REVIEW: The Light Between Oceans

31 08 2016

There are no battle scenes in Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans,” but it is undoubtedly a war movie. One need not see the dispiriting, demoralizing trenches of World War I when their effects are so clearly visible in the blank expression of Michael Fassbender’s Tom Sherbourne. All vestiges of his personality must reside permanently buried in some European forest because shell shock has left a shell of a man, one so eager to extricate himself from human contact that he volunteers for a solitary position tending to a lighthouse off the Australian coast.

Tom’s isolated assignment recalls the kind of lonely confinement afforded Jack Torrance in “The Shining.” While he might not suffer a psychotic break or murderous episode, the location exacts a toll in its own, quiet way. In the wake of the Great War’s devastation, Tom attempts to maintain the mirage of a moral universe by upholding order on the smallest possible scale. “The Light Between Oceans” never uses the oft-elided interwar period to foreshadow the next looming conflict, a decision that lends weight to his inner agony.

Alone, Tom’s illusion seems faintly sustainable. The notion begins to crumble, however, when his sorrow gives way to genuine affection for Alicia Vikander’s Isabel Graysmark. Their flirtations begin with only the faintest of sparks, and they do not generate any more heat in the bedroom. That’s on purpose – for Tom, physical intimacy is something he approaches with trepidation since the last bodies he came into contact with were likely dead ones.

Isabel wants a baby, yet several failed pregnancies make the prospect seem implausible. Their thwarted attempts at birth feel quite reflective of the post-war Western world, trying to create a brighter future but stillborn efforts contribute to a growing sense of dread that life will never bloom again.

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REVIEW: Jason Bourne

1 08 2016

As the Hollywood star machine continues to run on empty, feeding in no-name indie stars hungry for a career boost that can increase their international value to fund passion projects, we probably have to get used to a new cliché known as the “distinguished gray.” These films are third, fourth or maybe even fifth installments of long-running – primarily action – franchises which would rather turn the age of their leading men into a pivotal plot point than invest the energy to recast, reboot or otherwise retool the series. (And yes, I say men because seniority is generally a negative attribute for women over 40.)

Jason Bourne” ditches whatever the heck Jeremy Renner’s spinoff was and resurrects the titular character with Matt Damon, now pushing 46 and not attempting to hide those light streaks of hair near his ears. He’s in hardbody shape, though more out of necessity for the character and less out of an unspoken invocation to gawk at his figure. Bourne seems more tired and weary than his formerly spry, curious demeanor in the original trilogy.

In a sense, can anyone blame him? In this iteration of “Jason Bourne,” the world outside the frame seems to weigh heavier on the proceedings than ever before. The CIA must deal not only with the post-Snowden scrutiny of their surveillance behemoth but also with the whims of capricious Silicon Valley tech magnates, whose often radical views pushing for a more open society pose a threat to the agency’s very existence. No wonder Bourne seems content to bare-knuckle box in the sandy outskirts of Athens like Daniel Craig’s James Bond luxuriated in womanizing and heavy drinking in “Skyfall.”

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 24, 2016)

24 03 2016

A Royal AffairI’ve been pressed (in person) by two loyal readers who want to know the rationale behind my aversion to period pieces, in particular the so-called “costume drama.” I do try to elucidate when I hold an entire genre or subgenre in contempt – see my pans of “The Young Victoria” and “The Invisible Woman” as well as my praises for “Mr. Turner” and “Far from the Madding Crowd” for examples.

It essentially boils down to this: save your threads for the museums and the palaces. If you have something to say about the past that has some relevance to contemporary society, then tell your story as extravagantly as you like. Nikolaj Arcel’s “A Royal Affair,” which depicts the painful struggle to enlighten Denmark, is such a film with real heft for modern times. As such, I am happy to name this lavish costume drama my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Prior to Alicia Vikander winning the Oscar, and being in every other movie you see, she starred here as British royal Caroline Matilda, who gets unceremoniously married off to Danish king Christian VII (Mikkel Følsgaard). Once she produces an heir to secure the political bond between the two nations, Caroline mentally checks out in their marriage having fulfilled her duties. It’s not like she gets anything in return from the mentally unstable – and actually, quite disturbed – Christian.

Enter Mads Mikkelsen’s Johann Friedrich Struensee, originally brought in as a personal physician to Christian but ultimately a man of much greater influence. A disciple of Rousseau, his reason and rationality begins to inspire Christian to pass progressive reforms in his own country. Struensee also finds a captive audience for his learned views in Caroline, who is also in need of romantic and sexual fulfillment. The resulting fracas that plays out in “A Royal Affair” feels entirely relevant as, sadly enough, governments still reject common sense legislation and subjugate (or at least fail to prioritize) the needs of women. So, indeed, I found a reason to care about these people in lush wardrobes. Our struggles are still theirs.





REVIEW: Son of a Gun

7 02 2016

Son of a GunSon of a Gun” is a film about…

Well, actually, I’m not sure I can finish that sentence honestly. Julius Avery’s film is not really “about” anything. It’s yet another installment in a type of cinema that I call “things happening to people.” These types of movies are not automatically or categorically bad, but they are the cinematic equivalent of the simple sentence. They have the bare minimum necessary to get by and cohere. Any complexity beyond that is absent.

