Monday, May 25, 2015

Tomorrowland (2015)

Tomorrowland, by Brad Bird (with some script assistance from Damon Lindelof), is sitting somewhere around 49% on Rotten Tomatoes, while his other films are solidly in the 90th percentile. What happened here? I’m not, as you might suspect, about to place Tomorrowland on a pedestal opposite its detractors, nor do I find myself agreeing wholly with the film’s detractors. Instead, the answer lies somewhere in the middle; Tomorrowland is an important film, playing to some of my political/aesthetic predispositions, but it’s not as good as it ought to be, making a few disappointing narrative mistakes on the way to its underwhelming third act.

Wasn’t the future wonderful? Tomorrowland asks why our visions of the future bend toward dystopia when our dreams used to be so optimistic. On the eve of the demolition of a NASA launch site, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) finds a pin that promises a great big beautiful tomorrow where they’re saving a seat for her. Her quest to find Tomorrowland brings her to Frank Walker (George Clooney), a child prodigy turned jaded recluse with a long-standing link to Tomorrowland.

Here’s the thing about Tomorrowland: I cannot tell whether its most distinguishing feature is a narrative failure or precisely the point of the film. I’ll get right to the point; the entire film is predicated on the grandeur of Tomorrowland, on the gleaming promise of the future. The fable-like quality of the film relies on the wondrous spectacle of Tomorrowland, yet Tomorrowland takes entirely too long to get there, and when we do, it really fails to live up to expectations. To be fair, there’s a perfectly valid plot-related reason for this, but on the larger scale of narrative it’d be a bit like The Wizard of Oz revealing that the city of Oz is in a state of mild disrepair.

Put another way, Tomorrowland spends entirely too long getting there, dwelling in the imperfect world of the present without sufficiently jarring us out of the familiar. We sympathize with Casey (played quite well by Robertson), and after the initial glimpse of Tomorrowland we want to be there too. Ultimately, though, the promise of Tomorrowland is deferred – not, I think, to the sequel which it seems box office receipts won’t justify, but rather to the viewer’s own imagination of what Tomorrowland ought to be.

And I can’t say whether it’s a complete mistake or exactly the message of the film. That is, I can’t tell if Bird has dropped the ball entirely or if he wants us to imagine Tomorrowland for ourselves and kickstart the imaginative revolution the film is meant to provoke. Either way, I think it’s a shortcoming of the film; either it ought to fail spectacularly or soar triumphantly, but Tomorrowland simply falls short and doesn’t quite reach its target. I wanted to like the film more than I ended up doing. I never felt bored during it, thanks to the puzzle-box storytelling Lindelof seems to have perfected, but by the end of the film I was left very much with the feeling of, “Oh, that’s it?”

How then can a film which ends up being mildly disappointing simultaneously be an “important” film? We usually reserve that label for cinematic game-changers like Citizen Kane or Star Wars. But I think – I hope – that Tomorrowland might be seen as a paradigm shift in the current cultural fascination with dystopian futures. Part of the reason I love superhero movies so much is because at the end of the day they promise that everything is going to be all right. The present is often a dismal affair, and I’d much rather the entertainment I consume not amplify that feeling of dread. I’ve not read/seen Divergent or The Maze Runner in large part because I’ve already seen The Hunger Games, and there is only so much gifted-child-in-dystopia I can take. I am becoming bored of this, and in that sense Bird is preaching to a choir of one with this filmic plea for brighter imaginations.

I’m not sure why exactly Tomorrowland flopped. The opening shot, in which Clooney narrates directly to the audience about the difficulty of narration, is a solid indicator of the kind of clumsy storytelling not befitting this story, and I do wonder what Bird (who flew solo on scripts for The Incredibles and Ratatouille) could have done entirely on his own without tethering his vision to someone else. (And no, Mr. Lindelof, I haven’t forgiven you for Prometheus.) At the same time, there is a vocal group who run screaming at the merest whiff of an Ayn Rand reference, and there is what could be a strong Atlas Shrugged allusion in the midst of all this. At the end of the day, though, I think most of us wanted the film to earn its place at the innovative science-fiction table next to Inception, and it just didn’t. But if Tomorrowland can make us dream again the way Inception did (well, not quite the same brand of dreaming), its importance will outweigh its reviews. Here’s to tomorrow, and a once-more wonderful future.

