Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Theory of Everything ***

The Theory of Everything tells the moving personal story of physicist Stephen Hawking, who's theories changed our understanding of the universe, and his wife Jane who supported him through his physical affliction.  In time, Hawking became an unlikely pop culture icon with the publication of A Brief History of Time, a primer on modern cosmology.  While the structure of The Theory of Everything relies on the conventions of biographical films, the performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are well worth seeing.

Unfortunately, the science takes a back seat in the film.  Black holes are mentioned a few times. So, get a character study. We meet Professor Hawking during his college days as an eccentric student of Physics at Oxford.  He meets history student Jane and a relationship develops.  Then Stephen notices he's losing control of his motor skills and is diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease.  Given only two years to live, he advises Jane to find someone else, but she agrees to marry him.  At many points, their marriage was put to the test as Stephen's physical condition worsened. Despite his disability which took away his ability walk, speak, and eventually breath on his own - his work continued on.

The film's two themes of sacrifice and determination in the face of illness make for high drama.  As Jane and Stephen begin to drift apart we remember that even those with the best of intentions are mere human.  Both performances exude a compassion that goes beyond what Hollywood typically offers - and makes The Theory of Everything shine much brighter in retrospect.

Unbroken: Inspiring Story, Boring Film? **

Angelina's Jolie's second feature film, the highly anticipated Unbroken, tells the amazing true story of Louis Zamperini.  He survived starvation while being lost at sea for 47 days and then faced sadistic prison guards as a POW in Japan during the Second World War. Before Zamperini joined the Army Air Corps he participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a member of the U.S. track team.  While there are some excellent sequences, especially the opening 15 minutes, the film just drags on way too long without any emotional payoff.

Maybe a documentary would've better suited Zamperini's story? We never learn much about his life before the war, except for a few flashbacks. There's hardly any humor or memorable supporting characters.  The Japanese prison warden known as "the bird" has no humanity whatsoever. Jack O'Donnell gives an exceptional performance, but not enough to carry the entire film.  

Many classic WWII movies set in POW camps such as The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai celebrated camaraderie and at least had interesting characters and themes. Even George Clooney's Monuments Men earlier this year, which illustrated why Fascism had to be defeated, wisely took a cue from those films. By limiting itself to a survival story, Unbroken puts the audience through an ordeal, instead of an enriching experience.  I've not read the Laura Hildenbrand bestseller the film was based on, but I sense the emotional impact the film lacked might be found in the book.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings **

Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings retells the story of Moses leading the Hebrews from bondage to freedom. With a subdued Christian Bale as Moses, Gods and Kings is more concerned with the psychology of the Old Testament, a fresh approach similar to Darren Aronosky's Noah.  Like in Gladiator, Scott relies too much on CGI effects which invoke no sense of wonder whatsoever. Despite its major flaws, Gods and Kings has a strong narrative and avoids being a complete disaster. 

Gods and Kings downplays the spiritual themes of the Exodus and is more concerned with political and psychological underpinnings.  Moses begins the story as the adopted (and favorite) son of the Pharoh Seti (John Turturro).  Seti's son Ramses banishes Moses when his Hebrew heritage is revealed, a race the Egyptians kept in slavery.  He builds a new life as a shepherd in the desert, marries, and starts a family.  One day Moses is called upon by the Hebrew God Yahweh to lead the Hebrews out of bondage and into the promised land of Israel.  God appears to him as a creepy and demanding little boy.  They don't like each other.  Portraying God as a child may offend some, but anyone who reads the Old Testament knows God had a serious mean streak.

Bale does a good job of portraying the conflicted nature of Moses: a man at odds with his God and the people he is leading to freedom.  The God "child" likes to play games and treats him like a toy, while the Hebrews have no respect for his authority.

The villain, Ramses (Joel Edgerton) lacks the charisma of Yul Brynner in the Cecil B. DeMille epic The Ten Commandments and comes off like a heel in the WWE.  Other important figures in the story such as Aaron and Joshua are ignored.  And way too much time is spent on the plagues, a mere showcase for the CGI effects.

The somber tone of Gods and Kings seems right for the story, but there's so much more to explore.  Four screenwriters received credit and the lack of unity shows. What about the transition to Monotheism?  Little is learned about the Hebrews themselves and why they stayed loyal to their God.  What sustained them during the Exodus?  

As a character study, Gods and Kings had great potential;  As a spectacle, it sputters.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Interstellar: A Second Look

A month ago, I attended the midnight showing of Interstellar with high expectations and came away with mixed feelings.  Nevertheless, the film stuck with me.  Therefore, I gave it another chance.  I'm glad I did.

Maybe having a blueprint of the plot in my head made it easier to process everything. Some movies are like that.
My God, It's Full of Stars!

Knowledge is highly valued in Interstellar.  Knowledge could save us all someday.  The first shot pans over Cooper's awesome library.  The room plays a pivotal role in the story.
Were all these books put here for a reason?  Stephen King's The Stand appears in several shots. Infinite Jest also caught my eye.

Reviewers tend to nitpick, in particular the frequent references to the Dylan Thomas poem, "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night." What's the problem?  It's a great poem and an eloquent expression of the themes in the film.

