Far from the Madding Crowd

Posted in Drama with tags on May 23, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Far from the Madding Crowd photo starrating-3stars.jpgHandsomely mounted adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel regarding one Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) and the romantic interest that she sparks in three very different suitors. There’s Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a poor shepherd; Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a dashing soldier; and William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), her neighbor – a wealthy bachelor.

Mulligan fully inhabits the character so that she is a genuine person. However I can’t get past the fact that throughout this 2 hour movie, it takes the entire duration to arrive at a conclusion that was obvious 10 minutes into the story. Bathsheba is a very independent woman with headstrong ways that make her a compelling individual in this Victorian melodrama. Nevertheless she is also a capricious woman given to romantic whims that don’t always endear her to the viewer. All through the production Bathsheba entertains the options of her situation. Yet she remains perplexed by her circumstance. The glaring choice so clear to everyone but her. Such are matters of the heart. Her inner working are a bit inscrutable. She is real though. I guess being fickle is a human weakness. The narrative concerns unrequited love. It’s just a matter of time before the right two people feel the same way about each other.

Far From the Madding Crowd is an exquisitely produced period piece. The cinematography, costumes and music are the accoutrements from which Academy Awards are bestowed. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen beautifully evokes the rural culture of the English countryside portrayed in Thomas Hardy’s novel. The chronicle is well acted. Carey Mulligan makes a fetching Bathsheba Everdene. The Oscar nominated actress (An Education) has proven herself a capable leading lady. Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge all do well by their parts as her admirers. I couldn’t help but think that Aaron Taylor-Johnson would’ve embodied the qualities of Sergeant Francis Troy a little better but otherwise well cast. Schoenaerts is the standout. With the right future roles, the actor could easily become a star. And yet, despite all these accolades, I was largely unmoved by Bathsheba’s dilemma. I couldn’t sympathize with her plight. Her decision is so evident it’s ridiculous. The consensus is that Director Thomas Vinterberg’s interpretation is preferable to the 1967 version directed by John Schlesinger. I’ll buy that, but I suppose there’s the respected text if you really need more depth. If you keep score about such things it’s still Book: 1 – Movie: 0.

05-14-15

Pitch Perfect 2

Posted in Comedy, Music, Musical on May 20, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Pitch Perfect 2 photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpg“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s the apparent mantra of Pitch Perfect 2. In 2012, Pitch Perfect was an obvious riff on Bring It On, but instead of competitive cheerleading, it was a cappella singing. Despite the familiarity, it was a delightful bit of fluff . The presentation was charming and it had a nice soundtrack to boot. Now in 2015 we have the sequel. Perhaps less innovative given we’ve seen this all before, but nevertheless it’s enchanting as well.

The saga picks up 3 years after the original. The Barden Bellas — collegiate champions — are now headed by Beca (Anna Kendrick) and Chloe (Brittany Snow). They’re rounded out by the same team of lovable music geeks, including goofy Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), soft-spoken Korean Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), lesbian African-American Cynthia-Rose (Ester Dean) and new Guatemalan exchange student Flo (Chrissie Fit). Talented and likable characters all. Fat Amy comes across the best because she seems like a fully formed individual. The rest have apparently been assigned one funny gag each to which they apparently must promote into the ground. Flo grew up very poor for example and she reminds us of this fact over and over and over. They’re not the focus so these formulaic conventions don’t detract, but a little more nuance to their personalities would’ve been appreciated.

There are some random subplots too. Beca interns at a high profile recording studio headed by a cruel music producer (Keegan-Michael Key). Fat Amy’s burgeoning romance with Bumper (Adam DeVine) continues to grow. And how will new recruit freshman Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) fare in the group? She is a legacy whose mother was also a Barden Bella. Her songwriting talents blend with Beca’s producing skills. Emily’s original composition “Flashlight” seeks to duplicate the success of “Cups” from the last film. Emily even develops a little on-screen romance with adorkable Treblemaker Benji (Ben Platt). Unfortunately his fellow Treblemaker Jesse (Skylar Astin) barely registers any screen time in this outing. Oh but Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins are back as politically incorrect color commentators. They’re good for some giggles. In fact, Pitch Perfect 2 is funnier. The script by Kay Cannon and Mickey Rapkin keeps the rapid-fire humor coming at a steady pace. An offhand reference to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor? Impressive.

Plotwise this is virtually the same thing. The story even begins with yet another public disgrace at a competition. They’re performing live for President Obama and one of the girls has a, shall we say, wardrobe malfunction. The incident is dubbed “Muffgate”. The team must now regroup and prove themselves once again. The disgraced Bellas are banned from contests at the collegiate level. Although they are not prevented from competing internationally. Thank goodness for loopholes. This time it’s at the world championships in Copenhagen where they must face rivals from schools on a global level. Thing is, no U.S. a cappella group has ever won this event before. Can they do it? If you really think they don’t have a chance then can I interest you in purchasing some prime Florida swampland?

