The Wandering Earth

Release: Monday, May 6, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Gong Ge’er; Junce Ye; Yan Dongxu; Yang Zhixue; Frant Gwo

Directed by: Frant Gwo

Describing The Wandering Earth as an ambitious movie is an understatement. That’s like saying Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad had cult followings. The sheer scale and spectacle on display make the likes of Michael Bay and Peter Jackson look like film school students operating on shoestring budgets.

The movie presents a doomsday scenario to end all doomsday scenarios. In the year 2061 we face annihilation as our Sun is dying and will within a century swell to encompass Earth’s orbit and within 300 years the entire solar system. In order for us — or what’s left of us — to survive we need to find a new galactic home. We’ve targeted the Alpha Centauri system as our destination. Building a bunch of space-worthy life rafts is neither practical nor egalitarian — who knows whether the darned things would survive the 2,500-year odyssey, and at $30 million a ticket that basically ensures only the Jeff Bezos of the world would be able to go.

So get this: We’re going to push the entire rock out of harm’s way using thousands of fusion-powered thrusters clamped on to the Earth’s surface. Each one the size of a city, they require an incredible amount of human ingenuity (and cooperation) to work properly. (There’s the operative phrase in movies like this — you just know something will go wrong with them at just the worst time.) We’ll use Jupiter as a slingshot to get us out of the solar system and a leading space station manned by a few brave scientists/engineers who defer to a computer that’s cribbed right from a certain Stanley Kubrick film to guide us through the cosmic dark. If all goes according to plan we should avoid getting sucked in by the giant planet’s strong gravitational field and dying a very gaseous death.

Yikes.

When it comes to the human side of the equation, The Wandering Earth is much less ambitious. Admittedly, human drama isn’t the reason this Chinese blockbuster has become a global sensation. But it would be nice if there were compelling characters to further bolster this awesome visual spectacle. I suppose therein lies the difference between American and Chinese filmmaking — The Wandering Earth certainly emphasizes collective over individual triumph. That’s compelling in its own way. But then half of the running time is devoted to the rebellious — downright reckless and seriously contrived — actions of a resentful Liu Qi (Chuxiao Qu) and his less-resentful but just-as-thrill-seeking adopted sister Han Duoduo (Jin Mai Jaho) as they become thrust into a last-ditch attempt to restart the planetary thrusters after sustaining heavy damage due to an unforeseen gravitational spike near Jupiter. A promise made and then broken by their father (played by famed martial arts actor/director Jing Wu) sets the stage for an attempt at intimacy but that simply gets lost in all the catastrophic disaster set pieces.

Just as the story finds humanity in a major transitional period, The Wandering Earth finds director Frant Gwo undergoing a major one himself. Prior to filming China’s first “full-scale interstellar spectacular” he had only two feature film credits to his name — neither of which hinted towards his next project being anything like this. In an industry largely built upon plush historical/martial arts epics there was understandably some reticence toward forging a new frontier. There was such little faith in Gwo’s ability to deliver that actors not only sacrificed paychecks but personally invested in the film to ensure the show would go on and became real-life saviors for the film. Wu, for example, was never intended to be a lead; he initially agreed to be in only one scene but the film needed star power and so Gwo rewrote the script, tailoring it to a father-son dynamic that, at least in theory, forms the emotional core of the movie.

The Wandering Earth, since its release back in February, has gone on to become the second-highest grossing non-English film ever made, earning $700 million in China alone. Netflix picked up the rights to distribute and well, here we are, navigating perilously between episodes of cataclysmic destruction, each one of them enough to wipe us all out on their own. The challenges that face Liu Qi and co. alone make 2012 look like a quaint little indie movie.

It’s a lot to process — or, you know, not process. State-sponsored messaging aside, it’s totally down to the individual as to whether you can take this puree of nonsensical, approximated science and unearned sentimentality at face value — “hey, it’s all in the name of good old-fashioned, goofy fun” — or whether the absurd physics required to save us again (and once again) are just a bridge too far.

Asking me? I appreciated the lack of Aerosmith, at the very least. The Wandering Earth presents a dire situation in a way that’s easy to watch with your jaw slacked and brain on autopilot. At points it becomes surprisingly dark. And boy does the thing look gorgeous. Despite the computer rendering essentially subbing as Characters they help you invest in the visual spectacle. Yet The Wandering Earth, just for the simple fact someone conceived of this, earns a spot on my shelf of guilty-pleasure, geek-tastic sci fi blow-outs. It slides in well above the likes of Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow while never coming close to competing with more intellectually-stimulating adventures like Interstellar and Sunshine.

Catching a red-eye.

Recommendation: A classic example of popcorn-destroying, mindless entertainment that feels like a Hollywood production but one without an American hero in sight. Filled with as many impressive visual effects as plot holes, The Wandering Earth should entertain sci fi fans in search of their next epic space adventure — one they can consume right in their laps (or via their cushy little home theater set-ups). Spoken mostly in Mandarin with English subtitles. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 125 mins.

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

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Decades Blogathon – There Will Be Blood (2007)

To cap off the Decades ’17 edition, here’s Mark’s stellar look at the much-celebrated and discussed Paul Thomas Anderson epic, There Will Be Blood. You won’t want to miss this review! Thanks once again everyone!

three rows back

Well, we’ve arrived at the final day of the Decades Blogathon – ‘7’ edition. Just as with the previous two years, it’s been a lot of fun with a host of fascinating and diverse reviews from across the board. Thanks to everyone who has taken part this year; you are all on my Christmas card list! However, my biggest thanks must go to by fellow blogathon buddy Tom – his site Thomas J is one I have followed as long as I’ve been doing this blogging game and his talent for insightful and engaging reviews has only grown over the years.This year’s blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the seventh year of the decade and for this final day, you’re getting a review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood from yours truly. See you again next year!

