The Platform (El Hoyo)

Release: Friday, March 20, 2020 

→Netflix

Written by: David Desola; Pedro Rivero

Directed by: Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia

In any other year the Spanish-produced, dystopian horror/thriller The Platform would still be an interesting albeit nauseating allegory for the dog-eat-dog world in which we live. Now, in the era of a global pandemic, with priorities shifted and critical resources running in drastically short supply, the depiction has become chillingly timely.

The Platform (original title El Hoyo) is the feature directorial debut of Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia and it is an angry one. He isolates his cast in a brutally violent, multi-floored metaphor for the imbalance of wealth in a capitalist society. This exceedingly grim tale of survivalism plays out entirely in a brilliantly designed high rise prison complex in which inmates are paired off on each floor, and the lower the floor number (i.e. the closer to the top of the structure) the better off you are. Each concrete cell has a large, rectangular hole carved out in the middle of the floor, through which a platform carrying a mountain of delicious foods descends every 24 hours from the Michelin star-worthy kitchen located on the top floor.

Ostensibly there’s enough food to go around but it proves very difficult to convince those above you to ration what they consume. You have a couple of minutes to dine before the platform makes its way down through the mist of an unfathomable depth, where those on lower levels must contend with the leftovers . . . of the leftovers . . . of the leftovers, until the spread is reduced to scraps and bones. Beyond that, self-preservation really starts to kick in and the desperate resort to cannibalism. Welcome to the Pit or, if you’re a part of the Administration, “vertical self-management center.” This is a place that makes Shawshank look like the Marriott. A place where suicide by way of hurling one’s self into the yawning abyss seems like a good alternative to death by starvation — or indeed, being eaten by your roomie.

Subtlety is not one of the strengths of David Desola and Pedro Rivero’s screenplay. Instead it revels in symbolism and sadism. They provide an audience surrogate in Goreng (Ivan Massagué), a young man who becomes a focal point of a revolt. His interactions with his cell mate Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) give us an intriguing entry point into all this madness. While everything is “obvious” to the jaded elder, who is nearing the end of a 12-month sentence, Ivan struggles to get a grip on this new reality. He stashes an untouched apple in his pocket for later, only to discover hoarding is a punishable offense.

In the opening moments Trimagasi assures us where we are now (Level 48) is not such a bad place to be. In fact it’s pretty good, considering there are at least some 150 levels and you only spend a month on any given level. At the end of that period, prisoners are gassed and sent to a different one, which could be good news or it could mean a month of starvation. It’s like Chutes and Ladders but with bloody consequences. The filmmakers take a sadistic pleasure in playing with this motif of awakening into the unknown.

The delirium brought on by the Pit is filtered entirely through Ivan’s point of view. However the story also provides several different characters for him to feed off of. The screenwriters are not really interested in personalities. Instead they deploy the supporting cast more symbolically: There’s Imoguiri (Antonia San Juan), a former Pit authority figure whose terminal cancer diagnosis has inspired her to seek change from within; Baharat (Emilio Buale), a black prisoner who only ever gets shit on for trying to move up a notch; and a number of other contributors convey the varying psychological states of being on a higher or lower level.

The most fascinating character however is a woman named Miharu (Alexandra Masangkay) who freely roams through the prison supposedly in a desperate search for her missing child. Her agency becomes a vital piece in this puzzle of understanding what Ivan is and will become and, ultimately, what this movie is suggesting about society and class structure. While the ending is bound to frustrate those who are expecting the movie to continue to spell out everything, there is enough here to extract something positive out of this otherwise insanely dark and disturbing descent into human despair.

Recommendation: Not for the squeamish, nor for those who are bothered by English dubbed dialogue (that was a hurdle I personally had to overcome). With that out of the way, I’m now pretty eager to see Vincenzo Natali’s sci fi/horror Cube from 1997 — a movie that this Netflix offering has been compared to by a number of critics and bloggers alike. And vice versa, if you’re a fan of that cult classic I’d imagine you’re going to have some fun with this one. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “This is not a good place for someone who likes reading.”

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

Photo credits: IMDb; The Maine Edge 

The Mule

Release: Friday, December 14, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Sam Dolnick; Nick Schenk

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

The Mule marks the 37th time Clint Eastwood has directed a movie. Remember that the next time you go out for Trivia Night. From The Eiger Sanction (1975) to his Best Picture-winning western Unforgiven (1992); Mystic River (2003) to Gran Torino (2008), the man has cemented himself as a national treasure who has done a little bit of everything — oh yes, I nearly forgot The Bridges of Madison County. How dare I? His latest effort won’t ever be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and contemporary successes like Million Dollar Baby (2004), yet The Mule seems destined to always have a place in my heart. It’s a quietly profound drama about aging, regret and misplaced priorities that finds an ever-more introspective Eastwood returning to acting for the first time in six years.

The Mule is inspired by a true story about an 80-something-year-old horticulturalist fallen on hard times who unwittingly becomes a prolific coke smuggler for a dangerous Mexican cartel in an attempt to reclaim his home and way of life. Names and locations have been changed. His character, Earl Stone, a Korean War vet whose age, race and spotless criminal history help him maintain a low profile while doing multiple drives from the border city of El Paso, Texas to Chicago, Illinois, is based upon the real Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a courier for the infamous Sinaloa Cartel and eluded capture for more than a decade.

