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: Everest

16 09 2015

EverestTowards the end of the lengthy expository section of “Everest,” journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) asks the question on everyone’s mind: “Why Everest?”  The film recounts a harrowing climb under the tutelage of mountain guide Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), who leads a group that does not necessarily look a typical band of sport climbers.  Knowing what exactly motivates them to reach the planet’s highest peak is a reasonable thing for an audience to wonder.

In this one moment perfectly set up for characters to bare their souls – the writer makes for a reasonable excuse to pose such an inquiry – “Everest” pretty much whiffs.  When accomplished scripters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy cannot deliver on an obvious occasion to answer what deeper meaning this mountain has, it cannot help but disappoint.

So, in the absence of a satisfactory answer to Krakauer’s question, I would like to pose it myself – albeit with slightly different punctuation and inflection.  Why, “Everest?”

Why, “Everest,” must you include a maudlin, manipulative score that tells us exactly how to feel when we should feel it?  Granted, at least they got Dario Marianelli, so it sounds pretty.  But as I watched the film, my mind often drifted to thinking about how much more intense and visceral the experience would be with the score for “Gravity.”  Such impressionistic sounds and frightening dissonances could make the environment seem dauntingly alien.  The music meant to represent climbing the world’s tallest mountain should not resemble the score for any old drama.

Why, “Everest,” must you stubbornly insist on just portraying things that happen to people?  As Hall’s group summits, they face treacherous weather conditions that put their lives in peril.  But the snowstorm is just a snowstorm.  The film lacks any sort of overarching structure of conflict, like man vs. nature or man vs. man, to imbue the challenges with deeper meaning in the mold of “127 Hours.”  The struggles remain in the realm of the personal, not tapping some greater sense of collective fear.  It’s danger without any sense of dread for the audience.
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REVIEW: The Theory of Everything

1 12 2014

‘Tis the season when phenomenal performances occur in decently passable films, and “The Theory of Everything” has arrived to fit that bill.   The movie is little more than a stage for a stunning physical transformation by Eddie Redmayne and a formidable emotional turn by Felicity Jones.  Their work shines particularly brightly because the film does not present anything else nearly as remarkable as them.  And actually, this hardly proves bothersome.

Director James Marsh and writer Anthony McCarten certainly provide admirable mood and story, respectively, to bring Jane and Stephen Hawking’s life and love to the screen.  They manage to pull off “The Theory of Everything” as a two-hander, giving both characters roughly proportionate screen time and development.  Normally, this kind of tale makes the woman subordinate to the man, reducing her to little more than a support system for her partner.  (Ahem, “The King’s Speech.”)

Granted, this was not too daunting of a task given that the source material is a book by Jane not solely about his illness and ingenuity but about their life together.  McCarten wisely keeps her story a central component of the film.  She is more than just the opposite that attracts him once, marries him, and then sits quietly on the sidelines as he acquires his own goals.  Jane is a person with flaws and ambitions in her own right, and by allowing her struggles equal credence, “The Theory of Everything” gives her both agency and weight in the overarching narrative.

As Stephen pursues his equation to encompass relativity and quantum mechanics, Jane is putting in the labor to achieve her own theory of everything.  She wants to serve as a wife and mother as well as attain her Ph.D. in Spanish medieval poetry.  She seeks not only to give love but also to receive it, and the latter becomes a source of compelling tension when Steven’s condition deteriorates to critical levels.  Jones shines in these later scenes, illustrating Jane’s good-hearted attempts to maintain a cheery caretaker’s facade.  Behind it all, though, Jane clearly yearns for the kinds of affection which her husband can no longer supply.

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REVIEW: Belle

9 08 2014

“Costume design porn” (if that’s not a phrase yet, I call dibs on the trademark) rarely satisfies for me, but I’ll admit, “Belle” came as a pleasant surprise.  Amma Asante’s 18th-century set period piece focuses far less on the threads and refreshingly more on social values of the period in England.  And for once, I felt like I should care far more about what the characters had to say than what they wore.

Perhaps my interest in the film’s subject came from having visited Kenwood House in London, the film’s setting.  I spent one beautifully foggy morning exploring the newly refurbished historical site while it was nearly empty, and one particularly kind docent took the time to explain the history behind Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the mixed race daughter of an English aristocrat.  Dido is brought up just like any other legitimate child by her aunt (Emily Watson) and uncle (Tom Wilkinson), who is tasked with deciding a landmark case of the rights of slaves.

Ironically, her cousin Lady Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) has far more power and standing in British society … yet far less of a dowry to offer suitors.  A rivalry develops between the two that feels completely believable, and the tension propels “Belle” throughout some dull moments in the middle of the film.

