Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"Knight of Cups" Review

Terrence Malick's long-gestating feature, Knight of Cups, has finally been released theatrically in the United States. Though nobody can ever fault the visual splendor of Malick's work, some of his late stuff can be hit-or-miss from a narrative standpoint. That's essentially the case here. 3-time Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoots the hell out of this thing, but Malick's script makes it unclear exactly how our protagonist evolves or the precise message we're supposed to take away from his journey.

The film chronicles a period of several years in the life of a Hollywood screenwriter (Christian Bale) as he undergoes an existential crisis alongside his decrepit father (Brian Dennehy), deadbeat brother (Wes Bentley) and six different women. With abundant voiceover and striking visual language, Knight of Cups is likely as close as we'll ever get to Malick's 8 1/2.

That's not a bad thing, per se. Malick is arguably as distinctive a cinematic voice as America has today, but patrons unversed in his style may find themselves in too far over their heads to make sense of what he's trying to say here. For those willing to let visual poetry wash over them, however, Knight of Cups offers a veritable Roman bath of experimental imagery wrapped inside a non-linear dramatic structure. For this reviewer, Knight of Cups falls somewhere in the middle. Malick's storytelling style is hard not to admire, especially in today's corporate blockbuster culture. But it's equally difficult to reconcile that the emotions we're supposed to feel as an audience go largely unrewarded as Rick (Bale) careens across L.A. from one adventure to another. In the end, he still feels like the same disconnected prick he was at the beginning. Should we really buy the idea that he's ready to start his life over? Is that not what he's been trying and failing to do for the entire film? Perhaps Malick's real message is the folly in all of this and, in turn, offers a critique of the Hollywood "reboot" itself in the sense that nothing really changes no matter how many times you start over. After all, at one point Rick is tapped to write a screenplay for "the next big Hollywood smash." Can it really be as cynical as all that?


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

"Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" Review

Remember over the past year and a half how butthurt everyone on the Internet was towards everything Batman v Superman? From Ben Affleck's casting as Batman to Wonder Woman's brown outfit to the poorly-edited trailer revealing Doomsday last December, it's been a rocky road for the Man of Steel sequel to everyone on the outside looking in.

Well, the official word is finally in, folks: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a good movie. So good, in fact, that the R-rated Blu-ray should be a confident purchase ahead of Suicide Squad this August.

Unlike its predecessor, BvS tells an engaging story that actually seems to take precedent over the huge set pieces and visual effects. Writer Chris Terrio (Argo) may just be the best asset Warner and DC have at this point. He joins David S. Goyer (Man of Steel, the Blade series) on the screenplay.

The film picks up precisely where Man of Steel leaves off. We see Bruce Wayne (Affleck) rushing into Metropolis to try and save friends and employees from the Wayne Financial building which collapses as the fight between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) transpires. With scores dead and one of America's greatest cities razed, Bruce and many others fear for the world's safety if Superman's powers are left unchecked. Still, most of the world sees Superman as a figure of hope, perhaps even a deity. Leading the crusade to govern this "god" is Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter) of Kentucky. She works closely with Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) and is instrumental in allowing Lexcorp to import a rock of kryptonite from a wrecked ship in the Indian Ocean. All the while, Batman puts his detective skills to the test as he tries to understand his rival and the larger universe he represents. Circumstances eventually force Batman and Superman to confront each other one-on-one in a showdown for the ages. When a larger threat arises, the two set aside their differences and are joined by Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) for one last titanic struggle. Miraculously, it's one that doesn't put as many innocent bystanders in jeopardy. Thank God.

There's a lot going on, but somehow it all feels pretty well-balanced. Credit the writers and director Zack Snyder's confident hand in juggling the action and characters in service of the larger story. There aren't many instances where it feels as if we're going on an unnecessary tangent, a la The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It's probably safe to assume that the 3-hour "director's cut" will have more self-indulgent sequences, but for now we can't judge the whole film on what we haven't seen.

Not all of the heavy emotional beats land how they should, and overall the tone may be too dark for those more accustomed to the lightheartedness of Marvel's films. However, BvS still has more emotional complexity than most everything Marvel has produced this side of Netflix.