Eastwood sets up a deliberately paced journey into the soul of a lonely man who has always put work before everything else and now finds himself having to come to terms with certain realities. The character is a perfect fit for the big screen veteran whose larger-than-life persona grafts well with Earl’s social butterfly. There is an interesting dichotomy within this man, someone who’s well-recognized around town for his gregariousness and those beautiful, award-winning (and world-renowned) hybridized lilies, all while being a complete stranger to his own family. That dynamic becomes even more pronounced as he begins making serious dough doing dirtier work and turns into this Robin Hood-esque character who funnels his ill-begotten cash into worthy causes, like renovating the facilities of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post.

The stakes really couldn’t be higher despite The Mule‘s lack of physicality and bloody conflict. The passing of time plays a major role in building tension. Time is Earl’s most precious resource and despite the unsavory characters he ends up getting in deep with, time is also his greatest enemy. He hasn’t spent it well and his future is as uncertain as ever, with the proliferation of internet-based floral shops making small businesses like his relics of the past. You might argue that The Mule isn’t really about the things he is doing to survive but rather the things he isn’t doing or not doing nearly well enough.

The Mule really becomes an elegy for time wasted when it comes to exploring Earl’s personal failings. His absenteeism hasn’t just affected his immediate family; it ripples across generations. His granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) is a prime example, her naivety towards Earl and his propensity for disappointing the people who matter most setting her on a collision course with a rude awakening. Meanwhile his long-ignored wife Mary (Dianne Wiest, heartbreaking) and estranged daughter Iris (real-life daughter Alison Eastwood) have learned to adapt. Sort of.

There is a disturbing real-world parallel that is all but impossible to ignore when you consider the revelation of this past December, when Eastwood was spotted at a promotional event for the film alongside someone who had rarely been caught in photos before. This younger woman was none other than Laurie Eastwood, reportedly the daughter he had given up for adoption in 1954 and whom he had never acknowledged until now. A 1999 biography — Clint: The Life and Legend — attempted to shed light on the matter, but the book’s publishing was met with serious opposition and no other media outlet ever attempted to confirm.

Despite Earl’s initial reluctance to commit to more than one run, his stock quickly rises and his loads increase exponentially — at one point he is carting around in his truck bed something like $3 million in product. His reliability, not to mention his remarkably calm composure around his new employers, earn him the respect of low-level street dealers and big-time suppliers alike. “El Tata” eventually ingratiates himself with el jefe, Andy García’s El Chapo-like Laton and his many curvaceous mamasitas. His status amongst the cartel is challenged with the sudden and violent coup staged by the power-hungry Gustavo (Eastwood’s ex-son-in-law Clifton Collins Jr.), who seeks to put the clamps on El Tata’s liberal interpretation of the rules governing his employment (no delays, no unplanned pitstops, etc).

Tension is further amplified by the circling vultures of Chicago’s DEA agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (a disappointingly under-used Michael Peña). They’re seeking a number of significant busts to satiate their higher-ups, represented by Laurence Fishburne‘s Special Agent and Pete Burris’s DEA Regional Manager. Time isn’t on Earl’s side, but it isn’t exactly in favor of Bates and his partner either. Their bosses want the results Bates’ hard work simply isn’t yielding. Kilos upon kilos of white powder are flooding the city. The two narratives become increasingly interlinked, with Cooper and Eastwood getting a few interesting (if perhaps far too coincidental) moments of shared screen time as they exchange pleasantries under the canopy of well-crafted dramatic irony.

The culmination of events certainly won’t be to everyone’s satisfaction. The Mule goes out quietly but not without a sense of closure. No big shoot-outs, no grand-standing, no soap-box taking. No glorifying. No pretense of making drug running a sexy, enticing lifestyle. In short, no (or very little) Hollywood gloss. I appreciated that level of restraint. The story is familiar and riddled with cliché but I still find it hard to resist Clint Eastwood in this mode, seemingly repenting for aspects of his own life he is none too proud of.

Recommendation: As it turns out, the promotional material has been selling quite a different experience, the trailers suggesting a harder-hitting, more action-driven adventure than what you end up getting. Where there might have been action or at least more snarling intensity in an Eastwood picture some twenty years ago now there is more solemn reflection. This isn’t a bad thing, but maybe set expectations accordingly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for everything.”

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

Searching

Release: Friday, August 31, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Aneesh Chaganty; Sev Ohanian

Directed by: Aneesh Chaganty

Searching is undoubtedly among the year’s most pleasantly surprising discoveries. Featuring a unique presentation style that repurposes your local big screen as a 20-foot-tall facsimile of your own favorite personal devices, as well as a crucially sympathetic performance from star John Cho (of Harold & Kumar fame), Searching is an über-modern thriller that’s as technically impressive as it is emotionally involving.

You read me right. The internet-set Searching earns a Roger Ebert 👍👍. It’s hash-tag legit with the way it makes you 🤔 and 😮, effectively doubling as a police procedural in the age of social media-fueled misinformation and obscured identity. In it, father David Kim (Cho) engages in a desperate search for his daughter Margot (Michelle La), who disappears without a trace after attending a study group one night. A Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to his case. She and her team will carry out the ground investigation, while a dismaying David is tasked with tracking Margot’s online activity for any potential digital leads.

