EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014)

December 12, 2014

Exodus Greetings again from the darkness. Two huge Old Testament epics in one year (Noah being the other) is quite unusual in this era of superhero overload. But then, if you squint just right, there is a dash of superhero in both Noah and Moses, and each of their stories plays equally well as an action-packed adventure or bible scripture. If you are the type to analyze all the religious errors, you might first consider that the three male leads are played by an Australian, a Welsh, and a Knighted Sir. So a grain of salt is in order; and you should understand that director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, 2000) is more interested in the cinematic “wow” factor than he is in biblical accuracy.

Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are raised as brothers in Egypt circa 1300 BCE. Ramses’ father is the ruling Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro) who believes Moses to be the better leader of people than his own son. But in those days, blood ruled, and soon after discovering that Moses is actually Hebrew rather than Egyptian, Ramses cast him into the desert.

A few years later Moses chats it up with God (actually Metatron archangel that looks like a schoolboy), and the next thing we know, fish are dying in poisoned waters, giant crocodiles are chomping on fisherman, an impressive onslaught of frogs and locusts attack, followed by massive swarms of flies, and finally the darkness of death. Ramses finally ends the streak of plagues by agreeing to free the Hebrew slaves. Moses then leads the masses on the infamous trek … a not so enjoyable trip that peaks with the parting of Red Sea – a very impressive movie effect, even when compared to the wall of water seen recently in Interstellar.

The movie is dominated by Bale and Edgerton, with only minor supporting roles from John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver (maybe 3 lines of dialogue), Aaron Paul as Joshua (lots of quiet eye-balling of Moses), Sir Ben Kingsley as Nun, a hilarious Ben Mendelsohn, the always energetic Ewen Bremner, and the very classy Hiam Abbass.

Director Ridley Scott has dedicated this one to his brother Tony, and it’s sure to be one of those movies that some critics will enjoy bashing, just because they can. And there will be the nostalgic viewers who fondly recall Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (either version), and the pomposity displayed by Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. But for those movie goers looking for an adventure movie in the form of a throwback biblical epic with eye-popping special effects, it seems the answer will be a resounding “yes” to the question of … “Are you not entertained?”

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are really into special effects and plagues OR you were a fan before “the pictures got small”

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a literal interpretation of bible scripture OR you expect anyone other than the extras to bear even a slight resemblance to ancient Egyptians

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE ROVER (2014, Australia)

June 29, 2014

rover Greetings again from the darkness. This is Australian writer/director David Michod’s follow-up to his excellent 2010 film Animal Kingdom – one of my favorite films that year. While that film took us inside an Australian gangster family, this one is set in a dystopian Outback ten years after what the film terms “the collapse”.

Michod’s script from a Joel Edgerton story goes pretty light on the details and depends heavily on the shared scenes with Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson. Both deliver the goods, and Pattinson in particular is quite something to behold … his gun shot wound plays second fiddle to the most bizarre speech pattern and accent we have heard in awhile. Initially appearing somewhat flawed in his mental aptitude, Pattinson brings his character through a full cycle of emotions; which is the polar opposite of Pearce’s character who though quite stoic, leaves no doubt that he is angry at 3 goons for stealing his last possession – his car.

The mood of the film and the tone of the character keep us in suspense on why this blasted car is so important to Pearce, and it’s not until the final sequence that the mystery is solved. The more interesting scenes occur when Pearce and Pattinson are facing off – their relationship evolves from adversarial to something kind of oddly touching.

The usually dependable Scoot McNairy plays Pattinson’s brother, but really isn’t given much to do except for his final scene with Pattinson. The most interesting supporting role comes courtesy of screen veteran Gillian Jones as the inquisitive Grandma. She leaves the impression that a film about her would be much wilder than the minimalistic landscape and dialogue of our feature.

