Monday, February 16, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey

** out of ****

I go to see films like Fifty Shades of Grey, in the hope that I will experience a rare case of bad material being wielded into good cinema. Plenty of erotic films have existed simply as big budget soft-core pornos with a strong enough atmosphere to be considered art. Take a look at Tony Scott’s The Hunger. It’s a dark erotic fantasy film featuring beautiful people with mysterious, yet intriguing motivations behind their seductions. Like Fifty Shades, it was also inspired by vampire fiction.

Fifty Shades, however, features no supernatural elements, aside from the typical case of a simple lonely girl being pursued by a very attractive, infinitely wealthy libidinous man. To know its author, E.L. James was inspired by the Twilight Saga makes a lot of sense. In this case, our female protagonist is Anastasia Steele, an undergrad sent to interview an industrial billionaire named Christian Grey on the top floor of his company’s skyscraper in Seattle. Grey is easily like the vampire-lover, Edward Cullen: A seemingly perfect hot guy with a dangerous side to reveal. After their brief encounter, he stocks Anastasia and seduces her into his lair, occasionally pushing her away, insisting she doesn't want to know him. But, you know, she does –and eventually reveals his peculiar tastes and terms for a sexual relationship.

No self-respecting fan of good literature I’ve met, has anything nice to say about this book. I get an idea of how shallow it is even though the film tries very hard to rise above the content. Dakota Johnson is very good at imposing some real emotion on such an unrealized character as Anastasia. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is possibly this films most winning asset. Combined with music by Danny Elfman and songs by Sia, The Weeknd and Beyonce, the exotic aspects of this film are rather well captured.

Jamie Dornan, however, does little to emotionally justify the complicated Grey. He’s good-looking with a strong screen presence, but doesn’t seem to have explored the psychology of what comes across as a gentle sadist in search of a submissive. Compared to his co-star, who bares all, Dornan keeps his goods off-screen. This not only sets popular erotic R-rated cinema back twenty years, it’s also in defiance of its target audience. Why cast a prude like Dornan if it leaves Johnson behind with all the potential humiliation?

In the end, the sexual elements of this film aren’t as explicit as people hoped or feared. Without the allure of its erotic qualities controlling the movie, I was left seeing this story for what it really is: A luxury fantasy showcasing material goods as if they’re the real temptation for Anastasia with the question of whether the imposed sex life is worth the compromise. That’s just not interesting to me.

There’s a film from 2002, called Secretary, where Maggie Gyllenhaal is attracted to her boss because she is actually thrilled by the sadistic submission he demands. That movie is much better than this one because its strange characters are discovering how their needs are compatible. Her boss, played by James Spader, is named Mr. Grey. Coincidence? You decide.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

1/2* out of ****

There’s too much wrong with the WachowskisJupiter Ascending to cover in this piece. I hated it. Despite my appreciation for science-fiction of the corny variety, this film has messy story construction incapable of producing the suspense or intrigue necessary to get its audience involved with all its twists and double-crosses. The only value to be found in this film is in its mega-budget wealth of crazy costume, set and ship designs. But they’re not much more impressive than other recent adventure fantasies which also paid a little tribute to Dino De Laurentiis productions, like Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor or even the underrated John Carter.

Mila Kunis is awkwardly cast as Jupiter, a Chicago housekeeper who learns she is heir to the planet Earth when aliens try to kill her. She is rescued by a genetically engineered part-dog warrior man with anti-gravity boots and a repressed lover’s heart -played by Channing Tatum (also awkward). It turns out that three siblings who claim dominance over planets for the sake of growing and harvesting people, are all quarreling over who will control earth. The most sinister of the three, Balem Abrasax, is played by Eddie Redmayne (VERY awkward).

Redmayne, who recently did an excellent job playing Stephen Hawking, is trying something odd with his role by giving an old man whispery voice to his character, but it doesn’t work. Kunis and Tatum are both talented and attractive, but I would describe them as sexy-goofy people and not so capable in conveying the celestial demeanor necessary for their roles. I could go on about their lack of chemistry, but I'd have to figure out their characters first.

The movie is tonally all over the place, shifting between laughable aliens trying to have serious conversations (Gugu Mbatha-Raw has giant prosthetic mouse ears) to an intergalactic DMV, where creatures work at desks in an attempt to pay homage to Brazil by Terry Gilliam – one of my all time favorite directors who made a rare cameo appearance in this section of the movie. Why this movie, Terry? Was Spies Like Us not embarrassing enough?

