Monday, February 1, 2016

                                              
The Revenant

   Spectacular elk ford sun dappled, teal colored icy rivers, snow melt drips from massive fir trees and mountain ranges stand against luminous sunsets.   Landscape is character in The Revenant and makes an epic backdrop for Leonardo DiCaprio's hellishly grueling performance.

     Set against this grand scenery and DiCaprio's astounding effort, the story and it's muddled themes appear pint-sized.  Inarritu's script, which he co-wrote, chooses to delve into America's genocidal beginnings, but manages merely a trite ode to Native American wisdom.  It's as if he'd never seen Dances with Wolves, Little Big Man or any other film that treats the subject less casually.   If The Revenant was reaching for standard Eastwood-style revenge,  the cursory attitude might pass, but the grandeur and scope of Inarritu's portrait of wilderness and DiCaprio's herculean effort signify an aspiration for deeper meaning.  Man's ubiquitous savagery to his fellow men and women is hardly a satisfying or particularly novel morsel of truth in the age of ISIS and random mass shootings.

    Its' easy to imagine an award for DiCaprio's performance and one for cinematographer  Emmanual Lubezki.  The film's depiction of nature is masterful, but it's unmatched by a compelling narrative.  By the 2 1/2 hour mark we're dead sure Leonardo is going to exact revenge, but we're doubtful that it matters.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Carol

Independent films, even those starring Kate Blanchett, should give the audience a chance to participate in the film.  The best do, the worst ape their bigger budget counterparts.  Doused in a droning Phillip Glass style score and plastered with moody shots of rain drizzled car windows, Carol is out to guarantee maximum melancholy.  It's labored; it's glacially paced.   Melancholy soon begets ennui.

Of course the period dresses and cars are fabulous and Blanchett looks stunning, but the entire piece feels pinned under glass.  Taken from a 1952 romance novel by Patricia Highsmith (famous for her murder mysteries), the film feels far outdated in its genteel treatment of genteel lesbianism.  It was risqué for its time because it offered a lesbian story with a happy ending, but it's pure melodramatic hokum that requires Blanchett to choose between forbidden love and custody of her 4 year old.   Paging Joan Crawford. 


Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Martian        
                                      1 1/2 subjective stars * 

Despite being a cosmology and scifi fan,  I didn't rush out to this one.  Ridley Scott bummed me out last time with Prometheus (see earlier review) and I've come to accept that he's only as good as his material. This film hews fairly closely to the book its based on.

The Martian is realist scifi, no aliens, no time travel, but lots of armchair physics.  And that's its beauty;  Matt Damon's astronaut Mark Watney has to deal with the quotidian demands of a very long stay on Mars.  Where to get water? Food?  How to deal with the lack of atmosphere? Lack of heat? Things break and things blow up. Bring the Duct Tape might as well be the subtitle.

Along with the layman friendly science, I appreciated the way Scott handled the obvious theme.   Being marooned on Mars, years away from Earth,  magnifies Watney's loneliness and our sense of it exponentially.  It plays out in stages.  He's stoic and consumed with the need to survive, frustrated with setbacks and eventually accepts that he's likely to perish before any rescue attempt.  Scott and his writers do a good job of keeping this understated and sometimes funny.  

Mars is rendered beautifully and the film is shot with grandeur, but not grandiosity.  I didn't see it in 3D, but someone did recommend that to me.

Hey wait, this is big budget, The Martian's gotta have some attempted heroics, fake CNN reports and ginned up suspense. Cliches in 2 1/2 hour film?  Yes, got some,  but I think Scott does a good job of having his cake and eating it too.



Friday, September 25, 2015

Black Mass                
                                  zero subjective stars

Hyped as Johnny Depp's return to relevance, a commentary on his pirate franchise and his  mostly quirky recent roles, Black Mass gives Depp the opportunity to play an extremely evil real-life villain. As Jimmy 'Whitey' Bulger, a South Boston gangster with a relish for strangling, shooting and beating victims to death, Depp gets to do serious drama.  Bulger  had a childhood friend who became a local FBI agent and helped facilitate his rise from thug to kingpin. He also had a brother who rose to become a respected politician.  A nice setup for a true crime gangster flick.

The cast is strong from Kevin Bacon as a lead FBI agent to Benedict Cumberbatch as a social climbing Boston politician.  Still, this film is anchored by Depp's ambitious, bloodthirsty thug and it lives and dies on those terms. 

