Month in Review: December ’19

Happy New Year from Thomas J! New year, new decade and a new slate of movies to take in and start complaining about immediately! 😀 Let’s do it!

I’ve come out of 2019 tripping over my own damn shoelaces. Not only did I botch the landing when it comes to finishing off the Marvelous Brie Larson actor feature within the year (that final installment is still coming by the way, it’ll just be posted in a new decade instead), I reviewed exactly none of the movies I watched in December: The Irishman; The Report; Waves; The Two Popes; Uncut Gems; Ford v Ferrari; Tennessee Walking Man.

But that’s why these monthly re-caps are handy, right? Below you’ll find a few blurbs about a select few of those titles, and while these movies absolutely deserve more expanded reviews — two of them were really best-of-year material for me — I feel like getting something out now is better than likely nothing later.

How long can you keep a movie in your head before the details start to blur? If you write reviews, are you a note-taker or a no-note-taker? 

For those who missed it, here’s what little actually did happen on Thomas J during December.


New Posts

Theatrical Releases: Jojo Rabbit

Alternative Content: When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Walking on a String


Bite Sized Reviews: Three from, uhh, November 

Waves · November 15, 2019 · Directed by Trey Edward Shults · Texan-born indie director Trey Edward Shults is in the family business — all three of his films thus far have been about families in crisis. Waves is his follow-up feature to his 2017 horror/thriller It Comes at Night and in it he provides one of the most extraordinary, if not also painful film experiences of the year. Replacing the cold and lifeless backwoods of the Appalachians with the sunny and vibrant coastlines of South Florida his new film may not take place in as much literal darkness but as an exploration of guilt and grief, a testament to familial love and perseverance, it certainly goes to some deep and dark emotional places. A powerfully affecting journey that follows an African-American family through a tragedy and how they come together again in the aftermath, it’s really the authenticity of the performances you notice first. Not a single actor here registers a false note, yet it’s perhaps Kelvin Harrison Jr. (returning from It Comes at Night) who crests the highest, encapsulating both the Jekyll and the Hyde sides of his gregarious, fun-loving and athletically gifted Tyler. When he receives some medical news that’s not necessarily favorable for his plans to go to college for wrestling, he goes into a tailspin that ends up having devastating consequences for his entire family. Beyond its excruciatingly personal story Waves also has a stylistic quality that is impossible to ignore. As a movie about what’s happening on the inside, very active camerawork and the moody, evocative score — provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — work in concert to place you in the headspace of the main characters. It all adds up to an experience that’s felt more than just passively taken in, and by the end of it you’ll feel both rewarded and exhausted. (5/5)

The Report · November 15, 2019 · Directed by Scott Z. Burns · This dour-faced legal thriller (available via Amazon Prime) details the efforts of a young and ambitious White House staffer named Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) as he leads an investigation into the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The five-year process would result in a 6,700-page document called The Torture Report and, ultimately, in the McCain-Feinstein Amendment being passed in November 2015. What begins as an inquiry into the destruction of  videotapes by a high-ranking CIA official — this at the behest of California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) — builds into the largest investigative review in Senate history, with Jones both making a name for and a nuisance of himself even after the Bush administration has left the building. Director Scott Z. Burns confidently guides us through an information-dense narrative, and Driver’s stoicism is well-matched by the gravitas provided by a very good supporting cast, which include but is not limited to the likes of Jon Hamm, Maura Tierney, Tim Blake Nelson, Jennifer Morrison, Corey Stoll and Ted Levine. Ultimately a quiet celebration of a whistleblower who’s name has already been forgotten, The Report is perfectly watchable though not exactly what I would call gripping drama. (3.5/5) 

