Sunday, November 9, 2014

Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" is both a feast for the eyes and food for thought

Barring the outbreak of World War Four or another round of some Black Plague-like pandemic that might thin out the human population a bit, the day when Mankind must address the question of depleting the Earth's resources will certainly come.  I personally think it will come much, much farther down the road than most of the more fervent Environmentalist-Wackos claim it will, but I agree that it will happen someday.  What Mankind will do as that day approaches is the central question of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar.  Would Mankind look outwards to the stars to find a new home, possibly sacrificing ourselves and the lives of everyone we know in order to prevent our extinction, or would we be unable to put aside our own individual lives in order for our unknown descendants to have lives of their own?  

As I am childless, I cannot make any claim of being able to relate to the dilemma faced by Interstellar's main character.  I would suppose the scenario of knowing you may never see your child again, but that child and his/her offspring may live full lives versus remaining with your child while knowing he/she will not live very long would be fairly obvious - of course, you want your child to have the longest, fullest life possible, even at the cost of your own life.  At the risk of sounding pessimistic, though, I personally don't have enough faith in the ability of Mankind as a whole to be selfless enough to choose Mankind's survival over the survival of one's own immediate family.  I happen to believe that individuals, given the opportunity, will choose a self-serving course of action over one for the "Greater Good" 99.99% of the time, give or take a percentage point or two.  While I leave the question of whether I am right or wrong in that belief for some other essay, some of the characters in Interstellar seem to share my grim assessment of people's priorities.  However, I do find Interstellar to be a very hopeful, positive outlook on how some people in particular, and Mankind in general, may face that problem when it arises. 

The film shows us a time in our near-future, perhaps later this century, perhaps a bit farther off than that, when Humanity has all but exhausted the soil of Mother Earth.  Crops are no longer yielding enough to keep us alive, and the depleted soil billows in clouds of dust that create a new Dust Bowl era - one that stretches a bit farther than the American Midwest this time around (perhaps we could call this the "Eco-pocalypse").  A family consisting of a former NASA pilot named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), his fairly-grounded son, his head-in-the-clouds daughter named Murphy (as in Murphy's Law) and his father-in-law struggle to raise corn in the weak Texas soil.  An almost divine-appearing set of happenings and coincidences lead Cooper and Murphy to the hidden location of a now-underground NASA, as the space agency is now an off-the-record government agency.  In this future, the ignorant tax-paying masses demand their tax dollars be spent on needs more pressing to them than space exploration, but thankfully, a few more deeper-thinking folks still believe the subject to be important, so the work continues in secret.  

NASA is now conveniently headed by one of Cooper's former teachers, one Professor Brand, (played by Nolan's own little good-luck charm, Michael Caine), who fairly quickly convinces Cooper to pilot an exploratory mission into a conveniently-placed Einstein–Rosen bridge ("wormhole") near Saturn that leads to habitable planets in another galaxy, in order to find a new home for Mankind.  Leaving his family behind, Cooper, along with Brand's own physicist/astronaut daughter (Anne Hathaway), two other scientists and a couple of sarcastic robots, begins a decades-long mission into the wormhole.  By the end of the film, we see how all of those cosmic coincidences and lucky breaks fell into place, and how Mankind may ultimately play a part in its own salvation.

Much like Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece of science fiction/science prediction, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar is a story that begins with the question of what Mankind must do when we have reached a point in our evolution where we've gone as far as we can without becoming something else.  In the same vein as 2001, cosmic occurrences are placed in Mankind's path by unseen/unknown entities that act as motivators to drive Mankind to move forward when we seem to have lost the drive to do so on our own.  Unlike 2001, a fairly emotionally-sterile film by design, the notion of love as a force of nature, one that can affect not only decision-making, but actually play a part in natural occurrence, comes into play in this story.  More so than in any of his other previous films, Nolan uses the dynamic of family love as a driving factor, as we see how Cooper's relationship with both of his children suffer as they grow to adulthood without him, and how Professor Brand's own daughter believes her love for others might be a factor in the mission's direction.

Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan share credit for the screenplay, and their script does a phenomenal job of balancing such things as explanations of quantum physics with emotional insight into the human beings explaining them.  Maintaining the emotional power of the story among the fantastic visual effects is also attributable to the performances of the cast delivering the soul of that script, some of whom make the most of limited screen time.  Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain in particular, who portray the Cooper children in adulthood, both give powerful performances with their relatively little screen time, effectively conveying in different ways how abandoned they feel, and how their lives, along with the rest of Mankind, seem to be slowly spiraling to a halt as the Earth dies around them.  

