Thursday, December 18, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings

** out of ****

Ridley Scott sure knows how to film biblical plagues. In his newest film, the director of Blade Runner and Gladiator shows us the Nile turned red by the feasting on Egyptian sailors by hundreds of Crocodiles, people covered in boils from rampant insect bites and the death of first-borns –all because their leaders believed themselves to be gods.

Most of the computer-generated vistas showing us helicopter shots of this ancient civilization are seamlessly real and Scott directs his cast in this environment in his typical atmospheric strength, but as usual, keeps an impersonal distance from their psychological attributes. Christian Bale portrays Moses in with his typical man-under-strain shtick and Joel Edgerton is effective as the arrogant Ramses. 

It is right to point out that the majority of this cast is white. Something about this entertained me, because its similarities to Cecil B. DeMille’s cast for The Ten Commandments gave it a camp value. I can’t begrudge most of these actors for doing a fine job, but the setting is a missed opportunity for diverse leads.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is a gorgeously executed traditional epic with some creativity in its rendition of the story of Moses –but slowly becomes a bore due to the less creative action conventions Scott may have created decades ago, but feel run-of-the-mill today.

The most interesting choice made by Scott and his writers, is for God to appear in the form of an eight-year-old British kid, who appears, along with the burning bush, to Moses after he suffers a near-fatal head injury while climbing a mountain. Perhaps the portrayal of God as a possible hallucination is Scott toying with the audience with ambiguity, forcing the audience to ask a big question: Is Moses a Replicant?

The Babadook

***1/2 out of ****

It’s a real shame that The Babadook didn’t find wider distribution –or a release date last October. The holiday season is a very strange time to see a film about a single mother and child, haunted by a bogeyman lurking in the shadows of their home.

Essie Davis stars in a performance reminiscent of Melinda Dillon’s from Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a widowed parent dealing with a hyperactively troubled child whose imagination regularly inspires unsettling acts of misbehavior. The kid, played by Noah Wiseman is the result of a failsafe rule in making horror movies: If you can’t find a great child actor, find one with freaky-looking expressive eyes.

The mom is trying to hold two jobs and deal with this little hellion who isn’t liked by his school or his aunt when left in their care. It’s clear from the beginning that his destruction isn’t driven by maliciousness, just delusions. To calm him at night, the mother reads stories from his bookshelf. One night a mysterious old children’s book titled, The Babadook is discovered on the shelf. The further she reads it aloud, the more cryptic the verses become. Skipping ahead, she sees the book’s death curse and puts it away. From that point onwards, the supposedly supernatural figure from the illustrations doesn’t leave their minds. Eventually, it’s in their home.

This first feature film from Jennifer Kent isn’t incredibly original, but it deals out the suspense and scares masterfully. The movie utilizes modern filmmaking techniques, including CGI - of course - but uses it sparingly and never manages to break the somewhat Polanski-esque atmosphere.

This is the kind of dreadful mystery that puts you on a mysterious path and may divide audiences when its revelations seem to point toward interpretive allegory, rather than a concrete explanation. I’m hopeful that it will inspire long discussions, but I’m more impressed by how much the movie scared the hell out of me.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Theory of Everything

*1/2 out of ****

Focus Features and Working Title have made a pathetic plea for end-of-the-year prestige through The Theory of Everything (aka: A Brief Waste of Time). The film’s rising star, Eddie Redmayne, may give one of the year’s best performances as Dr. Stephen Hawking, but that does not save the movie from its by-the-numbers banality and self-conscious stylistic choices -typically found in TV movies. This is a movie about a subject who deserves our fascination. Too bad it feels phony and boring.

Redmayne can't carry this movie alone. Felicity Jones as his wife, Jane Hawking (the author of the book on which this movie is based), is a beautiful face to be sure, but I still have trouble taking her seriously. Her range is limited and I often have trouble reading the emotions she's attempting to convey.