If you're curious about how the apparently dubious casting decisions panned out, cautious optimists should be pleased. Affleck is a better Batman than Christian Bale, and Gadot surprises as Wonder Woman despite little screen time. Although, I'm more curious than confident to see how she handles her first huge leading role in Patty Jenkins' solo feature in 2017. Eisenberg is terrific but not as Lex Luthor. His squirrelly mannerisms and boyish voice would make him an excellent Riddler. He's tough to buy as Lex despite a committed turn.

I was concerned that there would be too many important characters vying for screen time and that nothing would ultimately make sense in BvS.

I've never been so happy to be proven wrong.

After seeing the film, Warner Brothers' spotty marketing may, in fact, be the stuff of genius. Lex Luthor himself couldn't have hatched a better scheme: temper expectations just enough so that the audience can be nothing but pleasantly surprised, and if they're let down, then it's not a far fall.

After all, hindsight - or is it X-ray vision? - is 20/20.


Friday, March 11, 2016

"10 Cloverfield Lane" Review

10 Cloverfield Lane is NOT a sequel to 2008's found-footage monster flick, Cloverfield. I like J.J. Abrams' analogy: "two different rides at the same amusement park." 10 Cloverfield Lane is really only related in name but still affirms the world-building of its predecessor. That is, the possibility and plausibility of a larger parallel universe existing alongside our own - one populated by kaiju from the depths of the sea and aliens from the farthest reaches of outer space.

This is a very different film from what a direct Cloverfield sequel might look like. It abandons the found-footage aesthetic for more traditional cinematography and scales the whole production down from a massive monster attack in New York City to a chamber piece set almost entirely in the claustrophobic confines of a fallout shelter.

The story follows Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman confronted with an emotional conflict that prompts her to leave her fiance, Ben (Bradley Cooper, whom we only hear or get to know by a phone call). On her way out of town, she's run off the road and rescued by Howard (John Goodman), a conspiracy theorist and doomsday prepper. Michelle wakes up in Howard's bunker and is told that the air above ground has been contaminated by a chemical attack and that no living thing remains. Also holed up with them is Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a young man who claims to have worked for Howard and knew that the bunker would be safe from whatever happened outside. After Howard sets some strict ground rules such as "no touching" and supervised bathroom privileges, Michelle and Emmett begin digging around and discover that Howard may be a manipulative psychopath. This makes them desperate to plan an escape and find proof of what really happened outside.

The message is in the tagline: "Monsters come in many forms." Michelle especially is confronted with several, and the film is about how she grows and overcomes these demons or "monsters," as it were. The first is personal. She claims that she has a problem with conflict and that she always runs away when she doesn't know what to do. That's tough when you're confined to a small doomsday bunker. The second is her fellow man, and the third is something out of this world. The obvious question that the film poses, however, is "Which is the bigger monster - mankind, or the unknown lurking outside?"

First-time director Dan Trachtenberg and his team of writers (including Whiplash's Damien Chazelle) give levity to both sides of this question. My nerves were shot from beginning to end because I truly had no idea what to expect. Sure, the intimate stuff is more engaging, but the big final act gives ample credence to the three character arcs and finishes in a very satisfying place. This film works extremely well if you take it on its own merits and don't carry in the baggage of what you think a "Cloverfield sequel" should look like. I have no complaints. Just about anything that first seemed off can be explained if you just give the story some thought.

Skip out on IMAX for this one. The scope of the film is far too small to justify the cost of an even bigger screen.


Thursday, March 10, 2016

"The Young Messiah" Review

The Young Messiah features Sean Bean, Christian McKay, and a cast of relatively unknown British actors in an adaptation of Anne Rice's book Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. This represents a 180-degree turn from Rice's previously adapted stories Interview With the Vampire and Queen of the Damned.

The story of The Young Messiah follows a 7-year old Jesus (Adam Greaves-Neal) and his family as they journey from Egypt back home to Nazareth. Along the way, young Jesus slowly discovers his identity as a healer, leader, teacher and savior. Mary (Sara Lazzaro), Joseph (Vincent Walsh) and uncle Cleopas (McKay) try to guide Jesus while also protecting his gift.

Watching this film prompted me to spot obvious parallels to the story of young Superman, which could bode well for the film's play with mainstream audiences accustomed to the comic book adventures currently ruling the marketplace. However, it's important for these folks to recognize that Jesus came first, and that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman as a Christ-like figure.

This seems obvious, but I wouldn't put it past those unversed in either the Gospel or comic book lore.