Just as cinema became the preeminent…

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April Blindspot: Metropolis (1927)

Release: Sunday, March 13, 1927

[Netflix]

Written by: Thea von Harbou

Directed by: Fritz Lang

Austrian-German filmmaker Fritz Lang’s critique of capitalism and class structure in his classic silent epic Metropolis is a sight to behold, even if it is far from graceful. He imagines a dystopian city in the year 2026, a self-contained universe starkly divided between the weak and the powerful, the have’s and the have-not’s. When the son of the city’s visionary planner crosses the threshold into the world of the machine workers after being lured there by a beautiful woman, he learns the terrible truth about the city and his position within it and seeks to change the status quo.

Despite universal praise for its technical prowess, most notably a sprawling and immersive visual aesthetic, Metropolis was far from being embraced as an instant classic upon its release, some 90 years ago. The now famous line “The Mediator between Head and Hands must be the Heart!” was a particular bone of contention for critics of the late 1920s and early ’30s who viewed the sentiment as an oversimplification of existent tensions between the working class proletariat and the privileged bourgeoisie.

The very idea that such disparate groups could ever find common ground was deemed unrealistic, even naïve. Among the most notable dissenters was English writer H.G. Wells, who dismissed it as “quite the silliest film.” But the most damning criticisms were lodged against the film’s alleged pro-fascist stance, the thrust of the narrative seemingly drawing parallels between the revolt against the aforementioned visionary Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

Before diving into all of that, an interrogation of the narrative itself might be helpful. The story concerns itself primarily with the relationship between the good-hearted but privileged Feder (Gustav Fröhlich in his breakout role) and the poor prophet Maria (Brigitte Helm), who find themselves caught up in a bitter revolt inspired by a robot built in the likeness of the latter — the result of a scientific experiment carried out by the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). The robot, originally designed to replicate his beloved, is brought to life after Maria falls into Rotwang’s clutches at the behest of Joh, who senses growing unrest in the subterranean realm.

Of course, Joh is unaware of the inventor’s ulterior motives, as he actually plans to use the replicated Maria to destroy Metropolis. He plans to have her lead the workers in a violent uprising that will see the destruction of many machines, including The Heart Machine, which . . . well, you can probably guess why it’s important. In the heat of passion, the outraged leave their children behind in the wreckage for Feder and Maria to save before the city floods in the ensuing chaos.

Throughout the two-and-a-half hour running time (Metropolis manifests as one of cinema’s earliest full-length features and is indeed sizable even by today’s standards) we are bombarded with Biblical references and homages to Mary Shelley’s seminal science fiction Frankenstein. This seemingly incongruous mixture of elements, as set against the backdrop of the German expressionist movement, combines to form a uniquely visual tapestry that tends to obscure, rather than enhance, the beating heart of humanity at the film’s core.

Given this, Metropolis can hardly be deemed a film of subtlety. In fact it’s massively unsubtle. Lang’s suggestion of the apocalypse is a prime example. Feder’s vision of Maria riding a seven-headed beast confesses to the unfettered nature of period expressionism, and provides Lang’s most solid alibi for taking the film to so many different extremes. It’s altogether too much clutter. In a film where so many other dynamics are to be considered, heavy-handed interpretations of scripture seem, at best, superfluous.

I don’t view Metropolis as being overtly one thing or another. It’s a veritable amalgam of thematic material and visual spectacle. It’s about communism. No, it’s not — it’s about fascists. No it’s not, it’s about artificial intelligence. No wait, it’s about sinning and the second coming of Christ. I can’t fathom having to process all of this in a time where film reviews could only be found in the paper. At a time when the mobilization of the Nazis was an event taking place in the present. And while we’re on the subject, I also don’t subscribe to the notion that Metropolis supports Nazism. Perhaps there’s a reading here that the inevitable uprising in the lower ranks is a metaphor for the eventual birth and spread of fascism in Europe, but I don’t want to give that too much credit.

The fact that the film fails to shift its emotional weight convincingly proved most problematic for me. I was never convinced by Joh’s sudden concern for his son when violence took hold of society. Remorse for his oppressive leadership was never palpable during the hand-shake — the mediation, as it were, between the head of the city and its tired hands, here represented by the foreman of the Heart Machine, Grot (Heinrich George). Because Joh remained a fundamentally unchanged man come the end, I wasn’t able to buy the denouement as anything other than a physical commitment to honor the film’s thematic contract: Show that love can conquer all. (Even the most bitter ideological divides like class warfare.)

In the end, I liken Lang’s optimism to John Lennon’s insistence that all you need is love. In the context of the world in which we live, their idealism does seem naïve but for whatever reason it almost seems in poor taste to describe visionaries like them in such a way.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Feder, holding down the fort. For now.

Recommendation: Mightily ambitious and to a fault, Metropolis I find a film with much to praise and almost as much to criticize. And yet, considering the times in which it was released, I can’t do anything but admire it. A rare silent film viewing experience for me, one I’m glad I have finally had. Do I really need to recommend this movie to anyone . . . ?

Rated: NR

Running Time: 148 mins.

What the hell: Unemployment and inflation were so bad in Germany at the time that the producers had no trouble finding 500 malnourished children to film the flooding sequences.

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 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue-one-movie-poster

Release: Friday, December 16, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Chris Weitz; Tony Gilroy

Directed by: Gareth Edwards

Gareth Edwards (Godzilla; Monsters) has been given the none-too-enviable task of linking two of cinema’s most iconic trilogies. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story predicates the ultra-classic original space opera and follows on the heels of the considerably less classic trilogy that kicked off circa the turn of the millennium. With such weight on its shoulders it’s a small miracle the production doesn’t fully implode in on itself. Given what’s at stake and the immense hype building up to it, the “spin-off” saga still can’t help but feel like a comedown, especially when it stands in such close proximity to The Force Awakens.