In my initial review I compared Interstellar unfavorably to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I'll backtrack.  Both are great films.  Nolan puts humanity, instead of technology at the forefront.  Kubrick saw technology as a dehumanizing force, while Nolan's envisioned a more harmonious relationship. That's a refreshing take.

Chris Nolan and  Matthew McConaughey on the set of Interstellar.

The robot almost steals the movie! Like R2-D2 and CP-3PO in Star Wars, TARPS added some much needed comic relief.


In interviews, Nolan has cited The Right Stuff as an inspiration. He reportedly had the entire cast screen the film during pre-production.  Based on Tom Wolfe's book on the Mercury 7 astronauts, The Right Stuff successfully blended satire with the historical epic. McConaughey channels Chuck Yeager.  The movie opens with an all too brief flashback of Cooper reliving a horrific plane crash,  an excellent homage to Yeager's climatic flight in The Right Stuff.
Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.

Kip Thorne, an eminent physicist, acted as executive producer and script consultant, which provided some real credibility for the story. Interstellar explores various scientific ideas, ideas mainstream movies rarely take serious such as deep space travel, black holes, and Einstein's theory of relativity. Nolan placed ideas before special effects, a commendable decision.

Dr. Thorne explains quantum theory to Jessica Chastain.

Nolan's often criticized for not writing compelling female characters. Anne Hathaway plays Dr. Brand, the lead scientist on the mission.  Hathaway brought a strength and intelligence to her character.  She matched McConaughey scene for scene.

Anne Hathaway as Brand.

Michael Caine is on hand to provide the exposition (he explains stuff). No one does it better.

Professor Brand

Hans Zimmer's soundtrack adds a majesty to Interstellar.  A subtle pipe organ adds a mystical element, very much in the style of the John Williams score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Check out the Soundtrack!

The most mind blowing moment in the film belongs to David Gyasi, who plays Romily, a scientist left behind on the ship when Cooper and the crew investigate a planet.  For each hour they spend on the planet, 7 years pass on the spaceship.  When a mishap extends their stay to three hours, they return to find poor Romily has aged 23 years!  That's a movie in itself!

Only three hours passed for Cooper (McConaughey); 23 years for Romily (Gyasi).
Finally, Interstellar achieves moments of genuine emotion.  My favorite moment occurs after Cooper's says goodbye to his daughter Murphy.  In an earlier scene, she sneaked onto his truck when he went in search of the secret NASA base.  After their difficult farewell, he checks the blanket she once hid under and she's not there.  A heartbreaking moment, but you have to pay close attention to catch it.

A Sad Goodbye

Interstellar will be remembered as a classic.

Life in multiple dimensions.  Still trying to get my head around this concept!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Pontypool ***

The best horror films evoke a sense of dread.  And they never ease up the tension, there's no mercy for the weak!  Pontypool, a creepy Twilight Zone type story recalls  War of the Worlds and Night of the Living Dead. Starring veteran Canadian actor Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy, a morning DJ who likes to quote Norman Mailer and Anne Sexton.

The film opens on a bleak Valentine's Day morning.  On his way to work, Grant is flagged down by a woman. She speaks incoherently.  Once he arrives at the radio station, reports of odd behavior overrun the station. Without revealing anything more, Pontypool takes you on a ride.

Pontypool keeps you guessing and leaves everything to the imagination.  The gore is kept to a minimum and what goes on in your mind is far worse than anything on screen.

Finally, Stephen McHattie gives a great performance as a dying breed, the DJ who plays what he wants to play.  A worthy find on Netflix!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Unbelievers: The New Proselytizers

Netflix documentary, The Unbelievers, follows two famous scientists, biologist Richard Dawkins and Physicist Lawrence Krauss, on their 2012 speaking tour preaching the gospel of reason.  Dawkins wrote the 2008 bestseller The God Delusion, a lengthy, but eloquent book arguing religion should disappear.  Since the events of 9/11, many scientists have rightly taken a stand against religious fundamentalism.  Like Bill Maher's often hilarious, but misguided Religulous, their view of religion is too skewed, meaning they characterize all believers as backward thinking and dogmatic. By ignoring the importance of spirituality in the human experience throughout history, Krauss and Dawkins undercut their own message.

Look no further than any textbook on Western Civilization and find monstrous atrocities done in the name of God.  History also displays how faith has inspired men and women to acts of understanding and compassion.

Dawkins and Krauss are eloquent speakers and do a fine job of explaining modern scientific theories. Their strident tone towards religion puts off many who are on the fence.  As a result, judging from the film, they often end up preaching to the choir.  

Carl Sagan, greatest spokesman for science in the 20th century, took a more nuanced view towards faith.  But 2014 is not a time for nuance. 

Religion can be a source of comfort for people struggling day to day in the face of obstacles Dawkins and Krauss could never comprehend.  Including "science is awesome" sound bytes from celebrities added little to the film.

Some believers do possess a dangerous confidence.  They believe everyone is wrong, except them (see Simpsons episode "Homer the Heretic").  I agree with Krauss and Dawkins, such individuals are obstacles to progress.  

