Posted on 12/09/13 06:00 PM
December 6, 2013
I predict most viewers will walk away from "Out of the Furnace" either disappointed or confused, or maybe both. They'll be disappointed because the movie doesn't contain all the usual (or obvious) dramatic payoffs; and they'll be confused because they won't know exactly what the movie was about. True--it's not overtly clear how we're supposed to feel at the end, but to me the film's ambiguities work in its favor, because life is often ambiguous, and what I think director and co-writer Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart") wanted to do was make a slice-of-life tale about a sad situation in a sad place and for the audience to simply reflect on it. He accomplishes this, and though the end result isn't always compelling, we recognize the filmmakers and cast's efforts.
The story takes place in the dilapidated and all but forgotten borough of Braddock, Pennsylvania, which sits just on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. Based on my recent travels in this area, I imagine the production designers and art directors didn't have to do a whole lot of dressing up to give the film a sense of rawness and authenticity. However, they certainly did their job when it came to location scouting.
Braddock is the type of northeast city where the streets abound with loose stone, overgrown weeds, potholes and oil stains; where the weather is always partly cloudy; and where empty buildings and houses exist in one's periphery. Here, the people are hardworking and loyal, but when you ask them how they're doing, their response is most likely, "Oh, just doing what I can to get by." Romantic Braddock is not, and this unidealistic quality gives the film a cold atmosphere and hard truth.
In this town lives a pair of brothers, Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck). Russell, with his long hair, neck tattoo and unruly goatee, has followed in his father's footsteps and works in the steel mill, which has a limited lifespan, but he firmly believes "there's nothing wrong with working for a living." He'd be happy if life simply stayed its course and, along with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana), all he had to do was maintain it.
Rodney, on the other hand, is more restless. He's a soldier in the army who's about to depart on his fourth tour of Iraq (the film starts out in 2008). When he's not serving his country, he's struggling to pay off his debts, and indeed we first meet him at a run-down betting house. Despite his bad habits and naïve nature, Russell loves the kid, and with their father on his death bed and their Uncle Red (Sam Shepard) growing older, he inevitably feels the need to watch over him.
That's not to say Russell is perfect. A tragic accident sends him to prison and upon his release, he finds Rodney angry, out of work and shell-shocked. While Russell was locked up, he partnered with John Petty (Willem Dafoe), who owns a local bar that serves as a front for his underground gambling ring. Petty manages Rodney as a bare-knuckled fighter, which Rodney seems to think is the only way he can pay off his deficits and manage his aggression. He knows there's more money to be made by fighting the Appalachian locals in New Jersey, whom Petty refers to as "inbreeds." They're run by a drug dealer named Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), who is your textbook scumbag with a very short fuse, as we see him display in the film's opening scene. Rodney and Petty's encounter with DeGroat leads them down a path that eventually forces Russell to consider his own future and put everything he knows-including his morals and values-on the line.
That's the basic plot of "Out of the Furnace," and it's a serviceable one, but I don't think it's something Cooper really believed in or cared about, and in turn, neither do we. It's as though he simply needed to give his characters something to do while he watched them deal with their hapless circumstances, which is much more interesting. Beneath the "what happens in it" aspect of the film are some effective explorations of human behavior, character development and strong, nuanced performances, especially from Bale and Affleck. Watching Russell and Rodney come to terms with their own shortcomings, as well as more widespread issues like war, the economy, and the idea of being trapped by limited opportunities and familial responsibilities, makes certain parts of the story really hit home.
For these reasons and more--its atmosphere, its patience, its honesty--"Out of the Furnace" is worth seeing. It reminded me of "Ulee's Gold," another drama about a hard-working man who has to take the lead and clean up after his family, and not because he wants to, but because they're his family. The difference between the two is the filmmakers behind "Ulee's Gold" made the plot secondary to simply just observing the characters in their given situation. With "Out of the Furnace," there's too much negotiating between the two. The result is a good film whose individual scenes are better than the movie as a whole, which suggests it could have been great.
Posted on 11/26/13 06:18 PM
November 22, 2013
Of the first "Hunger Games" movie, I wrote that it made us sympathetic toward the young characters by allowing us to gain a real sense of the danger and dread they were to embark upon. The idea of kids being forced to kill one another is inherently eerie, disturbing and unnerving, which is something the movie knew and it refrained from glorifying violence, at least too much.
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," as a movie anyway (I have not read Suzanne Collins' popular novels), mostly abandons this approach to the material. It's taken the characters' dire situation and sensationalized it, almost to the point where we're supposed to think of it as fun, like an actual game, and it functions not to make us shudder at the idea of taking part in a competition where we have to kill our fellow man, but rather cheer or laugh at it the way we might a battle between superheroes.
This is most evident in a scene where the two victor tributes from the last Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), are schooled by their mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), about their latest competition. The roster includes, among others, a merciless brother-sister fighting team; a male warrior who sports a trident; a scientist-electrician who's very skilled with wire; an older woman with a gift for making fishhooks; and a barbarous female who's altered her teeth to be razor-sharp so she can rip out peoples' throats. This should give you an idea of how the "Hunger Games" is steering away from a raw, more realistic approach to its themes toward a more colorful, stylized and action-oriented one.
