REVIEW: The Man Who Knew Infinity

11 05 2016

The Man Who Knew InfinityStop me if you think you’ve heard this one before…

A bright man enters a new space as outsider, establishes his genius as a mathematician but then comes undone by some kind of illness. Did I just describe the plot of “A Beautiful Mind,” “The Imitation Game,” or “The Man Who Knew Infinity?” Not so trick question: it was all three. I guess it makes sense that these mathematician-based films all follow formulas – what other class has you memorize them?

To fill in some of the mathematician Mad Libs of the plot, Dev Patel stars as Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant Indian student who overcomes adversity and lands a spot to study at Cambridge University during World War I. Hey, could you guess this story involved British racists? We get a derisive dismissal of him as “you people” within the first THREE minutes!

Ramanujan bonds with his mentor, Jeremy Irons’ Hardy, over their outsider status in the elite university environment and eventually share profound conversations about the immovable mover. In other words, Hardy is just like the Keira Knightley character in “The Imitation Game!”

At least for that film, I had 13 years to slowly forget the details of its comparable predecessor. “The Man Who Knew Infinity” arrives less than two years after “The Imitation Game” and cannot even hurdle the lowest bar that film set. No matter how hard Patel and Irons try, they can never elevate the material. It’s like they are punching a long equation into the calculator, and we see a “divide by zero” almost immediately. At that point, you know this will not turn out well. C2stars

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REVIEW: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

29 03 2016

I miss Christopher Nolan. Never mind that it has been less than four years since his final Batman film and fewer than 18 months since his most recent directorial effort, “Interstellar.” He understood that the scope of a sprawling comic book movie could be an epic canvas for ambitious thematic and aesthetic content, not just an excuse for bombast and branding.

He has, inexplicably, turned over the keys to the kingdom to Zack Snyder, a director full of sound and fury that signifies nothing. He has an eye and a knack for style, to give him some credit, but Snyder never deploys it in use of a story or an idea. He’s all showmanship for its own sake – surfaces above substance, declaration over development.

As if 2013’s “Man of Steel” was not nauseating enough, he arrives with an “Avengers”-ified sequel in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” It’s roughly the cinematic equivalent of Kim Kardashian’s “Break the Internet” magazine cover. Call it “Break the Box Office,” if you will, as it’s already crushing at the box office this year. The film is practically incoherent and only gets more pointless and frustrating with each new turn. With each successive insipid development, the experience is as numbing as it is infuriating.

Snyder is more concerned that we notice the giant CGI pearls snapped at the murder of Bruce Wayne’s mother than providing context or rationale for this universe in which the film takes place. So two superheroes, Batman and Superman, have been living across the water from each other … and that was not worth mentioning in “Man of Steel?” While it’s nice that the film does not waste time rehashing an origin story, clearly Ben Affleck’s Batman is much different than Christian Bale’s. He’s more overtly villainous and cynical – but why?

Perhaps these questions might have been answered in the many scenes left on the cutting room floor. These crucial contextual bits are more important than ever as they could give the franchise a headwind as it launches a bevy of spinoffs and sequels. Marvel movies are bearable because their brain trust actually cares about their characters. They might ultimately succumb to formulaic plots, sure, but they at least understand that audiences want to get attached to these larger-than-life figures. Come and forget the action, stay and remember the characters.

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REVIEW: High-Rise

27 10 2015

Fantastic Fest

If Ben Wheatley’s achievement in High-Rise were likened to anything, it might have to be juggling fire.  Not merely content to cautiously play with fire, he lights a few torches and tosses them back and forth into the air.  Having perfect form seems almost beside the point as execution gets subjugated by the power of sheer ambition.  The mere ability to keep so many dangerous objects in orbit without self-immolating inspires wonder.

Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise

Wheatley’s cinematic iteration of J.G. Ballard’s novel, adapted for the screen by his wife Amy Jump, is the kind of filmmaking so outlandish and ballsy that it might even be illegal in some parts. The film lingered in development hell for four decades but arrives at the perfect time both socially and artistically.  For a story that deals heavily with class conflict and economic inequality, High-Rise has only become more topical with each passing year.  Furthermore, all its idiosyncrasies make Wheatley’s gonzo style a perfect match of director with material.

The film uses its titular structure, a Brutalist skyscraper containing all the necessary supplies for a self-sustaining community, as a microcosm of our stratified social strata.  But where many stories obliquely commenting on the de facto arrangements that organize our world opt for obvious allegory, Wheatley finds a more satisfying film by exploring the realm of the metaphorical.  Not everything in High-Rise corresponds directly to a recognizable counterpart in the real world, which allows Wheatley the ability to operate at higher levels of ambiguity.

Elisabeth Moss and Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise

Over the course of nearly two hours, the film takes its audience on a thrill ride akin to the Tower of Terror at Disneyland as it goes back and forth between the Caligula-esque exploits of the top floors’ wealthy residents and the grunge of the working class who dwell towards the bottom.  The closest thing the film has to an entry point is Tom Hiddleston’s Robert Laing, a doctor who seems to fall somewhere between the two divisions.

Laing is more often witness to the proceedings than an active participant in the war that breaks out, yet in a way, that makes him all the more ideal to experience the escalating absurdity through.  Calling him a blank slate does a disservice to Hiddleston’s captivating performance, though he does serve that function ins some part.

When someone roasts a dog or bludgeons their enemy with a BAFTA trophy – both of which happen in ­High-Rise – there is something rather refreshing about not being told precisely how to feel.  Many events that take place come with no obvious response, and Wheatley allows us the chance to react as we feel appropriate.  But be it laughter, fear, shock or disgust, our mouths are wide open in awe regardless.  And since the ideas come flying fast and furious, with a new thought arriving before the last one has a chance to settle in, there is simply no choice but to see High-Rise again. B+3stars





REVIEW: Margin Call

17 03 2012

If anyone ever wanted to know about the problems facing rich white people, tell them to pop “Margin Call” into their DVD player.  When it’s not faintly allegorizing what “Inside Job” had the balls to hit dead on, it’s dealing with the pathetic plight of financial sector employees like 23-year-old Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) who is only bringing home $250,000 per year at an entry level position.  Clearly he can related to little orphan Annie when she sang that it’s a hard knock life for us.

Writer/director J.C. Chandor, in his first feature, narrates the film much like a play, letting the principal characters guide the story.  Aside from maybe one line from a security guard, you won’t hear the voice of the people who will be most affected by the actions in this movie.  There’s one scene in an elevator where Demi Moore’s Sarah Robertson and Simon Baker’s Jared Cohen gravely discuss the implications of their conduct, and in between them is a cleaning lady.  In one of the few great touches of the film and with an almost macabre sense of dark humor, Chandor makes sure that she is totally oblivious to the grave implications of what’s happening in the building she cleans.

“Margin Call” was the beneficiary of chance when the Occupy movement began right around its October 2011 release date, and there are several lines which I feel could have been ripped straight off their cardboard signs.  His portrayal of the investment bankers are shallow, simply becoming more evil and out-of-touch with the more money they make.  The sweeping generalizations of the film are about as ill-conceived as his “magic formula” that predicts the coming of the 2008 financial crisis; I’m wondering if even he knew what on earth it was.  There’s no attempt to explain what a CDO is, or even what on earth these traders do.  There’s great complexity to the system beyond his adaptation of “Baby’s First Guide to Capitalism,” believe it or not.

There are some decent acting moments that make “Margin Call” a watchable movie, and the script has just above the requisite amount of intrigue to keep your attention.  But with all these “one percenter”s just talking about how to spend their millions in convertibles, you wouldn’t think that the world economy was about to collapse.  I know that exists, but if you want to demonize rich people, why not just make a movie only about CEOs of investment banks in September 2008.  C