Interstellar, much like Gravity from last year, uses its superb visual effects to emphasize the emotional impact of its story in a marvelous fashion.  I didn't find any of the effects sequences to be self-indulgent, and even more remarkable for a film with an almost-three hour running time, the effects never seem to overwhelm the movie's message.  The sound design in particular was Oscar-worthy, in my humble layman's opinion - the silence of space, then the abrupt thunder of ill-happenings when atmosphere is introduced, laid out in the 360-degree realm that is zero-gravity was fantastic.  The sound mix, however, had a few hiccups, as a few lines of dialogue were overwhelmed by the effects around the character speaking, but I suppose that could have been a case of McConaughey mumbling much like he does in those Lincoln commercials...

I have a list of filmmakers in my mind, composed of directors whose work will get me to buy a ticket, no matter what it is, and Christopher Nolan's name is on that list.  Much like he did with Inception, Nolan has created something that accomplishes a task that is much easier said than done - a movie that both greatly entertains me and forces me to spend several hours afterwards thinking very deeply about a subject. If there is anyone making films these days who can legitimately claim to be the heir-apparent to Stanley Kubrick, it is Nolan, and I do not say that solely because Interstellar may very well be this generation's 2001.  It is not the equal of that film, but it is certainly worthy of being included in any conversation along with it, and it is definitely one of the best films of this year.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

You want more Denzel? "The Equalizer" is at least good enough for that...

Viewing the film incarnation of The Equalizer, I found myself watching Denzel Washington dominate the screen, as he always does, and thinking of John Wayne.  Many film historians have debated how much of an “actor” John Wayne actually was, but there is almost universal agreement that he was first and foremost a “movie star” - a screen presence that demanded and drew in an audience’s attention, regardless of what character he may be portraying in any particular film, or how good a job of it he may be doing.  While I sincerely doubt anyone of sound mind would question Denzel Washington’s acting ability, I submit to you that he possesses that John Wayne-ish quality of the “movie star.”  Much like John Wayne once played something as ludicrous (for him) as Genghis Khan and audiences would still accept it out of their affection for his general screen presence, Washington can portray such extremely unlikely character types as spies/assassins at the ripe old age of 59 and pull it off, primarily because audiences love seeing him in anything he does.  No, Denzel would (probably) never wear a cowboy hat and ride a horse in a Western, but if he did, he’d make you want to watch him.   

This movie gives us one Robert McCall, an obviously-educated middle-aged gentleman who exudes kindness and compassion for those in his life, who yearns for a more quiet, Spartan life after some unexplained past in which he apparently was some sort of intelligence operative/assassin.  He even seems to have a touch of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, arranging silverware on tables in a just-so manner and mentally calculating to the second the path he will weave through imminent episodes of conflict (I know the concept of an OCD-riddled Law-Enforcement type has been explored in the TV series Monk, but let’s face it - that was a comedy; at least here, the notion is taken fairly seriously).  He works in a Boston hardware megastore during the day, assuming something of a Favorite-Uncle role to his younger coworkers, all the while keeping them guessing about his mysterious past.  He seems to find sleep all but impossible, however, and spends his nights sipping tea and reading classic literature in an all-night diner.  

A young call girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) who frequents the diner between clients becomes friendly with McCall, and when the Russian mobsters who control her put her in the hospital after she offends a client, McCall cannot maintain his self-imposed retirement any longer and decides to mete out some justice, primarily because, as he explains at one point, he is the one able to do so.  The resulting violence leads the Mob to send in an ex-Spetsnaz “cleaner” (Marton Csokas) to eliminate this do-gooder troublemaker and get all the illegal business money flowing again, and the intimate little war these two men wage on one another culminates in a Home-Depot-as-Hogan’s-Alley confrontation that will show you just how many ways one can use home improvement products to kill a man.

McCall displays almost superhuman calm in violent situations, a character trait perfectly suited for Washington’s screen presence.  The checking of his watch before and after a conflict - his grimacing silence while he treats his own wounds - his sitting at a table and holding the eyes of this film’s primary baddie - we see a gleam in his eye or feel a vibe from his body language in all these things that we’ve seen in numerous other performances he’s given through the years (Man on Fire and 2 Guns jump to mind), yet is always appropriate to the character and moment in which he’s giving it, and audiences always love it.  

The movie moves along at a deliberate pace, almost to the point of qualifying as “slow,” but the screenplay dribbles out just enough tidbits of information about McCall with just enough frequency to hold our attention.  There is much in Richard Wenk’s screenplay that is never explicitly stated or explained, namely just how McCall obtained his skills in infiltration and assassination, and precisely who the seemingly-former government-type (Melissa Leo) who aids and shelters McCall at one point is.  Strangely, I found this an interesting approach to telling the story.  Director Antoine Fuqua, who directed Washington to his Best Actor Oscar in Training Day, seems to understand his lead actor’s skills and wisely chooses to make this film a typical Denzel action picture, trusting Washington’s screen presence to hold our attention through a story formula that we’ve seen a few times before.