To be quite honest, the predictability of the narrative is kind of the selling point. You come for songs, jokes and camaraderie and you’re given exactly that. However now the laughs are bigger, the music is better, and the cameos are more badass. I can’t spoil who pops up, but there are some very amusing appearances. Several are highlighted in an exclusive invite only a cappella riff-off. (YES another one). Here the Bellas battle against one special guest team of note I won’t reveal. Also competing at the party are all-boy harmony group The Treblemakers, Barden University alumni The Tonehangers, and a spectacular German group co-led by Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) and Pieter (Flula Borg). Das Sound Machine is a formidable opponent of Teutonic vocal precision and intense choreography. They are the primary antagonists of the film. Kommissar “actually speaks 8 languages, but loser is not one of them.” They perform “Uprising” by Muse at a car show and it’s breathtaking. I can say without hesitation that it was THEIR finale at the world championships that impressed me the most.

Pitch Perfect 2 goes down easily by championing wholesome values like friendship, teamwork and the importance of practice in between gently outrageous PG-13 rated behavior. The first category in the mid-story riff-off is “Songs About Butts” which allows for an admittedly inspired medley of “Thong Song”, “Shake Your Booty”, “Low”, “Bootylicious” and “Baby Got Back.” The musical ditty is just one of many exhilarating numbers throughout the film. I didn’t expect to hear Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” or Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark”. It’s the music that propels this retread into a must see experience.

05-17-15

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Posted in Drama on May 20, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 

I participated in a “Decades Blogathon” hosted by movie review pages: Three Rows Back & Digital Shortbread. Please check out their sites.  Their task was to pick a movie released in the 5th year of any decade (1950, 1955, 1960, 1965, etc.) I chose 1975 and wrote about ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST.
 
 
 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest photo starrating-5stars.jpgDepending on my mood, I have about 5 films from which I often choose to give as my favorite of all time One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is invariably the answer I cite most often. It is simply as perfect as a movie can get. Unlike cinematic works that achieved their classic status over many years, audiences immediately knew what they had with this one. It was a huge box office success, second only only to Jaws that year.  [1]  The film earned 9 Oscar nominations and made a “clean sweep” of the top 5 categories: Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay (Adapted). It is only the second of three pictures to accomplish this distinction. It Happened One Night (1934) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) are the other two.

Based on the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, its adaptation to screen took over a decade. Actor Kirk Douglas bought the rights to Ken Kesey’s novel before it was even published in 1962 and spent years trying to get a film version off the ground. Ultimately his son Michael purchased the rights from his father and then produced with Saul Zaentz. Czech émigré Milos Foreman directed this take of one Randle Peter McMurphy. Convicted of statutory rape, he has been sentenced to a fairly short prison term. However, at the start of our story he is being transferred from the Pendleton Work Farm to the Oregon State Hospital because he has feigned insanity. McMurphy assumes his time spent there will be much easier than the hard labor he’d experience in jail. Sometimes things don’t always work out the way we plan.

Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher star. They epitomize a perfect pair of combatants. The head administrative caretaker of the psychiatric hospital is Nurse Ratched. She is a formidable woman. This is her ward and she exercises complete authority over it. “Medication time. Medication time, gentlemen,” she intones over the loudspeaker from the nurse’s station. She dispenses drugs to her patients waiting in line like a priest administering communion to his congregation. Fletcher is the antagonist, but she is no traditional villan. She is a nurse after all, someone who takes care of people. She seems well meaning at first but her calm demeanor hides a stern ugliness beneath. She rules with an iron hand, but she rarely raises her voice. Her tyrannical nature is aroused when things go awry. Cold and calculating, her words are like grenades that she carefully lobs with intent to destroy. Her quiet presence is largely felt even when she isn’t talking. The woman is inhuman, but Fletcher never reduces the character to parody. Hers is among the greatest performances in cinema.

Jack Nicholson is McMurphy, a hero but not in the classic sense. He’s a cocky, self assured rebel that rails against the establishment. Full of swagger, he makes it his mission to flout the rules. That most of the patients are there voluntarily is a revelation that doesn’t sit well with McMurphy. He’s a gambling man and he makes a bet that he can cause Nurse Ratched to lose her temper within a week. In this way he seeks to liberate the others from her grip. His confrontations with her are entertaining for the patients and for us the audience as well. He challenges the norms, slowly fortifying the group with his lack of regard for her authority. A simple plea to watch the 1963 World Series becomes a moment of desperation. The discussion is a mesmerizing battle of wills. The role solidified Nicholson as a cinematic icon and rebel superstar. This is arguably his very finest moment, of many, on film.