Aneesh Chaganty’s first feature film proves nothing less than a feat of meticulous craftsmanship, one in which identity becomes the key search term. The story is fairly simple but the canvas is anything but basic — an ever-shifting landscape of multiple open tabs which expose everything from chat history to diary confessions to bank account anomalies. What David thought he knew about his daughter, who’s on the cusp of high school graduation and appears ready to take on the world, turns out to be woefully inaccurate as his necessary privacy violating offers a heartbreaking discovery process steeped in today’s en vogue communication tools — FaceTime, Skype, Facebook, Instagram and YouCast to name a few.

As the investigation heats up and earns national attention viewers are led down a dark, twisting path paved with red herrings and often culminating in frustrating dead-ends. The screenplay, co-written by Chaganty and writer Sev Ohanian, is intelligent and sharply focused. Limited as his physical appearance is, Cho rises to the occasion and builds an affecting portrait of a father way out of his depth. Learning on the fly the basics of life on the internet, David’s newbie status offers parents in the audience a fresh set of nightmares to contend with, simultaneously cautioning millenials over the dangers of volunteering up sensitive information about themselves to third parties. Importantly, this never becomes a lecture. All of these realities are seamlessly woven into the fabric of a genuinely gripping story.

As a film centered around relationships — arguably the lack of them — perhaps the most fascinating one is that which it establishes with us. Watching David’s face contort in anguish and confusion while Twitter users come out of the woodwork calling him a pervert and more besides, we find ourselves in the awkward position of being on the other end of a live stream in which we are unable to interact, try as we might. It moves us to commit major moviegoing sins like breaking out our phones and seeing what it is that we can do to help find the missing Margot. The drama is that authentic and that urgent. It inspires reaction to the point of interaction, and that’s a kind of depth paradigmatic films such as Unfriended and its sequel The Dark Web failed to tap.

Quite hash-tag honestly, it carries a profundity that a great many films fail to grasp, however they are presented. This is a must-see movie folks. 👏

Recommendation: Bubbling with emotional conviction and stuffed to every corner with detail, Searching is a beyond-impressive début feature from a man who knows a thing or two about what the internet can do (director Aneesh Chaganty used to work for Google). Judging this particular film by its cover/poster would be a rather unfortunate mistake in my view. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “I didn’t know her. I didn’t know my daughter.”

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

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 

Train to Busan

Release: Friday, July 22, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Yeon Sang-ho

Directed by: Yeon Sang-ho

Train to Busan is a breathless and brutal South Korean zombie flick that broke a number of records last year, becoming the first Korean feature to breach the $1 million mark at the Singaporean box office. Over the past several months it has taken the world by storm, becoming one of the most commercially and critically successful zombie apocalypses ever.

Yeon Sang-ho’s first live-action feature does for zombies what James Wan’s The Conjuring did for haunted houses. It’s a superlative genre film of uncommon intelligence, exuding all the elements that characterize such films as uniquely entertaining and disturbing, while never really making an attempt to “be different.” Simply put, movies like Train to Busan and The Conjuring prove that tropes are tropes for a reason; they can be powerfully affecting if nurtured properly. It also helps the cause when your actors are this good at selling them.

Train to Busan improves its stock by investing more in human relationships as opposed to obsessing over how many zombies it can overload the frame with. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a divorced hedge fund manager who doesn’t have the time to pay attention to his young daughter, Soo-an (a marvelous Kim Soo-an), evidenced by the fact he has bought her for her upcoming birthday yet another gaming console, identical to the one currently sitting on her TV stand in her bedroom — the one he got her as a recent Children’s Day gift. All she wants is to go stay with her mother in Busan, and she’s determined to go alone so that she doesn’t hassle daddy. But when Soo-an shows him a video of her recent singing recital, which she was unable to finish due to his absence, Seok becomes racked with guilt and decides he will in fact accompany her on the nearly 300-mile train ride.

The next day they board the KTX in Seoul, along with a number of passengers we will become familiar with over the course of this harrowing journey. There’s the surly, working-class Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma) and his pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung), a pair of elderly sisters In-gil (Ye Soo-jung) and Jong-gil (Park Myung-sin), a homeless man (Gwi-hwa Choi) whose strange behavior and thoroughly unkempt appearance nearly gets him thrown off, a group of high school baseball players and, last but absolutely not least, the COO of a major corporation, Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung). While these supporting parts don’t necessarily go beyond archetypes, they’re ably performed and, more crucially, give the story depth.

Joining these travelers as well is a visibly distressed young woman who just manages to board the KTX before it departs the station. Her leg is severely bleeding and something about her just seems off. Writer-director Sang-ho, waiting patiently for just the right time to release his finger from the pin of the grenade, brilliantly sets us on a collision course with chaos as the deadly consequences of an apparent biohazard disaster inadvertently make their way aboard one of the world’s fastest trains. (Achieving speeds upwards of 200 miles an hour, the KTX redefines the excitement of traveling. As does the action forthcoming.)

