Friday, July 31, 2015

"The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel": Feeling Familiar

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

The first Marigold Hotel film was nothing spectacular, either in its writing or its direction, but it had a distinct advantage of appealing to an older demographic by compiling some of the grandest titans of British cinema: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, and Penelope Wilton, just to name a handful.  And this worked out in the film’s favor, as these performers injected life into these characters that lesser actors would have been unable to do.  And now, in the second installment, the kindest thing I can say is that we have received more of the same.  The first film is the better installment, but if you had any interest in seeing these characters grow further, this will certainly meet your fix.  To abuse a pun seemingly used by every other critic out there, this truly is the second best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

If you haven’t seen the first film, you’ll likely be lost, as this installment largely relies on your knowledge of the characters and how they grew and developed in the first film.  A few months later, Evelyn (Judy Dench) and Douglas (Bill Nighy) are having trouble admitting their affection for one another, Madge is torn between two suitors, Norman struggles with monogamy and has potentially set up his girlfriend Carol to be murdered by a hitman, and Muriel (Maggie Smith) continues to co-manage the hotel with Sonny.  Sonny is the true star of this installment, though, paradoxically enough given this sequel’s key over-60 demographic.  He wishes to expand the Exotic Marigold franchise, ignoring his fiancé Sunaina as she prepares for their wedding and growing jealous as she becomes closer to her dancing instructor.

If this sounds over-stuffed with plotlines, you’d be partially correct.  While Sonny is the grounding force that keeps the story in a continuing arc, every other character’s story feels like an obligatory continuation of where they ended in the last film, but none of their tales really interconnect either eventfully or thematically.  The first film had the benefit of being based on a novel, but here it seems the screenwriter had definite struggles in balancing so many characters while keeping them all in the same timeline, hence why Sonny has surfaced as a de facto protagonist.

Still, I find it hard to complain about seeing so many great actors on screen at once, bringing the exact same charm they offered in the last film.  The Indian locales are beautiful as ever, shot with a tourist’s reverence.  The film’s climax does drag on, considering just how may resolutions it feels it needs to portray, but the resolutions are hardly the point in a franchise that seems to pride itself on acting as a reaffirmation that being elderly does not mean that you have to live your life like it’s an ending.  All in all, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is precisely what it sets out to be: more of the same.  If you enjoyed the first film, you’ll likely enjoy this one.  If you haven’t seen the first film, it’s not bad, and likely worth checking out.  And then watch this one, as you’ll likely still get the same sense of catharsis, if only less so.

Can films targeted at the elderly still retain appeal for those in the ever important under-30 demographic?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"Home": Dreamworks Drivel

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Dreamworks has a pretty deserved reputation for making lazy and formulaic children’s animation.  Sure, every once and a while they will come out with something of great quality, like How to Train Your Dragon or Kung Fu Panda, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.  Home fits right in with the rule, and quite frankly, I’m just sick of seeing shlock like this.

The Boov are an alien race on the run from hostile race called the Gorg.  In their flight, the Boov settle on Earth, forcibly relocating humans to a settlement called Happy Humanstown.  Oh (That's his name. "Oh."), a Boov who can’t seem to fit in, accidentally alerts the Gorg as to their location on Earth, and so is hunted down by his species.  While he’s on the run, he meets a renegade human girl named Tip, who is searching for her mom following her abduction by the Boov.  After a shaky start, the two forge an alliance, as Oh promises to help Tip find her mom while the two evade capture.

There are a plethora of creative ideas here, but none of them ever seem used to their full potential, mostly because the film’s ploddingly generic script doesn’t seem to want to deviate too much from the expected beats of every buddy comedy you’ve ever seen.  This wouldn’t be the worst thing if the film offered anything by way of entertaining comedy, but it plays it safe with inoffensive physical gags and the occasional joke about bodily excretions.

Yet while the jokes may not be offensive, the voice acting most certainly is.  Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory) voices Oh with complete disregard for grammar and syntax, a supposedly endearing quality of the Boov race that quickly becomes stale and obnoxious.  Rihanna as the voice of Tip, though, is perhaps the worst, as her presence is the most blatant example of non-actor voice casting I’ve seen in a while.  She never seems to escape the fact that she sounds blatantly like she’s in her twenties, completely distracting from the fact that Tip seems to be no older than thirteen.  Furthermore, her casting seems entirely so that the film’s soundtrack can be oversaturated with Rihanna songs, which play at the most inappropriate moments to suck any and all emotional resonance out of a scene.  Not only is that distracting, but it’s also bizarrely dysphoric to hear the same voice come out of Tip as is coming out of her car’s radio.