Is this new direction a bad one? Not necessarily, because as it is, "Catching Fire" is still entertaining, has high energy and is rather inventive with the new hurdles it puts in front of its characters.
What are the new hurdles? You'll recall from the first movie both Katniss and Peeta walked away victors of the 74th Annual Hunger Games, which is an aberration since there's always just been one champion. They did this by threatening to commit suicide unless they both could live. The media essentially deems them "Panem's Sweethearts" (Panem is the name of the futuristic world's last remaining country) because it's assumed they did this in the name of love, but the reigning Capitol government and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) aren't happy with the way things turned out and fears that members of the 12 districts will discover the kids' star-crossed relationship was just a rouse and therefore the government is capable of being subverted. Snow demands that Katniss and Peeta, while on their victory tour, convince the districts otherwise and their decision really did stem from passion, thus calming a potential rebellion.
When this doesn't work, Snow employs the games' new overseer, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to carry out a new provision for the games' upcoming Quarter Quell, which takes place every 25 years. For the 75th Annual Hunger Games, the new rule stipulates the contestants will be comprised of the still-existing group of victors. This way, President Snow ensures one of District 12's living victors--Katniss or Peeta--will end up dead.
The event once again takes place in a giant dome, this time in a tropical setting, where everything, from trees to animals to lightning strikes, is manipulatable by a team of engineers. Heavensbee is the technical director and he carries out Snow's wishes to see that many of the tributes are killed off swiftly. To extend their life lines, Katniss and Peeta ally with the two victors from District 4, the aforementioned trident wielder named Finnick (Sam Caflin) and the talented mute-hunter named Mags (Lynn Cohen). They also team up with Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wires (Amanda Plummer) from District 3, as well as Johanna (Jena Malone) from District 7, who's neither shy about her body nor her disdain for the president.
Even if you haven't read the books, just as I haven't, "Catching Fire" more or less plays out like a big-budget Hollywood sequel, and it's therefore just as accessible and capable of exciting us, which it does quite well. The action and special effects have been heightened since the first movie and events are set in motion that puts the series on course for its grand finale, which, like most franchises these days, is being split into two parts.
But despite its entertainment value, we can't help but think the franchise has taken the easier and more superficial route toward pleasing its audience rather than really honing in on its deeper themes, which include restricted freedom, persecution, and the human race's obsession with violence, and the increasing gap between the rich and poor. Examining these notions through dialogue instead of simply upping the spectacle would have made "Catching Fire" more challenging and substantive.
From here on out, "The Hunger Games" series seems destined to focus on its safer and more familiar dramatic elements, like love triangles--Katniss still can't decide who she loves more: Peeta or Gale (Liam Hemsworth); revenge; secrets; double-crossings, etc. The movies appear to favor the juicy stuff over the ideas that might actually make the audience deliberate its moral issues. But this also seems to be what most people want, which isn't the same as what people need.
Posted on 11/25/13 05:37 PM
November 22, 2013
Does anyone ever choose to be homeless? That's the running question throughout "Sugar," a raw, cynical film about young people living on the streets of Los Angeles. Despite the hardships of their situation, the characters are relatively upbeat, probably because they never feel like they're alone, which is both a good thing and a sad thing in this case.
The story follows a close-knit group of adults in their early 20s and one minor as they parade around Venice Beach with no clear direction in mind. Day to day, they either hang out on random corners, along the L.A. river basin, or they take the bus to and from Hollywood, all while relying on free handouts from strangers and working odd jobs to survive. They don't seem to care about how they look since they mostly go unnoticed anyway. Each comes from a broken home, or not home at all, and to them their freedom is their most important possession, and in an effort to feel like they're in control of their lives, they'll tell you this is the choice they've made.
But when it comes Sugar (Shenae Grimes), we get the sense her homelessness is not something she ran toward, but rather the result of her running away from something else. The opening scene more or less tells us what this "something else" is, which I won't reveal here, but Sugar's recollection of the tragic event gives her nightmares and has her waking up scared and anxious.
Perhaps this is why she figures it doesn't matter where she sleeps, since her nightmares and inner demons will follow her wherever she goes. At the present moment, she sleeps under a bridge next to her boyfriend Marshall (Marshall Allman), a drug addict with a short fuse. Despite his small size, he's ready to fight anybody who gives him the slightest look of condescension, and credit to Allman for convincing us his character would be merciless, even before he proves it during a violent scene involving a skateboard.
The other members of Sugar's posse include a minor named Ronnie (Austin Williams), who's just about 15 or 16 and whom Sugar claims as her responsibility, if only because it give her purpose; Free (William Peltz), who doesn't mind living his days on the streets so long as he can sleep in a warm bed with a different girl every night, which he's managed to do so far; and Sketch (Corbin Bleu), an artist with a slow mind but a sweet heart.
One of the ways Sugar makes money is by talking to a counselor named Bishop (Wes Studi) at a youth shelter. He pays her to document her life on the streets and write about it in a journal, perhaps in an effort to use her as a successful case study and get her and other kids like her off the street, hopefully reconnecting them to their families and society.