Tomorrowland is rated PG for “sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language.” There’s a really quite stunning sequence in which robots chase our heroes through their home – honestly worth the price of admission – and a few other scenes in which robots meet melty ends and people are zapped by disintegrator rays. Discussion of the fate of the world might unsettle milder viewers.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

Next year the Harry Potter films turn fifteen; the books themselves are four years older, set to turn twenty in 2017. Now’s as good a time as any for me to take stock of the film franchise, which I’ve only reviewed in patches here and there. The first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (née Philosopher’s) Stone, is still a remarkably engaging film, even if its magical meanderings leave much of the narrative drive until only the third act.

A young orphan named Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), taken in by his vile aunt and uncle, discovers upon turning eleven that he is of magical heritage, and he’s been admitted to the prestigious Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he develops his magical abilities, befriends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and uncovers a plot to use the alchemical Philosopher’s Stone to resurrect a great evil.

British film critic Mark Kermode has accused Chris Columbus of “direct[ing] like a bean counter,” which I don’t think is an entirely fair assessment of Columbus’s directorial abilities – at least, not as on display here. What I do see from Columbus is a very respectful approach to the wildly popular J. K. Rowling novel, one that is almost slavishly faithful to the source material but deftly managing not to feel exorbitant or devoutly bloated. Instead, Columbus directs with the ocular equivalent of “gee-whiz,” marveling at the lightly soft-focused fantasies of the film and allowing the audience to feel that same sense of wonder.

It’s not a perfect film, however, because there’s a strong sense – particularly around the second act of the film – that Sorcerer’s Stone is, for lack of a kinder word, wasting time. I don’t mean that there are things that need to be cut, but the film is much more interested in world-building and character development than in furthering the plot once Harry gets to Hogwarts. It isn’t until the third act that the mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone is revealed and the clues are assembled, giving Sorcerer’s Stone much less of a sense of being plot-driven than its subsequent installments.

Fortunately, both the characters and the world are immensely fascinating; the leading trio of young actors are superbly chosen, and each takes to their characters brilliantly. They’re helped by a virtual who’s-who of fine British performers, including Alan Rickman’s delightful sneering Severus Snape, Maggie Smith’s prim and sharp Minerva McGonagall, and the late great Richard Harris as headmaster Albus Dumbledore. I’ll have more to say on these folks as the films go on, because the show undeniably belongs to Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson, and their performances are largely note-perfect. The film's visuals, too, are especially dazzling, particularly the Quidditch match (think magical rugby on brooms), and it's to Columbus's credit that the sequence feels imperiled without losing any of the wonder in the film.

There’s one last element to the film that absolutely makes it a success after fifteen years, and that’s the unmistakable score by John Williams. I don’t know if a film score has ever so totally dominated the public’s connection with a particular musical instrument the way that Harry Potter has taken over our relationship with the celesta, but it’s impossible not to associate the franchise with “Hedwig’s Theme” as composed by Williams. It’s Williams at his undeniable best, conjuring up instantly iconic melodies that fit the film effortlessly while remaining distinctly listenable in isolation. As I said of Attack of the Clones and other Star Wars films, Williams’s score is so compelling that the rest of the film could be on mute and rest comfortably on the shoulders of the soundtrack.

As much as I remembered enjoying the films as a child and in spite of my recognition now that some of the plotting here is a little bit uneven, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is charming enough that I have no qualms about continuing on to review the rest of the series.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is rated PG for “some scary moments and mild language.” There are a few creepy looking creatures, the occasional fantastical peril (such as a broomstick chase, a troll, and a large chess game), and one moment of particularly intense magical combat in which a two-faced man is apparently disintegrated. One of the characters says “bloody hell” a few times.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Monday at the Movies - May 11, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”  This week, it rhymes with “spook” so turn the lights out for this horror flick.