This is a review from the point of view of a decided non-fanboy. Let us not get that confused with me not being a fan of the anthology at all. There are a lot of things I like about the universe George Lucas envisioned some 40 years ago — not least of which being the immense sense of scale and (cringe) epic-ness that has been established year in and year out. The mythos of Star Wars also brilliantly manifests as a thinly veiled critique of the way we earthlings perpetually endeavor to coexist on a single chunk of rock. Perhaps most critically, Lucas has established characters and character arcs that will forever live on in the annals of not only science fiction but in all of cinema. While you will never find me in a packed house fully dressed in Star Wars attire, I will always have time for Darth Vader. And if you have no interest in Luke Skywalker, Chewie, or Han Solo you basically have no soul.

Rogue One, not without a sense of urgency in its precursive structure, manifests as more a tale of two halves where one goes heavy on the exposition and the other overcompensatory with action. It is a decidedly unbalanced epic, unable to maintain momentum or genuine intrigue from start to finish. And it’s a damn long sit, clocking in at well over two hours. The film only seems to achieve greatness down the back stretch, where shit really hits the fan as a small cadre of rebels led by Felicity Jones‘ Jyn Erso finally puts into action a bold plan to recover the design schematic for the Empire’s megaweapon, the Death Star.

Erso, daughter of the reluctant architect behind said “planet killer” Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen — yay!), has lived a life of oppression and isolation. On her own since the age of 15 she’s the very definition of teenage rebel, but not like the ones you see in Nirvana’s music videos. Her journey to become a Rebel leader is built upon a sturdy foundation — the great Ben Mendelsohn gives us reason to be very, very worried as Imperial Director Orson Krennic — but it’s just not very interesting. The entire affair is dark (literally too dark in places, to the point where I couldn’t see what was going on) and sans humor (also sans Hayden Christensen-levels of schmaltz, to its credit), making that first half a slog for anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the infallibility of Star Wars.

After a brief introduction to Erso’s humble beginnings we are introduced to key role players who vary in personality from completely boring to vaguely inspiring. There’s Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his android K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) — sort of a poor-man’s C-3PO; a defecting Imperial pilot by the name of Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who has smuggled a holographic message from Galen to present to the Rebel Alliance and a Rebel extremist named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who was the first to “rescue” Jyn from Imperial forces. Also integral to the cause are blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen).

These folks represent an ideological extremism festering within a faction of Good Guys who all have grown tired of being kicked around by the Bad Guys. The Rebels are the ones we should ultimately care about, except in the end we really don’t. (The perspective I’ve maintained throughout this piece has become pretty confused, I admit. Wasn’t this supposed to be from the point of view of a non-fanboy? I’m not intending to speak for all here because I assume my thoughts are not going to be shared by many. But I digress . . .) In the end, I didn’t really feel the feels. But my buttocks did; pins and needles set in circa the 90-minute mark and as I shifted around trying to get comfortable I also started to gain a greater appreciation of what had been accomplished in Episode VII. Jyn = a watered-down Rey; Rook = a not-fun Finn. James Earl Jones barely even sounds like James Earl Jones.

A large part of the problem I have with Rogue One stems from Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s conservative screenplay, one in which narrative coherence is favored over character development. I suppose that, since the arc of the story is itself auxiliary to what comes later — most pertinently the events of A New Hope — the lack of personality or the subtly romantic textures we’ve become so accustomed to over the years is almost intentional. This is a very serious saga, and when humor does meekly surface it arrives absolutely when it is needed, and it doesn’t flow so much as spurt awkwardly; much of Tudyk’s input invokes irritation rather than laughter. In other words, character “growth” here feels more defined by action or inaction, rather than what characters say or feel. Simply put, Rogue One lacks the emotional heft needed to make this a truly memorable chapter in the ongoing saga.

It’s not all underwhelming, though. The aforementioned final third is nothing short of spectacular as Erso and her motley crew successfully infiltrate the highly secured Imperial database on the planet Scarif. The plan of attack is brilliantly devised and fascinating to watch unfold. It’s like the Normandy Beach landing set in space — so convincingly rendered we forget this is all being shot on the Maldivian atoll of Laamu. The contrast between the brutality of the attack and the tropical, utopian setting is, in a word, awesome. The sacrifices made herein also emphasize the ‘war’ in Star Wars. It’s surprising there is emotional resonance behind the losses given the characters are so blandly written.

But even this sequence is not entirely satisfying, insofar as what its execution suggests about the film preceding it. The nostalgia it generates for the past future risks making entirely redundant any momentum that was supposed to be generated in the events that precipitated it. Rogue One is kind of a big tease; it titillates through sheer force of association while never managing to become something that will endure the test of time on its own.

rogue-one

3-5Recommendation: Fan service to the extreme makes Rogue One a pandering but occasionally enjoyable outing for those who aren’t diehards. It’s visually spectacular and suitably grandiose, but for those wanting to latch onto classic characters it will leave something to be desired. Not even the great Felicity Jones is a true stand-out. Still, there’s something to recommend about the film — namely its reverence for the ever-expanding universe in which it takes place, and when the action is on — boy is it on. Ultimately I’m confident this will still end up breaking all sorts of box office records. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director.”

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

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

X-Men: Apocalypse

'X Men - Apocalypse' movie poster

Release: Friday, May 27, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Bryan Singer; Simon Kinberg; Michael Dougherty; Dan Harris

Directed by: Bryan Singer

In the midst of Magneto’s metal-throwing rampage, a burning hot ember of emotion buried deep underneath the rapidly cooling coals of X-Men: Apocalypse, I glance over to find my friend fast asleep, head buried into his shoulder and a small puddle of drool starting to form. All I could do was smile, really. It was the perfect summation of everything I was feeling on the inside throughout much of Bryan Singer’s fourth go-around as the helmer of this most consistently inconsistent of superhero film franchises.