Science and religion don't need to be in conflict. Unfortunately, the times say otherwise.

Monday, November 17, 2014

St. Vincent *** - A Comedy with Heart

In St.Vincent, Bill Murray stars as a surly man who's much more than he appears.  St. Vincent owes much to the John Hughes/John Candy comedies of the 1980s. When a single Mom played by Melissa McCarthy moves in next door, she enlists Vincent to watch her son Oliver after school.  Vincent swears, drinks, and proudly wears his beer gut.  Murray has a great chemistry with the kid as he mentors him on handling bullies and placing bets at the track.  As the story unfolds we learn about Vincent and his eventful life.  He's not the type of guy to talk about what he's done. Vincent lets his actions speak for themselves.  First time director Theodore Melfi stays away from too much sentimentality and yet achieves an emotional resonance. Chris O'Dowd and Naomi Watts are strong in supporting roles. Bill Murray does a great job as usual and we're lucky he's still making movies.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Courtesy Ryan Gajda
As Birdman soars towards its tragicomic conclusion, we hear a homeless man on Times Square delivering a drunken recitation of the famous monologue from Macbeth which claims life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.  Unfortunately, the same could be said of Birdman.  Compelling themes such as the creative tension between actors and writers, the clash between artist and critic, Hollywood turning its back on cinema in favor of banal comic book flicks, and the comeback of a struggling actor are all raised, but never addressed in a satisfactory way.

Birdman has dazzling visuals including long tracking shots immersing the viewer into its world and extreme close ups to achieve intimacy between audience and character. Michael Keaton plays Riggan, a fading movie star mostly known for playing a superhero named Birdman in the 90s. Now 20 years later he's writing, directing, and acting in a play based on Raymond Carver's short story, "What We Talk About, When We Talk About Love." When a cast member falls victim to a freak accident Riggan replaces him with Mike (Edward Norton) an actor with an Orson Welles size ego. Emma Stone plays Riggan's daughter who's recently left rehab and looking like Lindsay Lohan.

As expected, things get crazier as the play's premier approaches.  Director Alenjandro Gonzalez Inarritu employs magical realism throughout the film, as Riggan's visons start to blur reality with fantasy, often involving visits from his superhero alter ego, the Birdman. Other films, with Woody Allen especially in mind, have more successfully used magical realism to advance the story.

Keaton's compelling performance will deservedly earn an Oscar nomination.  Not since Beetlejuice has he brought such manic energy to the screen. Coincidentally enough, Keaton had a similar role in small Indie film from 2005 called Game 6, in which he plays the desperate writer opposite a pre-Ironman Robert Downey Jr. as the acerbic critic. Keaton gave a heartfelt and honest performance, set during game six of the 1986 World Series.  The same idea worked much better without all the cinematic flourishes of Birdman.

Birdman has creativity and exuberance going for it, but lacks heart.  Watch enough movies and you start to see some synchronicity.  The night before seeing Birdman, I came across The Goodbye Girl.  From 1977, Richard Dreyfuss earned an Oscar for playing a struggling actor in New York.  Despite the sitcom setup, sharing an apartment with a woman and her daughter, Dreyfuss risked annoying the audience with his eccentricities and still managed to make an emotional connection.  Birdman will impress many, but will also leave them cold.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Interstellar *** A Spaced Out Epic

Chris Nolan's long awaited Sci-Fi epic Interstellar has finally arrived and while it has moments of true wonder, it's overlong and meanders in a netherworld of spaced out ideas. With a running time approaching three hours, Interstellar blatantly tries to top 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars.  I'd compare the experience of watching Interstellar to the moment you realize your favorite band's double album would've worked better as single record.

The story is set in the mid 21st century as Earth is running out of food.  History textbooks inform students the Apollo missions to the moon were a myth.  Scientists make feeble efforts to solve the food shortage.  Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, widower and former test pilot who mysteriously stumbles upon a secret NASA base. Although technological progress appears to have stopped, NASA continued to build spacecraft designed to travel the Solar System. Without revealing more, they draft Cooper to lead a mission to save the planet.

I was lucky enough to see Interstellar on an IMAX screen.  The special effects depicting space travel are quite extraordinary, very much inspired by the IMAX films about the International Space Station.  If Interstellar was simply a film about space exploration, I see unlimited potential for an amazing, even cerebral masterpiece; however, the story line about saving the Earth really weighs the film down.

Back on Earth, Cooper left his two children behind and they resent him for it. Jessica Chastain plays Cooper's daughter (who happens to be a genius).  Nolan tried to make the father-daughter relationship the emotional core of the story, but it never quite gets off the ground.  And that goes for most of the supporting characters; they are functional and predictable. McConaughey has his moments, but the flat dialogue and talkie scenes make Interstellar seem dull in comparison to Guardians of the Galaxy or Gravity - two films alive with humanity.

According to IMDB, Interstellar has been in the works for years and it shows it.  Originally Spielberg was set to direct, but he passed it along to the Nolan brothers.  At times, Interstellar feels as if three films were sandwiched into a one script. When the ending finally arrives, it's more relief than catharsis.  