If there is a major failure in this film, unlikely to be discussed, it's in Michael Giacchino's unremarkably generic score. I often like Giacchino's work, but sometimes I'm disappointed at his lack of creativity. I've expressed so many times that choral sections in movie scores have been done so often that they've lost their effectiveness on me. That Carmina Burana-inspired shit needs to go away. 

The Wachowski's attempt to be original through this film comes off as desperate. Like The Matrix, it blends together so many different types of fiction into one, but this time they don't manage to gel or feel fresh in any way. It's more of a movie made from salvaged garbage, than creatively recycled material.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Seventh Son

** out of ****

Seventh Son is a medieval fantasy with Jeff Bridges as a witch-hunting sage training a young man (Ben Barnes) how to fight evil spirits.  It isn’t very good looking. Some element of this movie's processing makes it look lower-grade than other films -when viewed on a large screen. Despite a few decent special effects, most of them are ugly. Like most 'special effects' movies there's too many artificial elements on the screen for any impact to be felt. It also doesn't help that the action is rather formulaic. 

But to its merit, it has actors who seem as though they’re having fun, real locations and a simple easy-to-follow plot –all adding up to some B-Movie charm, similar to films like Dragonslayer and Ladyhawke. If only it had the rich atmosphere eighties fantasies produced. Marco Beltrami's score brings it a little close to that feeling, but these days it's almost impossible for a film in this genre to show a little restraint, when it comes to the dependence on obvious CGI for every time something magic happens. 

Ben Barnes and Alicia Vikander seem to apply a generic, yet endearing kind of romance as the movie's two young and beautiful people. Jeff Bridges plays around with what might be miscasting and owns the role of an aging warrior. Julianne Moore also hams-up her role as a villainous witch. This is one weird sequel to The Big Lewbowski.

Friday, February 6, 2015

A Most Violent Year

*** out of ****

J.C. Chandor’s third feature film continues this auteur’s interest in characters on a downward spiral. Margin Call dealt with workers in an investment bank during the 2008 economic crisis. All Is Lost featured a man on a sinking boat with no help in sight. Now, A Most Violent Year is about a businessman in a corrupt society, trying to find success on a righteous path, but is being challenged by violence.

Oscar Isaac  plays Abel Morales, a promising New York heating oil company owner in the midst of a big riverfront property score. Unfortunately, an industry-wide investigation is underway from the Assistant District Attorney (David Oyelowo), targeting Morales’ up-and-coming business. To make matters worse, he is under the attack of unknown gangsters, regularly hijacking his oil trucks.

Chandor seduces us into the film, slowly revealing who our main characters are, what they do -and mostly, what they want. It’s set in 1981, (the year of my birth) which was considered to be one New York’s most violent years in history, and the setting is realized very well. Considering how often the Manhattan skyline is featured nonchalantly in the background, it’s remarkable what a good job the effects team did to bring back the city’s older appearance.

As we get to know Abel and his bookkeeper wife Anna, played beautifully by Jessica Chastain, we start to wonder what force is intruding on their business and eventually, their lives. Abel looks to others, including a longtime attorney (Albert Brooks) with shady connections and a competitor (Alessandro Nivola) for some idea as to why he’s being ripped-off and threatened but no one knows. Temptations to take illegal risks become stronger. Everyone in his company, from a young immigrant truck driver to his wife, is more willing than he to go dark places to secure an independent future.

While Chandor tells a good story, the film’s dialogue leaves something to be desired. The matter-of-fact exposition leaves the characters without an important element of character. The movie also ends with a very heavy-handed climax of embarrassingly over-the-top melodrama that really brought it down a step.

I still have to applaud its slow-building tension, which climaxes with a chase scene during the last act of the film that harkens back to the gritty daylight pursuit among urban decay, seen in The French Connection.

Chandor has a vision and it is mostly realized in this film. The only thing that prevents it from being great is its lack of range in all the different ways people can communicate in a movie. His actors do great work to emote the blueprint-like script, but the characters don’t match the dark beauty of the film's atmosphere.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Into the Woods

*** out of ****

I really enjoyed Into the Woods. That doesn't mean everyone will. This is a film that appealed to my specific tastes in a way that made a gratifying experience. The fact that it passed my late-night viewing test, where the movie kept me awake instead of leading me to slap myself in the face, is a good sign.