Some parts of the film - the character of Cleopas relegated largely to comic relief, as well as a dramatic staredown between Jesus and Roman centurion Severus (Sean Bean) in the Jewish temple - feel as corny as a comic book, but this is still a part of Christ's story that has yet to be told in cinematic form. As such, it stands out from most faith-based fare and is largely worth a look.

The Young Messiah's worst sin, however, is its whitewashing. This is yet another version of a biblical story with a spray-tanned British cast. The young Greaves-Neal captures the innocence of Jesus as a child, but his thick English accent makes him painfully difficult to take seriously. Same goes for most of the cast. The commitment from Lazzaro and Walsh as Mary and Joseph respectively make things tolerable, but there's still no reason for this kind of casting anymore. It's 2016, and there are plenty of capable, region-accurate actors to play these roles. See Cliff Curtis as Jesus in Risen.

Like Risen I never felt patronized as an audience member while watching The Young Messiah, but unlike Risen I left feeling apathetic. The poor casting makes it hard to buy into the characters despite the superior technical presentation compared to most recent Christian films.


Friday, March 4, 2016

"London Has Fallen" Review

Gerard Butler returns to fight off the brown people once again in London Has Fallen, the sequel nobody asked for to the 2013 B-movie that wasn't quite as godawful as expected - Olympus Has Fallen

London sees President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) attending the Prime Minister's state funeral in the English capitol. Along for the trip is President Asher's top Secret Service man Mike Banning (Butler). What first appears to be an idyllic day quickly devolves into bloodshed and tragedy as a covert terrorist organization executes a master plan to assassinate every world leader in attendance at the funeral. Stranded with no communication and very few resources, Banning and Asher do everything they can to stay alive while also striking back against those responsible.

Featuring mindless violence, tacky special effects, and cornball acting, there's no discernible reason why London should have been anything other than a straight-to-DVD release, let alone made in the first place. As Butler pops headshots and grumbles that the mean brown people should all crawl back to "Fuckheadistan," it becomes clear what kind of audience this was made for:

Red-blooded 'Muricans.

Donald Drumpf supporters

Fans of unintelligible, incoherent filmmaking will love London. Less discerning viewers may also fail to see the movie's blatant xenophobic message. Standing over a slew of dead brown bodies, at one point Banning actually utters to the president that "every one of these guys is a terrorist until proven otherwise." Yeah, right. Take one guess as to who gets to play judge, jury and executioner in this case.

Adding a perplexing degree of irony, if nothing else, to this heap is the fact that the director is an Iranian refugee. Babak Najafi replaces Antoine Fuqua as the helmer of a film in which hundreds of his own people are made out to be slaughtered in the name of the Red, White and Blue. My question is "why agree to make such a movie?" The fact that the film is just not well-crafted to begin with - plus the jingoism and xenophobia - is enough to question Najafi's credibility as a filmmaker. (Olympus was at least technically competent, if not necessarily a "good" movie.) These are messages and larger issues that deserve to be discussed and explored perhaps by more subtle hands.

Even if you think you're a fan of mindless action films, please stay away from London Has Fallen.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

"Son of Saul" Review

I was finally able to catch Son of Saul just two days after its win at the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. It is a very strong piece that takes a rather unique approach to the Holocaust drama. Rather than paint a picture of the setting through wide angles and helicopter shots as other directors might, Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes keeps the camera focused solely on Saul (Geza Rohrig), a prisoner working as a member of the Sonderkommando at one of Auschwitz's crematoriums. Forced to gas his own people, Saul's guilt catches up with him and prompts him to rescue a boy who survived the chamber. After the boy is killed by an attending Nazi physician, Saul spends his time in search of a rabbi willing to help him bury the child whom he's taken as a son in death. All the while, the prisoners plot a rebellion.

It's interesting how you get a vivid portrait of the setting even with such an intimate perspective. The grunge and the horror of the camp is seen through Saul's facial expressions and body language. All credit to Rohrig on a masterful lead performance. If he had been nominated for Best Actor last Sunday, he probably would have won.

Things get pretty tense in the film's last 20-30 minutes as the riots begin. Other than that, this is a very deliberately paced film that requires patience. It didn't provide me much to get invested in during the first hour. For that, I'd say fellow Foreign Language Film contenders Mustang and Embrace of the Serpent are more worthy of your time and praise let alone the Oscar. Maybe Son of Saul didn't deserve the award, but it's still a unique cinematic experience that breathes new life into the tired WWII/Holocaust drama.