What I don’t understand is why we are to even call this movie The Equalizer, as A) it has so little in common with the late-1980s television series upon which it is (supposedly) based and B) the title is never uttered/mentioned throughout the movie, therefore having no meaning to anything in it.  Washington’s character sharing the name of Edward Woodward’s character from the TV show is about the extent of the similarities.  We don’t even get a snippet of the show’s oh-so-cool theme music, damn it!.  I’m not aware of any Star Trek-like following of the original TV show that might lead Sony/Columbia to believe using this title would result in a stampede at the box office larger than would just billing it as the latest Denzel Washington movie, but I must assume their marketing people are much smarter about such things than I am (insert sarcasm here).

The Equalizer is by no means a great film.  It’s a bit of a cliche’ movie, nothing we haven’t seen in countless thrillers, revenge yarns and vigilante flicks before it, but it’s done serviceably enough to be entertaining, and it also has the supreme benefit of having Denzel Washington in it.  He ain’t John Wayne, but he IS Denzel, after all, and he’s always worth watching.

Friday, August 1, 2014

"Guardians of the Galaxy" is Out-of-This-World Fun!

Can you imagine some young-buck producer trying to pitch this idea to some big-wig studio boss of yesteryear’s Hollywood?  Eager producer storms into studio head’s office and starts, “Hey, J.B.!  How ‘bout this? We take five characters from comic books that hardly anybody has heard of (only one of ‘em human, by the way, since the others are a green gal, a walking tree, a talking raccoon and an oversized literal-minded wrestler), and run ‘em all through space spitting out rapid-fire dialogue at each other; we fill the soundtrack with a bunch of songs from forty years ago (that most of the kids in the audience won’t have ever heard of), have ‘em fight a villain that wants to destroy everything just because he can, and make the movie’s climax the almost-destruction of a planet that has nothing to do with any of the characters! Whatta ya think, J.B.!?!?”

(studio boss takes long pull on cigar before speaking…) “Kid, get the Hell outta my office!”

Well, thankfully, old Jack Warner or Louis B. Mayer aren’t behind some desk at the Mouse House these days.  Behold the world-devouring behemoth that Marvel Studios has become!  Forget that Disney owns them - the House that Stan Lee Built would be ruling the world right now even without Disney’s might behind it.  Guardians of the Galaxy is without a doubt the most off-beat of all the entries Marvel Studios has created for its Cinematic Universe to date, and if it isn’t the most pure, all-out fun movie they’ve made yet, it’s only surpassed by the original Iron Man.  If ever there was a movie to fit the term “Popcorn movie,” this is it.

Attempting to summarize the plot would serve no purpose other than to create a less-than-stellar impres-sion of the movie, as it boils down to a megalomaniac bad guy who wants to kill everything/everybody want-ing some Orb that contains an Infinity Stone that would help him do exactly that, and lots of disparate characters who at first dislike each other coming together to prevent him from getting it.  It’s not a horribly original idea, but as Shakespeare (or some wise old soul or another) once said, there are only seven or eight really original stories in all of mankind’s history that have ever been told, anyway.  

The Orb, a Hitchcockian “Maguffin” if ever there was one, is never fully ex-plained, other than the Infinity Stone it contains, but who cares?   The beef Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) has with the Kree Empire over their peace treaty with the planet Xandar (just stay with me, folks) is murky at best, but again, who cares? The involvement of the mad Titan, Thanos (an uncredited and unrecognizable Josh Brolin), gives comic-book nerds like me a big thrill, but the average movie-goer may not feel a surge of nerd-gasm over it. Yet again, who cares??? The movie is fun, folks - I mean really, REALLY fun - and that’s what counts.

Rapid-fire smart-aleck one-liners abound here, as all five of the protagonists are very funny, and in five very different ways.  The wise-ass human thief Peter Quill/ ”Star-Lord” (Chris Pratt) seems to draw all the action to him, and will all-but-certainly begin to melt the tough exterior of the green space-ninja-badass Gamora before film’s end (one could begin to wonder just how many colors Zoe Saldana can play over the course of her movie career - I count three so far).  Sure, the Walking Tree only says three words over and over (“I AM GROOT”, croaked to great effect by Vin Diesel), but the timing of those words, and the actions and facial expressions that accompany those words, are priceless.  A computer-generated talking raccoon named Rocket may strike you as ludicrous, and it may very well be, but it works here, primarily due to Bradley Cooper’s voice-over performance, which would be Oscar-worthy if such a category existed.  All five characters fit a stereotype, yet all five seem to be in on the joke and exploit that knowledge to comedic effect.  One couldn’t ask more of a screenplay.  