Ford v Ferrari · November 15, 2019 · Directed by James Mangold · A pure joy ride from start to finish, James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari does for Le Mans what Ron Howard’s Rush (2013) did for Formula 1. It alleviates the air of elitism that tends to hang over these kinds of races with a crowd-pleasing tale of triumphing over the odds. You don’t have to be a car enthusiast to feel the thrills of these movies. Ford v Ferrari is a superior racing movie because not only does it describe multiple levels of competition, the most fascinating scenes are those that take place behind closed doors at the Ford Motor Company as a clash between blue and white collars threatens to derail the company’s grand plans of besting Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal endurance race that tests the very limits of mechanical integrity and driver performance. That’s not to say the sequences along the Circuit de La Sarthe aren’t positively thrilling themselves. But Ford v Ferrari really puts its characters first, and you have to admire Mangold because there are a lot of human components and even more technical ones to juggle. Like a finely tuned engine all those parts work in harmony with one another — and Christian Bale and Matt Damon as British racer Ken Miles and acclaimed American car builder Carrol Shelby once again prove why they’re so highly paid actors. The result is a racing movie that may just be one of the year’s best movies, period. (4.5/5)


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

Photo credits: IMDb; IMP Awards 

 

 

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

TBT: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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In trying to keep with a theme for this month’s batch of TBT’s, I have failed. 😦 I kind of put myself in a bad spot by opening the month (and the year) with Arnie’s disastrous adventure involving Armageddon in End of Days, a film I didn’t really feel comfortable with “associating” with any others as it’s just so poorly made. Unless I wanted a month of movies that fell well below their potentials I would have to go with some randoms for January. With that in mind, it’s time to get down to brass tacks and explore 

Today’s food for thought: Saving Private Ryan.

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Storming Normandy since: July 24, 1998

[DVD]

Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus is one of those films you can recall precisely where you were when you first watched it. For me, that was crammed into a small bedroom in Columbus, Ohio on a road trip me and a high school friend took in the fall of 2003. He had suggested watching it since he had never seen it, and up until that point I hadn’t been overly enthusiastic over putting myself through something I had heard was so grisly violent. Finally, on the last night of being in town, we slipped the disc into the DVD player.

I’m not sure how many I’m talking to here when I say that if you are anything like I was, reluctant, you have good reason to be if you have yet to experience Saving Private Ryan, particularly the opening half hour. More akin to a form of psychological boot camp designed to test viewers’ resolve than just another confronting scene of blood and gore, the infamous D-Day invasion of Normandy beach cements the film as essential viewing. The reality of war has never manifested as a nightmare so uniquely absurd, what with bodies being engulfed in walls of fire only to emerge as liquefied flesh.

Grenades rendering the very unlucky without a face.

That boy crying out for his mama.

Good thing film can’t tap into our sense of smell and taste; although there comes a point where the blood becomes so much its coppery taste is palpable. It’s also ironic: while wartime violence is something no one should ever witness, this harrowing sequence is history no one can afford to ignore.

After I had made it through this part and the room had righted itself again — I sometimes get the feeling the room is turning sideways whenever I get very uncomfortable in my seat — I felt uplifted, as though I had just achieved something. At the same time I felt callousness as I had this sense that whatever would pass by my eyes next would not be as severe as . . . well, that. There would be continued loss of life and likely there’d be other confronting passages — goodbye, Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) — but I knew even then that Spielberg had crafted something unique once Tom Hanks and his band of brothers gained the hill and bunkers and managed to regroup.

Saving Private Ryan is a title that explains itself but for the sake of coloring the picture: Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) is unaware that his three other brothers have all been killed in battle over the last week, and it is now up to Hanks’ Captain Miller and his company (which is comprised of several names that would later become major players in the entertainment biz, including Vin Diesel) to track him down and ensure his safe return to the States. There’s a tension that somewhat dissipates once we’re off the beach, a transition some have misconstrued as the film losing its strength. That may be true, but only insofar as the opening scenes possess a power that no film can really maintain. Spielberg wasn’t setting out to be masochistic in his choices, nor did he have intentions of frustrating those expecting the bloodletting to continue for two full hours uninterrupted. In his orchestration of the D-Day landing, yes we suffer. And audiences suffer a lot in this sweeping chronicle, but not for nothing.

