Ad Astra

Release: Friday, September 20, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Ethan Gross; James Gray

Directed by: James Gray

Ad Astra is not the increasingly familiar, inspiring saga of human achievement the marketing has been pitching it as. It’s something much more honest and intriguing — a terrifyingly lonely quest for truth that dares put us in our place and puts potential limits on our endeavors to “conquer” the Final Frontier.

Hauntingly beautiful and just plain haunting in many respects, Ad Astra (the title an abbreviation of the Latin phrase per aspera ad astra — “through hardships to the stars”) plots its moves deliberately and yet boldly, focusing not on the stars but rather the ultimate in strained relationships. It’s a grand star-strewn metaphor about a son’s physical and emotional search for the father who may or may not have abandoned him in the noble pursuit of his own, fatally unshakable beliefs — intelligent life exists somewhere in this vast chasm, I just know it dammit — one that traverses billions of miles, straddles a number of celestial bodies and asks some big, heady questions about our place in space along the way.

Co-written by director James Gray and Ethan Gross the film is very moody, swelling with so much melancholy and inner turmoil you just want to give it a hug, but this isn’t a pure mood piece. Ad Astra also has a comet of pure entertainment value streaking through it, this deliberately paced, profoundly ponderous sojourn constantly aware of its more plodding tendencies and therefore joltingly — and yet wonderfully fluidly — breaking itself up into episodic, exciting conflicts both man-made and space-provided: from incompetent leaders, raging baboons and pirates on the Moon, to Martian bureaucracy and the blue dusty rings of Neptune, everything and the floating kitchen sink is thrown in the direction of Brad Pitt, playing an emotionally compartmentalized Major on the hunt for his ultra absentee father, long thought to have perished as part of the ill-fated Lima Project, but new evidence suggests he’s not only alive but potentially the source of the devastating energy surges that have been throttling Earth for years.

The ruggedly handsome Pitt, one of the last of a dying breed of bonafide movie stars, becomes Roy McBride, a military man of Neil Armstrong-like unflappability and Rockefellerian royalty. The latter makes him uniquely qualified for a top-secret mission in an attempt to make contact with the Lima crew — namely his father, the revered H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) — while his inhuman ability to stay calm no matter the circumstances is proven in a white-knuckle spectacle of an opening, wherein a routine service job on Earth’s mighty space antenna is interrupted by one of those powerful energy surges, flinging bodies to their deaths and/or into low Earth orbit. (For the acrophobic and the vertigo-susceptible, it’s advised you look away during this scene.)

Ad Astra pairs its desperate, outward-bounding voyage with an intensely personal journey inward, a familiar dichotomy somewhat alleviated of cliché thanks to the committed and understated performances. As an exploration of masculine pride and guilt the movie proves toughness, strength and conviction are tragically finite resources in the vast reaches of the Universe’s foyer. Pitt and Jones, consummate actors ever, here are committed to going cold so much you’d think their body temperatures dropped as a result. They create a tension between parent and child that truly matches their inhospitable environment. There’s a tussle near Neptune — and damn it if it’s not one of the most pathetic things you’ll ever watch. That’s a compliment to the movie, to the direction.

The performances are just outstanding. Pitt’s in particular is a major factor in Ad Astra‘s sobering vision of not just our fragility but our arrogance in space. Behind Pitt’s eyes is a frightened boy shook well before he ever took flight. Jones as Clifford, a shell of his former self and yet somehow more statuesque and brutally resolute in his objective. These two impact the movie like the energy waves battering our Solar System and our planet.

It’s just unfortunate that comes at the expense of others, such as Liv Tyler, playing the earthbound Eve, who can only get a word in edgewise in dream-sequences and flashbacks. Meanwhile Ruth Negga‘s Helen Lantos, a 100% Martian-born native who has only been to Earth once as a child, plays an integral role in the emotional maturation (or deterioration, take your pick) of Roy’s mission. And Donald Sutherland is an actor I enjoy so much five minutes with him is both welcomed and nowhere near enough. He plays Clifford’s former colleague, an aging Colonel who helps Roy get from Earth to the Moon, where the pair will confront the true cynicism of our species head on, where Mad Max-inspired chaos reigns.

The specifics of this all-time dysfunctional relationship must, almost unfairly, compete for your attention with the unforgettable imagery provided by DoP Hoyt van Hoytema, who, in searing both dreamscapes and nightmarish visions into your consciousness, may have just eclipsed his own already ridiculous benchmark set in the 2014 galaxy-spanning Interstellar (an obvious visual and to some degree thematic forebear of Ad Astra, along with the likes of Apocalypse Now and 2001). If there is any reason to see this movie, it’s the opportunity to watch a certifiable genius — a modern Bonestell — work his magic.

