REVIEW: Dunkirk

23 07 2017

In a typical war movie, the 400,000 men stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk would command the lion’s share of attention. Their rescuers who arrived by sea in small personal and commercial boats requisitioned for the war effort might get an extended arc in the final act. Their protectors in the air might get a few shots during a climactic battle scene as they fended off the German Luftwaffe.

Director Christopher Nolan, however, is anything but typical. (You probably already knew that.) In his take on “Dunkirk,” each of these three threads takes on an equal narrative standing. Though they span a week, a day and an hour, respectively, their experiences unfold in a simultaneous, but not parallel, manner. The lengths of their contribution might be different, yet their weights are equalized – and their fates are intertwined.

This isn’t immediately obvious from the start of the film. Title cards spell out the duration of each section, but it takes their individual narratives overlapping or colliding for that time to really resonate. Remarkably, the gambit never feels like a gimmick. Nolan pays tribute to each prong of the Dunkirk evacuation by sustaining their story for as long as their lives were on high alert … and then gently ratcheting things down a notch once the end is in sight.

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REVIEW: Free Fire

17 04 2017

SXSW Film Festival

Ben Wheatley is not the kind of director to slowly ease you into the milieu of the world he creates. He simply plunges you into the deep end with piranhas, primarily through the use of stylized and highly specific situational dialogue. “Free Fire” does not wait for you to catch up. The loquacious characters simply start spitting out Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump’s words at a mile-a-minute pace, as they naturally would. You either start running or get left in its dust.

The only time Wheatley slows down is not for our sake. It’s to commemorate the first bullet fired of what must be thousands over the course of the film. In suspended animation, we watch it travel and have a moment to consider its impact. Then the full playground game breaks out between two rival Boston gangs in an arms deal, and it becomes absolute pandemonium.

Wheatley uses the film’s singular warehouse location to its absolute fullest, utilizing it like an adult jungle gym occupied by men (and Brie Larson’s Justine) who showed up in what looks like costumes for a trashy ’70s party. Every move to advance around the space requires at least four bullets, and the gunfire eventually immobilizes every participant one limb at a time. Towards the end, Justine relies on a firearm to serve as a combined cane and replacement appendage. Yes, “Free Fire” is that kind of movie.

It’s also a film that leaves behind little but empty bullet cases. Enjoyable though it may be to watch these bumbling gangsters unleash load after load on each other to period tunes (executive producer Martin Scorsese must have lent his personal jukebox), those pleasures prove fleeting. “Free Fire” unyokes the hysteria of Wheatley’s last film, “High-Rise,” from any form of social commentary. This is a very different movie with no pretensions of intellectual depth, yet even adjusting for the difference, it still fires a few blanks. B /





REVIEW: In the Heart of the Sea

1 05 2016

“Do the stories only exist to make us respect the seas?” This utterance from Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) kicks off “In the Heart of the Sea,” a two-hour riff on the inspiration of Moby Dick by Ron Howard.  The film shot in the fall of 2013, began test screening in the summer of 2014 for a planned release in spring of 2015 – only to be pushed back for a late winter 2015 opening. In those two years to tinker with the raw materials, apparently no one thought it was worth saving the project from playing like a book report run through an Instagram filter.

These kind of high intensity, high prestige dramas are normally prime territory for Ron Howard, whom I affectionately dubbed the king of the “Sunday afternoon on TNT movie” upon the release of “Rush” in 2013. He has dabbled in bringing other decades and centuries to life before, each time bringing a sense of specificity and thematic relevance. “In the Heart of the Sea,” on the other hand, feels synthetic through and through. The effect of shooting on a backlot or in front of a green-screen seeps into every frame of the film, constantly highlighting the artifice underlining this human survival drama.

As if that were not enough, the film suffers from many other predictable flaws that have become a common refrain. The nearly 30 minutes of exposition – a full quarter of the film – bog down “In the Heart of the Sea” from the get-go. When it finally does leave the port, screenwriter Charles Leavitt never commits to making the journey primarily a visual effects spectacle about the hunt for the whale or a survival drama. The two coexist unsteadily in the finished film.

Chris Hemsworth, too, proves ill-equipped to correct the course with his performance. His stardom essentially stems from the hammer with which Marvel equips him and the magazine headlines that followed. As of yet, Hemsworth has yet to really pass muster as a serious leading man. Hopefully audiences will soon see acting chops the size of his biceps. C / 2stars





REVIEW: Transcendence

8 11 2014

As Christopher Nolan’s director of photography, Wally Pfister has lensed some of the most iconic images of recent cinematic history.  Be it the field of lightbulbs in “The Prestige,” the stairwell in “Inception,” or practically any image in “The Dark Knight,” he certainly knows how to captivate with the visual language of film.

Transcendence” finds Pfister behind the camera calling the shots, not merely setting them up, for the first time.  While no ultimate judgment should be rendered on a filmmaker after just one feature, Pfister might not want to give up his day job as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer just yet.  His debut is a start-to-finish mess, mostly because of its almost incoherently assembled script.

The film begins rather simply and intelligibly with Johnny Depp’s Dr. Will Caster, a scientist attempting to create a fully sentient computer, getting assassinated by a radical anti-technology group R.I.F.T.  But once he dies and his consciousness is uploaded into a computer, “Transcendence” shatters into fragments.  Only Caster’s wife (Rebecca Hall) stays loyal; meanwhile, the rest of the supporting cast spreads out into multiple subplots that divide attention and diminish effectiveness.

