Mad Max: Fury Road

May 17, 2015 at 5:52 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I was struck, from beginning to end, how much this is a film of today. It’s impossible not to compare it to “The Road Warrior,” the Mad Max film that this one seems to be a direct homage to. George Miller, who had written and directed all of the Mad Max films, has taken a long and strange journey over the past 35 years (that lead through the “Babe” and “Happy Feet” movies among other things), before making his way back to the character that launched his career. Along the way, it seems fitting that so influential a film maker has also been influenced by the likes of Tarantino, Rodriguez and even Gilliam, each of whom casts his own shadow over this rebirth. The longest stretch of dialogue we get, we get before we even see the first shot; from there we are off and running. Within a minute or two of starting, the film establishes its break-neck pace and almost never relents for the next 120 minutes. Miller understands why people have come to see this film and it’s not for exposition or even  a plot (which effectively amounts to “let’s run this way for a while and then let’s turn around and run back for a while”). As such, he is clever enough to trim dialogue to virtually nothing. Instead we get a visual feast of phantasmagorical images and beautifully choreographed action. Most modern action film makers should take note of what Miller has done here. Though the battle scenes are fast paced and involve huge groups of people in complex interactions, this film is never blurry and hard to track in the way most CGI films are. The battle choreography is beautiful and the CGI used judiciously enough that it appears seamless. Pair this with the costumes, equipment, makeup and stark scenery, and you have a film that held me rapt the whole time. I did not care who lived or died. I did not care where they were going or why. I cared only that the film presented me with one more interesting, evocative and fun image after another. This was an action film that fully understands why the genre exists at all.

Wild Tales

May 10, 2015 at 9:50 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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Director Damián Szofrón, best known as the writer/director of a couple of popular Argentinian TV shows, has created his first feature film and it’s something to behold– a sort of bizarre and often hilarious mix of Almodóvar and Tarantino. The movie explores the themes of rage and revenge through 6 shorts. These are over-the-top stories of people being pushed to the brink and of how they respond. And they really don’t respond well. At it’s best, this film is an absurd delight, with scenes of revenge so excessive that they are laugh-out-loud funny. It is at its best when it’s at its most ridiculous. Where it stumbles a bit is in the middle, where a couple of the stories are a bit too grounded in the real world for my tastes.  In particular, one on drunk driving killed the film’s momentum; it was dark without any humor and really brought the audience down. Fortunately, the film ends strongly with a final scene almost as absurd as its first one. Be warned: this is humor at its absolute darkest but it is also side-splittingly funny at times and I challenge you to have more fun at any other movie in theaters right now.

