Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Unknown Known

*** out of ****

Errol Morris’ new documentary, The Unknown Known is about questions that deserve answers and a subject who has a talent for temporarily convincing people he is providing those answers. The grin of Donald Rumsfeld dominates the screen in a movie, which continues Morris’ influential methods of putting the audience in a room with a person, whether we like them or not.

This is easily a companion piece to his 2003 film, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, in which he interviewed another former Secretary of Defense about his experience with the Vietnam War as well as his early days in statistical bombing analysis during the World War II.

In this film, Rumsfeld doesn’t have the same amount of reflection time between himself and Iraq as McNamara did with Vietnam. His reflections of involvement in the Nixon and Ford administrations and the last years of the Vietnam War are very telling of his character. He’s a salesman.

As I said, Morris makes documentaries that force us to confront our perception of a person and experience what it’s like to sit down with them. He is credited with inventing a method of documentary filmmaking, which forces the interviewee to look in the direction of the camera lens. Morris’ face is fed to a small monitor below the lens as his loud voice from the back of the studio asks the most natural questions that his subject could inspire. The final effect is of a person looking directly at the audience, answering questions that Morris is asking in our place.

The frustration to be found in the film is in Rumsfeld’s undeniably big contradictions. Some of these contradictions are to statements he’s made in the past and some are within the interview itself. Discussions of Iraq, from the choice to go in to the treatment of prisoners of war, are given a good amount of attention. Rumsfeld justifies a lot of his decisions with an intelligence philosophy that inspires the title of the movie.

I am grateful for his willing participation in this project. His public personality is forever captured in this nearly two-hour movie. Without satisfying answers or definitive judgments we get an old man with a long career behind him, who dealt with difficult times. It is his account of those times that leaves us scratching our heads.

Morris has made some of the most involving interview-based documentaries I’ve seen. More than any of the theatrical releases, I would recommend checking out the television series he did in 2000, called First Person, which had a similar essence to the radio series, This American Life.

Morris dedicated The Unknown Known to Roger Ebert who encouraged this filmmaker and championed his work more than any other critic.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

**1/2 out of ****

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is pretty enjoyable and continues Marvel’s lineup of films that fall short of superhero movie greatness until we get another Avengers movie. This movie is what it is and I enjoyed myself when watching it, but do we really have to wait for Joss Whedon every time a character needs closure to an internal struggle?

In this film, we get to catch up with Chris Evans playing Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America) again, staying busy with S.H.I.E.L.D. operations as he continues in his adjustment with the modern world. A big chunk of material featuring this hero from the forties, trying to find his place in the twenty-first century, was cut from The Avengers for time. Writers Ed Brubaker, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were smart to put emphasis on the Cap’s struggle to get behind today’s America.

It starts off great, as Rogers takes a morning super-run in scenic DC, passing joggers multiple times with his unending energy and strength. He befriends Sam Wilson, played by Anthony Mackie (good casting), a fellow soldier who bonds with Rodgers on the difficulties of coming home from a war. Later he will be an important ally to our hero.

After a mission with mysterious results and the revelation of a new spy aircraft weaponry program, Rogers’ distrust of his fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. members grows. Even Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) seem questionable. Meanwhile, Fury is ambushed by a mysterious assassin and leaves behind a clue for Rogers, who suspecting corruption in the organization goes on the run to find answers. The film essentially becomes a comic book espionage thriller. It is only fitting that Robert Redford is in the movie as a high-ranking official.

The film’s setup and character development follow all the responsibilities of a good sequel. It is only when the story and obstacles develop that it starts to feel unfocused and uninteresting. The main antagonists of the story are pretty bland. I also think that it’s corny whenever a villain – yes even a villain to Captain America- is creating mayhem because they intend to “destroy freedom.”

Brothers, Anthony and Joe Russo who have directed episodes of Community and 30 Rock may be unlikely choices to have made this film, but their work is decent. Still, this is a movie made by committee. The action is very expensive looking. Some of it is exciting and some is headache inducing. Regardless, there’s a little too much of it. Every time I review a new action movie, I feel self-conscious. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m the wrong person to be talking about this stuff. Yes, an action movie without much action… wouldn’t be an action movie. It just seems as though only a few talented filmmakers out there know how to marry the action with the drama …or comedy –or whatever kind of action hybrid you’re dealing with.

Captain America will return and I guess that excuses these filmmakers of being responsible for what they’ve established, including tough questions about our country’s lack of innocence and the illusion of freedom. This review feels so incomplete but I really can’t go further into it without divulging spoilers. It’s certainly better than Thor: The Dark World and just about as good as Iron Man 3 but we all know that Age of Ultron is where the goods are. Unfortunately we won’t get that for another year.

Friday, April 4, 2014


** out of ****

Noah is a film that I was rooting for. At the risk of offending biblical literalists, I believe that any version of The Bible contains some amazing pieces of mythical fantasy adventure. I also think that Cecil B. DeMille saw this when he and Paramount Pictures made The Ten Commandments in 1956. I never managed to see Son of God last month, but I was very turned off by how unimaginative it looked. I was exited to think that a visionary filmmaker like Darren Aronofsky would have a refreshing take on the first story that captured my attention in Sunday School. He succeeds in some places even though the movie feels kind of …crazy. Like the Nicholas Cage movie, Knowing, there are some heavy ideas, but it didn’t leave me with any desire to see it again. Even when this film is at its best, it feels horrific.

It’s interesting that this movie felt crazy to me because Aronofsky has a talent for involving us in a protagonist’s madness. In past films like π and Black Swan, he continually shows us the gears turning the character’s head so that we are prepared for the troubles they will cause and receive. In this movie, we’re shown astonishing surreal visions, which are glimpses of the divine information given to Noah. But there is little to emotionally justify how he interprets them.