After the bunkers the narrative distinctly shifts gears, for we move behind enemy lines with Miller et al as they forge ahead through wastelands created by aerial bombings and the crushing weight of Nazi tanks and troops. We escape pervasive, shocking violence but move into a realm that’s arguably more disturbing; the aftermath of war upon civilization. The mission proper gets underway and we move through towns that now bare more of a resemblance to the surface of the moon than anything on Earth, searching for a needle in a gigantic, blood-soaked haystack. Spielberg scatters all kinds of present danger across a steadily sprawling map. From hair-raising sniper shoot-outs to savage hand-to-hand combat in abandoned homes the brutality of war manifests itself in far more personal ways.

The violence doesn’t go away because you . . . excuse me, I . . . wanted it to. Because you want the room to stop spinning like crazy. Because you feel ill. All of these things are symptoms of a person who either watches films too seriously (probably true) or effects of a director whose vision refuses to be compromised. The notion that something has been banned in several countries based on realistic depictions of wartime violence and not because it features a lot of graphic sex scenes necessarily places the film on a short list of extremely disturbing films that are remarkably without great controversy. Rightfully so. Steven Spielberg’s film, though difficult to watch and of the variety that’s good to watch once and be done with, is a cinematic landmark, and quite possibly the standard to which all war films are going to forever be held. Even the ones that have preceded it.

Not that any of this was my immediate impression having randomly thrown this on on a crappy tube-TV in Ohio. It would take me years to comprehend the depravity of its violence, and for me to appreciate how hard it is for a filmmaker to recreate such atrocities with such an unflinching eye, an urgency to tell it like it is.

Who remembers Bryan Cranston in this movie? I don't. I hope I am not alone.

Who remembers Bryan Cranston in this movie? I don’t. I hope I am not alone.

5-0Recommendation: Far from comfortable, Saving Private Ryan is compulsory viewing. An extraordinary achievement in practical special effects and committed storytelling. A powerful vision of the sheer scale and desperation of the D-Day invasion (thanks goes to Mr. Alan Turing for his helping Britain decipher the German Enigma code so they’d know where to invade and when). An altogether unforgettable experience. For all these reasons and quite a few more, you should commit yourself to this film if you have not already. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 169 mins.

TBTrivia: In the German-dubbed version of the movie, one of the actors, himself a German veteran of the Normandy invasion, couldn’t deal with the emotional realism of the film and dropped out and had to be replaced.

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

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

TBT: Team America – World Police (2004)

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So, today’s a fairly crowded day on the calendar for yours truly. Somehow this Thursday would become one in which we would be simultaneously celebrating a brand new theme for TBT, as well as my blog’s third birthday/anniversary and, oh yeah, the Fourth of freaking* July! That’s how things go sometimes, I suppose. Call it the perfect storm of me trying to catch up on everything. Now, on to the subject at hand. Given the perfect timing for this new theme, let’s jump right into a movie that is likely to divide my readers straight down the middle (or maybe not). For several reasons. These will become obvious as we start talking about

Today’s food for thought: Team America – World Police

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Force-feeding you your freedom since: October 11, 2004

[DVD]

AMER. . . . .You know what? No. No, I’m not going to even try to open the review that way. That’s just way too easy.

While that beyond-enthusiastic anthem reverberates off the walls of your brain I’ll steer the focus in a different direction. You may recall the kind of frenzy Team America – World Police threw everyone into at the time of release. This was a film — one involving marionettes and toilet humor — that managed to not only make fun of how seriously North Korea’s then-leader Kim Jung Il took himself, but it did so without drawing his ire and possibly waging war with American filmmakers. Or Americans in a much broader sense. Yeah, that would be more likely.