I recall Roger Ebert's review for the Hawking-based documentary A Brief History of Time, by Errol Morris to be disappointed in its lack of involvement in Hawking's ideas. If that was his problem then, I can't imagine him liking this one if he'd lived to see it -even though he would have sympathized deeply with its portrayal of a great mind without a body or voice to use. Actually, I got way more out of the Ebert-based documentary, Life Itself earlier this year, in its balance between a life of productive film criticism and his marriage. 

The Theory of Everthing's director, James Marsh, is a very good documentarian, but this movie is no indication that he's suited for drama. The screenplay by Anthony McCarten is an embarrassing collection of generic exchanges that don't indicate much familiarity with Academia or relationships, as much as having seen movies about them.

It's the mind of Hawking that is treated like scenery and not the subject of the story. This movie can't wrap its head around the big ideas with which it dabbles. I went in thinking it seemed like a bad idea and left, astonished at how little intelligence went into its making. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -Part 1

*** out of ****

After the sabotage of the 75th Annual Hunger Games, our heroine, Ms. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has been taken in by the rebels of District 13. Katniss’ legacy of defiance has inspired revolt in the oppressed districts and the rebels know that her very involvement with their cause will be a symbol of strength, which will further their goal to overthrow the Capitol and its maniacal leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

While a sophisticated, well-armed movement, ready to serve Katniss - for the first time in her tortured life - may sound like great news, there is a tragic downside to everything. Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss’ true love, has been taken by the Capitol, and forced into speaking in propaganda against the rebels. While the members of 13 regard him as a turncoat, Katniss knows that he’s doing this to stay alive and informs 13’s leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore) that she will not support their fight unless she agrees to rescue Peeta along with other captives from the games. As planning for this mission begins, Katniss realizes she is in a new kind of game: War.

To make a technical observation, it’s interesting that each part in this series has been shot differently, creating a different tone for each movie. The first two were shot on film, with the first one Super 35 and the second one; a combination of 35mm anamorphic and 70mm IMAX. This is the first entry to be shot digitally, which serves its bleak and dim atmosphere of underground bunkers and the ruins of war.

Like Catching Fire, there is a lot of meta-humor serving as an allegory for Lawrence’s celebrity. There is a remarkable scene in which Plutarch (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) is directing a war propaganda video and Katniss turns out to be a terrible actress. We’re watching an Oscar-winning actress playing a character who can’t act. It’s pretty funny. When the propaganda videos are completed, they are remarkably similar to trailers for this franchise. That’s funny too.

Director Francis Lawrence, has the sensibilities of a good showman in his style and never strays from the emotional vulnerability of his characters. I still think that Gary Ross, the director of the first film, managed to convey more emotion in the storytelling –and did so at a swifter pace.

In between Catching Fire and this Mockingjay -Part 1, I think that there was a missed opportunity to emphasize the drama of a major story-point: The awe-inspiring revelation that the struggling masses have a powerful militarized ally in District 13, which was thought to be wiped from the earth decades ago. Their very existence is a very big deal in this series and I am surprised at how casually they’ve been introduced.

In spite of the stretched-out form the third entry has taken, there’s a lot of parts where I suspect that the screenwriters chose to skip over some essential exposition, knowing that a good chunk of people have read the books anyway. I’m pretty sure that in all the films, there hasn’t been one scene that explains the history of the Mockingjay bird and why it is so significant to Katniss and the rebels. Next movie?

Anyway, as the story moves along, Katniss goes on a couple campaign missions with a camera crew documenting her saintly efforts to help the survivors of rebellious districts bombed and left for dead by garrisons of the Capitol. The footage they gather inspires more uprisings and President Coin is ready to make a big move. Some very dramatic things happen, including a really cool rescue mission (that reminded me of the beginning of Escape From New York) followed by a disturbing twist and then… it ends.