Don't get me wrong, if you like Sci-Fi films, Interstellar is a must see.  I liked the underlying theme about the joy of acquiring knowledge and the excitement of discovery. I'll get behind that movie any day.  Public enthusiasm for space travel has declined after Apollo 11 landed on the moon and NASA does face an uncertain future.  Maybe this movie will inspire a new generation.  Maybe.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Nightcrawler **

In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhall takes a dark turn as Louis Bloom, a Dale Carnegie quoting misfit who finds his life's purpose in selling graphic videos to local TV stations. In what's framed as a devastating critique of the media, mostly just states the obvious.  Yes, if it bleeds, it leads. Nothing new there.  An excellent performance from Gyllenhall fails to redeem Nightcrawler.

When we first meet Louis we realize he's the type of guy who will do absolutely anything for a fast buck.  He sells scrap metal, commits petty thefts, and enjoys negotiating with pawnbrokers.  One night he witnesses a "freelance" video crew led by a haggard Bill Paxton tape the aftermath of a high speed car accident.  Seeing the money making potential and a chance to indulge his voyeuristic impulses, Louis decides get into the exploitation business, and finds a sponsor in a local news producer at a fledgling station played by Rene Russo (Nina).

Early on Nina informs Louis about what stories get ratings in LA: well off white people put in peril by a person of color or someone from the lower classes.  So he goes out and and records home invasions and the station's ratings skyrocket.  Anyone who watches the local news can attest to the shamelessness of their nightly coverage.  In a superficial way, the film points the finger at the audiences who thrive on it.

The changing nature of television news is ripe for a great film.  But Nightcrawler is too one dimensional and not on the same plain as Network or The Insider.  Gyllenhall's performance as a charming sociopath has a tinge of menace, but we never get to emphasize with him, so he's more of a caricature than a character. Bottom feeders will thrive in any economy during time period. I don't see any grand statement about our time, more of a confirmation if anything?

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Cruelty of War: Fury ***

A first class combat film set in the final days of the Second World War, Fury never loses sight of the war's relentless cruelty.  Unlike other war movies there's no discussion of strategy or politics. The entire narrative is told from the foot soldiers' perspective, those who did the dirty work while others got the glory. While Fury's hardly free of war movie cliches, there's enough originality to surpass the confines of its genre. 

Written and directed by David Ayer, whose films often deal with the complex psychology of masculinity and violence, examples being End of Watch (2012) and Harsh Times (2007). I detect a strong Sam Peckinpah influence in the way he challenges the audience to think about the violence they are witnessing.

Fury follows a weary tank crew commanded by Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt). His men are loyal and reliable.  When an inexperienced replacement Norman (Logan Lierman) joins the unit, he must, in true Peckinpah fashion, find the killer within himself. Although crude in their manners and simple in their speech, the soldiers in the platoon are determined to do their jobs with a gritty determination and are yet capable of compassion.

Ironically, the strongest section takes a place during a lull in the fighting. After securing a German town the men enjoy a brief respite from the war.  Dyer handles a complex situation with the right amount of nuance and tension.  The men have two things on their mind: alcohol and women.  Such situations tend to place humanity itself on trial. The sequence parallels moments from war literature going back to Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front and Tim O'Brien's moving Vietnam war novel, Going After Cacciato.

The look and feel of Fury owes a debt to Spielberg's films Saving Private Ryan and Warhorse.  Unfortunately the final battle is grandiose and out of tune with the rest of the picture with an unfortunate leap into John Wayne territory.

Brad Pitt's effective in the lead and exudes a stoic weariness and a quiet strength.  Shia LeBeouf also turns in a good performance as a bible quoting GI.  Many will compare Pitt's acting to his Aldo Raines in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. It's like the difference between Geroge C. Scott's acting in Dr. Strangelove and Patton.

Watching Fury, I kept thinking of Inglorious Basterds since both films take very different approaches to war movies and history.  In Fury, there's no talk about the greater significance of the Second World War.  It's simply a story about a group of men in a dangerous situation. Tarantino uses history as a playground of his imagination. Ayer's films tend to slap the audience in the face with wicked doses of reality. They make for an intriguing contrast.

Fury moves along conventional tropes with a few detours into uncharted ground.  At one point Sgt. Collier states, "Ideals are peaceful. History is violent."  The simple statement offers something rare in modern movies: wisdom.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight ***

With Magic in the Moonlight Woody Allen makes a nice return to light romantic comedy. Colin Firth stars as Stanley, a world famous magician recruited to debunk the popularity of a psychic/medium Antonia (Emma Stone). Set in the 1920s, Allen delightfully captures a lost world he romanticized previously in Midnight in Paris.  Woody revisits a penultimate theme in his canon: reconciling a rationalist world view with the most irrational of all emotions, love.

Firth's character performs as Wei Ling Soo, a Chinese mystic who entrances audiences with vivid illusions. Outside of the theater, Stanley's a cynical Englishman with a dry wit. When a friend convinces him to debunk the beautiful medium played by Stone, Stanley heads to the south of France.  Determined not to fall prey to her charms, he finds himself at a loss to explain her powers.  Firth and Stone have a nice chemistry and enough wit to keep the movie humming along.