A telling highlight of the narrative are the group meetings over which Nurse Ratched presides. They are a nightmare, ostensibly designed to be helpful therapy sessions, but they are anything but. The mental patients, all male, are encouraged to reveal each others’ secrets to the public. The embarrassing gatherings are belittling. Her psychologically manipulative program designed to weaken their self-esteem and bolster her own authority. The dialogues of the group meetings are fascinating. You often don’t realize their insidious nature until the session is over. Jack Nicholson represents a savior of sorts to the patients that have been victimized under Nurse Ratched’s rule.

And let’s talk about those patients. The supporting cast of predominantly unknown actors form a masterpiece ensemble. Every single one of them a fully realized individual in their own right. Even a silent performance shines through. That’s Chief (Will Sampson), a towering 6’7″ tall Native American. He delivers a heartbreaking achievement with just body language and gestures. The scene where Randle teaches Chief how to play basketball is priceless. There’s Harding (William Redfield), an intelligent married man who feels emasculated by his wife and Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), who is prone to temper tantrums. Brad Dourif received an Oscar nomination for Billy Bibbit, a timid, almost childlike 31 year old. Yet virtually any one of these actors could’ve been recognized. Among the smaller patient roles are docile Martini (Danny DeVito) and belligerent Max Taber (Christopher Lloyd). Three years later those two actors would be reunited on the TV show Taxi. William Duell, Vincent Schiavelli, and Delos V. Smith round out the group. Their assemblage meshes in a brilliant way that make their therapy sessions hypnotic.

At first, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would seem a depressing film. The setting is a mental institution. The colors are drab. The milieu is bleak. Many of the patients look unkempt wearing robes. This is most assuredly a condemnation of psychiatric institutions as an emblem of compassionless bureaucracy. The chronicle contributed to the departure of electroshock therapy from mainstream mental health care for example. However Randle is a strong-willed individual bucking the system. He represents hope in a place where there seemingly is none. He can snare an audience with a cocked eyebrow and a winking glance. He charms the patients in the asylum like he does the viewer. His foil is the equally strong-willed Nurse Ratched, an emasculating presence portrayed by Louise Fletcher. The two play a game of one-upmanship while we sit and watch, basking in the glory of their finely tuned characters. That the atmosphere can go from tense to hilarious to unrelentingly grim, all in the same scene is a tribute to the script by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman. Their screenplay highlights the complexity of the dual nature of the narrative. It builds to an emotionally shattering conclusion that could either be considered the saddest or the most inspiring ending in the history of film.

 


[1]  The Rocky Horror Picture Show, largely ignored in 1975, became a success over the years due to midnight showings. It now ranks as the 2nd biggest hit of the year due to the phenomenon that it ultimately became.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Thriller on May 16, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Mad Max: Fury Road photo starrating-4stars.jpgMad Max: Fury Road is a visionary work of production design. It isn’t a story in the traditional sense with a lot of plot. This is more like a symphony of chase sequences that undulate like the movement within a classical piece. You might say the action is “mad”. Each setpiece is carefully modulated with deft precision. They’re punctuated by bursts of violence like trumpets that then ease into quieter moments like the calm violins of a soothing melody. The tempo rises and falls before culminating in a coda that leaves the viewer debilitated but relived.

In a future world, a nasty cult leader named King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) rules over a collapsed civilization . Keays-Byrne also portrayed the main villain “Toecutter” in the original Mad Max (1979) but there is no connection between these evildoers. In order to breathe he wears a mask with horse teeth arranged in a skull motif from which two vacuum pipes extend. A shock of white hair and ghastly skin contribute to the overall nightmare that is his face. He’s a frightening sight. Just watching him suit up is kind of mesmerizing. He commands a group of white painted minions called “War Boys” at the Citadel. They help him maintain control over the masses, hoarding this world’s most precious commodity, water.  His dependents include his son Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones ), a muscular warrior that looks like he could take on The Rock and War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) in a captivating performance.

Tom Hardy is”Mad” Max Rockatansky, one of the rebels trying to out run Joe and his army. Max is haunted by the loss of his wife and child. This is a reboot of the same character that Mel Gibson played in the previous 3 installments. He speaks with a deep, raspy voice rarely stringing more than 2 words together. Initially he is a hapless hostage strapped to the front of a car. Thrust into this supposed male dominated world is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who drives “The War Rig”, one of Joe’s vehicles. She sports a metal prosthetic arm and can speak in full sentences thank you very much. Theron is a female badass that ranks with the icons in cinema. I’m thinking Sigourney Weaver in Alien and Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2. She dominates the story. While Mad Max may bear the movie’s title, he’s not the star of the show. Furiosa has decided to rescue King Immortan Joe’s five beautiful wives out of the Citadel. Joe pursues her. And they’re off!