Train to Busan hurtles along at a breakneck pace with hard-hitting action that can be difficult to watch. I’ve always responded more strongly to those zombie flicks that actually make you dread The Turn — or films like Maggie that focus almost entirely on that transition and use it as an allegory for real people succumbing to real diseases in the real world. Sang-ho’s careful consideration of what it means to become one of the undead invokes the seminal 28 Days Later, if not in terms of atmosphere then in the way hope is slowly stripped away from the living like flesh from the bone.

Sang-ho’s decision to (mostly) isolate the drama within the confines of a moving train exacerbates the terror of being in proximity to the zombie. Mass hysteria combines with claustrophobic tension to form the ideal conditions for the uninfected to begin losing their humanity in other ways. Meanwhile cameras are often found sitting at eye-level with the young and impressionable Soo-an as she bears witness to the atrocities committed. This perspective, of a child trying to understand why people treat each other the way they do, brilliantly reflects Sang-ho’s own despair.

Word is that Train to Busan finds the Korean director tempering his anger a little bit (his previous animated efforts apparently offer the kind of acrimony and villainy that make the vile COO and his wildly selfish acts throughout this film seem innocent by comparison). But the injustices he has experienced, if not directly then through simple observation, manifest themselves in some brutal ways in a film that, historically, has no compulsion to offer anything more profound than icky special and/or practical effects and inventive kills. Train to Busan can sometimes overwhelm with the sense of hopelessness it provides. It’s dark and dangerous and deadly, and it’s just so damn good. Especially for a zombie movie.

Recommendation: Powerful and surprisingly hard-hitting, Train to Busan announces itself as a modern classic. It’s a film with something for everyone — the zombie purists and those who just want to have their nerves rattled for a solid two hours. Be sure you check this out on Netflix, unless of course movies about the undead are completely dead to you. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 118 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 

Before the Flood

before-the-flood-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 21, 2016 (limited)

[YouTube]

Written by: Mark Monroe

Directed by: Fisher Stevens

Oscar-winning documentarian Fisher Stevens won’t change the world with his ambitious but overly familiar and ultimately underwhelming examination of man’s impact on the global environment, but his efforts aren’t completely in vain. Before the Flood uses the immense popularity of bonafide Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio to raise its profile as the actor embarks on a three-year mission around the globe to educate himself on the most pressing environmental concerns of our time.

The central thesis is familiar but nonetheless significant, one that’s fundamentally concerned with man’s over-reliance on unsustainable sources of energy such as fossil fuels, a pattern that has for years now been linked to rising global temperatures, rising sea levels and the destruction of the natural world. In pursuit of causality Before the Flood, executive produced by DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese among others, stresses the interconnectivity of our global ecosystem, the politicking that goes into climate change denial (not everyone wants to believe 8 billion people can have such a profound impact on one planet) and how various parts of the world are often left to clean up the messes created by others.

In the process of touring through many devastating sites DiCaprio narrates his experiences via a somber, if not overly pessimistic voiceover. He explains how Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights‘ served as a creative inspiration for the film’s thematic explorations. This stunningly ornate triptych traces the evolution of humanity as it depicts man’s origin in the idyllic Garden of Eden in the first frame, merging into a colorful display of excess, celebration and blissful ignorance in the second before eventually transitioning into a frightening scene filled with death, destruction and suffering in the shocking third panel. DiCaprio elaborates, explaining how man’s current state places us firmly in the center panel and ruminating on how long it might be before we find ourselves entering the third.

What’s most impressive about the film is watching one of the world’s most established thespians mute himself enough so that he is firmly a part of the picture. In other words, while his celebrity status undoubtedly will draw in viewers who might not necessarily watch this sort of thing, his ego is nowhere to be found. DiCaprio is extremely humbled by what he finds, and more than humbled he is legitimately bothered. His perturbation comes across genuine, if not in his pursed-lip/silent nod reactions to what he witnesses in Canada, Indonesia, Greenland and India (among other locales) then in the amount of questions that pour out of him along the way. Some may find his lack of knowledge a barrier but if anything his acknowledgment of that very ignorance opens the film up considerably.

And yeah, you can probably accuse DiCaprio of hypocrisy if you really wanted to. If you’re looking for some way to make his involvement more about Hollywood than the environment, you might note the irony in DiCaprio likely making another film in the coming year(s), in him traveling around in luxury cars and luxury private jets and being involved in an industry that creates a massive ecological footprint, be it the electricity consumed to light sets or the amount of material required to make scenes believable. It’s also not entirely unreasonable to suggest that if the actor truly wants to make a difference, he might have to consider a hiatus from acting, permanently, in order to fully pursue efforts to fix things. And given everything he says in Before the Flood, it seems like Leo really wants to get his hands dirty (in a good way).