Director James Gunn, whose primary claim to fame before now has been the indie horror/comedy Slither (which I have not yet seen, but really want to), has created such a fantastic mood for this mish-mash of science fiction, slapstick comedy and buddy/action movie that I marvel (no pun intended) at Marvel’s foresight in realizing how perfect he would be to bring this concept to the screen.  With so much going on in the script, he finds ways to relate important stuff to the audience in a way that we get it, or at least enough of it to keep us up to speed.  His use of the 70s-era pop tunes that litter the soundtrack is one way he keeps us grounded, and are almost part of the overall joke, as the characters all hear and react to them.  They keep us, the audience, rooted in the unbelievable story, too, reminding us that “Star-Lord” is just a dude from Earth, just like us (well, most of us, anyway).  

Guardians of the Galaxy has some of the same “vibe” that the rest of the Marvel movies do, but in some other hard-to-describe way, doesn’t really feel like a part of the same series.  Maybe because there is no “superhero” for the audience to latch on their attention, the movie feels separated from the Earth-bound flicks we’ve seen so far. Nonetheless, with Thanos as part of the mix, and given his post-credit appearance after the first Avengers film, we know all of these paths will meet at some cinematic point in the future, so we have that to look forward to. In the meantime, we have this movie, very possibly the most fun flick of 2014, to revel in, and thanks be to Nerd Heaven that Disney’s studio bosses these days seem to be a little more open-minded than those of olden days might have been.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Legends of the Fall" revisited

In the autumn of 1994, I saw Legends of the Fall on its original theatrical run.  I looked forward to this film for two reasons: Edward Zwick, the director of Glory, and Anthony Hopkins, whom I am yet to see give a bad performance in anything (and given his volume of work, that’s saying something).  I drove 45 miles to a “decent” movie theater, as I did for most all movies in those days, as my local theater was only worthy of bad porn.  I braced myself for what I was sure was going to be one of the best films of that year, as I sat in the dark and marveled at the panoramas of the Montana countryside, so beautifully photographed by Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll.  I fell a little in love with beautiful Julia Ormond, who so sadly vanished from the American movie scene for so many years after this film was released.  And then I left the theater greatly disappointed.

Why, you ask?  Because the hero and central focus of the movie, Brad Pitt’s Tristan, is a JACKASS!!  A completely spoiled rotten, irresponsible, unethical, self-centered JACKASS!!  Have I made it clear enough that he was an utter and total JACKASS!!??  I hope that I have.  Allow me to explain.

Hopkins portrays a grizzled old veteran of the Indian Wars of the 1870s, bitter at the Indian policy his government ordered him to enforce.  He ranches cattle now, a few years shy of World War I, and has three sons on this ranch, along with several Native American hangers-on.  His wife has long left him, but his youngest and oldest sons have their mother’s disposition.  Only the middle son, Pitt’s Tristan, is his father’s child.  After the youngest child, played by E.T.’s Henry Thomas, brings a European fiancee’ (Ormond) home, he leaves for the war in Europe, where he promptly dies.  This leaves the other two brothers to fight for their dead brother’s fiancee’s hand.  Got it?

I had thought that now, twenty years later, I might would see this film again and find something I had missed the first time and see it in a new light.  After a Braves game a week or so ago, insomnia sets in, so I spent an evening flipping around Netflix and stumbled across it amongst the suggestions the service so all-knowingly provides.  Never let it be said that wisdom will overpower insomnia, as I did the dumb thing and cued up the movie, and alas, two hours and fifteen minutes later, I find that I’m going to have a very long day at work the next day, and that my take on this flick hasn’t changed.

Just as I remembered, almost all of the parts here are wonderful, except for one very essential property: a worthwhile hero.  The plot comes from a novella of the same name, written by author Jim Harrison, whose work has been compared favorably to Faulkner’s and Hemmingway’s.  Of course, I’ve not read the source material, so I cannot speak as to how faithfully Zwick and his screenwriters adapted Tristan’s actions for the big screen.  I can (and will) speak of the film, and will state that the movie is not horrible at all, because it has several good things going for it.  The locations are lushly photographed, the costumes and sets are perfectly detailed, and all of the performances are terrific, even Pitt’s.  Here’s an example of how one can assemble the perfect cast, the perfect director and the perfect crew in the perfect setting and begin to make a can’t-miss film, only to end up with something less than perfect.  It is not the performance of Pitt’s character that lessens this film; it is the character itself.

Legends of the Fall has the feel of a grand American Epic, in the fashion of Red River and The Big Country (both of which are amongst my favorite Westerns of all time).  The story winds through the years after World War I and the Prohibition era, with the characters aging and changing as they advance in years and alter their outlook on the world.  In that sense, it is an epic.  However, in the course of the epic events happening in these characters’ world, we’re presented a case study of a family that is dysfunctional in epic proportions, and the obvious hero of the entire story is so self-centered, immature and asinine in his choices and behavior that I can feel no sympathy for him, only for the folks whom his choices affect, often disastrously so.