Home is the kind of film that obviously doesn’t care about its own quality.  It was theatrically released at a time of year when there weren’t any other animated features to compete against, and it was financially successful by the very virtue of its existence as families brought their children to the theater to give them pretty images to look at.  This isn’t a film made for anyone to appreciate or even like.  This is a film made to plop your kid in front of and shut them up for a while.  So don’t bother with this one.  If you need to distract your kid with something, distract them with a quality children’s film, like the aforementioned exceptions to Dreamworks’s cruddy filmography.  There’s no need to reward lazy cash grabs like this one.

What do you think is the best Dreamworks film?  The worst?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, July 27, 2015

"Woman In Gold": Weinstein Mediocrity Strikes Again

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The Weinstein Company has a real knack for producing films portraying complex moments in history and reducing them down to simple morality tales, often through the ostensibly moral lens of a court battle.  Woman In Gold is certainly no exception to their formula, representing an old woman’s reclamation of stolen artwork from the Austrian government as an underdog battle against the evils of Old World prejudices.  And consequently, the whole experience feels just a bit trite.

Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann, a Holocaust survivor driven out of Austria.  Fast forward to the early 2000s, and Maria is an old woman who discovers through family documents that the Austrian government is in possession of paintings, including the titular “Woman In Gold,” that had belonged to her family and had been taken by the Nazis, so she decides that she wants to make a stand to get them back.  She enlists the help of a rookie attorney named Randol Schoenberg, played by a dully ineffectual Ryan Reynolds, whose struggle through the court system is compounded by uphill precedential battles and a distinct lack of support from his employing firm.

Where the film actually shines the most is in a concurrent plotline flashing back to Austria as the Nazis are taking over.  Though these scenes aren’t dissimilar from any other film where the oppressive Reich begins committing atrocities in occupied states, the film makes a point of demonstrating that the Austrian government welcomes the Nazis with open arms, making Maria’s struggle to retrieve her family’s paintings one of forcing Austria to admit that they were in the wrong by not resisting.  There’s a certain poignancy to this that makes the film emotionally resonate where other films using the same formula are lacking.

Alas, though, this is still a Weinstein formula piece, and there’s nothing else about this film that really stands out.  The plot beats are predictable as ever, as the biggest struggle seems to be in not giving up in the face of insurmountable odds.  Mirren is in the same sort of role she’s always in: boisterous, no-nonsense, and loveable in a grandmotherly way.  And while Reynolds is pretty ineffectual at breathing any sort of interesting life into Randol’s character, he’s written as a determined, hardworking underdog that you can’t help but root for, even if the complexities of his legal battles will escape you.  And these aren’t really bad things, but they are certainly boring things, particularly if you’re one to recognize genre tropes and how generic writing does nothing to subvert them.

So does that make Woman In Gold a good film by default?  For the purposes of labelling, I must begrudgingly say yes, as there is nothing outright wrong or offensive to this film, and it did even manage to hold my interest in the flashback scenes.  But I also feel like I’ve seen this film a million times before, and it’s not one I’m very enthusiastic about recommending.  If the plot synopsis interests you, you might have a decently enjoyable couple of hours ahead of you.  If not, I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise.

Can a film be bad just by being overly formulaic?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, July 24, 2015

"Wild Horses": Robert Duvall's Rifftrax Bait

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Dear Robert Duvall,

What the hell did I just watch?  I know you’ve written and directed before, and my understanding is that even if your films aren’t great, they’re generally watchable.  So what the hell happened with Wild Horses?  This muddled, incoherent mess of a film seems like your personal attempt at creating your own Rifftrax bait, but even that feels like it’s giving you too much credit, as that would require a certain amount of intent to create something so bafflingly awful.