The Babadook (2014) – One of my favorite film critics, Mark Kermode, named Jennifer Kent’s writing/directorial debut his favorite film of 2014, so that’s enough for me to sit up and take notice. Here’s the thing about The Babadook: it’s not, as Exorcist director William Friedkin said, the scariest film of all time, but it is unsettling enough. There’s a fine line between disturbing and daft with which most horror films struggle; see, for example, the superlatively distressing The Strangers vs. the disappointing Mama. The Babadook is on the scarier end of the spectrum, albeit with a firm and well-appreciated grounding in psychological terror over jump scares. Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman play a mother and son haunted by a demonic embodiment of grief, The Babadook, and it’s to Kent’s credit that the relationship between the two feels compellingly real, such that we care about the strained bond they share. If I have a complaint about The Babadook, it’s that it isn’t halfway near as scary as I’d have liked it to be. Kent wisely keeps the Babadook itself off-screen for much of the film, allowing the mystique to build tension, but that tension never bursts. It’s all in service of the more metaphorical level on which the Babadook resonates (and which, I suspect, interests Kent much more), but there is a point at which the fable-like allegory becomes quite obvious and the film shortchanges those moviegoers who want something a bit jumpier. For what it is, though – a low-budget and very personal psychological horror film grounded in the evident sincerity of its character development – The Babadook is worth the look and the chill or two it’ll give you.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

The world is a darker place in the wake of the news that Joss Whedon won’t be helming the two-part Avengers: Infinity War (due out in 2018 and 2019). To wit, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a darker, moodier installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe than its predecessor. But if this truly is Whedon’s swan song in the world of The Avengers, it’s a damned good note on which to end, better than the original and a close contender for the MCU’s finest hour.

After a knockout opening sequence that doesn’t waste any time getting to the action, all your favorite Avengers have assembled. When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) develop an artificial intelligence project that goes awry, the other Avengers – Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – face the threat of annihilation when the AI builds itself a body and becomes Ultron (James Spader). Along the way, the Avengers are threatened by superpowered twins (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) left in the wake of the fall of Hydra.

It seems clunky to type with all those parentheticals, but the Joss Whedon trademark has always been gracefulness when it comes to large ensemble casts. As in the first film, there is an organicity to the assembling of these Avengers, but where The Avengers spent the better part of its first half in assembly-mode (a really lovely first half, actually, perhaps stronger than the action-heavy climax), Age of Ultron throws the group into a cauldron already boiling with tension and camaraderie. The script is well-crafted as ever, with distinct arcs for its characters (which ought to be the norm but, sadly, isn’t) and a tight narrative focus that finds a way to expand the universe without dithering and losing focus.

I don’t want to say more about expanding the universe for fear of spoiling the film, so on the occasion of May the Fourth – Star Wars Day – I’d like to comment on Age of Ultron being ostensibly the franchise’s “Empire Strikes Back” moment, the middle and darkest entry in a trilogy. The mood in Age of Ultron is considerably grimmer than in The Avengers, though it’s by no means unbearable; in fact, what’s surprising about the film is just how much humor it includes among all the foreboding. The Avengers was funny, but Age of Ultron seems to have imported the raucous tempo of Guardians of the Galaxy’s punchlines. “Keep ’em laughing” seems to be the word of the day here, to the point where I began to wonder, amid all the franchise’s one-liners and character resurrections (Nick Fury, Phil Coulson, Pepper Potts, Bucky Barnes, et al), whether Age of Ultron would actually pull the emotional trigger and give us something truly tragic. Suffice it to say, Age of Ultron does go there, and in a way that works better than it actually ought to.

I could lather up the performers, as I usually do, but you’ve seen it all before. The cast continues to do that at which they are best while also successfully navigating through their respective character evolutions. Ruffalo, for one, is still doing the exposed-nerve timidity, but the romantic wrinkles given to his character equally compelling and don’t feel the least bit out of Bruce Banner’s rhythm. Renner gets the closest thing to the film’s center stage (an apology, perhaps, for spending much of The Avengers under Loki’s mind-control) with a development so surprisingly unanticipated that a pin drop would have deafened the audience on opening night.

The true surprises are in the incoming cast, who distinguish themselves quite nicely while also integrating into the ensemble without that feeling of intrusion. Spader in particular stands out as one of the MCU’s better villains, very well-developed and extremely menacing in a creepy sort of way – in other words, exactly the kind of character you’d expect from James Spader. The twins, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, work very well in the context of the film, and they’re the sort of people you’d like to see more of in future films.

One final note must be made of the way that Age of Ultron very consciously engages with the superhero film genre overall. We all have this sense that the bubble is going to burst at some point (with four superhero movies coming out in July 2018 – one a week!), but Age of Ultron never feels overfull or weary. Instead, there’s an interesting way that the film comments on the trend of superhero movies toward ungrounded violence, by which I don’t mean the odd tendency of Marvel films to end with airborne combat and explosions galore. No, there seems to be a very clear commentary on Man of Steel’s ignorance (willful or otherwise) of civilian casualties. At many points in Age of Ultron, The Avengers take great pains to guarantee the safety of the innocent, at the point of risking their own lives to save the citizenry. While I’m one of the few who maintains that Man of Steel’s carnage will actually be a motivating factor for Superman in the sequels, Age of Ultron tackles the issue head-on to demonstrate that the sanctity of life ought to be the hero’s first prerogative.