DiCaprio’s position in the entertainment industry enables him to speak with some of the most prominent environmental activists and climate-conscious politicians — Senator John Kerry is interviewed and there’s a brief Al Gore sighting. Aside from these figures, he speaks briefly with President Obama and one of the film’s highlights surfaces in a candid chat with Indian environmentalist Dr. Sunita Narain — where he’s met with compelling resistance as Narain argues that meeting the most basic demands of India’s bulging population is a concern that supersedes the need to find alternate sources of energy. He also interviews scientists and specialists who each share their unique perspectives, almost all of which confirm the notion that humanity is indeed reaching a critical point where it needs to learn how to adapt or the damage done will likely be irreversible. With a rapidly swelling global population these concerns are only going to become more challenging in the years and decades to come, and so the urgency of addressing and finding solutions to them in the here and now naturally becomes a big stressor . . . lest we face the reality of regaling our grandchildren about how Alaska used to be covered in cerulean yet crystal-clear icebergs.

Circling back to the contradiction of seeing a major film star touting environmental awareness: Before the Flood is most compelling when we are taken behind the scenes of Leo’s most recent (and Oscar-winning) film, The Revenant, which, aside from presenting one of the most visceral and singular cinematic experiences in recent memory, focused on the impact early settlers had on their surroundings: poachers destroying everything in their path on their journey to make ends meet; settlers slashing-and-burning forest. That shoot was infamously challenging but for reasons other than the obvious. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and crew were forced to relocate hemispheres — from the Canadian Rockies to the Andes in Argentina — in search of snow when they experienced unseasonably high temperatures in the north. Listening in on these conversations gives an entirely fresh and direct perspective.

If that’s not convincing enough, perhaps the fact that Indian farmers watched their crops washed away, leaving dozens of families — children — starving after they received their entire annual rainfall over the course of a day will sober you up. Or that entire, neighborhood-sized chunks of ice in the Arctic Circle are melting faster than you can measure them. Rising global temperatures and the rapid shrinking of the polar caps continue to strain Inuit fishermen’s livelihood as they hunt bears, a population that has been dwindling in response to changing conditions. There are other examples as well, but these are among the most undeniable, the most disturbing.

DiCaprio is a great mascot but ultimately the production he’s passionately become involved in doesn’t give us much in the way of revelation. Fisher likes to dwell on the gloom-and-doom talk seemingly more than he wants to find solutions and the solemnity eventually becomes off-putting. The numbers and statistics and graphics that accompany the vast sea of information we’re provided don’t really add impact. They add to the science, sure, but Before the Flood lacks the actual urgency that its message all but demands. There is, however, a glimmer of hope and human ingenuity when we step inside the Tesla Gigafactory 1, an enormously cavernous space that will house the production lines of millions of electric vehicles and energy-efficient lithium batteries. The latest venture of Tesla founder Elon Musk opened in July of 2016 and, once operating at full capacity in 2020, it will manifest as the world’s largest building. He judges that 100 such facilities spread throughout the world would make a significant impact on energy reduction and would lead to massive curtailing of raw material usage.

Like a great many of the “it’s so obvious” revelations that we’re bombarded with in the face of all this maddening destruction, DiCaprio’s deduction that “[100 gigafactories] seems manageable” is a tad too naive. The intent behind the film is good, it’s sincere, but Before the Flood settles for inciting immediate reaction. It wants to see us flap our arms in panic and despair rather than inspire us into action and perhaps even legitimate activism.

leo-and-the-phant

“Dude, that’s not a prop.”

Recommendation: Activists, behold a famous actor who truly seems to give a damn about the only place we will ever call Home. Only time will tell just how for real he is, but I want to believe in him. I think Before the Flood is a force for good but it should have been more potent than it actually is. Still a decent recommendation from me, and one you should definitely spend time with no matter your political leaning, something that’s well worth tracking down as it is available for free on so many different platforms (at least for now). 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 96 mins.

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

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (Taxi Tehran)

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Release: Friday, October 2, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: Jafar Panahi

Directed by: Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi is an Iranian filmmaker seemingly undeterred by the consequences of his actions. Those consequences have, as a matter of fact, formed the basis of some of his oeuvre, such as his acclaimed 2011 documentary This is Not a Film, wherein he captured a day in his life under house arrest. Presently the writer-director is serving a six-year sentence and is not allowed to leave his country for perceived propaganda disparaging of the Iranian Republic. Despite such restrictions, which also include a 20-year ban on filmmaking, his latest is available to stream in many countries not his own.

The dissemination of Taxi is in itself a minor miracle. The particulars of how it has come to surface in international streaming services like Netflix remain unclear but if the hula-hoops he had to jump through just to get the aforementioned 2011 piece submitted to the Cannes Film Festival is any indication — allegedly he had to stuff a thumb drive containing the film inside a cake which was snuck across international borders — you can safely assume distributing Taxi was no easier.

While Panahi’s directorial limitations are immediately evident, he gets creative by posing as a cabbie while filming via dashboard cam his interactions with ordinary Tehranis. A few recognize the man while others, such as the opinionated first passenger who goes on a rant about upholding stiffer penalties for lowlives who steal from the poor, remain oblivious. Each patron that gets in this cab offers some small window into life in a less tolerant society, and while the narrative device is a little contrived — I can’t imagine every taxi driver having such interesting interactions with all of his customers in a single shift — it certainly works, and it works incredibly well for a director who is essentially giving the middle finger to the Iranian government.