This was a film that banked on audiences being well-adjusted enough to not be completely offended by what is essentially jingoistic porn. And. . .wow. I really mean that quite literally. I had forgotten about that one scene. . .

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“Huuuzzaahhh!!!!”

Team America – World Police is the brainchild of two men who probably don’t need to produce actual offspring. Sorry if that’s incredibly cold, but hear me out. This is Trey Parker and Matt Stone we’re talking about, the parents of South Park. As such, this film spares no expense at sounding, acting and looking (at times) an awful lot like the hit animated show now about to debut it’s one billionth season. The duo’s second theatrical effort, Team America was at once a cult hit whose ‘cult’ has swollen to mainstream-fandom levels. Rightly so, because it occasionally borders on genius. It’s alright if you consider this over-the-top comedy as being subservient to only a niched market, however. This is a loud, proud film that was just begging for everyone’s attention, even if it didn’t ultimately earn it from everyone.

While our fearless — but not stringless — heroes traverse the world stopping bad things from happening and generally being an awesome spectacle to behold, in North Korea a storm’s a-brewing with the nefarious Kim Jong-Il plotting to convert every major city on the planet to third-world rubble. After the team suffers a major loss during their visit to Paris, they must scout a new team member and eventually come across popular Broadway actor Gary Johnston (voice of Parker). Yes indeed, we’re not talking about the fact that they took out both the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, but what we are looking at is a real loss of. . .puppet life.

Following an unfortunate sequence of events, Gary finds himself gutted by the fact his acting talent has led to much chaos and failure despite the World Police’s best efforts to keep America safe and sound. This will eventually lead to second-chance opportunities Gary and the team desperately need. It will also lead to one of the film’s most offensive and downright disgusting scenes. Unfortunately scenes such as these are virtually requisites with anything South Park-related. This “act of faith,” along with one or two other brief scenes, are merely collateral damage for sharing in the duo’s unabashedly vulgar sense of humor.

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“Hold me closer, tiny dictator. . .”

The vulgarity will no doubt continue to repel, maybe even repel more than it has attracted viewers. It’s certainly a hurdle one must get over in order to fully embrace the madness that is this movie. The type of film this is often earns its horrendous reputation in a hurry, and for those certain select scenes it is often a reputation well-deserved. Yet to dismiss Team America: World Police as a pointless exercise in gross-out and an effort to simply stir up controversy (not so unlike the upcoming Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy vehicle The Interview) would be to ignore its intricacies and intelligence. Secondary to the scathing commentary about America’s image overseas is the depravity, the violence, the ugliness.

Not to mention, the silliness.

If you are willing to give a thought to the prevailing ideas herein, you’re sure to find a movie worth turning to again and again any time you find the tumult of the current political climate an unbearable white noise. Pop in the DVD and settle in for some hearty chuckles.

And of course, the song.  F**k yeah!!!

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4-0Recommendation: Fans of South Park have no reason not to have already seen World Police a million times by now. Or at least once through. This is an absolute riot, best served up to those who can stomach some fairly vulgar and crass material. There’s certainly worse stuff out there, but perhaps this section is more useful as a ‘who not to recommend this film to.’ If you’re not a fan of the show, may I suggest spending your Fourth of July with a different patriotic film.

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

TBTrivia: Upon reading the one-line pitch for the disaster film The Day After Tomorrow, Parker and Stone both found the concept to be absolutely absurd and hilarious, prompting them to get started on spoofing the very idea, using life-like marionettes to up the ante. The plan was to create the film and have it ready for release the day after the official release of said disaster film. It soon was brought to their attention that such a move could prove to be less of a joke as a legal matter. They scrapped the idea and began pitching Team America instead.