Michod’s latest is not at the level of Animal Kingdom but it does offer a couple of intriguing characters and vastly toned down Mad Max flavor. It’s beautifully photographed and the sparse soundtrack is the perfect compliment.

watch the trailer:

 


THE GREAT GATSBY (2013)

May 14, 2013

great gatsby1 Greetings again from the darkness. Movie versions of beloved books are always a risky proposition. Devotees of the written word recoil in disgust when a filmmaker dares re-imagine a character or scene, while critics take delight in itemizing each and every stray from the source material. Director Baz Luhrmann is an artist. His canvas is the silver screen, and he thrives in presenting his interpretations and visions. When he agreed to take on F Scott Fitzgerald’s 88 year old masterpiece… one that consistently lands on the lists of top ten novels of all-time … he most assuredly prepared for the onslaught of criticism and outrage that would follow (and has). He must have also known that his work would delight and entertain those open-minded viewers not shackled to thoughts of a single “correct” form (it has).

great gatsby2 If you have seen Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) or Romeo + Juliet (1996), then you are prepared for a Gatsby vision significantly different from director Jack Clayton‘s somber and oft-dreary version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Taking a different route altogether, Luhrmann worked with Jay-Z on the soundtrack that mixes Roaring 20’s jazz classics with contemporary hip-hop. He worked with award-winning Costume Designer Catherine Martin (his wife) on creating a kaleidoscope of colors for dazzling outfits that range from Gatsby’s pastel suits and shirts to the glitzy and sparkling party dresses at his over-the-top parties. Additionally, Luhrmann invoked the newest 3-D technology to add even more emphasis to the visual spectacle that included free-flowing champagne, high-gloss and high-powered automobiles screaming down narrow roads, sky-filling fireworks, and enough glittery confetti to stop down a parade. Jay Gatsby may know how to throw party, but so does Baz Luhrmann!

great gatsby5 Knowing this movie was coming soon, I re-read Fitzgerald’s novel back in January. While I was once again struck by the depressing feeling it leaves you with (it is after all a tragedy), I was also reminded of what stunning prose the writer lays out. At times I find it borders on poetry. You may agree with many of the 1925 critics who claimed the characters are unlikeable and the plot has little to offer, though you must also acknowledge the work acts as a timeless reminder that the vast majority of us could never come close to writing something as beautiful.  I pity the next high school student who opts to watch Luhrmann’s movie rather than read Fitzgerald’s words.  That essay will likely miss some key themes … but at least the student will be treated to a visual feast!

great gatsby4 The cast members are talented and game for Luhrmann’s world. Leonardo DiCaprio infuses the mysterious Gatsby character with the uncertainty and teetering balance of secrecy, desperation and illusion that Redford never could. His obsession with Daisy (Carey Mulligan) may be difficult to understand, but then why should obsessive love make sense? Joel Edgerton (as Daisy’s husband Tom) is a womanizing brute who sets apart his own inherited wealth and culture from that of Gatsby as East and West Egg. Tobey Maguire‘s Nick Carraway is our lone hope for normalcy. He is thrust into the Gatsby world and never really understands it … but then who could? The Carraway character is my single biggest complaint in regards to the movie. The framing device of Nick writing the story down for his psychiatrist as part of his therapy, means we get entirely too much Tobey Maguire and Nick Carraway for my tastes.

great gatsby7 It’s also a bit disappointing that we get so little of the strong supporting cast: Isla Fisher as Myrtle, Jason Clarke as Myrtle’s husband, and especially Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim and exciting newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker, are seen and heard from entirely too few times. In fact, the Nick and Jordan connection from the book is mostly ignored. These are all fabulous actors who did what they could with the characters, but we should remind ourselves that Fitzgerald’s book was always more about the prose than the characters or plot. He told us what he wanted us to know more than have his characters show us. That was his art form. Baz Luhrmann’s art form is showing … and his show is quite a treat!

**NOTE: this is neither a documentary nor exact adaptation … it takes artistic license for automobiles, clothes and music (among other things)!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy varying interpretations of art OR you just can’t decide who makes the dreamiest Gatsby – Leonardo DiCaprio or Robert Redford.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are a literary traditionalist and believe movie versions of classic books should not vary from the script (this one does).