“I just need some space to think.”

Recommendation: Director James Gray is on record saying he aspired to create “the most realistic depiction of space travel ever put on film,” and with the help of Ad Astra‘s understated but brilliant performances and the typically mind-blowing work of Swedish cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema, he certainly seems to have achieved that. As a movie of extremes and limitations, this certainly isn’t a populist movie. Ad Astra is a colder, harsher vision of our cosmic reality. Maybe I’m just a cold person, because this is going to go down as one of my favorites all year (not to mention it features one of the best promotional tags I’ve come across in some time). 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 122 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

Release: Friday, July 26, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is among the biggest names in the biz today and in his ninth and apparently penultimate film he’s relying on clout more than ever to get mass audiences invested in something that he takes as seriously as Jules does Ezekiel 25:17 — and that’s cinematic history. Yawn if you must, but with QT you can safely assume you’re going to be getting something with a little personality. With Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood he’s reminding us of how great the Golden Age was, those good old days when original narratives and marquee names were actually worth a damn. More specifically, he’s harkening back to an era when creative collaboration meant even stunt doubles had a say in what would happen in a particular scene.

Sure, this grand paean to how it used to be is kind of predictable from a guy who rejected film school and yet still obsesses over just about every technical, romantic aspect of filmmaking — he’s one of those loud voices decrying digital projection and remember how he rolled out The Hateful Eight as a “roadshow” presentation, replete with intermission and everything? Hollywood is both his home and his Alma Mater, the place where he took in more films as a kid than any human being might reasonably be asked to view in a lifetime, constantly observing, absorbing, studying in his own way.

However, the way he carries out his long-gestating passion project proves a little less predictable. Dare I say it’s even . . . wholesome? Maybe I shouldn’t get too carried away.

In Once Upon a Time (the title an obvious homage to Italian director Sergio Leone, father of the so-called spaghetti western and a huge influence on Tarantino) he trades out buckets of blood for buckets of nostalgia. The surprisingly gentle, more meditative approach finds the gorehound putting the clamps on his violent tendencies, creating a more good-natured, less bloody affair that isn’t propelled by a single narrative objective as much as it is a mood, a feeling of uncertainty brought about by change. Indeed, Once Upon a Time is a different cinematic beast, chiefly in that it isn’t very beastly, not in comparison to his last three outings, a string of ultra-violent, in-your-face western/revenge thrillers beginning with the Nazi-slaying Inglourious Basterds (2008) and culminating in what is arguably his ugliest and most deliberately nasty The Hateful Eight (2015).

The timeline spans just a couple of days but a TRT that approaches three hours, coupled with extraordinary period-specific detail, make it feel like a tapestry that covers much more ground. Set in 1969, at the crusted edges of what was once Golden, the story mostly concerns the career tailspin of fictional TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as well as the relationship he shares with his stunt-double, driver and all-around gopher Cliff Booth (a briefly shirtless Brad Pitt — contractually obligated, I’m quite sure). Their friendship takes center stage as the two professionals are forced to negotiate rapid change. This was a time when people like Cliff had more creative input in productions, where actors and their doubles were attached at the hip working on multiple projects together. Today freelancing has opened up myriad opportunities, thereby eroding that closeness and this is just one aspect of the modern industry the filmmaker clearly laments.

I mentioned earlier how big a deal the name is. Nowhere is his status as Big Time Filmmaker more apparent than in the cast he is graced with here. It’s an embarrassment of riches Tarantino somehow manages to allocate just the right way. I just named DiCaprio and Pitt and that’s only two of the three principles. Famous faces are everywhere, in bit parts and in more extensive supporting roles. Australian rep Margot Robbie joins them in a tangential role as American tragicon Sharon Tate, who moves in next door to Rick on Cielo Drive with her famous director husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), setting up the much-talked about arc that puts a wholly unexpected spin on one of the darkest chapters to unfold in 1960s Tinseltown.

Elsewhere, Al Pacino plays a hot-shot agent named Marvin Schwarz (that’s SchWARz, by the way, not SchwarTZ) channelling — yes, still — Tony Montana. He’s here to present a gut-check for the sensitive actor, reaching out to Rick with an offer to take part in an Italian Western. Rick’s appreciative of Marv’s offer but outside his presence he’s inconsolable, confiding in Cliff that he believes this is a sign that his career is well and truly over. Cliff, however, would like him to reconsider, because hey, he’s Rick “f-word” Dalton, and Cliff can’t get any work until Rick does because of vicious rumors circulating the old mill about the stunt man having murdered his wife some years back. Ergo, we go to Italy, right?