The plot is a tangled mess of threads that never quite come together.  Ostensibly, it seems to be about a cold missing persons case with your character in the center of the intrigue, but the Texas Ranger who investigates your case seems like she’s off on a bizarre drug trafficking tangent for the majority of the runtime.  Meanwhile you and your family have personal revelations about family and acceptance that mean nothing to the audience because we’ve never gotten a chance to know them as characters.  The emotional through line seems to be in your character’s trying relationship with his gay son, but it never seems as if your character learns any sort of acceptance, nor does the son end up in a position to forgive his father’s faults, nor should he in these circumstances.  So that begs the question: If no characters are going to achieve an arc of some kind, then what is the point of the film?

Furthermore, this appears like it was shot by the same cinematographer that did Birdemic.  The shots are amateurishly framed and often are too close or too far away to effectively convey anything substantive to the audience.  The editing is scattershot, wildly shifting between scenes of varying tones and never resting long enough on one of the many divergent plot threads to give the audience any sort of grounding in reality.

And don’t even get me started on the acting.  Populating your film’s minor roles with amateur actors is one thing, but giving them all prominent speaking roles when none of them seem capable of clearly enunciating a phrase without repeating their half-forgotten lines is quite another.  Casting your non-actress wife as the Texas Ranger, the film’s primary antagonist (maybe?), is just painfully obvious nepotism as she mumbles her way through every scene.  And all the amateurs are only further highlighted by casting yourself, James Franco, and Josh Hartnett in leading roles.  You are all decent actors, and even though your direction leaves a lot to be desired, at least Franco and Hartnett are visibly trying to make the material work.

In short, Mr. Duvall, you have made a horrible movie that should become legendary in how horrific it turned out to be.  I desperately want the guys over at Rifftrax to tear this film a new one, because that is the only way anyone other than you will get any amount of enjoyment out of it.  Given how little publicity this flop has gotten, that may be the only way anyone will get up the drive to see it.  In any case, enjoy your vanity project, Mr. Duvall.  The rest of us sure as hell won’t.

Pretentious Best Friend

So, my faithful audience… Think Rifftrax should make a riff of this?  Would that actually get you to watch it?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

"What We Do In The Shadows": Flight of the Vamp-chords

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I absolutely adore Flight of the Conchords.  It had some of the tightest and wittiest writing of any television comedy in recent memory, which is all the more tragic considering the show’s incredibly short run of twenty-two episodes.  So, imagine my glee to hear that co-writer and co-star from the show, Jemaine Clement, was teaming up with an old comedic partner and fellow Conchords contributor Taika Waititi to write and direct a new film.  And truly this new film does not disappoint, particularly if you are a fan of their previous work on that legendary show.

Shot in mockumentary style, What We Do in the Shadows follows the exploits of a group of vampires living in a flat together in New Zealand.  This is a film that lives and dies (and re-lives) with its characters, a well-realized bunch of misfits who have a fantastic working chemistry.  Viago (Waititi) is an 18th century aristocrat who is more than a bit uptight and awkward; Vladislav (Clement) is a Middle Ages torturer who just oozes sex appeal (to surprising effect); Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the group’s young slacker, only 183 years old; and Petyr (Ben Fransham) is the 8000 year old Nosferatu living in the basement.

To say this film has a plot would be generous, but it isn’t really a film that needs one.  Akin to Waititi’s and Clement’s roots in television writing, Shadows seems much more interested in taking these really well conceived characters and putting them in situations that show off precisely how ridiculous they can be.  This can be something so mundane as getting dressed for a party without having the benefit of looking in the mirror, as life-changing as teaching a newly bitten vampire how to behave amongst his own kind, or as absurd as becoming friends with a human while figuring out how to fight to urge to eat him.  Each of these scenarios is presented in sitcomic style, not dissimilar to The Office or Parks and Rec, yet still retains that sort of naïve charm that made Flight of the Conchords so enjoyable.

If there’s one criticism that comes with that, though, it’s that Shadows doesn’t end up feeling like a film by the end; it feels like an extended pilot for a television show that will never come.  It is a very good pilot, and the scenarios that play out will stay with you long after the film ends, but it feels like you’ve just started to know the characters and see how their dynamics could evolve before, suddenly, it’s the end credits and everyone’s getting a hasty epilogue.  Is it unfair to criticize a film for leaving you wishing for more episodes?  Probably, but I feel it bears mentioning.

