Thursday, May 28, 2015

Movie Review: Tomorrowland

Directed by: Brad Bird.
Written by: Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird & Jeff Jensen.
Starring: George Clooney (Frank Walker), Britt Robertson (Casey Newton), Hugh Laurie (Nix), Raffey Cassidy (Athena), Tim McGraw (Eddie Newton), Kathryn Hahn (Ursula), Keegan-Michael Key (Hugo), Thomas Robinson (Young Frank Walker), Pierce Gagnon (Nate Newton), Matthew MacCaull (Dave Clark), Judy Greer (Mom).

After a brief opening scene, where the two main characters – an older inventor Frank (George Clooney) and a teenage girl, Casey (Britt Robertson) – bicker like characters in a 1930s screwball comedy, Tomorrowland gets right to its best sequence. When Frank was a boy, he headed to an amusement park to enter an “Inventor competition” with the jetpack he built (it doesn’t quite work – but he’s close). The head judge, Nix (Hugh Laurie) isn’t overly impressed – but who we assume is his daughter, Athena (Raffey Cassidy) is – she gives Frank a pin, and tells him to follow them when they leave. He ends up on a very slow theme park ride – “It’s a Small World”, before the bottom drops out of the ride, and he finds himself transported – to Tomorrowland. What follows is a sequence of pure, childlike wonder – as Frank has to rely on his non-functioning jetpack to work to save him. The scene is a triumph of special effects and imagination – and gets the film off to a tremendous start. This is what you go to see a Brad Bird movie for. Unfortunately, Bird never hits this high watermark again for the rest of the movie. The film doesn’t really make much sense from a narrative point of view – or at least it has huge plot holes, and things the film never really bothers to explain (like, say, where the hell Tomorrowland actually is). There are isolated moments that work, and the film remains full of visual imagination every time we’re in Tomorrowland – which truly is full of things you’ve never seen before. But that just raises another problem with the film – we spend the vast majority of the overlong 130 minutes of Tomorrowland the movie on boring old earth.

After that magical opening sequence, the action switches from the childhood of Frank, to the teenage years of Casey. Her dad (Tim McGraw) is a NASA engineer, but he’s about to lose his job (thanks, Obama!), but Casey is trying very hard to make it impossible for NASA to close its operations, which would keep him on the payroll. This, of course, leads her to be arrested. When she is released, among her possessions is a pin – just like Frank got as a kid. When she touches that pin, she is transported to a magical place – or more accurately to a field, where she can see the magical place in the distance. She eventually gets there – but there is a time limit to how long she can stay. But once she sees it, she needs to go back – and she heads out on a journey that will involves robots, Athena, who hasn’t aged since we saw her with a child Frank, and Frank himself, who definitely has.

Bird is a talented filmmaker – in fact, he is a great one, as the three animated films he began his career with – The Iron Giant (1999), The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007) – are all brilliant, and his live action debut, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) – is the best of the series, and one of the best pure action movies to come of America in recent years. He has, at least since The Inredibles, been accused by some as being a kinder, gentler version of Ayn Rand – looking down at those who are not “exceptional”. I almost have to believe that Tomorrowland is a response to that – a laughing one – as when we find out the origins of Tomorrowland, they are in fact very similar to Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. But Bird’s vision is far more hopeful than Rand – he believes in exceptionalism to be sure, but thinks it can accomplish great things – especially if we keep a positive outlook. That is really the message of Tomorrowland – that we should stop concentrating on the negative things in the world, and stopping resigning ourselves to the inevitability of destruction, but rather concentrate on how we can fix things – make them better. That is where Casey comes in – she is the most relentlessly optimistic person you will ever see in a movie. When her teachers tell her about disease, global warming, or even teach dystopian novels in school, she always wants to know if they can fix it. Make it better.

