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: The Revenant

10 01 2016

Alejandro G. Iñárritu communicates powerfully in two registers throughout “The Revenant” – visceral violence and serene stillness. Working with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, he masterfully navigates between these two extremes. When the film needs to do so, it shifts registers from portraying the beauty of nature like Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” to showing how that same environment can harshly impose its fierce will such as in Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”

Lubezki enhances the naturalism by ditching the fluorescent lamps and employing only the light present at the shoot. Additionally, he stages many an elaborate long take with Iñárritu meant to keep the intensity moving forward as if the lens of the camera was the eyes of the audience. When these two elements mesh perfectly, “The Revenant” provides some of the most pulse-pounding, adrenaline-pumping cinema of recent memory.

But there are times in the mad rush of blood to the head where Iñárritu seems in a little bit over his head. As with “Birdman,” his reach occasionally exceeds his grasp. Though his movies all but scream their production values, they never come out quite as important or revolutionary as he thinks they are. For example, the tracking shots convey the intricacy of their planning as much as they provide an immersive plunge into the unforgiving American frontier. Each moment of greatness has some accompanying gloat visible down the road.

Leading man Leonardo DiCaprio matches this pattern in many ways. He stars as fur trapper Hugh Glass, enshrouded in a Kurtz-like mystery to his group of fellow hunters. They know little about him other than that he has spent a great deal of time among the indigenous people in the Louisiana Purchase, which thus makes him more in harmony with their harsh surroundings. Just how deep that connection with the land goes, however, gets a trial by fire as the team’s leader, Tom Hardy’s ruthless John Fitzgerald, essentially leaves Glass for dead in the brutal winter.

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REVIEW: Legend

24 11 2015

The term “Scorsese lite” gets bandied about in critical discourse often (I’ve used it to describe both “Black Mass” and “Blood Ties“), but if anyone needed a textbook definition, they should probably look at Brian Helgeland’s “Legend.” Here is a film with all the style and gang violence of “GoodFellas” with none of its poise or polish. Helgeland is all talk, no walk.

At one of the many points during the film’s bloated 131 minute runtime when my mind drifted away from the action, I came to realize what a deceptively difficult act “GoodFellas” was to execute. Henry Hill’s saga essentially has no major character obstacles (other than the law), no major goals nor anything driving the action … and yet it’s totally compelling and engaging the whole way through. “Legend,” despite a “Parent Trap”-style dual performance from Tom Hardy as the Kray Twins, just runs around in well-styled circles to the tunes of a great jukebox.

The Krays are supposedly the most feared men in London, but you can hardly tell from the movie, which seems to take that fact for granted. “Legend” mostly consists of brotherly bickering between Ronnie, the more unstable one, and Reggie, the one with interest in conventional goals like getting married. Hardy has proven himself great at exposing the homoeroticism that lies dormant in the male propensity for violence, and the Krays are another great showcase of this gift. Too bad the film insists on turning these undercurrents into such obvious overtones.

And, oddly enough, Helgeland chooses to frame their story through the narration of Reggie’s wife, Emily Browning’s Frances. It seems like a choice meant to rebut some of the sexism that plagues gangster films, though she winds up feeling like a token character. Her character is of little consequence to the narrative – heck, “Legend” probably does not even pass the Bechdel Test. Worse yet, this is just skimming the surface of basic screenwriting issues from a writer who won an Oscar for his “L.A. Confidential” script. C / 2stars





REVIEW: Mad Max: Fury Road

13 05 2015

George Miller certainly trusts his audience.  30 years after the last entry in his cult franchise, he throws us into a fully realized dystopian society with little spoon-fed exposition in “Mad Max: Fury Road.”  It’s a nice gear shift in the Marvel Cinematic Universe age, where the minutiae of everything require spelling out in excruciatingly explicit terms.

He also respects his audience, giving them plenty of what they want: high-octane, well-choreographed motorized action.  Miller, no doubt aided by the spectacular lensing of John Seale and the precise editing rhythms of Jason Ballantine, conducts an orchestra of crashing contraptions in the desert sands.  These complex sequences flow effortlessly, and only when the following scene began in silence did I realize how rapidly and loudly Miller made my heart beat.

These thrilling sequences also gain some emotional heft since “Mad Max: Fury Road” gives them actual human stakes within the narrative.  For once, a film does not equate adrenaline with testosterone – “men’s rights” activists be damned.  Despite the character’s name in the title, Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky hardly sits in the driver’s seat to guide the film forward.  That honor belongs to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, a warrior fleeing the tyrannical kingdom to lead several of the leader’s concubines to freedom.