I could imagine a film where the journey of Brenton Thwaites’ JR is compelling like “A Prophet” or “Starred Up.” Both feature young men who enter prison with little to no affiliation or grounding and carve out a unique place in its social infrastructure. JR falls in with Ewan McGregor’s Brendan Lynch and quickly gets in far over his head, particularly once he exits the facility and faces expectations of continuing his role in their criminal enterprises.

But “Son of a Gun” mostly just watches as JR moves from scene to scene like the alphabet proceeds from A to Z. Avery adds none of the features – strong characterization, thematic heft or virtuosic artistry – that can elevate a “things happening to people” movie. The film does have some nice chemistry between Thwaites and Alicia Vikander’s Tasha, a path for his redemption. But otherwise, it’s less watchable and more just passable. B- 2stars





REVIEW: The Danish Girl

23 12 2015

In spite of the crusade by presidential candidate Donald Trump and his so-called “silent majority,” I still care about political correctness to the extent that it preserves the basic dignity of threatened groups. (Overreach is a separate conversation, however.) Words and language are powerful tools because they serves as outward reflections of inner ideas and beliefs. How society talks about a person as a part of the group with which they identify is important.

One such group that rightfully points out inadequacies in our vernacular is the transgender community. Many activists seek nothing less than the implosion of gender-based assumptions in the way we speak, a prospect as liberating for some people as it is uncomfortable for others. Every time it forces me to pause a little longer before speaking, I use that time to remind myself that these are above all people who just want the same respect to live their lives as any other person in society.

I try to stay on top of the latest developments in acceptable language – so this could be out of date – but the last I checked, it was a dubious practice to link anatomy to gender. (If this is no longer true, I welcome someone politely educating me.) Gender is a social construct, which may or may not correspond to a person’s biologically determined sex.

Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl” arrives in the heightened era of trans visibility; 2015 alone brought cultural prominence to Caitlyn Jenner, “Tangerine” and “Transparent.” The film tells the story of Eddie Redmayne’s transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, formerly Einar Wagener, as she seeks a then-radical surgery to remove the male organ that ties her to the sex she was given at birth. For someone so ahead of her time, it strikes me as rather ironic that the movie telling her story seems so behind its own time. Its assumptions surrounding gender and sexuality feel only slightly progressed from the 1930s setting.

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REVIEW: Testament of Youth

27 11 2015

Testament of YouthThe allure of period pieces, especially romances, is typically lost on me. So it’s always nice when something like “Testament of Youth” comes along to prove an exception to the rule. Rather than belabor its love story, James Kent’s film focuses on the experience of one extraordinary British woman during The Great War, Alicia Vikander’s Vera Brittain.

This richer, fuller narrative allows “Testament of Youth” to resonate for present-day audiences, not merely feel like a century-old time capsule. Vera begins the film pursuing an Oxford education, even then a struggle for women to achieve, but gradually feels her heart drawn toward the battlefields of Europe. There, her lover (Kit Harrington’s Roland), brother (Taron Egerton’s Edward) and many friends go to war for the soul of Europe. She begins to think it selfish to mill about in classrooms, so she shows some agency and joins the effort.

As a nurse, she gains a front row seat to the horrors of war, only amplifying the authenticity of her grief and worry for the men she loves. This perspective ultimately drives her towards taking a bold stance, one that Kent or screenwriter Juliette Towhidi do not necessarily presage in the two hours prior. Nonetheless, its high valuation of Vera’s opinion more than compensates for any narrative hang-ups. Vikander’s performance, emotionally forceful without ever resorting to maudlin histrionics, also helps quite a bit. B2halfstars





REVIEW: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

11 08 2015

Director Guy Ritchie got to where he is today – directing major studio action films – by never shying away from style.  At times, this tendency manifested itself in an almost enfant terrible fashion by flashing pizzaz when not necessarily required.  This was the Achilles’ heel of the “Sherlock Holmes” series, which suffered under the weight of his excessive flourishes.

Ritchie’s latest film, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” finds the writer/director on his best behavior.  Along with a gaggle of other writers, he adapts 1960s television series for the screen in a manner completely fitting for a Cold War-era property.  It has subtle modernizing twists but always feels like a throwback to a bygone age of unimaginable suaveness.

Leading the charge, perhaps more than Ritchie himself, is leading man Henry Cavill as CIA operative Napoleon Solo. From the second he first struts across the frame, Cavill radiates an old-school electricity. He owns the screen, and he knows it. Cavill’s Solo feels cut from the cloth of debonair screen legends, and coupled with his completely self-assured booming vocal inflections, he excitingly recalls a Cary Grant or a Humphrey Bogart.

The film sees him paired with an equally formidable force, Armie Hammer as the sculpted stoic KGB agent Illya Kuryakin.  Trained to remain unmovable and unflappable, Kuryakin makes a worthy counterpoint to Solo.  The two are archrivals by nature of their countries’ ongoing diplomatic stalemate yet must become buddy cops by necessity to prevent the last holdouts of the Nazi regime from activating a nuclear weapon.

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