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TaBVLhcHcc0


ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)

January 5, 2013

zero Greetings again from the darkness. Kathryn Bigelow entered the realm of elite directors when her war thriller The Hurt Locker exploded onto the Oscar scene a few years ago. Once again she proves why the critics adore her, and the movie going masses stay away. She is an expert filmmaker, a brilliant technician, though not much into the whole entertainment scene.

We always try to label films and this one doesn’t quite fit as thriller or action, or even war genre. It’s really a tense, procedural drama focusing on the behind-the-scenes CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden. In fact, it’s mostly the story of one obsessed CIA agent’s research and un-wavering pursuit of the one most responsible for the tragic events of 9-11-01 (as well as many others).

zero4 The film started out as a story of the nearly decade long pursuit and the failure to find him. Everything, including the movie, changed on May 2, 2011 when Navy SEAL Team Six pulled off the daring and historic mission to kill bin Laden. The book “No Easy Day” by Mark Owen (pseudonym for real life SEAL Matt Bissonnette) was released and many of the details became public. Bigelow and her writer Mark Boal (former journalist) went even deeper into research mode and now the film has instigated Congressional hearings in regards to some of the scenes.

Bigelow presents this as old school, hard core males vs the intellectual, instinctive and brazen Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. In the book, she is referred to as “Jen”, but her name matters not. What’s important is her laser-like focus for almost 10 years, despite the numerous attempts by her superiors to ignore her theories.

zero3 Much of the film deals with the group meetings and presentations to CIA mid-managers, who either don’t trust her or refuse to put their own careers on the line. Maya remains relentless. She finally gets a audience with CIA Director Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini) and introduces herself as “the M*****F****R who found this place, sir”. This comes across as confident, not disrespectful.

Bigelow and Boal refuse the temptation of providing any real backstory or personal life on these characters. We do learn that Maya was recruited right out of high school, so we can assume she wasn’t a typical 18 year old. The only thought of a romantic interlude is quickly shot down by Maya proclaiming (in so many words), she’s not that kind of girl.

zero5 Most of the men in the film are presented as near Neanderthals. Jason Clarke is the old school field agent who has mastered the use of torture, water-boarding and humiliation to gain information from detainees. The “60 Minutes” clip of Obama saying that America will no longer utilize torture is one of the few tips to national politics that the film offers up. The only other politics are those played by station chief Kyle Chandler, who is protective of his job, and Mark Strong, who seems relatively helpless without the support of his superiors. All the while Maya keeps pushing and pounding for action.

The Langley desk jockeys vs actual Field work provides a distinctive line in the sand between the two worlds, and emphasizes just how easy it is to make a mistake in judgment. What if we had been wrong on the location of bin Laden? What if the “fortress” had belonged to a drug dealer instead and the SEAL team had invaded a private home within the boundaries of our supposed ally zero2Pakistan? Jessica Chastain is believable and tough in her role, and Jason Clarke dominates the screen in his early scenes. Other fine support work comes courtesy of Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, Harold Perrineau, and Jennifer Ehle. When we finally get to the strategy session for the mission, we meet SEAL’s played by Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton. The 25 minutes or so dedicated to the helicopter mission are filmed as if we are wearing the same night-vision goggles worn by the brave souls storming the castle. It’s a very impressive sequence.