That’s a message I can get behind. Sure, I like dark movies – and some of the best sci-fi in movie history is dystopian – but sometimes we need a positive message – and if nothing else, Tomorrowland has a positive message. Yet, it’s delivered in such a confusing movie. Time and again as I watched the movie, I was left scratching my head at the plotting – as the movie raises questions it doesn’t answer (Where is Tomorrowland? What rules govern it, who gets kicked out, and what happened to it? Who is chasing Frank and Casey, and on whose authority are they acting? How did Casey get chosen? What special skills does she have? What is this test she scored so high on, and how did they measure it?, etc, etc.). Bird seems to have a lot of things he wants to get to in Tomorrowland, and he rushes into them headlong – and as a result the narrative suffers.
Tomorrowland is far from a bad movie. It’s well acted, well intentioned and full of visual imagination. I like its positive outlook on the future – or at the very least, that it holds out hope if we want it to. The final moments is syrupy and sappy of course, but it works. But not enough of the rest of the movie does. Bird is a talented director – but this time he does what he hasn’t done before – place the visuals over the story. Bird is so good because the two are of equal weight in a Bird movie – that isn’t the case with Tomorrowland – which is what makes it a major disappointment from Bird.

Movie Review: Poltergeist

Directed by: Gil Kenan.
Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire and Steven Spielberg (story).
Strring: Sam Rockwell (Eric Bowen), Rosemarie DeWitt (Amy Bowen), Saxon Sharbino (Kendra Bowen), Kyle Catlett (Griffin Bowen), Kennedi Clements (Madison Bowen), Jared Harris (Carrigan Burke), Jane Adams (Dr. Brooke Powell), Susan Heyward (Sophie), Nicholas Braun (Boyd).

The best moments in Poltergeist are among the quietest – a number of slow, tracking shots that move through the house that we know is haunted. These moments slowly build tension, and becomes the most effective, unsettling moments in the film. Late in the film, we get one of these that is more explicit than anything that came before in the movie – finally showing us what lies beyond – and because director Gil Kenan has already used this shot, it’s even more effective. Unfortunately, the rest of Poltergeist isn’t anywhere near as good as these few, isolated moments of unsettling tension.

The 1982 original film – directed by Tobe Hooper, co-written and produced (and perhaps shadow directed) by Steven Spielberg, the film is effective and scary – in part because of expertly used scare moments, and in part because the family at the heart felt real – and felt like they were harboring darker secrets, and trying make it through. To give the remake credit, it does indeed try to ground the remake in a plausible, modern reality – the reason the family has moved into this new house is because the husband/father/sole bread winner Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell) has lost his job, so the family is downsizing. Hence, they get a house in a neighborhood “hit hard by foreclosure” – which a way to get this cash strapped family in a spooky, older house as well as explaining why there never seems to be any curious neighbors. Other than the economic troubles though, this family feels solid – no hint of the troubles as the previous film had, which is disappointing.

Other than that though, the movie does follow a very similar path as the original. Family in a new house, experience strange goings on, the parents doubt the kids, until they cannot doubt any more when the youngest, Madison (Kennedi Clements) goes missing – essentially sucked into her closet, and while they can occasionally hear her, they cannot get her back. Unlike any normal family they do not call the police – but rather a doctor of the paranormal (Jane Adams), who will eventually call in a TV ghost hunter (Jared Harris), who has actual powers. Perhaps the biggest single change in the movie is that the middle child – the only boy in the family, Griffin (Kyle Catlett), becomes perhaps the central character in the film – when he was almost a throwaway character in the original. That, and the fact that the other, Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) isn’t anywhere near as interesting as JoBeth Williams was in the original.

