The Lighthouse

Release: Friday, October 18, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Max Eggers; Robert Eggers

Directed by: Robert Eggers

In 2016 Robert Eggers transitioned from production designer to director. Even then it was clear he was a filmmaker with uncommon confidence and intelligence, concocting a truly unsettling period piece in the supernatural horror The Witch. His experiences designing the look and feel of a variety of short films served him well in a feature-length format and he combined his obsessive attention to historical detail with a command over story and performance to produce one of the year’s most discussed and divisive films and one of my favorites.

Very loosely based on a real-life tragedy Eggers’ second feature film The Lighthouse is uncompromisingly strange but also a beautiful synthesis of technical elements, committed performance and mind-bending mystery. It is time we start having conversations about him being among the most distinct directors working today. Harkening to early sound pictures of the late ’20s and early ’30s the movie is shot in stark black-and-white and framed in a near-perfect square (1.19:1) aspect ratio and relies as much on its unique presentation style as it does some wicked narrative sleight of hand.

The story is written by the director and his brother Max. It’s a fairly simple conceit — a tale of possession and/or chronic cabin fever; of lonely men succumbing to their baser instincts before falling apart completely as much darker forces take hold. In playing with increasingly unreliable perspectives the screenplay spins out a web of unexpected complexity, a descent into psychosis that’s evoked by arguably career-best turns from Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. They play adversarial lightkeepers running on dwindling supplies of alcohol and sanity when their four-week station on a remote island gets prolonged indefinitely after a bad storm hits.

Set in 1890 The Lighthouse is a period piece that slowly evolves into a fever dream that draws upon Herman Melville with pinches of H.P. Lovecraft. As such, the production is even more reliant upon visual technique and precision-tooled editing than Eggers’ previous throwback to primitive living. The camerawork becomes freakishly kaleidoscopic as time goes on. The visual language is arguably more important than the actual dialogue, which often comes across as prosaic babble delivered in foreign tongues — especially when the characters get epically liquored up.

The deeper we go the more Eggers seduces with his technical prowess, introducing more flash-cuts, more jarring juxtaposition and emphasizing the ornate, brass and wind-instrument-heavy sound design — both ominous and period-accurate — to encourage the vicarious feeling of losing your mind. That damn foghorn! Haunting hallucinations (or are they?) obscure what’s real from what’s imagined: Anatomically correct mermaids (Valeriia Karaman) and tentacled monsters derived from some depraved fantasy serve just as well as the basis of my own personal, ongoing nightmares.

While you could certainly write essays on the specific design of the movie, The Lighthouse owes no small thanks to the thunderous performances. Pattinson’s stock just keeps rising, here playing a young man with lots of buried secrets. Ephraim Winslow is a former lumberjack now learning the “wickie” trade who claims he’s attempting to make a fresh start. He’s sentenced to the most unpleasant, physically taxing duties in the daytime all while contending with some pesky seagulls who just won’t leave him be. Dafoe essays another iconic role in Thomas Wake, a cranky sailor with a penchant for cryptic messaging; an old fart who gets his jollies criticizing the young lad, barking orders and engaging in some weird behavior during his night shifts. He has, for example, an affinity for stripping naked at the top of the lighthouse, enrapt by something the light provides beyond warmth.

Though it is a rather bewildering journey, one that ends in an insanely dark place, the tension — at least, for the moments when Eggers and company might still have been sane — rides on some amusingly relatable dynamics. There’s a passage around the midway point that plays out like Animal House stuck in the 19th Century — aye, pre-plumbing, pre-electricity, pre-a-lot-of-damn-comfort. We all grit teeth at our roommates for their worst habits but because this is a Robert Eggers movie, everything is elevated to extremes.

As the weeks pass, initial tensions give way to a mutual respect for one another’s specific code of conduct. A night of drunken revelry suggests the two may have more in common than they previously thought. When an inevitable act of rage triggers a second storm, a tempest of fear, distrust and contempt to rival the whipping winds and salt-lathered waves threatening to sweep the men to the briny deep, it seems everything is conspiring against their best efforts to coexist. The actors play off each other with such ferocity, Dafoe and Pattinson seemingly intoxicated by one another’s manic energy and feeding off of unique and reportedly exhausting work conditions.

Crucial to Eggers’ brand of storytelling is setting and how he manipulates the natural to turn something entirely unnatural and yet chillingly authentic — not to mention uncomfortable, and not just for us in cushy recliner seats taking in some seriously disturbing imagery and deranged behavior. As The Lighthouse was filmed on location budgetary constraints weren’t really the issue but rather being able to endure what Mother Nature threw at the cast and crew. They not only endured, but used foul weather to further enhance the exhibition of suffering in the space of the movie. Over a month-long shoot a series of nor’easters blasted the small fishing community of Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia. For a particular scene Pattinson had to wade into the freezing sea more than 20 times as cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (who also shot The Witch) battled with lenses overcome with fog. Reminiscent of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant the actual misery bleeds into the fabric of the movie itself.

With The Lighthouse Eggers proves that his Puritanical nightmare was no flash in the pan. It also proves the then-33-year-old had room to improve. His sophomore feature is simply spectacular. How early is too early to label someone an auteur? Perhaps two films in to a directorial career is premature. It might be a good idea to hold off on that before seeing what he does with The Northman, a tale of revenge set in the 10th Century, involving Icelandic Vikings. I have to be completely honest though, I’m predisposed to loving what he does next and it’s barely in its pre-production stages. What makes me so excited is how this man clings to his vision like few filmmakers currently working. He creates experiences that are the epitome of what cinema is: getting lost while sitting in one place, stolen to somewhere else that’s both right in front of you and deep in your head.