If you enjoy the details of a procedural drama, then you will find much to like here … knowing the ultimate outcome doesn’t affect the suspense one bit. However, if you seek an entertaining respite from your daily grind, this one will offer no assistance … despite another excellent and minimalistic mood score from Alexadre Desplat.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you get a kick out of the details involved in a CIA procedural OR you enjoy expert filmmaking, regardless of entertainment value OR you need further proof that Jessica Chastain is a major star OR you want to see Mark Strong’s best impersonation of Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: it’s still too soon after the actual event OR you can’t stomach the thought of torturing detainees

watch the trailer:

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

 


THE THING (2011)

October 16, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Let’s tip our ski masks and flamethrowers to John W Campbell Jr. He wrote the 1938 novella (“Who Goes There?”) that has inspired 3 versions of The Thing, plus the Alien series and numerous other sci-fi movies and TV episodes. This latest version is actually a pre-quel to the 1982 film John Carpenter’s The Thing starring Kurt Russell. First time feature director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr does a nice job of staying true to Carpenter’s version and offering a back-story, while still coming across fresh for a new generation.

 Going back to 1951, The Thing from Another Planet succeeded in frightening a bunch of young filmgoers and hooking them on sci-fi and terror at the theatre. In that version, James Arness (later famous as Marshal Dillon in Gunsmoke) was a hulking creature responsible for many nightmares for kids in the 50’s. John Carpenter updated the look in 1982 with a version that has become classic sci-fi and horror, and now this version takes advantage of today’s spectacular special effects.

 The special effects do dominate and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The creature and its process are on full display quite a lot, so instead of suspense, we get outright fright shown by the research team. If you aren’t aware, this research station is located in Antarctica, and the frozen tundra and isolation are characters unto themselves. There is very little character development in this most recent version. We do get a Ripley-esque Kate played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Death Proof cheerleader), a misguided scientist (are there any other types?) played by Ulrich Thomsen, and a right guy in the wrong place nice guy played by Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom, Warrior). The rest of the cast are mostly Norwegian dudes who, I am sure, have had better vacations than this.

The movie has a couple of very nice shots depicting the frozen terrain and a very cool overhead of the creature frozen in ice. Other than that, fans of the 1982 version will be glad to know that the flamethrowers are back, as is the dog. Just know that this one is driven by special effects, so if you are up for a creature/alien film, you’ll probably be satisfied.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of either of the previous two OR you like the mixture of terror and sci-fi OR you never miss a movie featuring a flamethrower

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think John Carpenter’s 1982 version can’t possibly be topped OR you aren’t the type to be impressed by gore-centric special effects OR you are protesting since Kurt Russell doesn’t make an appearance

watch the trailer:


WARRIOR

September 12, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s always a bit thrilling when a movie catches us off-guard and is much more than expected. Walking in, I was all set for a testosterone fueled fight fest featuring BS bravado and mounds of machismo. While that element is abundantly present, writer/director Gavin O’Connor wraps the fighting around a pretty interesting story about family, bravery, desperation, pride and forgiveness.

The story begins with the convergence of a broken family – two brothers and their father. The split occurred many years ago, and without the details, we are able to piece together that dad (Nick Nolte) was a violent drunken ex-Marine and the mother planned to take the two boys and run. One of the brothers (Joel Edgerton) had fallen in love and decided to stay with dad. The younger brother (Tom Hardy) went with mom and even nursed her through her final days of cancer prior to his joining the Marines. The three men have been incommunicado for years, until one day Tommy (Hardy) shows up on Nolte’s doorstep.

 What sets this one apart is the details of each of the brother’s stories, very little of which I will discuss here. There is a terrific scene on the Atlantic City beach where their demons confront each other and we see that so much pain and bitterness exists despite their having been teenagers at the time of the split. They each felt abandoned by the other. Now one is an angry ex-Marine and the other is a desperate physics teacher with a family. This story couldn’t possibly end any place other than smack in the middle of an MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) cage fight!

 Their Dad (Nolte) had trained the boys as youth wrestlers and now a giant $5 million tournament is being held. Both brothers are carrying secrets and need money to solve their problems. Their secrets drive them to risk life and limb in the cage of this most brutal activity. To best describe these characters, Tom Hardy has the presence and physique of the guy you would never consider confronting in a bar fight. Joel Edgerton is the kind that your buddies would egg you on thinking you could probably take him. Instead you would end up in the back of an ambulance.

