Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

*** out of ****

With Hail, Caesar! the Coen Brothers have made a film that exists as a playground for everything they love: Kidnapping plots, classic Hollywood, ineffectual radicals, cowboys, and character actors as far as the eye can see. The movie is another stylistic exercise in their tendency to produce entertaining yet meaningless stories made up of rich aesthetics accompanied by brilliantly clever dialogue exchanges.

Set in 1950s Hollywood, the story focuses on a movie studio executive (Josh Brolin) who is swamped with fixer tasks to cover up scandals and protect the image of people under contract. The studio’s biggest star (George Clooney) - while in the middle of shooting an over-budgeted biblical epic - has been kidnapped by an organization called "The Future” who demand ransom money.

Meanwhile the simple-minded movie B-movie star (Alden Ehrenreich) of singing cowboy pictures finds himself in the middle of strange studio dealings when he’s cast against type in a romantic drama much to the dismay of a regal director (Ralph Fiennes).

The movie is filled with many actors getting a chance to shine with this material (Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, and Tilda Swinton all have their share of fun too) but don’t expect to be swept up in a grander type of Coen experience. This isn’t Raising Arizona or The Big Lewbowski and it’s certainly not A Serious Man. This is more like Burn After Reading – if that title alone gives you the right idea. Temporary gratification is often found in the Coens large body of work, but the experience is usually worth it.


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

Strange experimental works of cinema rarely wind up on the big screen lately. As the demographic that enjoys analytical thinking during a movie continues to prefer staying at home, we can expect fewer movies like Anomalisa slowly make their way into multiplexes across the country regardless of its accolades (This film has an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature). Charlie Kaufman’s second directorial outing is co-directed by animator Duke Johnson to create a stop-motion journey through a depressed man’s mid-life crisis and is not intended for children.

Kaufman’s writing often focuses on artists going to great pains by using impractical methods in order to re-enact the normality of their own lives. John Cusack’s puppeteer character in Being John Malkovich, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s playwright in Synecdoche, New York, and Nicolas Cage’s portrayal of Kaufman himself in Adaptation” are all characters who use art to find connection with themselves and others –but they usually fail.

With Anomalisa the film is representative of this kind of art as we experience one of the most difficult styles of animation going to great lengths to realistically portray the monotony of a middle-aged man staying in a hotel in Cincinnati. The value of this quixotic recreation of everyday tedium is evident in the control that animation offers.

The main character (voice of David Thewlis) is an author and motivational speaker in the area of customer service and the importance of perceiving individuality in clients. With great irony, the world he perceives is made up of people who all have the same generic face and the same voice (Tom Noonan). It is only at the film’s midpoint that he falls madly in love with a guest in the hotel who has a different face and voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

The film succeeds in its mission to present mundane human existence in a way that feels compellingly dreamy and surreal, but its structure feels a little off. The 90-minute runtime was actually the augmentation of a short film concept. When it ended, I was almost prepared for another act to the story.

I found Kaufman's first film as director, Senecdoche, New York, to be so filled with despair that I feared it to be the beginning of a new period for him as an artist who has stopped caring for his audience -which the film was about. I am glad that Anomalisa is slightly more accessible even if it is bound to turn a lot of people off in a time when theatergoers would rather come together to watch characters dying horribly than reflect the common problem of human disconnection.  

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Big Short

**** out of ****

If there is an ambitious film that overcomes the heavy weight it carries, it comes from a very unexpected source: Adam McKay – director of Anchorman and Talladega Nights - has directed a solid film about the financial meltdown of 2008 and it’s one of the most original films I’ve seen this year.

Focusing on people who saw the rotten landscape of unchecked bad mortgages and fraudulent activity that would eventually lead to a mass crisis, the movie shows how foresight and no ability to prevent disaster still opens a shameful window for profitable opportunity.

McKay trades in the standard-issue polished American comedy movie aesthetic for handheld realism –yet he doesn’t trade in his humor for anything. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film have so much fun breaking the fourth wall.

Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, many other accomplished actors, fresh newcomers and brilliantly utilized celebrity cameos (McKay’s Funny or Die staple) provide this film with energetic humor and sobering tragedy. I’m glad I didn’t hold out longer on this one. It’s among the best of 2015.