Leaving a woman who loves him alone with HIS family for years while he wanders the Earth in “search of himself” (and not even having the decency to drop her off in Europe with HER family while he’s headed that way) is just one of numerous instances where this odd son puts those closest to him through absolute Hell.  I’m reluctant to go into much more detail, because as I much as I may loathe this particular character, he is the protagonist of the film and describing his actions in detail would give away too much of the story.  But shouldn’t a protagonist be likable, or least bearable?  It must suffice to say that while I understand a tragic figure can make for good drama, a selfish, stupid one just makes for a tragically wasted film.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Ridley Scott's "The Counselor" leaves me in great need of counseling...

Here's a recipe for a Can't-Miss "Great Hollywood Film" - 1.) take an original screenplay from Cormac McCarthy, the author of such hallmarks of recent American literature as "The Road," "Blood Meridian" and "The Sunset Limited."  2.) Get epic-master Ridley Scott, the director of such crowd-pleasers as Gladiator, Alien and Blade Runner to direct.  3.) Assemble an all-star cast consisting of Oscar winners and nominees like Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt to bring the story to life.  Your result from mixing all these ingredients will without a doubt get you one of the greatest films ever made, no matter what they turn out, right?  Right?  Well...

I watched The Counselor around 8:00 on a Sunday evening, and I am writing this review about eighteen hours later.  I watched the unrated, extended home video edit of the film, not the version that played in theaters last fall and was so savaged by critics and what few moviegoers paid to see it.  I watched it without distraction and without interruption, so as to assure my full attention be devoted to it.  As a result, I have suffered a mostly-sleepless night afterward, having the reprehensible things depicted in this movie invade my dreams and keep me awake for a lot longer than a more enjoyable movie would.  I have struggled to decide just what I think, or more simply, how I even feel, about this film.  I’m still struggling, but perhaps crafting this essay will help me decide just what my final opinion should be. 

The Counselor weaves a tale (or tries to) of the titular El Paso lawyer (Fassbender), who is never referred to by any name other than “Counselor,” planning on making some sort of drug deal with a powerful, shadowy Mexican cartel; a one-time occurrence that will theoretically set up him and his bride-to-be (Penelope Cruz) financially for life.  Since he can only afford to fly to Amsterdam and buy a 3-carat stone for her engagement ring, he apparently needs the money something fierce.  He works with a fairly successful drug-dealer acquaintance (Bardem) and a middleman connection to the cartel (Pitt) to make a sale to dealers in Chicago.  Through a series of double-crosses and mistaken assumptions, the Counselor quickly finds just how incredibly naive he has been, how hopeless his predicament is, and how many people will suffer the consequences of his decisions. 

The plot, as much of one as there is, is fairly simple, and mostly unnecessary, as the bare-bones story structure is mostly a means to provide these characters opportunities to have McCarthy-esque philosophical conversations with one another, so I’ll spare you any deeper summarization than that.  Save for a few minor action/violence scenes to bridge scenes of dialogue, the film flows more like one of McCarthy’s stage plays, with a great number of scenes consisting primarily of two characters talking at great length. Of course, there is that much-talked-about scene with Cameron Diaz doing… oh, how shall I say it?... gynecologically immoral things to the windscreen of a Ferrari, but even that scene is a talking scene, a flashback playing over Javier Bardem’s character talking about the event to the Counselor. 

Cormac McCarthy always populates his stories with morally bankrupt figures, and he may have surpassed his quota here.  There are no redeemable characters to be found anywhere in this film, save for the Counselor’s poor fiancee’, although one might could claim the level of her innocence/naivete’ is almost so pathetically great that she deserves what she gets, too.  Cameron Diaz’ portrayal of the cheetah-spot tattooed, cheetah-keeping girlfriend/business manager Malkina is so vampy that it’s either a brilliant acting choice or her acknowledging the absurdity of the character, but I’m not sure which.  Even Brad Pitt is not stretching his acting chops much, as he seems to be pretty much playing the same character he portrayed in Thelma & Louise twenty-two years earlier, but perhaps twenty-two years older, and in the only place in life that character could’ve ended up.  Fassbender and Bardem, however, do a credible job, Bardem in particular chewing the scenery enough to convey his character’s feelings of inferiority when next to the sexually and intellectually superior Malkina. 

