The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

December 31, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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I think that a better title for this film might have been, “The Battle of the Five Stories.” A cogent, over-arching story was one of the key elements that made “The Lord of the Rings” possibly the best trilogy ever and yet that is exactly what has been lacking in the Hobbit movies. Sauron made a compelling enemy and the task of destroying the ring was a strong story arc that viewers could invest in over 3 films. Plus, the 3 films all really focused on Frodo and his own evolution during this journey. This time, it feels as though the first two films had their own story arc (go to the mountain, kill the dragon) that was over before the opening credits of this film. Director Peter Jackson then gives us over two hours of a jumble of characters and plot lines and (yes) armies that all seem like an excuse to stage one massive battle sequence. The action was dramatic, sometimes funny and cleverly choreographed but it was never really exciting. Part of the reason why is that it felt like there was less at stake and less for the audience to invest in. Bilbo does not feel like the focus of this film, though he was in the first two. Here it focuses more on the Dwarf king, Thorin. He does have his own story arc, to be sure, but it has nothing of the grandeur of LOTR, partly because it does not have the time to build. That leaves only the visuals but, what wow’d me a decade ago, just isn’t going to have the same effect now. In the end, the LOTR series was monumental because it was so visually stunning but also because the story was epic in nature. The Hobbit series is neither epic nor particularly stunning. So, what are we left with? A fairly standard action flick, I’m afraid.

Wild

December 28, 2014 at 7:33 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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Reese Witherspoon’s cinematic journey has felt a lot like she was trying to find a path away from the perky protagonists of her youth (ie “Election,” “Pleasantville,” “Legally Blond”). This has, at times, met with mixed success (“Water for Elephants”) and, at times, been unfairly ignored (“Mud”). But, here, she finally gets her chance to show us the actress she has become. Through two hours focused almost solely on her, during which she is never off screen, Witherspoon is able to show a weathered vulnerability that is exactly what her character required. Not only does she look eerily similar to Cheryl Strayed, who was 10 years her junior, but she is also able to capture a sense of how much life Strayed had lived by that point and how tired she was. Witherspoon’s performance was a soft one that required little intensity but was captured mostly in the ways she looked: at the trail, at men, at her mother or herself in a mirror.This film was evocative in another, perhaps unintended, way for me; several times, the audience is reminded of what it is like for a woman to travel alone. This is an experience I can never fully appreciate. In fact, I can only observe a woman’s experience of being in the world when I am there with her. As such, this was a powerful reminder of male privilege and how different the world can look through eyes different than mine (which is also particularly true of race, of course). Much of the film is without traditional dialogue but it never feels dull. Strayed’s introspections were beautiful and moving. They were matched by the beautiful scenery along California’s Pacific Crest Trail. Likewise, the music was a perfect fit. Songs from Strayed’s childhood would fade faintly in and out of the background, very unlike a traditional soundtrack, and they added a perfect sense of nostalgia to the mood. From start to finish, this really was a lovely film.

Citizenfour

December 14, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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Though I had initially planned on skipping this film, I ended up seeing it because it showed up on 3 Best of the Year lists. I decided to see what the fuss was about. This documentary covers the very earliest days of the NSA leaks. Filmed by reporter, Laura Poitras, as it was happening, the movie spends most of it’s time in Edward Snowden’s hotel room in Hong Kong as he is interviewed by Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. We witness his (and their) real time reactions to various events as they unfold, right up to about 6 months ago. That insider look is vaguely interesting and, really, only vaguely. Snowden comes across as a pensive, brave, slightly nerdy man with deeply held convictions. Though he insists that he distrusts the cult of personality in the media and does not want the story to become about him, it seems to be exactly what this film is trying to do. We like Ed Snowden and we want you to like Ed Snowden. Okay, I admit it.  I do like Ed Snowden. But that is neither here nor there to what he has revealed about our government’s deep reaches into everyone’s private life everywhere. This is disturbing stuff that remains too abstract in this movie. The facts are mentioned but only incidentally as the story unfolds around us. At one point, Greenwald mentions how complext it all is but then nothing is done to make it any simpler for the audience. Beyond some ominous scraps of paper with the word “POTUS” written on them, the film does little to really help us understand the depth and breadth and implications of what the US government is now engaged in. I feel like an opportunity was missed here. This movie is likely to get an Oscar nomination for best documentary. Many more people are going to see it. Unfortunately, they will leave the theater liking Snowden but not really understanding what he sacrificed so much to reveal.