Obviously, though, I love this movie.  The characters are all likeable, the scenarios are hilarious, and I found myself genuinely sad when the credits rolled, not because the film itself made me sad, but because I wasn’t ready for it to end.  If you love Flight of the Conchords, you’ll love What We Do in the Shadows.

So whatever happened to that Flight of the Conchords movie that was teased a few years back?  Is that something you’d still like to see?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

"Slow West": Exactly As The Title Says

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Sometimes a film is good precisely due to its brevity.  This is usually the case when high concepts are explored at the expense of character and plotting, so that even ninety minutes becomes a bit tiresome as the sole goal of merely understanding the film’s purpose begins to wear thin.  At a scant eighty-four minutes, Slow West is precisely that sort of film.  It is, as the title implies, a slow and plodding western, and that is precisely the point.  And though the film ends with a fantastic climax, the path there would have been arduous were it not so brief.

Our protagonist is Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young boy pursuing the love of his life, who has run away into seclusion due to a bounty on her head.  Along the way, he meets the wandering Silas (Michael Fassbender), a gunslinger who teams up with Jay as they are headed in the same direction.  Little does Jay know, however, that Silas is after the bounty on his heart’s desire, and is merely using Jay to lead him to where she likely is.

As one could expect from this set-up, Jay and Silas eventually grow closer and the pursuit of his bounty begins to weigh on Silas’s heart, but that’s not really the point of the film.  No, the film isn’t in any hurry to get to its destination, with Jay stumbling into diversion after diversion, be it an anthropologist with surprisingly modern views on how white expansion has destroyed the cultures of indigenous peoples, or an amusing anecdote that springs up when Jay stumbles into someone else’s campfire.  All these little diversions seem to have a running theme of undermining the idyllic heroism that we view the frontier days with, of people questing across great distances for glory and justice.  At the end of the day, though, these were all just people, many of whom died needlessly in a Hobbesian world where the fastest bullet was the one that ensured survival.

And this is a well-reasoned point to make, but the film does feel a bit blunt in its symbolism at times.  The nihilism is this film’s raison d’etre, but that understandably leaves the film feeling a little bit hollow in some of its less engaging scenes.  As I implied, this film is actually fairly light on character, which is particularly disheartening given Fassbender’s talents as an actor.  This leaves the narrative as little more than a vessel for a modern observation of Western tropes, but because the film doesn’t aspire to be much more than that, I don’t find that I minded it too much.

The whole experience becomes cathartic by the final scene, though, as the various vignettes tie together into a climax that is simultaneously a unifying thesis of the film and a great homage to the gunslinging action of Western’s past.  Though not a perfect film, I definitely found Slow West to be a satisfying one.  If you have an extra eighty minutes, this is a good way to fill them.

What’s your favorite Michael Fassbender role?  Share yours in the comments below.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

"Ant-Man": Average Marvel, But Better Than Expected

Now In Theaters
I firmly stand behind the assertion that Marvel Studios have yet to make a bad film.  Yes, they have made disappointing films and none of their films are without their flaws, but not a single one of their eleven films has been not worth watching, and that is a damn impressive track record.  However, with news of production difficulties after Ant-Man’s director Edgar Wright was fired from the project, the fate of Ant-Man’s quality was uncertain.  If Marvel was going to fail, this would be the film to do it in.  And yet, Ant-Man came out alright.  I doubt it will be anyone’s favorite Marvel movie, but it gets the job done while being fun and entertaining, and that’s about all we can ask of a film.

Scott Lang (played by a perfectly cast Paul Rudd) is a cat burglar freshly released from prison who is looking to start a new life and reconnect with his daughter.  After hitting snags in finding employment and having his visitation limited, Scott decides to take one last job: to steal the contents of a safe in millionaire Hank Pym’s basement.  Only it turns out that Hank (Michael Douglas) wants to recruit Scott to pull off a heist of his own.  Enter the Ant-Man suit, which allows its wearer to shrink down to insect size and have increased density to hit like a bullet.

The film plays out as a pretty formulaic heist flick.  There are montages of training with Hank’s martial artist, emotionally distant daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), the assemblage of a team of comic relief specialists (who unfortunately come off as little more than racial stereotypes), and, of course, antics with the suit while Hank teaches Scott to lead an army of ants.  (Yes, you read that right.)  This all leads up to the big third act payoff of watching everyone’s talents put to the test.  What ultimately makes this film work is its comedy, as the oddball sense of wonder in seeing the everyday world from an ant’s eye view along with the snarky witticisms of Rudd and company almost always bring levity to what is ultimately a pretty ridiculous film.