Welp, honeymoon’s officially over

Recommendation: The movie to beat this year for me, The Lighthouse is an even greater achievement from rising talent Robert Eggers. The cumulative weirdness slowly frays the mind, morphing into something it wants to forget but won’t be able to. It was met with near-universal critical acclaim during the film festival circuit earlier this year, and deserves those plaudits. It’s an experience unlike anything you’ll have this or any other year. However I won’t hesitate to throw in the caveat that this old, creaky seafarer’s yarn is not for the mainstream crowd. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here seeking rational explanation.

Rated: R

Running Time: 109 mins.

Quoted: “Damn ye! Let Neptune strike ye dead Winslow! HAAARK!”

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

Aquaman

Release: Friday, December 21, 2018

→Theater

Written by: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick; Will Beall

Directed by: James Wan

Four weeks on and the box office still hasn’t dried up for DC’s latest superhero origins story, the rise of one Arthur Curry, a.k.a. the Aquaman. Director James Wan has kinda done the unthinkable (not to mention given his bosses a nice Christmas present) by making a boatload of money — cracking the $1 billion mark this past weekend — with a movie that could not be more out of season. To me, a title like Aquaman screams summer blockbuster. Yet here we are in January, teeth chattering, talking about the highest-grossing DCEU film to date and the fifth-highest grossing film of 2018. Apparently, the fact that half the world still has months to go before they even start thinking about getting their beach bods back hasn’t been a factor.

Its release window isn’t the only thing whacky about Aquaman, a largely underwater-set action extravaganza starring Game of Thrones‘ Jason Momoa as the amphibious half-breed. Wan goes big on the special effects (as he always has, now just with more CGI pizzazz, and damn does this become a pretty thing to look at) but he goes pretty much all-out in trying to restore a little dignity to DC, proving his new employers aren’t nihilists obsessed with suffering. Aquaman embraces the absurdity inherent in its very existence, both in dialogue and in action, winking-and-nudging at the audience at every opportune moment — especially during those where bad guys are seen riding on souped-up seahorses, talking of uniting the Seven Seas and mounting an insurrection against those godless land-living creatures.

Aquaman certainly plays the part of a commercial-friendly summer winter blockbuster in terms of delivering big action spectacle, pounding the pavement immediately with an opening confrontation before moving on to successively bigger (and increasingly ridiculous) stand-offs that are as grand in scale as anything we have come across in the DCEU. If it isn’t Leviathan size, it’s the over-the-top masculinity of the combat scenes and the objects that are incorporated into them that make them larger than life — at one point I do believe the Fishboy can be seen conking an opponent on the noggin with the head of a missile. The fights are actually fairly clean — choreographically and just plain graphically — but what truly sets Aquaman apart in this regard is the exoticness of the locations, with half of the action taking place in ornate, gorgeously rendered submarine worlds where light refracts and splinters into shards of pale yellows and greens.

But (and here is the part where I expect to get laughed at) perhaps what is most unexpected from a DC film is the depth of the story, and I mean beyond the eyeball-popping pressures of the ocean bottom and gratuitous Amber Heard cleavage. (She plays Princess Mera, and aside from the predictably revealing outfits, this is probably her best role in years.) The thrust of the narrative concerns ideas of unity and cooperation and that works on scales both large and small. While the superhero thread follows the title character’s eventual acceptance of his status as a powerful leader, one who’s prophesied to bridge the two worlds (the land and the sea), the more human side finds Arthur struggling to come to terms with the consequences of his birth and the sacrifice his mother made in the interest of keeping her family safe.

As the mythology goes, Arthur is conceived out of a deep love between a human lighthouse keeper, Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the Queen of Atlantis, a once surface-level sovereignty now damned to the oceanic depths after a catastrophic meteor strike. As that opening fight scene reveals, Atlanna isn’t quite human. Her actions — falling in love with and marrying a human man with whom she conceives a child, who will possess the ability to communicate with all marine lifeforms — have made her a traitor to the people of Atlantis, and have earned the intense ire of Orm (Patrick Wilson), her other son and the current ruler of the aquatic civilization.

When Arthur comes of age and learns about his powers — fine-tuned with the guidance of trusted confidante Vulko (Willem Dafoe), also a ‘scientific advisor’ to King Orm — and what he represents to both sides, he of course does the very un-superheroic thing and hides away from the world, rejecting Atlantis and the very notion he can be a savior to all, including his own family. He isn’t entirely incapable of doing good deeds, as we observe in an early scene where he saves a gaggle of sailors from a Russian sub hijacking. In the process he also makes an enemy in David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whose father Arthur mercilessly leaves to drown. Whoops.

Enter Princess Mera, who, despite this being the guy who actually defeated Steppenwolfe, begrudgingly convinces Arthur to return to Atlantis and face his half-brother, who has set his sights on the destruction of the surface world. Heard and Momoa share a playfully antagonistic chemistry that helps Aquaman stay afloat through its most silly moments. And while we’re on the subject, it is very awkward the way Wan crowbars in commentary on oceanic pollution in a film that really doesn’t want nor need to be taken seriously — that’s a reality that does need to be taken seriously, and inserting it here is more than corny, it’s disingenuous. As they embark on a globetrotting adventure to track down the Trident of Atlan, a powerful artifact that only the worthiest of Ocean Masters can wield, we endure the scorching heat of the Sahara Desert and then hop on over to the Italian isle of Sicily, experiencing setbacks (hello, Black Manta!) and personal revelations along the way.