Everyone in this movie, from Meryl Streep to Chris Pine, could sing -and I have a special affection for beautiful women, like Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick singing beautiful music. The other appeal to my specific taste is its co-creator. I think that broadway legend, Stephen Sondheim is a brilliant lyricist and composer of heavenly music. 

As I've learned, even from people who like musicals, not everyone enjoys his work. It's not as pop-music oriented as the kind of stuff people get from Andrew Lloyd-Webber or animated Disney films.

Here, Disney has thankfully produced an aesthetically rich live-action opera, filled with grand production design and elegant special effects that don't reach the overkill level of their film, Maleficent, from earlier this year. Director Rob Marshall does good work with a talented ensemble to recreate a show that combines multiple Grimm fairy tales in their grotesque incarnations playfully inhabiting the same world.

The movie is refreshingly silly and thankfully free of any last-minute moronic sincerity often found in family entertainment. Its only real problem was shared with me by friends long before I saw it: The final act drags. It is my presumption that this is due to its adaption being too true to the original. In big stage shows, you have the benefit of an intermission, welcoming an extended finale. In a movie, it can feel tedious, wearing out its welcome. I'm sure everyone involved knew this, but probably also knew there was no easy editorial solution. Regardless of this flaw, I still found it to be a lot of fun.   

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


**** out of ****

Jean-Marc Vallée didn't impress me as much as he impressed others with Dallas Buyer's Club last year. It was a fine film that told an important story with great performances from his cast, but I felt like it was held back by a TV Movie-style narrative, similar to this year's The Theory of Everything (though not nearly as bad) which created a somewhat monotonous experience.

Watching his new film, Wild, however, led me to recall how often Vallée likes to incorporate flashback footage into scenes without their audio, preferring the white noise of the environment the character inhabits during their recollection. This is nothing new, but I've always considered it to be a very effective method in conveying memory -and it really hasn't been used in mainstream movies to the point of becoming a standard editorial formula. To the benefit of this adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir, he utilizes non-linear editing on a much heavier level this time and I'm beginning to appreciate him, as a director, much more.

Reese Witherspoon embodies the humanity of a soul-searching wanderer, dodging the phony hippy cliches through physically strenuous situations and strong narration, making poetic literary quotations with the earnestness they require. Nick Hornby was a good choice to adapt Strayed's story for a screenplay.

Her memories of life decisions and tragedies that befell her are a constant in her consciousness, as she hikes 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. The most painful of all these memories are those of her mother (Laura Dern), whose passing affected her so deeply, her life spiraled out of control. What's so true and beautiful about this film, is seeing how remote things in the wilderness can trigger memories and provoke self-reflection.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

American Sniper

*** out of ****

When formulating a title, why does anyone arrive at "American [insert noun here]"? So many movies, including good ones, have wound up with "American" as part of the title and I'm surprised they don't disinterest more Americans for such a broad sense of identity.

Maybe I need to know how they compare to films like, "Hungarian Pie," "Argentine Graffiti" and "Canadian Hustle."

In American Sniper, Bradley Cooper delivers a performance worthy of his nomination, as Chris Kyle, a patriotic Navy SEAL who became the deadliest marksman in US history, while serving four tours in Iraq. Clint Eastwood’s film may tell the story of a super-soldier, but it is likely to connect with veterans of any role - and their families - who have ever dealt with the uncertainty of war and the trauma that follows.

Like a lot of Eastwood pictures, the film is a fine balance between raw spontaneity and traditional straightforward storytelling with the tendency to feel redundant using too many scenes in its long runtime, that communicate the same thing again and again.

It's also likely to evoke strong feelings anyone ever had about the war in Iraq. It's hard to express my feelings on the film without getting political. What I got out of the movie was fascination for the skill and life of an expert in deadly work, and the traumatic pressure a soldier can carry. However, The Hurt Locker and many other films with similar themes managed to be more interesting.

Eastwood portrays military procedural situations, SEAL training and horrifying shootouts incredibly well, but his insistence that I admire the main character was lost on me. I don't like people like Chris Kyle -or at least the character portrayed in this film. This judgement isn't as much about what he did as it is about what he believed.