I say “almost always” because the film definitely has a couple of issues.  Edgar Wright’s influence is still present in many of the more visually interesting setpieces or audiovisual gags, and those are some of the best and most memorable of the film, but some of the dialogue gags struggle to bring a chuckle.  This is probably due to the film’s extensive re-writes that took place after Wright’s departure, and there are a couple lines that seem to have somehow made their way in to the final draft that feel a touch out of place.  There’s also an Avengers connection that feels a bit shoe-horned into the film just to give one of the more overlooked cast members a bit more screentime (and, of course, to obligatorily set up Ant-Man’s return for MCU’s Phase Three).

Ultimately, though, Ant-Man is a funny and entertaining film.  It didn’t wow me with its earth-shattering climax or any unpredictable plotting, but it wasn’t trying to either.  For once, a Marvel film isn’t about a villain of cataclysmic scale trying to commit genocide.  The stakes are considerably lower, and that’s okay every once in a while.  Sometimes you just have to sit back and enjoy a well-made (or well-salvaged) film, even if it doesn’t rise to the same heights as some of its contemporaries.

In fact, I’d probably say this is, on the whole, a better film than Age of Ultron.  Blasphemy?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

"Clouds of Sils Maria": Kristen Stewart Isn't A Bad Actress

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

So, I think it’s about time to admit that Kristen Stewart has kinda been given the short end of the stick when it comes to judging her abilities as an actress.  Best known for her dull and lifeless performance as Twilight’s Bella Swan, a role that no actress would have been able to breathe life into, Stewart has been listed among the likes of Megan Fox and Cameron Diaz as being one of the worst actresses working today.  And, quite frankly, when she has good material to work with, she’s not that bad.  In fact, she’s pretty decent.  This was proved to me by Clouds of Sils Maria, a film about actors being actors, the changes people go through as they become a part of the older generation, and how elders do not have exclusive jurisdiction over insight and wisdom.

Our protagonists are an aging actress named Maria (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant Valentine (Stewart).  Maria has been asked to perform in a play called Maloja Snake, about an aging business woman who falls in love with her young assistant, either as a desperate attempt to recapture youth or as a strong respect for her protégé’s ambition, depending on one’s interpretation.  Maria had played the younger role when the play had first premiered twenty years prior, and now her role is being filled by a nineteen-year-old tabloid sensation and she must step into the shoes of the older character.  Thus, Maria grapples with her own changing world view as she rehearses the play with Valentine in a secluded getaway in Sils Maria.

If the parallels between Maria and the character she is about to play are obvious to you, then you’ve pretty much deduced the entire point of the film.  Maria and Valentine are real world embodiments of the very characters that Majola Snake portrays, with Valentine presenting a nuanced world view that Maria can’t seem to grasp in her transition from enthusiastic newcomer to more jaded than she would care to admit.  And really, doesn’t the casting of a teen pop culture star in the younger role rather mirror Kristen Stewart’s real world claims to fame?  This film is rich in text and subtext about the nature of stardom, intergenerational relations, and how aging can warp our self-perceptions.

But this works as a double edged sword for this film, as the symbolism is perhaps a little too blunt for my tastes.  Once the realization dawned on me that the purpose of the film was to demonstrate how Maria and Valentine’s relationship mirrored that of the play’s characters, I found that there was nothing left to surprise me, as every plot beat became more predictable and less nuanced.  Watching Maria and Valentine shift in and out of character as they rehearse the play was pretty neat, but it stopped being novel after a while, and it didn’t quite carry the same impact as similar scenes in last year’s Birdman.

All in all, though, I found Clouds of Sils Maria to be an enjoyable film.  Not only did it convince me that Kristen Stewart is a capable actress, but it got me thinking about my own changing perceptions as I’ve gotten older, and how those perceptions are likely to change as time goes on.  It is an entertaining character study that suffers from a mild lack of subtlety.  I’d say it’s worth watching.