Despite the patently absurd final battle and a few other sidebar items, at its core this is a family affair, with Arthur and Orm diametrically opposed in ideology yet almost one and the same in terms of conviction and what they are willing to sacrifice to win. Ultimately it is in Arthur’s longing for his parents to be together once more where Aquaman becomes arguably every bit the emotional journey as Diana Prince’s loss of innocence as depicted in Wonder Woman. His inner turmoil, expressed by a quite natural and earnest Momoa, help me more easily overlook the clunky narrative at-large, the predictable writing (who didn’t see that epic under-water kiss coming?) and cheesy dialogue: “Redheads, gotta love ’em!” [proceeds to throw self out of plane while a caged goat bleats in horror.]

Yes, Aquaman is conceptually whacky, narratively clunky and overly reliant on CGI on more than one occasion. But the numbers don’t lie. This movie is a crowd-pleasing good time that ticks the biggest Superhero Blockbuster box of all — prioritizing fun and escapist entertainment above all. Against many odds, Aquaman is a DCEU installment that swims far more than it sinks.

My trident is cooler than your trident.

Recommendation: This movie has been out for nearly five weeks as of this writing. You’ve either seen it or aren’t going to. Not much more I can really say here. (Oh, there is this: if you’ve wondered whatever happened to James Wan’s partner-in-heinous-crime from the Saw days, Leigh Whannell apparently appears as a cargo pilot in this film — which I find hilarious. The trajectories of these two filmmakers have been quite incomparable.)

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 143 mins.

Quoted: “What are we doing?”

“Hiding inside a whale. I got this from Pinocchio!”

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

What Happened to Monday (Seven Sisters)

Release: Friday, August 18, 2017 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Max Botkin; Kerry Williamson

Directed by: Tommy Wirkola

In the context of Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola’s dystopian crime thriller What Happened to Monday — a.k.a. Seven Sisters — China’s methods of dealing with an extraordinary overpopulation crisis would be no less controversial but they would also no longer be the exception; rather, the opposite. In a not-so-distant future we’ve exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity and organizations like the Child Allocation Bureau have become necessary evils, instituting similar if not harsher one-child-per-family mandates across the globe. Unlike in China, where violators face stiff financial penalties, in the film excess offspring are taken away and put into cryogenic sleep, after which they’re promised to “wake up to a better world.”

Terrence Settman (Willem Dafoe)’s life becomes impossibly complicated when his wife dies after giving birth to identical septuplets (all played by one actress at the child and adult stages — Clara Read and Noomi Rapace respectively). To protect his illegally large family Terrence establishes a complex set of rules that will allow his daughters to come and go from the house with some degree of freedom. Each is named after a day of the week and is allowed to go out on “their day.” When they do, they assume a collective, physical identity of one Karen Settman, their mother. To keep a consistent image every detail of each trip outside is shared with the group so everyone remains on the same page.

This routine is maintained for some 30 years, until finally one of the siblings fails to return home after work. Fearing her capture at the hands of the C.A.B.’s head honcho Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close), an intense, scary woman who believes the One Child Policy is the only way to save future generations from living in the same squalor, the six other ‘Karen Settmans’ debate whether to turn themselves in or risk blowing their cover by going to save the one.

Regrettably What Happened to Monday is defined by broad shapes and genre tropes. It features seven different personalities but the overall piece fails to establish one of its very own. Rapace continues to use her striking beauty to channel chameleonic qualities and they, along with her hairstylists, are put to great use here. She elevates the entire picture, giving it a bleeding heart, as does a surprisingly grounded performance from Dafoe as dear old dad. But the latter isn’t tasked with interacting with his own likeness on screen.

It’s impressive how much two actors can inform a film’s personality, yet they’re still not enough to overcome clumsy writing that throws aside logic and narrative cohesion in service of an increasingly action-laden plot. As the dire circumstances devolve the incompetence of the bad guys never ceases to amaze. It approaches something close to a farce with the number of convenient plot mechanics that force us into a grand reveal that’s never as grand or as shocking as it should have been.

Still, the film’s well-made enough to be frivolously entertaining. Wirkola’s firm if unremarkable direction gets us from Point A to Point B with enough style, grit and emotion to make What Happened to Monday an above-average dystopian drama worth recommending to those who are less fussy. And Rapace’s ability to emote more than makes up for much of the less successful thematic ruminations. As we watch a family getting torn apart in a variety of cruel ways, it’s the actress’ unique expressiveness that magnifies the emotion, that gets us to re-invest just a little bit more, in spite of everything.

Recommendation: Emotionally engaging but ultimately familiar and never as deeply cutting as it could be, as an epic family tragedy that unfolds piecewise, What Happened to Monday (Seven Sisters) offers enough solid thrills and wicked action sequences to be memorable but as a broader commentary on what’s going on in our world today as far as overpopulation, this movie fails to express its concern in a way that’s truly noticeable, much less urgent.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “What happens to one of you, happens to all of you.” 