Is Age of Ultron a bid for a kinder, gentler superhero film? I’m not sure that’s the message, but it is certainly a bid for a more thoughtful one. And while I’m not ready to say it’s dethroned The Winter Soldier at the top of my MCU power rankings, I will say that Whedon had made an indelible stamp on the superhero genre, and the future would do well to take its cues from him – particularly the well-crafted yet innovative juggling act of Age of Ultron.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments.” The action scenes are standard superhero fare, with all the punching, explosions, and gunfire you’d expect. Most of it is bloodless, as you’d expect from fights with robots, but some of the more personal action beats include blood. The film also includes the standard amount of innuendo and a few scenes of flirting.

By the way, today is May the Fourth – Star Wars Day! – so flashback to 2014 and take a look at my reviews of the Star Wars saga!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Monday at the Movies - April 27, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”  This week, back to movies but staying firmly within the realm of superheroes. Presented in chronological (not alphabetical) order, for those playing the home game.

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (2015) – As the title might suggest, there are two things going on in this film. On the one hand, we have a sequel to Justice League: War, inspired by the New 52 incarnation of the world’s greatest superhero team, while on the other we have the introduction of Aquaman to this animated universe. Here’s the thing about Throne of Atlantis, based on a recent popular storyline by DC’s resident blockbuster writer Geoff Johns: only one of these plotlines is terribly interesting, and unfortunately for fans of underwater mythology it isn’t the one where the guy talks to fish. The Justice League bits and the character interactions are spot-on brilliant, particularly the scenes before the big battles and action setpieces; there’s a wonderful first date between Superman (Jerry O’Connell) and Wonder Woman (Rosario Dawson), and there’s a lovely internecine clash of personalities when Green Lantern (Nathan Fillion) tries to help Batman (Jason O’Mara) on a police chase through Gotham City. And the creative team does a strong job juggling a League of seven disparate personalities. The Aquaman parts, sadly, are much less compelling; this iteration of Aquaman is part depressive alcoholic, part reticent heir to throne but only with nothing better to do. Sam Witwer is a strong choice for the voice of the film’s villain, Ocean Master, but this character is actually terribly dull, as is (sadly) Harry Lennix’s rendition of Black Manta. It’s not a terrible film by most stretches of the imagination, but there are parts of it that are more boring than they ought to be. Throne of Atlantis should have taken more cues from Johns’s more engaging reinvention of Aquaman than they have, because this Aquaman is fairly boilerplate and a little too stuffy for his own good.

Batman vs. Robin (2015) – Maybe I’m just a sucker for the Caped Crusader, because there are things about this movie that ought to be unforgivable to a true believer like myself, but I kind of liked this one, maybe even more than its predecessor Son of Batman. This animated film stitches together plotlines from two distinct comics – Grant Morrison’s Batman vs. Robin (in which Damian Wayne tries to prove himself) and Scott Snyder’s Court of Owls (in which a shadowy conspiracy makes its bid for Gotham) – and basically waters both down to make for a more coherent 80 minutes than the sum of the parts might suggest. Here’s what works: the film looks very good, especially the Court of Owls iconography, and I’m still a fan of the chemistry between Jason O’Mara’s Batman and Stuart Allen’s Damian. I did feel that the Owls plotline was shortchanged by (without spoiling too much) putting too many faces to what should be by definition a faceless organization, but I appreciated the way it allowed Damian to fall under the Court’s sway while he bristles against his father’s training. And the film’s concluding battle, taken mostly from the comics, is a crackling good fight between Batman and the Owls in the former’s gadget-laden Batcave. It’s actually quite remarkable that a storyline from 2012 has already been adapted – kudos to Snyder and artist Greg Capullo for crafting a modern-day classic – but a more faithful adaptation would have earned two enthusiastic thumbs up rather than my usual review of “Hey, it’s Batman, so not bad.”

