Friday, August 29, 2014

Calvary


***1/2 out of ****


John Michael McDonough’s, Calvary. This is a dialogue driven story about a week in the life of a small-town Irish priest, played excellently by Brendan Gleeson, who has received a threat on his life in the confession booth from an unseen man who wishes to punish the Catholic Church for a childhood of constant sexual abuse by a now-deceased clergyman.

The rest of the film involves the priest, possibly accepting the fate of murder as he continues his troubled relationship with a community who regularly show him apathy and disrespect. He’s patient and tolerant. The existence of his grown daughter (Kelly Reilly) is proof that he knows the trials and tribulations of adult life outside his now anointed status. Like Christ suffering the sins of the world, he’s essentially a good priest suffering the sins of the priesthood.

There is a dark-comedy undercurrent to the film found in the characters the priest sees. His daughter has come to stay with him after a suicide attempt. His associate priest (David Wilmot) is an ignorant nitwit. The town Butcher’s (Chris O’Dowd) battered wife (Orla O’Rourke) is having an affair with the mechanic (Isaach De Bankolé) and a few other local men. There’s also a drunken millionaire (Dylan Moran), a rude bartender (Patt Shortt) a sadistic doctor (Aiden Gillen) and many other troubled souls including an incarcerated serial killer played by Domhnhall Gleeson (Brendan's son). These people regularly engage the priest provoking him to impart genuinely experienced sound wisdom, only to disregard it -or throw it in his face.

His daughter grudgingly gives him a rough time but is ultimately a loving person. He also occasionally delivers goods to a reclusive aging American writer (M. Emmett Walsh), who enjoys the priest’s company but challenges him with the request of a gun should he need to take himself out one day. The only moment of real solace in the film is when he comforts a widow, played by the beautiful Marie-Josée Croze, who dealing with the reality of love and mortality seems to be on the same page as this troubled man.

This is in no way, a feel-good movie, but is thought provoking beyond my words and likely to stir up discussion among religious and non-religious people alike. It’s a bitter film, but cinematically poetic beyond the abilities of most who tackle this kind of material.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For


**1/2 out of ****

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a sequel made by popular demand. The results are generally underwhelming despite the fact that it’s everything one should expect. In 2004, when Robert Rodriguez brought legendary comic book artist Frank Miller’s famous graphic novel series to the big screen - with Miller’s input as co-director - several things were notably accomplished:

Rodriguez continued his legacy as a maverick filmmaker working with a limited amount of money while utilizing new digital moviemaking tools to great effect. While Batman Begins was a couple months away from showing everyone the most realistic take on a comic book, Sin City took inspiration from 1990’s Dick Tracy, creating the ultimate surrealistic movie based on a comic book. Above all, we were reminded by a mostly colorless movie, that black and white is beautiful. 

The last movie took three of Miller’s books and created an anthology movie, like Heavy Metal. All the books take place in the same universe, and the stories often intersect. This time around, according to the title, the movie was fully committed to only one of these books; a fan-favorite, A Dame to Kill For.

For those unfamiliar, Frank Miller’s creation is a perverted dark fantasy inspired by film-noir, glorifying violence with heavy doses of misogyny. All this would be objectionable to me, if it weren’t so removed from reality. The stylized gun violence, bloodletting and aggressive sex is cartoonish to the point of laugh-inspiring juvenile eye-candy. I enjoy it. Especially with some beer and greasy food. Rodriguez doesn’t make sincere cinema, he makes fun trash, which walks the line between sensational escapism and parody.

A Dame to Kill For follows a prowling private detective named Dwight McCarthy, played in this film by Josh Brolin, who gets pulled into the schemes of a seductive femme fatale, played by Eva Green. A great amount of the film, features this beautiful actress nude in some of the most creatively lit shots -especially the ones involving the emergence of a body from water in very high-contrast black and white.

This story seems as polished as the previous film’s three stories and yet it lacks the same punch. Regarding sequel continuity, this one is weakened by some unfortunate recasting. Dennis Haysbert replaces the late Michael Clarke Duncan's Manute, competently -but man, do I miss Duncan. What really hurts this sequel is the lack of Clive Owen, whose face was a pretty essential role to tie the movies together.

