Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Movie Review: Phoenix

Phoenix
Directed by: Christian Petzold.
Written by: Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki based on the novel by Hubert Monteilhet.
Starring: Nina Hoss (Nelly Lenz), Ronald Zehrfeld (Johannes 'Johnny'), Nina Kunzendorf (Lene Winter), Michael Maertens (Arzt), Imogen Kogge (Elisabeth).

Phoenix is an example of how one scene can elevate an entire movie. The majority of the film is quite good – an obvious homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) that strikes a more somber tone, which is appropriate since the main character is a woman who has just been released from Auschwitz, at the end of WWII. Phoenix is a very good movie for most its runtime – smart, sensitive, wonderfully photographed and acted. But it is the final scene of Phoenix that truly makes the movie a must-see – it is a quiet stunner.

The film opens with Nelly (Nina Hoss) being driven back across the border into Germany by her friend, Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf). Nelly has suffered horribly at the camps – her face is bloody and scarred, and Line takes her to a plastic surgeon to repair the damage. The surgeon suggests picking an entirely new face – he’ll never be able to match it to precisely what it was before, and this way may be easier – but Nelly is insistent: she wants to look like her old self. The result is close – but not right on. Lene and Nelly are to stay in Germany for just a short while – Nelly is entitled to a significant amount of money inherited because his entire family was killed. After they receive it, Lene and Nelly are to go to Palestine – to help establish their new country. But Nelly doesn’t want to go – she wants to find Johnny – her non-Jewish husband. Lene tries to convince her not to – there is quite a bit of circumstantial evidence to suggest Johnny may well have been the one who turned Nelly in to the Germans in the first place. But Nelly wants her old life back. It doesn’t take her long to find Johnny – who now goes by Johannes – who sees her and immediately comes up with a plan. His wife, he tells her, is dead – but she looks similar enough that they may be able to fool people. If they can, they can split the money his wife is supposed to get. Thinking eventually he’ll figure out who she really is, and that he will love her when he does – Nelly agrees to take part in this plot – slowly being “taught” by Johnny to be his wife, who, of course, she already is.

This is a similar plot to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, of course, where James Stewarts falls in love with a woman who he cannot save, and tries to teach her doppelganger to be her – not knowing that the woman he is making over is the woman he originally fell in love with. Vertigo is a masterpiece – elected by the Sight & Sound survey in 2012 as the greatest film ever made. Phoenix is not in that league – but then again few films are. But Phoenix is a skillfully made film from the start – taking place in a bombed out Berlin, where every corner holds danger – as someone is looking to take advantage of Nelly. For her part, she is still suffering a pretty severe case of PTSD – not able to articulate her feelings, and living in a kind of denial. Her friends tries to snap her out of it, but it really is of no use. When Lene tries to convince her to go to Palestine, by telling Nelly, who worked as a singer before the war, that there is a Jewish choir she can join, Nelly asks her why she would want to join that – she isn’t Jewish. Of course, she is Jewish, even if she didn’t live like one before the war. She is trying to deny what has happened to her.

We see this in Johnny – and later in his friends – all of whom are non-Jewish Germans, who do not want to think at all about the “camps”, or what happened there – who do not want to accept any responsibility for them, or what happened. Nelly asks Johnny what she will say to people who want to know about the camps, and he tells her not to worry about it – no one will ask. He makes her up – so that when she steps off the train for the first time, she will be wearing a fancy dress and shoes. “Do you really think people leave the camps like that?” she asks him – and again, he doesn’t care, and says no one else will either. The German people would be far happier to just ignore what happened and move on. Johnny’s friend are welcoming to Nelly when she returns – and try to pretend like nothing happened. We see this throughout Phoenix – people denying the past, failing to see what is directly in front of them, because it’s easier not to.

Petzod is a talented director – and Hoss has become his muse (they have worked together at least 6 times now). Phoenix is even better than their last film – the wonderful Barbara (2012), about a doctor in East Germany in 1980, banished to the countryside. The film borrows more than just the basic plot from Hitchcock – but also some of his stylistics as well. The film is a slow burner, gradually building momentum until it final scene.

When that scene comes, it’s a stunner. Every review I have seen so far has highlighted the ending – and rightly so – it’s a perfect ending and done with subtlety and skill, and leaves the viewer devastated. Everything that came before that ending in Phoenix is very, very good. The ending is great – and as a result, it elevates the entire film.