 In the first ten minutes or so my brother-in-law and I turned to each other and said "What's up with his eyes?  He looks like a vampire alien."  And I spent the rest of the film trying to determine exactly why with Depp's light blue contact lenses looked so sketchy.  Makeup overkill.

That was a pain, but I could have overlooked it had the story unravelled more creatively.  In this telling, Bulger's no more than a psychopathic robot.  We're not privy to how or when he became homicidal and the few moments where he expresses genuine humanity don't make him any more cuddly.  And that's the ultimate flaw, a main character without evolution.  Nor do the writers throw in much fashion sense or music from the 70's and 80's, no disco boots or bad synth pop. The mood is somber.  It's a gangster movie with brutal killings, intimidation and corruption; there's really nothing to do but watch Bulger kill enemies, and more often, friends for 120 minutes.    Is Depp convincing as a killer? Yes, he's very unpleasant, but he's not really required to stretch much in this one.  

Good performances, good direction, nice cinematography and very lackluster writing.  

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ex Machina

Another in the metastasizing genre of films exploring artificial intelligence,  Ex Machina is sharply written in places and beautifully shot.  The special effects that render the female robot (Ava) are elegantly realized, suggesting a human skeleton encased in glass and light.

A mid-level employee (Caleb) at a Google-like corporation is seemingly picked at random to deliver a Turing Test ( a test of the ability of a machine to impersonate human traits) to the company's latest AI creation.  Promptly delivered by helicopter to a remote bunker in what looks like Alaska (actually Norway), Caleb engages in a battle of wits with the company's megalomaniacal genius.  Suffice it to say that Ava's gender is not accidental and the film begins to suggest a creepy take on the Pygmalion myth.

When I say creepy, it's creepy in the film and also of the film.  Is this a film about AI or about duplicity between the sexes? Certainly it's both, which might have been interesting, but the AI part of the equation is more convincing than the films gender stereotypes.   While the ending sugarcoats what has preceded it, appearing to give Ex Machina a feminist slant, too much garden variety misogyny has rolled under the bridge to make it palatable. 

On the plus side, the acting is quite good, especially Oscar Isaac's turn as Steve Jobs on steroids.  Ex Machina is shot very precisely and well edited.  The main set, a camera infested high security bunker, all glass and concrete,  is almost a character on its own.  It is certainly a well made film and much of the dialogue concerning consciousness, human and otherwise, is sharp and interesting.  What nags at me is the prime conceit of a male creator shaping his feminine creation.  Not much of a brave new world.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Wild Tales     **  (Two Subjective Stars)


     Pedro Almodovar is listed as a producer on this Argentinian film and his fingerprints aren't hard to detect.  Wild Tales is a collection of highly imaginative revenge themed stories that are steeped in black humor. From road rage to wedding parties run far off the tracks, the acting is uniformly good, superb in places, and the editing and choreography of some of the tales is honed to a fine edge.  Highly recommended if your taste in amusement runs to the shady side.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Leviathan

       Russian's entry into the Best Foreign Film category is a tale of moral putrefaction so it's no shock that the deepest rot has set in at city hall and the local Eastern Orthodox church.  When an artist paints a target on priests and politicians, they had better bring either a fresh, or a very incisive eye to the fight.  The director and co-writer, Andrey Zvyagintsev, brings some of the necessary to Leviathan, but he also delivers a ponderous grandeur that flattens his effort.

       Set in a forlorn if majestic village near the Barents Sea and bathed in gloriously bleached cinematography, Leviathan suggests both nature's and God's mercilessness.  Throw in some swirling Philip Glass and it's easy to overreach. 

      Against this backdrop, the film's characters are well realized members of the working class.  They drink vodka like spring water, have meaningless sex, shoot at portraits of past Russian despots and seem predestined to early graves. It all feels like Russia fighting a gruesome hangover from communism.  And some of this is wry and sad in a tangible way.  A teenager hangs out in the ruins of a church learning to drink.   A policeman knocks off a fifth of vodka and his wife asks nonchalantly if he's good to drive.  Of course he is.  And when they shoot at portraits of fallen leaders, one vodka swiller opines that Yeltsin is unworthy of the honor, having been such a small time dictator.

       Leviathan's finer moments are eventually lost to the director's epic vision, which includes allusions to Job, political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the sea, whales etc.  Oddly, the film was partially financed by the Russian Ministry of Culture, which wasn't pleased with the negative view of Russia in the finished product.  Maybe that's progress; it wouldn't have seen the light of day under communism.