The camera nicely captures breezy sunsets, starry skies, and sunny mornings.  Unlike so many romantic comedies which strive for realism and instead emote a false sentimentality, Magic in the Moonlight allows the world of fantasy to take over.  While there are many bleak corners in Allen's cinematic universe, Magic in the Moonlight stands as a beacon of light.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Salinger *** (2013)

The documentary Salinger went in search of the man who wrote The Catcher in the Rye.  Interviews with former friends, colleagues, and writers shed some light on an enigmatic personality seemingly nowhere and everywhere on the corners of the American conscience.

Who was J.D. Salinger?  As the troublesome son of a wealthy Jewish family, he gained a reputation for trouble and found himself in military school.  The structured setting of the school unleashed a desire to write.  Obsessed with getting published in The New Yorker, Salinger aspired to write prose on the level of Fitzgerald and Hemingway,

He served in the Second World War as a counter-intelligence officer in Europe. He took part in the landings at Normandy and saw some of the harshest fighting following the invasion.  Later he helped the liberate the death camp at Dachau.  These experiences in the war shaped his writing and forever haunted him. In a bizarre episode following the war, he fell in love with and briefly married a former Nazi, a women he claimed had telepathic powers.  Their marriage fell apart when they returned to the states.

Salinger probably suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. It may have explained his erratic behavior and penchant for cruelty to those around him - usually directed towards women.  

Accounts differ on Salinger as a husband and father.  His daughter wrote a wrenching memoir of a neglectful father who ignored his family.  He would disappear for weeks in his writing shed.  Writer Joyce Maynard who lived with Salinger in the early 70's recalls a sentimental, but spiteful personality.  His neighbors remember Salinger as friendly, but distant.

After the war Salinger emerged as major voice in American literature.  The publication of "A Perfect Day For Bananafish" in the New Yorker imagined an encounter between a little girl and a traumatized veteran.  The story's themes of innocence and trauma instantly connected with readers.

In 1950, he published his first novel, The Catcher in the Rye.  Without a doubt, it's the most read and controversial American novel of the 20th century (many school districts banned the book).  The 16 year old protagonist Holden Caulfield served as prototype for the rebellious anti-hero the counterculture would embrace.  Several commentators noted Salinger's ability to create a mystical intimacy between reader and writer.  Nevertheless, a few disturbed fans saw the book as a justification for violence against the "phonies" walking among us.*

The overwhelming success of The Catcher and the Rye seemed too much for Salinger. He abandoned the New York literary world and settled in Cornish, New Hampshire. Interviews and public appearances came to a halt.  His output sputtered, there's strong evidence he left a vast archive of unpublished work behind.  Much of the writing appears to follow the saga of the Glass family, who appear in several of his short stories.

Salinger adopted Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s, which influenced his approach to work.  Unfortunately the film neglected his spirituality, which may be a major part of the mystery.  Cynics see Salinger's "reclusive writer act" as a public relations ploy, but I detect something more complex was afoot.

Questions are raised such as: Should a gifted writer share their work with the world?  Does great art require commercial and critical success to be considered as such?  Many writers would give anything for recognition.  Quite possibly, his spiritual beliefs influenced his decision. Salinger certainly is and will remain part of the conversation of 20th century American literature, despite his small amount of work. His choice not to publish either reveals a massive ego or an astounding act of humility.  Probably both.

With any writer, regardless of their eccentric personas, all that matters in the end is the work.  Charisma only goes so far.  Over the next five years the film promises the vaults will be opened.

Despite the inclusion of celebrities and other non-literary experts, Salinger is a fine biography and speculation on a difficult, but fascinating subject.

*The deranged fan who killed John Lennon and the man who attempted to assassinate President Reagan both claimed their interpretation of The Catcher in the Rye justified their acts of violence.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Conspiracy * (2012)

The Conspiracy is a mockumentary about two knuckleheads who infiltrate a secret society. Basically, it's The Blair Witch Project with a tinge of Eyes Wide Shut.  Bad acting and a comically predictable story sink the attempt to merge the found footage and paranoid thriller genres.  Where is Oliver Stone when you need him?

The film opens as two young men are profiling conspiracy theorists for a documentary. They come across a man with all the calling cards: wild hair and beard, apartment walls covered with newspaper headlines, and a street megaphone.  One day he comes up missing and what started out as a joke starts to get freaky.  Men in black driving SUV's start to follow them. Their investigation leads them into the world of elite secret societies.  

Today, there seems to be a "theory of everything" among conspiracy theorists. All believe certain elites have always controlled history - as far back as the ancient Egyptians.  Aliens might be involved as well. American history is replete with hostility towards secret societies, most famously the Anti-Masonic Party in the 1830s and 1840s. Apparently the "documentarians" in the movie never picked up a history book or are even aware of America's proud history of paranoia.

Conspiracy theory has now gone mainstream in pop culture in TV shows like The X-Files and many, many films.  The late night radio show Coast to Coast AM with George Noory includes guests every night who see manipulation behind everything.  Coast to Coast is a fascinating mirror into the subterranean angst floating through America - and also very entertaining.