Do you think Kristen Stewart has what it takes to have a post-Twilight career?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

"The Gunman": Too Many Cooks Will Spoil The Plot

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The Gunman is a perfect example of how too many cooks can spoil a broth.  Or rather, how too many authors can ruin a film.  The Gunman has three screenwriters, one of whom is also the star of the film, Sean Penn.  And I’m sorry to say it, Mr. Penn, but you’re the primary reason why this film doesn’t work. 

The film’s plot is a tricky one to describe for this very reason, as it is nearly incomprehensible for the film’s first hour.  Penn plays a former hitman named Terrier who, in his glory days, assassinated the Minister of Mining of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  While atoning for his sins in a self-imposed solitude digging wells in Africa, an attempt is made on Terrier’s life, forcing him to head to Europe to investigate why and how it connects to his violent past.

Don’t expect to gather most of that from the film’s establishing scenes, though.  Most of it is explained in exposition later, and even then, not very well.  In the meantime, the film spends its first hour lingering on Terrier’s slow investigation in a painful attempt to weave an unnecessary and incomprehensible subplot about humanitarianism and African exploitation into what has been billed as an action flick.  The action does eventually pick up, but by the time it did I was so bored that I didn’t care about Terrier, the political backdrop of the story, or the token supporting cast that he inevitably has to save.

This is a real shame, too, as the action scenes are adequate, particularly those in a climactic scene in a bullfighting arena.  Directed by Pierre Morel, who is best known for directing the Taken franchise, the action is at its best when it is focused on cramped environments, and walls and doors only function as impediments to the hero’s and villains’ close action combat.  But when the film momentarily gets good, it only showcases how uncomfortable Morel is with anything other than violence, as the context for the fighting is so confusingly plotted so as to be instantly forgettable.  I still don’t completely understand who every character was or what the stakes were, and I don’t really care to.

If one is to assign blame, I think the most obvious culprit is Sean Penn.  Knowing Penn’s proclivity for African humanitarian activism, it isn’t hard to deduce that the political elements are largely his contribution, and though he is a decent actor, he is not a decent screenwriter.  Not only are his politics completely lacking in intrigue, but they feel shoehorned into someone else’s film, almost as if a condition of his involvement was to attempt to educate the audience about his pet issue.  And while I think humanitarianism is a worthwhile cause, selling it in an action movie where the protagonist is an assassin is not only misguided in its conception, but was horribly bungled in its execution.

Sean Penn’s pretentions are well known in Hollywood, and while the man has his heart in the right place, he should leave his politics separate from his acting career, at least to the extent that his choice of projects don’t already revolve around his pet issues.  By writing in such a poorly realized political angle to what could have been an otherwise passable action film, the whole project was sunk through a combination of being unintelligible and just being downright boring.  If you want a Grandpa-with-a-Gun flick, watch the recent Run All Night.  My memories of that are much fonder after seeing this garbage.

Do actors’ personal politics have a place in the creative process?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

"'71": Appreciation Harmed By My Own Ignorance

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I don’t know about you, but I’m not terribly up on my British and Irish history.  Because of this, I don’t know a whole lot about The Troubles, the urban war between the IRA and the British military over the national status of Northern Ireland.  If ’71 is any indication, the conflict was complex, factionalized, and not necessarily the will or in the interests of the average Irish citizen, and my ignorance of this topic may have harmed my appreciation of the film.  However, that doesn’t totally prevent one’s enjoyment of this tense action thriller.

The story follows a young British soldier named Hook who becomes separated from his unit in a hostile Catholic part of Belfast.  Alone, with hostile factions of the IRA warring all around him for the right to fight off the British, Hook must rely on the assistance of civilian strangers in order to survive the night.  Any of the people he meets would stand something to gain by turning him over to the IRA, but it is ultimately compassion that wins out amongst the constant threats of violent outbursts.

This is a vastly simplified explanation of the plot, and that is because, quite honestly, some of the greater intricacies escaped me.  The film is decidedly minimalist on dialogue, which in and of itself is not a bad thing, but it does mean that exposition is scarce, and consequently that the significance of all the film’s major players can get lost in the shuffle without a clear understanding of who they are and what their motivations are.  Again, I think this may have a lot to do with my personal ignorance of the political circumstances of the underlying conflict, but some greater explanation would have generally been better appreciated.

