Monday, February 13, 2017

I hate comparing the Book to the Movie...

...but, on this one I will relax my proscription. The book was way better than the movie.

Now, what I mean by that is that the book succeeded, as a book much better than the movie succeeded as a movie. That is really the only way to compare these types of "apples" and "oranges". I don't know what it is about Dan Brown, but none of the adaptations of his books has been very good - in fact, I think they have declined steadily until we get this mess.

Basic plot is that Robert Langdon wakes up in Florence, Italy, the victim of an apparent gunshot which grazed his skull. If you know Brown, then you know what evolves from there is an Intellecto-cutural scavenger hunt that masquerades as a travel log of Italy and, well, let's face it a six hundred page (or two hours plus) demonstration of how fricking much more about any of these topics Brown knows than us. He is, as someone once called it, a super smarty pants, and boy does he show it.

The problem with Ron Howard's film is that it fails, almost from the beginning to track Brown's relatively intricate plotting and character development, and just assumes that steadicam shots of havoc and mayhem in beautiful Italian locales will suffice.

Well, they don't.

And nearly no one in this film is well cast, including, I am sorry to say Tom Hanks. While he is a good Langford, he is not a good badly written Langford, and Felicity Jones never sinks her teeth into the robust material supporting her very interesting character. Or, again, maybe she is just suffering from a sub-par script form the usually dependable David Koepp. And Omar Sy as the possibly double-dealing WHO scientist-cum-agent-cum-well whatever? The only thing interesting about Sy's character is that he briefly swears in French, and Jones briefly responds, showing a tiny bit of the depth of her otherwise impenetrable character.


Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Book of Denzel

I must admit two things about this outstanding Post-apocalypse Sci-Fi thriller from the Hughes Brothers: 1) I had seen it before I most recently re-watched, and 2) I had it in my Amazon Watchlist for like four years. Wow.

What is not to like? The film is a master class in cinema craftsmanship from the top to the bottom. Of course we know the Hughes Bros. can cook, given the first-rate From Hell with Johnny Depp, and other entries. But they really rise to the occasion here. I watched The Book of Eli and scratched my head thinking, 'this must have come from a graphic novel or something.' But no, it is an original screenplay, albeit one rich in apocalyptic back-story (implied more than stated), dialogue and action.

The basic setup is this: Denzel Washington plays Eli, a thoroughly put-together, and mysterious nomad moving through the bleak landscape of a post-war America. He seems to be going somewhere -- "West" he cryptically says, when asked -- and very clearly will not be stopped. The arc of the action is minimalism personified. Eli is going West, and Bad Guys are going to try to stop him. And Fail. That is really all you need to know, except that he is carrying a Book that turns out to be tremendously important.

Eli is something of a Force Majeur who, like the Walking Tall character, or David Carradine's TV Kung Fu character, Cane, is seemingly disadvantaged until very Bad Men out of Central Casting try to maim and/or kill him. That of course is a big mistake. and once we see this happen in the first scene we are in on the joke. Gary Oldman is splendid as the evil patriarch of a generic, dried up Western town and of course as bad, and powerful as Oldman's character is, he is no match for Eli. Most of the second reel concerns Eli's captivity in said town and eventual escape with the town virgin/prostitute, played by American Dream's Mila Kunis.

Two things make The Book of Eli something of an art house masterpiece. First, it succeeds on its technical merits over, and over. The Photography is absolutely splendid. I defy to you tell, in the first couple of minutes whether the film is shot in Black & White or Color, the filter and/or color processing is so unique. The screenplay is first rate, and the marvelous cast -- including the always wonderful Tom Waits -- delivers the goods. Finally, seeing The Book of Eli for the second time I got a chance to notice Atticus Ross's astonishing Score. Watch the last five minutes of The Book of Eli, a second time, and listen to one of the most achingly beautiful film scores in recent memory. Especially when matched with the significance of the Big Reveal at the end.

But the strongest kudos, besides the Hughes Bros. as co-helmers are reserved for Denzel. Can we just agree, people, that Denzel is not only the greatest American actor of his generation, but one of the top two or three greatest American actors of all time? He has done so many great films, and with two Oscars has been rightly recognized for Glory and Training Day. Most people don't even mention The Book of Eli when they are talking about great Denzel roles, but I would argue that this may be his very finest.

Why? Like Matthew McConaughey showed in Killer Joe, Denzel does menace better than almost anyone. Menace isn't being big and strong and scary, but showing an inner calm and confidence -- in the service of some divine motive -- in the face of over-whelming odds. Denzel did Menace exceptionally well in Tony Scott's under-appreciated Man on Fire, but his character was damaged goods - you sympathized with him but understood that he probably would not survive the third reel (sorry for the Spoiler). Here, Menace comes in the form of Righteousness. Eli needs to fulfill his mission, that mission is Divine and essential to the survival of Humanity, and if you get in his way you will probably die. Period. No offense.