Movie Review: Far From the Madding Crowd

Far From the Madding Crowd
Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg.
Written by: David Nicholls based on the novel by Thomas Hardy.
Starring: Carey Mulligan (Bathsheba Everdene), Matthias Schoenaerts (Gabriel Oak), Michael Sheen (William Boldwood), Tom Sturridge (Sergeant Frank Troy), Juno Temple (Fanny Robin), Rowan Hedley (Maryann Money), Chris Gallarus (Billy Smallbury), Connor Webb (Merchant), Penny-Jane Swift (Mrs. Coggan), Rosie Masson (Soberness Miller), Alex Channon (Temperance Miller), Shaun Ward (Farmer), Roderick Swift (Everdene farmer), Don J Whistance (Constable), Jamie Lee-Hill (Laban Tall).

There is such a lack of “strong female characters” headlining movies these days, that it’s doubling disappointing when one comes out that should be a great example, but is lacking. Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd has the fascinating heroine Bathsheba Everdene at its core – and yes, Suzanne Collins did take the last name for her own heroine in The Hunger Games – who is a woman living in England where normally all women were allowed to do is get married, and become a man’s property. But Bathsheba is different – starting the story as an educated woman, with little money, she soon inherits a farm from her uncle, which elevates her stature. It also means that she doesn’t need a man at all anymore – as she makes clear to her multiple suitors. She is strong willed and self-possessed, and very capable of running that farm, which no one thought she could. And then she makes a colossal blunder – out of the three suitors who have proposed marriage to her, she picks the worst of the three. She didn’t really need any husband at all – and certainly didn’t need him. What, for me, sinks the movie is the fact that her choice doesn’t make any sense at all in addition to the fact that very end of the movie strikes a false note. Instead of making Bathsheba into a stung by flawed and realistic woman, the filmmakers seem to concentrate only on the strong part – turning her more into a symbol than a realistic person – which is what my idea of a strong female character really is.
 
The movie opens with Bathsheba, an orphan, working for her Aunt. She doesn’t have any money – but doesn’t much care. She is headstrong, and gets through just fine. She draws the attention of Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) – a local shepherd, the strong silent type, who proposes marriage quickly, and is rejected just as quickly. Her uncle dies, and Oak loses his herd, so their positions become reversed – and she needs a shepherd, and with no other options, he accepts her job offer. There is a current that runs between them however, and it represented is a series of loaded looks between them – and occasionally a brief conversation, where he’ll say perhaps a little bit more than is prudent to your boss. Meanwhile, she has drawn the attention of another suitor – William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) – a wealthier farmer, with a nearby farm of 1,000 acres. The man no one thought would ever get married, is all of a sudden in love – but he’s terribly shy and awkward, and Bathsheba rejects him as well. The man she does not reject is Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), a man we see jilted by his fiancée, Bathsheba’s former employee, Fanny Robin (Juno Temple) – although by accident, which he never knows. A quick flirtation – and a single scene of seduction involving his sword (which is one of the best moments in the film) –and they’re married before she realizes he’s a pouty, spoiled little boy who could ruin her.

It’s that scene with the sword – where Troy seduces Bathsheba that is supposed to explain why she marries him – as in that scene, her sexual repression is lifted. Mulligan plays the scene well – although up until that point, she had never given any indication that she was sexually repressed at all – nor does she show much interest in sex for the rest of the movie. Mulligan is a fine actress, but I think that like the filmmakers, she so interested in make Bathsheba into a role model, that she forgot to make her a character first. It doesn’t help that Sturridge is completely lacking in charisma in the movie – he’s an ass from the start, and someone everyone except Bathsheba sees through.

Better performances are delivers by Schoenaerts and Sheen however – particularly when the two of them are together. They have both had their heart broken the same woman, and know it, but instead of being jealous of or competitive with each other, they share their sadness. Sheen, in particular, makes what could very well have come across as a creepy or just plain pathetic character into a sympathetic one.

The film is directed by Thomas Vinterberg – working about as far away as imaginable from his breakthrough film, The Celebration (1998) and its Dogme 95 rules. The cinematography – by Charlotte Bruus Christensen – is a highlight, as they often shoot in the magic hour, as the sun goes down. The film is beautiful to look at from start to finish – with wonderful period detail. The film feels more like the work of someone like Jan Troell than a typical British costume drama – and that works for the film.

But overall, I think the film just never quite comes together, try as it does. I wanted to like it – to truly like Mulligan’s performance, and the story in general. But the film just doesn’t quite come together – it wants to make Bathsheba too one dimensionally good and strong – and not dwell on her faults. That doesn’t make her a strong female character – but an unrealistic one.

Movie Review: The Face of an Angel

The Face of An Angel
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom.
Written by: Paul Viragh based on the book by Barbie Latza Nadeau.
Starring: Daniel Brühl (Thomas), Cara Delevingne (Melanie), Kate Beckinsale (Simone Ford), Lucy Cohu (Caroline), Genevieve Gaunt (Jessica Fuller), Ava Acres (Bea), Rosie Fellner (Katherine), Sara Stewart (Sarah), John Hopkins (Joe), Sai Bennett (Elizabeth Pryce), Peter Sullivan (James Pryce), Alistair Petrie (Steve), Corrado Invernizzi (Francesco), Valerio Mastandrea (Edoardo), Andrea Tidona (Pubblico Ministero).