Then again, almost nothing is as interesting in the remake as it is in the original film. If you’ve seen the original, than you know what is going to happen in bigger moments. There are a few nice, smaller moments – and for the most part, the performances are good – I particularly look Rockwell and Adams. Director Kenan’s previous film was the underrated animated film Monster House – so he clearly has an affinity with this type of story. He’s at his best when he doesn’t have to go through the motions with plot or character – and can simply luxuriate in the house itself, and its nooks and crannies. He may well make a great horror movie one day. Unfortunately, despite a number of nice touches, Poltergeist isn’t it. It isn’t a horrible movie – and it will likely do for horror fans wanting to scratch that horror movie itch. But it isn’t wholly satisfying – it’s a by the numbers remake – and I see no reason why you should see this film rather than the original. Now that was a horror movie.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Movie Review: 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.

Movie Review: Good Kill

Good Kill
Directed by: Andrew Niccol.
Written by: Andrew Niccol.
Starring: Ethan Hawke (Major Thomas Egan), Bruce Greenwood (Lt. Colonel Jack Johns), January Jones (Molly Egan), Zoë Kravitz (Airman Vera Suarez), Jake Abel (M.I.C. Joseph Zimmer), Dylan Kenin (Capt. Ed Christie), Peter Coyote (Langley).

There is a good movie to be made about drone strikes as currently practiced by the United States government. About the morality of conducting these operations, how they calculate what “collateral damage” is acceptable, about the effect it has on those tasked with carrying out those missions, and about whether the fact that drone strikes make it safer and easier (for the American military anyway) means that they go overboard with using it. Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill is not that movie. As a character study of one of the drone pilots, it doesn’t really work as the character is so closed off emotionally, and so monotonous in his actions, and the plot both when he’s flying the drones, and his home life so predictable, that much of the movie is dull. In the final act – when Niccol tries to up the drama a little bit, it comes across as false – as if Niccol didn’t know how to end the movie, so he ramped everything up, which doesn’t really work with what came before. If there’s value in the movie – and there is at least a little – it’s in stirring up debate among the people who see it. Great movies do that while also telling a great story – Good Kill doesn’t get there.

The film stars Ethan Hawke as Major Thomas Egan. After being an actual pilot – flying combat missions for years – he is now stationed in Las Vegas, where every day he goes into a trailer with his team and flies a drone over Afghanistan. Sometimes, the only thing he has to do is surveillance – watching to see if a target is there. But more often than not, he is given a mission. His missions consist of him getting into position, and then firing a missile. The drones are so high up, no one of the ground has any hope of seeing them, and the missiles strike within a matter of seconds, obliterating everything in their path. He is the best at his job – an emotionless zombie, who knows what it really means to fly, and who carries out the orders of his commander, Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), without thought or questioning. At the end of the day, he drives home to his wife, Molly (January Jones) and their two kids. He’s just as much of an emotionless zombie there as well. It’s not that he doesn’t love his wife and kids, but that he is having trouble with his job and cannot deal with it. At least when he was flying in combat there was a separation – over there, and back home. Now, it’s one and the same. As his team gets tasked with conducting secret missions for the CIA – represented by the cold voice of Peter Coyote on a speakerphone – it gets worse. Now he’s bombing people in countries American isn’t even officially at war with. And often, he is told to wait after firing his missile – that way, when people run into help those blown up, he can blow them up to. When his co-pilot, Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) points out this is exactly what terrorists do, she is ignored.

Hawke is an excellent actor – and he is very good in this role, or at least, he plays the role exactly the way it was meant to be played. He is closed off emotionally at all times, drinking constantly, although he rarely seems drunk. He conducts his missions precisely the way they want them to be conducted. The problem is at home, he is the exact same way. He doesn’t want to talk about his work to his wife and kids – bring home the violence and death he sees (and causes) everyday – but since he cannot think of anything else, that means he spends most of his time staring off into space. He is a drone himself.