Sugar has a family who loves her, including a concerned uncle (Angus Macfadyen), and we know she's smart and capable enough to make something of herself, but fear, grief and sadness have paralyzed her from taking the steps to go back home. It's easier for her to simply hide and laugh things off, but deep down she knows she can't do this forever. Yes, she's probably right that living day to day on the streets is easier than taking full responsibility--like working a job, dealing with people, making important decisions, etc.--but the long-term effects of such a lifestyle eventually wear on you, or at least they do to someone as bright as Sugar, and she knows it.
We've seen enough movies of this nature to know it will likely take a tragic or near-tragic event to force the protagonist to come to grips with her past. The overall trajectory of the story and ensuing drama are mostly familiar and inevitable, which is not to say they're ineffectual, but the heart of the film stems from its honest, unblinking observations of its characters and the dialogue they share, which likely underlines the bonds real-life homeless people form. On this level, it feels very true. The director and co-writer, Rotimi Rainwater, supposedly based it on his own experiences and he's made a deeply personal project.
"Sugar" is not the most professionally made movie, and its low-budget and somewhat inexperienced cast are sometimes distracting and interrupt the momentum of the storytelling, but its substance and the particularly strong performance by Grimes raise it above just a simple cautionary tale. Despite the overly manipulative ending, we truly care about the heroine and hope she finds her way home, or at least a place where she chooses to be and no longer has to bear nightmares.
Posted on 11/11/13 06:22 PM
November 8, 2013
The modern-day superhero movie has become so popular and prolific--not to mention complacent--that it's managed to branch off from the traditional action genre and become one of its own. Marvel is the undisputed king of this category and any movie that takes place within its universe feels like another chapter in an ongoing saga, with virtually no end in sight. "Thor: The Dark World" is the latest of these, and although it has a few progressive story developments, as well as some nice touches of humor and emotion, it almost feels like it was made just to hold fans over until the next "Avengers" movie. It's like an appetizer before the big feast.
Luckily for Thor and friends, appetizers are good things and the movie serves its purpose for the weekend action audience, even if it doesn't quite feel like a significant, consequential experience, one in which we really care about what happens. In the grand scheme of things, it's a throwaway sequel with a silly plot that literally has its characters jumping all over the place and we watch things unfold rather passively.
This is a shame, too, because there were moments when the screenplay had us thinking it might delve into something more substantive and character-driven, which would have been nice since Thor (Chris Hemsworth) remains a somewhat elusive and underdeveloped hero compared to his Marvel brethren like Tony Stark (Ironman) and Steve Rogers (Captain America). He has presence and personality, but neither of these go beyond the call of duty for the genre. Everything Thor does and says seems functional to the plot, and so we don't feel like we get to know him on a personal or natural level.
Still, he's getting there, as when he hints to his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), that he doesn't want to inherit the throne and become King of Asgard (and therefore leader of the Nine Realms of the universe). Deep down, Thor, a demigod, feels he's better suited to the battlefield and aiding his people on a more manual level. Plus, his heart belongs to Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a mortal human from Earth to whom he promised to return. Two years after the events of the first movie, she slaps him and asks where he's been. When he tells her he's been saving the universe from total devastation, she says, "As excuses go, that's not terrible."
Meanwhile, Jane, whom you might recall is a nuclear physicist, discovers with her interns Darcy (Kat Dennings) and Ian (Jonathan Howard) an anomalous portal in London. This turns out to be an effect of the Convergence, a phenomenon that occurs every 5,000 years when the Nine Realms align, which blurs the worlds together and sends the laws of physics into complete disarray. Jane's mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), was already privy to this strange occurrence, which is why he's going a little nuts and running around naked at Stonehenge.
While investigating the portal, Jane is infected by an ancient power source called the Aether, which is being sought by the evil and monosyllabic Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), leader of the Dark Elves, so he can bring about total darkness for all time. It's never exactly clear what Malekith's motivations are, so we'll just say he has a bad history with Odin and, like most villains, craves omnipotence.
The latter is also what drives Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor's adopted brother who wreaked havoc on Earth before being thwarted by the Avengers. He's now confined to a dungeon, but with the Convergence imminent, and the newfound threat of Malekith, Thor has no choice but to commit treason against his father and enlist Loki's help to save Jane and Asgard from certain destruction.
I've merely skimmed over the plot, but it's just as well, since it's so fast-paced and frivolous in the first place. As more Marvel movies continue to roll out, the specific details of "Thor: The Dark World" will likely have little bearing on our impressions of future installments. There are some notable deaths, to be sure, which I'll leave for you to discover, but even these probably won't play a large role going forward.
Despite its insignificance, there's still a reason to see "Thor: The Dark World," and that's because it's fun and has high energy, although these qualities typically come with the superhero territory. A better reason is the strong chemistry between the actors, especially Hopkins and Hiddleston, both of whom bring a sophistication and Shakespearian quality to their roles. Even though what they're saying is trivial, they make it sound important and convincing.
As for the rest of the movie--the story, the action, the special effects, the standard climax in the middle of a large metropolitan city--it's all fairly routine stuff, but enjoyable and satisfactory nonetheless. As a standard chapter in Marvel's cinematic chronicles, "Thor: The Dark World" hopefully serves as a bridge to something more meaningful and challenging, at least as far as superhero movies go. And something better needs to come along soon, because there's going to come a point where a two-hour distraction like this simply isn't enough.