Bruce Dern is in it briefly as George Spahn, the owner of Spahn Movie Ranch, the site where many westerns were once filmed, now overrun by a cult of hippies who turn out to be not exactly all about peace and love. While we’re at it, it isn’t just in the way he handles the Tate/Polanski angle where QT shows restraint (and paradoxically absolutely no mercy, if only toward those “damn hippies.”) A sidebar shows Cliff making a brief visit to the Ranch after dropping off a scantily clad hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and while he’s there he’d like to check in with his old friend and the now-blind owner to ensure he’s not being taken advantage of by these layabouts. It’s a scene pregnant with tension, a stand-off from a western wherein long, cold stares precipitate a sudden and brief outburst of violence. But Tarantino feels nothing but contempt for those brainwashed by Manson’s Helter Skelter bullshit, turning the tables on them and converting what should have been another grisly murder into something resembling a farce.

Then there are bit parts snatched up by the likes of “intrinsically 60s” Kurt Russell as a stunt coordinator/Cliff’s former boss, and a highly entertaining Mike Moh doing a bold impression of famed martial arts actor Bruce Lee; Timothy Olyphant is a co-star on one of Rick’s late-career shows; Damon Harriman, for the second time this year plays Charles Manson (albeit in a cameo here while his other appearance was in the second season of Mindhunter — it must be those eyes); and Luke Perry in what turns out to be his final screen appearance (he passed away in March). Tarantino also makes a brilliant discovery in newcomer Julia Butters, who plays a precocious child actor who takes Rick to school in on-set professionalism. All of these characters add little considerations to the world Tarantino is reconstructing — resurrecting — and while some arcs leave more to be desired they each contribute something of value.

The pacing of the film no doubt languishes. It’s not his most action-packed film ever. In fact, save for that controversial house call, it’s his least. Yet because Tarantino is so obsessively compelled to detail environments and lives it might just be his most insightful. Not a scene feels wasted or unnecessary, maybe a little indulgent in length at times, but excisable — I’m not convinced. The rich mise en scène steals you away to a decade long since buried underneath modern multiplexes touting the latest CGI spectacles, and I particularly enjoyed the little meta moments he provides, such as clips from Dalton’s most popular gig Bounty Law, or when Robbie’s Tate decides to check out a matinee showing of her new movie The Wrecking Crew at the old Bruin Theatre — the latter a nod to QT himself attempting to check out True Romance (a movie which he wrote but did not direct) when he was a young pup.

All of these details add up to the very antithesis of the movie I had anticipated when it was first announced. Once Upon a Time is proof that you can indeed teach an old reservoir dog new tricks. Or, rather, Tarantino has taught himself some new tricks and empathy looks good on him. He’s successfully created a modern fairytale out of Old Hollywood. It’s a surprising movie, one full of surprising moves but still imbued with that irascible energy of his. It’s one hell of a good time.

Margot Robbie puts her best foot forward as Sharon Tate

Recommendation: It’s a film full of intrigue for those up for a little history lesson as far as the industry and some of the early ingredients that formed the QT soup are concerned, while reports of “less violence!” and “more sympathy!” can only be a good thing in terms of attracting a broader audience.

Rated: R

Running Time: 161 mins.

Quoted: “When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Allied

allied-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Steven Knight

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Brad Pitt finds a new ally in Marion Cotillard in his post-Angelina Jolie world. Sad face.

Actually, those were just rumors. And this isn’t a gossip column.

On the other hand, the two are pretty convincing playing a pair of lovestruck assassins whose loyalty to one another constantly competes with their loyalty to their own countries. Robert Zemeckis’ homage to classic wartime romantic epics is undeniably better because of the effortless charm of his leads, though Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh they are not. Not that that’s exactly a fair comparison. Allied isn’t setting out to reinvent the wheel; it rather feels more like a new tire with fresh tread. Perhaps it is better to consider the film more in the context of how it measures up to the classics found in Zemeckis’ back catalog as opposed to where it lies within the genre.

The film opens with SOE operative Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachuting into the sand dunes of French Morocco. It’s 1942 and he’s on a mission to take out a Nazi ambassador in Casablanca. He’s to work with French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), who narrowly escaped France after her resistance group became compromised. On the assignment they pose as a married couple and are successful in eliminating their target and escaping with their lives.

What begins as merely a cover story develops into the genuine article, and soon Max and Marianne are married and settling down to start a family in London. In a particularly memorable scene they welcome their daughter Anna amidst the chaos of another aerial raid accompanying the German blitzkrieg that devastated the East End. Even under normal circumstances the birthing of a child is an event that tends to really bring a couple together, so I can only imagine going through that experience literally on the streets while debris and gunfire are raining down around you would do wonders for your ability to commit to your significant other.

