THE WALL (2017)

May 11, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a director’s filmography includes “big” action movies like Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and The Bourne Identity (the original), the last thing we expect is a stripped-down war movie whose camera focuses on a single character for most of the run time. Director Doug Liman certainly understands how to use the camera in creating tension and stress, yet while he and writer Dwain Worrell seem so intent on proving the confusion and futility of war, they seem to forget that a thriller needs either a hero to cheer or a villain to jeer.

It’s late 2007, and the war is winding down as rebuilding efforts are underway. Hulking Staff Sergeant Matthews (John Cena) and his fellow soldier Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) have been perched and camouflaged on the side a hill for more than 20 hours as they carry out reconnaissance on the site of an under-construction oil pipeline. All they have seen is the remains of a massacre – 8 bodies with no signs of life. Peering through his malfunctioning scope that once belonged to a now-dead friend, Isaac (known as “Ize” – get it?) and his training thinks something doesn’t seem right. When Matthews deems the site safe, he heads down to check it out. Of course, all heck breaks out and soon enough, an injured Isaac takes shelter behind a teetering stone wall. It turns out a sniper, more patient than the American soldiers, had been biding time for the moment.

The first eight bodies are construction contractors and a security detail … none of which matters to the sniper. The hook here is that the sniper hacks into Isaac’s radio and seemingly wants to chat it up, rather than finish him off. We never see the sniper, and neither do Matthews or Isaac … but we do hear him plenty. Laith Nakli voices Juba – known to American soldiers as the Angel of Death, responsible for dozens of US casualties. The film spirals into a psychological game of chess – or, more fittingly, the torture of Isaac. This isn’t the war we’ve come to expect in movies. Isaac’s situation seems hopeless, and banter with the man responsible never strikes him as a worthwhile pursuit.

The biggest issue here is that Juba seems the most interesting character, and not only are we never provided a way to connect with/hate him, we don’t even get enough backstory to bond with Isaac. Plenty of obstacles are thrown at Isaac: blowing sand, lack of drinking water, skittles for sustenance, blazing sun/heat, radio issues, and a brutally painful knee wound courtesy of Juba. The success of the movie depends on two things: Aaron Taylor-Johnson selling us on Isaac’s predicament, and the radio dialogue between he and Juba. The former is fine, but the latter falls short.

Better sniper movies include American Sniper and Enemy at the Gates, while more effective (mostly) one-character thrillers include Locke, Buried, and 127 Hours. The film makes excellent use of sound, but the little jabs at American ideals grows old quickly (such as asking who is the real terrorist). A different approach to a familiar topic deserves a chance, but while Juba only misses on purpose, the efforts of Mr. Liman and Mr. Worrell miss the mark by not engaging the viewer with the character(s).

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)

November 17, 2016

nocturnal-animals Greetings again from the darkness. First rule of Write Club … ABC. Always Bring Conflict. Alright, so I blended famous lines from a couple of movies there, but the point is a good script inevitably has conflict throughout. Director Tom Ford (A Single Man, 2009) adapted the screenplay from Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan”, and while significant conflicts abound, it’s the multiple and vivid contrasts that take this one to the next level.

Director Ford jolts us with one of the most unique and unwelcome opening scenes ever as the credits flash by. A high gloss art gallery is the setting for a combination of video/performance art taking place that could only be appreciated by those with very specific tastes … those who favor obese naked dancing ladies. Extremely obese and absolutely naked. It’s not the last time we as viewers will be uncomfortable, but it is the last time we will chuckle (even if it is awkwardly).

The curator of the art gallery is Susan, played by the always excellent Amy Adams. She lives in a stunning, ultra-contemporary mansion with her picturesque husband played by Armie Hammer. Their relationship is apparently as cold as his business, resulting in an empty relationship and the need to maintain the façade with their friends while quietly selling off assets to buy time. On the day that he leaves on a “business trip”, she receives a package containing a galley of her ex-husband Edward’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) first novel … some interesting reading during her time alone.

A creative story structure has Susan reading the book (dedicated to her) in bed while we “see” what she’s reading/envisioning. The story starts out as just another road trip for a husband (Gyllenhaal in a dual role), wife (Isla Fisher) and their teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber). However, on the desolate back roads of west Texas things get intense – almost unbearably so. The young family is terrorized by a trio of rednecks led by sociopath Ray Marcus (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in what is head and shoulders above anything he’s done to date). What follows is the fear of every man … unable to protect his family, and every woman … being abducted.

