REVIEW: By the Sea

28 11 2015

By the SeaAngelina Jolie Pitt’s third film, “By the Sea,” feels like a bloated student thesis project. And, for once, I do not use that term in a completely pejorative manner.

Jolie Pitt’s last directorial outing, “Unbroken,” was such a formulaic piece of studio entertainment that it felt depressingly soulless in its mediocrity. (Her deeply misguided mess of a debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” is best left forgotten.) Here, she seems to be grappling with some fundamentals of cinema: editing, shot choice, shot duration, camera movement. Since Jolie Pitt holds such a position of power in Hollywood that she will likely see many opportunities to step behind the camera again, watching her grow is inarguably a positive thing.

Admittedly, there are far more qualified directors – female or male – deserving of eight-figure budgets to make a personal project. It’s frustrating to think on who lost out on their chance because Jolie Pitt got this one. Still, if she ever wants to take the reins of “Cleopatra” herself, everyone should be thankful she got to make “By the Sea” as a stylistic exercise.

The film is almost pure style, like a sleek perfume or cologne ad drawn out to feature length. Jolie Pitt and her husband, Brad Pitt, play the bitter married couple Vanessa and Roland, estranged practically to the point of their union dissolving. “By the Sea” follows their trip to the luxurious beaches of France from arrival to departure, chronicling their manifold frustrations in languorously broad strokes. Roland galavants off attempting to write his next novel, while Vanessa mostly just lingers around their hotel room smoking cigarettes and throwing shade through her Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses.

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REVIEW: Unbroken

21 12 2014

In terms of below-the-line talent on “Unbroken,” director Angelina Jolie assumes the role of Nick Fury by essentially assembling The Avengers of the cinema.  Every writer credited on “Unbroken” has penned an Oscar-nominated script.  Behind the camera as director of photography is Roger Deakins, cinematographer to great directors like the Coen Brothers as well as franchises like James Bond.

Those images are then spliced and joined together in the editing room by William Goldenberg (Oscar winner for “Argo“) and Tim Squyres (a consistent collaborator of Ang Lee who was Oscar nominated for “Life of Pi“).  And underscoring it all is Alexandre Desplat, the absurdly prolific composer for everything from “Philomena” to the “Harry Potter” series.  Essentially, “Unbroken” boasts what would be the ultimate fantasy squad if such a concept existed in Hollywood.

Rather than exuding passion for the craft, though, everyone phones it in. This dream team works in service of a rather bland and familiar inspirational story, and their respective skills do little to change that.  Instead of elevating the material, they are complicit with Jolie in playing it safe to ensure “Unbroken” plays to the least common denominator of audiences. They color by numbers when they could have been painting something truly inspiring and extraordinary.

The incredible true-life heroism and survival of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) has all the makings of a truly rousing film.  He had to triumph in the face adversity and anti-immigrant taunts as a child.  He funneled all that into the sport of track, which eventually took him to the Berlin Olympics in 1936.  Then, he survived for months at sea in WWII before getting captured as a POW by the Japanese.  These events give “Unbroken” quite a story to work with, yet the extraordinary feels rather ordinary.

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REVIEW: In the Land of Blood and Honey

7 12 2014

Blood HONEYWhen it comes to civically-minded celebrities these days, Angelina Jolie is probably one of the first people that comes to mind.  She’s well-known as a Goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, and her recent efforts to combat sexual violence in wartime earned her an honorary title of Dame from Queen Elizabeth II.

It follows that her debut behind the camera as a director, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” would be closely intertwined with her humanitarian efforts.  But while locked in the grips of the seemingly interminable picture, I couldn’t help but feel like her time and my time would be better spent elsewhere.  Jolie’s time would go, of course, to saving the world (while mine would most likely be put towards shrinking the size of my Netflix queue).

Jolie makes a rather color-by-numbers war film, one that never manages to excite or enrage.  Though it’s clear that she’s stridently railing against the use of war to justify sexual assault against women, “In the Land of Blood and Honey” lacks a call to action into which all that anger can be channeled.