For about an hour I couldn’t come to terms with the disparity in quality between Singer’s previous installment and his latest; how is it possible to be so enthralled by one entry and bored to tears with the next? Seeing as though I wasn’t someone put off by the tweaks made to X-Men history in Days of Future Past, I then had the troubling thought that I was still better off than the purists, those who had a lot more invested in these adaptations.

Apocalypse is, if nothing else, a perfectly good waste of Oscar Isaac’s talents. As the titular super-villain En Sabah Nur, Isaac couldn’t look more disinterested. Was part of the plan caking the man in make-up to the point where his disgust over the poor (and I mean really poor) script would be concealed? If it was, that plan failed. In the early going Nur rises from the dead in modern (well, 1983) Egypt after being entombed under tons of rubble resulting from a last-second violent uprising that occurred during an attempt to transfer his consciousness into another mortal body. He quickly learns of how modern society has come to be and is profoundly disturbed by it. Like Tony Stark’s ultimate fuck-up, the Ultron program, Nur/Apocalypse is big on the cleansing of mankind but very slight when it comes to personality. (It’s a little painful to be comparing an Oscar-caliber actor’s charisma here to that of a robot, but here we are.)

Nur’s extinction-level plans simply boil down to nostalgia for them good ole days. With a perpetual scowl set upon his seasick-looking face, he sets about bestowing untold amounts of power upon already powerful, albeit vulnerable, mutants the world over, enticing them to join him in his effort to restore world order. His recruits include the likes of Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp); Warren Worthington III/Angel (Ben Hardy); Elizabeth Braddock/Psylocke (Olivia Munn); and Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). While each character’s alter egos manage to jump off the page from a visual standpoint, no one other than Magneto is given anything to do. Even their action scenes register as perfunctory.

Elsewhere, mutants both new and old are . . . doing something. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is professing at the school where he professes things, teaching students to learn how to accept being gifted with powers; Magneto, prior to being wooed by the job offer from the False God, is eking out a quieter existence in Poland following the disastrous events in Washington D.C.; Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is continent-hopping as a mercenary-for-hire, rescuing fellow mutants from their current miseries all while denying her heroism. The false modesty is soooo Katniss Everdeen Gwyneth Paltrow. And we are reacquainted with sidekickers like Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult); Jean Gray/Phoenix (Sophie Turner); Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan); and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodie Smit-McPhee).

Aside from the dismal performance from Isaac, one that reminded me more than once of the kind of collapse Eddie Redmayne had in Jupiter Ascending last year, Apocalypse suffers from a total lack of enthusiasm in reintroducing its sprawling cast. The characters themselves, of course, are universally welcomed back, yet their presences aren’t so much felt as they are foisted upon audiences expecting an epic action spectacular. (More on that in a little bit.) It was during these protracted intros where my mind started to really wander, where my head started sitting heavy in the palm of my hand. ‘Why is this girl in front of me constantly reaching out towards the screen? Like, does she know someone in this thing or something?’ ‘Is she having spasms?’ ‘Do I need to call a doctor?’ Thoughts no one should be having during a film that features so many likable and unique characters, a film steeped in mythology now 15 years in the cinematic making, I was totally having, and constantly. It was as if Charles Xavier had somehow gained access to my cerebral cortex. Leave my cerebral cortex alone, Charles.

There is actually a defense against critics blasting Apocalypse for lacking originality in its ambitions to out-epic the competition. Sometimes a ‘back-to-basics’ approach can be rewarding. You can simplify the thrust of the narrative to the ultimate in superhero standoffs, wherein all roads to the end of days run through mutants brave enough to face up to Nur and his four horsemen. Unfortunately in this case there is such a lackadaisical attitude in bringing back the characters to face their toughest test. This is in some ways one of the most personal outings for the X-Men yet, but this latest installment feels cold and detached. Much of that can be traced to Isaac’s prominence, though the build-up to the climactic fight is just as off-putting.

Look no further than said capstone battle. Hasn’t Singer learned anything from the Bay’s and the Emmerich’s? Threat of annihilation by virtue of large-scale, pixelated destruction isn’t really a threat at all. In fairness, Singer tries to make up for some of the transgressions by ripping himself off and including another über-slow-mo sequence that shows off the greatness that is Quicksilver. That’s gotta count for something in the way of originality, right?

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Recommendation: If we’re talking hierarchy of awesomeness, X-Men: Apocalypse is a tier or two down from Singer’s previous output, Days of Future Past because it doesn’t express the same level of enthusiasm nor does the story work as cohesively as the ones that have come before it. The clichés are much harder to escape here as are the cheesy one-liners and there’s a sense of franchise fatigue. A poor performance from Oscar Isaac doesn’t help matters either. Still, there’s enough here to say I’m willing to see where the franchise goes from here. I’m also liking how the past is catching up to “the present.” It’s an interesting way to build a full and complete picture of the X-Men universe. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 144 mins.

Quoted: “Does it ever wake you in the middle of the night? The feeling that one day, they’ll come for you? And your children?”

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.cinemablend.com

Decades Blogathon – The Ten Commandments (1956)

 

Sorry for the late re-blog, Mark! Here is Mark Hobin’s review of the 1956 Biblical epic The Ten Commandments — do make sure you check out both his review and his great film site, Fast Film Reviews. Thanks!

three rows back

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1956Welcome to day three of the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition – hosted by myself and the one and only Tom from Digital Shortbread! The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade. Tom and I will run a different entry each day (we’ll also reblog the other’s post); and today we feature this excellent contribution from Mark at Fast Film Review – Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments.