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 

Decades Blogathon – Inside Man (2006)

2006

 

As we wind down another great blogathon, I’d like to thank each and every one of you for your great posts. I’d also like to tip my hat to my co-host for firstly coming up with the concept last year and for helping manage it again this time around. As always, it’s a real treat. With any luck we will return again next year. I will be adding each of these pieces to my Decades sub-menu up at the top so if you ever want to go back and catch up on something you missed, feel free to visit that drop-down menu up top. 

For my entry I’ve decided to go with another contemporary release, realizing this would be a great opportunity to give Spike Lee another try. So here’s my take on a film he released now ten years ago: 


'Inside Man' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 24, 2006

[Netflix]

Written by: Russell Gewirtz

Directed by: Spike Lee

Prolific filmmaker, documentarian and notable New York Knicks’ sixth man Spike Lee, taking a few pages from F. Gary Gray’s guide to properly dramatizing delicate hostage situations, directs this thrilling and surprisingly intelligent heist film involving a cunning thief, an experienced detective, a wealthy bank owner and a not-so-proverbial bank-load of hostages.

Inside Man has Clive Owen to thank for delivering big in a decidedly (and brilliantly) complex role that sees him holding up a Manhattan Trust and many of its employees and patrons, confident he has planned for every possible outcome and disaster. No offense to Denzel the detective, who exudes charisma and charm throughout situations no other person could, or really should — but this is Owen’s film. Owen plays Dalton Russell, a name he’s only going to say once so you better pay attention because he never, ever repeats himself.

The hold-up begins like any other: Dalton and his cronies sneak in as painters and promptly reveal themselves on the inside as anything but. They’re armed and they’re not messing around. Stress levels sky-rocket within seconds. Dalton’s got plans for the vault but before we learn what those are Spike cuts away and begins constructing the world that awaits anxiously outside the building. The closest in proximity are the swaths of police and detectives, including Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Willem Dafoe’s Captain John Darius.

Elsewhere, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), founder and chair of the board of directors of this particular branch, is informed of the developing situation. Even though he luxuriates in a cavernous living room, the rich mahogany of its ornate interior boasting a life brimming with accomplishment and prestige, his concern lies with a single safety deposit box in the bank’s vault. He calls in a favor from fixer Madeleine White (Jodie Foster) to help him recover it, for whatever it contains could be embarrassing if it ever fell into the wrong hands.

Yeah, embarrassing. Let’s go with that.

If Owen is the standard to which all other performances must rise Foster proves to be the bare minimum you can get away with, playing a character so deeply rooted in some ethical and moral grey area you’re not sure if she’s being intentionally vague or if the actor ever believed in the part. Despite another wooden performance, she does manage to generate an aura of mystery as she slinks in and out of the shadows, her allegiance to any one group perpetually impossible to verify. (But are the mind games of her own creation, or is that Spike directing one of the most overrated actors working today?)

Spike’s direction assumes the role of surveillance cameras stationed at all corners of a building. The omniscience is really rewarding, as we see the extent to which this event has been planned and organized. In contrast, we come to realize the relative helplessness of a pair of detectives who want to end all of this as peacefully as possible, but who are coming up short on options — not merely because they’re bound by protocol and bureaucracy, either. In this world, the balance of power is almost entirely in the favor of the robbers. The shifting power dynamics make Inside Man a cut above your standard crime/heist thriller and one of Spike Lee’s better offerings.

Clive Owen in 'Inside Man'

Recommendation: Inside Man proves to be an involving and thoroughly surprising crime thriller featuring stellar performances from a diverse cast. Despite my qualms with Lee as a human being, his directorial talents can’t be denied. This might be my favorite of his thus far. If you can’t get enough of the bank heist thriller, I definitely would recommend this one. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “Peter, think very carefully about how you answer the next question, because if you get it wrong, your headstone will read, ‘Here lies Peter Hammond, hero, who valiantly attempted to prevent a brilliant bank robbery by trying to hide his cellular phone, but wound up,’ [presses gun muzzle into Peter’s cheek] ‘getting shot in the f***ing head.’ Now, Peter Hammond, where’s your cell phone?”

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.yify-torrent.org 

John Wick

john-wick-1

Release: Friday, October 24, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Derek Kolstad

Directed by: Chad Stehelski; David Leitch

John Wick is yet another Keanu Reeves vehicle that operates much like an actual one would sans the steering wheel: basic things like moving straight ahead are possible but trying something fancy like taking a left-hand turn renders the driving clumsy and crashing into your mailbox more than just a possibility.

The metaphor’s more appropriate than I originally intended, for the man’s focus has seemingly shifted away from scantily-clad gothic chicks to slick and shiny muscle cars. No longer is there a need to dodge bullets when you can just hop into your Shelby GT-500 and drive away into the sunset and escape them in a more traditional manner.

This bullet-riddled, blood-stained adrenaline rush is less of a shot of adrenaline than it is a rush(-ed opportunity) to make Keanu appealing to a new generation. It’s pretty cool he’s being repurposed as a new kind of mainstream hero as this Equalizer-esque enigma who sticks to the shadows. And that he is making an apparent “return,” though it’s not all that clear where exactly it is that he went to. Have we forgotten Keanu, or something? That he is “back” is a slight misnomer as the sea of tired genre tropes rises to swallow his spirit yet again.