The action is the realization of a perfect manipulation of cinematography and production design. The futuristic terrain of Australia here is courtesy of the Namib desert in southern Africa. It’s an arid land with an inhospitable climate. It’s a post apocalyptic dystopia, but cinematographer John Seale should get an Oscar for making the desolate wasteland look so visually stunning. The landscape has the energy of life. There’s a massive sand storm that will blow your mind. Even the heroes look good. They all have the healthy looking bronze of a sun kissed glow: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and the five wives of Joe that she rescues in tow. They are the emotional core of the film. Joe’s favorite is played by the gorgeous Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Side note: how do these women look so ravishing in these dusty conditions? Seriously. No I mean seriously.

Any studio with a lot of money can put on a CGI fest these days. Watch a superhero movie. Take your pick. It takes a visionary to present action in a style that propels the medium further. It’s essential that every automotive monstrosity in Mad Max: Fury Road is a physical entity that exists. The danger is real. The 88 uniquely different cars are characters themselves. I’m told 150 vehicles were actually created because, well ya know, they take a beating. One roadster with porcupine spikes is called “Plymouth Rock”. Another called “The Doof Wagon” is fronted by a blind electric guitarist (Sean Hape better known as iOTA). The mutant dangles from a bungee cord above an epic sound system made of amps and speakers. There’s a separate truck that holds massive drums of course. They pulse like a heartbeat. Some cars are outfitted with long spires that swing hundreds of feet in the air like metronomes. Enemy acrobats ride atop the poles enabling their aerial attacks. Charlize Theron drives “The War Rig”, a six-wheel-drive tanker powered by two supercharged V8 engines built to haul gasoline and annihilate anyone that crosses its path.

The spectacle of Mad Max: Fury Road is a symphony of action under George Miller’s direction. It’s gleefully insane! Like some unholy union between The Wacky Races cartoon and an Iron Maiden album cover. Miller has described the film as one long chase sequence. When you get right down to it, that’s pretty accurate. Plotwise it’s a race to there and back again. But it’s Colin Gibson’s production design, John Seale’s cinematography, Junkie XL’s immersive score, and Jenny Beavan’s costumes that define this movie. The look is absolutely bonkers. It’s a testament to the visual and aural overload that it propels an adult like me into giddy exuberance. Mad Max: Fury Road is an all out pedal to the metal, full throttle chase with nothing held back. You know those pre-teens raised on heavy metal music and 80s action movies back in the day? Well we’re adults now.  This movie hits the sweet spot.

05-14-15

The Age of Adaline

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on May 8, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Age of Adaline photo starrating-4stars.jpgNo genre receives less respect in the 21st century than romance. Even the once maligned horror gets more critical acclaim. And woe unto the film that eschews the comedy and dares to simply be a sentimental drama. Writer Nicholas Sparks has had box office success in this area with adaptations of his novels like Dear John and Safe Haven. But those treacly tearjerkers prove my point. Audiences may flock to them but critics hate them. Occasionally an exception will attempt a more elevated take. The Theory of Everything is a good example. The Stephen Hawking biopic was a bona fide romance that actually received some recognition. But even that had a vociferous minority of detractors. Heck Best Picture winner Titanic is often unjustly maligned now. It wasn’t always this way. Roman Holiday (1953) and An Affair to Remember (1957) are great examples of unabashed emotion. Critics still adore those films. Perhaps the idea of an earnest love story almost seems regressive in our current era. Tenderness must be presented with sarcasm or artifice for it to be believable apparently. Into this climate comes The Age of Adaline. This heartfelt romance is a real throwback. It won’t get respect, but it should.

Lee Toland Krieger directs a cheerfully old fashioned tale that hearkens back to love stories of pre-1965 cinema. It stars a stunning Blake Lively as a perpetually 29 year old woman. She was born on New Year’s Day 1908. She originally had a normal life. She fell in love, got married, had a child. She became a widow when her husband suffered a tragedy during the building of the Golden Gate Bridge. Then one night a snowfall in Sonoma County leads to a freak accident that causes her to stop aging. A talkative narrator explains how it scientifically happened with hypothermia and lightning. Yes it’s absurd. But if you openly accept the powers of every Marvel superhero and you can’t even wrap your head around this little conceit, then you are clearly a walking contradiction.

One would think staying forever young would be a blessing. However Adaline is apprehended by the FBI so they can study her abnormality. So she decides to escape. Every ten years she creates a new identity and a new life. This goes on for eight decades to our modern day. Only her aging daughter (Ellen Burstyn) knows her secret.  This gives the production an excuse to outfit our heroine in a variety of hairstyles and costume changes to reflect the times. This is a gorgeous looking film. Let’s just say chief hair stylist Anne Carroll, head of makeup Monica Huppert and costume designer Angus Strathie are major assets. Ditto composer Rob Simonsen whose luscious score further gives the atmosphere an exquisite sophistication. Adaline doesn’t physically age although her fashion most assuredly does.