Thanks to flashbacks and some simple inferences, we soon realize the novel is corresponding to Susan and Edward’s past relationship, as well as Susan’s current situation. The previously mentioned contrasts really kick into gear. It’s the past versus the present, west Texas tumbleweeds versus the sleek and glamorous art world, Susan’s first artsy husband versus her new ideal one, young Susan versus current Susan, the physical beauty of those in Susan’s world versus the grit and ugliness of the novel, and finally, reality vs what’s not real.

The revenge-thriller portion of the novel makes for fascinating story-telling, and we get drawn in fully once Michael Shannon (playing a west Texas detective) arrives on the screen. Always one to disappear into his role, this may be Mr. Shannon’s best yet. Though he doesn’t have significant screen time, we are mesmerized by him during his scenes. He and Gyllenhaal are terrific together. Also appearing in supporting roles are Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, Jena Malone, and a chilling scene from Laura Linney as Susan’s high society mother.

The two parts of the film play off each other like Brian DePalma against Sergio Leone. Slick against dusty … but of course, there is misery and disappointment and deceit in each. The cinematography (2 time Oscar nominee Seamus McGarvey) and editing (Joan Sobel) are superb and complemented by a spot on score from composer Abel Korzeniowski (a mixture of Bernard Hermann and Basic Instinct). The ending may frustrate some (not me) and though it may not find a huge audience, a loyal fan base is quite likely.

watch the trailer:

 

 


AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

May 17, 2015

Avengers Ultron Greetings again from the darkness. Joss Whedon returns as writer/director for the sequel to his 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, and this time he juggles an exceptionally large, diverse and talented group of characters and actors who are not only involved in good versus evil, but also in the battle for screen time.

There is no shortage of write-ups from film critics and fanboys who have analyzed every aspect of the movie from every possible angle, and while I admit to taking that same approach to most movies, there is something about the Marvel franchise that cause me to flip off the film critic part of my brain and just sit back and enjoy. And enjoy I do. The characters are fun and interesting and the action is at times breath-taking.

Since there are, by my count, at least 23 actors who deserve mention, it makes little sense for me to list them here. It is worth noting that the key actors all reprise their roles as Avengers, and many of those in supporting roles are back as well. This time there are also many significant newcomers, and those include “The Twins” – Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch. Other newbies include Linda Cardellini (“Mad Men”,” Bloodline”) as Hawkeye’s wife, Claudia Kim as Dr Helen Cho, Thomas Kretschmann as Strucker, and Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue. Though each is a nice addition, it’s the stellar voice work of James Spader as Ultron that really makes this movie click. Somehow Mr. Spader manages to convey a powerful presence despite maintaining a (mostly) even keel throughout. It’s masterful voice acting.

Missing this time out are Pepper Potts and Loki, though we hardly notice thanks to the first look at Vision (Paul Bettany) and Thanos (Josh Brolin) … plus the unveiling of Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. If you thought the first Avengers movie made it difficult to keep up with the characters, this one will have your head spinning. It’s probably the only quibble I have with it … character overload at the expense of character development. The Hawkeye family farm represents a meager attempt to have this group of superheroes set in a “normal” environment, but it just doesn’t quite work. The Avengers are at their best while snipping at each other or saving the planet … fortunately the movie offers plenty of the latter.

watch the trailer:

 


GODZILLA (2014)

May 18, 2014

godzilla Greetings again from the darkness. Sixty years after Godzilla made his initial screen appearance, we get a full blown Hollywood special effects blockbuster version that will eclipse the $100 million mark in its first weekend. This is director Gareth Edwards’ second feature film (Monsters, 2010) and he juggles the modern day re-imagining with the Japanese roots and a hand full of other tributes throughout.

The cast seems impressive: Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn. Unfortunately, most of these fine actors have little to do, and instead the dominant human presence (most every scene) is Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) who somehow keeps getting gigs despite lacking even a dollop of screen presence or acting ability. Of course, this movie is supposed to belong to Godzilla, and even he is usurped on screen time by two nuclear-feasting praying mantis creatures that share some attributes with the classic “Alien”. These screen hogs are called MUTO’s (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) and are quite substantial … crushing skyscrapers by landing.

