REVIEW: Captain Fantastic

3 08 2016

Most movies about adventures into the wilderness center around the themes of getting in touch with one’s primal instincts or returning to some sense of balance with nature. Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic” is not most movies, though.

Viggo Mortensen’s Ben Cash raises his family of six children to live in harmony with the environment to an extent, but this is far from the traditional feral child model. They live in somewhat of a liberal arts experiment taken to a logical extreme where, removed from the supposed silliness of socially constructed rules and traditions, Ben can provide the kids with an environment of pure rationality and intelligence in which to develop. We’re talking people who celebrate Noam Chomsky Day over Christmas, people.

Ben’s ascetic cult of authenticity, cast as a utopia, may well be a vision of the world in a not-too-distant future should the slow march of progress continue in its current direction. While “Captain Fantastic” does often assume the posture of defending the inherent virtues of the idea, Ross hardly lets Ben off easy. What Ben might envision as a microcosm of a perfectible society also looks a lot like a more rustic version of the ivory tower mentality. A portion of America has let their rationality drive them into enclaves of self-selected intellectual peers, where cognitive gifts fan the flames of their own egos rather than stoking necessary social change.

Mortensen’s performance comes to embody the tough realization of the film. As he confronts the passing of his wife and the grief of his family, Ben’s plain-spoken literalism creates more problems than it solves. Years in the wilderness indoctrinating his children with the intelligence of textbooks has left him blinded to the need for emotional intelligence and empathy in the wake of tragedy. Despite some real quirks in his character, Mortensen keeps an impressively even keel as he slowly comes to realize the impracticality of many principles to which he has dedicated his life.

“Captain Fantastic” does not implode Ben’s self-confidence all at once. The film erodes it gradually to devastating effect. Ross favors slowly peeling off the band-aid that covers decades of resentment, equivocation and hurt. The process stings for everyone involved, characters and audience. But expression is ultimately more valuable than repression, and something tells me that Ben could find a philosopher to cite in regards to why that is so. B+3stars

REVIEW: The Two Faces of January

18 06 2014

two_faces_of_january_ver5Los Angeles Film Festival

Hossein Amini makes his feature film debut by directing an adaptation of “The Two Faces of January,” an adaptation of a novel by “The Talented Mr. Ripley” author Patricia Highsmith. The film is understandably a natural cousin to Anthony Minghella’s Oscar-nominated 1999 dramatic thriller made from the latter of the aforementioned books. Amini did not, however, have to be so hopelessly indebted to the playbook that made that film work.

That’s not to say he made a carbon-copy; the two stories are very different. “Ripley” has shades of “The Great Gatsby” as it explores the psychology of the jaded upper class and one ambitious upstart whose desire to join them turns dangerous. “January,” on the other hand, is much more about the events and their sequence. There’s far less complex psychology or layered characterization to be found as a result.

The film’s three leads each play more of a type than a person. Oscar Isaac’s expatriate tour guide Rydal is quite a bit like Matt Damon’s Ripley but played with a penchant for larceny. He stumbles upon the MacFarlands, an American couple visiting Eastern Europe, and finds himself hopelessly drawn towards them.

Kirsten Dunst, as Collette MacFarland, has even less to do. She’s little more than an item for a childish game of tug-of-war between Rydal and her husband Chester, played by Viggo Mortensen. The film takes place in the early 1960s, and it would have been refreshing to see Dunst channel a screen icon of the time (say, Grace Kelly or Janet Leigh) to lend the film the feel of the period. But alas, Dunst retains the same sort of turn-of-the-millennium acting sensibility she normally brings to a part.

Mortensen also does a familiar act, although for him, what it recalls is his superb work in 2005’s “A History of Violence.” He’s great at playing collected everymen who prove themselves shockingly capable of savage outbursts, though it’s somewhat less exciting as a repeat in “The Two Faces of January.” His Chester sets the film in motion by retaliating brutally against an investigator sent on behalf of scorned clients, and he later carries the film by engaging in a battle of wits with Isaac’s Rydal.

Though Amini can get his actors to engage with each other, his direction doesn’t quite provide the spark necessary to light the fuse of the film. The tension dissipates quickly after the precipitating event of the film and then devolves into histrionics and cliches. Formulaic action film, beautiful European backdrop – sounds far less like “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and more like “The American.” Or dare I even say it … the much reviled (yet inexplicably Golden Globe-nominated) “The Tourist.”  C+2stars

SAVE YOURSELF from “The Road”

27 11 2012

The RoadI’m in a semi-minority when I say that John Hillcoat’s film “The Road” is a dreadful movie.  However, I know I’m in a vast minority when I say that Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road,” the book Hillcoat’s film is based on, is just as bad – if not worse.  Yes, I’m taking issue with the novel that won the Pulitzer Prize and Entertainment Weekly‘s distinction of the best book of the past 25 years.