John Wick is long on killing and short on chilling. It’s “kick ass now and worry about the logistics (and physics) of it later. Or never.” While some may prefer it this way, the bludgeoning of bodies makes for a rather dull and predictable protagonist. When there’s this much space being cleared for its marquee name, the lack of thought elsewhere becomes an issue quickly. A revenge plot dipped into a pool of malice, brooding spite and admittedly gorgeous cinematography, the film’s ambitions can be sniffed out from the opening shot. John Wick is very, very basic and its vignettes too easy to predict.

At the risk of contradicting myself, I’ll dare to say simplicity is a part of its appeal as well. Narrative clutter you will not find in these 140 minutes.

Co-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (the latter performed stunts in the über-spoof comedy Kung Pow: Enter the Fist!) strip the number of players down to the bare necessities. Top-billed are essentially Wick, his dog (he at least should be, he does some damn fine acting) and a bunch of aggressive foreign enemies duking it out amidst a heavily-stylized urban jungle of decay and disillusion. There’s an almost romantic quality to the beauty in each frame though the jury’s still out on whether this is necessarily the best-looking martial arts film of the year. The choreography of the brutal martial arts sequences should contribute mightily to the likelihood of this receiving some sort of recognition, although The Raid 2: Berendal probably would like to have final say on that.

As a final grievance, while Keanu’s blandness suits the dejectedness of this character it’s the character that ultimately feels out of sync with his environs. He moves in and out of this place, as well as the second-rate story, with too much ease and nonchalance. He’s Robert McCall, only he might enjoy life a little more. John Wick’s a character packaged as a Neo look-alike — a neo-Neo, if you will — but there is one glaring difference between the Keanu the Wachowski’s basically invented before the turn of the millennium and the one we get in 2014. And that’s novelty.

Unfortunately Neo saw Zion first. The One will forever cast a great big shadow, unless something truly compelling is yet to come along still, of course. I thought this would be close, but no. No cigar. An at-times tongue-in-cheek throwback to Neo’s capabilities this may be, but it is frequently more generic and stilted than clever or nostalgic.

jw-2

2-5Recommendation: There are parts that work and a lot more that do not for “The Boogey Man” (those awkwardly inserted subtitles are hugely distracting, as another example.) As an original bit of film this fails but as an entertaining hour and a half at the movies you could do a lot worse. Fans of Keanu will more than likely be impressed with his commitment to the craft this time; there’s no denying he is more on his game here. Precisely why those expecting a story to match his intensity will be so exasperated.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “Yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back. . .”

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 

A Most Wanted Man

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Release: Friday, July 25, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

As all good things must, even A Most Wanted Man comes to an end.

And it’s going to take everything in my power to remain on the conservative side here, what with a possible capstone performance to mark the end of a career as towering as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. Trust me when I say experiencing the final moments of this film is no easy task; that is, if you hold any empathy for the troubled man at all. That’s not to say we won’t be seeing him around in other things, of course. He’ll reprise his role for The Mockingjay: Part 1 this November, and he’s also turned up in the lesser-known 2014 drama God’s Pocket.

But in A Most Wanted Man, here’s where we are obliged to bid adieu to that more significant part of a once-in-a-generation performer. The celluloid here acts as a time capsule, in which Hoffman seems permanently encased. Selfish for us to try, sure, but it’s such a great performance there’s no way we can let this be over. Eventually we’ll have to.

In a somewhat befittingly stressful turn as Günter Bachmann, the leader of a secretive intelligence operation based out of Hamburg, Germany, Hoffman becomes involved in the (mis)handling of a young half-Chechen, half-Russian illegal immigrant named Issa Karpov (an incredible Grigoriy Dobrygin) who’s fleeing from torture and persecution in both his home countries. Bachmann’s methods are not attuned to those maintained by his peers, particularly the snaky Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock) and his office’s roughneck tactics, and Bachmann holds a particular disdain for the Americans given a situation in the recent past. Pale, disheveled and with a cigarette permanently glued to his lips, Günter is the perfect enigma for Hoffman to decipher.

That the film does not become a sideshow to the real-life tragedy involving one of its cast members is almost miraculous. This will be the last of Hoffman’s lead roles, and while proximate his death, his work still remains relatively unaffected. He does, however, look physically exhausted in a number of scenes. But rather than directly confronting us with his sickly appearance, the film uses it for context, making great use of Hoffman’s tired expressions and measured delivery to express an epic character. His physique immediately conjures a lifetime of struggles.

In Anton Corbijn’s film, perspective taints objective reality. We spend our time with this rag-tag group of German intelligence operatives (whose casting includes the likes of Daniel Brühl and Nina Hoss) but does this mean this is the right side of the tracks to be on? Who really ought to be dealing with this suspected terrorist? Is that precisely what Issa is, a terrorist? What could have become an overwhelmingly complex and dense narrative instead is surprisingly simplified without cutting out critical details — the scarring on Issa’s back is very telling of a dark history and helps cement his nightmarish reality.

Highly compelling material adapted from the novel by John le Carré is distributed evenly and effectively across the film’s myriad talented stars. Willem Dafoe steps in as Tommy Brue, the head of a German bank which may contain funds to be inherited by Issa from his father, a man he claims to have raped his mother in front of him when he was much younger, and when Mother was a mere 15 years old. (Again, despite the crowd-pleasing flavor of the thrill, one thing A Most Wanted Man can’t be accused of is glossing over pertinent stuff.) Robin Wright matches her intensity in House of Cards and continues to affirm her spot in the upper echelons of great thespians with a spectacular performance as CIA Agent Martha Sullivan, who comes to Günter’s assistance when he needs it least. Or so he has determined.