I can’t imagine that any of Cormac McCarthy’s written work would translate word-for-word to an audible presentation in any conversationally believable manner.  Now, I’ve never heard any of his works in audiobook form, so I suppose I can’t rule out that medium as a possible mean of enjoying his complex dialogue, but there is a reason that (until now) he has never penned the screenplay for any of his other works adapted to film.  Sure, previous movies based on his books are notable for characters waxing philosophic in rather dreary/poetic ways (think Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men or Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses), but the screenwriters of those films did a pretty reasonable job of following the Less-is-More rule.  The Counselor, being straight from Cormac McCarthy’s own hand, has no such filter, and for whatever reason, it seems Ridley Scott decided to film every bleepin’ word McCarthy wrote.  For example, Ruben Blades is in only one scene of the movie, speaking to the Counselor over the phone, giving a lengthy Hispanic/New Age-ish existential assessment of the Counselor’s situation, ending by quoting some obscure Mexican poet at length, (literally) driving the Counselor to tears.  Hell, it almost drove ME to tears. 

Avarice seems to be the focal point of whatever moral lesson the film wishes to teach. All of these characters are fabuloulsly wealthy by most any rational person’s definition of the word, yet all of the poor decisions, shady dealings and violent acts the characters exhibit are in pursuit of even greater riches.  The drug trade is the means to that end in this movie, but we never see any drug deals or (with one very brief exception) even any drug use.  There isn’t anything one could construe as a just ending for any of the characters here, so Scott or McCarthy certainly didn’t have any notions of delivering any sort of emotionally satisfying experience to an audience. It seems their only definition of success they possibly could have hoped to achieve was to deliver a blistering morality tale about the inevitable outcome of unchecked greed, and on that level, I suppose I must grant that they did succeed.

In the interest of full disclosure, I remind you that Ridley Scott is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, so take my views on his work with whatever grains of salt you wish.  His work the last ten years has been spotty, as I acknowledge that his last great work was probably Kingdom of Heaven (and even the theatrical release of that film had structural problems; it was his Director’s Cut that made it to home video that restored lots of excised footage and produced a wonderful film).  Each of his films since, with the possible exception of A Good Year, has had script or story structure problems, probably culminating with how almost-incomprehensible Prometheus turned out to be.  He continues to be the consummate visual artist he has always been, however.  I challenge anyone to deny ALL of his films are visual feasts, and The Counselor is no exception, but I wonder why it seems he cannot identify weak screenplays as he advances in years. There are so many scenes and characters in the Blu-ray version of this movie that serve absolutely no purpose in driving the narrative that I wonder how much Scott’s long-time editor Pietro Scalia was actually in the cutting room during post-production.  Malkina’s visit to a confessional to tease a priest and a scene with John Leguizamo and Dean Norris discussing bodies in barrels are just two such scenes that should have been the first to go.

Did I like The Counselor?  I don’t think this movie is really meant to be “liked.”  It is possible that it is meant to be admired, or even respected.  In the end, it seemed to me that Scott and McCarthy were more intent on illustrating how God laughs at us when we make plans than they were on providing us a tale of redemption from evil or growth from baser desires.  I suppose it is a testament to Scott’s power as a filmmaker that, even in his mid-seventies, he still has the sway to get such a film financed, attract such a cast and get such a story on film despite its obvious shortcomings.   

I can say positive things about the stellar cast and how wonderful a job they all did with what they were given to do.  I can rave about Scott’s gorgeous use of the desert landscapes and corresponding color palettes to make yet another visually luscious film. I can’t see how I could bring myself to say I liked it, however.  As a fan of Ridley Scott, I’m glad I saw it, but I don’t think I’ll be making a point of watching it again.  I’ve lost enough sleep over it already.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Marvel does it again with "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"

The concept of Freedom-versus-Security has been prevalent in the popular discussion to varying degrees for the last decade and a half, perhaps at its most heated these last couple years thanks to the doings of Edward Snowden.  There are some who claim that when our society cried “never again” after that day in September of 2001, we began the possibly-irreversible process of willingly surrendering our freedoms in exchange for some sense of safety.  Perhaps the deep thinkers among us wouldn’t think of looking to an entry in the Marvel cinematic universe for an illustration of this concept, but in a rather simplified fashion, that is just what we find in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  

While nobody would confuse this movie with such 1970s political conspiracy thrillers as The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor, there is a similar vibe running through The Winter Soldier that sets it apart from earlier Marvel films, and makes it possibly the best Marvel film since the first Iron Man movie.  The fear of spoilers shall keep me from outlining the plot of the movie in too much detail, but I suspect that most of those reading this will have a fairly good notion of what’s going on.  Even if you are not pre-educated about the particulars of Captain America’s literary universe, however, this follow-up to the first Captain America solo film three years ago probably serves you better than most of the other Marvel movies, as one could come into this movie cold and not find it very difficult to keep up.