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 

The Monuments Men

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Release: Friday, February 7, 2014

[Theater]

Hollywood’s golden boy, the man who no one thinks will actually age is not only going grey, he’s becoming uninteresting. His latest directorial effort fails as a historical work of art, but succeeds in the extreme in showcasing A-list celeb vapidity. I’ve never been the biggest sucker for the handsome devil myself, and with the release of The Monuments Yawn, I’m ever more comfortable on my little island.

After watching this film, if you find yourself in agreement that the guy is overrated, I’ll move over and share some space. This island is big enough for the both of us.

The latest contribution from the Ocean’s Eleven star is threefold: Clooney’s front-and-center as art historian/appreciator Frank Stokes and can also be found behind the camera directing a cast with its own sense of history. He also wrote the story. The likes of John Goodman, Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville and Cate Blanchett were all at his disposal, as Clooney attempts to dramatize a most unusual circumstance — with the exception of Blanchett’s character, the rest form a band of art buffs who are tasked with locating and recovering precious works from a Nazi regime quickly crumbling during the final year(s) of World War II. They must go behind enemy lines and risk their lives in an effort to ensure der Führer isn’t successful in completely eradicating a culture via the hoarding and subsequent destruction of their remaining artistic creations.

By George, the man’s got a fascinating premise to work with, a heck of a cast, and an indisputably impressive film résumé that has earned him many a star and stripe. Yet he does a disservice to all of the above by creating a film that’s as boring as history courses are to the students who perceive their enrollment in them to be a complete waste of their time.

There’s no denying that one of the world’s most recognizable names has eked its way into a position of absolute authority. We’re at a point where seeing ‘Clooney’ beside the directorial credit is less of a surprise as it is an assumption confirmed; the longer you endure as a performer, the transition from actor to director is a bridge that will inevitably be crossed. . .just because. Of course, there are names aplenty who have realized their storytelling abilities are best demonstrated from the director’s chair, while still being able to show a modest level of conviction in their on-screen presence. Clooney is such a big name that the fact he’s a director now might be a reality we are going to invariably dismiss as the norm for aging A-listers.

In the many instances he comes up short as a director here, it’s not for a lack of trying. With a well-selected cast and a beautiful, authentic sense of time and place, his intentions are earnest and noble. He infuses wit into a story that, given the heaviness of the historical context, really could use it, and he appropriately selected class acts like John Goodman, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban as the vehicles for comedic relief. Too bad they never manage to yank the material out of neutral and become truly funny, as they more often than not are known for being capable of.

Costumes, make-up and set design are all impressive as well, particularly the set design. The film oozes 1940s quaintness. Dull browns and greens compose most of the shots taking place outdoors, while rich hues of mahogany and other colors of royalty help accentuate the dominance of the presence of the Third Reich, even in its state of decay in this moment in time. All actors are outfitted in appropriate garb that feels of the day, while the use of a portable radio that Frank discovers plays up the nostalgia factor wonderfully.

But considering all of these qualities, The Monuments Men should be so much better. It needs to be so much better. If the story were a map, we’re lost instantly in an incoherent jumble of directions, references, points of interest and a few other historical bits and bobs. At the very least, the journey we are meant to undergo throughout France and Germany is set up for some entertaining discovery. Instead what we are provided is a sprawling mess with an alarmingly low payoff come the long-awaited conclusion. Poor, if not nonexistent, character development is chiefly responsible for the way in which this film peters out into nothingness.

This mission is a noble undertaking, and so it stands to reason we should have some fairly compelling characters to deal with for two hours. As it turns out, this is arguably Bill Murray’s most uninteresting turn ever as Sgt. Richard Campbell, whose shining moment is cracking a tooth on some shitty food. Bob Balaban’s Preston Savitz feels nothing less than squandered; and while Goodman and Dujardin have more work to do, it’s still menial as compared to Clooney’s talky lead.