Posted on 11/04/13 06:46 PM
November 1, 2013
I've a sneaking suspicion one of the reasons Hollywood even considered adapting "Ender's Game" into a feature was due to the overwhelming success of the "Harry Potter" movies. After all, the two have a lot in common--both center on a young boy, just on the verge of adolescence, who's sent off to a special type of school because the overseeing adults believe he'll one day play an integral role in the destruction of evil. What's good about "Ender's Game," and this is something fans of the book may have been concerned about, is it's been made with care--enough, in fact, that it's able to stand on its own, apart from its source, which is what all film adaptations should drive to do.
Like many science fiction stories, "Ender's Game" takes place in the distant future, years after mankind has endured two wars with an alien race called the Formics (a.k.a. "Buggers"). The Formics attempted to establish a colony on Earth to harvest the planet's water, but humans fought against the insect-looking, non-vocal creatures. The movie opens with footage of a renowned soldier and pilot, Mazer Rackham, allegedly sacrificing himself by flying his jet into the Formics' mother ship, taking out the "Queen Ant," as she's referred, and thus paralyzing the rest of the fleet.
Years later, members of the International Fleet, including Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis), have reason to believe the Formics are planning a vengeful third invasion. To prepare themselves for another war, the IF has been recruiting children they believe to have the best minds and skills for military strategy and testing them in the highly competitive Battle School. One such recruit is Andrew Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), known to others as a "third" because he's the third child to his parents' (Stevie Ray Dallimore and Andrew Powell) under a two-child only mandate (his parents had to ask the government for permission to have him). Graff and Anderson believe Ender's inherent ostracism, and gift for preventing future conflicts by invoking fear into his enemies, make him a primary candidate to be an objective, pragmatic leader, one who can conquer the Formics once and for all.
And so "Ender's Game," like "Harry Potter," revolves around the young protagonist's trials and tribulations as he's conditioned to become something greater than he knows, along with his own natural growing pains. And just like Harry, Ender is smart, intuitive and overcomes challenges through pluck and pragmatism. He excels in school and, in a continuing effort to set him apart from the other cadets, Graff makes him the youngest commander of one of the school's army teams, who take part in routine battle simulations in a zero gravity environment. In his spare time, Ender also finds a way to beat a rigged video game that's meant to evaluate the kids' emotional state, which leads him to a significant revelation about his enemy.
Despite his success, Ender carries with him a lot of anger and resentment, which are no doubt the result of years of bullying from the kids at school and his older and jealous brother, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak). His one friend and constant has been his sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin), who is the only person Ender confides in and loves, probably because he feels she's the only one who truly listens.
Aspects such as these feel condensed and slightly brushed over compared to Orson Scott Card's novel, which offered more substance, mood and depth than the movie. It also contained more battle simulations, which contributed greatly to Ender's psychosis and emotional state. There was also an entire subplot involving Peter and Valentine back on Earth that's been all but removed from the film, most likely to keep the runtime down. Whether or not those unfamiliar with the book will pick up on these shortcuts remains to be seen, but I was hoping the movie would have been more drawn out so we could gain a better sense of this world and understand what Ender was going through.
That's not to say "Ender's Game," which has been adapted and directed by Gavin Hood, doesn't have its own virtues and efficacy. It maintains the essence of its source and, amidst all the sensationalism, explores the moral and ethical ramifications of Battle School and the idea of preparing for a war that may never come, not to mention the toll rigorous training takes on the minds and lives of young people.
On top of this, "Ender's Game" works splendidly as pure, sci-fi entertainment. It's got distinct, memorable characters; exciting action sequences; dazzling special effects; and, above all, a heart and mind. Despite the fact it negotiates the more complex subjects of the book, there are still fiery, intense and engaging scenes to behold, especially between Ender and Graff. Asa Butterfield, whom you might recognize as the titular character from Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," has a commanding presence and he and Ford create real, intense drama, the kind that resonates with us after we leave the theater. They help raise the movie beyond the label of "kiddie sci-fi flick" and bring it up to a level where even adults are listening to what they have to say and taking their words to heart.
As an initial entry in a potential movie franchise, "Ender's Game" has won the first battle of getting us to care about the characters and their cause. And, if given the chance, I believe Hood, or any good filmmaker, could really hone in and examine the varying ideologies the books brought to the table, making the movies that much richer and more meaningful. Despite being published over 10 years before the first "Harry Potter" and, who knows, perhaps laying the latter's groundwork, "Ender's Game" is unfortunately not as popular. But I think it could reach bigger heights, and even if people only see it for its entertainment value, I believe they'll want the story to continue and the sequels to be adapted as well. Just like Ender, it's not done yet and has places to go.
Posted on 10/29/13 06:15 PM
October 25, 2013
There is certain level of refined trashiness to Ridley Scott's "The Counselor" that at least makes it watchable. That's not to say it makes it relevant, or even entertaining, but the characters and plot are twisted and unique enough that we feel moderately compelled to find out what happens to them, even we don't care all that much. Movies like this are perhaps best reserved for the home instead of the theater, not only because they're not distinctively cinematic, but because their stories are willing to go off in any direction and we feel like we can pick them up at any time, kind of like a soap opera.