To all the haters who are sure to be drawn out of hiding by this pan, I assure you that I’m not some uneducated Philistine who is quibbling with McCarthy’s unconventional prosaic style.  Sure, it makes it a difficult read, but I actually quite enjoy it.  The experience is tough but refreshing, particularly in McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men.”

But “The Road” is just tedious and boring.  Yes, I know that’s the point!  But beyond a certain point, I get it.  I understand how the man, played with vigor in the film by Viggo Mortensen, and the boy, portrayed by then newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee in a rather impressive debut, feel on the road.  I don’t need to spend hours of my time reading them do the same things and having minor variations of the same conversation, day after day.  It makes for a great short story or short film, but stretched to novel and feature film lengths, monotony ensues.

Perhaps Hillcoat was fated to displease me with “The Road” since many of my issues with the text and story seem to be rather systemic, foundational quibbles.  Yet the upstart Australian director had made a capable, taut thriller in “The Proposition” before he tackled McCarthy’s work.  (“Lawless” had its issues as well, but I still admired the work on display.)

Joe Penhall’s script tries to add some sensationalism to make the story more tolerable (and commercially viable, I can imagine), but the attempts fail miserably.  Making The Man’s wife a larger character in the narrative adds nothing to the story, even when she’s played by the talented Charlize Theron.  Adding further dimensions of terror to their foes on the road don’t make the movie any more thrilling.  Instead, we are left with a film that ambles slowly and uninterestingly towards bleak nothingness and can’t succeed at the one thing that should have been a no-brainer for it: a deep character study of the Man and his Son.

REVIEW: On the Road

2 06 2012

Cannes Film Festival

Jack Kerouac and his pals were some of the most interesting people to walk the planet in the 1950s. They did as they wanted, lived in the moment, and thankfully had the memory and the brains to put it all onto paper for their adherents in future generations to admire as a holy text. So why on earth is the film adaptation of his seminal text, “On the Road,” such a bore to sit through?

That’s the question that kept going through my mind as I went sporadically in and out of sleep during the film. (I would not have nodded off back in the States, but the feeling of boredom and tedium definitely would still be in the air.) Granted, I haven’t read the source material, but the general spirit of liveliness just seemed totally absent, replaced by the same ennui that hipsters rebel against. I’m now caught in a conundrum: should I read the book to redeem and perhaps better understand Walter Salles’ film, or is my lack of enthusiasm an indication that reading Kerouac’s prose would just be an exercise in futility?

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REVIEW: A Dangerous Method

5 01 2012

If I were sitting in a test screening or reviewing the script of “A Dangerous Method,” I could sum up all my reactions in a lyric from an Elvis Presley song: a little less conversation, a little more action please.  There’s plenty of interesting psychoanalytic banter between the three main characters, but from the beginning it  is evident that screenwriter Christopher Hampton is much like the long-winded priest of your childhood who is perfectly content to listen to himself talk all day.  While it can be intellectually stimulating at times (although its appeal might be limited to those with prior knowledge in the field of psychology), director David Cronenberg makes little case for why this should be a movie and not a textbook or an educational play at the Museum of Natural History.

That’s not to say that the feud between the psychoanalytic master Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his thoughtful analytic practitioner Jung (Michael Fassbender) doesn’t have its moments of compelling drama, nor does it mean that the taut sexual tension in the doctor-patient relationship between Jung and the crazy/crazily intelligent Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) isn’t an interesting study of sexual desires and repressions.  But Cronenberg’s movie, largely due to Hampton’s script, is at war with itself, unable to decide what it is and how it wants to address its internal contradictions.  The balancing act is made especially difficult by the fact that the battle of the minds is a rather understated conflict while the battle of the sexes is garishly over the top due to Knightley’s performance.  Is it a movie of ideas or a movie about Jung’s self-examination through those ideas?

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What To Look Forward To In … November 2009

7 10 2009

The holiday movie season begins to kick into high gear in the month of November, as does exciting Oscar season.  Accordingly, this post is longer than the previous monthly preview posts.  Brace yourself for movie mania coming your way in a few weeks.  Sit back, relax, and let Marshall guide you through the coming attractions.