The intensifying pressures of the war make Max’s job a living hell when he is told by an officer that outranks both himself and his direct superior Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) that his wife is a suspected double agent who is actually working for the Germans. He is ordered to trick Marianne into playing into a trap and once it’s proven she is indeed a German spy he must execute her himself or face being hanged for high treason. Behold, the great sacrifices that must be made in love and war. Or in this case, love during war.

Old-fashioned romance is shaped by two terrific performances from Pitt and Cotillard who once again remind us why they are among the industry’s elites. The heartache accompanying Max’s dilemma is compounded when you take into account how good their characters are at what they do. The performances within the performances are compelling. Steven Knight provides the screenplay, tapping into the psychological aspect of a most unusual and highly dangerous profession. The first third of the film makes a point of fixating upon that idea, of how trust is so hard to come by when you’re a professional spy.

That same third is a good barometer for how the rest of the film will play out. If you’re expecting bombastic, flashy displays of wartime violence you may need to look elsewhere, although the aforementioned blitzkrieg provides some pulse-pounding moments. Knight’s story ditches numbing CGI in favor of a more human and more intimate perspective. It’s an approach that admittedly contributes to a slower paced narrative but one that never succumbs to being boring. This is a film that’s more about the way two people look at each other rather than the way entire nations fight each other. On those grounds alone Allied feels like a throwback to war films like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, and where the former lacks the latter films’ sense of grandeur it more than makes up for it in nuance.

Ultimately Allied finds its director working comfortably within his wheelhouse while offering  a darker, more subtle story that’s well worth investing time into.

allied

Recommendation: The trifecta of a steadily absorbing narrative, plush cinematic texture that contributes mightily to the mise en scène, and excellent performances from two seasoned pros makes this an easy recommendation. Especially if you are partial to Robert Zemeckis’ compassionate voice. Every one of his films have been tinged with a romantic element but whereas The Walk, his penultimate release, suffered from an over-reliance on it (to the point of schmaltz, in this reviewer’s opinion) his 2016 effort uses it to its advantage, creating an ultimately enjoyable and often surprising wartime drama that will reward repeat viewings.

Rated: R

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Hey, what happened to my kiss?” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Big Short

The Big Short movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 23, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Adam McKay; Charles Randolph 

Directed by: Adam McKay

When it was announced Adam McKay would be putting his comedic muse Will Ferrell in time out so he could make a film not only steeped in but specifically commenting on the 2008 financial crisis (and the events that precipitated it), I knew there could only be two possible outcomes.

This was boom or bust. The Big Short was either going to be an exciting new direction for the guy who gave us a NASCAR driver with two first names and the Channel 4 News Team    . . . or it was going to be an unbearable misfire, proving the limitations of a director who likes to keep things casual.

It turns out I was wrong. There was actually a third option, a middle ground — the dreaded ‘it was just okay’ territory where you’re not sure whether what you’ve just watched is something you’re going to care about by the time you get to your car. But The Big Short lingers in the mind for at least that long because you just can’t shake the weirdness. It is a weird experience; I mean, really weird. Not in a Rocky Horror Picture Show or Guillermo Del Toro kind of way, where weirdness is beneficial, even a signature.

It’s a film in which weirdness is just off-putting. Events are rooted very much in dramatic realism but tonally McKay prefers going for that whole meta ‘breaking the fourth wall’ thing that made Scorsese’s commentary on the wealth of Wall Street a couple of years ago oh so much fun. He douses character dialogue and interaction with an arrogance that would make Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby proud. And, okay, even Jordan Belfort. Key players are more caricatures than characters and they’re this way because McKay doesn’t want to be lecturing audiences with characters who aren’t fun and in that way, relatable.

It’s a film where strippers lament having to pay multiple mortgages and Ryan Gosling can almost pull off the fake tan and hairstyle á la Bradley Cooper in American Hustle. Christian Bale doesn’t have the gut or the really bad wig this time around though.

Working from a script written by Charles Randolph and himself, one based upon Michael Lewis’ 2010 book of the same name, McKay zeroes in on three groups of finance geeks who predict the destabilization and eventual collapse of the national and global economy several years in advance, paying special attention to the precarious state of subprime mortgage loans. The borrowing of money was an issue further compounded by big banks’ frivolous selling of what are known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), ways of bundling together poor loans in a package those banks would sell to their investors as a way of transferring any responsibility of debt repayment.