Strength through silence is a fairly common method for males to assert dominance on screen, though it only works partially for Hardy here.  Perhaps my limited knowledge of “Mad Max” lore plays into this, but Max’s ambivalence seems rooted in a lack of character development and background.  Miller doles out flashes of Max’s clairvoyant mental state here and there, although the uninitiated like myself are left to wonder if they are alluding to the past or setting up future installments.

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REVIEW: The Drop

17 09 2014

In nearly every film appearance over the past five years, Tom Hardy has established himself as a man’s man.  Be it through delivering brutal beatings in “Bronson,” “Warrior,” and “The Dark Knight Rises” or by providing a portrait of masculinity both polished (“Inception“) and rugged (“Lawless“), he’s been a paradigm of behavioral virility.

In “The Drop,” however, Hardy tries on a different persona: a mild-mannered, soft-spoken simpleton.  When juxtaposed with all his previous films – even “This Means War” – the contrast is jarring enough to grab some attention.  As Bob Saginowski, the bartender unwittingly drawn into a robbery of dirty money from his establishment, Hardy is still effective even in his quietude.

All the shenanigans that follow don’t really give Hardy much of a chance to show any range in this newly subdued register.  He gets a quasi-romantic arc with Noomi Rapace’s Nadia, who really feels like little more than the means to introduce the film’s primary antagonist, Matthias Schoenarts’ Eric Deeds.  Bob does manage to draw some sympathy, though, by adopting and caring for a beaten pitbull that seems to have sauntered out of a Sarah McLachlan SPCA commercial.

But beyond its leading man, “The Drop” has very little to offer that we have not already seen countless times (not to mention better).  Director Michael R. Roskam does not seem to inflect the action with any stakes, so it subsequently comes across as low intensity.  Though it runs a slender hour and 45 minutes, the film feels substantially longer.

Perhaps fans of James Gandolfini, who appears in his last on-screen role here as Bob’s business partner, will want the action to drag on so they can maintain the illusion that he is still with us. He gives a good performance, to be clear.  Yet I found myself asking the same question as when I left “A Most Wanted Man,” which will be Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last non-“Hunger Games” role: is this really the movie on which a great actor would want to go out?  Just another ho-hum, forgettable mob thriller?  C+2stars





REVIEW: Locke

11 08 2014

LockeLondon Film Festival, 2013

There’s no denying that a one-man show is a tough feat to pull off, so all props to Tom Hardy for holding the screen so effortlessly in “Locke.”  It takes true presence to power a film with no one else to play off physically, and Hardy keeps us strapped in for the real-time ride with him.

From no more than phone conversations, Hardy constructs a character who is far more than his surface roles of vital construction contractor and family man.  His Locke is a decent man who made a mistake and is trying to face the consequences while still keeping his world in orbit.  But he quickly finds out that maintaining balance will be a much loftier task than he initially expects.

We’re locked in the car with Locke (couldn’t resist the pun) as he drives from Birmingham towards a reckoning in London, alternating conversations with his boss, his wife, and another figure of great importance whose precise role I shall not spoil.  Unlike a similarly claustrophobic “127 Hours,” there are no cutaways, no flashbacks: it’s just this moment, and we’re trapped in it.

Director Steven Knight keeps the voyage visually interesting, finding just about every possible shot and angle of Hardy and the highway.  There’s something vaguely hypnotic about the way he captures the peculiar lighting of the road at night, and it imbues the film with an aesthetic calm that clashes interestingly with the big turmoil Locke is facing.

Yet I couldn’t escape this sinking feeling that “Locke,” for all the novelty of its packaging, was really just a rehash of very familiar dramatic stakes.  The issues and problems Locke wrestles with behind the wheel of his car feel like they’ve been played out before, and frequently.  No matter how you slice it, a banality is a banality.

Hardy and Knight do their best to freshen up the stale material, and they provide a smooth, slick experience.  But they don’t elevate “Locke” above the level where its narrative runs on anything more than gimmickry.  B2halfstars





LISTFUL THINKING: 2012 Superlatives

1 01 2013

New Year’s Day always marks a very interesting balancing act, reflecting on the old while also ringing in the new.  So while people are still thinking about 2012, let me offer up the first annual Superlatives post for the films of 2012.  I’ve already weighed in with the best and worst 10 of 2012, but what about the other 80 movies of the year?  What about the performances?  What about all sorts of other things?  This is the post where I get all sorts of stuff floating in my mind out there.

For the sake of review, I’ll go ahead and re-list my 10 best and worst of 2012.

