Thursday, March 26, 2015


***1/2  out of  ****

’71 is a historical fiction film about a young British soldier, played by rising star, Jack O’Connell (Unbroken and Starred Up), who is trapped in the streets of Belfast following an upheaval against the troops during the worst year of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The film is an all-in-one-night thriller with the kind of immediate energy and handheld camerawork with tight editing, reminiscent of Paul Greengrass films, but is the first feature by French director, Yann Demange, who has already won awards for this film in the U.K. What’s remarkable about its look, is the use of Super 16mm and digital cinematography, timed to capture a washed-out aesthetic; similar to English cinema of the seventies.

Expecting to go to Germany, the main character is reassigned to the country in conflict between the Loyalist
Protestants and Nationalist Catholics (who included the I.R.A.). Assuring his young son that he will return safely, the soldier travels to Ireland without much concern. Even his commander (Sam Reid) would rather not intimidate the locals with riot gear and brings the soldiers in standard military guard to control crowds outside a home under inspection. Upon arrival, they receive more hostility than anticipated, but when an interrogation by carelessly brutal officers results in a beating out in the street, the angry townsfolk rise up against the unit.

The movie is engaging and nerve-racking, but it is not fun. Like the best films portraying real-world conflicts, it is immersed in the confusion and messiness of human beings clashing. The film captures a place where people look alike and speak the same language, but distinguish their differences with hateful determination. There are young I.R.A. extremists committing murders without the approval of their disciplined older leaders; loyalist bomb-makers working with undercover agents; and even double agents in the mix of this chaos. In all the confusion, there is no knowing whom this lone soldier can trust, in order to get out alive.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Still Alice

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

I feel bad that I failed to see Still Alice prior to Julianne Moore deservedly winning an Oscar for her superb work in the leading role. The only thing that dissuaded me from making it an immediate priority, was a review I heard, suggesting that the performance was the only thing notable about the film.

Based on the fictional novel by Lisa Genova, Moore plays Alice Howland, a successful professor in linguistic studies at Columbia University, who discovers, after an array of random memory problems, that she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

With the support of her husband (Alec Baldwin) and grown children, she prepares for the inevitable deterioration of a mind once so committed to words and memories. Most of the story comes to focus on her troubled relationship with her youngest daughter, played quite well by Kristen Stewart (thankfully taking a role, which suits her), who has been pursuing a career in theater without a solid plan.

I feel like I was misled into assuming that the film was only performance-driven, when so much of it is tailored to compliment Moore’s portrayal of a woman dragging her awareness of an ailing mind to its furthest limits. As a drama, it isn’t astoundingly original (and it wouldn’t have been the same without Moore), but this is still a piece of heavy fiction that delivers a brutally difficult world of truth worth recognizing.

All The Wilderness

*** out of ****

New on digital download services, such as iTunes and Amazon, is a new movie for rent, called All the Wilderness, which is far from perfect, but is still worth seeing if you take interest in coming-of-age stories. Its Portland, Oregon setting functions, not only as a setting for Terrence Malick-inspired aesthetics, but as a symbolic backdrop for a troubled mind, who wanders through all the urban decay and wooded areas the outskirts of Portland’s metro area can offer.

It’s centered on a troubled teen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whose mother (Virginia Madsen) is sending him to a therapist (Danny DeVito) after the death of his father. The boy, unwilling to communicate with most people, except for claiming the supernatural ability to know when someone will die, sneaks out at night and explores the city, making unlikely friends.

I feel critical of some of the film’s eye-rolling winey teen clich├ęs, but some of them seem kind of welcome, knowing the young audience this film wants. Regardless, it is quite emotional, considering its short 85-minute runtime. Its writer-director, Michael Johnson has made a decent debut film with enough eccentric details to leave a memorable impression for producers seeking competent directors with a voice.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

**1/2 out of ****

Kingsman: The Secret Service is based on a comic book series (just known as The Secret Service) about a group of elite British spies working without their government's knowledge on high caliber missions. It is heavily fashioned after '60 british spy fiction (particularly James Bond films), featuring men in tailored suits trained with the ability to maintain a gentleman's composure while getting into life-or-death fights using high-tech gadgets. 

The story revolves around an agent named Harry Hart (Colin Firth), recruiting a young street hooligan (Taron Egerton) who grew up fatherless, due to the unknown fact that his father was a Kingsman who died on Hart's watch. Meanwhile, an awkward tech-industry billionaire (played with glee by Samuel L. Jackson) is hatching an eco-terroristic plan, which will have cataclysmic results.

The film co-stars regular British dependable character actors like Mark Strong and Michael Caine. It also has a surprise role from Mark Hamill as a kidnapped professor [In the original comic, terrorists kidnap the actor, Mark Hamill].

As you might imagine, this movie is aiming for whimsical fun mixed with some very dark humor. It achieves this most of the time, but like other films directed by Matthew Vaughn, something is keeping me from achieving complete enjoyment.

I like Vaughn's unapologetic R-rated approach that he used in Kick-Ass, similar to the overblown politically incorrect comic carnage of Robert Rodriguez films. He knows that fanboys (of the Heavy Metal variety) are still out there who want the gruesome nature of this genre to be preserved and not watered-down. [Though I'm suspicious that certain parts were altered to avoid an NC-17]

Then there's everything I don't like about this director's work, which causes my head to spin when I try expressing my reasons. Vaughn has a lot of trouble finding a voice. A single movie of his has the tendency to shift between funny and serious; escapist and realistic; light-hearted and disturbing; witty and crude; good-looking and ugly. Mostly, he has a lot of trouble finding a pace. All of these shifts in tone prevent his films from feeling as though they have that sense of passage that so many good pieces of entertainment need.