 As expected, and shown in the trailer, the MMA tournament ends with the two brothers facing off and guilt-riddled dad watching from the crowd. Despite the rowdiness and violence of the fighting, very little blood is shown. That’s not what this movie is about. Instead we get many adrenaline-rushes from the spectacle of the fights, plus a split-screen montage of the training leading up to the big moment. This is a crowd-pleaser in the vein of The Fighter, but not quite as mainstream given the MMA element.

 The two leads were each on my list of favorite movies last year. Joel Edgerton was in the excellent and under-the-radar Animal Kingdom, while Tom Brady was in the mega-hit Inception and will play Bane in the upcoming Batman film. In this film, Edgerton has more freedom with his character, but Brady does a wonderful job of capturing the quiet intensity followed by roid rage in the ring. Most surprising is the fine job turned in by Nick Nolte. He really showed up for this one. Other support work comes from Jennifer Morrison, Kevin Dunn and Frank Grillo. We also see former Olympic wrester Kurt Angle as the terrifying Russian MMA machine Yoba, and writer/director Gavin O’Connor as JJ Riley, the millionaire sponsoring the tournament.

There will be comparisons made to both Rocky and The Fighter, and both make sense. It is not quite at that level, but don’t mistake this as some dumb fight movie made for teenage boys. There is a story and it provides further proof that men, no matter how hard they try, manage to screw up the whole family thing more often than not … but in the end, they do try their best to make things better!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are up for a high intensity male-centric family drama with an abundance of testosterone OR you want to see the best Nick Nolte performance in years

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer slow, weepy family dramas rather than the simmering explosions of male communication OR simply watching MMA is more violence than you care to take on

watch the trailer:


ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010)

August 29, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. An Australian movie that packs a wallop! Writer/Director David Michod delivers an unsettling look into one family’s life of crime and the corresponding order of things – the circle of life in the Animal Kingdom. Supposedly based on a true story, this is a tough family that you would not want as relatives.  These are not smooth operators like Scorcese provided in Casino or Goodfellas.  No, in fact, these guys are much worse.

The matriarch is played chillingly by Jacki Weaver. She is mother or grandmother to the guys (except for one outsider) in the band of crooks. While she messes with your mind through the story, it’s not until the final 15 minutes when she really kicks it up a notch and becomes flat out frightening in her power.

There are only a couple of actors that most people would recognize. Joel Edgerton is the outsider in the group, and the one trying to go straight by playing the stock market with his “earnings”. The other is Guy Pearce, who plays the detective trying to both solve the cases and rescue young Josh, played by newcomer James Frecheville.

Not only is this the type of story that sucks you in, it is a reminder of just how distracting movie stars can be to a film. The lack of stars allows us to really be absorbed into this family, or better, this world of crime, deceit, corruption and paranoia. There is not a single movie star – no one who can capitalize on his film history of characters and immediately generate recognition. Here, the viewer must get to know an entire family for who and what they are. This is powerful stuff for a film lover.

The winner for best psychopath is Ben Mendelsohn as Pope. His dead eyes will scare you. His demeanor will scare you. His actions will disgust you. There are two lines in the film that help us make sense of what occurs. Early on, the narrator tells us that “all crooks come undone” at some point. Later, the detective (Pearce) tells us that in the Animal Kingdom, you are either weak or strong. The lines seem pretty clear.

The focus of the film is on Josh (Frecheville) who gets plopped into this family of criminals after his mom dies of an overdose and he calls his long-lost grandmother (Weaver). Josh spends the rest of the film trying to blend in while staying clean. Of course, even his stoic mask doesn’t save him from the path of destruction created by Pope.  The only question is, can he find a way to survive or escape?

In the end, the film is about survival, adaptation and exploring what really defines strong and weak, good and bad. Are you weak or strong?  It’s not always easy to tell … and beware of the quiet ones.  If you enjoy powerful crime thrillers, this one is worth checking out … and be appreciative for the lack of Hollywood star power. That’s part of why it works!