The Double

May 26, 2014 at 10:33 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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Not to be confused with the 2011 Richard Gere film of the same name, this movie is a modern interpretation of Dostoyevsky’s “The Double” that was published in 1866. Richard Ayoade (director of the British indie film “Submarine” but best known for his roles in “The Watch” and “The IT Crowd”), strays from the Czarist Russia of the original story and directs this film with a keen eye for the aesthetics of Cold War Russia, cleverly pointing out that perhaps not so much had changed between those two eras. The film takes place in a vast office and generic apartment buildings, replete with concrete walls, dim lamps, wooden cubicles and 60s era technology. The movie is beautifully shot and visually arresting from start to finish. In it, Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a meek and invisible everyman toiling away in the corporate machine.  He is unappreciated and unseen. However, his life is thrown into turmoil when James Simon joins the company. James, also played by Eisenberg, is his physical identical but his emotional opposite. As James begins to take over his life, Simon slowly comes undone. Dostoyevsky’s story ends darkly with his main character’s insanity and complete destruction. Ayoade plays his final scenes more softly and somewhat more ambiguously. Eisenberg does a terrific job of managing to play two different characters in the same body. Sometimes I knew which one he was just by the way he was walking. Where the movie was weakest was in its plot, which unfolded very slowly and with often dry dialogue.  At a lean 93 minutes, it’s hard to accuse the film of being overlong but it honestly felt much longer. In addition, a metaphor about the costs of treating people like cogs made sense in Russia but doesn’t resonate with 21st Century Americans who are obsessed with individuality. It’s hard to find anything to related to in Simon. Sharper, more wry writing might have really elevated this film to something special.  As it was, this was a visually arresting but somewhat empty film.

X-Men: Day of Future Past

May 25, 2014 at 5:54 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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◊ ½

I’m not sure who loves this film (though, clearly, there are those who do).  I would think it delves too deep into  the X-Men universe for the casual film goer and delves into it too poorly for the true fan. The movie is a barrage of characters, some of them played by two different actors, and none of them given any context or back story. So many actors were crowded into this film (Jennifer Lawrence, Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Ian McKellen, Michael Fassbender, Peter Dinklage, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, Anna Paquin,Kelsey Grammer, Famke Janssen, James Marsden) that there was scarcely any time for any of them, except Hugh Jackman, to spend more than 10 minutes on screen. As such, there is just too little to hold onto here and no one to care about. It’s clear you are expected to have seen every other X-Men movie ever made, how else could you possibly be expected to make sense of the mishmash of flashback references to those films? Yet, the film also cheats on its own story, significantly altering (or outright ignoring) the history it established in those films. How is Professor X still alive in the future when he died in a previous film? How is the villain Stryker a man of about 30 in 1973 and in his late 40s 36 years later? And how did Kitty Pride suddenly acquire a whole new ability? The film is sloppy but it doesn’t care because it assumes we won’t care either, and perhaps we shouldn’t. But I do. The Chris Claremont/John Byrne short story ran in the X-Men comic in 1981. I read it as a kid and loved it’s nihilistic vision of the future and the larger metaphor of how societies treat outcasts (this was the first time it had been so clearly expressed within the X-Men world). However, in cinema today, nihilistic futures and the mutant as outsider metaphor have been done to death, robbing this film of any potential impact. All that is left, is just another action film. But, if “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is just action movie fun, then shouldn’t it be more fun?  With the barrage of characters and the jumping back and forth between time periods, it’s hard for any particular scene to gain any traction. In the end, they were just explosive moments of special effects.  At one point in time (not that many years ago), cool effects were enough, but not any more.  In the end, I was bored more than anything else in this film.

Godzilla

May 18, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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◊ ½

It’s an interesting exercise to compare this film to the 1998 version. They both have a strange (and entirely opposite) relationship to the campiness of the original. In ’98, they were desperate to update both the giant lizard and his origin story. In that version, he was given as believable a plot line as possible and he was made to look menacing in a more “realistic” (or, perhaps, dinosaur-esque) way.  However, the acting, lead by the likes of Matthew Broderick, Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer, was heavy on camp-senseabilty with hammy over performing and cornball dialogue (“you gotta be kidding me, man!  We’re in his mouth!!  We’re. In. His. Mouth!!!”).  That weird mix seemed to doom the film.  Yet, this version seems to do the opposite.  We have a sterling cast, including Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (known mostly for the “Kick-Ass” movies but a real gem in “Nowhere Boy”), and they act their parts with lethal solemnity. Particularly early in the film, we are subjected to heartbreak, loss and a whole variety of complex emotions you might expect from a film not about a giant radioactive lizard. The problem is that none of those feelings can really be explored in any meaningful way; they are just splashed at us as though they magically give weight to the characters. The films seems to be trying hard to make us care and give us a sense of cost to the impending battles.  However, it feels cheap and manipulative (never more so than when it is constantly trying to throw random young children into harms way). Certainly, many action films have been guilty of this and worse but, what makes this so odd, is that it is juxtaposed against a Godzilla delivered to us in high-camp form. Not only does he look like the original (with no regard to any sort of realistic anatomy) but he has a back story that seems to be trying to be as ridiculous as possible. In addition, he towers to ludicrous extremes and reaps carnage to an almost laugh-out-loud absurdist degree. But isn’t that the point? And, here in is my confusion: were they trying to make a serious monster movie? They couldn’t have been. And, if they were trying to make a silly, over-the-top homage to the original, why not go all in? The only time I was truly entertained was during the final battle between Godzilla and the obvious Mothra stand-in (called MUTO here).  Too much of the film was spent teasing us with grand battles happening just outside of our reach. Perhaps, director Gareth Edwards (this is his first major movie) thought he was being clever but he replaced the action we were longing for with just more tired dialogue. If anything, this film should have been a half hour shorter with twice and much action.  None of it was scary (nor ever would have been) but, at least it would have had the potential to be more fun.