If you’ve seen the previews for Michael Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel, you will be forgiven for thinking that what he has made is a “true crime” story about Amanda Knox – the now infamous case where an American University student in Italy was charged with murdering a British University student she lived with – a trial that, along with the appeals process, dragged on for years (even after this movie was completed). That is what the trailer for the movie is selling – the story of two people, played by Daniel Bruhl and Kate Beckinsale, who investigate the crime, and find there is a lot more than meets the eye. It’s smart of them to sell that movie – as it’s far more commercial than the one Winterbottom has actually made – which uses the Knox case to examine media ethics, and focus on a director who is having a midlife crisis, a few years early, after his divorce – who wants to know if it’s even possible to make a movie about this case that tells people what the “truth” is, when there are so many unanswered questions – and how shameful it is that no one seems to care about the victim, only the accused killer. He starts to lose track of reality as he slides into cocaine use, and paranoia – and a growing friendship with a pretty, British student around the age of the two girls involved in the case. On one hand, I admired The Face of An Angel for attempting to do something entirely different with the true crime genre – essentially by questioning the legitimacy of the genre in the first place. On the other hand, what Winterbottom has done in The Face of Angel doesn’t really work at all, and is more than a little hypocritical, as he uses the Knox case to draw people in, and then admonishes them for being interested. Not only that, he admonishes people for making money on the case, when unless he did the movie for free, so he has. While he says it’s a shame that no one pays attention to the victim of the crime – a legitimate problem with true crime – he doesn’t spend much time with her either (far more than the killer, true, but it’s still a tiny fraction of the movie as a whole). I believe the intentions behind the movie were good – but the execution is way off.

The film stars Daniel Bruhl as Thomas, a filmmaker who hasn’t made a film in a few years, as a few projects have fallen apart, and he has sunk into depression as his wife has left him for another man, and taken their daughter to live in L.A. He has accepted an offer to write and direct a movie about Jessica Fuller (the Knox stand-in), and is in Sienna, Italy to watch the appeal (this being the first appeal, after she was convicted, not the most recent appeal, after she was acquitted). His guide to Sienna, and the case, is Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale), a British reporter stationed in Italy, who covers the case for a host of newspapers and TV networks. She is one of many reporters, who follow the case, write magazine articles and books about it, and then go on TV and analyze every aspect of it – including the seemingly mundane things like what Fuller wears to court every day – and what those clothes mean. Thomas will eventually get two other “guides” as it were – Eduardo (Valerio Mastandrea), an Italian blogger, and general scary guy, who says he knows the “truth” behind what happened – and who Thomas eventually becomes to suspect is involved more than he lets on, and Melanie (Cara Delevingne), a British student and waitress, around the same age as the two girls involved in the case, who can show them the world that they lived in.

The Face of An Angel is a rather scattershot and confused movie that shoots off in all directions at one, and seemingly loses track of the plot at various points. One minute, we’re finding out details about the case, then we’re discussing Dante, then Thomas is accusing the reporters of being parasites, then he’s having sex with Simone, then he’s worried about his own daughter, and then he’s doing a lot of cocaine. Winterbottom never settles on any one subject long enough to truly explore it. As a result, the movie never really lands its punches. Is it wrong to make a movie about this case? Is it wrong to write about it? Is Edoardo involved? Is it responsible to start throwing crazy theories around, when we haven’t really solved the case yet?

In short, the movie throws everything on the screen, hoping that something will stick – and one thing does. That is Cara Delevingne’s performance as Melanie – the young British student who befriends Thomas, and shows him the world of parties, bars and clubs in Sienna – and the foreigners who inhabit them. I have to admit I was worried the moment the movie introduced Melanie into the movie – because I have seen so many movies where the older man falls into bed (perhaps love) with a younger woman and finds himself, that I worried that was where the movie was going. Refreshingly though, Thomas and Melanie’s relationship starts out plutonic – and stays that way – even when, late in the movie they go on a road trip together, and even share a room. Delevingne, who is the rare model turned actress who can actually act, does play Melanie more as a symbol of innocence than a real character – a stand-in for the victim of the crime, and for much of the running time, the film doesn’t know what to do with her – having her accompany Thomas on various trips – and then just disappear. But as the movie goes along, she starts to leave more and more of an impression. While Thomas is a schizophrenic character – bouncing from one extreme to another, and everyone else is barely a character at all, Melanie becomes the heart of the movie. If there is a reason to see the movie, she’s it.