Those key players probably could use some sort of introduction. There’s the eccentric Dr. Michael Burry (Bale) who is first seen in the film doing his homework on the health of the housing market in 2005. He’s the guy who realizes he too could profit immensely off of the blindness (or is it just ignorance?) of suits who don’t realize how faulty their investments actually are. He also doesn’t wear shoes in his office and blares loud music whenever he’s crunching numbers.

Sometime later a slithery, opportunistic investor named Jared Vennett (Gosling) catches wind of Burry’s idea and, realizing just how right he is, wants in. Vennett smells blood in the water and taps stock traders like Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to join in on the action. Carell colors Baum as a self-righteous, idealistic man who’s cynical so far beyond his years the question has to be asked: what are you still doing here on Wall Street? His wife Cynthia (Marisa Tomei) repeatedly tells him he shouldn’t try to fix every problem in the world. Baum experiences a crisis of conscience when he realizes how much money there is to be made off of the greedy bankers’ investments, and also realizing the parallels between that reality and the white collar crimes that have been perpetrated to create this entire mess.

There are also two young hot shots who discover the credit bubble and are eager to gain from it. Otherwise . . . it’s back to living at home with mom! Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are seeking a way to establish their own names so they enlist the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) — this is the wizened old fool who has been sickened by corporate greed and has sworn off of the trade — to help them short up (a.k.a. buy bonds cheap now to sell them for profit later) several high profile accounts.

I know, doesn’t this movie sound like so much fun? It is a credit to McKay and his entire crew that The Big Short maintains any semblance of energy whatsoever, as the story becomes far more bogged down by industry jargon than by the emotions this still raw subject matter is liable to generate in viewers.

Setting aside the inherent complexities of the story, The Big Short is just too much. It’s information overload, and on top of that it’s a whole lot of opinion flying in from all directions. Gosling’s character is entirely condescending and annoying — even more so than the dictionary definitions we must read occasionally on screen (McKay knows most people would be lost without them). Carell is a nervous wreck who challenges his own Michael Scott for most grating characters he’s ever played. Performances are otherwise, for the most part, not all that notable.

Somewhere buried deep inside this hodgepodge of statistics, dramatic license and comedic interplay there is genius. McKay embraces a challenging story with confidence that can’t be ignored, but just as unavoidable is the fact his dramedy is about as strange a concoction as I had presumed it would be, what with a cast that it is essentially split 50-50 in terms of comedic and dramatic talent. If you want to talk about big bailouts, The Big Short definitely benefits from its high-profile personnel.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 6.36.54 PM

Recommendation: An odd and mostly unsatisfying blend of comedy and dramatic realism, The Big Short could very well divide the Adam McKay faithful as it doesn’t quite offer the memorably quotable scripts from times past, but it does suggest the man can do more than just provide a couple of comedians a line-o-rama for 90-plus minutes. Fact-based story is ultimately bogged down by jargon and dizzying editing that makes the whole thing kind of a headache. Disappointing. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 130 mins.

Quoted: “Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I’ll have my wife’s brother arrested.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is strictly prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Fury

fury-poster

Release: Friday, October 17, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: David Ayer

Directed by: David Ayer

There’s no such thing as a politically-neutral war film. That’s why David Ayer (End of Watch; Sabotage) should be praised for focusing not on the ideals and goals of war but rather its consequences. In his film there is a whole lot of loss and not a great coalition for reason. Few times before have camera angles remained so calm while also telling a thousand tales of the brutal atrocities of these violent outbursts in human history.

Death, destruction and psychological damage are bigger players in this hellish game than Brad Pitt could ever be. And this, it ought to be mentioned, is Brad Pitt operating at the top of his. There’s an almost journalistic approach taken by a director who has become comfortable with painting morally bankrupting scenes with the transparent brush of objective reality. Seeing a body being squashed by a platoon of tanks as they roll on down the road into the heart of Nazi Germany is just a fact of Fury. If we’re facing facts, we have to acknowledge there was a hand sticking out of the mud, that those weren’t just clothes being soiled and destroyed.

On the other hand, Fury is actually ironic when debating the merits of its Hollywood components. Brad Pitt is pretty. War is anything but. Make no mistake, though: as Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier, he’s the identifiable head of a body of strong-willed men who have been fighting the good fight for far too long. The film picks up on the defensive, as a very specific Sherman tank, affectionately labeled ‘Fury,’ is escaping intense aerial attacks after sitting like a duck amongst wreckage that doesn’t look too far removed from what we might imagine physical Hell to look like. It is 1945, a month before the official surrender of Nazi troops and at a time when Hitler was never more desperate. Opening title cards set the scene, and Ayer swings in with cameras immediately thrusting us onto the front lines.