Some of the people he picks up are more forthright than others — a woman selling roses, for example, even breaks the fourth wall with her candid commentary about life in Iran as a woman and how she feels about the punishments that have been forced upon Panahi as a filmmaker. She even advises her friend on the segments of this film that he should probably get rid of because of their blunt honesty. Clearly Panahi didn’t feel the need to censor himself, which, of course, is the point.

Panahi’s niece also features prominently as an aspiring filmmaker attending arts school. Even though she’s telling her uncle all about the rules her instructors have delineated about the kinds of subject matter they can and cannot film — more often than not they regard the latter, specifically anything that would cast an unfavorable light on life under Sharia Law — she’s really informing us. An intelligent young girl becomes the conduit through which Panahi expresses his own outrage over being censored.

Taxi, a slight but intriguing documentary, leaves plenty of food for thought. Panahi’s creative abilities allow it to be something more than just a childish tantrum, it’s a quietly righteous political statement that deserves our undivided attention, one that makes this reviewer feel fortunate for all the privileges he has living in a nation where movies about porno stars, civil rights dramatizations and less flattering portraits of presidents (both past and present) not only can exist but allow us to evaluate what is going right and what is going wrong in our society.

jafar-panahi-in-taxi-tehran

Recommendation: An intriguing film that sheds light on both the state of the Iranian film industry as well as the larger culture surrounding it. There’s probably nothing in here that will surprise anyone but what might surprise you is just how effective Jafar Panahi makes a film with such limited resources (plus the fact he’s not even supposed to be filming at all adds an extra layer of tension to proceedings). It’s an important film that I believe many people need to see and it has certainly whet my appetite for more from a director who has proven he won’t be ignored. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 82 mins.

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

Snowden

snowden-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 16, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Oliver Stone; Kieran Fitzgerald

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone tackles one of the most elusive and polarizing figures of the 21st Century in his Edward Snowden biopic, a match made in cinematic heaven given Stone’s penchant for courting controversy with the material he works with. So why doesn’t it work?

Snowden is kind of a snooze when it should have been a gripping, poignant drama. The character is portrayed confidently by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, no spoiler alert there, but the movie that surrounds him feels more like a college lecture on national security rather than a dramatization that could have shown us specifically what made the ideologue’s pursuit of government secrets — namely, the NSA’s tracking and collecting of mass amounts of user data by tapping into cell phones — so disturbing. Or,  interpreted another, more liberal way — so important. Stone has never been one to keep politics out of the equation, and he’d be a fool to do so this time.

Indeed, Snowden sits pretty far out there on the left wing but that’s not one of the film’s weaknesses unless you consider yourself a fastidious conservative. What’s more problematic is how insipid the study of a life less ordinary really is. I shouldn’t be using such words to describe anything related to Edward Snowden, and combined with the almost purely expository nature of the narrative I’m having déjà vu here: wasn’t this the same thing that plagued the Julian Assange picture? Stone’s new film concerns the period between 2004 and 2013 in which Edward Snowden rose meteorically from computer geek to national security asset (and later, threat). It also chronicles his romantic affair with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) and suggests an alternative life for him, one that never quite eventuates.

We begin in the present tense, where a documentary crew is rendezvousing with Snowden in the upscale hotel The Mira Hong Kong. Over the next several days director Laura Poitras (here portrayed by Melissa Leo but whose work can be seen in the 2014 documentary Citizenfour), along with journalists from The Guardian — Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) — are given unprecedented access to what Snowden knows. But before all that good stuff can happen we must first go back to where it all began.

Clunky transitions (“here’s what I did back in this time”) jettison us back to the early 2000s where we get the skinny on Snowden’s young adult life: his brief time in the military, two stints with the CIA and one with the NSA — an impressive résumé if there ever were one. A lack of backstory in terms of what his upbringing was like and who his parents were leaves us with the impression that Snowden was a lone wolf long before he truly became one. We gain access inside top-secret facilities as he makes an immediate impression on fictional CIA recruiter Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), a relationship that eventually sours as Snowden’s awareness of shady government activity increases. There are more innocuous exchanges as well, like the friendship he strikes up with the jaded Hank Forrester (a much calmer, more effective Nicolas Cage) who has been with the agency for too long and an NSA employee played by Ben Schnetzer.

Snowden is another prestige biopic that tentatively skirts around the fraying edge of sanity. Snowden’s romantic life manifests as the framework within which we can compare his  particular stresses to those we mere mortals go through on a daily basis — Lindsay is a free-spirited girl with a flair for photography who understandably tires of his weird work hours, amongst other things. The drama just comes across as obligatory and unearned, a perfectly good performance from Woodley gone to waste thanks to a sloppy, contrived and manipulative storyline. Stone also shoehorns in a sex scene that feels totally out of place. We have all come to the movie to see how well Snowden performs in bed, right?

The intimacy is not necessarily gratuitous but it’s symptomatic of the film’s major issue. It’s perfunctory and sex in and of itself isn’t the best way to add depth to your human characters. It’s a good way to add sex. Snowden owed it to the subject (and to us, natch) to ask tougher questions and to deliver more passion. There should be more outrage, more urgency. Where’s the intrigue here? And what are we getting in this film that we can’t find out on Wikipedia? The answer is absolutely nothing.

snowden

Recommendation: I can’t say this frustratingly routine, safe docudrama is something you have to see unless you can’t be bothered to skim a Wikipedia page on the guy. Or unless you are a diehard Oliver Stone fan. Personally, I’m disappointed with the way this came out even with no particular expectations coming in to it. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “The modern battlefield is everywhere.” 