To wrap up, The Book of Eli is a technically superior film, anchored by Denzel Washington's perhaps best, and most under-appreciated role. The supporting cast is top-shelf, including an uncredited and of course delightful Malcom MacDowell in the closing scene. If you do watch Eli, please make sure to watch in Hi Def on a good quality screen with good sound. Believe me, it is worth it.

Happy Doomsday.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

My Cousin Rebecca

I realize that, as I said in one of my first posts on this Blog, that I jump around a lot. From my last post's take on a current Sci Fi oddity, The Lobster to this post on a 1952 Gothic/Noir classic is a vast jump. Or is it? The Lobster takes place in a non-specific region that looks remarkably like the countryside surrounding Belfast, and My Cousin Rachel in Cornwall. See, there is a logic to this that can be sussed out, if one is just patient.

Full disclosure, I love love love Hitchcock's masterpiece Rebecca. I love the Daphne DuMaurier penned story, the sterling cast, and even the back story about how Joan Fontaine was so terrified of being chosen for what was a top, top role that she almost wet herself. But mostly I love Hitch's masterly reading of the Gothic Noir. So, I really wanted to see "that other Rebecca" aka My Cousin Rachel.

Well, the comparison might fail immediately with the relatively unkown Henry Koster -- unknown to me at least, although he did direct the delightful Harvey and some other classics. But not every film can be directed by Hitch, nor should it. Cousin has a similarly excellent (and, by some accounts, even more popular) DuMaurier novel as its source material. Check. It has two excellent actors in the leads: a young Richard Burton in his first "American" film and the glorious Olivia DeHavilland, one of the finest, if not the finest American actress of her generation. Check. And, it has a backstory.

What is the backstory? Among other things, Burton and DeHavilland did not get along at all well during filming. What else is new - I don't know much about how easy or hard to work with DeHavilland was (except I have read that she was a true professional) but we all know that Burton was notoriously difficult. In any case, what is really mind blowing is that, given they didn't like one another, these two turned in performances that were truly first rate. In some scenes they even had to pretend they were in love. Or that one was in love with the other (no spoilers, as always with my reviews).

Perhaps because of this, or in spite of it Burton and DeHavilland are just perfect. He as an erstwhile heir to a lonely Cornish manor and she the possibly scheming possible gold-digger (again, not spoilers) who may or may not have murdered her husband.  Rachel features a somewhat less complicated set of side-plots than Rebecca, so the supporting cast, while wonderful has much less to do. In Rebecca, George Sanders nearly steals the show as a local Lothario trying to seduce the eponymous heroine; in Rachel that role seems taken by the appropriately dastardly George Dolenz as Guido Rainaldi.

In a master-stroke of production design, a film that was nearly entirely shot in Century City (at the famous 20th Century Fox sound stage, which is still there) looks very much like it was shot at a lonely manor house in the Cornish coast. And, similarly with the home and surrounding countryside in Rebecca, the scene and setting nearly become another character in the narrative. I believe that is a trademark of DuMaurier, but I have not read her novels so I wouldn't know.

What I do know is that this "other Rebecca" more than holds its own, due to great source material and sparkling lead performances. By the way, I watched this on Amazon Prime, which has a great transfer of an excellent print - in glorious HD. If you like your gothic with a noirish cinematic twist you will love this film.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Unbearable Slightness of (Being) Alone

I had been wanting to watch this remarkable Essay on what-it-means-to-be-alone-as-a-Human ever since I read Manohla Dargis' review in the Times. I finally got to see it recently, and went with my wife and two young men who were staying as guests in our house.

Sufficed to say, "The Lobster" is not for everyone, maybe even not for anyone. Although the Yorgos Lanthimos-helmed "sci fi" piece is by turns funny, tragic, head-scratching and remarkably well acted, it is in the end, almost unremittingly depressing. I am not sure whether that is more of a statement on the current state of humanity, or just the world view that the film is seeking to present.

In short, Colin Farrell plays the eponymous Lobster (the process of learning what that means is one of the joys, or horrors of the film depending on your personal reaction) a recently divorced man living in a non-specific City that looks remarkably like Belfast. Being newly single, the Lobster is forced to check in to The Hotel, where he will have a limited amount of time to find a new mate. If he does not, well, you will find out if you watch the film.