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo and their screenwriters pull off a pretty nifty balancing act, moving the film along from action set piece to action set piece with actual interesting character development, and the development of SEVERAL characters who are dramatically limited by our knowing they will all be included in future movies.  We all read IMdB, so we know who the “Winter Soldier” turns out to be.  We all know (or can surmise) who will turn out to be the movie’s ultimate villain.  We all know that Cap and Natasha and Falcon and Fury will all survive (although one supporting character who has shown up on the S.H.I.E.L.D. television show a couple of times this year did bite the big one in this movie, much to my surprise… oops, Spoiler… sorry).  The trick is telling us a great story and taking us on a cinematic ride despite those limitations, and the Russos manage to do the job.

Here we find “Captain” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) farther along in his acclimation to modern life than he was when we last saw him in The Avengers, even keeping a small notebook of things he makes a point of researching (the “Rocky” movies, the music of Marvin Gaye, etc.).  He meets Army veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who will later become the mechanically-winged Falcon, at the beginning of the story, and it is the proverbial Start of a Beautiful Friendship that helps humanize this story and keep it from devolving into a mere collection of action set-pieces. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow also comes to this movie and provides enough one-liner delivering and wire-work butt-kicking to make it apparent that a lack of her OWN film is something that must be rectified at some point, in my humble opinion.  Thankfully, the chemistry these three actors share, conveying so much of their communication with each other via glances and body language, does a lot to keep the story actually being about something a little more human.  

Samuel L. Jackson’s S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury gets to chew up and spit out dialogue yet again, as only Jackson can do, but he has a bit more plot-driving function in this script than he did in The Avengers, as well as revealing a bit more about the character.  He is even the focal point of perhaps the best action sequence of the movie, a machine-gun filled car chase throughout the streets of Washington, DC (well, it was actually Cleveland, but we can all pretend) where we first run across the metal-armed assassin, the “Winter Soldier.”  

With all that being said, it saddens me to report that Robert Redford is probably the weakest link in this stellar cast.  Playing a S.H.I.E.L.D. executive uber-boss, he definitely embodies a shadier character than he has since Indecent Proposal.  While Redford may be a living movie legend, he wanders through this movie in a vague, stern-grandfatherly manner, never getting very animated, even when the plot may require it, and never totally convincing me he knew what exactly to do with the role.  I’ve always thought him a rather “cold” actor, and that was pretty apparent here.  His final line of dialogue in the film, which I am reluctant to reveal for spoilering reasons, fell so totally flat with me that I almost groaned, but that was the only such moment.

I thoroughly enjoyed this entry in the Marvel movie saga.  I darn well should, as I am exactly the audience at which it is aimed (well, almost - I’m probably about twenty years older than the target demographic, but I fit the criteria in all other respects).   Long-time comics reader that I am, I loved the tone of the story and thought the shoot-’em-up/blow-’em-up sequences to be fantastic, which is all one could ask of a superhero movie.  From crashing flying aircraft carriers to raging gun battles in city streets to a gang fight within the confines of a glass elevator, there is no shortage of kinetic energy here.

As it is an entry in an ongoing franchise of other films, while at the same time being another chapter in a series about one particular character, Winter Soldier operates under some restrictions to which even a rather formulaic series as the James Bond films are not subject.  How well the movie managed to tell a quality story that felt topical and relevant, and also managed to keep me in suspense and throw some surprises at me, is a testament to the creative team’s abilities.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

"Divergent", or "How To Survive the Apocalypse and Still Get to Kiss a Boy."

So this is what it looks like when the Age of Teenaged Boys in movie culture starts to ebb, and the Age of Teenaged Girls begins to rise.  One might even wonder just when this Dystopia-for-Girls fad will come to an end.  Through how many games must we go hungry, or through how many mazes must we run, before we pass puberty and get to wear black leather, get cool tattoos, hang with vampires, lose our virginity and overthrow all the fascist societies current popular fiction can throw at us?  Geez, Louise, but if Mad Max stumbled across some place like these supposedly-dystopian cultures during his wanderings after the bombs fell, he’d get disgusted pretty dang quickly and run back to Thunderdome with a smile.

Well, anyways, here comes the first installment of the latest “Young Adult” film franchise, Divergent, based on a fairly-popular recent novel by Veronica Roth.  At some point a hundred or so years in our future, after some “war” that resulted in all of the world except Chicago becoming uninhabitable (yeah, Chicago – go figure), we find what’s left of humanity all under the age of thirty (or at least it looks like the vast majority of it is – maybe this is after the Logan’s Run experiment failed) and divided into five “factions,” each of which serves a different purpose in society.  Those factions are Abnegation (the selfless servants, and the faction currently governing), Amity (the kind and charitable), Candor (the honest, mostly lawyers), Erudite (the intelligent and scholarly) and Dauntless (the brave, which in this world means the soldiers and cops, but these soldiers/cops are all into free-running for some reason).  Sadly, some folks don’t fit into any of these, and remain “faction-less” (or “bums,” as some of us might have called them).