Top 10 of 2012

10 Best of 2012: “21 Jump Street,” “Argo,” “Hitchcock,” “Killing Them Softly,” “Looper,” “Bernie,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Misérables,” “The Master,” “The Queen of Versailles

Prometheus

Honorable Mentions: “Rust and Bone,” “Prometheus,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “End of Watch,” “Holy Motors

Worst 10 of 2012

10 Worst of 2012: “The Grey,” “The Bourne Legacy,” “John Carter,” “Gone,” “The Vow,” “Killer Joe,” “The Paperboy,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” “The Watch,” “Casa De Mi Padre

pitchperfect2

Honorable Mentions: “Pitch Perfect,” “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” “First Position,” “Keep the Lights On,” “Being Flynn

10 More 2012 Releases I Still Need to See: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “The Impossible,” “Promised Land,” “The Intouchables,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Hyde Park on Hudson,” “Not Fade Away,” “Smashed,” “The House I Live In,” “Searching for Sugar Man”

Vanellope

5 Most Surprising Movies of 2012: “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Bernie,” “End of Watch,” “Hitchcock,” “21 Jump Street

Denzel Washington in Flight

5 Most Disappointing Movies of 2012: “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Django Unchained,” “Lincoln,” “Flight,” “The Bourne Legacy

Bachelorette

10 Most Forgettable Movies of 2012 (in alphabetical order): “Bachelorette,” “Hysteria,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “Lola Versus,” “Man on a Ledge,” “Men in Black III,” “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” “Take This Waltz,” “Trouble with the Curve

Silver Linings Playbook

5 Most Rewatchable Movies of 2012: “21 Jump Street,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Argo,” “Ted

Lincoln

5 Movies of 2012 I’m Glad I Saw But Will Never Watch Again: “Lincoln,” “Amour,” “The Invisible War,” “Compliance,” “ReGeneration

Killing Them Softly

5 Most Underrated Movies of 2012: “Killing Them Softly,” “Les Misérables,” “Prometheus,” “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “End of Watch

The Avengers

5 Most Overrated Movies of 2012: “The Sessions,” “Lincoln,” “Django Unchained,” “Life of Pi,” “The Avengers

PSH

5 Movies That Got Better with Distance and Time: “Killing Them Softly,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Master,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Prometheus

Brave

5 Movies That Got Worse with Distance and Time: “Brave,” “Lincoln,” “Flight,” “The Sessions,” “The Dark Knight Rises

Argo

5 Movies That Felt Shorter Than Their Runtime: “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Misérables,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Argo,” “Django Unchained

Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina"

5 Movies That Felt Longer Than Their Runtime: “Lincoln,” “Anna Karenina,” “This Is 40,” “Damsels in Distress,” The Five-Year Engagement

BOTSW

Breakout Performances: Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,”  Eddie Redmayne in “Les Misérables,” Ezra Miller in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Garrett Hedlund in “On the Road,” Scoot McNairy in “Argo

Silver Linings Playbook

Breakthrough Performances: Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook,” Michael Pena in “End of Watch,” Jack Black in “Bernie,” Channing Tatum in “21 Jump Street,” Elizabeth Banks in “People Like Us

Best Exotic

Breakdown Performances: Anna Kendrick in “Pitch Perfect,” Salma Hayek in “Savages,” Tom Cruise in “Rock of Ages,” Emile Hirsch in “Killer Joe,” Dev Patel in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

frame 01021605R

Best Body of Work in 2012: (tie) Anne Hathaway in “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Les Misérables,” Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games” and “Silver Linings Playbook

The Deep Blue Sea

Worst Body of Work in 2012: (tie) Rachel Weisz in “The Bourne Legacy” and “The Deep Blue Sea,” Taylor Kitsch in “John Carter” and “Savages

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Best Heroes: Jessica Chastain as Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk in “The Avengers,” Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables

John Carter

Worst Heroes: Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Taylor Kitsch as John Carter in “John Carter,” Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross in “The Bourne Legacy

Catwoman

Best Villains: Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Russell Crowe as Javert in “Les Misérables,” Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie in “Django Unchained

Skyfall

Worst Villains: Tom Hardy as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Javier Bardem as Silva in “Skyfall,” Rhys Ifans as Lizard in “The Amazing Spider-Man

Joaquin

Best Possessed Performance: Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master

The Paperboy

Worst Possessed Performance: Nicole Kidman in “The Paperboy

Bernie

Best Comedic Performance: (tie) Jack Black in “Bernie,” Channing Tatum in “21 Jump Street

The Watch

Worst Comedic Performance: The cast of “The Watch

Uggie

Best Cameo: Uggie in “The Campaign

Ryan Reynolds

Worst Cameo: Ryan Reynolds in “Ted

Eddie Redmayne

Best Singing: Eddie Redmayne in “Les Misérables

Alec

Worst Singing: Alec Baldwin in “Rock of Ages

That’s about all I can come up with for now … may add to this later!  Happy 2013, everyone!