German men, women and children are all armed and treated equally: they’re dispatched dispassionately by Collier’s men and then some. Collier is immediately backed by a ragtag group of good-old boys (plus a Mexican). We have Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia (Michael Peña) as the primary tank driver; Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis (Jon Bernthal) as a loudmouthed sumbitch; and the film’s biggest surprise in Shia LeBeouf’s man of faith, Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan.

A film is almost always automatically bolstered by performers showing up to perform their duties, and that’s precisely what happens here. There isn’t a false note in any performance, and these aren’t exactly what you’d describe as easy or predictable characters. They are characters we have seen before, true, but they operate under virtually impossible circumstances, and with each passing day the odds stack up exponentially against them.

Fury is primarily concerned with showcasing the fortitude and gung-ho spirit of this unit as they face some of the heaviest opposition relative to the second Great War, patrolling muddied, pot-hole-filled country lanes and tiny ramshackle towns that otherwise would be quaint were it not for the hostility. It commands attention via an easy to follow, simple story that shadows this tank until it runs out of luck (and ammo). What begins as a platoon of at least five Shermans is whittled down to just one as the superior firepower and construction design (though to a lesser extent) of the German tanks prove to be too much for the Allied Forces.

Adding to the chaos is a fresh-faced 18(ish)-year-old typist, a Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) who has been transferred to the Fury squad. Perhaps if there’s anything outstandingly cliché about this film it’s the hard time the preexisting members give the newcomer as he joins their ranks. Understandably, the kid is instantly overwhelmed and can’t face the reality of having to kill people on a daily basis. A great deal of the emotional heft exists as a result of the tension between an idealistic young lad who sees no good coming of harming Germans who have surrendered, and an experienced vet in Wardaddy who is concerned the newbie might get them all killed if he doesn’t toughen up.

Ayer pumps his film full of pain, rage, profound sadness. Cinematic liberties can be found every where you turn and you won’t have to look hard to find them, but buried deep within this familiar tale of fighting against impossible odds is a deeply disturbing, revolting truth. Men are not monsters before war. Men aren’t even monsters afterwards. But war is just another thing men are capable of. And the unrelentingly bleak Fury is, apparently, something that David Ayer and his fantastic company are capable of.

fury-2

4-5Recommendation: Grim and gory, Fury is undoubtedly a large-scale war film but the focus is much more personal than that. Ultimately this is about the individual efforts that helped shape the Allied Powers’ remarkable surge against a German army hell-bent on taking over the world. Ayer does an incredible job of setting atmosphere, elevating tension constantly and producing characters we can truly root for. I can’t imagine a single reason any fan of war films would be missing out on this one. That said, this isn’t one for the squeamish.

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Ideas are peaceful. History is violent.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

12 Years a Slave

12 years poster

Release: Friday, October 18, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

Every so often there are those releases that stir up a buzz unlike any other; a certain climate that generates perhaps as much interest in the film as the film itself. This feverish talk might be about the cast involved and the work they have turned in, or the timing of such a film, or simply the subject matter. The hype can become so great as to almost assume a deafening roar, becoming something unto itself.

In the case of Steve McQueen’s telling of a free man being abducted into slavery in pre-Civil War America, the graphic contents of this particular journey certainly reached this kind of level for me. A great deal of discussion stemmed from the accuracy of its depictions of human suffering and cruelty, of violence and bloodshed, and what may be worst of all, the language and dialogue. 12 Years a Slave was thereby rendered as something more than what it perhaps should be viewed and appreciated for.

Even if personal expectations were skewed because of this unique psychological component, it would be wildly inaccurate to say the film did not do what it needed to. My bracing for some extraordinary scenes helped me get through them a little bit easier, but that’s not to say the rest of the material is easy, either. Yet, if there’s any beauty to be found within this piece (and there is, for if you want to tell me that this man’s true story doesn’t end well you’d be dead wrong), it’ll likely take several views to actually appreciate such beauty. Unfortunately most of the film is just miserable enough to make sitting through it all a second time a rather unreasonable proposition.

But maybe this speaks to the true scope of McQueen’s vision and the transparency of John Ridley’s screenplay adaptation of the memoirs penned in 1853 by Solomon Northup. There are beautiful moments to behold, but there’s a heavy, heavy price to pay. Like reflecting back on any number of societal injustices as through a textbook or studying up on it in class, the meaning is in the details but you must read to find it.