Winterbottom is an interesting director – one who bounces from genre to genre, with mixed success. He has made some great comedies – the Trip movies with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (not to mention Tristham Shandy (2006) with the two, which is even better), good sci-fi in Code 46 (2004), a great period drama in Jude, one of the best modern “snow” Westerns in The Claim (2000), and some interesting biopics like 24 Hour Party People (2002), and political thrillers like A Mighty Heart (2007). But he’s also made quite a few movies that aren’t nearly as successful – a documentary hybrid The Road to Guantanamo (2006), which takes an interesting, complex story and makes it one sided, an adaptation of a great Jim Thompson novel The Killer Inside Me (2010), which skimmed the surface of one of the greatest noir books of all time, Trishna (2011), an adaptation of Tess of the D’Ubervilles set in India, which features a blank female lead and a schizophrenic male one, and probably worst of all, Nine Songs (2005), which flashed back and forth between concert footage and (real) sex scenes, that had nothing to say about either. The exciting thing about Winterbottom, is you never know what he’ll do next – and he often makes very good movies. But by being so schizophrenic, I’m not sure he ever perfects anything – he’s just off dashing to something else. He’s one of the most prolific directors of his generation, and often quite good – but other than The Claim and Jude, I’m not sure any of them are great. The Face of An Angel is much like his career in microcosm – it skims the surface of its material, and then moves on to the next. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t – and then it’s off on something else. It’s frustrating, because I think had he spent some more time on the screenplay stage, he may well have made a fine movie. Instead, what he’s done is made a movie about a filmmaker who doesn’t know what movie he wants to make – and essentially filmed that confusion. It’s interesting – not very good – but a fascinating failure.

Movie Review: Taken 3

Taken 3
Directed by: Olivier Megaton.
Written by: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen.
Starring: Liam Neeson (Bryan Mills), Forest Whitaker (Franck Dotzler), Famke Janssen (Lenore St. John), Maggie Grace (Kim Mills), Dougray Scott (Stuart St. John), Sam Spruell (Oleg Malankov), Don Harvey (Garcia), Dylan Bruno (Smith), Leland Orser (Sam (Gilroy)), David Warshofsky (Bernie (Harris)), Jon Gries ((Mark) Casey), Jonny Weston (Jimy), Andrew Borba (Clarence), Judi Beecher (Claire), Andrew Howard (Maxim).

I have a problem completely giving up on movie series once I’ve started them – even if I didn’t the original very much. Yeah, unlike the last two Taken movies, I skipped Taken 3 in theaters, and then waited a few weeks after it arrived for home viewing before I went back to watch the further adventures of Bryan Mills and his family, but in the end, I couldn’t resist. I don’t know why exactly – unlike most, I didn’t really like the original Taken very much – and like most, I hated Taken 2 even more. So, I wasn’t really looking forward to Taken 3, but I watched it anyway. The best thing I can say about it is that it’s better than Taken 2 – which was god-awful. The worse thing I can say is that it wasn’t that much better. This is still a rather silly action franchise that has somehow become a hit, and continues to draw in audiences – and is responsible for turning star Liam Neeson into an action star as he nears 60. So it’s responsible for all the bad Liam Neeson action movies since Taken came out in 2008 – but it’s also responsible for the good ones, like The Grey and A Walk Among the Tombstones, so there’s that.

Neeson had originally said there would not be a Taken 3, because no one else could be taken, because it would be ridiculous. He was right about that – and apparently producer and co-writer Luc Besson agreed, so no one is actually taken in Taken 3. Instead what happens is that his beloved ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) – after confessing to Bryan about her troubled marriage, and her feelings for him – is found murdered in his apartment, with Bryan, of course, being the only logical suspect. In the time honored tradition of every innocent man accused of a crime he didn’t commit, Bryan doesn’t go in with the police willing, hire and lawyer, and prove his innocence that way. No, instead he beats up a bunch of cops, and takes off into the streets to prove his innocence. His beloved daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace – who is 31 in real life, and still playing a University student in these movies, I think because while the span of time in real life has been 7 years, it’s supposed to be much more compressed in the world of the movies), believes him – as does his ragtag group of mercenary friends. The LAPD is on his trail though – led by Frank Dotzler (Forest Whitaker), who knows Bryan may well be innocent (because of a bagel – don’t ask), but needs to bring him in anyway. Of course, there is a grand conspiracy out to get Bryan – involving some Eastern European bad asses – but not the ones he has already spent two movies killing, but an entirely different set.

The director is once again Olivier Megaton, who still hasn’t quite figured out how to direct a coherent action sequence, despite a lot of practice. There is a lot of hand-to-hand combat, gun fights, car chases, etc. throughout Taken 3, all done with shaky camera work that obscures everything, and never lets the film settle into a groove. Neeson’s Mills is once again an indestructible superman – even more so than in the previous movies – as nothing can apparently kill him – or even slow him down. He’s got too much to do, too many bad guys to kill for that.