However, at the end of the day, ’71 is not trying to be a political drama.  It doesn’t really have anything poignant to say about either the Irish or the British or those caught in between.  Rather, this is a straight-up action thriller, and at that is succeeds marvelously.  Never quite knowing who is friend and who is foe puts Hook in constant survival mode, desperately struggling against anyone and everyone, even against those who patch his wounds or shelter him against his pursuers.  Despite the complex political climate, the film deals with its characters in a very black-and-white morality, but many characters remain shadowed in shades of gray until it comes time to make their move.  This makes for a very tense and very engaging experience.

So, on the whole, I quite enjoyed ’71.  It seems to fashion itself as a more sophisticated alternative to the likes of American urban action pieces, and while I don’t think it succeeds to that extent, it certainly manages to engross with its bleak survivalist attitude.  Check it out if you get the chance.

Am I alone in not knowing a whole lot about The Troubles?  I was certainly aware of its existence, just not the political intricacies.  Validate my ignorance in the comments below.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

"Maggie": Schwarzenegger's Quiet Zombie Flick

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

It’s a little bit bizarre seeing legendary action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger scale back his larger-than-life acting persona.  Known primarily for his action beats and his poor attempts at comedy in the previous century, one would think that a Schwarzenegger zombie flick would be a more gun-heavy, mindless affair.  And yet, what we have here is a film much more concerned with providing a simple subtextual tale than it is about killing zombies.

Maggie takes place in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, where the government has mostly contained the zombie threat, but some stragglers still manage to bite and infect new victims.  Schwarzenegger plays Wade, a Midwestern farmer whose daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) is caught in the city after curfew when a zombie bites her, leaving her to gradually transform into one of the monsters.  Wade brings her home, much to the fear and disdain of Maggie’s stepmother, and treats her as the virus begins to destroy her body and corrupt her mind.

As any aficionado of zombie films will tell you, zombies are rarely representational of just flesh-eating ghouls, but are generally used to convey human experiences through supernatural allegory.  In Maggie’s case, terminal illness is the go-to human condition, as Wade helplessly watches Maggie fall victim to her disease; all those muscles can do nothing to combat the virus in Maggie's veins, so he must cope with a decision to either turn her in for quarantine or end her suffering himself.  This carries an unfortunate implication of euthanasia advocacy if you take the allegory to its furthest extremes, but this is mitigated somewhat by Maggie’s insistence that it is necessary to save her and others.  Speaking of which, Breslin plays a fantastic Maggie, whose subtle transformation is full of fear at what she’s becoming, yet a distinct humanity that she doesn’t so much cling to as exude naturally as it is slowly chipped away.

Yet all these trappings tend to feel a little hollow if you start looking too closely.  As I try to come up with character traits to describe Wade and Maggie, I find myself mostly at a loss, as their characters seem to exist solely for their place in the plot.  They don’t feel like real people, but rather puppets acting out a simple story with broadly drawn archetypes.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the point of the film is not to be a character study but an allegory, yet it feels like a wasted opportunity, particularly given how subdued stoicism is new acting territory for Schwarzenegger, and Breslin doesn’t seem to have much opportunity to flex her acting muscles these days.

All in all, though, I found that I liked Maggie, even if it was a bit disappointing in some respects.  If it had insisted on stretching its runtime beyond ninety minutes, I might have felt differently, but as an exercise in light zombie parable, it’s not too shabby.

Is Arnold Schwarzenegger too old to keep up the action shenanigans of his youth?  Is this a good direction for his career to go?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Request Review: "Eastern Promises"

Knowing David Cronenberg’s fascination with telling stories through the transformation of his subject’s bodies, it’s not hard to imagine that what originally drew the famed director to Eastern Promises is the notion of Russian convicts labelling themselves with tattoos to signify rank and advancement within the Russian mob.  And yet, whether because this is Cronenberg’s later career or because the script simply didn’t call for it, much of the brutality that made the director famous is absent from this installment in his filmography.  This isn’t by any means a bad thing, but it subverts expectations somewhat, and without Cronenberg’s signature flair, you have what amounts to a fairly good, yet unremarkable film.