All the style of this fantasy wouldn’t mean a thing if we didn’t care about the characters. In order to be captivated by a romance, we too must fall in love with the people. Blake Lively is a vision. Her film choices have been spotty (Green Lantern, Savages) but she negates any lingering doubts in her acting ability here. The script allows her to casually deliver some very witty one-liners that poke fun at the way she transcends time. There is a subtle aristocratic air about her that appropriates the refinement of say a Katharine Hepburn. Perhaps I go too far, but it’s a quality I rarely see in modern movies so I’ll stand by the comparison. Her beau is Ellis (Charlie Huisman) to whom she introduces herself as Jenny on New Year’s Eve 2014. With his beard and ‘stache he looks kind of like a mid-70s era Kris Kristofferson. Huisman has undeniable chemistry with Lively. He pursues her with the single-minded passion of a man in love. They’re appealing together but the saga’s greatest moment is the late in the narrative introduction of Harrison Ford in a small but pivotal role. His emotionally powerful performance carefully straddles the line between contentment and regret. Ford gives his greatest performance of the last two decades in film and one of the best of his entire career. The Age of Adaline is such a delicate little unsung movie, I almost passed it over. I only hope other people are willing to give it a chance.

05-07-15

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Posted in Drama with tags on May 6, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter photo starrating-2stars.jpgKumiko is certainly a unique individual. She lives in the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo but remains an utterly isolated woman existing in a decomposing world. She hates her dead-end job where she spits in the boss’s tea. She is unsociable refusing to interact with her fellow co-workers. A friend sidles up to her on the street and she all but ignores the perky creature. Her overbearing mother incessantly nags her to get married. She is extremely withdrawn. She’d rather spend all her time carefully re-watching a distorted VHS tape of the 1996 movie Fargo. Can someone please give this woman a hug?

It’s important to note that the Coen brothers picture begins with a title card that reads: “This is a true story.” She finds the tape in a seaside cave. It’s battered and worn. The film is grainy. Fargo has some pretty ardent fans so if you’re going to choose a movie to obsess over, I suppose that is as believable as any. Personally I’d pick The Fifth Element but hey that’s just me. Anyhow, Kumiko is somehow convinced that the briefcase full of money Steve Buscemi buried in the snow is real. Armed with a hand-stitched map, she decides to travel to North Dakota and find the cash.

The events depicted in Fargo are fictitious. However Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is partially based on fact. Apparently Takako Konishi was a real woman from Tokyo who was found dead in a field outside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota in 2001. Her death was ruled a suicide, but a conversation between a local police officer and Takako led to speculation by the media that she had died trying to locate the missing money portrayed in the movie. It was a fabrication, but the misunderstanding grew into an urban legend about the woman. Her tale was detailed in the 25 minute short This Is a True Story (2003), directed by Paul Berczeller.

That the details of this are far more fascinating than what is presented here highlight my lack of passion for this production. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter concerns an obsessive quest. Generally I enjoy these tales about social outcasts that don’t quite fit in with society. These quixotic individuals have such a romantic quality that can be very appealing. Kumiko is outfitted in scarlet sweatshirt with a large hood like a contemporary Red Riding Hood. That visual further pushes the fairy tale notion of this modern fable. Indeed there’s an air of surrealism that infuses her life as if it were a dream. But Kumiko is such an enigma that it’s difficult to embrace the character. We don’t know this woman. She rarely speaks, only occasionally mustering out a random word in her broken English. The locals along the border of North Dakota and Minnesota just want to help her but she is so painfully shy that it’s hard to summon any interest in her mission. Kumiko is a curiosity to be sure but not someone I embraced. Her only friend is a pet rabbit named Bunzo. I think it’s telling that her animal side-kick is the emotional heart of the saga. I’m #TeamBunzo all the way. #TeamKumiko not so much.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on May 3, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Avengers: Age of Ultron photo starrating-3stars.jpgI consider myself to be reasonably intelligent. I understand that it’s a good idea to settle your credit card bill at the end of the month and not let the balance roll over. I grasp the difference between ‘there’, ‘they’re’ & ‘their’ and use them appropriately. But Avengers: Age of Ultron is confusing. I’ll admit it’s nice seeing the old gang get together and kick butt again. They do a lot of that here in cacophonous spectacles that are the best money can buy. Age of Ultron was made with an estimated budget of $250 million, making it the most expensive Marvel picture to date and I won’t question that figure. This looks like a costly movie. Although the battles feel a bit familiar this time around. More expensive doesn’t always equal better. The recent direction of superhero productions like Man of Steel (2013) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) don’t enchant me. They’re not rooted in dramatic storytelling but rather feats of engineering. There’s a lot going on. Kristopher Tapley over at HitFix defined the practice as “money-shot overload.” The term fits perfectly.

