REVIEW: Exodus: Gods and Kings

20 12 2014

Usually, when writers proclaim a story has biblical connotations, implications, or overtones, they suggest a certain primordial grandiosity of themes and conflicts.  Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is quite literally biblical, however, and does not even come close to achieving that standard.  It takes far more cues from an interminable “Hobbit” film than it does from its source material that inspires billions.

The action on screen plays out like a final walk-through for a real movie.  The blocking of actors looks clumsy and without purpose.  Lines come across as recited rather than deeply felt.  And when the whole film plays out against a CGI-heavy background that can never overcome an overwhelming sensation of artificiality, “Exodus” feels like it could be capable of inspiring its own exodus of audiences fleeing the film itself.

The job of writing a compelling movie about the conflict between Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) seems simple enough.  The clash of a pharaoh with a legitimate threat to his empire from a powerful deity is gripping in concept alone.  Then add in that the revolution is being spearheaded by his estranged stepbrother, and it becomes the kind of drama that ought to have writers drooling over their keyboards.

Yet most of the film’s problems seem to originate at the level of the script, which likely underwent quite a few drafts given that four writers are given credit.  The film certainly does not deserve to bear the name of great scripter Steven Zaillian (screenwriter of stellar work from “Schindler’s List” to “Moneyball“).  “Exodus” feels skeletal, the sketch of what a true screenplay should resemble.  The general progression of events is in place, but no one has affixed any supplemental scenes to give it depth of character or emotion.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 19, 2014)

19 12 2014

ElenaI have no idea how he does it, but Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev has a remarkable talent for making his films feel like modern-day parables.  His work on “Elena,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” achieves this tenor of storytelling through one heck of a balancing act.

The film is pared down to an almost elemental struggle without ever being dumbed down.  His visual style takes a heavy cue from naturalism, portraying much of the dreary minutiae that occupies most of our lives, yet “Elena” still feels compelling nonetheless.  Zvyagintsev provides satisfying drama that never dips into the realm of sensationalism.

“Elena” chronicles a brief period in the life of its titular character, a former nurse who has married up to wealthy Moscow businessman Vladimir.  If Russia has something equivalent to Social Security, they are at about that age.  So, naturally, the subject of settling his estate is a rather pressing concern.

Elena is hardly a gold digger, although she does have an interest in ensuring a significant stake.  Her grown son cannot provide for his own family, so he constantly leans on his mother for financial support.  Vladimir has grown tired of their inability to become self-sufficient, and he firmly withholds tuition funds for Elena’s grandson that would keep him out of the military.  To counter, Elena is also quick to remind him that she is a better investment than his thankless, prodigal daughter Katerina.

What ensues in “Elena” is a fascinating look at the lengths to which people will go in order to secure their future.  Every choice and each word are up for debate as to their correctness.  Zvyagintsev also astutely builds in the confounding factor of class relations to the film, adding an extra layer of complexity into a film that already boasts an intricate simplicity.  While very little may happen in regards to events, “Elena” feels like a more full viewing experience than most films these days.

REVIEW: The Babadook

18 12 2014

The Babadook

I generally tend to stay away from horror movies since most are hopelessly derivative and overly dependent on a trademark “jump-out” technique.  (It could be argued, however, that this is true for just about any genre these days.)  Thankfully, I am still in a position where I can just see the horror flicks that have received a decent amount of acclaim and avoid the latest uninspired “Paranormal Activity” installment.

Thus, I heard the buzz surrounding Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” and came running.  This indie gem is a seriously impressive first feature as well as an accomplished entry in the horror genre.  It does not rewrite the rulebook or open doors into a brave new world, but it does provide some truly chilling moments.  With a sizable enough cult following, which could easily be built through a Netflix release, this is a film that could conceivably be mentioned in the same breath as “The Ring.”

This psychologically haunting film follows the tormenting of widowed mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her young son Sam, who displays some behavioral affectations that raise alarm with school administrators.  Their life seems tough enough without the looming presence of a monster.  Amelia reads the tale of The Babadook, a creature from a pop-up book found at their house, and it suddenly assumes a very real form.  It seeps into their consciousness and begins to drive their behavior.

Be sure to amplify the terror by choosing a fitting viewing environment.  Try to watch in a dark room with as many people as possible.  “The Babadook” is definitely very scary, a purposeful product of Kent’s filmmaking and not an unintended externality, but it does need a little artificial stimulation to achieve its aims.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Into the Woods

17 12 2014

The last time a Stephen Sondheim musical received a screen adaptation, Tim Burton and company decided to completely obliterate what made the stage show of “Sweeney Todd” special in order to make the story cinematic.  So when Disney announced they would be making a filmic version of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” all signs pointed to them turning the revisionist fairy-tale musical into something akin to their hit TV show “Once Upon a Time.”  In other words, it could be a Marvel-style converging universe for Grimm’s Brothers tales.

Somehow, against the odds, “Into the Woods” maintains its integrity.  Disney does not force a pop-friendly ditty into the fabric of Sondheim’s notoriously tricky melodies and tough rhythms.  The soundtrack, likely to the pleasure of parents everywhere, boasts no “Frozen“-style tunes that demand playing on repeat.  These songs are better, or at least more purposeful – they tell a powerful story.