And, just like a soap opera, "The Counselor" is easy to watch but difficult to invest in or take seriously. The story has the capability to go in any direction, but for it to have really worked, we would've had to want to follow it, and alas, that's not the case.
The movie was written by the novelist Cormac McCarthy ("No Country for Old Men," "The Road"), and indeed the screenplay contains long-winded and unnatural-sounding dialogue that would have been better suited for a novel. In screenplay form, the characters' loquacious passages, harangues and theories about human behavior have us rolling our eyes instead of actually heeding them.
Like many of McCarthy's works, "The Counselor" centers on moral depravity and crime. This time it involves a young, ambitious and in-love lawyer known only as The Counselor (Michael Fassbender). He's smart, fit and well-off, but he's been sniffing out the idea of delving into the drug trafficking industry because of who he knows. Despite being advised of the risks involved, including a friendly warning from smooth-talking, cowboy hat-wearing middleman (Brad Pitt) to a very powerful Mexican drug cartel, the Counselor believes he can handle it. His decision stems chiefly from wanting to marry and provide for his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), whom he's so afraid of either losing or boring, he figures he has to keep the riches coming just to hold onto her. (No wonder he goes to such great lengths for her engagement ring.)
The latter notion is instilled in him by his friend and business partner, Reiner (Javier Bardem). They're opening a nightclub together near the Mexican border, a legitimate venture they hope will serve as a front for their illegitimate schemes on the side. As an established drug trafficker himself, Reiner has bitten off more than he can chew, spending lavishly and trying to maintain his own relationship with the devilish and cunning Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who, with an unforgettable physical act on top of a luxury car, takes the power of seduction and sexual weirdness to new heights. Malkina is wicked yet resourceful, the kind of woman who gets a thrill out of watching her pet cheetahs hunt rabbits simply for the purity of the act.
The other key character in the film is Ruth (Rosie Perez), a convict whom the Counselor was appointed to represent through no fault of his own. Her ties to him and a drug runner known only as The Green Hornet turn out to have major ramifications.
More of the plot, I cannot say, and not just because it'd be wrong to reveal what happens, but because I'm not sure I'd have all my facts straight. The characters in "The Counselor" are so ostentatious they overshadow the plot and make it difficult to know exactly what's going on. Or maybe it was that I just didn't care all that much. In any case, "The Counselor" is the type of movie that warrants additional viewings, because once we have a clear idea of who's connected to who, and who's behind what, it takes on new meaning.
The problem is that meaning never really adds up to much and everything about the movie feels cold and distant, which may be the point given the subject matter, but we should still feel connected to it, which is where it fails. Sure, we're curious about what these people do and why, but it'd be a stretch to say we actually care about them. To be fair, there were points when I thought the movie would win me over, especially during the scenes between Fassbender and Cruz, who, like the other actors in the film, are convincing and make us believe they are who they are, despite their dialogue, and in the Counselor and Laura's case, we believe they're deeply in love. Admittedly, their relationship tugs at our heartstrings. I also appreciated Scott's signature detail and patience, especially in a scene when a man called The Wireman (Sam Spruell) sets up a rig to "catch" The Green Hornet.
But the movie, as whole, never comes together as anything consequential or credulous. I was always interested in what it had to offer and where it was going, but that's not the same as caring about it. Perhaps as a novel, I'd have been more willing to invest in the characters and plot since literature, as a medium, makes both aspects easier to believe. Film is more difficult, though, which is something "The Counselor" proves all too well.
Posted on 10/20/13 04:03 PM
October 18, 2013
We've reached a point in modern cinema where remakes are a dime a dozen and no original is sacred enough to be simply left alone. Horror is the dominant genre for this exercise, probably because its movies have the most recognizable concepts and the filmmakers don't have to do a whole lot in terms of introducing the audience to the story and characters. They assume we're already aware of the broad strokes and they can therefore focus their attention on updating, rather than re-inventing, the movie's superficial components.
With this in mind, we've also reached a point in modern film criticism where it would be futile to complain about how most remakes are unnecessary and don't really bring anything new or exciting to the table. They merely work at upping the original's sensationalism and presentation factors while diluting its substance and characterizations. Unfortunately, this course has become so common we automatically expect it.
So rather than dwell on the obvious, let me save us some time by saying "Carrie" (2013) is the latest example of this trend and comes across as just another empty cash grab--the kind that give remakes a bad name. It is, of course, a retread of Brian De Palma's "Carrie" (1976), and if you're at all familiar with that film, you have an extra incentive not to see the new one, because it doesn't do anything fresh or interesting with the underlying material, which is based on the novel by Stephen King.
In fact, the whole thing feels like a scene for scene reshoot. Director Kimberly Pierce simply lessens the roles insight and truth played in De Palma's version and replaces them with extra violence and gimmickry. Instead of making the latter secondary to the former, and actually creating tension that leads to surprises and effective payoffs, it places these qualities at the forefront. This is illustrated as early on as the opening title treatment, which has animated blood dripping off the letters in "Carrie." Therefore, we know what we're in store for right off the bat, which makes the rest of the movie dull and watching it a mostly unproductive use of our time.