This lavish, Technicolor extravaganza shot in VistaVision is Cecil B. DeMille’s last and most celebrated work. Remaking his own 1923 black and white silent movie, The Ten Commandments is a sumptuous religious epic.

Pure soap opera is woven into the Old Testament story about a man whose perspective changes when he realises his true origins. Few films have attained such an unqualified level of sheer excess. Over the course of almost four…

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In the Heart of the Sea

big fish

Release: Friday, December 11, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Charles Leavitt; Rick Jaffa; Amanda Silver

Directed by: Ron Howard

From the infamously dangerous Nürburgring and into the heart of the sea Ron Howard has steered his cameras in an altogether new direction, facing the unenviable task of crafting a cinematic event based around the circumstances that inspired 19th Century writer Herman Melville’s most famous fiction.

Less an adherence to the motifs found in ‘Moby Dick’ and more a voyage of its own epic proportions, In the Heart of the Sea finds Howard massaging a much darker story involving the brave (or stubborn) seafaring captain, first mate and crew of the Essex who were destined for destruction when they set out in search of another payday in the form of whale oil, only to be thwarted by a deep sea-dwelling monster. It’s a film in which adjusted expectations will likely accommodate a more enjoyable experience, for this is more blockbuster than serious drama; more Greatest Hits than a standalone album.

In 1820 Chris Hemsworth’s Owen Chase, an experienced whaler and affable, capable man, feels like he’s earned the right to become Captain of the Essex, but thanks to bureaucracy and George Pollard (Benjamin Walker)’s status as heir apparent to the family legacy, he’s relegated once more to First Mate despite being promised otherwise. So the journey starts off with a barely disguised undercurrent of tension and gradually destabilizes as what was already going to be a protracted trip eventuates into more than a year at sea, as the inexperienced Captain Pollard fails to find the goods. At the time, small communities like Nantucket were dependent upon whale oil for lighting and energy and returning to shore empty-handed was not an option.

After months scouring the Atlantic to little avail, Pollard decides to explore the Pacific in an attempt to change their fortunes. While resupplying in Ecuador, they learn of an undisturbed region of whales that apparently harbors a particularly hostile and large white whale. The crew of the Essex dismiss the story as a myth only later to discover both parts of the story to be true. And they are of course attacked, marooned on a remote island and finally left floating for days on end with scant water or food supplies. It gets to a point where the remaining survivors must resort to cannibalism. Indeed, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

And when the going does get tough, Howard’s gritty epic truly gets going. Sea is less about showmanship — interpret that as either a reflection of character or performances from a recognizable cast — as it is about establishing atmosphere. Wisely he provides some semblance of humanity before rendering the participants steadily maddening creatures. The squabbles between Chase and Captain Pollard couldn’t seem more trivial after the whale attacks. There’s a tremendous sense of loss, of unrelenting despair in this nautical epic, qualities almost antithetical of Howard’s typically uplifting, inspirational fare. Morbidity and suffering suits him though.

A staunch believer in the power of storytelling, Howard this time surprisingly foregoes establishing memorable characters — don’t expect any Niki Lauda‘s or John Nash‘s here — in order to make room for a familiar but powerful framing device involving Brendan Gleeson’s aged Tom Nickerson, the last living survivor of that crew. In modern-day (well, Nantucket 30 years later), a thoroughly depressed and alcohol-dependent Tom reluctantly relays the tragedy to a curious Melville (Ben Whishaw) who in turn wants to recount the saga in his writing for to make a name for himself.

Regrettably, the sporadic jumps back to present-day tend to rudely interrupt our seafarers’ plight. Sea has a difficult time sustaining momentum and if it is to aspire to great heights as a blockbuster, as it clearly wishes with a mammal of this magnitude so convincingly rendered, it needs to more judiciously use these transitions. Points also deducted for the crowbarring in of a parallel to man’s contemporary dependence on land-locked crude oil. The topic certainly seems relevant, but the film almost certainly would have been better off without the mention.

Despite borrowing the narrative backbone of the 2000 Nathaniel Philbrick novel ‘In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,’ this is a Ron Howard picture through-and-through. It boasts breathtaking cinematography, wherein you’ll find the extent of its romantic tinges. There’s little room for romance in a story this dark, save for the way this beautiful whaling vessel is captured by two-time collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle. It’s also a passionately crafted and seriously considered production that may not always fire on all cylinders as other entries have in Howard’s rich back catalog, yet there’s something undeniably classic about its mythical qualities.

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 4.07.05 AM

Recommendation: Powerful, moving, handsomely crafted epic with tremendous special effects to boot, In the Heart of the Sea is destined to satisfy more devout Ron Howard fans. It might be a more flawed creation than say Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind or last year’s Rush, but if we’re making those comparisons we’re only setting ourselves up for disappointment in the same way this ill-fated crew set themselves up for disappointment going for 2,000 barrels of whale oil.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “They looked at us like we were aberrations. Phantoms.”

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

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2

The-Hunger-Games-Mockingjay-Part-2-teaser-poster

Release: Friday, November 20, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Peter Craig; Danny Strong

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Take your best shot, Mr. Lawrence. I’m ready for anything. Or, I thought I was.

Four films, three years and nearly $2 billion in global box office receipts later, we arrive at the bittersweet farewell to a remarkable franchise, one that has been so captivating since its inception it hooked one of the biggest cynics I know of the young adult film adaptations from the get-go. That person is me. I tend not to give a lot of credit to these films, feeling so comfortable in my dismissal of many of these movies that when their poor performance (commercial and/or critical) pops up on my screen a few days later, my only response is a simple, satisfied chuckle. Then I click out of the screen and move on.