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

High-Rise

high-rise-movie-poster

Release: Friday, May 13, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Amy Jump

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Chaos reigns supreme in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, an adaptation of the 1975 novel penned by British author J.G. Ballard who envisioned a microcosm of society confined within a 40-story-tall luxury apartment building. After nearly four decades and several failed attempts at adapting material many considered ‘un-filmable,’ Ballard’s anarchical dreams have finally found a home on the big screen in 2016.

Despite several familiar trends, the 1970s-London-set High-Rise manages to differentiate itself by presenting an atypical dystopian society. Rather than prisoners of a faceless, nameless system, people are more often than not victims of their own circumstances, organized within the building according to their financial standing: the wealthy live on the top floors while the poor occupy lower levels. This isn’t a prison, for tenants haven’t been forced to abandon the conveniences of modern living nor have they been brainwashed into disassociating with the outside world. Rather, disaffection has occurred naturally, the conveniences of the building allowing those inside to gradually lose interest in anything it doesn’t provide. Additionally, and although it certainly feels like it at times, this isn’t a post-apocalyptic environment; the people who fill the frame represent only a fraction of society, those who we can safely assume actually wanted to come live here.

High-Rise is a movie of striking visual design, at times to a fault. Indeed, the building is a character unto itself, a looming entity with its upper five or ten floors precariously off-set from the rest. One look at this feat of civil engineering and you’re smitten. Even though it’s precisely the kind of physics-defying curiosity that has become old hat in these sorts of movies, the tower looks and feels right at home in our world. The cold, metal-gray interior features all the amenities you could imagine: shopping markets, gyms, pool-and-spa areas; there’s even a primary school. Parties are regularly thrown, often spilling over between floors, necessarily suggesting different economic classes still have the freedom to associate with whomever they so choose.

Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is our way into the building. A 25th-floor resident, Robert is a lecturer on physiology and commutes daily to and from the city. He allows himself some distance from other people until his upstairs neighbor, single mom Charlotte (Sienna Miller), makes her presence known. The two quickly fall into a romance that eventually allows Robert to get to know her young but strange son Toby (Louis Suc). The first third of the film establishes the world inside this place and sees him getting acquainted with a few other eccentrics, including the Wilders, a family whose station in life seems to be being stuck on the bottom floor. Richard (Luke Evans) is a documentarian with a screw loose and more than a few probing questions. His wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) is heavily pregnant and wishes Richard weren’t always out getting himself into trouble.

Robert soon finds himself summoned to the penthouse, where high rise architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his socialite wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) live. Well, flourish really. He’s brought up for an opportunity to get to know some of the building’s more prestigious fellows, a networking opportunity if you want to call it that. In some ways Hiddleston’s place within the narrative, especially with regards to his association with such characters, feels reminiscent of Jonathan Pine and his fraternization with dangerous types in the brilliant TV mini-series The Night Manager, a John le Carré adaptation in which a former British soldier is recruited by MI6 to infiltrate the ranks of a notorious international arms dealer in order to bring him down.

While a sense of impending doom is distinctly lacking with regards to Robert’s situation, part of the crux of this story does concern an evolving perception of who the doctor really is, particularly as he begins currying favor with some of the elites. (He even gets to play a game of squash with Mr. Royal!) It’s no coincidence his apartment is almost smack-dab in the middle of the building. The metaphor is almost too overt: Robert’s not like the rest, he plays as though the rules don’t apply and thus finds himself in the precarious position of not caring whether or not he improves his current life. His physical location within this building, like it does everyone else, says a lot about the opportunities he has been afforded.

This puzzling drama is an exercise in random visual stimulation, so it’s fitting that the central conflict arises haphazardly as well. It takes three months from the day Robert moves in for the social infrastructure to fail. Specifically what triggers the collapse isn’t made clear, but basic necessities are the first to go: electricity, clean water, food supplies, proper garbage disposal. A man throwing himself from the 39th floor onto the hood of a car is the most apparent indicator of things starting to go awry. And later: complete pandemonium as the irascible Richard Wilder stages a revolution to take down Royal, who he believes is the one responsible for things falling apart. More perceptive viewers will notice that, while all of this is going on, police are nowhere to be seen.

Lang isn’t exactly immune to the insanity, and it’s in his slow slide into a state of acceptance that maybe . . . just maybe, Royal’s plans aren’t completely sinister, that in some weird way society itself is what has failed him and failed the building. Wheatley ensures our perspective on the matter aligns with Robert’s, a tactic that allows us to remain as close to impartial as possible. And it’s not like Robert isn’t flawed himself. As the level of chaos increases we see his behavior change as well. A scene in the grocery store is particularly memorable, exhibiting a side of the doctor we haven’t yet seen: angry, desperate, and violent. He’s become overwhelmed by the survival instinct, protecting what matters most to him — in this case, a bucket of paint. At this point we are well beyond rules. Society is now left to fend for itself as Royal and his cronies continue to look for a way to improve the facilities.