The Danish GIrl

*** out of ****

Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl is another ambitious end-of-2015 release that has a redundant amount of beauty and emotion but doesn’t manage to be as interesting as it could be. The story of the first-known person to have a sex-change operation provokes endless questions, but sticks to the simple emotional struggle of the lead character (played by Eddie Redmayne) and a wife (played by Alicia Vikander) who is uncertain of how to deal with a husband who is fading away.

Redmayne’s preoccupation with finding challenging roles has led him to a lot of movies that I didn’t enjoy despite his talents. The Danish Girl is a good one with a moving score by Alexandre Desplat and Hooper’s perfectly-composed wide-angle shots (through cinematographer Danny Cohen), but after watching the entire first season of The Knick, I’ve come to expect more from period dramas that deal with social changes alongside medical breakthroughs.

Ex Machina

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

I know that Ex-Machina must be a good movie because I saw it last April and it has taken me this long to find words for it. The film wasn't ultimately as satisfying as I hoped, but it didn't leave my system. When a movie leaves a mark, it must be doing something right.

The setup to the story is almost like that of classic sci-fi horror fiction as a learned protagonist is summoned to the large estate of a reclusive eccentric scientist who will reveal a secret breakthrough, which, in some way, will ensnare the hero.

In this modern tale, the hero is a computer programmer (Domhnaal Gleeson) working for a software giant, whose founder (Oscar Isaac) has selected him to fly out to his private estate where a subterranean facility run entirely on high-security automation with minimal personnel - right out of a Michael Crichton novel - houses the first artificially intelligent being (Alicia Vikander).   

The programmer is tasked with engaging in conversations with this being, which is made to look like a beautiful woman, in order to evaluate her mind as genuine consciousness. However, his attraction to her is so strong, he becomes suspicious that she has been designed to distract his objectivity.  
Through collaborations with Danny Boyle on films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine, Alex Garland's writing has made a positive impact on otherwise outlandish material. He even escalated Pete Travis' exploitively violent Dredd to unexpected heights by giving its world a lot of unique character. However, he also has a tendency to resort to genre expectations when concluding most of his stories. My only problem with Ex Machina, -Garland's directorial debut - is that it does this, even though it thankfully never sheds its hypnotic tone.

Garland is still astoundingly inventive when it comes to putting compelling ideas in movies and this film's concept of simulating consciousness is something I'm sure many sci-fi authors have entertained, but it is made to work with this film's wonderfully designed atmosphere gorgeously. 

I have a nagging feeling that this film may pass the test of time in big ways, but until then, I will regard this movie as something incredibly close to greatness. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Revenant

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

If Tarantino intended The Hateful Eight to show everyone what they’d be losing by retiring traditional cinematic techniques, then Alejandro González Iñárritu (fresh after making Birdman) is clearly on a roll showing everyone what is to be gained in using the newest digital cameras while utilizing the best CGI available to create hypnotizing immersive environments more real than you’ve ever seen on the big screen.

The Revenant is a breathtakingly visceral experience portraying the old American frontier as an unforgiving place in a time of greed, carnage and desperate survival conditions. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki continue their collaborative production of unbelievably long takes with the most magical looking of natural lighting.

Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of a hunter working while trying to protect his half-Pawnee son (Forrest Goodluck) gives the kind of performance that seems more like a sport than the complex emoting normally honored in the profession of acting. What he does is clearly a physically strenuous ordeal that could ruin a human being. He deserves high praise but it’s almost unfair to compare his work to the other great performances of the year –including his co-star Tom Hardy who does some of the finest acting of his career in this film.

The film's story of fur trappers ambushed by natives collaborating with French trappers and the endurance of DiCaprio’s character after he’s left for dead is blessedly more of a rich spectacle than a narrative experience. This movie reminded me of the perfectly stewed atmosphere in Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, the spiritual struggles of Terrence Malick’s The New World, the mad poetry of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and the masochism of Mel Gibson’s Apolcalypto.

If that last comparison seems less impressive, it’s because the film does fall short in its last-minute claim that it is a revenge story. Everything leading up to its clichéd climax feels bigger than the final scene’s straightforward verbal exchanges and surface-level messages. This is a movie that borders on greatness and demands to be seen on a huge screen –if you can stomach its deliberately punishing characteristics.