There’s been something markedly different about Katniss Everdeen and her targeted bow and arrows though. And I swear it’s not because I happen to think Jennifer Lawrence is really cute. Okay, well I suppose that helps. But Shailene Woodley is a babe too! I’m not going to mince my words here: physical attraction is a big part of it, but what has really helped up the ante for the cinematic treatment(s) of Suzanne Collins’ best-sellers has been an emphasis on genuine emotion filtered through an uncommonly bleak political lens.

Collins’ final novel being split into two films has caused quite the stir amongst passionate fans of both the film and book franchise, and while it’s difficult to argue the motives for expanding the HGCU (that’s the Hunger Games Cinematic Universe) into a quadrilogy are fueled by anything other than reaping financial rewards, I personally have enjoyed getting to spend this much more time with some truly well-developed and exceptionally memorable characters.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2, then, wastes no time in immersing audiences right into the psychological, and now physical, turmoil that has consumed the two victors of the 74th Hunger Games: Peeta is still suffering from the trauma he endured at the hands of President Snow having been captured after the events of Catching Fire, while Katniss recovers from neck injuries sustained in his attack upon her during one of his psychotic breaks.

The reality of this franchise ending is surprisingly difficult to reconcile. On one level, and as one might expect, this final chapter manifests as the most somber one yet as we watch the events of the previous films sculpt the faces of the familiar into expressions of deep despair, the weight of full-fledged war carried upon Katniss’ shoulders and anyone who has stood by her in the belief that the nation shouldn’t be subjected to Snow’s oppression any longer. There emerges a strong emotional rift between Katniss and Peeta, who can no longer be trusted. All that stuff’s easier to swallow when compared to the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman though. In his final on-screen appearance, his Plutarch Heavensbee is notably less prevalent, yet his spirit, in all of its organic, non-digitized glory, leaves a lasting impression.

The stakes have never been higher, yet the premise so simple. To the surprise of no one, Katniss’ only goal is killing President Snow. Like, for real this time. Feeling restricted in her capacity as merely a symbol of hope for the people of Panem, she’s determined to get back to doing real damage and will abandon protocol laid out by District 13 leader Alma Coin that’s been set in place to protect her. She joins a squad of soldiers led by Boggs (Mahershala Ali) and Lieutenant Jackson (Michelle Forbes) who are tasked with following behind the other troops into the Capitol in order to film one final segment  for District 13’s anti-Snow propagandistic documentary.

Katniss of course is less concerned with the documentation as she is with finishing what she had started so long ago. In so doing, she must confront her deepest moral quandaries yet. The choices she must make as she marches through a Capitol that resembles Berlin circa post-World War 2, only outfitted with death traps that make the Quarter Quell look like child’s play by comparison, will be next to impossible and will more often than not require her to decide how many lives she’s willing to sacrifice to secure a brighter future for Panem.

Lawrence has fared exceptionally well since taking over the reigns from Gary Ross who established The Hunger Games as an uncommonly intelligent and bleak young adult film franchise. Obviously it is author Suzanne Collins to whom we should be most indebted for conjuring such an elaborate and audaciously political system over which fans, both casual and dedicated alike, have obsessed. After all, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate those who have been faithful to the series just for the star power and the experience from those who have been so inspired by coetaneous themes of social and political injustice as to become more politically active.

When I inevitably buy the box set, I’ll in all likelihood be confirming the fact that rather than playing out as individual, disjointed stories, this franchise operates as a cohesive whole, cranking up the personal tension between Katniss and Snow methodically, assimilating audiences effortlessly over a three-year period by playing up the ruthless villainy of Donald Sutherland’s white-ness (not a reference to his complexion) versus the purity of the Girl on Fire and her intentions of restoring the balance. Maybe if it’s not the religion of the church of the Mockingjay that’s compelling, nor how supposedly faithful the films have been to the source material, it’s the level of conviction and passion in Lawrence’s vision.

Jennifer Lawrence has blossomed into a reliable actress and that’s largely thanks to her contributions to these large-scale, larger-budget spectacles. (Yes, David O’Russell, you may have her now but Gary Ross developed her skill set.) Her consistency will be one of the aspects I’ll be missing most in the coming Novembers. Nevermind Woody Harrelson and his kind and affable Haymitch. Stanley Tucci’s hairdo. Elizabeth Banks and her eternally upbeat Effie Trinket. The nastiness of the Games, or of Sutherland’s tyranny. Indeed, if there is one word you could boil these films down to, it’s just that: consistent. That’s a rare quality to find in a franchise these days. Just ask the Terminator.

Jennifer Lawrence, Mahershala Ali and Liam Hemsworth in 'The Hunger Games Mockingjay - Pt 2'

Recommendation: A lot can be said about the decision to split Mockingjay into two parts but this reviewer is a fan of it. It’s given me time to enjoy these characters more and the expansion of the series over four films/years has made for one of the most impressive film franchises I’ve ever seen. These films mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but if I were to make a recommendation for this film, it’s that you can appreciate it on its own almost as much as a part of a bigger picture. Almost, is the key word though. A spectacular finish to an uncommonly engaging story has been delivered.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “Our lives were never ours. They belong to Snow and our deaths do too. But if you kill him Katniss, if you end all of this, all those deaths . . . they mean something.”

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TBT: Citizen Kane (1941)

Let’s send October off in style, shall we? Four Thursdays and several classics later, we arrive here at the fifth installment of TBT. And really, how can I ignore this one? It’s a film I saw a few months ago and I haven’t seen it since, so with any luck my memory will not fail me. I can finally now say that I have gotten to experience

Today’s food for thought: Citizen Kane.

Incinerating sleds since: September 5, 1941

[Netflix]

How does one hope to reveal anything new or exciting about Citizen Kane, one of cinema’s most poured-over films and a release that’s now over 70 years old? The truth is, they can’t. The best thing that I can hope to do is nod my head and silently agree with everyone who has ever sung its praises. This is a film with such a reputation that it actually takes some effort not to watch it.

