip things up. Who knew the American Sniper would get so upset over an overdone scallop? Oscar loves a redemption story, and Burnt has it in ten-foot letters, complete with a buffet. However, Oscar also loves a winner, and this film is not doing well at the box office. It's a rental - there's really nothing here that demands to be seen on the big screen - but I say give it a try. Directed by John Wells.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Scary Things

Somehow, I've gotten terribly behind with the blog, so I have to double up a bit in this post. I want to briefly discuss two new releases and one that's available outside of theaters. What all three films have in common is a certain "scare" factor.

 First, Ridley Scott's The Martian, which focuses on the triple fears of isolation, abandonment, and impending doom. Based on Andy Weir's captivating 2011 novel of the same name, Scott assembles a star-studded cast (Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, among others) to tell the story of Mark Watney, an American astronaut who gets left behind when a Mars mission goes terribly wrong. I think Matt Damon captures Watney's wry wit - there's a bit about Watney being a "space pirate" that's laugh-out-loud funny, for example. However, the film cuts out a good deal of the problem-solving that made the novel so compelling and, in a few places, just gets things flat-out wrong. (No, you can't use a teensy hole in your spacesuit to guide you toward your rescue ship, mostly because you'd have a bad case of the deads.) Weir likes science - in fact, he claims science makes a wonderful plot device - and it's a bit of a shame to see that serious thinking watered-down to a basic thrills-and-adventure plot. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film and would love to see it spark interest in manned space missions again. Seriously, why don't we have a moon base yet?

Second, Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, which deals with the fear of trickery, war, and back-door deals. Okay, look - you pretty much can't go wrong with the combination of Tom Hanks, Spielberg, and American can-do attitude. In addition to working with Hanks on a number of other projects as producer, Spielberg has directed Hanks in Saving Private Ryan (where we also had to rescue Matt Damon - between that and Interstellar, Damon ought to just stay home by the fire), Catch Me If You Can, and The Terminal. Here, Hanks is in full Jimmy Stewart mode and by that, I mean he's playing a solid, honest, decent man (James Donovan) who is convinced that the rule of law will lead to the light. When called upon to defend a Soviet national accused of espionage at the height of the Cold War, he takes the unwelcome assignment (he's an insurance attorney, not a high-powered government lawyer, which is an interesting story in itself) because he truly believes that the Constitution's guarantee of a competent defense is a cornerstone of our legal system. (He's right, by the way.) His client is guilty as original sin, but Donovan's arguments spare his client the death penalty. A few years later, the pilot of one of our super-duper-top-secret U2 spy planes is shot down and Donovan is called into service to arrange for a prisoner exchange. Bridge of Spies is a compelling movie and it's at its absolute best detailing Donovan's tense days in Berlin arranging the spy swap at the very time the Berlin Wall is going up. Sure, the film takes a few liberties with the story (and there's far too little smoking for the time period!), but an amazing film and one well worth seeing in these cynical times.

Lastly, the 2014 Australian horror-thriller The Babadook. I can't say much about this without worrying about giving something important away, so I'll be brief. This film, the first major release by Jennifer Kent, scared the bejeezus out of me. There's a bit of gore, but it's mostly "head scare" and reality gets very, very warped in the hour and a half run time. One thing this film does masterfully is set you off-kilter. My allegiances changed as I started the film sympathizing with one character and found myself moving to viewing that character as the Evil of the film. What's real? What's the mind capable of believing? And how much can untreated traumas manifest in our world? The Babadook is a film that made me cringe, jump, and actually think - and many others agree with me. Don't miss this one.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Let the Grown-Ups Work

Two new films deal - in very different ways - with grown men who are at odds with the world around them. In Black Mass, small-time gangster James "Whitey" Bulger sees opportunity and ruthlessly moves to expand his sphere of influence while in The Intern, retired phone book manufacturer Ben Whittaker seeks to fill his days by working at an internet start-up.

 Black Mass purports to be the story of how far loyalty can stretch when one boy grows up to become an FBI agent and another grows up to become a gangster with his fingers in the criminal pies of extortion, loan sharking, drugs, and everything else an FBI agent is supposed to stop. (I say "purports" because there's some question about how much is true - a common problem with biopics.) Wanting to bring down the Italian mob more than wanting to bust an old friend from Southie, Agent John Connolly convinces his onetime friend, James Bulger, to become an informant. He won't be a rat, you understand - rats are bad - but he'll be able to clean out the old neighborhood.

Bulger understands very well. Nature, and crime, abhor a vacuum, so as the Italians go away, Bulger takes over. Played by Johnny Depp is one of his most compelling performances ever, Bulger is the picture of the neighborhood gangster. He's kind to little old ladies and probably tells kids to stay in school, but he's absolutely ruthless when crossed and he doesn't bother to ask anyone else to do his dirty work - Bulger's fine killing with his bare hands. It's an astonishing performance and the supporting cast (which includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, and Jesse Plemons) is very strong. In fact, the performances are probably a shade better than the story, which can seem choppy in places. However, Black Mass is well worth seeing, even if it just to remind you that behind Depp's campy romps is an actor who has honed his craft to a fine edge.