The story follows Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz), a shy and socially ousted high school student whose reputation and life inexperience (at 18, she gets her first period but is unaware of what it is) have been wrought by her religiously fanatical mother (Julianne Moore), who almost killed Carrie when she was born because she believed her to be the product of sin. She routinely locks her daughter in the closet and forces her to pray for forgiveness for irrational transgressions against God.
With all of her pent up rage and emotion, it's no wonder Carrie begins to act out after discovering she has telekinetic powers. Perhaps she needed "to become a woman" for her abilities to come to fruition, but in any event, she quickly learns to harness her telekinesis and gains more self-confidence while doing so. She even hesitantly accepts an invitation to the prom from the school stud, Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort), who, despite being the popular jock and "sure thing" prom king, is a decent guy with a good heart. He asks Carrie to prom because his girlfriend, Sue (Gabriella Wilde), wants to make things right after humiliating Carrie in the girls' locker room. This same sense of nobility doesn't extend to Sue's friend Chris (Portia Doubleday), who vows, "This isn't over," when she's banned from prom by the school gym teacher (Judy Greer) for instigating the same shameful incident.
Just as it does in the original, all this leads up to a climax at the prom where...well if you've already seen De Palma's "Carrie," you know what I'm talking about. And if you haven't, then see De Palma's version. Pierce's rendition makes it too obvious what's going to happen, and when things finally do go down, it's no real shock to us. We simply watch the events transpire as we knew they would. And where's the fun in that, especially for a horror film, whose efficacy tends to rely on surprises and visceral responses more than others?
To be sure, "Carrie" isn't the worst example of needless horror remakes, and with its on and off-screen talents, it certainly had the resources to be better than it is, but the end product is still so mediocre that it leaves us wondering why its resources weren't put to better use with something more original.
Posted on 10/14/13 06:34 PM
October 11, 2013
As a thriller, "Captain Phillips" is bold and impressive in the way it's able to sidestep clichés and sustain credibility, convincing us that what happens on-screen is probably a fair representation of what happened to the titular man in real life. The film is based on the memoir by Richard Phillips with Stephen Talty, titled, "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea," and recounts his harrowing, five-day captivity by four Somali pirates. It's devoid of gimmicks, false heroics and sensational action sequences, which we can appreciate on one level because we believe the film is being loyal to its source and paying respect to all the people who lived through the ordeal.
And yet, on another level, that the film chooses to play things so straight makes it feel strangely uneventful and irrelevant--as a Hollywood narrative, that is. Don't get me wrong; by the end, director Paul Greengrass and star Tom Hanks have successfully put us in Phillips' shoes, and we feel for and care about the man, but I can't help but wonder if his story would have been better told as a documentary. As a thriller, it lacks thrills, despite its authenticity.
Hanks plays Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship en route to Mombasa, Kenya carrying, among other things, food for starving people, a fact that Phillips no doubt hoped would earn him points and respect with his captors. Days into the ship's voyage, the captain and crew's worst fears about traveling around the horn of Africa come true when four pirates, armed with AK-47s, make their way on-board and demand millions of dollars.
Phillips tells the leader of the brigands, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), he can offer them $30,000, but it's not enough, and a frank conversation between the two men later on lets us see Muse's motivations aren't necessarily driven by greed, but because, like Phillips, he too has bosses he needs to keep happy. The reason he and his cohorts are hijacking the ship in the first place isn't because they're power hungry or nationalistic, but because it's their means for survival. To them, it's simply a job.
Bill Ray's screenplay works at making us see Phillips and Muse as two similar men who happen to have very different backgrounds (Phillips is from a small town in Vermont, married to Andrea [Catherine Keener] and has two kids; Muse is from Somalia, barely 20, and is trying to work with the cards life has dealt him, although not very well). Both are natural leaders, smart (relatively speaking) and aware of the world's fierce competition. They know how things work.
After the pirates seize the Alabama, Phillips complies to show them around but is careful not to let them know about his 20-man crew, who are hiding in the bottom deck. As the Somalis lead him at gunpoint, he manages to send his men signals, and when they capture Muse, they offer to exchange him for Phillips, who encourages Muse to take the money, a lifeboat and "call it a day."
But the chaotic circumstances and heated discussion result in Phillips being taken hostage and when the lifeboat detaches from the ship with only Phillips and the Somalis in it, our hearts sink. The remaining crewmen decide to follow them and there's never a time when the lifeboat isn't in the Alabama's clear site. They alert the authorities, including the US Navy and Navy SEALS, who stress Phillips cannot be taken to Somalia, and devise ways to rescue him.
It's ironic, but this entire incident, which made headlines in March 2009, almost seemed pre-destined to be a Hollywood thriller. It has a humble, courageous hero; it takes place in dangerous, uncertain territory; it has distinct villains with a clear agenda; and after a certain time, everyone is working against a deadline. As the real events transpired, it was like life was imitating art.
Perhaps this last observation illustrates why "Captain Phillips" isn't quite necessary as a narrative. True, it perfectly fits the mold for one, but the way Greengrass implements realism over aggrandizement strangely diffuses it of thrills and excitement, on a superficial level at least. That's not to say it doesn't hold our interest, but I think it would have been more captivating to see and hear the real Captain Phillips recount his ordeal and for the filmmakers to provide insight into the world of marauding in this part of the world, or even put the real Muse on-camera (he's currently serving 33 years in prison). As it is, the film feels genuine, and the cast and filmmakers are fully in command of their respective roles, but if we weren't aware of this being a true story, would we really care about it? It wants to be a thriller, but as such, it's just not all that riveting, intense or, honestly, entertaining.