The ultimate weakness of the new movie is a newly created story that acts as an irrelevant arc. It begins interestingly with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young reckless gambler with a miscalculated plan. Unfortunately, this story is preoccupied with the terrible continuation of Jessica Alba’s Nancy Callahan, a stripper hell-bent on revenge. Mickey Rourke's Marv is a welcome return but his involvement in Nancy's story throws the entire Sin City chronology out of whack.


Still, I can say that I enjoyed this encore but as late-night guilty pleasure fun, but not enough to give it a big recommendation. After a near decade since its predecessor, it has little to offer that feels fresh.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight


*** out of ****

Whether you think you’re getting a Woody Allen film that has a philosophy of hard-bitten realism -or one of magical realism when you see his latest romantic-comedy, Magic in the Moonlight, you can definitely expect plenty of lush rose-tinted bittersweet charm.

The famous auteur has humbly stated before, that he enjoys the grand context, which esteemed actors bring to his work. It must have come with great delight for him that Colin Firth was there to carry this entire film. Firth plays a famous English illusionist, traveling around Europe in the nineteen-twenties, who is lured to the French Riviera by a lifetime friend (Simon McBurney) to debunk a clairvoyant played by Emma Stone.

Stone’s character is there to help an elderly American Aristocrat (Jacki Weaver) contact the spirit of her departed husband while being courted by the family’s shallow son (Hamish Linklater). Firth’s character is a snarky skeptic with absolute contempt for charlatans. He is even more troubled by the young lady’s charming company and his inability to find evidence that she’s a fake. His Aunt (Eileen Atkins) resides in the area of his stay and on visits, he confides in her his interest in the young medium and how she’s awakened a desire to believe that magic may exist.

For Allen fans, what is unique about the film is how it keeps us guessing what direction it will take. We’ve seen magic play a role in some of his stories, like The Purple Rose of Cairo and Midnight in Paris. Most of his films, however, take a cynical viewpoint regarding the fantastic. The growing relationship, between Firth and Stone’s characters, is dependent on this revelation.

Regardless of the outcome, period films tend to be Allen’s favorite method of escapism. The costumes and locations allow him to embrace his nostalgia for Ragtime music, extinct forms of showmanship and the sensibilities of old films. His long takes always manage to capture a kind of acting that has an energy more often found in theater than the movies of today.

I’ve been curious what kind of reception Allen films might receive from now on, given the new serious allegations that have come to light about his personal life. Like Roman Polanski, I still choose to admire the body of work generated by a committed force of creativity. I will admit that my objectivity does feel challenged at times. If the accusations against Allen were to ever gather more concrete evidence, it may be more difficult to support his films.


For now, he remains one of my favorite artists living today for his ability to keep up a forty-eight-year reputation in delivering a new film just about every year. Some are weak, some are terrific, and some, like Magic in the Moonlight, are simply designed for a relaxed pleasant night at the movies.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)


** out of ****


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a franchise that was stupid when I was a kid and now that I’ve seen the new movie reboot, I can assure you that it’s still stupid now. With that being said, I must exclaim that its makers still screwed it up!

Remakes and reboots are warranted when something - flawed or dated - is loved by an artist capable of expressing - to a new audience - what it was they saw in it. Batman is still with us today because of this. I don’t know any fan of that series who prefers its 1939 incarnation.  

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was awesome to me when I was a kid! As a cartoon, comic books, toys and a first-movie; I associated with it, Run-DMC-era rap music, grungy NYC and the sustenance of greasy pizza. A few of those things were remembered in the new movie but I didn’t get much evidence that there was any REAL passion behind the project. Like the animated movie a few years back, there’s no honorable attempt to make any remarkable improvements.

The only thing this movie does, is give the Turtles the expensive production standards of a Spider-Man movie. Their new CGI designs are decent, and probably got more love and attention by those who rendered them, than the lazy screenwriters who provided the characters with lame things to say and do. The voice-overs feel about as impersonal as the Turtles have ever come across but they are still the only likeable aspect of the movie. Shredder, however, is an unwelcome Transformer, with the design of someone who flunked fifth-grade art.

