REVIEW: Hacksaw Ridge

2 11 2016

There are a few actors that can exude an old Hollywood vibe in their performances, but it took me a little while in”Hacksaw Ridge” to figure out what exactly it was about Andrew Garfield that emanated such classicism. Then it hit me: it’s his ability to listen. To be present.

As Desmond Doss, a pacifist and conscientious objector who enlists for World War II knowing he cannot pick up a weapon, Garfield is gentility incarnate. With his eyes wide open, the earnestness of the devoted, sabbath-honoring Seventh Day Adventist shines radiantly through. Garfield always takes in more than he takes from a scene. Any given scene is not merely a scene in a biography but an opportunity for his character to learn, lead and love.

Doss’ insistence on a black and white moral universe where violence can never be justified is echoed by director Mel Gibson. He creates a space where the full-throated defense of ideals and veneration of courageous men can glisten without the slightest sense of irony. This World War II movie feels cut from the same cloth as those made by the men who actually fought in it – or can at least remember it. “Hacksaw Ridge” is vintage Hollywood combat manned by one of the few actors who could have prospered in the period.

Yet the tribute to Doss’ nonviolent tenets gets severely undercut by the battle scenes, which luxuriate in gore to a disturbing extent. With different (read: non-heroic strings) music or context, soldiers getting shot through the head or immolated could play as broad comedy. If this carnage is meant to complicated Doss’ worldview or draw a stark contrast between belief and reality, it plays too broad and strays too far from the issue at hand.

This caricatured, simplistic portrayal of the conflict – one that holds the lives of Japanese opponents in shockingly little regard – is directly at odds with the deeply human and contoured portrait of Doss. His miraculous rescues and genuine valor still receive ample, deserved praise. But the fact that Gibson drags this rich character down into the muck with his shallow depiction of war does regrettably tinge the triumph. B2halfstars

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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: Terminator Salvation

23 06 2015

To get one thing straight, I adore the James Cameron “Terminator” films.  I have written a full essay on Sarah Connor’s femininity for class (if you’re interested in reading it, leave your email in the comments) and will gladly stop on whatever cable channel happens to exhibit the morphing metal men on any given weekend afternoon.

Yet as different directors, writers, and creative teams have dragged out the franchise, the movies lose what makes them special.  Sure, the time travel proves fascinating, but the human characters grappling with fate, agency, and responsibility set the series apart.  Fixating on the minutiae of revisionist timelines does little to capture the appeal of the original two films; this proves the primary sin of McG’s “Terminator Salvation.”

John Brancato and Michael Ferris’ script toys around with two pivotal characters in the mythology of the series: resistance leader John Connor (Christian Bale) and his father from the future, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin).  John must continue to wage the war against the sentient Skynet system that aims to destroy humanity, although he must also ensure that Reese survives until the point when he goes back in time to inseminate Sarah Connor.  The mysterious arrival of cyborg Marcus (Sam Worthington) in the presence of Reese throws a wrinkle in everything and essentially constitutes the entire conflict of “Terminator Salvation.”

If you think this sounds like a movie made for only the most hardcore fanboys, you are correct.  Seemingly, the only aim of “Terminator Salvation” is to add even more wrinkles and potential plot holes to the scrambled clock of the series’ narrative.  If Cameron’s films were mind-involving blockbusters, McG’s movie is just a head-scratcher that cannot even fall back on visuals or performances to save it.  Bale and Worthington, the films dueling leads, each turn in work about as dull as McG’s color palette of muted gray.  They grow the franchise longer, sure, but not deeper or better.  C2stars





REVIEW: Cake

21 01 2015

CakeJennifer Aniston stars in “Cake” as Claire Bennett, a woman struggling with chronic pain following a tragic automotive accident.  The poster and production stills almost completely hide it, but she sports a deep and instantly noticeable scar on her face stemming from the traumatic event.

And, per usual in an indie drama, the emotional scars run far deeper.  She attends group therapy as well as physical rehabilitation only to undo their progress in a toxic cocktail of booze and painkillers.  Claire further masks her agony through biting, sardonic wisecracks, deflecting anyone from exposing her pressing need for help.

It would be wrong to assign the character sole responsibility for her continuing struggles; the maelstrom of physical and emotional pain presents a tough obstacle for even the strongest individual to overcome.  Claire’s self-destructive tendencies do not disqualify her from receiving sympathy, either, yet the movie’s myopic focus on her pity party feels … well, pitiful.

Not to discredit or downplay her anguish, but Claire is a wealthy, white Angeleno living comfortably in unexplained luxury.  Her inability to function in society, shockingly, never seems to raise doubts about the continuance of her lifestyle.  She never seems to worry about having the funds to procure pain pills in Tijuana, and she never entertains the possibility of a world without the invaluable assistance of her inexplicably loyal Hispanic maid and driver Silvana (Oscar nominee Adrianna Barraza).

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REVIEW: Man on a Ledge

5 12 2012

I think a more appropriate name for “Man on a Ledge” might have been “Baby’s First Thriller.”  By that, I do not mean that you should go show this film to your infant.  Rather, I am making a statement on how rudimentary and textbook Asger Leth’s film is.

His color-by-numbers genre pic is not the worst thing in the world to watch.  There are plenty of predictably thrilling instances where the action heats up and the plot begins to sizzle.  But it’s just so unambitious, reaching for all the buttons that so many better filmmakers have already pushed to death.