Sondheim’s music explores not just the wishes, dreams, and desires that come with the fairy tales.  The lyrics also deliberate the often neglected flip side of these: decisions, responsibility, and consequences.  “Into the Woods” head-fakes its first happily ever after in order deliver an extended post-script, daring to ask whether characters like Cinderella actually made the best decision for themselves.

Rob Marshall, thankfully channeling more of his masterful work on “Chicago” than his dreadful job on “Nine,” orchestrates this massive ensemble reevaluating their respective outcomes with a remarkable economy.  Everyone gets their moment, both in song and dialogue, to express their introspection.  Even with a few numbers truncated or cut altogether, “Into the Woods” still gets its message across with a great balance of obvious telling for the children and subtle hinting for the adults.

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REVIEW: Men, Women & Children

16 12 2014

In 2009, Jason Reitman added a potent subplot to his film “Up in the Air” that dealt with some of the alienation people feel in a depersonalized, technology-laden society.  Five years later, he arrives with “Men, Women & Children,” a dark and moody spiritual cousin to his masterpiece.  It goes beyond the obvious stating that people live text message to text message or email to email.  Underneath it all, they are clearly living orgasm to orgasm.

Reitman finds a new writing partner, Erin Cressida Wilson, to adapt Chad Kultgen’s novel, which is perhaps the only truly honest novel about the realities of living in a digitally mediated society.  The story follows a group of teenagers and their parents, each age group struggling with the temptations of carnality made available at their fingertips.  They all seek intimacy, a rarity in a sea of screen addicts, yet cannot seems to escape their enmeshed existence in the World Wide Web.

It seems as if Reitman, likely by commercial imperatives, had to pull some punches and soften the impact of his film.  How blistering can an excoriation of an Internet pornography obsessed society be if those toxic images are never shown?  How shameful can sexual deviance feel if the acts themselves are artfully avoided?  Reitman did not have to go full NC-17 to make an effective film on this topic, and “Men, Women & Children” suffers from his cautious moves.

Still, the message gets across pretty clearly, provided the audience can put down their iPhones for two hours to listen to it. For once, the youth are neither a fountain of hope nor a convenient object for blame; they are just exploring normal curiosities in the same way that their chief role models did.  In fact, the adults of “Men, Women & Children” are every bit as clueless and juvenile in cyberspace as their kids.  Society is all in this battle together, and no one is above it because it brings out the worst in everyone.

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REVIEW: The Way He Looks

15 12 2014

The Way He LooksUntil the very end of Daniel Ribeiro’s “The Way He Looks,” when all the flirtatious words and actions are consummated, I found myself wondering if it could really even be called an LGBT film.  The attraction between the two leads just feels like a beautiful friendship, one sorely needed for bullied blind student Leonardo.

Any romantic angle in Leonardo’s relationship with the newest addition to his class, Gabriel, seems attached by his homophobic schoolmates.  Ribeiro captures the instinctual, learned bigotry of teenage boys with a stunning accuracy that rings as true in the United States as it presumptively does in the film’s setting of Brazil.  Yet in spite of taunts and hateful slurs thrown his way, Gabriel refuses to cave and abandon Leonardo.

For most of “The Way He Looks,” it seems like Leonardo and Gabriel simply share a gentle connection with some vague undertones of attraction.  For Leonardo especially, who has never really had a companion of the same gender, it feels like he might just be adding a sexual component to their friendship due to the lack of both in his life thus far.

A part of me almost wished it had remained up in the air whether or not the relationship between Leonardo and Gabriel actually had a sensual dynamic to it at all, or whether it would eventually blossom into something of that kind.  The third act of “The Way He Looks” pretty much settles the debate  – I don’t think this really counts as a spoiler, since advertisers have labeled the film gay – by providing a pretty conventional romance genre ending to the proceedings.  I would probably be more upset or disappointed, except it was just so charming and sweet.  B-2stars

REVIEW: Lilting

14 12 2014

LiltingWriter/director Hong Khaou’s “Lilting” deals with two stories.  The first involves Ben Whishaw’s Richard as he and his lover Kai (Andrew Leung) prepare to reveal their relationship to Kai’s extremely conservative unadjusted immigrant mother Junn (Chang Pei-Pei).  The second follows Ben as he attempts to care for Junn in spite of her objections.

The missing link between these two threads is Kai’s unfortunate death in a traffic accident.  It takes a while to discern a gap in time between them, and even when it does become clear, Khaou does not delineate particularly well between past and present.  “Lilting” jerks around without direction, simply portraying events without ever really making them add up to anything substantial.

The film aims for tenderness in its portrayal of love and affection, but it winds up treading too lightly to have any impact.   With its static characters and lifeless plot, the 91 minutes of “Lilting” are a depressing chore with no payoff for the pain.

At least “Blue Valentine” and “Revolutionary Road” had a grand statement to make about relationships to justify their bleakness.   “Lilting” just has banalities and boredom to offer.  The only audience for this movie is (hopefully) Ben Whishaw fans who feel the need to see his entire filmography – for better or for worse – when he gets the roles, and thus the stardom, he deserves.  C1halfstars


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