All their clues lead to the fictional "Tarsus Club", a shadowy group of rich middle-aged white men who meet in the forest every year.  To those hip to conspiracy mythology, the "Tarsus Club" is a stand in for the Bohemian Grove, a group of world leaders and businessmen who do meet every July outside of San Francisco.  Allegedly, they stage mock rituals to an owl.   

In recent years many have tried to crash their party, most notably the Texas Radio host Alex Jones. Jon Ronson, a British journalist who accompanied Jones to the grove, wrote a hilarious account in his book Them: Adventures with Extremists. Ronson concluded the Bohemian Grove extravaganza consisted mostly of aging frat boys taking part in silly drinking rituals.  

Without spoiling too much, the climax features some serious overacting you might see on the WWE.  I guess were supposed to leave the film and ponder what's really going on in the world?  The pretentious "message" at the end falls completely flat.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy **1/2

If the Marvel films have accomplished anything it's this: people actually stick around and watch the credits! There's no getting around it,we now live in the Age of Marvel.  I believe they're developing scripts up till the year 2150 or something like that.  Can't wait for the ninth reboot of The Submariner!

Guardians of the Galaxy is a witty space opera that doesn't take itself too seriously.  Chris Pratt has the right amount of humor and swagger to carry the film.  The plot involves some crystal thing everyone's after. 

The repartee between the Guardians who include, a sexy green skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Salana), a giant named Drax (Daniel Bautista), Rocket the Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and finally the walking tree Groot (Vin Diesel) all provide a charm lacking in most superhero movies.  Then the action scenes start and it gets boring.  It's like watching someone else play a video game.

Critics have compared it to 70-80s Sci-Fi like The Last Starfighter and Flash Gordon.  Not sure I wanna be in that company. I can detect an influence from Star Wars as well - a good thing!

Of all the Marvel films I've watched this year, Guardians has much more going for it and I wouldn't mind revisiting these characters.  

Don't get me wrong, I love Marvel Comics.  But their movies tend to leave me nonplussed, Sam Raimi's Spiderman trilogy being the exception.  Quite possibly, maybe by 2041, I'll begin to see their cinematic brilliance.

(Final Note- the soundtrack is perfect)

Wish I Was Here **

In his follow up to Garden State, Zach Braff has crafted a disappointing family drama.  He's the married father of two.  He's an out of work actor.  His estranged father is dying.  He's in full mid-life crisis mode ( in today's economy, you thankful to even have one). Seriously, by watching current Hollywood films you'd believe the middle class is still thriving. Kate Hudson's the supportive wife.  There's indie rock music (yes Zach, we know you have awesome taste in music).  Braff's scenes with his children have a phony sitcom feel.  Mandy Patinkin plays the grandfather.  He says awful things to his children about their life choices, but they love him anyway. There's a spiritual element to the film that feels painfully contrived.  Braff raised over 3 million on the website Kickstarter to make the film. Unfortunately the end result feels like yet another slick product from Hollywood. Think I'll go watch Kramer vs. Kramer again.

Deliver Us From Evil **

As a summer horror film, Deliver From Evil will barely make the grade despite a predictable script and some hokey acting. A sincere, brooding performances from Eric Bana as a skeptical police detective somewhat compensates for a predictable plot line. (based on a true story!)

The movie opens with a brief prologue set in Iraq where a group of soldiers stumble upon a haunted place and discover evil spirits.  Then we meet "Sarchie", a dedicated, but cynical cop. Joel McHale plays the doomed wisecracking partner. They investigate a series of crimes with connections to a group of soldiers who served in Iraq.  They consult the charismatic Father Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) who quickly makes a believer of Sarchie.

At several points, we get drawn out sequences of guys sneaking around in basements and narrow, cobwebbed hallways that culminate with the inevitable jump scare. These chases never seem to lead anywhere, except to . . . yet another chase. And of course we get climatic exorcism scene that's mostly whiz bang special effects.  Have we reached the point where filmed exorcisms have lost their shock value?  Nothing's ever come close to the intensity of William Friedkin's gut wrenching theatrics in The Exorcist.

In saying that, Deliver Us From Evil isn't a complete bomb.  There were some thoughtful scenes between Sarchie and Father Mendoz.  On location shooting in New York gave the film the right urban feel.  Too many films today dilute their power with bloated action sequences at the expense of characterization.  Horror works best when you can engage with the characters. Then we actually care about them.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Life Itself ****

Like many who came of age in the 80s and 90s, I watched Siskel and Ebert at the Movies every week as they discussed, joked, and sometimes sparred over the newest movies.  Life Itself, directed by Steve James, explores all facets of Ebert's life from his beginnings as a Chicago journalist to becoming a world famous critic.  

A star student at the University of Illinois and editor of the student newspaper, Ebert began writing about movies for the Chicago Sun Times in the mid 1960s.  His passion for literature and political justice always found its way into his criticism.  In 1967, the release of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate brought a new youthful vitality to American film. Ebert championed the new American cinema with unabashed enthusiasm.    