The 1954 original film was an anti-nuclear statement, though the re-edited U.S. version replaced the political statement with Raymond Burr. Mr. Burr also appeared in the 1984 sequel which included a storyline of feeding off a nuclear plant (borrowed in this year’s version). This film’s prologue featuring Bryan Cranston working at a 1999 nuclear plant is an unmistakable nod to the recent Fukushima disaster, and sets the stage for the collision of science (Watanabe) and military (Strathairn). Director Edwards clearly enjoys his Jaws-like teasing of Godzilla, who finally shows up after almost an hour. And despite the Jurassic Park roar by our titular monster, this doesn’t hold a candle to Spielberg’s 1993 classic. We do get the quite familiar shots of bystanders running down the street, glancing back in fear – a must for any monster movie, and it should be noted that Godzilla films have a legacy of multiple creatures, as well as the man versus nature theme.

Having seen this one in 3D, I’ll mention again that the enhanced effects offered by this technology do not offset the darkened, dulled look. Add that to the almost total lack of color – it’s borderline Black and White – and there are simply too few breathtaking visual moments to consider this a monster classic.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a monster movie fan or a follower of the Godzilla legacy OR you need proof that a lead actor can be less engaging than Matthew Broderick was in the 1998 Godzilla film.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe technological advances should produce a more visually stunning film than Jurassic Park from 21 years ago OR you happen to be a huge Juliette Binoche fan and expect to see her in a lead role.

watch the trailer:

 

 


ANNA KARENINA (2012)

December 9, 2012

anna Greetings again from the darkness. We are all familiar with the phrase “All the World’s a Stage”, and director Joe Wright and writer Tom Stoppard twist the phrase into “All the Stage is the World” in their re-imagining of Leo Tolstoy‘s literary classic. With a bold and ambitious vision, the story plays out mostly within the confines of a theatre … utilizing not just the stage, but the rafters, backstage and all nooks. This is pulled off in a most operatic manner with heavy production, remarkable sets and costumes, and the use of curtains and doors for a change of scene. Additionally, most of the actors move like dancers and, at times, the dialogue delivery borders on musicality.

Tolstoy’s story has been adapted for the screen in more than two dozen versions, including two from screen legend Greta Garbo (1927, 1935). Who better to take on the role of Anna than Keira Knightley, the ultimate period actress of our generation. It’s her anna2third film with Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) and by far, the least traditional in presentation. This version focuses on the affair between Anna and Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson from Kick-Ass), and her resolve in tossing aside her standing in Russian high-society … and even giving up her son.

We do gets bits and pieces of the other story lines: Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) provides some comic relief from the start despite his extra-marital wanderings from his wife (Kelly Macdonald); the stoic determination of the bureaucrat Karenin (Jude Law) as he insists on maintaining the proper illusion; and the down-to-earth landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s son) with his pursuit of perfect farming and the beautiful Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Some viewer anna4disappointment creeps in when we realize that Levin’s story is minimized here for the torrid love affair of Anna and Vronsky. Levin’s story is allowed to sneak outside the theatre setting … presumably since he is the only character living in the real world.

Tolstoy’s powerful story is stymied to some degree by the lack of sympathy we feel for Anna … while we certainly understand her lack of connection to the cold Karenin, we never sense more than a physical attraction and unreasonable wish between she and Vronsky. The strength of the story stems from Anna’s knowing willingness to surrender her anna3place in society for the sake of what should interprets as true love. When one of the society ladies states she could forgive Anna for breaking the law, but not for breaking the rules, we fully comprehend what a ridiculous state those in high society exist.

It’s difficult to imagine a wide acceptance of this unique presentation; however, the technical aspects of the film deserve much Oscar consideration – cinematography, set design, costumes, etc are all first rate. And Keira Knightley proves again that costume dramas are where she is at her best.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you thought all possible presentations of literary classics had been explored OR you need further proof that no actress today seems more natural in the unnatural costume dramas than Keira Knightley

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: film interpretations of the elite literary classics leave you with an empty feeling

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPGLRO3fZnQ