That is undoubtedly the point of the movie – and it’s a point writer/director Andrew Niccol makes very well. Egan is an emotionless void on the surface who never seems to get angry. But as his wife tells one of her friends when she asks what happens when Tom gets angry, she replies “He gets even quieter” – it’s a scary thing. We know eventually he will explode – he almost has to in order for the movie to have a traditional structure – but for much of the movie we have no idea what’s going on inside his head. Again, that is the point of the movie, but it doesn’t make it all that dramatic – all that interesting to watch. It doesn’t help that aside from Egan, the rest of the cast is given one note roles. Jones as the wife who wants to be supportive, but is tired of his moods, and essentially raising the kids by herself. We know eventually she will say something along the lines of “You’re not here even when you are” – and, of course, she does. Greenwood is effective as the Commanding officer, who may not precisely like what they do, but does it anyway – being able to fully justify it to himself. Kravitz’s function seems to be much like Hawke’s function was in another Andrew Niccol movie – Lord of War, about an international arms dealer (Nicolas Cage – in one of his very best performances) - where Hawke showed up once in a while to make a dramatic speech about how evil Cage was, just in case the audience didn’t get the message. Kravitz is a talented young actress, but there is little anyone can do with a role like that (Hawke didn’t fare much better in Lord of War) – and her bizarre flirtation/attraction to Egan doesn’t make any logical sense at all. There are two other members of the team – but they are “true believers”, and the movie doesn’t do much with them at all.

The last act in the film doesn’t make much sense. For an hour or so, Good Kill shows us mission after mission of the same thing – they are given orders, and Hawke carries them out, and if women and children are killed, so be it. They have no idea what any of the men are “guilty” of – it’s above their pay grade, and they don’t get to ask. The one person they know is evil – a rapist who comes into a courtyard during Hawke’s surveillance efforts on a large compound, and rapes a housekeeper, they do nothing about. They are waiting for the owner to return so they can blow up the house – who cares about some local rapist? We know eventually that Egan has to snap – both at home and at work – because that is what happens in movies like this. He does, but in ways that feel completely false – an excuse to add false dramatics to a movie that didn’t have any dramatics for most of its runtime. It may have been far duller to just continue with Egan pulling off his missions like a mindless automaton, but it also would have made a lot more sense, and be truer to the spirit of the movie, and its message.

Niccol can be a fine writer/director at times. His Gattaca (1997), with Hawke, has become one of the most loved sci-fi films of the 1990s with good reason. And despite Hawke’s speechifying in Lord of War (2005), is an extremely entertaining, Scorsese-esque drama, that may have been a worthier successor to GoodFellas (a clear influence) has Niccol not given in and felt the need to explain to the audience just how evil his main character was (we already knew, without being told). It’s that – the tendency to underline the morality, or lack thereof, of his characters in specific, on-the-nose dialogue, that sinks Niccol’s features as often as not (like Simone or In Time). In Good Kill, he has very little other than his message. The film will stir debate to be sure – but as a movie, it’s more than a little dull.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Movie Review: Predestination

Directed by: The Spierig Brothers 
Written by: The Spierig Brothers based on the story by Robert A. Heinlein.
Starring: Ethan Hawke (The Barkeep), Sarah Snook (The Unmarried Mother), Noah Taylor (Mr. Robertson).

For the first hour or so, The Spierig Brothers’ Predestination kept me under its strange spell. This is a time travel movie, and like all time travel movies, gets a little ridiculous when trying to explain the mechanics of time travel – but unlike many of them, the film actually works, and does some interesting things with time travel – and its contradictions. It’s an intelligent sci-fi movie, whose focus is more on character than special effects or action. It has a plot that takes one unexpected turn after another – until the final act where it takes one expected turn after another. Not only did the big final reveal – which is played as if it’s supposed to shock the audience, not shock me, but I actually thought they had made it so obvious earlier in the movie that they didn’t need to reveal it at all. I guess I’m a little smarter than the Spierig Brothers expect me to be. So yes, the last act is a pretty big disappointment given the first hour – but I enjoyed the first hour so much, I still think you should see the movie if it at all interests you.