[mild spoilers ahead]

If I can cite an example from this film, it would be from the climax, where the heroes are attempting to deactivate a mind-controlling device, which causes people to kill one another. Masses of people in otherwise pleasant public places are tearing each other apart, which is darkly funny because it's absurd and surreal. Then, to add more tension, we see the young recruit's mother attempting to break into a locked room to kill his genuinely scared-looking baby sister, which is too seriously captured to belong in this movie. It yanked me right out of the fun. 

Vaughn's aesthetic approach seems acceptable. He likes to give the image a slight contrast push, making the colors jump out, approaching his material the same way Sam Raimi did Spider-Man. He also likes to shoot in scope. Somehow, it's missing a personal touch. He also shoots special effects in the show-off way that cause the viewer to say, "Ooh. Special effects."

Regarding the plot, I will always be annoyed in films where the villain's motivation is fueled by the desperate need to solve a real problem, but the hero's motivation is simply to stop the villain with no concern for the problem at all.

I found Kingsman be fun on a general level. It's certainly more enjoyable than Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, mainly because it is less restrained. Still, a movie that entertained me with whimsical action, some clever comic dialogue, a brawl in a Kentucky hate-church gone rabid and exploding heads... also managed to disturb me with upsetting portrayals of attempted infanticide, attempted pet-killing and the constant reminder of inevitable climate change. To me, Vaughn may be ambitious, but he's still an amateur with big tools. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015


**1/2 out of ****

Did you ever see Short Circuit 2? If not, don’t bother. I think South African director, Neill Blomkamp’s latest grungy sci-fi film, Chappie seems to take some inspiration from that bad ‘80s movie about an innocent impressionable robot who gets exploited by criminals –except it’s way more violent. I get the sense that Blomkamp is usually channeling the kind of fantasy fiction popular during his childhood. He loves clunky high-tech machinery set against a bleak futuristic landscape of gritty impoverished life. Like quite a few movies from that era, his films also feature content, which interest kids but come with R-rated ultra-violence attached.

Chappie is set in a future Johannesburg where the police force is made up of unstoppable robots. A desperate criminal gang (played by the South African “rap-rave” group, Die Antwoord) abducts a scientist (Dev Patel) under the impression that he has the ability to thwart the robots from interfering with their crimes. However, it turns out that the scientist was in the middle of an unauthorized experiment to imbue a damaged robot with real consciousness. When activated, it has the mind of a child, with the ability to learn fast. The gang keeps it, naming him Chappie.

Like his hideous, yet mistreated aliens in District 9, Blomkamp has once again succeeded in winning my empathy for a non-human character, which is computer-generated. He also continues to shoot CGI filled movies with seamless results.

Despite his gifts as one of the few effects-driven directors who know how to create a convincing environment, Blomkamp, for the third time, fails to develop his thought-provoking plot past a half-baked stage. Just like his other films, there’s a point where the story turns into brainless tiresome action brought on by dumb characters. In this film Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver lend their star power as moronic antagonists in an attempt to boost the film’s box office potential.

In spite of all the inexplicable story developments, I still kind of liked Chappie. There’s something endearingly weird about giving Die Antwoord a vehicle film through big budget sci-fi with a sweet-natured robot character. Still, when is Blomkamp going to grow up and use his abilities for a story that makes sense?

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Leonard Nimoy (1931 - 2015)

I became a Star Trek fan in the third grade, when my dad rented Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, because I had exhausted my ability to re-rent any of the three Star Wars movies. It was my first exposure to the franchise, and in retrospect, it was a pretty strange place to start. Spock was dead. Jim Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise were mourning the loss of their greatest crew member, whose self-sacrifice saved everyone’s life. I was fascinated by this resurrection fantasy for all its cool special effects and melodrama. What was mostly effective, however, was the general lack of the film’s title character whose appearance at the end had a strange effect. When Leonard Nimoy turned around, revealing his face, I felt like I already knew him.

He had been with the entire movie – but behind the camera, working as director on a major motion picture, for the first time in his career. After a lot of resistance, to get on board with the resurrection of the franchise, through movies, Nimoy was now dedicated. Spock was back from the dead and here to stay…

It’s so interesting that a half-human emotionless character resonated so much with audiences. Spock was a role model for courage and a rational approach to all things. No matter how terrifying a situation could be, he was capable of staring danger in the face with more curiosity than animosity. There’s also something undeniably funny about the deadpan delivery of the word “fascinating,” when every other character in the room is petrified. 

After the cancellation of Star Trek in 1969, Nimoy continued his acting career in television (which had begun in the early fifties), including Mission: Impossible. In 1978 he appeared in Philip Kaufmann’s excellent remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers where he used his calm and rational demeanor to a creepy effect. I never saw In Search of… but I did see him spoof it on a 1997 episode of The Simpsons with an opening monologue, which I found to be so funny, I’ve kept it memorized to this day. Along with his cameos on that show, he lent his distinct voice to a lot of cartoons and movies.

Like another famous Trek alum, he ventured into music for a while. Notably, with one of my favorite bad songs ever recorded, The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins. I won’t go into that one.

After the big success of the fish-out-of-water sci-fi comedy that was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Nimoy tried his hand in directing other movies, like 3 Men and a Baby, which was the highest-grossing U.S. movie in 1987. But his triumph as a film director was only brief. Nimoy co-wrote the sixth Star Trek movie, which functioned as a beautiful farewell to the original cast.

When I learned of his passing a few days ago, the sadness I felt was quite familiar, since my first exposure to Star Trek (and Nimoy) was through a movie that began by reprising Spock’s notable death scene. His Vulcan catchphrase, “Live long and prosper,” easily applies to his long and prosperous life.