November 6

From the mainstream movie perspective, the hot movie of this weekend will be Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.”  Shot with the same motion capture technology that Zemeckis used to make “The Polar Express,” the movie will cash in on premium ticket prices from 3D and IMAX 3D screenings.  My main concern about the quality of the movie itself lies with its principal actor, Jim Carrey, who will act as Scrooge and all three ghosts.  I doubt Zemeckis will permit it, but I fear that Carrey will make a mockery of Dickens’ classic novel much in the fashion of Mike Meyers with “The Cat in the Hat.”  Regardless of what critics say, I will probably end up seeing this with the family for some good old-fashioned family fun at the movies.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” is the first movie of the holiday season to which George Clooney lends his talents.  Here, he plays a a military man in charge of a secret unit that attempts to use psychic powers for military purpose.  One such activity is to attempt to kill goats just by staring at them.  The movie also stars Ewan MacGregor as the reporter who discovers it all; the cast also includes Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey.  The movie is directed and adapted by Grant Heslov, previously nominated for an Academy Award for his work on “Good Night, and Good Luck.”  The trailer seems to show Heslov’s approach as similar to the Coen Brothers who usually provide a fun-filled romp.  Maybe the film will be a bona-fide indie hit, and Overture Films will be able to claim their first movie to gross over $50 million.  But we’ll have to see.

I’ve already written about the Oscar favorite, “Precious,” in a previous Oscar Moment.  I’ll post the trailer here just for the sake of promoting it, but if you want to hear my thoughts, read the post.

Two thrilling movies also open this week.  First, “The Box” with Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, seems to have an intriguing premise: if you push the button on the box, you will get a million dollars, but someone you don’t know will die.  However, it looks to be more interested in cheap thrills than exploring moral issues.  The other, “The Fourth Kind,” looks downright scary.  If horror is your thing, this looks like the movie for you.  I saw the trailer at “District 9,” and even if you don’t want to see it, you have to ponder the validity of the “true story” behind the movie.

November 13

Disaster porn reaches its pinnacle this weekend.  “2012,” Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic film, will have some of the biggest destruction and explosions the world has ever seen.  The trailer was so mind-blowing that I am willing to overlook all vices in the plot to see the world’s greatest landmarks get wiped off the earth.  My only comment is that if John Cusack somehow finds a way to stop the end of the world, I will be enraged.

The other major wide release of the week is “Pirate Radio,” a movie that Focus Features so desperately wants you to see that they changed the title from “The Boat that Rocked” just a few weeks ago to appeal to you. Are you flattered? You shouldn’t be. The movie seems like comedic Oscar Bait, but it didn’t do well Britain, the country of production. Focus scrambled to change their focus from awards movie to popular movie. So whenever this pops into a theater near you, be armed with the knowledge that “Pirate Radio” is merely a washed-up Oscars wannabe. But make the decision to see it for yourself.

New York and Los Angeles get the treat of watching Wes Anderson’s adaptation Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”  I have the utmost respect for Anderson for not conforming to the growing trend to do all animation through computers.  Anderson’s film uses the stop motion technique, moving an object gradually to give the illusion that it is moving.  Even more exciting that Anderson’s eccentric style in an eccentric medium is the voice cast.  Clooney voices the titular character, the cunning Mr. Fox.  The cast also features Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray.  What’s not to like?  (NOTE: The movie expands on November 20 and enters wide release on November 25.)

For those who like very obscure indies, “That Evening Sun” with 87-year-old Oscar bridesmaid Hal Halbrook has his latest shot at the gold.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 11, 2009)

11 09 2009

The “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is “A History of Violence.”  I watched it this weekend and was absolutely blown away by it.  The movie tells the story of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a small-town diner owner who is thrust into the spotlight after killing two robbers in self-defense.  However, the attention brings several mobsters into the town, confronting Tom about a past he claims never to have lived.  This threatens to rip Tom’s family apart at the seams, leading to some shocking revelations and startling actions.

Although Tom’s story arc is the most prevalent and important, I was extremely taken by the subplot of his son, Jack, and the effect of his father’s actions on his own as he strikes back against his intimidators.  The movie presents an unwaveringly honest portrait of high school, and I admired the commitment to realism.

There is a lot to interpret in “A History of Violence,” and it is one of those great movies that lingers in your mind for days on end.  Director David Cronenberg packs a great punch with only 90 minutes, quite a remarkable feat.  The movie centers around the concept of violence (if you couldn’t deduce as much), and by neither abhorring it nor glorifying it, he leaves it up to the viewer to decide what they think about it.  I do recommend this with a disclaimer though: squeamish should stay away.  The movie features some unsettling scenes of sexuality in addition to the graphic and gory violence.

If you watch this movie because of reading about it here or have seen it already, why not comment?  Even if you don’t agree with me, I still want to hear what you think.

Random Factoid #35

1 09 2009

March 7, 2004.

Do you remember the day?  My parents made sure that I did.

I was dying to see the new movie “Hidalgo” with Viggo Mortensen.  I had begged and begged all weekend to no avail.  On Sunday afternoon, they gave me a slight glimmer of hope: a maybe.  But, as I know now, when thing seem to good to be true, that’s because they are.  They ended up saying “no,” and I whined and complained.  They replied, “Are you always going to remember today as the day I didn’t get to see ‘Hidalgo’?”  And I said, “Yes, I will.”

And I still do.