Predestination is the type of movie where plot twists are key so I’ll throw out a SPOILER WARNING here just to be sure. I knew nothing about it going in, and I think that’s the best way to experience the film. I’ll try not to give too much away of the plot – but I need to say something about it, so what I will reveal is this – the movie is basically a two hander between Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook. We know from the beginning of the film that he is a “temporal agent” – or the time traveler, and he is searching for the “Fizzle Bomber”, a terrorist responsible for many bombings, none worse than on a day in March 1975 when he set off a bomb that killed 11,000 in New York City. Hawke has been trailing him for years, but blew his last chance. He now has to go on one last mission, before he will be retired. That mission involved him pretending to be a barkeeper and talking to a man in a bar who tells him the story of Jane (Sarah Snook) – a gifted young orphan, and her troubled life. END OF SPOILER WARNING

I liked the look of Predestination, which is set both in the past and the future. It is based on a 1959 short story by Robert A. Heinlein, and one of the interesting things about the adaptation is that they don’t change the dates to be more modern. In this movie, time travel is discovered in 1981 – and you can travel up to 53 years either backwards or forwards in time, and that’s it. The bulk of the movie is set during the 1970s – although at various times the film takes place in every decade between the 1940s and the 1980s – all of which look kind of like our own world in those years, but also slightly futuristic. It’s a good look.

The performance though are what make Predestination work. Hawke is appropriately mysterious and sympathetic here. Yes, this is another of his “paycheck” movies, like Sinister, The Purge, Getaway or his previous film for The Spierig’s, Daybreakers. But just because he’s doing it for a paycheck, so he can continue to do other, more interesting things as well, doesn’t mean he’s in cruise control. He’s quite good here. But it is Snook who delivers what should be a star making performance – without saying too much, I will say that she delivers a complex performance that hits more notes than most actresses do in much more serious roles. I had no idea who she was before this movie – I won’t forget now.

The movie kind of lets Snook and Hawke down though in the final act. The movie took one twist after another in its first hour – few of which I saw coming, and I couldn’t wait to see where they were going with it. The final act however is as predictable as the first hour was unpredictable. Worse, it was really rather a series of stupid twists, which I don’t think make any sense – even if I wanted it to.

Still, the movie has enough to recommend it. It’s an odd movie to be sure – and that’s never a bad thing to me. Yes, the finale is more than a little dumb, but it’s a different type of time travel movie, and I appreciate that, even if I wish the film had found a better way to end it all.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Look Back at the Original Mad Max Trilogy

Mad Max (1979)
Directed by: George Miller.
Written by: James McCausland & George Miller.
Starring: Mel Gibson (Max), Joanne Samuel (Jessie), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter), Steve Bisley (Jim Goose), Tim Burns (Johnny the Boy), Roger Ward (Fifi).

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
Directed by: George Miller.
Written by: Terry Hayes & George Miller & Brian Hannant.
Starring: Mel Gibson (Max), Bruce Spence (The Gyro Captain), Michael Preston (Pappagallo), Max Phipps (The Toadie), Vernon Wells (Wez), Kjell Nilsson (The Humungus), Emil Minty (The Feral Kid).

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Directed by:  George Miller & George Ogilvie.
Written by: Terry Hayes & George Miller.
Starring: Mel Gibson (Mad Max Rockatansky), Bruce Spence (Jedediah the Pilot), Adam Cockburn (Jedediah Jr.), Tina Turner (Aunty Entity), Frank Thring (The Collector), Angelo Rossitto (The Master), Paul Larsson (The Blaster), Angry Anderson (Ironbar), Robert Grubb (Pig Killer).