I feel used, and I’m sure that a lot of Hunger Games fans feel the same way. We’re becoming familiar with the business trend of prolonging the experience in the sealing of a franchise. Oftentimes, there’s some excuse. In the Harry Potter series, the fans were treated to more of the gigantic book making it to the big screen when the last in that series was split in two. In the case of The Hunger Games Trilogy, the tactics are transparent. The third book is no thicker than the other two. I might even say that this entry should have been easier to condense into one film, than the first two.

Mockingjay is also the only entry in the trilogy that doesn’t involve the arena or the games. It’s called The Hunger Games Trilogy and now there will be just as many movies about a futuristic revolutionary war as there are about the Games. Did I enjoy this movie? Sure! It doesn’t mean that I admire the obvious greed inherent in the style of its release. As a casual fan, I feel like I deserved Part III in one movie. Instead, I've been treated like an addict, which dampens my enthusiasm.

I have to wait a year for closure in a movie series about sinister death games in the part of the story that doesn’t have any? %*@# you Lionsgate! And $%#* you keyboard! I’m trying to type here and you keep %^&ing up! Some day the fans of these moneymakers are going to stand up against this nonsense. We need a Mockingjay. I’d do it, but I suck at archery.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


**** out of ****

Whiplash is about a young jazz drummer, played by Miles Teller, studying at a prestigious New York conservatory under the cruel tutelage of an obsessive band director, played by J.K. Simmons. Nothing about this man’s reputation prepares this student for what he will endure. Just imagine R. Lee Ermey’s boot camp section of Full Metal Jacket being an entire movie… but about music.

Where do I start? Should I begin by saying, that I’ll be surprised if I see a better film than Whiplash this year? Yes. I think I’ll start there. I was prepared for a well-written heavy movie with great performances about the intense pursuit of perfection. I was not prepared for how this movie’s craft brings it close to perfection by complementing its content through meticulous cinematography, rhythmical editing and astounding sound design.

It didn’t take long before I was enraptured in the tunnel vision perspective of its characters regarding their world of musical precision. The film could have been about any kind of art. Hell, it could have been a sports movie about a tough coach, but lord knows we’ve seen plenty of those. Jazz is this movie’s choice of flavor and once you’re watching, you have no choice but to respect it.

I don’t know if I’ve ever said so in a previous review, but as a lover of movies, I don’t regard any movie, no matter how great, as perfect. This movie probably has one or two narrative flaws and its interpretation of the history of jazz mastery is sure to be contested by professionals of the subject. But it lives and breathes the world it creates. It is a piece of cinema with a voice and moves with tremendous energy in unapologetic fearlessness.

In the casting of its protagonist, Teller brings more than his already proven acting talent. His apparent abilities as a drummer escalate his character’s authenticity so much. I’ve liked this kid since I saw him in 2010’s Rabbit Hole. He has a very believable screen presence that has benefitted every film it’s graced.

J.K. Simmons has transcended from his scenery-chewing side characters, like the manic J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man flicks, to a man who eats every mean person he’s played for breakfast. If you’ve ever had a teacher who won your simultaneous fear and respect, Simmons embodies the nightmare version of that teacher.

The film’s writer/director, Damien Chazelle got the film funded by shooting a short film of the same name with Simmons and presenting it at Sundance last year. The full-length version was shot in less than a month, which is shocking. This is a film with a commanding pace that guides us from the innocence of passion to the darkness of obsession without losing our empathy for how badly this kid desires validation from someone who will not grant it.

Whether or not humiliation-driven teaching (which borders on sadism in this film) is effective, is beside the point for me. This movie is about the masochism in accepting this style of education and all the dehumanizing sacrifice that comes with it.

By the end of this film, I dashed to the men’s room. I’d been holding it somewhere past the halfway point and couldn’t imagine the thought of breaking the experience the film provided for even one minute. While leaving the theater, I shook with the exhilaration that one may get after a theme park ride, but I tend to get when I’ve seen a movie that I am absolutely sure, is great.