Even though I can’t think of any movie that shares the specific plot of “Man on a Ledge,” it felt nonetheless familiar and banal.  Sam Worthington’s Nick Cassidy goes and stands on a ledge and puts on a show for a captive audience in the streets of New York City.  He’s  left to be talked down by archetypical police officer haunted by guilt of a prior incident, here played by Elizabeth Banks.

Meanwhile, a giant diamond heist occurs with Nick’s brother Joey and girfriend Angie (Jamie Bell and Genesis Rodriguez) inside the building across the street to prove his innocence.  And of course, the greed of the big bad capitalist, played by the menacingly frightening Ed Harris!  Both plots are interesting enough to keep our eyes on the screen, but neither really captivate at the level we have come to expect from say, a Soderbergh thriller.  It does what it needs to do and nothing more.

And if that’s all you want from a movie, then perhaps “Man on a Ledge” is the perfect background music to you doing chores around the house.  You don’t need to be paying too much attention to know what’s going on here.  Because after all, you know the narrative.

Ultimately, what I walked away from “Man on a Ledge” with was nothing about the story or the presentation.  To my surprise, it was that superb actors like Elizabeth Banks and Anthony Mackie were still being reduced to this kind of auto-piloted stock studio schedule filler crap.  Casting agents, please sit down with a copy of “People Like Us” and “The Hurt Locker.”  You will find Banks and Mackie, though not nominated for an Oscar (yet), are far above this type of movie.  Find them something suitable for their immense talents, please!  C+





REVIEW: Clash of the Titans

3 04 2010

It’s a pretty rare feeling for me to walk out of a theater feeling scammed.  But as I pitched my 3D glasses in the eco-friendly disposal boxes outside my theater, that’s exactly how I felt.

After seeing the success of “Avatar” early this year, Warner Bros. decided to add an extra dimension to the release of “Clash of the Titans.”  Usually, 3D adds to the wow factor of a movie and enhances the experience.  This, as moviegoers are now beginning to learn, also enhances the ticket prices – and the more we go, the higher they climb.

But the only thing that 3D enhanced in my viewing of “Clash of the Titans” was my disappointment and indignation.  I like the technology, and I know that great filmmakers will utilize to create some truly incredible cinema.  But here, we see 3D at its worst.  When it is just arbitrarily added to any movie, then it truly becomes a boondoggle and a meaningless accessory.

It is now the responsibility of the American moviegoer to stop 3D from becoming an arbitrary embellishment, and it has to start here.  If studios and theater goers think that we are so smitten by 3D, then they will continue to take advantage of us.  Think a movie like “Clash of the Titans” being retooled for 3D is bad?  At this rate, we will have “Precious 2” playing in 3D in the coming years.  That idea doesn’t sound all that crazy to a studio executive with you $4 premium ticket price lining his pocket.

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REVIEW: Avatar

23 12 2009

It takes more than just gumption and chutzpa to get up on one of the world’s biggest stages and declare yourself king of the world; it takes conviction.  When James Cameron did just this at the Academy Awards in 1997 after “Titanic,” it was shocking to some and bombastic to others (I’m too young to remember the occasion).  What had he really done to gain the title “king of the world?”  What separates him from the dozens of directors who stood in the exact same place as he had?  What is the legacy of “Titanic” other than a firm position in the highest echelon of box office performance and a hefty loot on Oscar night?  According to IMDb, it is now the lowest rated of the five Best Picture nominees that year.  From what I understand, the movie electrified the people and was simply too popular to ignore.

Fast forward 12 years to today where James Cameron has just released “Avatar.”  If he got up on national television and screamed, “I’M KING OF THE WORLD,” I just might buy it.  His latest project is one fifteen years in the making, and he may have just sparked a revolution in cinema.  “Avatar” is breathtaking moviemaking at its finest, with astonishing visuals that are designed to do more than just floor you.  They engulf you and transport you to Pandora, a land of untold beauty complete with its own indigenous people, language, and wildlife, for an exhilarating ride and fascinating experience.

I knew the effects would be a slam dunk victory for Cameron, but I had my doubts about his ability to craft a story after “Titanic,” whose melodramatic plot I can usually summarize in one sentence (Leo and Kate have a lot of fun and the boat sinks).  Much to my surprise, Cameron actually constructs a very engaging story with undertones about the dangers of imperialism.  Cynics might call it the Smurf County production of “Pocahontas,” but the story still feels fresh even though it is a bit recycled.  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington of “Terminator Salvation” fame) is a paraplegic Marine who is torn between the two competing human forces on Pandora after he develops a special bond with the native Na’vi.  The scientists, led by the sassy cigarette-smoking Grace (Sigourney Weaver), want to discover how the Na’vi think in order to live in harmony with them.  The military operation, commanded by the hulking Colonel Quatritch (Stephen Lang), works in tandem with the financial side of the project, run by a thundering businessman doing his best Ari Gold impersonation (Giovanni Ribisi), to figure out the best way to get their hands on the bonanza underneath the sacred tree of the Na’vi.  They would prefer relocation but are not afraid to resort to subjugation if the natives prove to be a handful.  While Jake tries to serve two distinctly different agendas, he becomes quite taken by the Na’vi and the way they live in cooperation with nature – and not to mention quite smitten by the Amazonian Neytiri (Zoë Saldana).  Soon, the two forces tugging for Jake becomes not scientists vs. military but Na’vi vs. humans. Read the rest of this entry »