What makes Taken 3 even worse is the sense that everyone involved in the movies have stopped caring. I didn’t like the first movie – but at least it was trying. Hell, even the second movie seemed to embrace its own silliness in a strange way, even if it didn’t work. Here, everyone is on autopilot. It’s not has eye-roll inducing as Taken 2 was – which too its silliness too far. Instead, it’s just kind of there, going through the motions. I hope there isn’t a Taken 4 – although, I have a feeling I know who will be in trouble if they do make it. And sadly, I’ll probably still watch it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by: George Miller.
Written by: George Miller and Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris.
Starring: Tom Hardy (Max Rockatansky), Charlize Theron (Imperator Furiosa), Nicholas Hoult (Nux), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Immortan Joe), Josh Helman (Slit), Nathan Jones (Rictus Erectus), Zoë Kravitz (Toast the Knowing), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (The Splendid Angharad), Riley Keough (Capable), Abbey Lee (The Dag), Courtney Eaton (Cheedo the Fragile), John Howard (The People Eater), Richard Carter (The Bullet Farmer), Iota (The Doof Warrior), Angus Sampson (The Organic Mechanic), Jennifer Hagan (Miss Giddy), Megan Gale (The Valkyrie), Melissa Jaffer (Keeper of the Seeds).

You will not see a better action movie in 2015 than Mad Max: Fury Road. Hell, it will probably be years before you see a better action movie than Mad Max: Fury Road – which is the best this genre has produced in a long, long time. George Miller returns to the action genre after 30 years away from it, and shows everyone else in action cinema how it’s done. From first frame to last, Miller is trying to do something different – something you’ve never seen before – in an action film, and dammit all if he didn’t succeed.

This reboot of Miller’s Mad Max films starts with our hero, Max (Tom Hardy) trying to outrun a fleet of cars and failing. Taken away in chains, he ends up in a cage, and eventually will be used as a “blood bag” for someone else in a “civilization” that makes the one ran by Tina Turner in Beyond Thunderdome look like paradise. Ruled over by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne – who played Toecutter in the original Mad Max), this civilization seems to have three classes of people. There is Immortan Joe himself, who controls everyone and everything. There are the serfs at the bottom, who just want some water to survive – which Joe dolls out when he feels like it. Then there are the Warboys – violent young men with shaved heads, and face makeup, who worship Joe as if he were a God, and will do anything he asks of them. Women are enslaved as well – either as Joe’s personal “breeders”, or are milked like they are cows.

The main plot of the movie kicks off when Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who has risen to a higher position of power than most women, decides to take a detour. She’s supposed to be leading a team to “Gasland” to bring back fuel – she drives the massive “war machine” truck. But she has no intention of going to Gasland. She wants out of the clutches of Joe – and she’s taken his breeders with her. Joe sends his entire gang of Warboys, along with himself, out into the desert wasteland to stop her. And this is how Max finds himself strapped to the front of a car, having his blood slowly draining into Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a Warboy who “just needs a top up”, but has no intention of missing this. If he’s going to die, it’s going to be an honorable death on the road for Immortan Joe – before he takes his place in Valhalla.

The movie is essentially a two hour chase sequence, with only an occasional stop in the action as Furiosa, the women, and eventually Max and Nux, lose Immortan Joe for a moment, and stop to breath. But for most of the runtime, they don’t get that chance. But if the movie is light on plot, it makes up for it with the action – which is jaw dropping, and provides one image after another that I guarantee you have never seen before. Miller raises the level of everything he has did in the first three Mad Max films to insane levels. The costumes, vehicles and art direction take what was already one of the most memorable aspects of the original Mad Max movies, and takes them to a different place altogether. The sound of the movie is forever pulsating, thumping. A man strapped to the roof of a transport truck with bungee cords, wielding a flame spewing guitar provides the musical accompaniment to the forever loud engines, roaring into life. The action is handled with more skill and choreography than anything like it I have ever seen – the movie is constantly moving, often has chase sequences inside of chase sequences, and yet the action is never confusing – we know who is where, doing what, at all times. When Michael Bay attempts this, the result is often a confusing, headache inducing mess. When Paul Greengrass does this, the result is viscerally entertaining, even if a little confusing. In the hands of Miller, it is pure, action art.