This week, Max Mad Fury Road comes out – the first Mad Max film in 30 years – and out of all the big, blockbuster type movies of the summer, it is probably my most anticipated. Normally, I’m rather agnostic about remakes/reboots – I don’t see much of a point in them, but if done well, they can work, just like anything else. There is at least some reason to reboot Mad Max – and that is that the technology has come so far in the last three decades, that director George Miller can now do things he never could before – and from the looks of the amazing trailers, he does just that, utilizing more special effects than ever before, while still maintaining the series car chase/stunts roots. A director getting a chance to reboot his own franchise is rare. The Road Warrior, the second of the original trilogy, is one of the greatest action movies of all time – so it’s somewhat sad to me that in the decades since the third film, Miller has never ventured back into action filmmaking. Hell, he’s barely ventured back into directing at all. Fury Road will be only his ninth feature as a director (not including his segment of The Twilight Zone Movie, made between Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome). In the three decades since Mad Max ended he has only directed a handful of films – the special effects laden John Updike adaptation, The Witches of Eastwick (1987), the drama Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), the way better than the original (and I like the original) Babe: Pig in the City (1997) and the two Happy Feet movies (2006 and 2011). So Fury Road is a chance to see Miller in a mode he hasn’t been in for decades – and that’s exciting. Watching the three films over one weekend, it’s easy to see why the second film has such a better reputation than the first and third. The bookends of the series are fine, but most likely would have been forgotten (or at least half remembered) without the middle installment. But together, the series becomes more interesting than it does in individual installments. It’s a rare franchise that doesn’t rest on its laurels – and doesn’t repeat itself. Yes, all three film climax with chases and violence, but there is a progression - both in terms of its dystopian view of the future, and in Mad Max himself, from film to film.

The original, simply entitled Mad Max, was Miller’s debut film – made in 1979 with not a lot of money and an unknown Mel Gibson as the lead. The film plays like any number of 1970s set revenge flicks – with a seemingly normal guy who turns violent once his family is killed, and decides to seek vengeance for that crime. The difference between Mad Max and something like Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) with Charles Bronson is how late into the film the death of Max’s family comes – and how quickly he sets out on his path of vengeance. It’s really only over the last 20 minutes or so of the 90 minute where that happens – the rest is all buildup.

There is no doubt that the second and third installments of the Mad Max series are dystopian/post-apocalyptic movies – set in a world ravaged by drought, gas shortages and war. But the original Mad Max hasn’t gotten to that point yet, but it’s on the way there. It’s the near future, and lawlessness is starting to take over in Australia (and apparently elsewhere). Here, that lawlessness is represented by a motorcycle gang headed by the awesomely named Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who along with his group seems to have watched The Wild One (1953) a few too many times. They aren’t the cool rebels of Brando and his ilk however – but basically a gang of hooligans who rape, murder, rob and do pretty much whatever they want – and everyone decides to cower instead of stopping them. Max (Gibson) is a cop who actually does try, and in the film’s opening scene (after a tremendous introduction) does indeed stop the group’s then leader in a very long car chase sequence. He’s warned that the gang may come after him – which, of course, they eventually do. Miller doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the police in this movie either – they are borderline fascist, and like the gang itself, holds itself above the law they are supposed to preserve. All except Max, of course, who eventually gets tired of the whole damn thing, and quits – taking his wife and infant son away from it all. But, of course, that doesn’t happen – the gang catches up, his family ends up dead, and Max goes on a killing spree.

Much of the original Mad Max is actually kind of slow. The entire first hour, after the car chase sequence that begins, is setting everything up – the gang, the police, Max, the near future society going to hell, etc. These scenes are punctuated with some action – but not much. It’s a rather slow, rather repetitive buildup – which is why at the beginning of The Road Warrior, the whole movie can be summarized in about a minute with some grainy footage. In the last half hour, when Max and his family are in a secluded, small town and the gang starts terrorizing them, Max makes one bad decision after another – it’s not his fault his family is killed, but dammit, he would have had a chance to save them if he didn’t act like an idiot. Yet, while Mad Max is hardly what I would call a great movie – it still works. Miller spends too much time world building to be sure – but the near future world he creates is still an interesting, appropriately depressing place – enough like our world to seem believable, with just a few touches that bring it further into a dark future. And once Max does indeed go Mad, the film really works well. Gibson is certainly more at ease playing the vengeful Max rather than the man trying to be normal – and he fits the movie well. The last shot – the whole last scene really - is among the most memorable in the series.