The poster, and billing would seem to imply that the amazing Rachel Weisz is Farrell's co-star throughout the film, but Weisz only appears in the late second act, and their very strange, and very sad romance starts late enough that "The Lobster" almost seems like two films. But is is one, seamlessly told and emotionally wrenching, as many critics have said. The Lobster tries very hard, but fails to find a mate, and circumvents the normal end game by meeting up with Weisz and her band of not so merry folk.

In addition to one of Farrell's best turns as an Actor, and Weisz's always great work, the stellar supporting cast just makes the dreary subject matter and potential outcome even more poignant. And, if it is possible to say, "The Lobster" has one of the most ambiguous endings since, well Chris Nolan's "Inception".

This is great stuff, folks, But not for the faint of heart.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

No, this is not the David Bowie Movie

I will continue to be as random as I can in my reviews, until one of my intrepid readers (hello?) calls me out. 

So, continuing my predictable unpredictability, I present Germany's entry in the Best Foreign Film competition for the 2016 Oscars, "Labyrinth of Lies". Truth be told, this is not a complete left turn from "Sicario" and bears some genetic material in common with the first film I reviewed, the excellent documentary "The Gatekeepers".

Labyrinth is a solid legal thriller that takes as its context and source material the true story of how ordinary Germans began to be prosecuted two decades later for, well, for the Holocaust. The sheer scale and audacity of this statement should tell you what the Prosecutors had to face in trying to get justice for millions of Jews, well after that War, the closing of the Concentration Camps, even the Nuremberg "show" trials. Germany in the early 1960s, awash in beatnik culture and only just recovering from WWII was not very interested in putting Germans on trial for any crimes, let alone the crime of Murder. Weren't the good soldiers of the Reich just "acting under orders"? If you didn't join the Party, were you exempt from moral, to speak nothing of Legal prosecution?

The genius of Labyrinth is that it focuses on the "ordinary man" (and woman) on both sides of these thought-provoking questions. The film asks, who was the more Evil, the seeming puppet masters like Eichmann or Mengele, or the average Joe (or Josef) who -- willingly or not -- accepted the reality of the Final Solution and participated in the machine-like brutality that was carried out on innocent men, women and children. The further cleverness of this crisply shot and acted film is that, rather than holding up the Attorney General's office as the hero (which it was) focuses on a lowly, "greenhorn" prosecutor, who almost stumbles upon Nazis hiding in plain sight while trying to get his legal career off the ground. Whether true or not, the narrative of Johann Radmann (played well by Alexander Fehling) gradually realizing how important his pursuit is, and also how amazingly difficult it will be to bring to conclusion is the compelling dramatic center of Labyrinth.

Some critics have taken film to task for being slow, or complex. Or just dour. I disagree, but that is what "critics" get to do. And in my case, that is what amateur critics get to do.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Hero: Dark, Dirty

This is my "sometime" Movie Blog. I love two things (among others); movies, and writing. So why, I ask myself, do I not blog more frequently about movies? Part of the answer might be in the fact that I am really moved to write a blog posting when I see a movie that really, well, moves me. Such is the case with Sicario.

The title of this blog posting relates to a film I absolutely loved, Zero Dark Thirty which I blogged about when it came out. Why do I connect these two? Because the excellent thriller Sicario shares much of its DNA with that Kathryn Bigelow-helmed flim.

Sicario at first blush seems to be a straightforward thriller where the good guys/girls are after the Bad Guy: with Zero, Osama Bin Laden and with this film a fictional Mexican Drug Lord who, like Bin Laden is the epitome of pure evil. Straight out of Central Casting, really. I say "seems to be" because in neither film are the reasons the main characters are pursuing the Bad Guy as simple as they first appear. Refer to my previous post for more on Zero's complex motivations, but with Sicario part of the film's accomplishment is how deftly it layers in the various players, and motivations to make the actual reason why the Bad Guy is being pursued far from simple. In fact, in both films the Nemesis being pursued doesn't even appear, if at all, until the final reel, which adds to the mystery and, dare I say, the ambiguousness of the pursuit itself.

Another commonality with Zero, and another reason I love this film is summed up in two words: girl power. Sicario is suffused with Machismo, from the testosterone-infused law-enforcement personnel to the less anonmymous main characters -- Benicio Del Toro's very mysterious quasi-agent, Josh Brolin's even more mysterious possible CIA operative -- the entire film is like teenage video game fantasy: Grand Theft Droga if you will. Yet, there is Emily Blunt's Phoneix drug detective (or DEA agent? It is never really clear) and she is not just the moral through line of the film, but really the energy that drives it forward. Blunt's character arc is Sicario, as Jessica Chastain's was in Zero.