There is no question that 12 Years will become 2013’s most notorious film, and this will be for a variety of reasons — most of which are good, though some will be more difficult to understand than others. Among the more shocking revelations, the simplicity to the story will eat at the viewer for the entire two hours. Not only is it the ease in which Solomon disappears off the streets of his hometown that’s disturbing, but the constant physical and psychological abuse he suffers is mostly derived from his inability to proclaim his true identity.

In Saratoga, New York in 1841 Solomon is approached by a couple of gentlemen who have a business proposition for him. As a talented violist, Solomon has a great reputation, and is always away from home playing for a variety of special events. These men need some music for one of their own events, and they convince him to join them on a trip to Washington D.C., where he shall be treated well and paid for his efforts.

The deceit is unnervingly simple. One day, he wakes up not in his bed, but instead chained to a dirt floor by his wrists and ankles. Two men enter the dank room and tell him that he’s no longer who he says he is; from hence forth he is Platt, a supposed Georgia runaway. When Solomon begs to differ, he is beaten within an inch of his life and left to cry out for help, as a camera pans out, revealing the truth about his undisclosed location. Solomon is forced to put on new clothes — the pajamas he once was wearing being the last item from his home that he had on his person — and is then sent away from this place and put on the slave market, bound for Louisiana on a ferry.

Solomon will bounce from a couple of different plantations where his workload and conditions become more dire and degrading. First he becomes the property of William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man who seems to possess at least some tangled thread of humanity. He is the one to provide Solomon with another violin, perhaps the single good deed that will befall him for the next several years. However it’s on his property where Solomon also clashes with a particularly nasty slave driver named Tibeats (Paul Dano), and incurs his wrath after Solomon proves himself more than a hard-working slave. This event results in a protracted pseudo-lynching scene — arguably one of the most difficult scenes to view throughout — and furthermore, it forces Ford to turn over Solomon to another man because of a mounting debt Ford has to pay off.

This transfer will land Solomon officially in hell, as he winds up the property of none other than Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a ruthless man with a reputation for being an “n-word breaker.” Simultaneously, Epps has heard some things about this Platt, about his work ethic and his reputation for questioning his Masters. Being the maniacally drunk, perversely racist man he is, Epps makes it his mission to go out of his way to really break him down, make him sorry for ever having shown up on his plantation. As if he could help it.

Mind you, while all this is going on, Solomon’s family is growing up. The man spends over a decade in the south under a new identity and not being able to communicate at all to the outside world. All the credit possible must be bestowed upon McQueen and Ridley here for their ability to convert their southern plantation settings into the scenic yet stifled pits of inhumanity that they effectively were. It is in these moments, these scenes where you truly feel cut off from civilization, suffocated. The difference between where Solomon starts off and where he winds up is really felt.

In his last year of being enslaved at the hands of Epps and the perhaps even more hateful Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson), Solomon comes across a carpenter named Bass (Brad Pitt) who’s originally from Canada. A believer in the abolition of slavery, he is inexplicably friendly with Epps and these moments offer up some poignant lines that address directly what is being put in front of our eyes. . .as well as Epps’. The pair’s views on the matter couldn’t differ any greater; yet as strongly written as this moment is, and as accurately as these characters may be rendered, this oasis of peace seems very strange. At the very least, a little oddly timed.

We toil along with Solomon throughout this whole saga, feeling the weight upon his shoulders as he watches in horror at the pain others are also enduring. A mother whom Solomon is traded with earlier on is unable to reconcile her grief after being taken away from her young children. On Epps’ plantation, he meets a young woman named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who is the center of all of Epps’ affections. While she may be the most tragic victim on display, there are many others.

So we trudge through the weight of all of this, and yet there is a moment or two of tranquility. What does any of it mean? Is it just the sheer randomness of his abduction that we should be the most attentive to or is it the collective poison of slavery’s influence not only over those in the southern cotton fields, but over the spirit and soul of the nation at large? What are we to take away from this aside from receiving an update on the barbarity of the white man at his worst? It’s a little difficult to say really, because while McQueen does limit the violence to really only six distinct moments, the atmosphere of the movie will ultimately be more memorable than the miraculous survival of Solomon as a slave and his freedom finally regained.

Perhaps what hurt my own viewing was the aforementioned and self-imposed psyching out. I certainly elevated my expectations going in, most all of which were met (good and bad). However, what I recall the most after walking out is feeling a great sadness. This creation is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but yet it seems strange to only feel gutted after watching, and not something more akin to being enlightened. Yes, slavery and racism is pointless, but we knew that already.

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4-0Recommendation: Raw, visceral and unrelenting, 12 Years a Slave sets a new standard for cinematic displays of human suffering, not only in its realism but with regards to the nature of the treatment. At times, it can be certainly heavy-handed, though there’s no denying its a journey virtually everyone must see. Through graphic depictions we can start to get an appreciation for the barbarity of it all. It wouldn’t have hurt for an extended conclusion, but I suppose there’s enough there to nominate McQueen’s third project as one of the most powerful and well-crafted (and damning) pieces of the year.