Anna (Naomi Watts) works as a midwife at a London hospital, when one night a fourteen-year-old girl is brought in, gives birth to a premature child, and dies.  Her only belongings include a purse with a journal inside, written in Russian, and a card for a Russian establishment run by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl).  Anna asks both her Russian uncle and Semyon to translate the journal to see what it contains.  Meanwhile, it turns out the Semyon is the head of the local Russian mafia, and the journal contains secrets that he would rather remain buried.  Enter Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a low-ranking chauffer to Semyon’s idiot son.  Semyon begins eyeing Nikolai for advancement within the mafia, and a parallel story develops as Anna tries to find a family for the newborn child and Nikolai battles his conscience to move up the ranks.

The plotting itself is very well written, with a plot twist in the final scenes of the film that genuinely caught me off-guard, though in retrospect I probably should have guessed it.  It is a solidly directed mafia film, full of intrigue and solid performances to tie everything together.  Viggo Mortensen in particular provides subtle nuances to Nikolai’s soft-spoken character that are much appreciated.

However, despite its good qualities, I can’t help but feel that its lack of any sort of individual identity holds it back.  Cronenberg’s penchant for blood only shines through in one major scene, and though that particular fight is satisfying to watch, it only emphasized how empty the rest of the film felt by comparison.  The film is primarily composed of one-on-one conversations that communicate vital plot information, while the actors only portray their characters through the exposition, rather than having room to breathe and develop naturally.  Some key scenes take place off camera, which was done intentionally to set up the ending twist, but the plotting can sometimes feel like a formality to get to that twist, which isn’t so ground-shaking as to justify the experience.

I don’t dislike Eastern Promises, but it’s hard to point out much about it that is especially likeable.  All the film’s components are assembled adequately (though the distinct lack of a background score did not particularly help some scenes) and that is precisely the problem; by merely being an adequate film, it feels safe and devoid of the kinds of risks that could have propelled it to greatness and memorability.  But as it stands, this is just another addition to the malaise of pretty good gangster films that I’ve seen before.

So, whatever happened to Viggo Mortensen?  He hasn’t been as prominent an actor lately.  Would you care to see him make a career comeback?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

"Get Hard": Racism and Rape Aren't Funny

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I do not like Kevin Hart.  I find him to be obnoxious and irritating, only ever yelling and screaming in order to get a laugh.  I sometimes like Will Ferrell, but his cinematic track record is very mixed, often reliant on how far his avant garde improvisation makes its way onto the screen.  So I was not too enthusiastic to realize that in a slow film week at the beginning of July that I would be watching Get Hard, a buddy comedy where I already don’t like half of the starring duo, and the premise raised so many red flags that I didn’t see how this film could be any good.

Ferrell plays a stock market broker who gets sentenced to ten years in a maximum security prison, despite protestations of his innocence.  To help him survive on the inside, he enlists the help of his car washer (Hart) in order to train him in being tough.  Now, to the film’s credit, the obvious racial and socioeconomic clichés at work here are addressed head-on, as Ferrell only assumes that Hart has gone to prison based on the color of his skin, when in fact Hart is a lower middle class man who has never been to prison.  This thankfully means that Hart isn’t so much Ferrell’s actual savior but is only pretending to be for the compensation he’ll receive.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the film actually finds funny situations to put its two leads in.  There are only two jokes repeated ad nauseam in the entire film: Ferrell doesn’t understand black culture, and prison rape is scary.  The first of these is handled with about as much tact as you could expect, with Ferrell making an ass of himself trying to be tough and dressing faux urban.  In other words, not usually very funny.  The second joke, though, is just never funny, treating the thought of grown men getting raped merely as a perpetual punchline, when it is in fact a serious real world problem that leaves physical and emotional scars.  Joking about rape perpetuates rape culture.  And this film isn’t helping.

But even setting the stale and offensive jokes aside, neither actor is given much room to comically breathe.  Like I said, Ferrell’s acting strength comes from his ability to improvise insanity, but his character is so tamely written that we rarely get to see his improvisational strengths shine through.  This may have been because Hart is not a great improviser himself, but that only highlights the fundamental weakness of pairing these two performers.  They have no chemistry, and the film suffers greatly for it.

It should be pretty obvious that I did not enjoy this movie.  I hate the tactlessness with which it handled its problematic subjects, I hate how the pairing of its two leads feels forced for maximum box office draw, and I hate sitting through a supposed comedy and never once laughing.  Don’t watch Get Hard.  It will leave you feeling disgusted with cinema and those who buy tickets to this slop.

Am I too hard on Kevin Hart?  Are there redeeming qualities to his performances?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.