If the movie had nothing on its mind other than the action, and all the visual and aural elements in the movie, it would still be the best action movie in years. What makes it even better – what elevates it to a level that few movies of its ilk even attempt – is that underneath all that action, there is genuine character development going on here. The relationship between Furiosa and Max grows as the movie progresses – and is more often than not conveyed in looks and body language between Hardy and Theron, not words. When Hardy spends a good half hour or more at the beginning of the movie in various cages, or strapped to the front of a car, not being able to do anything. Theron takes over the movie, and never really gives it back. Hardy is a great Max – more closed off than Gibson’s Max, expressing himself with grunts, and a few sparse words. He says he is haunted by both “the living and the dead” – and we believe him – he has visions of children asking for his help, that he cannot (that cannot bode well for kids from Thurnderdome). Hardy, a tremendous physical actor, is well used here by Miller. But it really is Theron’s movie from beginning to end. She has more of an arc (Max’s is basically survive, and then slowly finding his humanity to help out), and she does more with it. She wants to believe in something more – that things cannot be as bad everywhere as they are under Immortan Joe (a constant theme throughout the Mad Max movies). And more than that, the film is about feminism – sorry Men Right’s Activists, but it’s true, and it’s brilliant. In the early Mad Max films, the constant threat of violence against women played out in the background – probably in the original Mad Max more than the others, as we never really knew what the bike gang would do to Max’s wife if they caught her. Here, Miller has made it the entire plot of the movie – as Theron and the “breeders” want to escape, to have control over their own lives. It is true that other than Zoe Kravitz, the “breeders” are not really that well developed (and, I remain unconvinced that Rosie Huntington-Whiteley will ever make a very good actress), but it’s still fascinating to see. Also fascinating to watch is the relationship between Max and Furiosa slowly develop over time – from anger and mistrust, to a true understanding. There is a brilliant moment when Max picks up a rifle, with only one shot left, and is going to fire it when Furiosa approaches from behind – they exchange a look, and Max hangs over the gun, and allows himself to be used as a gun stand to steady the shot. That scene, without a word spoken, sums up their relationship perfectly.

Action movies in recent years have started to blend together for me – and to be honest, start to become boring and repetitive. Once in a while a John Wick comes along to temporarily invigorate the genre, but even that only does so much. What Miller has done in Mad Max: Fury Road is throw down the gauntlet for action cinema in the 21st Century. He doesn’t shy away from CGI, but much of the movie is done in practical effects as well. He doesn’t try to make everything chaotic with rapid fire editing that falsely looks visceral, when really it’s confusing. He’s raised the stakes for action filmmaking – just like he did 34 years ago when he made Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. In the process he has made one of the best action films you will ever see.

Movie Review: Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Directed by: Brett Morgen.
Written by: Brett Morgen

Make no mistake, I am pretty much the exact target audience for Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. A child of the 1990s, who counts Nirvana as the first band I ever fell in love with, and would still rank them as my favorite band ever. Someone who has read more than a few books about Cobain and Nirvana, and seen more than a few movies about them as well. True, this has slackened in the past decade or so, but I still find it impossible to pass on a new documentary about Cobain and his tragic, short life. But what director Brett Morgen has done with the movie is not only make a documentary for Nirvana fans like myself – like say, AJ Schnack’s Kurt Cobain: About a Son (2007) – but made a truly great documentary, that should be fascinating for people even if they don’t really know anything about Cobain or his music. This is the first of the many docs about Cobain that joins that should join the ranks of the all-time great rockumentaries.

Part of the reason why Morgen’s documentary is better than all the rest is that it is the first one “authorized” by Cobain’s family (his daughter, Frances Bean, is one of the executive producers). This gives Morgen access to countless journals, home movies, sound recordings (including the strange ones that given the movie its name), and interviews with people who knew Cobain from his birth to his death. Making an authorized documentary comes with its own pitfalls as well though – as often the family wants to “protect” the legacy of the deceased, so we end up with a sanitized version of the story (which is why, say, we have yet to get any cinematic works worthy of Jimi Hendrix, other than the concert footage itself). But Cobain’s family apparently didn’t interfere – didn’t have final say in what Morgen included and excluded in the film. They handed over the treasure trove of material, and let Morgen do with it what he wanted. The result is a fascinating, tragic, funny, heartbreaking doc that doesn’t do either of the things that normally sink music documentaries – put Cobain on a pedestal of genius, nor drag him through the mud. It’s a warts and all documentary to be sure, never shying away from the negative aspects of Cobain’s character, but it places them in context with his childhood, and ends up with a vivid, sympathetic portrait of the man. When she saw the documentary for the first time, apparently Frances Bean Cobain told Morgen that he “made the movie I wanted to see”.

Montage of Heck is a “birth-to-death” – documentary, starting with home movie footage of a young Cobain, as a hyper-active, blonde headed moppet, who according his mother “everyone loved”. Cobain was always a sensitive – perhaps over-sensitive- child, and his parents’ divorce when he was 9 greatly affected him. He was on Ritalin, or something like it, and was uncontrollable. He spent years being shunted back and forth between his parents, various aunts, uncles and grandparents – none of whom could control him at all, and all of whom he eventually wore out. He wanted desperately to belong to a family – and never could. As a teenager, he drifted into drugs and alcohol, and eventually found his way into music. The rest is history.