A Wanted Man is a fiercely accurate rendering of real-world events unfolding in a period as hectic as the last ten years have been, both in the Middle East and on a global scale. A fictitious account of one man’s journey through bureaucracy in a desperate investigation into what his real identity is — is he terrorist blood or an innocent civilian trying to escape oppression? — here’s a story that at least demands an open mind.

While we revere this strange German’s effectiveness at his duties, it is safe to say we revere the man behind the man more. If all good things have to come to an end, Hoffman’s story has come to a very good ending indeed. He is hands-down the reason to watch this film, and in a masterpiece such as this, that’s relatively high praise.

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4-0Recommendation: One of the very best films of the year, not just as a genre film or from a performance-standpoint, A Most Wanted Man is an excellent way to spend $10. For the Philip Seymour Hoffman fans (of which I believe there are at least one or two), for the Robin Wright fans, for fans of excellent adaptations of books (supposedly. . .I would now like to read this book). For anyone wanting relevance to the ongoing ideological struggles amongst the myriad countries ensnared in violent turmoil in the Middle East currently, and between them and a United States government that insists on making everything its business, you are compelled. . .nay, required to watch this film. It is that good.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “We find them. When they’re ours, we direct them at bigger targets. It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark.”

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

The Fault in Our Stars

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Release: Friday, June 6, 2014

[Theater]

For every hundred or so saccharine romances that Hollywood will churn out in a year, probability suggests there will be the odd exception or two that comes along and says “enough is enough.”

The cinematic adaptation of John Green’s best-selling novel, The Fault in Our Stars, is at once a beautiful and heartbreaking celebration of life and love, a journey fraught with emotional highs and lows and enriched by some of the most endearing characters to ever fall head-over-heels in love on the big screen. Jack and Rose may have “I’ll never let go” trademarked, but the main characters presented here prove equally hard to part ways with.

What this particular adaptation has that many romances often lack — I’ll refrain from comparisons to the book as I have not yet had the opportunity to read it — is a keen awareness of cliché. Director Josh Boone bucks convention wherever he can, despite not being able to flush them out completely. Predictability fails to lessen the blow of what is to come in this case, though.

The Fault in Our Stars is intensely likable, maybe even hauntingly so. In fact it takes a perverse pleasure in constructing a beautiful reality before shattering it into pieces — a hammer into a fabergé egg. Newcomers to the story are introduced to Shailene Woodley’s latest character, while the majority of the audience who have already been following along finally get to see the beautiful Hazel Grace Lancaster reincarnated in visual form.

Hazel, your otherwise typical teenager were it not for the thyroid cancer which has spread to her lungs (hence her portable oxygen tank), insists she is not depressed about her situation. Her parents (Sam Trammell and Laura Dern) likewise insist she attend a cancer support group. Surely that’ll be healthy for her, although Hazel can’t help but scoff at the irony. Fortunately for her, there’s an incentive to keep attending after she meets the handsome and hilarious Gus (Ansel Elgort) whose own cynicism seems to mirror the one she quietly harbors. Immediately sparks fly.

(Meanwhile, Nicholas Sparks is sitting in the back of the theater, furiously taking notes.)

This is, after all, the kind of conviction about a feeling as complex as love that doesn’t come around too often, let alone in a mainstream Hollywood production. As well, the film isn’t just about a couple falling in love. It deals with an extremely weighty concept such as facing mortality.

The Fault in Our Stars tracks the two lovesick youngsters as they embark on a physical and emotional journey that perhaps neither were expecting to experience prior to meeting one another. Gus’ powers of observation — he takes an interest in reading Hazel’s favorite book, written by American author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) — are responsible for transforming Hazel’s presumably very limited days into a series of extraordinary adventures that simultaneously captivate and devastate.

In addition to extracting mesmerizing performances from it’s young leads, the film accomplishes something else that further separates it from other romances. As the time with Hazel and Gus dwindles, the film feels ever more precious. There’s a very pressing sense of urgency in the film’s closing moments, a desperation for knowing what will become of not only these wonderful characters, but of us in the end. What’s it going to be like? And in these moments the film feels the heaviest, and in effect the most rewarding.

Optimism is neither a word nor a concept The Fault in Our Stars is comfortable with dwelling on. And by the same token, neither is pessimism. The characters aren’t so much fatalists as they are brave. Focus falls on realism and honesty, rather than despair and misery. Yet, there is no escape nor any hiding from fate. A script from Scott Neustadter provides little in the way of shelter from harm, and the result is a story that becomes mightily weighty as it progresses. Though not bereft of comedy completely, it’s fair to say romantic-comedy is a term that does not apply here.

The fault isn’t in the stars, nor is it in the genre of romance. Rather, it’s in Hollywood itself and a general fear of owning up to the truth so readily as John Green and his wonderful characters clearly are.

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4-0Recommendation: Hard to imagine this being anything but a must-see for those who have read the New York Times Best-seller. However, the adaptation proves to be an incredibly potent drama that deserves to be viewed by a much greater and more diverse audience. Anyone with a sensitivity for believable love stories and memorable personalities be prepared to bring tissues.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

Quoted: “The world is not a wish-granting factory.”