Under the Skin

May 10, 2014 at 5:40 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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There is ample room for debate around how literally a director should translate a book to film. Peevish Potterites complaining because a single scene on film was not in the book will try the most patient critic. And I am caused to think of Jodorowsky’s psychedelic vision for “Dune.” Had his movie ever been made, it would have been a radical departure from the book. However, I do feel that if one is going to radically depart from the original story, the final product should be worth watching (and here I cannot help but think of the criminal “World War Z”). So, what to do with  “Under the Skin?” When I found out that this film was based on a novel, I looked it up. I can see the briefest of outlines of the original story but the film is so vague and so detached that very little of the story comes through. What was, apparently, a deeply detailed and allegorical sci-fi story about factory farming became a blurry and lifeless film about…  Well, honestly, I wasn’t entirely sure. There were parts of the plot of the book that I thought, “oh, I kinda guessed that in the movie,” and other parts where I thought, “oh, really?  It would have been nice to have understood that.” Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast” & “Birth”) has a history of making odd little independent films with big names in them. I admire him for that but this one just didn’t work for me. Scarlett Johansson can bring real depth to her characters (she may have been the best part of last year’s “Don Jon” and think of how expressive her voice was in “her”) but she does little here. In fact, all of the actors play it pretty cold and expressionless. In addition, there is little dialogue and really no dialogue of consequence (there’s no exposition or anything to move the plot along, explain motives, provide context…). The audience is left largely in the dark. There are a few arresting scenes visually, made all the more evocative for the fact that the backdrop was otherwise a very dully, gray, washed out, working class Scotland.  In addition, the soundtrack was fascinating in how aggressively non-soundtrack it was trying to be.  It was harsh, discordant and chilling and really worked with the mood of the film. This is the problem: there are kernels of brilliance here.  Had the story just been a bit more fleshed out and, had the characters been real enough for us to invest in, this might have been a brilliant film.  Sadly, it wasn’t. In the end, it was mostly confusing, unfulfilling and a little dull.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

May 5, 2014 at 3:39 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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½

It’s funny.  I thought I was prepared for what this movie was going to be and was pretty sure I wasn’t going to like that. Yet, it turned out that, the part I thought I would like the least was probably the only part I really enjoyed.  Generally speaking, when superhero movies have more than one key villain, they become an overwrought blur, with too much action and too little substance.  However, this mess felt more like a YA Rom-Com than it did a superhero flick and I found myself actually hoping for the action scenes.  We are treated to endless and insufferably cute scenes of Peter Parker being soooo in love with Gwen Stacey that I half expected him to sparkle in the sunlight and bite her on the neck.  All of their lines were so painfully, consciously cute or clever that there was little room for any real personalities to show through.  Even the pathos of the ending is stolen by how blatantly it is telegraphed over and over again.  If there was any poetry at all (and there was scant little of it), it was in some of the slow motion action scenes that allowed the audience to appreciate the grace of choreography.  Spidey looks good in those scenes, even if the villains tend to look overly rendered and phony.  The writers made an effort to capture the wisecracking one-liners Spider-Man is famous for.  However, in the context of everything else, they come across sounding condescending and smarter-than-thou. Sadly, this Peter Parker is a bit of a dick. In the end, this was a high-fructose romantic angst film that happened to involve a man in red tights.

Locke

May 5, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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The problem with a movie conceit is that, all too often, it ends up simply being a gimmick.  The conceit here is that the entire film takes place in a car driving toward London and the audience only sees the driver of that car as he makes various phone calls. What a disaster that could be; it just sounds pretentious. However, under the deft hand of writer/director Steven Knight (who wrote the screenplays for “Eastern Promises” and “Dirty Pretty Things,” among others) and stellar acting by Tom Hardy (“The Dark Knight Rises,” “Warrior” and star of the upcoming “Mad Max” remakes), this film becomes a gripping and touching story. Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a man driving frantically toward London and a commitment that he believes he has to  keep regardless of the cost.  It is tempting to imagine some sort of gangster story, villain on the run, a bad guy who’s bad choices are catching up to him.  However, the story is far more subtle and realistic. This is an ordinary guy who finds himself in a very ordinary and unfortunate situation.  You might not quite agree with the way he has chosen to handle it but the film spends its 85 minutes trying to make that choice a believable one. Through increasingly taut conversations with his boss,co-worker, wife, kids and others, we watch Locke agonize but continue on. Given that Hardy’s is the only face we see, he has to hold our attention and make us believe in who Locke is and what he’s doing. If you’ve seen him in the undervalued “Warrior,” you know he is up to the task.  Credit also goes to all the other actors, who have only their voices to engage the audience. Almost universally, they do a fine job. The best scene comes during Ivan’s last call with his son, where they discuss a football goal. It’s a heart-wrenching moment that required both actors to be wholly present in the heavily laden silence between what was being said. I felt that deeply sad moment much more so than any other moment on film so far this year. It is impossible, of course, to name a movie “Locke” without all of the implications that name implies and, true to form, this is essentially a story about whether or not we are slaves to our genes or actually tabula rasa, capable of shaping our own destinies (is Ivan just a Locke in the long line of what his family name means or can he make choices for himself and break the pattern?).  Happily, the film does not try to answer the question.  It just asks it in a clear, unnervingly simple, way.

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