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.