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

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Release: Friday, March 7, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Getting to work with Wes Anderson on any given project just has to be an unforgettable experience. If he called, I honestly don’t know how one would be able to use the word ‘No’ during that conversation; that scheduling conflict better be worth it.

Whether just a weekend visitor or planning to rent out a room for the long term, an actor who steps foot inside the lobby of Wes Anderson’s creative space is never quite the same afterwards. Ideally, this is what happens anyway. The opportunity of getting to work alongside such a unique and self-assured director has been one a diverse collection of actors has already taken advantage of and benefitted from.

It’s like clockwork with this guy. Each time he has a new offering there are more big names to point out in a cast that seems to continuously expand. In the case of his latest, the roster has swelled to very grand proportions indeed. Weekend visitors this time around include the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Tom Wilkinson, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, Saoirse Ronan and Léa Seydoux — all names that bear much recognition already but that also decided they could use some time away at the Wes Anderson school hotel of filmmaking in order to tap new potential.

Their career moves aren’t so much brave as they are smart. In 2014 the aforementioned names are to join the Wes Anderson fraternity — Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, among others all being potential role models for the newcomers to this wild and wacky world created by one of the most original filmmakers in the business today. By attracting this large of a cast, his new work seems to be bursting at the seams with potential to take his signature quirk to the highest level.

This year Anderson has whipped up The Grand Budapest Hotel, a rollercoaster ride of a friendship between hotel concierge M. Gustave H (Fiennes) and his lobby boy-in-training, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). Taking up the task of training the wet-behind-the-ears lad, Gustave proudly and confidently tours both Zero and the audience through the expansive and elegant enclaves of the hotel whilst explaining the proper etiquette that is expected of its staff. Gustave is something of a celebrity in the mountainous region of the Republic of Zubrowka, where his hotel is located, as he has been known to go to bed with several of his female guests — all of whom have been blonde.

His latest escapade with an elderly woman leaves Gustave embroiled in controversy when evidence of her mysterious death surfaces and doesn’t exactly cast him in a favorable light. As it turns out, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) was an incredibly wealthy individual with a number of possessions to give away. In a surprise move, she bequeathes a rare painting to Gustave for his kindness and care in her later years, and this is done to her surviving family’s great chagrin.

Embittered and angry sons Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and Jopling — which must be a Zubrowkan name for ‘Dracula’ or something because Willem Dafoe looks the part — plot Gustave’s demise in the ensuing chapters. Gustave and Zero bond over the years as they attempt to prove his innocence in the matter by traveling all over the ridiculous place just to get him an alibi. He has to consort with the mysterious Serge X (Mathieu Amalric) in order to do so and at the same time, avoid the increasing threat posed by Jopling and Dmitri. For his assistance and loyalty in this most trying time, Gustave promises to make young Zero his heir at the Grand Budapest, all in due course. . .of course.

Despite the film borrowing shamelessly elements from all other Anderson films — as all other Anderson films do of all other Anderson films — The Grand Budapest Hotel is decidedly one of the darker tales. It shares the same giddy levels of cartoonish action and physical comedy, and the writing is sharply written to the point of guaranteeing at least one painful laugh per half hour. It is even divided up into small chapters like other films are. It features heavy narration and a bevy of well-known actors in funny roles and outfits.

Upon reflection, the 2014 effort features a central story that’s generally bleaker than a lot of his other material has been. Though it is not completely lacking, there isn’t quite as much adoration or affection presented in the affairs ongoing. Even though we’re told about it, we don’t see Zero’s passionate love affair develop much with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan); there are more threats than laughs coming from Madame D’s family as the investigation continues into the death of a member of elite society; Gustave goes to prison for some time because he gets framed for the murder. When Zero’s backstory is given time to be explained, the film looks to be heading in the direction of full-on drama but thanks to the strength of the screenplay and the awareness of Anderson, we never quite go there.

Even when it is apparent that the fate of the hotel is anything but certain given the looming violence on the European horizon, this is through-and-through a Wes Anderson comedy-drama that banks on the same appeal his films have consistently displayed and been appreciated for over the last 20 years.

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4-0Recommendation: Although it doesn’t do much in the way of providing an argument as to why it should be considered his best, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a traditional Anderson dish with a European flare. Almost slapstick in delivering the laughs, the tale is quickly paced once it gets going, though first-time or on-the-fence viewers might find the first twenty minutes or so a bit tedious. Although, the Anderson tropes and the film’s slow opening may all be forgotten if one is a big enough fan of Ralph Fiennes. A stellar turn for the man in a role that contrasts considerably from his usual fare.

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “You’re looking so well darling, you really are. I don’t know what sort of cream they put on you down at the morgue but, I want some.”

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

Out of the Furnace

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Release: Friday, December 6, 2013

[Theater]

Sneaking up on you quietly, toxically, like steam billowing from the chimneys that scratch and tear at a skyline of charcoal gray, this original screenplay from Scott Cooper is most likely not the product most people were expecting. It is a solemn look at the not-so-quiet life in the Appalachian region; a story that’s as laced with brilliant performances as it is populated with shots of its gorgeous, rustic backdrop.

That the affairs ongoing in this unrelentingly dark tale might lead anyone other than Russell Baze (Christian Bale) to the breaking point much sooner than the two hours it takes for him is not really the surprising factor that I refer to. A title like Out of the Furnace is — yes, okay, grimly poetic — but moreso foreboding, and the title alone should be enough for most people to realize that what they are laying down $10 for is not for the sake of comedy.