As per usual, good old George is perfectly satisfactory as a leading man, playing the invigorated art appreciator who’s responsible for rounding up the troops (I really need to cease and desist with the cute puns). His directorial eye isn’t so trustworthy though, as he clearly has no idea how to control tone. The Monuments Men is monumentally tone deaf as it switches from comedy to drama back to comedy and even to romance from time to time in the space of a few short scenes. Plenty of films slip in between genres, but none feel as bipolar as this one does.

Worse than any of the aforementioned, the film is really a tough sit because it so often falls flat. This includes the comedic side of things. Clooney proves he’s as incapable of writing a convincing, historical script as he is directing it. His most recent directorial effort is a cardboard cut-out of what should be compelling filmmaking; it’s flimsy, hollow and yeah. . .cardboard-y.

Best just to stick to the basics, George. You know, looking great in front of the camera and all that jazz.

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2-0Recommendation: Tall order, recommending this one. The Monuments Men is a massive disappointment on virtually all levels. The main reason to go see this at this point is for the sake of seeing Mr. Clooney in another role, playing alongside otherwise excellent big-screen legends. Here, everyone (with the exception of the man himself) seems wasted in a movie that doesn’t seem interested in. . . .well, making anything interesting. I’d say skip this if you can help it.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “Take a goddamn cigarette, Private.”

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 

Elysium

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Release: Thursday, August 8, 2013

[Theater]

Having waited for this movie since December at least, I was thoroughly excited walking into the theater last night. Something was also telling me, adding to the excitement: that of all the movies that have come out this year promising to pack a punch and have subsequently caused controversy over whether or not said movies did just so (the biggest elephant in the room wears a red cape), something told me Elysium would rise to the occasion. In the hands of Neill Blomkamp I assumed this one would actually deliver on its promises. Its check mark number four on my Ten Taste Tests post, and its a check mark for rising to the occasion, too. Blomkamp’s follow-up to his 2009 effort may not surpass, but it effectively confirms that his vision is one to trust. This film packs all of the wallop its trailers were suggesting, and is once again brutally dystopian and all but too realistic. . . . in a sci-fi kind of way at least.

Blomkamp once again puts a vast majority of the film’s burden upon the shoulders of a strong central lead — in this case, Matt Damon as Max DeCosta, a formerly troubled youth who’s determined to change his ways (and for the most part, has) and now works on a mechanical line in a factory. He is among the millions who have been left to live (and mostly suffer) on a war-ravaged, poverty-stricken planet Earth, while those who have wealth and power have been evacuated to a floating paradise above the Earth, a white wheel-looking space station named Elysium. On the station incredible technological advances have allowed people to heal impossible wounds, replace DNA and rid themselves of disease and imperfections. Elysium is presided over primarily by the strict enforcer Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and she epitomizes the culture apparent there.

There is a fantastic wide shot of several ships attempting to dock with Elysium early in the film that haven’t been authorized to do so, and when push comes to shove, Delacourt orders the ships to be destroyed. The moment demonstrates the movie’s breathtakingly large scale and beyond-reasonably impressive CGI, as well as the heavy political overtones (specifically targeting immigration) that Blomkamp has chosen to douse Elysium in.

After a horrible accident at the factory, Max becomes fatally exposed to radiation and is given exactly five days to live. None of this information is coming from an actual doctor, but instead a robot who coldly tells Max to simply sign for the medication he will need and then to take the prescribed amount of medicine before his death. No nuance, no cheering up, no smiles. Just the mechanical truth. In his significantly weakened state, Max is determined to get up to Elysium and find a cure for his poisoning. He seeks out the help of “Spider” (Wagner Moura) who is in charge of sending off ships that are docked on Earth. Through Spider and his team of “surgeons” (?) Max is transformed from human to humanoid and is now charged with retrieving sensitive information from an executive official — the same man Max saw briefly immediately after his accident, a man named John Carlyle (William Fichtner).