High-Rise is an intensely visual piece that doesn’t quite resonate as the profound sociopolitical allegory it was clearly set on becoming and that the book has been heralded as. Nonetheless, it approaches a familiar subject with a gusto that allows us to overlook the fraying edges, offering up a hallucinatory experience that is as unpredictable as it is entertaining and thought-provoking.

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Recommendation: Fans of the weird and the dystopian need apply. High-Rise gets carried away with itself every now and then, with some sequences beginning and ending so sporadically you want to believe many of the transitions were done this way to add to the disorientation (and maybe this really was the thinking). Well-performed and even better shot. Cinematography is a high point, while Tom Hiddleston’s performance reminds us why this is an actor who should have more work. He’s too good. So is Jeremy Irons, but this is really Hiddleston’s movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “There’s no food left. Only the dogs. And Mrs. Hillman is refusing to clean unless I pay her what I apparently owe her. Like all poor people, she’s obsessed with money.”

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

Florence Foster Jenkins

'Florence Foster Jenkins' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 12, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Nicholas Martin

Directed by: Stephen Frears


This review is dedicated to my mother, who would have absolutely adored this movie.


Florence Foster Jenkins is a biopic you just have to see if you were swept up in the William Hung story in 2004. American Idol this is not, but it is a look into the life of one of the worst opera singers to ever live, a woman who many believed had no right being on stage driven by her own confidence and the politeness of those closest to her.

What could have been a painfully awkward, mean-spirited debacle instead matures into an entertaining and dignified exploration of a rather interesting woman. As steady-handed as it is predictable, this is a certifiable crowd-pleaser. Though his film had plenty of opportunity to do so, director Stephen Frears (The Program; Philomena) recognizes that humiliating and degrading his subject is a job best left to the Simon Cowells of the world. After all, this is a movie about the pursuit of a dream, not a game show in which contestants are regularly mocked just for having one.

Meryl Streep takes on the role of the titular New York heiress, officially proving there is no role in which she cannot excel. Arguably that debate has been settled for awhile, but here she gets to embrace an entirely unique challenge — trying to sound like a worse singer than she really is. Ricki and the Flash. Into the Woods. Heartburn. Death Becomes Her. Mamma Mia. Her career is littered with singing roles so the question was never going to be whether she would sound good. Actually it was the opposite. To genuinely sound like a cat slowly dying requires a level of confidence (and conscientiousness) few actors would be able to demonstrate. Jenkins was famous for her “oh-HO-HO-ho!” inflections, and recreating this quirk without descending into parody proves to be a fine line Streep is more than prepared to walk. Once again it’s strong work from the three-time Oscar winner.

The affair remains simple and treads in well worn shoes in its recounting of a period late in Jenkins’ life, when she became obsessed with putting on a show at the prestigious Carnegie Hall. Major characters are introduced one by one, starting with dear husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who has for years been her emotional backbone as she pursues her love of music, regularly helping her host performances at the ritzy music club she owns. There’s a lot of history between these two. Over time a presumably passionate love affair has been reduced to small acts of kindness that seem to be carried out more with obligation and professional courtesy than anything else.  In the early going we see St. Clair sleeping with another, much younger woman (Rebecca Ferguson) in his own apartment where parties are regularly thrown. He believes there are many different types of love and that Florence understands this too. (Here’s the unscrupulous Hugh Grant I never knew existed. Guess I should watch more Hugh Grant movies . . . wait, no. God, what am I saying!)

The film’s only other major player is aspiring pianist Cosmé McMoon (The Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg), who finds himself swiftly drafted into the ranks after a brief audition. Unbeknownst to the bright-eyed, chipper youngster, he’ll be backing up a singer so dismal her husband has had to concoct a complex scheme to keep delusions of grandeur alive. For years he has been shielding the singer from nasty critics and gawking crowds, as well as filtering out the negative press from Jenkins’ regular news consumption. With concerns over his career mounting, McMoon tries to decline what he expects will be the Hindenburg of Carnegie Hall appearances. Bayfield, fearing the ramifications of a carefully constructed façade collapsing, insists he stick with it.

Indeed, Florence Foster Jenkins is as much about the singer living a dream as it is about the young talent overcoming preconceived notions and discovering fame and success of his own. The pianist never ventured away from his gig with the tone-deaf soprano, despite initial concerns that precisely this would happen. One of the more rewarding aspects of the film is experiencing the transformation that happens on the boy’s face: an initial cringe of disgust eventually yields a deep smile conveying genuine satisfaction. It’s the very same thing that happened to me as I watched this lightweight but ultimately wholesome drama unfold. In spite of her wretched singing voice, Florence Foster Jenkins couldn’t help but win me over.

eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!

Recommendation: Florence Foster Jenkins is a study in professional and personal dignity. Meryl Streep is the built-in reason to see it, but this is a great one to watch to get a better understanding of the situation surrounding the singer and the kind of life she lived. It is a tonally well-balanced piece, never reaching too far in one direction or the other. You get glimpses of some nastiness, but I am glad to say FFJ is a way more positive film than I was expecting, and funnier too. Strongly recommended for fans of Stephen Frears’ work as well. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” 

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