Just as the thick plumes of smoke snake ever higher into the air, eventually to caress and blend in with the clouds, expectation levels of this particular story have similarly soared. Not that that was an unexpected phenomenon, or anything. Cooper’s ensemble cast in 2013 far and away outdoes that of his critically more successful debut film in 2009, and is probably one of the best casts of the year. Understandably, it’s difficult not to imagine a film featuring a cast like this offering up dramatic and epic grand gestures, scene after scene.

That’s not the case here, though. There is such a thing as actors also humbling themselves.

If the main impetus for seeing Out of the Furnace is for the performances, then it is going to be equally difficult to consider this an underwhelming experience. The talented cast should leave audiences speechless, as only one this good can.

Bale in particular is exceptional. In fact, he might be less recognizable as this down-and-out, soft-spoken countryboy than he was behind a cape and cowl. As Russell, Bale plays the elder brother to Rodney (Casey Affleck) with a heartbreaking tenderness and vulnerability that should virtually wipe clean any memory that he was indeed our Dark Knight.

He works a dead-end job at the local steel mill in an effort to keep a roof over his and his beautiful girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana)’s heads. At the same time, his family life burdens him. Russell splits his time working longer hours to pay off Rodney’s ever-mounting debts — for reasons he doesn’t quite know — and caring for their terminally ill father. As if this isn’t stress enough, Russell is for the longest time left oblivious to the real reasons his younger brother is in such debt. Until the day Rodney goes missing in New Jersey.

Rodney, desperate to pay off the debt himself and already having fallen in with a tough crowd, forces local bar manager John Petty (Willem DaFoe) to put him into a legitimate street fight in which he could stand to win good money. Rodney’s been serving in the military for years and whenever he’s back home he fights for money, finding himself unable to take up a normal job or joining his brother at the steel mill. Unfortunately his pride, blind determination and short temper land him in a ring overseen by the notoriously violent and demented redneck Harlan DeGroat (an ice-cold Woody Harrelson). He’s told to take a dive (intentionally lose) in this match, but will his ego be too big to obey this simple request?

Out of the Furnace examines these issues — pride before the fall; showing mercy versus seeking vengeance; the deliberate counting of one’s own sins — using a myriad of characters facing a different set of circumstances to show what they would do to right the wrongs. In so doing, the film takes a much more graceful, deliberate pace than many might be expecting to undergo. It might be difficult to understand that each of these brilliant actors, each with a legend preceding them, are much less of a “key” factor in the story as they more quietly assume puzzle pieces in a tragic story — much like the gigantic cast of Prisoners. Instead of jumping off the page as we all might expect them to do — an exception might be Harrelson, as he’s truly the personification of vile filth here — they end up passionately coloring in an otherwise black-and-white story of loss and redemption.

There are more than enough emotionally charged and nuanced performances that, even if are unsuccessful in breaking your heart, will at least make it ache.

The last thing screenwriters Scott Cooper and Brad Ingelsby are likely to be accused of here is a convoluted script. The hotheaded Rodney falls into the wrong crowd and it is up to Russell to try to bail him out. While the describable “problem” that arises out of the story is about as simple as that, the overarching story is actually an emotional journey that is something to behold.

The steam that belches out of the factories suitably obscures good guy from bad here. The moral ambiguity on display runs fathoms deep; hence, the beauty of this film. Each character, acting on his or her own reasons, is rendered with deep flaws, some perhaps more severe than others. DaFoe operates as a bartender, yet he finds himself balls-deep in debt with DeGroat and several nasty fellas up north as he spends a lot of money betting on bad street fighters. . .namely, Rodney. Saldana’s limited role as Lena is not without complication, either. Undoubtedly though, Bale’s character is the one who stands to lose the most, and becomes the centerpiece to this grim tale.

It’s not a film without its shortcomings, however. Forest Whitaker, as Sheriff Wesley Barnes, feels a little underused to say the least. As does Saldana. In fact, trailers seem to be quite misleading as the cut that is used in a rather dramatic moment involving Whitaker’s character does not actually make final cut. (This appears to be one of the movies that suffers from a pretty misleading trailer, in terms of its editing anyway.) Suffice it to say, though, that the limited screen time Whitaker gets he uses to its full potential. Ditto Saldana. The two add more concrete evidence for the argument that each character involved is deeply flawed, on some level.

There are also a few moments that feel a bit drawn out and redundant, but mostly these boil down to editorial issues rather than the innate elements that compose this surprisingly harrowing story. It’s again nothing to do with how unwelcome these people will likely make you feel; these are their woods you are trespassing in, and Harlan DeGroat’s neck of the woods is the meanest of all.

The acting is inspirational. It’s cinematography almost dreamlike. Cooper’s follow-up film respectably relies on its remarkably talented cast to bear the weight of the heavy emotions that penetrate these small towns and unstable relationships. It doesn’t need to lean on big-budget police chases, the high-stakes dramatic stunts and whatever else may go into what may be getting misperceived as a blockbuster film to get its brooding message across.

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4-0Recommendation: The film is quite simply incredible, while still possessing a few dents in the armor. Look to this film for it’s powerful performances and beautiful scenery; the story may be a bit lacking for some, and it’s likely this will become more obvious on repeat viewings; however it’s more than easy to overlook simplicity for the sake of some of the year’s most provocative performances.

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “The people up in those hills, they have their own breed of justice, and it does not include us.”

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

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