The plan is to implant the information into Max’s brain, by literally plugging it into a USB port in his head. This is some wicked cool technology and — yes, okay, a little icky — mostly just badass. However, when Max and his heavily-armed crew take down Carlyle’s incoming ship, they find they can’t decode the information, and find themselves under fire when Delacourt sends her secret hit-man/ruthless murderer Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to deal with them. Max manages to escape but now finds himself the single target of the incredibly powerful Delacourt and her minions. Damn it though if Damon’s humanoid version of Jason Bourne is going to be stopped — the second half of the movie is incredibly fun to watch as a result.

Blomkamp is not quite as careful with his direction here as he was with District 9. Elysium is extremely stylish, grisly violent and provocative in many senses. But in dealing with its bigger themes, this movie is a little clumsy. (I’m not sure if it’s clear enough on what stance the director takes on anti-immigration laws. . . but if I just had to guess, I think he’s opposed to them. . . )

Case in point, Jodie Foster is terrible in this movie, which is a tremendous shock. Her Delacourt is wooden and she forces an awkward accent that is intended to reflect an air of superiority, but it’s more annoying than anything. For that matter, I didn’t much care for Fichtner’s Carlyle, either. He had fewer lines but was still carelessly written as subhuman, intentionally. The dressing up of these pseudo-villains felt awkward and gimmicky, and seemed to water down the movie in terms of its serious tone. Regardless, the majority of the cast is more than capable, and Damon — mostly due to his character going through so much — is very compelling to watch. Copley as Kruger is particularly sadistic and tends to make up for the disappointing Delacourt and others in high command at Elysium — almost to a fault. He gets a little whacked-out cartoonish in the end but the Scottish accent still maintained his ferocity legitimately. Imagine a Die Hard villain on bath salts and you’d get Elysium‘s Kruger.

The film is not completely indistinguishable from District 9, although endless comparisons are probably going to be made between the two dystopian futures — but that’s a really good thing honestly. What Elysium lacks in its intelligence quota, it makes up for in unrelenting action and maintaining a level of tense discomfort that seems unusual for a summer blockbuster. Maybe Elysium is really saved by its rating on that front. If this had been forced into a PG-13 rating, instantly a lot of that intensity would be gone. Regardless, the film has its incredible strengths despite some modest disappointments. No film is perfect, obviously. While I expected to be rooting against Foster’s character, I didn’t expect to root against Foster herself, but hey.

#YOLO

No doubt, this film is not letdown by its trailers. Elysium packs a punch with its raw action and astounding visuals. Its certainly not a drawn-out affair. Clocking in at an hour and thirty-seven minutes effectively compacts a large-scale movie into a small-sized package. When you combine that with quite the satisfying premise of two castes of society divided between the ground and a beautiful space station, you have a strong contender for best action film of the year.

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3-5Recommendation: In the words of Team America: World Police, “Matt Daaaayymmaaan…!” But really, he is very good in his role, if not enhanced by his circumstances. Any fan of Damon’s is likely to be bowled over completely, and his supporting cast (minus the decidedly villainous higher-ups) are all solid as well, so if you’re seeking out a blockbuster film with good acting, then go see Oblivi….er, Elysium. It’s about as entertaining as the big budget bad-boys are going to be this summer, rest assured.

Rated: R

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “This isn’t going to kill me. . .”

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

Promised Land

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Release: Friday, January 4, 2013

[Theater]

This is ‘from the director of Good Will Hunting,‘ eh? Well. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .um. . . .what happened? I’d hate to be the one to put it like this, but the discovery process — getting to know this film — is a lot better than eventually knowing it. I should have let this one be a stranger.

The initial impression — that it’s pretty funny and warmly inviting with a trustworthy cast and quiet, rural setting — is rather misleading. Promised Land is a lot like a roast dinner you left on the stove overnight and are rediscovering 24 hours later. It was very good at first, but once it settled awhile it lost its flavor and leaves something to be desired.