Some months ago now I pressured myself into ordering the DVD through Netflix. When it arrived it then sat on top of the Xbox for awhile before I finally decided I should just give it a chance. I carried a healthy level of skepticism going in because there was no way this film was going to be as good as everyone had told me it was. Fifteen minutes in I was completely entranced. Orson Welles’ most celebrated film, and please pardon the strange comparison, absorbs and entertains — and ultimately repulses — much in the same way as Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, creating an almost mythical character at the heart of the story and protecting him behind layers upon layers of exposition, each one invariably tainted by bias and prejudice. Both feature characters so much larger than life it takes at least 120 cinematic minutes to properly represent them.

In hindsight, Charles Foster Kane (Welles) might be easier to sum up than you would think. The word ‘enigma’ comes to mind. Even ‘celebrity.’ That’s an incomplete picture though. And really, that’s the impression Welles (as director) wants first-time viewers to have. His approach all but beckons those same viewers to watch again, to find out what pieces of the puzzle they have missed. Citizen Kane, in the mode of a film à clef, weaves a dense and complex narrative to paint a collage of impressions about who Kane was, what he represented, and how his legacy would proceed him.

Kane, himself a collage of real-life personalities, was loosely based upon American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Chicago business tycoons Samuel Insull and Harold McCormick, as well as aspects of Welles’ own life. Despite his incredible wealth and influence, Kane was, for all intents and purposes, an American everyman — someone who, if you saw him on the streets, you could walk right up to and touch. And you, in all your mediocrity, would matter to him. At least, that’s how it seemed.

Among the most fervently discussed aspects of this production is its inventive narrative structure, one which spindles out like a spiderweb to incorporate virtually every aspect of this man’s life, accumulating dramatic heft until a remarkable revelation. The core of the story is concerned with developing Kane’s professional life, detailing his impoverished childhood in Colorado, his subsequent adoption by a wealthy banker named Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris), and his meteoric rise to national prominence after entering the newspaper business and seizing control of the New York Inquirer, what many today recognize as the tabloid paper The National Enquirer.

Within this framework we see Kane (d)evolve from ebullient and idealistic publisher seeking immortality via his unfathomable business savvy — save for the little hiccup in 1929 where the stock market crash resulted in his forfeiture of his controlling share of The Inquirer — to a mere mortal set on gaining as much power as a man can have — he briefly dabbled in politics before an affair effectively put an end to that venture — while essentially destroying anyone who dared cross him, and God forbid, chose to marry him. One particularly memorable sequence depicts the gradual dissolution of his first marriage to Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), a niece of the President of the United States, by staging a series of conversations at a dinner table.

All of these developments are relayed through flashbacks, which result from the many interviews conducted by modern-day newspaper reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland). He’s seeking the significance of Kane’s last dying words (really, it’s a single word ‘rosebud’), at the behest of his newsreel producer. Interviews include friends and associates, some of whom are willing to speak freely about the man while others (notably Susan Alexander, Kane’s second wife) initially refuse to be interviewed. Even disregarding the immensity of the character being explored, Citizen Kane established its brilliance through this kaleidoscopic approach, using other people to inform a third party’s opinion about who this man was and why his death was so significant. As people are inherently complex, it only makes sense our best chance of gaining intimate knowledge of a single person is through the perspectives of many.

Quite simply, this is an extraordinary picture that almost suffers from an abundance of potential talking points. I haven’t even delved into how ornate and beautiful its imagery is. The symbolism. The scale. The humanity and the lack thereof, particularly during scenes at his elegant Floridian estate, known as Xanadu. The use of shadows to evoke danger and tension. The sharp suits and elegant dresses suggesting power and prestige both earned and usurped. The film has been praised countless times for its groundbreaking technical aspects, and while I claim to know little about that aspect of filmmaking, to my untrained eye it’s praise well-deserved.

To the uninitiated, Citizen Kane and all of its clout might seem a bit overwhelming and even off-putting. After all, lofty expectations usually serve to disappoint. In my case, I don’t think there was a way to prepare myself for how good this was. The film ends in an estate sale, wherein Kane’s bevy of personal possessions — most of them statues and busts and expensive paintings — are being divided up either for selling or discarding. It’s telling that this cavernous enclave is mostly filled with priceless items that, collectively, mean very little. They probably meant very little to Kane himself. The accumulation of wealth is so ridiculous it consumes the entirety of the frame. In fact, the only thing more consuming than his apparent obsession with gaining more and more stuff is that nagging sensation that we’ve missed the significance of the word ‘rosebud.’

Recommendation: Unforgettable. And quite simply a classic. Orson Welles truly outdoes himself in the lead and as a director, and if you are yet to see this film I urge you to put some time aside and give it a shot. I personally had grown tired of hearing how good a movie Citizen Kane was, but that was before I actually got around to watching it. Between the visual aesthetic and the scope and ambition of its content, this may not be the ‘best movie I’ve ever seen,’ but for all its comprehensiveness and elegant craftsmanship, it’s likely to remain in a fairly elite group for years to come.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 119 mins.

TBTrivia: The audience that watches Kane make his speech is, in fact, a still photo. To give the illusion of movement, hundreds of holes were pricked in with a pin, and lights moved about behind it.

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

The Martian

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Drew Goddard 

Directed by: Ridley Scott

The Martian is made of the same cosmic stuff that turned Ridley Scott into a household name. His latest is an instant classic sci fi epic about mankind’s place in the bigger galactic picture. If Interstellar was a humbling experience insofar as it confirmed that yes, the universe is . . . big, The Martian makes it far more personal, stressing just how fragile we are in a place we don’t really belong.