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week; I hear there’s some big movie coming out this Friday... something-vengers. Might review that one next.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Daredevil (2015)

2003’s Daredevil left a bit of a stink on the character – a special shame, given the talented cast and the ample source material on which to draw. Twelve years later, one senses a bit of Marvel challenging themselves once more; having aced it with Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel attempts once more to make something work which sounds impossible on paper: here, reboot a character whose last incarnation branded him with failure. And, of course, they’ve done it again – the hype is real, and Daredevil is not to be missed.

In thirteen Netflix-exclusive episodes set in a Hell’s Kitchen devastated by the Battle of New York, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is building his law practice with partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) while Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) builds his criminal empire. Their paths begin to intertwine when Nelson & Murdock serve as the defense for Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a woman accused of murder. Meanwhile, Matt Murdock tries to better his city in his nocturnal guise as the vigilante “Devil of Hell’s Kitchen.”

Daredevil isn’t a television show so much as a thirteen-hour operatic drama (that, and your votes, are how I justify reviewing it here) which does well to participate in the Marvel Cinematic Universe without enslaving itself to that larger world. By comparison, ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always found itself in tension between the world of the films and its own narrative; Agents has never been unwatchable, but one can tell the difference between strong episodes and episodes that are treading water until the show will be affected by the events of an upcoming film. (Case in point, Agents was clearly in a holding pattern for much of its first season until the fall of SHIELD as presented in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, after which the show picked up steam again.)

Daredevil is in no such position, and aside from one or two very brief references the show would succeed just as well as a standalone entity divorced from larger proceedings. Daredevil’s greatest strength is its ability to build from within, to craft a plot that bows to its characters, who are themselves very thoroughly developed and fantastically executed. At opposite ends of the moral spectrum, Cox and D’Onofrio are fabulous performers; Cox’s Matt is pretty much note-perfect from the comics (I say as someone who’s read as many Daredevil comics as I can reach), while D’Onofrio is more “man who would be Kingpin” than the titanic juggernaut of crime in the comics. Behind this incarnation of Fisk, we can see glimpse of the mob boss to be, and D’Onofrio plays a psychologically compelling figure, broken in places but resolute and terrifying in others. One of Marvel’s greatest abilities has always been in the casting department, and these two are welcome additions to the MCU pantheon.

The supporting cast are equally gifted, and again they seem to pair off quite nicely. Foggy Nelson is a tough character to get a bead on, but Henson is an absolute scene-stealer, as is Bob Gunton as Fisk’s associate Leland Owlsley; both are the indisputable comic reliefs of the show, and they’ll leave you begging for spin-off appearance from each. As for the ladies in each powerful man’s life, Woll is a gifted performer and carries a range of emotions at a moment’s notice, while Ayelet Zurer as Fisk’s love Vanessa plays a wonderful approximation of a Lady Macbeth-to-be.

Being a television show and not a more streamlined film, there are so many other wonderful characters to discuss, like Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple (the future Night Nurse, true believers know) or even Peter McRobbie as the priest in whom Matt confides. The most memorable star of the show, though, is Daredevil’s astonishing and exhausting action sequences. By now, you’ve probably heard tell of the legendary hallway scene of Episode 2, a long-take fight in which no punches are pulled and no quarter is given. The best action sequences should leave the audience with a strong emotional response – either cheers of enthusiasm or sighs of exhaustion. With Daredevil, the intensity often yields the latter; just as the performers are often visibly drained, we too feel that same depletion. The relentless combat, the stellar direction, and the stakes proposed by the narrative make me seriously wonder if these are better than the action scenes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (though Winter Soldier had, if one may nitpick, truly remarkable sound editing).

The only false note struck by the show is, intriguingly enough, in the very middle episode, the seventh, amid a fantastic appearance by Scott Glenn as Stick, the blind man who trained Matt Murdock. While Glenn is the best possible casting for this important role, and he positively crackles against Cox. There are, however, too many unanswered questions in this episode, a design flaw only made apparent by how tightly self-determined the rest of the episodes are. One must, of course, permit the Marvel Cinematic Universe its interconnectedness, and I’m certain these issues will be addressed in a subsequent Netflix series (Iron Fist, perhaps).

This one moment of absent resolution, however, doesn’t negate the overall success of Marvel’s first foray into bingeable streaming content. It does leave me wanting more in a way that feels more artificial than the way the show demonstrates that more of the same will be a good thing. Daredevil is somewhat unlike everything we’ve seen since 2008’s Iron Man, in terms of its intensity and its grit, but it demonstrates Marvel’s recent genre versatility – Iron Man 3 was an 80s action film, Winter Soldier a 70s espionage drama, and Guardians a space opera. Daredevil is a full-fledged neo-noir crime drama in which the protagonist just happens to dress up in a costume.