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “A man does as he pleases with his property.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Counselor

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Release: Friday, October 25, 2013

[Theater]

“If you keep heading down this path, you will eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise.”

So forewarns the enigmatic night club owner, Reiner, played by a very colorful Javier Bardem in Ridley Scott’s latest suspense thriller, based on the first original screenplay penned by Cormac McCarthy. He was speaking to Michael Fassbender’s Counselor character in the film, but the line’s also apropos of anyone waiting in line to buy a ticket to see The Counselor, the film itself.

Scott’s latest is the schoolyard bully of fall 2013 releases. Unsparing in its austerity, substitution of prose for dialogue and inclusion of jolting and unsettling violence, his direction demonstrates he’s clearly not over the loss of his brother, Tony — which is certainly an understandable issue. But whereas his finished product simply screams misery, it could have cleverly suggested it (I’ve always felt Scott has been a director of subtlety, even in dealing with profound subjects like in Prometheus) and his counseling, therefore, ain’t a great deal of fun to sit through. The anguish on display makes it nearly impossible for even the most hardy viewer to say ‘well, I had a good time in that movie.’ While that may be sort of true, what they probably mean to say is that some of what they saw was enjoyable, but they couldn’t mean they actually enjoyed watching such suffering for as little payoff as they get in the end.

The Counselor fixates on a man (Fassbender’s character is simply known throughout as the Counselor, a description only slightly less blasé than Gosling’s in Drive) who gets in too deep with the wrong people, taking one job too many and becoming just a little too greedy. He’s meant to be a lawyer representing a variety of different, albeit all wayward clients, who insists he can protect them and get them what they want, though he’s really just in the game for the money for himself (and his soon-to-be-wife, the perpetually aroused Laura, played by Penelope Crúz). When the Counselor becomes involved with a multi-million-dollar drug deal and the deal goes awry, his world starts falling apart in unthinkably brutal ways.

The Counselor is approached by a shady, yet exquisitely dressed middleman representing the Mexican cartel, a man by the name of Westray (Brad Pitt), who presents him the opportunity to gain millions. McCarthy’s writing flusters both the audience and the characters in a scene intended to be pivotal for the rest of the proceedings, but it really just passes by as casually as death does here. This is aided by the fact that the discussions are absolutely loaded with metaphor; steeped in philosophy and ultimately add up to nothing more than “I wouldn’t do this if I were you,” just the kind of cautionary advice you fully expect the Counselor to ignore.

And he does.

We are treated to a whole slew of characters who would be compelling had the writing tried not to be so profound. The most compelling of which has to be Cameron Diaz, playing Reiner’s menacing girlfriend, Malkina. Diaz turns out to be the full embodiment of evil here, what with all those leopard print tattoos and her obsession with Reiner’s pet cheetahs and his Corvette (which she has sex with) — oh yeah, did I mention how misogynistic this movie is as well?

It could be to do with the fact that the director is trudging through some hellish waters here recently in the wake of his brother’s passing, and it may also be attributed to the general gloomy way in which McCarthy has consistently viewed the world. Arguing who is more responsible for the film’s tone coming across as bleak as it has could turn into an all-day affair, though. Point is, The Counselor takes an incredible cast and forces upon it some of the nastiest characterizations audiences have seen this side of Andrew Dominik’s morose political allegory.

Zoning out in this movie will not only be understandable but expected. That is, until you see someone’s carotid artery being sliced open in public, or their finger tips sliced off in the process of trying to remove the wire around their necks that’s causing this bloodletting. The viewer goes from being grossly under-stimulated by a wordy script to being just grossed out by scenes of graphic violence. Between the pretense and the pain, both which punctuate this script like stray bullet holes, the best thing that can be said of The Counselor is that its another extreme case of style-over-substance. The misuse of such a talented cast is what’s really difficult to get over. It’s as though the cast members blindly accepted the fact they would be speaking this legendary writer’s words, taking that reality for what it was regardless of the product his writing would ultimately shape.

Realizing this feels more enlightening than any of the lessons that are supposedly conveyed through such ugliness.

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1-5Recommendation: Very little of the film is enticing (except for Diaz’ back tattoos, of course). And when it’s not taking a mean-spirited approach to teaching the forever-sinning Counselor a lesson about being greedy, it’s boring. This movie is a failure on nearly every level, especially considering the talent on this set.

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t advise you, counselor.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com