While the scale of this journey doesn’t encompass quite as vast a distance — Mars is a mere 34 million miles away as opposed to the untold thousands of light years Matthew McConaughey et al covered in search of another Earth-like planet — The Martian mounts a fascinating and thoroughly convincing case arguing what could happen if we ever choose to visit our nearest planetary neighbor. Credit where credit is due, of course: Scott adapted his film from the 2011 Andy Weir novel of the same name, relying on strong, contemporary source material to tell a profoundly human story rather than resorting to centuries-old documents that threaten plagues and the end of civilization, or stories that are better left on paper.

I don’t know if it’s just the thrill of seeing a once-great director returning to form after a few unsuccessful (to say the least) outings, or whether The Martian is just this good, but October has all of a sudden become exciting. I’d like to think it’s a bit of both, the buzz intensifying in the looming shadow of this season’s scheduled releases. I know it’s fall, but love (for cinema) is in the air.

The Martian tells the inspiring story — one so polished it actually takes more effort to dismiss as entirely fictional — of American astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon, third in line behind Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and Russell Crowe’s Maximus in terms of greatest characters Scott’s had to work with) who becomes marooned on the Red Planet after a severe storm forces the crew of the Ares III to abandon their mission. Not realizing he is still alive after being struck violently with some debris and tossed from the launch site, the remaining crew — comprised of Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and cadets Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) — escape the planet’s wind-swept surface and prepare for the four-year journey back to Earth.

It’s Cast Away in space, only this island is capable of producing greater anxiety than any spit of land on Earth ever could. To make matters worse there’s no Wilson, but Damon’s Watney, despite an affinity for talking to himself via web cam, doesn’t strike you as the sort who always needs someone around to talk to, even in the face of protracted isolation. Instead of striking up a relationship with an inanimate object Watney sets about working his problem logically and with a sense of humor that’s almost unfathomable considering the circumstances. As a result, we get one of the year’s most uplifting movies, with Scott opting to take the detour around dourness by stranding his not-so-helpless protagonist in an endless sea of despair and self-pity, though no one would blame Scott if he had.

I’m sure conspiracy theorists have been having a field day with this film, suggesting the fact that there was some sort of clause in Scott’s contract stipulating the distinct tonal change; a precautionary measure taken to distinguish the plight of Mark Watney from that of Ellen Ripley and to ensure that no wormhole-traveling between films would result. In all likelihood, Scott’s adaptation is nothing more than a faithful adaptation of the source material, and if that’s the case then The Martian has jumped high up on my list of books I must soon read (a list that is embarrassingly short, I have to say). Even if this film will never actually tie into the Alien universe, it suggests that perhaps Scott feels most at home when he leaves ours behind.

The Martian focuses more heavily on the work of our fearless astronaut as he sets about trying to establish his food rations, quickly deducing that it will be impossible to make his supplies last for over 400 days. Putting his botanist background to good use, Watney begins growing a crop of potatoes in the confines of the protective HAB, MacGyvering a water filtration system out of literally thin air. Indeed, he’ll be getting more than his daily fiber intake over the next few years. (Hopefully he’ll have enough ketchup to last.) Periodically we cut back to Houston, where Jeff Daniels’ Teddy Sanders, the head honcho of NASA, Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), a NASA spokesperson, have little else to do besides look on and wonder firstly how the hell Watney has survived and secondly whether retrieving him is a viable option.

Sean Bean is also in as Mitch Henderson, whose supervision of the crew serves as a stark contrast to Sanders’ colder, more stern and conservative methods. And then of course there’s the brainiest of them all in astrodynamicist Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), who lends valuable insight into how best to safely retrieve Watney. These earthbound characters don’t fair quite as well in terms of allotted screen time but given what they have to work with, all deliver impressive work and each help lend gravity to the developments, if you’ll pardon the pun. (If you don’t, then . . . well, fine . . . I guess it’s over between us.) Long faces and variations on looking exasperated constitute the bulk of these performances, but that doesn’t mean Scott’s misjudged their talents by saddling them with less showy roles.

Even so, this is the Matt Damon show. He may have been better as something else in the past (what role hasn’t this guy tried on for size?) but right now I’m coming up short. A botanist and self-proclaimed space pirate, Watney is a breath of fresh air, his morale-boosting video diaries marking a totally unexpected departure tonally from what we might have expected out of a story about being the first man stranded on Mars. These entries not only manifest as glimpses into the science behind space exploration, but they help advance the narrative as the weeks and months go by, revealing a timeline marked by their ‘sol’ number.

Of course it’s not a complete review until I mention how exquisite the cinematography is. I feel obligated to talk about it this time because, as overwhelming as it often is — the Martian landscape looks a little like Monument Valley (it was actually filmed in Jordan and Hungary) but there’s enough free play in the digital composition to make it look entirely authentic — the visuals (brought to you by Dariusz Wolski) aren’t at the heart of the film. Bless you, Ridley, for you only recently released a film that epitomized style over substance. On that basis alone (the basis of avoiding repeating history), The Martian deserves praise. Still, given the sleek spacecrafts, high tech gizmos and Martian sunsets that bleed dark purple, this movie is as stylish as anything that’s been released this year. It’s a beautiful, sometimes haunting spectacle that reveres the alien world and offers endlessly entertaining and optimistic commentary on the future of our cosmic endeavors.

Recommendation: This isn’t the only place you’ll read the words ‘a return to form for Ridley Scott.’ Before actually knowing what this movie was like I was kind of iffy about seeing this, and I wouldn’t have expected to declare this a must-see. But that is what this has become, a must-see for fans of the director, a must-see for the ensemble cast, and a must-see for space nerds like myself who enjoy good stories set in the most atmospheric space imaginable — outer space itself. The Martian is a downright fun movie. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins. 

Quoted: “F**k you, Mars.”

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