Does this mean if filmmakers want to adapt real-life crises into Hollywood thrillers, they have to apply all the standard, and often manipulative, genre techniques, the way Ben Affleck did (and did well) with "Argo"? No; they should be taken on a case-by-case basis. I suppose it all depends on the material. Consider, for instance, that Greengrass' previous effort in this department was "United 93," which was a masterful, unaffected film about one of the 9/11 plane hijackings, but unlike "Captain Phillips," that tragedy left no survivors to talk about it, which gave it the "luxury," so to speak, of being speculative.
I would say if any filmmakers are going to adapt a real-life story like "Captain Phillips," they need to ask themselves how they can make a credible film that's equally engaging on a pure movie-going level. No doubt Greengrass and Hanks asked themselves this question; I just don't think they found the right answer. "Captain Phillips" earns our respect but doesn't quite generate an emotional or visceral enough response to recommend.
Posted on 10/08/13 06:14 PM
October 4, 2013
Sometimes the simplest stories make for the most effective and visceral ones. Consider Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity," a film whose screenplay is probably no more than 80 pages long and mostly comprised of on-screen direction and broad descriptions of the action. The conflict, like many basic survival tales, is straightforward and easily summarizable: astronauts on a seemingly uncomplicated mission in space suddenly find themselves stranded and without communication. Their unforeseen predicament forces them to improvise and tests their will to survive.
That's the gist of the plot, and once the movie establishes it, it never leaves the astronauts' side (to cut away to Earth, for example), developing into a terse, formidable thriller that earns its effect simply by observing the characters in their given situation, more or less in real time. And while we've seen movies like this before (at sea in "Open Water"; in the desert with "Flight of the Phoenix"; and even in space with "Apollo 13," although the characters' circumstances and struggles were different), rarely has one been this cinematic.
The two main astronauts are Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Dr. Stone is a rookie and only has six months of NASA training under her belt. She assumed their current mission would be quick and painless since it only involved her upgrading a telescope. When Kowalski asks her what's her favorite part about being 600 km above the Earth, she says, "I like the silence."
But her feelings of peace and tranquility quickly fade when she and Kowalski receive word from Houston's mission control (the voice of Ed Harris) that debris from another satellite is coming toward them at 50,000 miles per hour. By the time they decide to abort their mission, remnants have already begun colliding with them and their space shuttle, causing Dr. Stone to become untethered and sent off into the far reaches of space alone. With her oxygen levels dropping and distance increasing, she starts to panic and loses communication with Kowalski.
Where things go from here, I will not say, and luckily this is as far as the previews went. For once, whoever cut the trailer knew a film like "Gravity," and all films for that matter, benefits from viewers not knowing where it's going ahead of time.
What I will say is that "Gravity," in its most basic form, is about humans beings thrown into an unthinkable and dire situation, the kind where anxiety, nerves and fear collectively work together to try to get the best of us and threaten not only our survival but our will to survive. This isn't a story about people afraid of losing their loved ones, their jobs, or their credibility, but their very lives. How often can we say we actually experience this fear in real life? "Gravity" makes it manifest.
I know what you're thinking--so many movies are about human survival and our fear of dying, but the circumstances in "Gravity," not to mention the way it's made, make it that much more palpable and gut-wrenching. They're so extreme, in fact, the characters, and consequently the viewers, start to believe everything is outside of their control. As the walls of doubt and despair close in, it would almost be easier to succumb to them than to think of a way out.
Cuarón and his co-writer, Jonás Cuarón, who happens to be the director's son, know this, and their knowledge allows "Gravity" to reach an uncommon level of intensity. It's also able to generate a lot of empathy from the audience because it shows humans pitted against nature and themselves, facing an outlook that feels overwhelmingly bleak and absolute. This can be one of the scariest and most unnerving feelings any cognizant creature can endure, and "Gravity" is not only entertaining as a result, but serves as a stark reminder that we should be grateful we don't feel this way most of our lives.
What also makes "Gravity" unique are its pure cinematic qualities. The fact that it takes place in space shouldn't (and doesn't) change its underlying visceral effects, which can be felt in any environment, but it certainly enhances the overall movie-going experience. Cuarón is a natural born filmmaker, and I can only imagine how giddy he must have been to shoot in 3D, use green screen technology, move his camera every which way, and adorn the film with lots of special effects. It's incredibly visual and often breathtaking in scope, traits that a lesser filmmaker might have allowed to overshadow the tension and reduce the film to a technical exercise, albeit an exceptional technical exercise. But Cuarón is careful not to let this happen. Amidst all the technical achievements, the simple story keeps us focused and wondering how it's going to end.