Without spoiling too much, the movie really lost me at a point late in the story when Noah has lost the love and trust of his family when his devotion to “The Creator” is outweighing his goodness. This dark turn is interesting but it doesn’t feel justified. Noah’s dark determination needs more weight.

I am the last person to jump on the Russell Crowe-hating bandwagon, but he offers nothing unique to this film other than an international box-office draw. This version of the prophet requires a lot of emotional range and Crowe is just giving us a standard built-in performance that he uses when in epic movies. As a matter of fact, no one is interestingly cast in this film. Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s elderly wizard grandfather was a choice so typical it felt ridiculous. Why didn’t Aronofsky regular, Mark Margolis play this guy?

I like Jennifer Connelly, Logan Lerman and Emma Watson as Noah’s family but I feel as thought there’s a missed opportunity to make the film from their perspectives instead of Noah’s -like in Bill Paxton’s Frailty, a film that showed children struggle with obeying their father who carries out a disturbing mission he claims to be from God.  

The trouble with involving an audience in a biblical story is how un-relatable its world and characters can seem. This movie has that problem. Aronofsky has some great ideas for the way the pre-flood ancient world looks. On a bright clear day, the stars are visible in the sky. Mysterious now-extinct animals roam about and there are ROCK MONSTERS! They are fallen angels who have become golems and will help Noah build the Ark. I’ll admit that I like this (“They look like big strong hands don’t they?”) Nick Nolte appropriately provides the voice of the one most loyal to Noah for his noble lineage.

The rest of Man is descended from Cain and has corrupted the earth. Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast) plays their wicked leader who embraces the free will of men to plunder. Some scenes featuring his people are terrifying and made me wonder how the film avoided an “R” rating. He learns of Noah’s existence and will try to take the ark when the flood becomes a reality.

Generally, this is a fantastic version of the world but everyone and everything seems so alien. There is very little to seduce us into suspending our disbelief.

With a reputation for independent art-house cinema, Aronofsky has danced around mega-budget projects for a while and this one wound up being his first. The money is definitely on the screen. The best parts are in passages of stylized cinematography and editing conveying earth’s creation in Genesis and we see something quite similar to the visual splendor of the new Cosmos series on Fox –or Terrence Malick’s amazing film, The Tree of Life. I guess that I wanted more of this kind of imagery to rule the film.

The movie takes a definite ecological stance, which is what I always got from the story in my religious upbringing. If the story of the flood was not meant to represent a warning for humans to be humbled by the earth and to show it respect, then I don’t know what it’s about.

There are strong concepts in this movie but it is rather scatter-brained and the guilty pleasure I get from Waterworld does more for me.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted

**1/2 out of ****

What can I say? The movie has an opening musical number calling out the fact that most sequels aren’t as good. This movie isn’t as good as the 2011 Jason Segal passion project, The Muppets but with the continued direction of James Bobin (Flight of the Concords”) and Segal’s writing partner from the last film, Nicholas Stoller (Get Him to the Greek), Muppets Most Wanted still has some big laughs.

The problem is that it has too much of everything. The cameos are prevalent to the point that every time a human face is onscreen you may wonder where you’ve seen them before –and yet they have very little to do. Some of the Bret McKenzie’s musical numbers are really good but there are one too many of them. Even at 107 minutes, the movie feels too long for what it is. This may be a problem for impatient kids, who I cynically believe are too over-stimulated by today’s entertainment to get much out of the puppet entertainment I loved as a child.

The endearing characteristics of The Muppets still exist. The sense of humor and heart is there even if it’s hard to capture what Jim Henson gave them. This movie finds inspiration from the jewel thief plot of 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper, involving adventure abroad, sinister bad guys and Muppets behind bars. I was generally entertained by it, but I was done with it before the final act.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

*** out of ****

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is an impersonal, yet fun vision of a sinister point in twentieth-century European history. Set between World War I and II in a fictional country at a mountain resort hotel, the story focuses on the friendship between a lobby boy and an eccentric concierge who is the murder suspect of an elderly countess.

Ralph Fiennes plays the concierge to a whimsical perfection and Tony Revolori plays the lobby boy with the deadpan straight-faced nature required of most Anderson characters. They spend a good amount of the film on the run with a police inspector (Edward Norton) and a hired killer (Willem Dafoe) on their tail. There are undertones of fascism spreading through Europe and the looming threat of war. Anderson’s miniature effects and storybook aesthetic help to lighten an ill-fated part of the world, but he throws in moments of horror here and there.

Did anyone see that SNL short a few months back when they spoofed Wes Anderson and everything predictable about his style? It was pretty amazing. Spoofing a director’s work is like doing an impression of a celebrity. It’s a statement about what we’ve learned to expect from them –whether we like them or not.

Wes Anderson is to art-house cinema, what Michael Bay is to action movies. You can interpret that statement however you like. From Anderson, I have learned to expect all style and some substance. I’ve always found his style to be unique and amusing. It’s his substance, more often than not, which bores me. The guy is great at setup but weak at payoff. Every one of his films, with exception of his best, Moonrise Kingdom, get to a point during the final act, where I find myself yawning.

Starting with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, I’ve been pleased with Anderson’s choice to change-up his movies a bit and I’m pretty sure that The Grand Budapest Hotel is his best-looking film. The choice to shoot in the classic “Academy” square-shaped aspect ratio works wonderfully with the scenery. I wish that more directors would attempt to reuse this format when the material calls for composition of this kind.

As always, the cast is huge, but the film is thankfully focused on its main characters. I still find Anderson’s need for quirky details to be more distracting that entertaining. When I first saw in the film’s trailer, that Saoirse Rohan has a birthmark on her face in the shape of Mexico, I groaned. Maybe someone will think it’s funny. Not me. I think it’s just stupid.