And what an arc it is. From the remarkable opening scene where Blunt's character has her tidy little world literally blown open, through the harrowing, tension filled middle act where (no spoilers here) you are not sure she is going to survive this Bildungsroman, to the extremely ambivalent closing scene, Blunt's character is the measuring stick by which the actions of the other characters are assayed. Brolin is absolutely sensational as an almost robotic "DoD advisor" who seems to be calling the shots, and Del Toro is tyipically great in an Oscar-worthy turn as a former Medellin cartel member who seems to be: a) helping the U.S. Government nail a really, really nasty bad guy, or 2) pursuing his own agenda.

I don't like doing plot synopses in my reviews, so I won't here. Hopefully that is enough to get you intrigued. Johan Johanssen's fabulous score provides a driving, but dark emotional context that fleshes out the film's heavy questions, and Denis Villenueve's top-notch direction ties everything together very well, as, well, Bigelow did in Zero. May I take a moment to mention that I am a card-carrrying member of the Denis Villeneuve marching and shouting society? I loved two of his previous films: the remarkable serial-killer drama/thriller, Prisoner and the mind-bending indie sci-fi film Enemy with Jake Gyllenhaal.

Sicario was nominated for a few Golden Globes, and will probably get a handful of Oscar nods: film, supporting actor (Del Toro) and cinematography. I think the great Roger Deakins could win for his deft lens-work here, but the real crime against humanity will be if Emily Blunt is over-looked a Best Actress nod. She is just amazing. Girl power, indeed.


Monday, September 21, 2015

The weird, wonderful world of Wes Anderson

I still haven't quite figured out this thing about wrapping text in Blogger. Oh, well. It simply doesn't pertain to my latest obsession. Or does it?

I titled this post "The weird, wonderful world of Wes Anderson." Going back to the wrap text issue, if I really wanted to speak to Anderson's OCD-ish attention to detail -- a quality one either loves, or hates about him -- I would figure that out before posting.

Let's parse the title as a format for what I want to say.

The weird. Anderson's Limoges-like films are nothing, if not strange. Take "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou", the movie poster of which is poorly placed, above. A perhaps over-ripe Jacques Cousteau style ocean explorer finds, among other things, there is a son he did not know he had (or perhaps he did know?), goes on a quest to discover the sea creature who killed his deceased partner, falls afoul of a competing and more popular explorer memorably played by Jeff Goldblum...well, you get the drift. What is Anderson trying to get at here? Life is a journey? Secrets from our past can return to haunt us?

Probably not. In a Wes Anderson film, the journey, to use a cliche, is the reward. And oh, what a journey it is. The visual splendor, the music-box mechanism of Anderson's imagery, costume, music and much else that gives the enjoyment. One could say Anderson privileges these elements if one wanted to bring an obnoxious critical term to play. Or one could simply watch the way Anderson re-creates an almost home movie style treatment for the anecdotal clips from Zissou's many (too many?) adventure docu-dramas. This film-within-a-film construction is so lovingly hand made it is easy to forget for a moment it is not real. Or take a look at the "Team Zissou" costumes that seem to have arrived via time travel from the 1960s. This is high craft in, not just film making but art.

And this leads, finally to the World. To say each of Wes Anderson's films -- especially the last five or six -- is a completely self contained artistic "snow globe" is an understatement. This is seen no where better than in the wonderfully self-referential model of Zissou's sea-going vessel. In a scene early in Life Aquatic, the camera pans across a seemingly life-sized cut-away model of this ship, showing us the engine room, cabins, obligatory jacuzzi spa (?) and other marvelous touchs, all painstakingly rendered. It is important to remember that this is not CGI, but an actual model created by Anderson and his team, and the little people moving around are actual actors. In some respects, this self-referential model is a roadmap to the film itself, as if to say "my film is a model of something real, with real characters in it, but it also looks like something I have constructed, and I dare you to tell the difference between the two." In a Wes Anderson film, the world is so clearly constructed, that it is easy to simply enter into it and forget it is a fiction. Yet he is constantly reminding us that it is.

You either love this distinctly post-modern technique, or you hate it. I happen to love it, and have since I first saw "The Royal Tennenbaums".

I chose Life Aquatic not because it is the best of Anderson's films -- that honor is reserved, I believe for "The Grand Budapest Hotel" -- but because I think it demonstrates Anderson at his brilliant, maddening best. You never really know where the story is going, but want very much to ride along. And even if you didn't, having David Bowie songs played in Portuguese would be worth the price of admission. Or watching the rare Anderson action scene, with Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and crew racing across a decrepit resort on a random tropical isle, to Mark Mothersbaugh's goofy, wonderful score. Its like a music video, but not. Or something out of a 1970s era children's television show, like The Banana Splits.

Try it, you'll like it.