Put another way, we have at least four more Netflix shows coming down the pike – AKA Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and team-up The Defenders (think The (Television) Avengers). If we’re being honest, I was going to watch them anyway, superhero shill that I am, but Daredevil guarantees that I won’t do so with an ounce of begrudging. Whether you watch them all in one go or one at a time, the episodes that comprise Daredevil are among 2015’s best thirteen hours.

Daredevil is rated TV-MA. There is no nudity, save for a fleeting moment in the first episode (played to emphasize Matt’s blindness, so nothing is seen). It is, however, quite violent, certainly the most violent piece to carry the Marvel name; in addition to being visceral and gory, the series as a whole has a very gritty vibe to it that gives each moment of violence the additional gravitas of brutal realism. The profanity is on the higher threshold of PG-13, with a preponderance of “S-words” (not “swords”).

Monday, April 13, 2015

To review or not to review?

Hello, all - your regularly scheduled programming has been delayed, possibly for a week. Almost exclusively, The Cinema King has been a movie reviewer, but I've spent the past weekend binge-watching Daredevil, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Nominally, it's a television show - a miniseries, to be precise - and that isn't really within the purview of The Cinema King.

Should it be? I am of two minds - and of two episodes yet to watch, as of the writing of this post.

It's a day of firsts here! First, acknowledgement of television; also first, your chance to vote below in a poll to determine the fate of next week's post.  Shall The Cinema King turn his eye Netflix-ward, or will April 20th bring another movie review?  You choose...



Should The Cinema King review Daredevil?

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Monday, April 6, 2015

Monday at the Movies - April 6, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”  This week... well, have a look!

Stranger than Fiction (2006) – Given the very literary quality of this Monday’s film, I’d like to start with an analogy from the realm of the book. They say (and my experience has proven) that every time you read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, you find something new, a clever play with the graphic novel form or an allusion that clicks another cog of the text into coherence. In the way that rereading brings clarity to Watchmen, re-watching Stranger than Fiction sheds an intense light on just how beautiful this movie is. Now, beauty isn’t something upon which I remark often here, but there is something very transcendent about Stranger than Fiction’s interrogation of what makes a life significant. Will Ferrell stars as Harold Crick, a tax auditor whose midlife crisis takes the form of his life being narrated by a novelist (Emma Thompson) prone to killing off her characters. Amid Harold’s attempts to stay alive, he falls in love with anarchist baker Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in what is honestly one of my top ten love stories of all time. The script by Zach Helm is so smart, living up to the metafictional braininess of the concept, and director Marc Forster controls the pace of the film with a grace that was sorely missed in his Quantum of Solace. Ferrell, better known for his often irksome work with the rest of his Frat Pack ilk, gives a wonderfully understated performance here, ostensibly a career-best; he can break your heart with a murmured “Oh...” or lead you to more fulfilling laughter with his subtle quirks than in ten shouty Zoolanders. The supporting cast is a very successful ensemble, including Dustin Hoffman and Queen Latifah, but there is an overall sense of being in the quiet presence of inconspicuous greatness that I take away from Stranger than Fiction. It very well may be a perfect film, for it has never disappointed me in all the times I’ve come back to it.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week! 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Monday at the Movies - March 30, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”  Two of The Cinema King’s favorites in one super bundle – Disney and costumed crusaders.

Sky High (2005) – I don’t know how this movie slipped under my radar for an entire decade, given that it’s in some aspects Disney’s live-action follow-up to The Incredibles.  But where the 2004 Pixar film was an instant classic, subverting genre tropes while simultaneously reveling in them, Sky High carries itself a little too cutely, with only the self-referential winks keeping this one from being just another angsty coming-of-age flick.  Michael Angarano plays Will Stronghold, the powerless son of The Commander and Jetstream (Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston, respectively) who’s deposited in sidekick school until his abilities manifest.  As I said, there’s none of the intelligence of The Incredibles here, other than the high-concept of a superhero high school (which, honestly, we’ve seen before).  Instead, there’s an uncomfortable dissonance between the vibrant colors of the costumes and the frankly cheap special effects that look much less than their $35 million budget; the cast are giving it their all, especially Russell’s gung-ho performance as the exuberantly enthusiastic father of a super-to-be, but I’m inclined to say that Sky High ultimately falls flat.  That said, however, there is nothing in Sky High that is patently bad, for it never offends with ineptitude.  It is, rather, less successful than it wants to be, less intelligent than it needs to be, but there is the somewhat irresistible charm of a movie which is unapologetic about its own “dumb fun” ethos, a movie which is by and large predictable but has no pretensions about its own intelligence.  There is little that separates Sky High from a direct-to-television film, but there is a sizable gap between this and a movie that worsens its audience for having seen it.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week! 