In another generation, The Intern would have been a Cary Grant movie.* Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) answers an ad seeking senior citizens to be interns at "About the Fit," an internet clothing company that was established by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). The company isn't even two years old and Jules has over 200 employees, as well as a husband and daughter. She's trying to juggle her responsibilities in all these areas of her life and, while she means well, she's making a hash of it all. Ben might not be familiar with the technological whosits, but he's the voice of calm reason and picture of style. (Side note - yes, men should carry handkerchiefs - I married a man who does and it certainly does get noticed!) This film doesn't really have any sharp edges; it's a throwback to a quieter sort of comedy and while not all of it quite holds together (I think writer/director Nancy Meyers lets Jules' husband off too easily and the film praises overwork more than I think it ought to), The Intern will become a late-night movie staple. See it in the theaters first.

*One of the later ones - maybe Walk Don't Run.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Company Manners

This weekend, I went to see M. Night Shyamalan's new movie, The Visit. The movie is fine - with a PG-13 rating, it's filled with jump-scares rather than actual gore and the two young actors playing the leads (Olivia DeJonge as Becca and Ed Oxenbould as her younger brother Tyler) are certainly actors to watch. Although Shyamalan has an interesting idea in having Becca be a film-obsessed teen making a documentary of her experiences, it means far, FAR too much shaky-cam for my taste. (Then again, it provides an excellent way to cheat actually seeing gore and build the dread, plus it provides a few lovely moments about the nature of filmmaking.) Plus, you really could just tell the ticket window that you want a ticket to see "Scary Grandparents," and they'll know exactly what movie you mean. As with all of Shyamalan's movies, the "twist" (the twist! THE TWIST!) is centered in the hard reality that strange things have a reasonable explanation, albeit one that's dark.

Honestly, when it comes to The Visit, I think it's probably a rental rather than a big-screen must-see, and if you're one of those who keeps giving Shyamalan a chance based on his being crowned "the next Steven Spielberg" ten years ago (and wondering when that's going to happen), fine, go see it.

My real focus here is on something I never thought I'd need to spell out. But here goes - ahem. A tutorial for people attending movies in 2015.

1. The people on the screen can't actually hear you. I get it. Part of the fun of seeing a scary movie is being scared. Presumably, you've paid your money based on that premise and haven't wandered into the wrong theater. Jumping, yelping, and (yes) the occasional "Don't go there!" are perfectly acceptable - and can add to the overall experience (the audience helped me immensely during The Conjuring - they were having such fun that I let loose and enjoyed myself more than I normally would have. Honestly, it's just not a good movie.) However, during my daytime viewing of The Visit, the audience was loudly commenting on the behavior and appearance of every character onscreen. This means they were forgetting a basic point of movie-watching . . .

2. That little ticket in your hand means you're not in your living room. I cannot adequately express my grief and rage at this lack of courtesy. As a fan of MST3K and its progeny, yes, I've been known to snark my way through movies I watch at home. Yes, I've even been known to comment on Beach Blanket Bingo and Jason & the Argonauts when shown to small groups. I don't squawk during films shown in my classes, nor do I yap during movies I - and the people around me - have paid good coin to see as a general practice. (I'm looking at you, Transformers 4 and Star Trek: Into Darkness - you pushed me off the path of righteousness). It's a basic rule - if you're not part of the show, you're there to be entertained. You're not part of the entertainment itself, so shut up. (Sorry to be so blunt.) I've paid good money to watch the shenanigans onscreen, not to listen to you and you're not there to listen to me. Let's agree on that point and eat popcorn together in a show of unity.

3. For two hours, really - it's okay to NOT check your phone. I can't believe I even have to say this, but I do. Cell phones are both marvels of the modern age and a curse that may undo us all. They also come with a light-up screen which carries far, far further than you think it does in a darkened theater. No, don't text, tweet, Instagram, Facebook, or whatever else you're doing once the "Enjoy this digital feature presentation" comes on the screen - and even that's later than you should be electronically available. Once they remind you to cut off your phone, CUT OFF YOUR PHONE!

4. If you're not going to watch the credits, move along. I'm one of those oddballs who watches the credits. For me, a movie isn't over until I've seen the cast (including "3d Solider from the Left"), the crew (including "Junior Assistant Accountant"), songs (really? That was from Tosca?), caught the weird credits ("Cockroach Wrangler" is still a favorite of mine), and seen the IATSE logo. I get that many other viewers don't want to sit through the credits (I don't understand it, but I get it. Me, I'm watching every frame I paid for), but I can't tell you the number of times I've had people just stop and chat with their equally rude brethren in front of my seat, thus blocking the screen for me. Keep it moving, folks, and chat in the hallway once you're out of the theater.

I swear, I'm becoming more of a curmudgeon each day. But really - movie watching in a theater should be a shared experience with the other people in the audience and that requires a certain level  of respect and a willingness to form that community with the people there.

So - to recap. The characters can't hear you, hush, and turn off your phone. That way, you'll have far more to talk about after the credits roll.