In 1976, he began work on a TV show with rival critic Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune.  Their rivalry and friendship serves as a guiding light throughout the documentary. Apparently, the city of Chicago barely had enough room to contain their egos (for five years they refused to speak to each other).  In time, a friendship evolved as each realized they made a great team.  By the 1980s, they were pop culture icons making frequent rounds on the talk show circuit.  They were parodied on The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live.  When Siskel died of brain cancer in 1999, Ebert continued the TV show with a series of guest hosts and eventually settled on Chicago critic Richard Roper as a permanent replacement.

Life Itself does allude to controversies surrounding the show; namely, the accusation they dumbed down film criticism with their breezy TV segments.  But any old guard critic will concede they popularized film for a mass audience.  Some shows were devoted to current trends in cinema; others championed directors like Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, and Errol Morris.  The VHS revolution of the 1980s allowed consumers access to more movies than ever before so Siskel and Ebert arrived at just the right time.

Footage of Ebert's health struggles are difficult to watch at times.  We see him feeling frustrated and depressed.  He lost the ability speak and use his mouth during his final years, but stayed busy by writing and communicating through blogging and social media. His wife Chaz stuck by him every minute.  He kept his sense of humor and enthusiasm for movies until the very end.

We also hear reminisces from Chicago friends and famous filmmakers.  Martin Scorsese movingly recalls a moment when Ebert's friendship helped him through a difficult time.  

The portrait we get is of a true humanist who lived by the values and ideas espoused in his writings.  Nevertheless the film's hardly a work of hagiography, as we learn of Ebert's arrogance and desperate need for attention.

German director Werner Herzog rightly called Ebert a "soldier of cinema"; one who believed in the magic of film to enrich our lives.  Mr. Ebert's reviews shaped the way I watch movies and provided an invaluable educational resource for a kid crazy about movies.  Life Itself is a poignant and fitting tribute to its subject.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune *** 1/2 (2013)

Film history is full of potentially great films that never got off the ground.  Stanley Kubrick fans can only imagine the bleak majesty of his historical epic on Napoleon.  Orson Welles had to abandon several ambitious projects, most famously an adaptation of Don Quixote. Jodorowsky's Dune, an imaginative documentary directed by Frank Pavitch, details Alejandro Jodorowsky's valiant attempt to bring Frank Herbert's novel Dune to the big screen.

I read Dune a few years ago on the recommendation of a friend.  While it's not for everyone, the novel ingeniously incorporated spiritual, historical, ecological ideas into an exciting science fiction story.  Ever since it's publication in 1965, many directors have expressed interest in an adaptation.

By the mid 1970s, Jodorowsky, a Mexican director known for making surrealistic films like El Topo, obtained the rights to adapt Dune.  The pre-production process spanned months as he assembled a group of "warriors" to bring his vision to life.  Imagine a movie with a cast featuring Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, and a Pink Floyd soundtrack. Jodorowsky, deeply enamored with the religious themes in Dune, wanted no less than to change the consciousness of young people.  In his words, "an LSD trip, without the LSD."

The documentary consists mostly of interviews with Jodorowsky and those associated with Dune.  Now 84, Jodorowsky enthusiastically recalls every detail of the project. He's a magnetic screen presence. In preparation for the shoot, he and his artists composed a 1000 page sketchbook to guide them during filming. Only two copies exist. Like a lost play from Shakespeare, it sits waiting to be discovered.  

Unfortunately, the studio cut funding at the last minute.  Why? Money! What else? Unlike a writer or a painter, the filmmaker must take great risks and convince others to join them in their quest.  And you need to persuade rich people to invest large sums of money into your dream!  In a way, I cannot blame the execs.  The special effects alone presented challenges no one had ever attempted.  Jodorowsky's ego had inflated to the point of madness: he agreed to pay Dali $100,000 for every minute he worked on the set, then promised the gargantuan Welles he would hire the best chef in France to cook his meals, forced his son to spend hours learning martial arts to prepare for his role, while insisting the film run over three hours.  

In the ensuing years, Jodorowsky fell into obscurity.  In 1977, Star Wars revolutionized science fiction and struck a chord with young people in a way Jodorowsky envisioned for his Dune.  Many of the visual concepts developed for Dune appeared in Alien, Blade Runner, and The Terminator. Now in 2014, he believes his long dormant project will work as animated film. Hopefully, the documentary will allow the project to finally get the green light.

Jodorowsky's an inspiring figure.  He displays no bitterness about what many would consider a catastrophic failure.  Like Leonardo Da Vinci, his ideas were way ahead of his time. Jodorowsky's Dune is much more than a footnote to Sci-Fi movie history; it has an inspiring message about the importance of having grand ambitions. Failure means nothing if you put your heart and soul into something.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Raiders of the Lost Ark - 40 Years Ago

Recently I had the chance to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark on the big screen for the first time. Conceived by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as a sort of American James Bond "without the hardware", Raiders ruled the box office in 1981.  Around the time he wrote Star Wars, Lucas imagined tales about a heroic archaeologist on the trail of religious artifacts in the tradition of the old Saturday afternoon cliffhangers.  Film critics often see Raiders as a sign of the changing zeitgeist as Reagan's conservative ethos swept the country, but there's also an undercurrent of cynicism.