The film drags along for over two hours, giving us little history or commentary on the Bosnian War of the 1990s.  All we’re really told is that there was peace, then – BANG! – it’s gone.  The one element that should have been able to gin up some intensity, a forbidden romance between the opposing sides, is never as frightening or dangerous as it should be.

The $13 million it cost to make “In the Land of Blood and Honey” could, quite frankly, have been put to better use.  The film has noble intentions, but Jolie’s failure to capitalize on any of them makes the enterprise a colossal waste.  C2stars





REVIEW: Maleficent

1 06 2014

What’s old must become new again in order to keep movie studios’ back catalogues fresh so they can earn money; thus, we end up with “Maleficent,” a reimagining of their “Sleeping Beauty” tale.  It’s a film that uses the same formula as “Oz the Great and Powerful” and then splashes it with flourishes from Tim Burton’s 2010 revisionist “Alice in Wonderland.”  It trots out the familiar mythology – only now in sleek CGI! – and then puts a few twists on it to justify the remake.

Analyzed in tandem with the Mouse House’s 2013 megahit “Frozen,” the film yields interesting insights into the psyche of Disney.  This marks their second straight tentpole that does not give the audience the expected male-female romantic ending, leaving them to ponder the many different forms love can take.  One can only wonder where these progressive messages will ultimately end.

But that’s about all the intellectual discussion I can pull out of “Maleficent.”  It’s a sloppily written film filled with feckless characters whose discernible motivations are few and far between.  The movie needlessly complicates the simple 1959 classic story, making it a slow plod.  And, from a perspective likely only depressing to me, it reduces great actors like Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville to playing cartoonish fairies in a failed comic relief subplot.

What should be the star in absence of these elements, the visual effects, are even quite confused.  Scenes designed to showcase the work of artists who work in the medium of pixels are cluttered with details that don’t cohere for a unified look.  At times, the film resembles the Pandora of James Cameron’s “Avatar;” at others, Burton’s “Alice.”  The opening scenes resemble an illustrated children’s storybook … and then, there are 3 mo-cap fairies.  The whole collective vibe recalls a 2002 video game like “Kingdom Hearts.”

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REVIEW: Kung Fu Panda 2

5 06 2011

Is it so wrong that I love “Kung Fu Panda 2” in spite of all of its unoriginality and lack of creativity?  Is it so terrible that I’m totally won over by an overweight panda who can do kung fu as well as he can eat?  Is it so strange that a village of adorable pigs and bunnies makes me feel like I’m five years old again?

While the sequel is hardly as entertaining and funny as the original “Kung Fu Panda,” Po and the rest of the Furious Five are still a joy to watch.  The movie still possesses that charm that made me watch the first installment countless times on HBO while eating dinner, and it proves once again to be infectious as it melts down whatever barriers are hardening your heart.  It’s also a movie that’s easy on the eyes with appealing action and fun graphics, evincing the slow closing of the gap between Pixar and everyone else with a computer.

This “Kung Fu Panda” is all about daddy issues as the movie’s two storylines both deal with characters coming to grips with decisions made by their parents.  The evil peacock Shen (voiced by the always creepy Gary Oldman) orders a genocide of pandas to prevent the fulfilling of a prophecy that one would defeat him, thus leaving his parents with no choice but to exile him.  When Shen returns to power, the Dragon Warrior Po (Jack Black) starts to question where he really came from.  His goose father, Mr. Ping, has few answers, so Po is largely on his own.  However, his kung fu companions, known as the Furious Five (and featuring the voices of Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, and David Cross) have big issues that they have to deal with, namely Shen’s reappearance which threatens to dismantle the art of kung fu.  But as their journey progresses, Po finds that the questions about his parents may relate to Shen’s avarice and malice in shocking ways.