When Max rides away at the end of Mad Max, it is into an uncertain future – both for society and himself. If the
story ended there, you would probably guess that Max would end up a hollow shell – a violent, vengeful, depressed loner. That is pretty much the person he has become at the beginning of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Society has crumbled in the time between the end of the first movie, and the start of the second. If Miller was drawing comparisons between the cops and the gangs in the first film, all barriers now are completely gone – there is no more police, no more government, no more civilization really – everyone is in a gang now, roaming the streets looking for gas and trying to stay alive. Max travels in his supped up car -his lone companion, a dog. He doesn’t trust anyone he meets – and he doesn’t want to meet any of them. He wants to be alone. But then, Max ends up in a compound with perhaps the last decent people left in Australia. Their compound is really an oil refinery – so they are sitting atop the most precious commodity there is. The folks there are still idealistic and naïve – not real fighters, although they’ve had to fight to keep what is theirs. But what they really want is out – they have a destination in mind, some 2,000 Miles away. A paradise. But in order to get there, they need a truck able to transport all their precious gas, and a way to get by a violent gang of motorcycle riding psychopaths, led by a freak in a hockey mask. Max needs fuel – the group needs Max to help them. A bargain is struck.

The Road Warrior is heavily influenced by Westerns – with Gibson’s Max playing the type of role that John Wayne or Gary Cooper may well have played at times (in The Searchers and Man of the West respectively). Max is a man who seems unsentimental – like he doesn’t care about anyone, and doesn’t fit in with the rest of society. He almost seems like he would belong with the bad guys instead of the settlers. But Max still has a code – and he is moved to help those who cannot help themselves. At the beginning of the film, Max looks like he has lost his humanity – but it’s there, even if it’s tattered. By the end, he has regained it – even if he is still alone.

Everything about The Road Warrior has been amped up from the original film. This time, Miller had more money – and it shows. The trademark crazy cars and demented costume design is really in the series for the first time here. Gibson, who at times seemed ill at ease in the earlier film, here is perfectly cast as a man who slowly rediscovers his own humanity. His scenes with a young boy – appropriately called “Feral Kid” in the credits, are the heart of this. Is he seeing his own son in the kid – or at least what his son may have become had he survived whatever happened to the world? While his other major action franchise (Lethal Weapon) better tapped into his inherent, dangerous charm – some of his best roles seem closer to Mad Max than Martin Riggs – stoic, quiet men driven by an inner humanity they didn’t know they had. Not even the realization, decades later, that Gibson is in fact a horrible person can dim just how good he is in films like this.

But it is the action that truly makes The Road Warrior into a masterpiece. The film came out in Australia the same year as Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (it hit American screens the next year) – and to me, the films are equally great in terms of action filmmaking (in fact, I prefer The Road Warrior). There are multiple, mind boggling chase and stunt sequences in the film – like when Max has to try and get that truck inside the compound, and of course, the iconic finale which is as exciting as any action sequence you will see. 

The finale of The Road Warrior is both tragic and hopeful. Max has shown a willingness to re-connect with humanity – something unthinkable at the end of the first film, which is at least a little bit hopeful. But he is also betrayed – or at the very least used – by those who sought to help, which reconfirms his dim view of humanity itself.

Four years after The Road Warrior came the third, and final, installment of the Mad Max series – Beyond Thunderdome. Apparently, Miller lost interest in the project after his producing partner, Byron Kennedy, died while location scouting. He did agree to come in and direct the action sequences however – which is probably why they are far and away the best thing about the movie. Miller still co-wrote the movie, and helped shape it – but it doesn’t surprise me that he didn’t direct the entire movie, and also that the film itself started as a different project, and became a Mad Max film later on in development. Of the three films, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is probably the most “flawed” – even if what works about the film is wonderful.