Clouds of Sils Maria

May 4, 2015 at 9:42 am | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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This French movie, filmed mostly in English, can be a bit hard to grasp, not because its plot is silly or poorly written, but because it’s so dense. Taking place mostly in the Swiss town of Sils Maria, it covers the story of an aging actress (Juliette Binoche) who has been woo’d into co-starring in the play that made her famous two decades earlier. The play is called “Maloja Snake,” which is the name of the thick fog that regularly rolls down the Alps onto Sils Maria (it is the “clouds” of the film’s title). We are told early in the film that the fog portends the coming of bad weather. The play is about a young, ambitious woman who is the assistant of an older woman who is the CEO of a company. She seduces and ruins this older woman. Binoche’s character, Maria, originally played the younger woman and is now returning to play the older one. In the intervening years, she has become a huge star. Now older, insecure and self-doubting, she is living in Sils Maria with her own personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). Together they run through various readings of the play. So, you have Maria and her personal assistant rehearsing a play between an older woman and her personal assistant and it becomes repeatedly unclear when Maria and Valentine are rehearsing and when they are speaking for themselves. This is deliberate and deliberately jarring and dizzying. To drive that home, we have Valentine driving along winding roads so fast, she literally makes herself dizzy at one point. Director Olivier Assaya also makes brilliant use of cutting to black, giving a sense of the house lights dimming while the set is being rearranged. Add to this story within a story, the meta-commentary about fame: Chloë Grace Moretz plays Jo-Ann Ellis, the young superstar who will be playing against Maria in the play. Her life is a scandalous mess that fills YouTube and TMZ. Maria struggles to understand this scandal-ridden girl. But Valentine get’s her, allowing for several conversations where Kristen Stewart eloquently defends the young actress’s talent. One scene deals with the implications of Jo-Ann’s affair with a writer and his subsequent bitter divorce, reminding the audience of Stewart’s own affair with one of her directors, costing him his marriage. These layers within layers spin endlessly in on themselves, making the story sometimes too dizzying to follow. The film, for me, reached it’s natural conclusion at the end of “Part II,” when Maria and Valentine climbed the mountain to watch the Maloja Snake roll down the valley. On the way up the path, they discuss and debate the end of the play, as they have been debating the play’s meaning (and, really their own relationship) throughout the film. The scene ends by acting out the final scene of the play. This is an effective and nebulous ending and I felt the film should have ended there. It did not. We are treated to a final section that made little sense to me. The primary energy of the story seemed to be gone and I was unclear where we were trying to go. The story seemed to want to give us some sort of resolution, or at least insight, but Binoche’s Maria seemed no more settled. Through all the spinning, I felt that I had managed to hold on (sometimes just barely) until this ending; this was one turn to many and I left the theater feeling a drift. This is a real shame because we have a film that is so brilliant on so many levels and one that really showcases its women actors. Binoche is luminous as Maria. In her strongest performance in years, she is both fearless and terrified all the time; her passion and pain, exuberance and exhaustion are spell-binding to watch. That Binoche is a brilliant actress is no surprise but Stewart was a revelation. It’s easy to dismiss her after her own antics and films like “Twilight.”  But this film (in conjunction with last year’s “Still Alice”) serves to remind me that the biggest difference between her and someone like Jennifer Lawrence, is that Lawrence is much more Hollywood savvy; she has learned to play that game. The best part of this film is watching Binoche and Stewart together. They have some fantastic chemistry; there seems to be genuine tenderness in how they look at each other and when they laugh (which they do often) it’s warm and infectious. These are two women it’s impossible not to like. For them and their performances alone, I would recommend this movie.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

May 2, 2015 at 6:46 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

Here is the risk that all sequels run: there is an implied pressure to outdo their predecessor. This can often lead to more of the Bigger/Louder and less of the softer/deeper. And, unfortunately, this is the primary problem here. First movies have a sort of natural pacing built in because they have to introduce all the characters. This requires some degree of character development and it slows the action down, often resulting in a slow building of excitement toward the climax. This is what made “The Avengers” work as a film. By the time the Battle of New York (as it’s now called in the Marvel cannon, known as the MCU) occurred, the audience was dying to see the Avengers fully unleashed. That is what made the final battle, and the whole film, so satisfying. But, where do you go from there? Well, director Joss Whedon decided to do what most sequels do: start big and get bigger. The film exploded from its opening scene and then tried to keep that momentum up. As a result, you have plenty of action but not a lot of need for acting. With the exception of some interesting dynamics between The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), most of the characters were treading familiar ground. To that end, even the battle scenes felt like more of the same. They were definitely high paced but there was nothing there essentially different from the first film. Also, unlike the clever and well choreographed action of the first film, this one sometimes had so much happening, it was difficult to focus on it all, giving it a dreaded Michael Bay-like quality at times. I couldn’t help but compare the action here to the brilliant Marvel TV series “Daredevil” on Netflix; that show’s action scenes are elegant in their simplicity and so much more effective. None of this is to say that this was a bad film. It was often funny, occasionally surprising, at times clever and mostly quite entertaining. It was also clearly a set up for more things to come. Marvel Studios has become so focused on this behemoth cash cow they call the MCU that films are beginning to feel a bit like stepping stones along a path rather than ends in and of themselves. This was good summer fare; it just wasn’t much more than that.

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