Assante’s film has its heart in the right place, promoting causes like racial equality and the rights of women as self-sufficient individuals.  She gets a little self-righteous and preachy at times, but at least these struggles ground the world in reality as opposed to the first-world problems that seem to occupy most films of this genre.  Sadly enough, these are battles still being fought, and “Belle” reminds us that we’ve still got some distance to go even though we’ve progressed from the times being covered in the movie.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: War Horse

11 01 2012

One of the best compliments I can give “War Horse” is that it feels like Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump,” just following a smart horse instead of a dumb man.  Both films are among the best cinematic examples of cinematic historical fiction, showing the way things were through unique perspectives that make us rethink how we ourselves see them.  They extoll the power of one good, pure-hearted soul to intertwine us all into a common destiny – and then throw in beautiful landscapes, gorgeous sunsets, and a poignant score by maestro John Williams.

By now, you’ve probably heard all the main talking points on this movie.  Detractors decry it for being all schmaltz and sentimentality, as if they were so far below Spielberg.  Fans love it for its warmth and touching narrative, as if Spielberg had lost his mojo since “Schindler’s List.”  Basically, they just found different ways to react to same thing: this is a movie designed to tug on your heartstrings in thinly-veiled manipulation using old-time technique and sensibility.

You can choose to either judge this movie on principle or on execution; I choose the latter as the movie is unapologetically and unabashedly what it is, and that’s totally fine with me.  Where it becomes an issue, though, is when it falls just short of the lofty expectations it sets for itself.  Granted, it’s a little unfair to judge Steven Spielberg against his own work, which contains many of the modern masterpieces of our time, but it lacks both the visceral and the emotional intensity of his previous films that “War Horse” can’t help but harken back to.

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REVIEW: Cold Souls

20 07 2010

Paul Giamatti is usually a pretty funny guy; his facial movements alone can illicit a few good laughs.  But not even he has the power to fill the emptiness of “Cold Souls.” Giamatti hasn’t exactly shied away from some pathetic characters in the past, and he has infused them with plenty of neuroses.  Yet for some reason, the whole act just falls flat here.

I get that the movie is a criticism of the capitalist society that we live in, and it’s one of those “intelligent satires” that aren’t exactly meant to entertain us so much as make us think.  It wouldn’t bother me so much had I not seen an excellent movie called “Being John Malkovich” that does everything that this movie so desperately wanted to do, and it does it flawlessly.

Apparently, writer/director Sophie Barthes wants us to think that soul extraction is the new therapist’s couch.  Giamatti, that is, a fictionalized version, undergoes this operation to make his work on a play easier.  He becomes disappointed at how small his soul looks in its glass container and throws a nice little fit.

And from there on out, it’s pure agony to watch Giamatti soullessly sulk around the screen, barely saying a word.  The plot collapses as there is some sort of “soul trafficking” issue going on in Russia that we are supposed to care about, but by that point, it’s so easy to just tune out everything that’s going on and be thankful you have a soul.

Strangely enough, I really enjoyed the movie whenever David Strathairn was on screen.  Too bad that was only for a few minutes.  C- /





SAVE YOURSELF from “Punch-Drunk Love”

20 04 2010

I see a lot of movies, and not all of them are good.  However, I don’t really have a system of reviewing them here.  So, I decided that I needed a feature on “Marshall and the Movies” that allowed me to post reviews of bad movies.  I enjoy informing you what’s worth seeing, but I also think it to be my duty to steer you clear of the awful ones.  (In addition, people seem to get more riled up when you don’t like things than when you love them.)

The name of this series is “SAVE YOURSELF!”  Consider it the anti-“F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  These are movies that no one should be forced to sit through; a “F.I.L.M.” is a movie that everyone should see.

The inaugural pick of this series is “Punch-Drunk Love,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s quirky “comedy” that scored him the Best Director award at Cannes in 2002.  Critics loved it, and so I figured I would give it a chance after PTA’s “There Will Be Blood” left me somewhat disappointed.

After watching “Punch-Drunk Love,” I was definitely disappointed.  But it was more than the usual disappointment – I was also baffled.  These are 90 of the most bizarre minutes of my moviewatching career.  Anderson’s script dabbles in some of the strangest situations – being ripped off by a phone sex operator, exploiting a loophole in a pudding rewards system, finding a harmonium in the middle of a street – which baffle more than they entertain.

I had heard that “Punch-Drunk Love” was a fresh take on the romantic comedy.  I’ll agree with that statement, sans the romance or the comedy.  There isn’t the slightest chemistry between leads Adam Sandler and Emily Watson.  I admit that it’s not supposed to be your typical couple seeing as how Sandler’s character has some serious mental issues, but the relationship that blossoms feels so … wrong, if that makes any sense.  And as for the comedy, Anderson’s humor left me dumbfounded and cringing instead of laughing.

There are plenty of people who love this movie; I even found a fan site exploring “Punch-Drunk Love” as a piece of expressionistic art.  I don’t mind “artsy” movies, but when they are so focused on the art that they forget entertainment and captivation, then I lose interest.  Unless you are the “film snob” type, I would strongly recommend that you stay far away from “Punch-Drunk Love.”