Morgen has always been a talented director – his best film may well be his 30 for 30 Episode, June 17, 1994 – which used montage to connect a chaotic day in the world of sports, as the New York Rangers had a Stanley Cup Parade, the New York Knicks were collapsing in the playoffs (again), there was World Cup Soccer, a big baseball game – oh, and it’s the same day O.J. Simpson went on his white bronco ride. Morgen used no narration in that doc, he simply cut back and forth between all these events – as if one was channel surfing between them – to give us a devastating portrait of the highs and lows of sports, and a damning portrait of the media. Morgen’s strategy in Montage of Heck is similar – yes, the movie does have a series of interviews, and is made up of mostly archival footage, but it’s the way Morgen edits it together than makes the film unique.

In a way, it helps Morgen that Cobain’s life has been as documented as it has been – that there are already so many biographies and documentaries about Cobain – his life, his music, his marriage to Courtney Love and his death. Anyone with the slightest bit of interest in Cobain already knows his story. This frees Morgen up to do something different with Cobain in this documentary – one that isn’t interested in the “facts” of what happened, but rather to give the audience a peak into the mind of Cobain. Having all the material at his disposal, Morgen cuts between diary passages read aloud, or simply showing the many (many) pages that Cobain obsessively wrote or drew on, splicing them together with animated sequences, some of which are like Cobain’s drawing come to life, some are passages from his life. Nirvana’s music plays almost constantly throughout the movie – but Morgen always seems to choose not just the perfect song at the perfect time, but the perfect version of it. All Apologies as a childhood tune you might expect out of a music box, a children’s choir singing Smells Like Teen Spirit over the chaotic (and iconic) music video. It is said early in the film that Cobain’s “mind never stopped working” – even when he was seemingly doing nothing, he was creating something in his head. Montage of Heck plays like that – a never ending swirl of creativity that never stops pouring out of the screen at the audience.

The movie is both exhilarating and tragic – exhilarating to see, more than ever before, just what went into Cobain making his music, and tragic because from the beginning, we know how it will end. You may well get choked up – as I did – in the early scenes where interviews about Cobain being shunted between family members gives way to Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” – which is how he saw himself. You may well get choked up again, as I did, - in later scenes where we see Cobain and Love with their daughter – and Cobain is clearly stoned as he holds her. It’s clear he loved his daughter – and he may well have wanted to stop drugs – but he simply couldn’t. The home movies of Kurt and Courtney – both before and after Frances’ birth – show a different side to the couple. Yes, at times, it feels like an excerpt from Sid & Nancy, as two stoned people don’t quite know how ridiculous they look, but there is also a jokey, playfulness between them – which goes against the usual narrative we hear about how, near the end, they were at each other’s throats. Morgen wisely steers clear of most of the tabloid stuff in the film – he doesn’t shy away from the infamous Vanity Fair article that so upset Kurt (but was probably accurate), or how Cobain and Love were portrayed in the media. Bur Morgen also doesn’t delve into the supposed martial problems – doesn’t push Love in the interview to reveal too much. Cobain’s eventual suicide is also not touch upon – simply told to us via an end credits card. None of the interview subjects talk directly about the suicide either – but in a way, that’s all they talk about for the rest of the movie, simply using other words. These “omissions” from the movie that hurt it – but rather keeps the movie on course.

At 145 minutes, Montage of Heck is perhaps too long – you start to feel its length in the last half hour or so, especially since Morgen’s style is so visually stimulating, that it eventually becomes tiring. But that’s the only quibble I have with this documentary – one of the best of the year to be sure – that shows us the tragic life of Cobain. Often times, it seems trite in films when they try to tie everything that happened to the adult to what happened to them as a child – the washing scene at the beginning of Scorsese’s The Aviator is the weakest part of the movie for example, or the tragedies in the early life of Ray Charles or Johnny Cash in Ray or Walk the Line – but here, Morgen makes it sticks. Partly, that’s because he spends more time in Cobain’s childhood than most do, and partly, I think, it’s because Cobain died so young (27) that he never really had time to get over his childhood issues. He was the rejected son who became a rock star too young, and then drifted off into drug abuse and died before he dealt with what happened in the past. That’s Cobain’s tragedy – and at the heart of this brilliant documentary.