As children reach the age of sixteen, they are tested to see if they are better-suited to remain in the faction of their birth for the remainder of their lives, or if they may have attributes that would be better put to use in another faction.  By some quirk of law, however, when the day comes for them to submit to the ceremony that assigns them to their future faction, they are free to choose ANY faction.  This testing procedure sometimes reveals a child who is “divergent,” meaning that he or she doesn’t fit into any of society’s molds, and is quickly eliminated in the interest of maintaining social order.

Along comes Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), from an Abnegation family, who takes the test and is found to be a Divergent.  The test’s administrator risks her own life by quelching the test’s result and sending Beatrice away, swearing her to secrecy.  When her Choosing Day comes, Beatrice surprises everyone by spurning her own faction and choosing to join the Dauntless (no doubt thrilled by the “bad boys” as every sixteen-year old girl ever born is).  Renaming herself “Tris,” she struggles against hostile drill sergeants, snotty fellow initiates and her attraction to an older instructor to become worthy of the thrill-seeking Dauntlesses.

The first half of the film moves along at a good pace, and while a little over-the-top in it’s trying to be allegorical about society’s labeling folks, I didn’t find it boring.  Seeing Tris begin to come of age and find a direction for her life held my interest, and for that, plenty of praise for Shailene Woodley is merited.  All too often, mid-twenty-somethings are asked to portray teenagers, but all too often, they aren’t convincing.  I did find it easy to accept the 22-year old Woodley as the late-teenaged Beatrice, however.  The flip side to this was twenty-eight year old Theo James as Four, Tris’s instructor/paramour.  Portraying some unspecified age that I took to be along the lines of twenty-four or twenty-five, he sorta gave me the willies with his Mad-Love for the seventeen or eighteen-year old Tris.  I guess guys will still go for high school-aged chicks even after the Apocalypse.

The second half of the movie got pretty silly (for lack of a more eloquent adjective), however, as Tris learns of the Erudites’ plan to use the Dauntlesses as an unwitting army in their plot to overthrow the Abnegations.  Her failure to succumb to some mind-control serum reveals her to be a Divergent, and thanks to some incredibly well-timed intervention from her Mommy, she manages to escape her own execution and lead the team of rebels who thwart the Erudites and start the resistance movement that presumably will someday free all the huddled masses from… blah, blah, blah…

Personally, I’ve always preferred to have the protagonist of any story I’m watching or reading find his/her own way out of trouble, and it’s pretty much always a turn-off when I see a “hero” having his/her fat pulled out of the proverbial fire by some random bit of luck or some other character conveniently swooping in at the precise moment said hero is about to get whacked.  But I digress…

There are several things to like about Divergent, despite my rolling my eyes at it a bit too often to declare it a success.  Shailene Woodley is terrific in the lead role, and if there is an actress who may be Jennifer Lawrence’s spiritual twin working in movies these days, she must be it.  Lenny Kravitz’ little girl Zoe as a fellow Dauntless initiate was also captivating, and thankfully, her role never degenerated into any sort of giggly BFF-type.  Kate Winslet, however, who was most likely cast with the intention of providing enough gravitas to make audiences think of the movie as something more than teenaged-fare, didn’t have much to work with, as her part as the Erudite leader was so undeveloped that it could’ve been played by just about any other capable film actress.

Director Neil Burger manages to tell a sort of coming-of-age story in such a way that even one such as I could remain interested, and I found the visual depiction of this city sealed off from the rest of the world very impressive, but the third act of the plot really spirals down to a Bella/Edward/Jacob level of drama, which plays better to schoolgirls on the printed page than to mass audiences on film.   Burger gave us the very interesting movie The Illusionist several years ago, and more recently, the mildly popular Bradley Cooper vehicle Limitless (which I have not yet seen, but about which I have heard good things), so despite my reservations about Divergent’s source material, I had higher hopes for this than I had for The Hunger Games (and let’s face it folks – without Hunger Games, there wouldn’t be any Divergent).  

I found myself asking questions of the movie that it never answered; namely about such things as details about this “war” that left Chicago in such dang good shape, and what awful things may lie beyond the microwave tower-looking fences that now surround the city.  Such answers are never given, or even hinted, but I will assume all that is to be fodder for the already-planned sequels next year and the year after that.  I recall having much the same number of questions about the universe of The Hunger Games, with a similar lack of answers there.  With how well this movie managed to pull off the details of this world, and even create a character that interested me, it was a disappointment that it didn’t manage to find a way to tell a story that didn’t make we wonder when the post-adolescent vampires were going to show up.