Monday, March 23, 2015

American Sniper (2014)

I’m not sure why it was that American Sniper was quietly snubbed at the Oscars; despite several nominations, the film made barely a splash, and it seemed people were more interested in the (admittedly amateurish) fake baby than the frankly stellar performance by Bradley Cooper.  While I’m not saying he deserved the award more than Eddie Redmayne (or, for that matter, Michael Keaton), Cooper’s work here deserves another look, especially since the film seems to have been pigeonholed by what potential viewers likely assumed were the politics of the film.

Cooper stars as Chris Kyle in this biopic of the Navy Seal sniper who is credited with the greatest number of kills as a marksman during his service in Iraq.  Sienna Miller costars as his wife Taya, who finds it difficult to keep her family together while her husband is on and off the battlefield.

I think one reason American Sniper made little more than a ripple is because audiences expected (and some critics reported – wrongly, I might add) that the film was only a rah-rah patriotic exercise with little attention to the consequences of a military career.  To which I would say, the movie you’re probably thinking of is Lone Survivor, not this one.  Clint Eastwood has been largely brushed off by many for his conservative politics and/or his abrasive curmudgeonly attitude, but American Sniper never feels like a commercial for the military in the way that Peter Berg’s earlier film toed that same line.

No, this is something much closer to The Hurt Locker, that brilliant Oscar winner from a few years back in which Kathryn Bigelow gave us both a thriller of a war film and a very sober examination of the human psyche under such conditions.  American Sniper is comparable (though a little longer) in that it devotes about as much time to Kyle’s military experiences as to the pained moments where he’s unable to let go of the battlefield and readjust to civilian life.  What American Sniper adds to the narrative of The Hurt Locker is the sense that the country had, ultimately, failed Kyle by not helping him reassimilate.  It’s a smart humanizing move that Eastwood makes, particularly as it anticipates the claim (made by those who haven’t seen the movie) that the film essentially celebrates a murderer – Eastwood rejects that out of hand by showing the dire situation overseas, the pain through which Kyle was wrung, and his true heroism at film’s end (spoilers?) when he attains a kind of healing.

Cooper is frankly astonishing as Kyle, and in any other year I would have been rooting for him to win.  Let’s not forget that Cooper got his big break on Alias, ABC’s spy drama by way of Keri Russell’s Felicity; to see him here and in Silver Linings Playbook, doing amazing work with comedy and drama, is a career to be celebrated.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a disappearance into a role, but it is unequivocally a commendable transformation, particularly in his ability to emote beyond his physicality, refusing to let his bulk do the acting for him.  Eastwood is a star director of the action sequences, but it’s Cooper’s quieter moments that truly define the film and almost overshadow the film as a whole.

On the note of performances, I’d actually written off Sienna Miller about the time she did GI Joe – pretty face, Jude Law’s ex, never memorable in the one or two things I’d seen of hers before.  After American Sniper, though, I’d put her in the “one to watch” category, provided that she gets a good director.  I’m sure Eastwood is a stern hand at the till when it comes to directing, but kudos to Miller for stepping up her game and bringing in a very moving turn as the other side of this very human struggle to recover.

I don’t think American Sniper got the attention it deserved, for a number of reasons.  All of those reasons, however, are largely immaterial, more a discredit to the closed minds of the prospective audience than to the film itself.  What you have here are three very talented creative forces coming together for a film that is, if not outright moving, very intelligent about its subject matter in a way that I hope puts Eastwood back on the map as a director and keeps Cooper in the spotlight where he can do more first-rate work.

American Sniper is rated R for “strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references.” Many of the combat scenes are very intense and bloody, in addition to being suspenseful and loud. The film is rather unflinching in the brutality and the immediacy of violent combat.  F-bombs proliferate, as does the typical kind of chauvinistic dialogue you’d expect in aggressive male camaraderie.