The Babadook

December 14, 2014 at 4:51 pm | Posted in 2014 | 3 Comments
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“If it’s in a word, if it’s in a book, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” So says the children’s book that Amelia decides to read to her son one night. This beautifully drawn and very disturbing pop-up book sets the stage for what turns out to be a whip smart old-school horror film. Made in Australia by first time director, Jennifer Kent, the story follows Amelia and her 6 year old son, Samuel, as they deal with something (we’re not sure what) deeply weird happening in their home. The house is vaguely run-down and creepy enough as it is. Add a shadowy man-creature in a top hat after your child and, well, you can imagine. One of the real joys of this film is the way it eschews modern Hollywood horror tropes in favor of deepening layers of discomfort, anxiety, claustrophobia and uncertainty. You won’t jump like you might in an American movie but you will feel increasingly ill at ease; what exactly is happening here? Is it going where I think it is? Don’t be so sure. Kent cleverly defies expectations more than once, keeping the audience on edge by making it hard for us to predict the outcome. All of that said, though, what most elevates this film is the stunning acting by both of the two leads. This is essentially a two person film, with everyone else serving mostly to move the plot along. Essie Davis (known mostly for her role in “The Matrix” trilogy) is stunning as the heartbroken and bone-tired Amanda. Not only could she convincingly display a range of emotions but she was able to fully transform her face right in front of the audience to chilling effect. I believed her exhaustion, her fear, her rage. Likewise, 7 year old Noah Wiseman was astonishing as her disturbed son. In his first film, this kid reminded me of young Haley Joel Osment in his ability to display sheer terror. Add on top of that out-of-control tantrums and giddy, childish joy and you have an amazing performance. These two truly made this film a wonderful, creepy joy to watch.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

December 7, 2014 at 6:17 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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This very indie but very beautiful Iranian film has a sort of haunting but uneasy familiarity. It took me a moment to put my finger on it but, about a half hour in, I realized it seems so familiar because, in some ways, it’s the strange love child of “Reality Bites” and “Wait Until Dark.” In fact, you might call it, “Reality Bites Hard in The Dark.” The aesthetic and cadence of this truly unique movie is equal parts Hitchcock and early 90s, with a dose of the recent Jarmusch vampire film, “Only Lover’s Left Alive.” Filmed in Iran, in Persian with subtitles and in a gorgeous, haunting black and white, the movie is less story than evocative images, mostly of a young vampire girl stalking the night in her flowing black hijab. In those scenes, Ana Lily Amirpour (directing her first full length feature), is a master at creating old school creepiness. Her use of shadows and contrasts is stunning and reminds me of the old Hollywood masters. Yet, when “the girl” (as she is simply referred to in the credits) is in her apartment and removes her hijab, she transforms into a young would-be Winona Ryder. In fact, many of the young people, and the music, feel like they belong in early 90s America. There is something brilliant about comparing 90s Gen X detachment, modern Iranian youth culture and being a vampire. The film is a metaphor on many levels, both for being young in Iran today but, primarily, for being a woman in that society. There is an evocative scene that compares being a vampire with being a prostitute and the film is laced with a sense of menace against male exploitation. There is even a sly vagina dentata allusion early on. In fact, the film is slyly clever on many levels, being sometimes funny as well as creepy. Some viewers may be put off by the lack of a clear story arc; this is, in the end, more of a series of scenes, some more provocative than others. For me, that did not matter one whit. I was so completely taken by this strange hybrid of classic staging and cinematography along side a score and scenes of twenty-something yearning that looked like they came right out of 1992, overlaid on a modern Persian feminist work, that I scarcely needed a plot at all. This was truly one of the more interesting films of the year.

 

Foxcatcher

December 1, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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When is acting so good that it’s good enough to ignore the rest?  That’s a tough question for me to answer but the threshold was not quite reached here. At 134 minutes long, a movie needs to be fairly engaging to keep an audience’s attention and this one simply wasn’t. Based on the true story of wealth heir, John E DuPont, and his Olympic wrestling team, this is certainly an odd story at times but never really a very gripping one. Suffused with a strange menace and a vague homoeroticism, the film covers roughly a decade of DuPont’s relationship with the wrestlers and two gold-medal winning brothers, in particular. The audience feels slightly ill at-ease the whole time, knowing something bad is bound to happen. Don’t worry, your instincts will pay off but the road there is long and not terribly scenic. That said, the acting is absolutely Oscar-worthy. Steve Carell is a powerhouse as Dupont. Buried behind a latex nose, his eyes seem to recede into his head, where they convey a wary unease. Carell’s DuPont feels like a spring ready to pop at any moment and he carries the film’s tension entirely on his back. It’s a brilliant but not entirely surprising performance for me. I saw hints of Carell’s capacity to play dark characters in last year’s “The Way Way Back.” However, the real revelation was Channing Tatum as medalist, Mark Schultz. Tatum (who is mostly known for his “Jump Street” films), has never been on my radar. Yet, he embodied Schultz with the sort of skill I see in some of Hollywood’s greats. The entire way he carried his body (slumped shoulders, gorilla-like posture, lopping gait, protruding jaw) transformed him physically. He was also able to capture a dull-eyed naivety and (later) resentment that was terrific to watch. Mark Ruffalo, as his brother, was also fantastic but that’s hardly a surprise. The real joy of this film (and it’s no small joy) was in watching Carell and Tatum play against type so brilliantly. It’s sort of enough to recommend it. Or, I should say, if you can love a film just for the joy of great acting alone, then run to the theater, you might not see better this year. However, if you want more, anything more really, then I’m afraid you’re headed for disappointment. With a cast of lesser actors, this would have been a TV movie. In these fine hands, it has been elevated to something almost good.

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