The Avengers was enjoyable because it kept things relatively simple. Let’s bring the superheroes of the Marvel universe together to fight a known enemy: Loki. Age of Ultron is about introducing even more characters to that universe. When I research the cast on the IMDb I see names like Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and The Vision. I could’ve missed it, but I don’t recall ever hearing those actual words in the film. What seemed so fun and effortless the first time has now become a thoroughly labored affair. It begins with a complicated opening set in a fictional eastern European country with a mad scientist named Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. Von Strucker’s experiments have created genetically enhanced versions of twins Pietro and Wanda Maximofff. They’re portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Elizabeth Olsen sporting embarrassing pseudo-Russian accents. It is interesting to note the actors went from playing a married couple in Godzilla to a brother & sister duo here.

Avengers: Age of Ultron makes precious little sense. I realize looking for consistency in a sci-fi fantasy is a feeble pursuit but I must start with a random observation. Pietro’s powers are wildly inconsistent. The dude is supposed to move at supersonic speeds. We saw this in 2014’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past when the individual was notably played by Evan Peters. In that film, Quicksilver raced around a room to prevent an onslaught of bullets from hitting his friends. So I take serious exception to what he does here. I must tread lightly to avoid spoilers but his behavior is beyond comprehension. Paul Bettany’s role as J.A.R.V.I.S.. takes on a new dimension in a mystifying story arc which I couldn’t spoil because I didn’t get it either. Somehow the internet made it possible though.

Also lacking clarity is Ultron, the main villain.  He is actually part of Tony Stark’s global defense program. I will say it’s kind of amusing seeing Robert Downey Jr. reunited with his Less Than Zero co-star, or at least his voice anyway. James Spader looks different but hey, that was 28 years ago. Apparently Ultron is Tony Stark’s fault and he’s kind of a jerk about it. The words, “I’m sorry” would’ve helped.  Initially he had the best of intentions.  He wanted to keep the peace. His Ultron program was designed to protect the Earth.  But Ultron becomes a sentient being and naturally decides that the human race must be eliminated because they’re the biggest threat. It’s that darned artificial intelligence gone wrong again. You didn’t see this coming? How many movies are going to use this as a plot point? From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ex Machina.  Oh but why have just one Ultron when you can have many. Of course there must be an army of robot drones further cluttering the screen.

A big part of the narrative involves the gang coming to terms with their feelings. Assisting them in this is Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Her power is to get inside people’s heads. She disorients them with visions of their fears. There’s several dream sequences that put division amongst the Avengers. In fact much of the tale, in between conventional combat, is centered on Avengers who just wanna go home and walk away from all this.  Ah, that’s what was missing from the last Avengers movie, existentialist mumbo jumbo.  Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye gets an expanded back-story that seeks to further humanize him. There’s even room for a burgeoning romance between Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk. I hesitate to use an adjective like boring, especially in a film with so much visual stimuli thrown at the screen, but these arbitrary developments aren’t captivating. How about lame? Is that a better word?

It’s not all bad. There are some genuinely humorous moments that made me smile. The Hulk’s dream (which we unfortunately never see) causes him to fly into a rage and forces Iron Man to don his Hulk-Buster suit of armor to calm him down. The team takes turns trying to pick up Thor’s hammer which has a hilarious payoff later. But then Ultron and the twins go to a shipyard in South Africa and Andy Serkis inexplicably pops up. Cue fanboy giggles. Bewildered looks on everyone else. Enough with the fan service! It shouldn’t come at the expense of a coherent story. As per usual, stay for a mid-credits scene (no post credits one) where we’re reminded of that creature with a purple face that we saw briefly in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. (I’m told it’s Thanos) I only wish Age of Ultron were more focused on giving the audience a lucid plot instead of being a character springboard for future films.

05-01-15

Clouds of Sils Maria

Posted in Drama with tags on April 24, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Clouds of Sils Maria photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgClouds of Sils Maria is a provocative film. The gamut of topics that pass through the consciousness of screenwriter (and director) Olivier Assayas are plentiful and diverse. It considers youth vs. age, life vs. death, the past vs. the present, art vs. commerce, and fame vs. anonymity. Good heavens! Any one of these would’ve been enough fodder for an entire script, but Assayas touches on all of these topics. The complexity of Clouds involves trying to figure just what heck the narrative is actually about. It’s arty to the point of ambiguousness. Regardless Assayas clearly delineates a deep poignancy amongst women.

Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an international star that is on her way to accept an award on behalf of world renowned playwright Wilhelm Melichior. In her early 20s, she played Sigrid, the ingénue in a play he directed called The Maloja Snake. While en route by train, she receives word that the man to be feted has died which turns the celebration into a memorial. When she arrives she meets another director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger). Her assistant Valentine (Kristin Stewart) has set up this appointment. Klaus is interested in directing a revival of The Maloja Snake. However this time, he wants her to play Helena, the woman twice Sigrid’s age driven to suicide from their destructive love.

Reality and fiction have a way of intertwining uncomfortably for the respected actress. Juliette Binoche playing the part of an esteemed thespian in her 40s is not such a stretch. She beautifully immerses herself in the portrayal as expected. More surprising is Kristin Stewart who gives an extremely self possessed performance. As her personal assistant Val, she motivates Maria to secure the role. Maria subsequently prepares for the play with Val who runs the lines of the adolescent social climber. The play is endlessly rehearsed throughout the movie and at times, the line between their true character and the persona they’re playing become blurred. The idea of playing the opposite part intrigues Maria.  Though she becomes conflicted because the role forces her to confront her own mortality. Further confusing things is the setting of Lake Sils, an area in the Maloja district of the Swiss Alps. There they witness mysterious cloud formations that slither through the mountain scenery. This is the real-life Maloja Snake after which their fictional play is named.

Controversial wild child actress Jo Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) is chosen to play Sigrid, the role that was originally Maria’s. When Maria finally meets the young upstart, her flattery of the venerable actresses immediately recalls the association between Margo Channing and Eve Harrington in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. I’m sure the comparison was intentional. Maria has many more interactions with her assistant Val than actress Jo-Ann. However the unbalanced relationship between the characters in the play is definitely a bone of contention for the older actress.

It’s safe to say that Clouds of Sils Maria is a character study. Beyond that though I’m not exactly sure how to label what Oliver Assayas is trying to say with this piece. That is to say, it’s a bit dramatically gray. Val enjoys working for Maria, a famous actress. Maria treasures Val’s youthful energy. Kristin Stewart inhabits a woman that almost seems tailored made to suit her own temperament. She’s at her very best. When Val pleads with her employer to look past the veneer of a rising starlet’s goofy superhero role to the talent beneath, you can actually hear Stewart justifying her own work in the Twilight movies. She is every bit Binoche’s match in these conversations. Stewart’s work here is a reminder of just how great she can be. In the end, one can at least say Clouds simply concerns time, or the passage of it and how it affects us. Director Assayas understands women. With this production, he has created a richly textured examination of individuals with three juicy female parts. There are a few men in the picture too, but they are inconsequential additions merely there to support the girls. Ah yes, Clouds of Sils Maria is that rare meaningful film where women are the sole purpose of the tale. Yes for those familiar with the Bechdel Test, this passes with flying colors.

04-21-14

Ex Machina

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 19, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Ex Machina photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe story is simple. A young programmer wins the opportunity to spend a week at the private mountain retreat of his boss Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive billionaire and internet search-engine mogul. When he gets there, he’s asked to sign a non disclosure agreement before they can even proceed. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) has actually won the chance to evaluate the aptitude and consciousness of a beautiful and sophisticated robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). But robot seems almost like an outmoded term in this case. For you see, the capabilities of Ava far exceed the intellect of any mere machine. Caleb will determine whether she has the competence to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from that of a human.

Ex Machina concerns the philosophy of artificial intelligence. The chronicle is built around the monitored conversations that Caleb has with Ava. The first day, Caleb questions Ava, but on the second day, Ava questions him. The insightful script plays with the way humans talk and then how a computer would glean information from that interaction. “Does Ava feel?” is a key question. Ex Machina does a great job and presenting a lot of interesting topics for discussion. Caleb’s sessions with Nathan when he reports his findings are equally important. Of course Caleb’s interactions with Ava are being watched, but what Nathan observes is not as important and the way Caleb reports on it. Occasionally power failures affect the means with which Nathan can monitor these sessions. That’s when the exchanges between Ava and Caleb get really juicy.

Oscar Isaac’s Nathan is an arrogant tech tycoon with a bit of a God complex. With his shaved head and bushy beard, He wants to present himself as this approachable laid back guy, but we immediately realize he is anything but. He’s an über control freak that works out incessantly throughout the day and parties even harder at night. There’s an intensity to him that is unsettling. Take Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), the Japanese servant girl he employs. He values her inability to speak or understand English. In this way he can freely talk trade secrets around her. His insulting disregard for her borders on misogyny. Even when he’s ostensibly just boogieing down to a disco ditty with her, there’s still something menacing about the act.

That brings us to his technological creation Ava: a very female entity. She has the face, hands and feet of a human woman but the body of a cyborg, although still shapely. As manifested by actress Alicia Vikander, she is a hypnotic creation. The Swedish dancer trained at the Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stockholm for nine years. With her lithesome movements and graceful placement, she suggests a very carefully studied decision to move. The fact that she is female is a very deliberate component to her creation. After all, an artificially intelligent computer need not have a sex. The objectification of the female body courtesy of her creator. This idea is found elsewhere in the narrative, but to reveal more would be to spoil the discovery.