While I love John Krasinski and am warming to Matt Damon’s charm, there is a really awkward non-chemistry between the two that affect this movie profoundly. Although both main characters here are likable enough, the problem runs deeper than what’s on the screen. Flimsy scriptwriting and cliched rhetoric drop this potentially hard-hitting drama from the “A” grade it should have received, to the “C-” it ends up earning, not to mention a twist late in the third act that threatens the credibility of the entire thing.

Matt Damon stars as Steve Butler, a nice enough guy who works for a major natural gas company called Global Crosspower. Together with his partner, a typically dour-faced Frances McDormand as Sue Thomason, the two are trying to sell rights to drilling for natural gas in one particular town named McKinley. The generic and rundown white-painted buildings are intended to represent just about any small-town farming community in America.

The company, with large thanks to Steve and Sue’s incredible skill-set, has successfully staked itself in many towns nearby and similar to McKinley, but here its efforts to expand further are met with heavy resistance. When a basketball game at the local high school ends up doubling as a platform for the few citizens of McKinley to speak their mind on the subject, the issue of ‘fracking’ is brought up.

‘Fracking,’ short for hydraulic fracturing, is the method through which companies like the fictional Global Crosspower extract natural gas buried in layers of rock beneath the surface. Conceptually, it seems to check out okay. But its practical implications are something of a controversy and this film aims at getting to the core of that. Ironically, it only ends up scratching the surface.

A steadfast performance by legendary Hal Holbrook, playing the part of an informed citizen who was once an engineer for Boeing, first brings up this delicate issue, and at the same time helps to bring some emotion to the scene. He directs a few questions at Steve, who continues to argue that the town is in no financial position to argue against their presence.

It doesn’t help their cause when a young, enthusiastic environmentalist named Dustin Noble (Krasinski) from another blip on the map, stumbles in through the thick smoke of open mic night at the town bar. You gotta give this kid some credit for trying, but his sudden appearance is so magical it detracts from the point he’s trying to make: if the townspeople are with him, and against Steve and Sue, they can save their environment. His claim is that in his home town most livestock and plantlife were killed off due to chemicals used in the drilling process. People have become sick from it as well. Dustin continues to push a completely logical, fact-based argument against fracking. And at the end, he even seems to maintain enough fortitude to jump into a popular tune, which seems to rouse the bar into a singing, dancing party when it was formerly a rather hostile little gathering of rednecks. It would seem, at this point, Steve and Sue (who are both in the bar witnessing this whole show) are the favorites to lose the battle of McKinley.

There’s not a doubt in my mind whether Gus Van Sant should have made a ‘popcorn-friendly’ flick on such a controversial topic. Finding sources of energy — specifically, extracting for natural gas — has its undeniable pitfalls and its good to have a comment on that in a less formal setting than a documentary or docu-drama styled television special. As Van Sant put it himself, “This film has a lot of serious things going on in it but it’s very entertaining as well.”  I’m not so sure about ‘very’ entertaining bit, but of all things, I do know that it’s not in favor of the act of drilling for gas.

It’s politicking would have resonated stronger and might have made my list of ‘good’ films had the direction in the final act not gone completely to shit. Nevermind the fact that for whatever reason the director allowed both his stars to languish in a sea of platitudes from start to finish. Both Steve and Dustin are walking cliches of every discussion you’ve ever had on the subject of drilling for gas. You might even go so far as to say they are models for any number of environmental concerns and controversies. Sure, the performances are likable (aside from Sue Thomason. . . .however, that’s mainly due to my disdain for anything Frances McDormand), but considering Sant and Damon were on the set of Good Will Hunting together, it’s a shock to see such a mediocre effort put forth here.

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2-5Recommendation: Promised Land, while never rising to meet our expectations — I dare say that I may speak for any environmental activists in the audience — is just satisfying enough to warrant the drive out to the theater and parting ways with ten bucks. As far as getting some questions answered about the nature of big business in America, though, you’d be better off going with a documentary on the subject. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 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