With all this said, and despite my high admiration for "Gravity," the film is not perfect. Like I mentioned, similar stories have been told before, and though they might not have been as technically riveting, they've had better, richer character development, which raised the emotional stakes and our investment in the story. The characters in "Gravity" are flushed out only minimally, and even though the focus is on their given situation and not their life stories, the screenplay could have come up with better ways of characterizing them that didn't feel as forced or standard (again, I hesitate to reveal anything). That's not to say Bullock and Clooney don't get the job done acting-wise, but imagine if the movie didn't press the same old emotional buttons just for the sake of giving it emotion. It probably would have been a masterpiece.
What "Gravity" becomes, then, is a superbly crafted but only moderately poignant thriller--one we admire greatly on a technical level even though it doesn't linger in our hearts as long as we had hoped. Still, what does give me hope is other ambitious filmmakers like Cuarón will see "Gravity" and an instauration of the cinema will take place, one in which a whole slew of films will be made with the power to physically and mentally stir us, making the very act of watching movies that much more experiential.
Posted on 10/02/13 05:54 PM
September 27, 2013 (wide)
As a director, Ron Howard isn't known for having a distinct style or taking many risks, but he's fairly consistent when it comes to making an entertaining movie, and that's a skill more artistic filmmakers sometimes lack. He's able to take would-be traditional narratives and breathe new life and energy into them, and despite their often predictable trajectory, they manage take on meaning for the audience. This can often be just as difficult a task as trying to make something original.
One subject I never thought would take on meaning is Formula One auto racing, nor one of its real-life rivals, but Howard makes that happen with "Rush," which starts out like any other sports saga but gradually develops and intensifies as it speeds along. The rivalry is between England's James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austria's Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), and for those who might be unaware, just as I was, these were two of the global sport's most famous competitors.
At first, Peter Morgan's screenplay, which chronicles Hunt and Lauda's racing careers between 1970 and 1976, sums these two men up in terms of broad strokes-with James being the wild, crass and pompous womanizer with long blonde hair who drinks and abuses drugs; and Niki as the uptight, no-nonsense workaholic with the face of a rat whom none of the other racers like, though deep down they secretly admire his austerity. Once Morgan's script establishes Hunt, Lauda and the context of their world, it frees itself up to develop these men on a more personal level and shifts from telling an ordinary sports story to a more affecting human drama.
Hunt and Lauda first meeting during a Formula Three race (the "formula" refers to a set of standards each car must meet, with one being the highest), where James cuts Niki off, causing him to swerve and lose the match. From then on, the two are enemies, at least professionally. However, as Niki later points out, "A wise man can learn more from his enemies than a fool from his friends." Indeed this is the case for Hunt and Lauda, who each makes the other man his primary motivation to keep on racing and vying for the title of world champion, no matter the driving conditions. The movie focuses on the fact that winning is part of their essential natures; for Hunt and Lauda, racing gives their lives purpose, and we sense their anxiety and fear when they think about it going away. They race not for fame, fortune or women, although each of these is a nice perk, but because it's their livelihood. Without it, they would die.
Although we don't get to know James and Niki too far beyond the world of racing, we do meet the women who either choose to follow or leave them in their quest to be the best. We learn from the opening scene that James isn't the type of man to settle down and be happy with just one woman, which is why we suspect his marriage to model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) will be short-lived. But their relationship isn't tossed in just create drama; it serves to underline that James is man who puts racing above all else, and what's refreshing about "Rush" is that it doesn't necessarily view his love and obsession with the sport as a bad thing. It's simply who he is, and he's not about to apologize for it. As the movie's tagline reads, "Everyone's drive by something."
The same goes for Niki, who's willing to estrange himself from his family, take out a personal loan from the bank and buy his way into the international racing circuit. Unlike James, though, Niki is less reckless and more mathematical in his approach; he views Formula One racing as just that-a sport that can be solved and won with a definite formula. His own rush comes from formulating ways to go faster and sustaining his title, all while firmly avoiding anything with a risk factor greater than 20%.
The woman in Niki's life is Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), who's impressed by the way he's able to discipline himself and evaluate any and all decisions on a cost-benefit basis. Even when the two decide to marry, he tells her, "I suppose if I was going to do this with anyone, it might as well be you," suggesting his decision stems from pragmatism instead of love. But he gradually comes to adore her and the movie's heart comes from their budding relationship, which gives it a fair amount of poignancy.
We're also struck, on a technical level, by Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography, which is exceptional in the way it places us, quite literally, in the driver's seat and allows us to see the world from Hunt and Lauda's perspectives. The racing scenes are vibrant and convincing, even when they're mixed with digital effects. Oddly enough, though, one of the most important shots doesn't take place in a car, but in a hospital room when Niki is putting on his helmet, and all the elements of photography-depth of field, focus and colors-play an important role. It's moments like these that elevate "Rush" above the traditional sports movie label and into the realm of a film about people who play a sport.
Is "Rush" transcendental? No. Does its historical context and classic Hollywood structure make many scenes feel obligatory? Yes. But by the end, we come to see James Hunt and Niki Lauda as two real people who we care about. This is underlined by the newsreel footage at the end, which also makes us recognize just how spot-on the casting was when it came to finding actors who looked the part of each man. Hemsworth and Brühl are dead ringers for their real-life counterparts, and more importantly, they infuse them with personality and depth. They and the movie help us understand what was at stake for the racers, and this realization not only makes "Rush" solid entertainment, but it gives it meaning.