Classic Movie Review: Poltergeist

Poltergeist (1982)
Directed by: Tobe Hooper.
Written by: Steven Spielberg & Michael Grais & Mark Victor.
Starring: Craig T. Nelson (Steve Freeling), JoBeth Williams (Diane Freeling), Beatrice Straight (Dr. Lesh), Dominique Dunne (Dana Freeling), Oliver Robins (Robbie Freeling), Heather O'Rourke (Carol Anne Freeling), Michael McManus (Ben Tuthill), Virginia Kiser (Mrs. Tuthill), Martin Casella (Marty), Richard Lawson (Ryan), Zelda Rubinstein (Tangina), James Karen (Mr. Teague).

There is a strange symmetry between Poltergeist and a movie that opened just one week after it in the summer of 1982 – E.T. Steven Spielberg directed E.T and he co-wrote and produced Poltergeist, and there have been rumors that Spielberg actually directed much of the film himself – not credited director Tobe Hooper. The two films were shot concurrently, on the same street, and when there were delays on E.T. – and there were a lot – Spielberg would spend time on the Poltergeist set. Neither he nor Hooper have ever commented on the rumors – but in a way they don’t need to. We know what a Spielberg film looks and feels like – and we know what a Tobe Hooper film looks and feels like, and Poltergeist certainly feels like a Spielberg film. Comparing the film to E.T. is interesting, because they kind of feel like opposite sides of the same coin – both the positive and negative sides of suburbia, even if ultimately both films end up in a fairly good place (which is one of the reasons you know you’re watching a Spielberg, not a Hooper, film).

Poltergeist takes place in seemingly perfect suburbia. Unlike the family in ET, which is breaking up, the family in Poltergeist is outwardly strong. The father, Steve (Craig T. Nelson) is a successful real estate agent – selling home in the very development that he and his family lives. The family has three seemingly perfect kids – the teenage wisecracking teenage daughter (Dominique Dunne) and the adorable little girl, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) – and a son right in the middle. The most interesting character in the family is the mother, Diane (JoBeth Williams) – and when does that ever happen? At first, she seems like typical, movie suburban mother – like the ones that are often in Spielberg movies. But the movie gives her some subtle depth. She’s undeniably more sexual than most mothers in the movies, she still smokes pot (in a great scene, where she’s smoking pot, and her husband is reading a book on Ronald Reagan, bringing these children of the 1960s full circle). The Freeling family is seemingly a perfect, sitcom like nuclear family – other than these touches, that the movie subtly sprinkles through the movie. Like the fact that it is revealed that the teenage daughter is 16, and later than Diane is 32 (do the math), or the jokes that teenage daughter makes about sex (she is away with her boyfriend for much of the action, and remarks “Oh yeah, I remember that place” when she is told they will be staying at a local hotel – a remark that causes her mother to eye her dubiously, but chooses not to say anything). Still, the family has the appearance of perfection, even if they are in fact more flawed than that.

In E.T., the outside force that eventually visits the family – especially the kids – is one of good. He even helps to heal the children, before he heads back to space and reunites with his fa,ily. In Poltergeist, the outside force is one that quite literally tries to destroy the family. It all begins with little Carol Anne and a fuzzy TV screen, which she says she can hear people talking. Strange things begin to happen in the house – and eventually Carol Anne will go missing – sucked into whatever is haunting the house. This sets up what we think is the climax – where a strange woman, with psychic powers (the wonderful Zelda Rubinstein) helps the family fight off whatever is haunting them, and get their daughter back. But no, the movie isn’t over yet.

The weakest scenes in Poltergeist are the ones where they have to try and explain why everything is happening. Of course, it’s because of corporate greed and land developers taking short cuts, etc., which is all pretty standard stuff, and to be honest, all more than a little dull. It’s one of the flaws in these movies that they always feel the need to explain everything – which I never think is necessary, but whatever – I seem to be alone on that. The special effects sequences, which would have been revolutionary back in 1982 have, of course, aged – but that doesn’t mean they are no longer effective, at least for someone like me (my wife is the opposite – I have pretty much given up watching any old movie with her that has special effects, because she cannot get over how fake they look compared to the “new” special effects, which often look more fake to me. Different strokes, etc.).

But for me, as good as the special effects sequences, and as intense as the movie gets, it is the rest of the movie – the quieter scenes that I truly found most interesting. Perhaps it’s because I have never really been too scared by the supernatural movies like this, since I have a hard time believing in ghosts. However, I did find the movie endlessly fascinating for how it views suburbia, and the similarities and differences between it and Spielberg’s other movies.

Poltergeist ends with a joke – order has been restored, the family remains intact, etc. In the end, Spielberg offers the audiences a little bit of comfort after confronting them with the perils of suburbia and denial (because really, this is a family that lives in denial much of the time, not wanting to deal with their issues). Spielberg does this sometimes – comes right up to a point where he may say something daring, and then pulls back. Still though, Poltergeist works. It works as a horror movie, as intense entertainment. And it works as something a little bit more than that as well.