Ex Machina is Alex Garland’s feature debut as a director. But he’s no newbie to film. The English novelist has been writing for years. His first novel The Beach was turned into a movie by Danny Boyle. It would mark the beginning of several partnerships between the two. He most successfully penned the post-apocalyptic horror film 28 Days Later. In 2007 he wrote the screenplay for Boyle’s Sunshine and then they executive produced 28 Weeks Later together. But perhaps the director Garland more closely references this time, is the work of Mark Romanek. With its austere environment and smooth shiny surfaces the film occasionally recalls his glossy music videos “Scream” (Michael & Janet Jackson) and “Bedtime Story” (Madonna). The two collaborated when Romanek directed Never Let Me Go which Garland adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian sci-fi novel.

Artificial Intelligence is the topic at hand. Given the heady subject matter, I was surprised with the very basic way in which the idea is handled. Ex Machina is entertaining, though the narrative doesn’t tread any new ground. Some interesting concepts are brought up, but nothing particularly innovative is resolved. This is a glorified episode of The Twilight Zone. However the stripped down, simple design is visually attractive. Nathan’s subterranean compound is a modern architectural wonder in the middle of a forest. His lair is both richly appealing and menacingly claustrophobic. The style makes the story seem weightier than it really is. There’s precious little depth, but heck if the whole thing isn’t entertaining. Caleb, Ava and Nathan form an emotional triangle of sorts that seduce, attack, argue, persuade and sympathize. Ultimately, the tale is a triumph because I was captivated throughout.

04-16-15

While We’re Young

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on April 16, 2015 by Mark Hobin

While We're Young photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgNoah Baumbach has a unique outlook on life. The director has always had precocious ideas to the point where they become precious. He belongs to that rare club that dares to present quirky New York angst of the white middle to upper class. Woody Allen is the patron saint of these hyper-intellectuals – Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson are the disciples. Those latter two veer closer to a rosy Norman Rockwellian angle where Baumbach, up until recently, was decidedly more pessimistic. The Squid and the Whale was downright nasty. But his attitude changed with Frances Ha and now I feel that Baumbach has taken another leap forward with his worldview. It’s measured and much more layered.

While We’re Young is ostensibly a story about getting older. Noah Baumbach presents us with an aging couple in their 40s. Ben Stiller plays Josh, a documentarian who has been struggling with his obtuse 7 hour documentary for a decade. Naomi Watts is Cornelia, his wife who is struggling to come to terms with her inability to have children. They’re in a rut. Then they meet a catalyst for change in hipster couple Jamie (Adam Driver) & Darby (Amanda Seyfried). They’re vibrant, laid back and spontaneous. Jaime & Darby are down to earth, but they’re nutty too. They have 70s movie posters up on the walls, watch movies on VHS tapes and listen to Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” on vinyl. There‘s a little subtext here in appreciating something because you actually experienced it as opposed to enjoying something in an ironic sense from afar.

While We’re Young is a movie based on existential discussions. Josh & Cornelia are drawn to Jamie & Darby’s carefree but irresponsible perspective on life. The narrative is sensible and even-handed in a way that endorses everyone’s point of view. The chronicle doesn’t take sides. Their relationship with these free spirits reacquaints them with commendable qualities they no longer possess and forces them to come to terms with how they have changed. These loquacious New Yorkers can be trying at times, but they’re funny too. We see people we know and then we see the qualities of people that annoy us. We see ourselves in Josh and Cornelia as well. I don’t care who you are. Anyone who has ever felt old while observing twenty-somethings as another life form can relate.

Baumbach can make the behavior of these bohemian intellectuals admirable and childish all in the same scene. That’s kind of brilliant. Whether Josh and Cornelia are attending an invite to an impromptu “street beach” event in Brooklyn or an Ayahuasca ceremony, I found myself thinking, “That might be cool” at the idea but when confronted with the reality thinking, “Ok that looks unpleasant.” That’s probably because I have grown up and my perspective is closer to the director’s than the youthful hipsters that populate these parties. Baumbach’s greatest contribution is the way he subverts your expectations. Nobody is the butt of the joke here. While We’re Young isn’t perfect. What drives Josh as a filmmaker is completely unrelatable – to me anyway. But then that’s part of the humor now isn’t it? These are multidimensional people that have genuine good qualities – each and every one of them. They also have components to their personalities that can make them a little insufferable too. In other words they’re human. These characters are more lovable than any I have ever seen in one of the director’s films. Baumbach really has something interesting to say with While We’re Young…and I’m listening.

04-12-15

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