The film picks up on Max a few years into the future after his adventure in The Road Warrior. He is still alone – and now even his car doesn’t work – he is walking across the desert wasteland with his car being towed by camels. He is robbed – and ends up heading to Bartertown to try and get what is his back. It’s here he meets Aunty (Tina Turner) – the leader of Bartertown, who wants Max to kill someone for her. In return, he’ll get what he wants. The first act climaxes with the fight to the death in the “Thunderdome” – a brilliantly choreographed sequence involving Max and an enormous man bouncing around on giant rubber bands, while they are cheered on from all sides. If that sounds silly – well, it is, but it’s also brilliant. Act II involves the now exiled Max coming across a society of children, living on their own, with barely any knowledge of the time before the war. They are, in their way, not unlike the settlers in The Road Warrior – they dream of going to a place they have never been, where they are sure everything will be great. They see Max as their savior, and perhaps he is. Eventually, we know, that these two radically different worlds are going to collide – the youthful, naïve, idealistic society of children, and the cynical, dark and violent Bartertown – with Max at the center of the conflict.

The finale of the film, which brings the two sides together, really is the best part of the film. While the car chase, stunt extravaganza may not be quite up to standard of The Road Warrior – it’s as close as you are likely to get. Miller ups the ante this time – a real plane is involved, not just a gyro-plane – and the film ends with a satisfying bang. It also begins with one as well – as the setup of Bartertown is promising – the character of Aunty played by Tina Turner is the most articulate villain Max has faced yet (that’s not much competition, considering the other two were Toecutter and Humungous). The aforementioned Thunderdome sequence is brilliant as well.
The problem is the movie grinds to a halt when Max meets the society of children. I understand why the story takes this turn – the trilogy is ultimately about Max first losing and then regaining his humanity, and he needs a reason to do so, and children are a way to do it (also, the project apparently started out about a group of children in a post-apocalyptic wasteland discovered by an adult – which Miller decided should be Max). Still, this band of children isn’t really well thought out as a group – and they don’t really do anything either. This is the longest stretch of the movie without any action – meaning the longest stretch not directed by Miller – and the pacing flags, and the movie slows down to next to nothing, until we finally get to the finale.

None of this ruins Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome – but it does downgrade it a little (how Ebert saw this as superior to The Road Warrior is one of those things I will never understand). What is interesting about the film is what it repeats from The Road Warrior – and what it changes. The world that Miller and company has built certainly changes from film to film – as society keeps falling further away from where it began. Here, even the roads from the previous film seem to have been swallowed up by the sand, and things are even more desolate than before. Yet, there is also societies being formed – in perfect and imperfect models. Bartertown is a masterwork on primitive Production Design – the type of place that really may spring out of nothing. Thunderdome has a very impressive name – but it’s basically a large birdcage. When Max gets a weapon for his fight – it’s a chainsaw, but it doesn’t work. And the whole place literally runs on shit. But just when it seems like everything is doomed, that is where the kids show up – and hope comes with them.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is imperfect way to end the series – but a fitting one. At the end of the film, Max is where he was at the end of both previous films – but this time, he actually seems to be heading somewhere, and humanity may be coming back with him. While you likely could have made a fourth film in the series, this was the proper place to stop – Max has come full circle.

What this means for Fury Road, who knows? It’s more a reboot than a remake (you can tell from the more plot oriented trailers that it has a completely different story than any of these three films – although perhaps Max’s backstory is the same). In Tom Hardy, I think Miller cast a seemingly perfect modern Max. Up until now, the Mad Max series has produced one action masterwork, and two flawed, if still quite good films in their own right. There is no reason to reboot the franchise – it’s still quite well remembered as it is – but if Miller wants to, then I’m on board.