Caster’s research companion Max (Paul Bettany) defects to join R.I.F.T. under the leadership of Bree (Kate Mara).  The G-men of the FBI (Cillian Murpy, Morgan Freeman) are also making moves of their own to stop the supercomputer.  Meanwhile, Caster’s digital brain grows stronger by the minute … so be very afraid, because technology is scary!

Pfister is not even able to translate this technophobia into any memorable images to at least portray visually what the story is unable to communicate narratively.  He begins “Transcendence” with a shot of broken cell phones lying around, practically begging to be considered a zeitgeist film.  But of all the sentiments Pfister invokes, not one of them comes even remotely close to resembling the film’s titular sensation.  He certainly knows how to make noise, but hopefully in his next film, Pfister will actually have something interesting to say.  C-1halfstars





REVIEW: In Time

27 02 2013

The concept behind “In Time” is actually fairly interesting, and maybe that’s why I was willing to overlook some of the film’s shortcomings.  In a dystopian ultra-classist 2169, people stop aging at 25, and living any longer than that requires you to literally buy time.  Extra time seems to come from just one extra strong and special handshake.

Such a kind of transfer begs the question of why people don’t just go steal it from the rich people why they sleep.  Or why people don’t just use tight grips or shake with superglue.  Needless to say, the broad strokes of inspiration blinded writer/director Andrew Niccol to the many plot holes in this world.

Watching the movie from a post-Occupy world certainly highlights this extreme case of social inequity as the rich live forever and the poor die young.  From my sociology classes in college, I can tell you that inequality is corrosive for society and poverty is quite literally a lethal force.  “In Time” is very conscious of these things and holds an interesting mirror up to the audience watching the film.

Sadly, that mirror is fogged up by some sloppy storytelling and a plot that ultimately can’t sustain beyond the novelty of the “time as life” concept.  The characterization is decent, but the cast of good looking actors who can still pass for 25 – including Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Olivia Wilde, Matt Bomer, and Alex Pettyfer – don’t do much to elevate the material.  The intelligence of the social commentary ultimately gives way to a fairly standard action film, but the themes raised in the beginning are enough to make me feel that “In Time” was not entirely wasted time.  B-2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 27, 2011)

27 05 2011

With Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” earning its place in the box office record books (but still nowhere to be found in Houston theaters), I figured the right way to kick off the return of the “F.I.L.M.” (First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie) of the Week was to shine a light on one of star Rachel McAdam’s finest flicks, “Red Eye.”  The phrase “killer thriller” gets thrown around a lot in regards to chilling cinema due to alliteration, yet few actually merit the descriptor.  This one does.

Say what you will about “Scream 4” being a critical flop and a box office disaster, but you can’t deny that director Wes Craven can send chills up your spine.  “Red Eye” is more in the vein of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” than it is in horror-comedy of “Scream,” and even on DVD and the second watch, it’s still as frightening as ever.  Running at only 85 minutes, the compact volume of terror keeps the tension so taut it could be cut with a knife at any moment.

McAdams stars as Lisa Reisert, a hotel manager taking the red eye home to Miami from her grandmother’s funeral.  Little does she know, however, that she is in the thick of a terrorist plot spearheaded by the devilishly charming man in the seat next to her, Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy).  His plan of terror is not to hijack the plane but rather hijack Lisa’s sanity, exploiting her position, threatening her, and playing intense psychological games with her.

Murphy, channeling his eerie performance from “Batman Begins,” is an absolutely terrifying villain.  He keeps most of Jack’s ferocity bubbling under the surface, just waiting to explode, and it keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat awaiting the moment when he finally snaps.  Thanks to Murphy, “Red Eye” keeps the blood pumping and the heart pounding all the way to the movie’s climactic moments.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 5, 2010)

5 11 2010

With Danny Boyle set to have the world eating out of his hand again with “127 Hours” opening in limited release today, I thought it would be wise to check out his full catalogue to see how this stylistically virtuoso director flew under my radar for so long.  I didn’t make it all the way through, so my judgement isn’t final.  However, I did conclude that the vibrant energy he brought to “Slumdog Millionaire” is nothing new; he has been perfecting it over the course of a decade.

In case the tacit implication wasn’t clear in that last paragraph, I still think that “Slumdog Millionaire” is Danny Boyle at his peak. Easily his most realized and lucid directorial work, it is clear that Boyle is a director worthy of Hollywood’s most coveted trophy.  However, I found that among his other films, “Sunshine” stuck out as another masterwork.  Set in 2057 when the universe is about to implode, the intelligent science-fiction movie is easily Boyle’s most underrated.

There’s a sense of claustrophobia not unlike that present in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” as the crew of the Icarus head towards potentially imminent demise on a mission to reignite the dying Sun.  The seven ethnically diverse crew members (because this is an international mission, after all) face immense psychological distress as the fate of the universe rides on their shoulders.  All seem ready for sacrifice – or are they?  As the ship moves closer towards the Sun, the astronauts begin to act more out of self-interest and less out of humanity’s interest.

The movie is more of a psychological journey than a visual one, although Boyle does a nice job of seamlessly integrating some very dazzling effects into the movie.  This journey is effective because of the movie’s authentic feel, accomplished through scientific consultation and the method acting procedures Boyle put his cast through.  “Sunshine” may not sound entirely original, and to a certain extent, it isn’t.  But imagined through Boyle’s eyes, it’s a blazing cinematic trek to the edge of space filled with excitement and suspense.