There's a narrative drive to Raiders we rarely see in 21st century cinema.  Each sequence moves seamlessly into the other with an almost mystical pacing. Staying within the James Bond tradition, the movie opens with a spellbinding action sequence. In the Amazon jungle our hero contends with untrustworthy natives, booby traps, eerie music, giant spiders, and a monstrous boulder. Despite all the obstacles, Indy manages to escape with the idol only to be foiled by the smug French archaeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman). Although our hero fails in his quest, we admire his quiet determination.  

The exposition scenes generate a creepy foreboding of mystery and danger.  A Professor of Archaeology , Indy appears bored and distracted in the classroom.  Federal agents inform Indy the Nazis may have found the lost Ark of the Covenant in Egypt, an object believed to have supernatural power.  The scene's dialogue heavy, but has the right amount of suspense and foreshadowing to prepare us for the adventure ahead.

Before heading to Egypt Indy lands at a dive in the Himalayas to track down Marion Ravenwood; an old girlfriend and daughter of his former mentor to retrieve a "medallion" with important clues about the ark's resting place. Marion's (Karen Allen) a strong heroine who can hold her own in a fight. 

Indy and Marion arrive in Cairo and enlists his friend Sallah (John Rhys Davies) to help him find the ark.  Soon enough, Indy and Marion find trouble awaiting them.  At one point Indy coldly guns down an Arab swordsman.  Although the script called for an extended sword duel, Ford, down with the flu, suggested he just shoot the guy. The moment always gets a laugh.  Funny when you're 10, but  . . .

So we have an American in a foreign country trying to steal a religious artifact?  Granted he's there to stop the Nazis,but he has no qualms about killing those who help the Nazis. After a decade in which America has waged conflicts in two Muslim countries, the scene displays an alarming disdain for another culture.  But it's also further proof Indy was a much darker character in his original incarnation.

Spielberg's greatest strength lies in creating a sense of awe. John Williams composed another brilliant score to accompany the CGI free action sequences.  The special effects laden conclusion ends the movie on a soaring note - walking the line between absurdity and terror. As the evil phantoms melt faces and pour fire on the Nazis we get a sense of the Old Testament justice Hitler and followers deserved (pre Inglorious Bastards).

In the epilogue, Indy and Brody are debriefed by the Federal agents, as the fate of the ark remains uncertain.  It will not go in a museum and Indy will not get the glory.  In the end, it appears Indy put his life on the line for nothing, except making sure the Nazis never got it.  In the last scene, we see the ark being stored into a large warehouse with all its secrets intact.  Our hero gets the girl, but fails to beat the system.  I like the ending's uneasy beat.

While I enjoy the two sequels Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (excluding the awful Crystal Skull), Raiders captures Lucas and Spielberg at the peak of their creative powers.  As I watched the credits roll down the screen, I thought this is how it's done!

“This post is part of the SPIELBERG BLOGATHON hosted by Outspoken & Freckled, It Rains… You Get Wet, and Once Upon A Screen taking place August 23-24. Please visit these host blogs for a full list of participating blogs.”

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My Top Five Films on Abraham Lincoln

In observance of Abraham Lincoln's 205th birthday I've compiled a list of my favorite films about our 16th president.  Film biographies in themselves are dubious for their historical accuracy, but they are an irresistible genre of American film for all their foibles.

5) Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (2012) - In an age dominated by superhero films - why not turn the heroic president into a vampire slayer?  The totally absurd premise makes the movie work with insane scenes like Abraham and Mary Todd fighting off vampires on a speeding steam engine.  This is not the movie for history buffs who flip out over historical inaccuracies, but I enjoyed it.  Readers of Lincoln biographies will notice a surprising amount of accuracy about Lincoln's life - minus fighting off the undead!

4) Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)- John Ford effectively blended history and myth into a film about Lincoln's early days in Springfield.  Many of these scenes of frontier America were taken directly from Carl Sandburg's elegiac, six-volume biography.  Henry Fonda is perfectly cast in this piece of Americana.  The climatic courtroom scene has Lincoln pulling off some moves to make Perry Mason proud.

3) Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)- Raymond Massey plays Lincoln as the sad eyed prophet of the prairie.  Based on a hit Broadway play by Robert Sherwood, the film follows Lincoln's rise from Springfield lawyer to candidate for President.  Some highlights include the debates with Stephen Douglas and his farewell speech before leaving Springfield.  

2) The Civil War (1990)- Ken Burn's groundbreaking PBS series cast Lincoln as the era's conscience and upholder of the idea of America.  Sam Waterston's narration captures the power of Lincoln's rhetoric and all the tragic loss and dashed hopes of the Civil War. Many of Lincoln's most important moments as President such as the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and his assassination are evoked in ways motion pictures fall way short. 

1) Lincoln (2012)- Steven Spielberg's long awaited biography of Lincoln did it's best to strive for authenticity.  The film follows Lincoln in the final months of his life as struggled to pass the 13th amendment which abolished slavery.  Daniel Day Lewis set a new standard for accuracy when portraying a historical figure.  There's no hero worship here as Spielberg depicted Lincoln as a pragmatist who realized the limits of his idealism - and did the best he could under those conditions.