That summary probably makes the plot sound more glorious and intricate than it actually unfolds in the movie.  On the other hand, sometimes glory isn’t found in the story (despite the majority of my reviews saying just the opposite).  Sometimes it’s just the rush of joy that can be found in juvenility that makes something fun.  Sometimes we can have a perfectly gratifying experience just looking at a cute and cuddly panda cub playing in a bucket of radishes.  Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of what it’s like to be a kid watching a movie again.  B+ / 





REVIEW: The Tourist

20 12 2010

There could be worse things to watch for an hour and 45 minutes than a cinematic worshipping and idolization of the physique of Angelina Jolie.  As if “Salt” wasn’t enough for 2010, Sony takes her out of action figure mode and gives us “The Tourist,” a whole movie of Jolie in red carpet mode.  She elegantly struts across the scene in beautiful gown after dazzling dress, all accentuating her best features: her eyes, her lips, and her figure.  If you aren’t floored by her beauty by the end of the movie, go get your eyes checked.

But as your mom taught you in middle school, looks aren’t all that matter; you have to have a good personality to be truly attractive.  Inspect anything other than Jolie in “The Tourist” and you will find one snooze of a movie.  Half-heartedly a romantic comedy and half-heartedly an action thriller, it fails to satisfy as anything more than eye candy.

As the lover of con man Alexander Pearce, Elise (Jolie) finds herself tracked heavily by the police and the mob.  He tells her to find a man of similar build to him and masquerade around Venice as if he were the elusive Pearce.  On a train, she nabs Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp), a math teacher at a Wisconsin community college headed to Italy on vacation.  She entices him by a tease act and then manages to rope him into following her around by money and luxury.

From there, it’s a game of mismatched expectations as she sees him as expendable while he thinks she is romantically interested in him.  In his mind, the movie is a classic romance in Italy, and he proceeds as such.  Yet in her mind, it’s like a James Bond movie where he’s a pawn.  The two visions clumsily intermingle, resulting in one very uncomfortable blend to digest.  Jolie and Depp have zero chemistry, and even though it’s not necessarily required for the movie, neither have any sort of a game face for it.  The action sequences are slow and boring, failing to breath any sort of life into “The Tourist” which flails for its duration in desperate need of a respirator.

Director/writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck strangely follows up the sublime German thriller “The Lives of Others” with this confused, uninteresting popcorn flick.  Even with a few fairly predictable plot twists to keep us mildly engaged, nothing can save this awkwardly comedic and dully action-packed movie from being one of the least exciting movies to grace the silver screen this year.  Sure, thanks to Angelina Jolie, it’s easy to watch.  But as a movie, it’s hard to bear.  C





F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 24, 2010)

24 09 2010

This week’s “F.I.L.M.” is “A Mighty Heart,” the movie that chronicles the 2002 search for kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.  Running parallel to the hunt is the story of his pregnant wife, Mariane (Angelina Jolie), as she deals with his disappearance – and ultimately, his death.

(I think the story of Pearl’s captivity and beheading is well-known enough that I didn’t need to preface that with a spoiler alert, but if anyone thinks I’m ruining the surprise, let me know and I’ll take out that last part.)

On his last day on assignment on Pakistan, Daniel ventures into some sketchy areas to interview a very mysterious but powerful figure.  When he doesn’t come home that night, Mariane instantly fears that his disappearance was a kidnapping.  And as the days go by without word from him, the investigation takes on a graver importance.  The Department of Justice takes over the search; the CIA releases a report denouncing allegations that Daniel was an agent for them; even Colin Powell acknowledges the situation.

While the hunt for the kidnappers is mostly gripping, it doesn’t feel like anything we haven’t seen before.  “A Mighty Heart” works best when Angelina Jolie is on camera giving her tour-de-force performance as Mariane Pearl.  Clearly people that dismiss her celebrity as due to her beauty clearly haven’t seen “A Mighty Heart” (or, for that matter, any of her Oscar-nominated and -winning roles).

Jolie has a pitch-perfect range and totally nails Pearl’s every move.  While at the beginning she doesn’t show much emotion, we don’t feel distant at all.  In fact, it only draws us in more.  When we reach the tragic end, it’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch her let it all out.  It’s Angelina’s movie, and she owns every moment of it with as much grace as she has on the red carpet.