Its origin-story plot, like The Amazing Spider-Man, tells a story we already know in a different way. It reserves the appearance of the title characters for a good chunk of the beginning, focusing on April O’Neil as she investigates robberies by The Foot, which is a well-known terrorist group with high-tech weapons in this film and not mysterious ninjas alluding the eye of the police from previous versions. She’s finding evidence of these robberies being thwarted by unknown vigilantes, but needs the proof. That’s how she comes across the heroes.

I will admit that a bit of Turtles purism boiled up in me when certain plot elements were altered for this film. They aren’t as ludicrous as some early rumors suggested, but linking April O’Neil’s childhood to the Turtles’ origin story is as meaningless as Peter Parker’s parents being connected with Oscorp. De-linking Master Splinter from a proud martial arts legacy and having him learn how to be a ninja by reading a discarded book in the sewer is a change, which makes an already-silly story, sillier.

In A.A. Dowd's AV Club review, he points out that the "post-Guiliani era" New York is too cleaned up for the Turtles to be in the proper "grimy" Manhattan they protected in the original. What's disturbing about a lot of New York-set movies lately, is how they require terroristic or professional criminal activity to be the only imaginable threat to the Big Apple. Why not have the Turtles protect people from all the mean profiling cops paid to keep those streets so clean? Harvey Keitel could make a good villain. 

Megan Fox is simultaneously, the hottest and least credible April O'Neil so far. William Fichtner delivers his dependable sociopathic coldness as a villain in cahoots with The Foot and Will Arnett phones in a typical delusional single guy performance for more lame comic relief. Whoopi Goldberg... never mind.

The tone brought to the film by director Jonathan Liebesman is a little scattered. Michael Bay’s (one of the movie’s producers) influence is there but not to the same obnoxious level one should expect from a film he's directed. The action borders on fun but has the level of CGI excess, which gives most of its sequences the look of a cool videogame level that you don’t have the privilege of playing. I’ve had this problem with a lot of effects-driven action films, especially when the rest of the movie is aiming for a certain level of realism –like this one. Yanking me out of a movie’s believable atmosphere with an entire sequence that looks and feels animated creates a jarring experience.

Finally, the biggest failure of this movie is in its score by Brian Tyler, which is not bad sounding music, but it’s WRONG for a Ninja Turtles movie. John Du Prez’s score for the 1990 movie had a much better thing going. I don’t want standard orchestral movie music with an overused choir to emphasize epic drama. I want a score with traces of hip-hop, rock-and-roll or electronic. A few years back, Daft Punk did an unforgettable score for Tron: Legacy, which should have been an inspiration for film composers to stop being so damned ordinary!


I don’t recommend this movie but I can’t claim to have hated it either. It did little for me. That sigh of boredom that comes out of me during a movie’s final act is becoming all-too familiar.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Boyhood


***1/2 out of ****

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is one daring movie project. This really is unlike anything you’ve seen or will see for a very long time. I’m surprised something like this hasn’t already been tried by other career-directors with similar work stability. To interpret Linklater’s ambitions from previous films might prepare you for this movie’s narrative, which isn’t very interested in plot or storytelling. It’s about the aspects of life that we live but don’t often see in the movies.

His interests are existential. Scenes feel as though they may be a prelude to some moment of truth, tragedy or an affirmation of some kind. These things don’t happen –at least not for us to see. Life is happening to this film’s characters, whether they can find a defining moment or not. We are talking about a filmmaker with a very relaxed attitude, as an artist. Making a movie for twelve years may sound like a big deal (and it is) but the final result is, more often than not, an easy-going experience.

He started the project in 2002, probably around the time he was beginning work on Before Sunset –a sequel to his earlier romantic drama, Before Sunrise, which explored a similar idea: What do we get from revisiting fictional characters, especially when you allow the actors who play them to bring their own life experience to the roles as inspiration? While it may be staged, you’re capturing something that feels true. Boyhood is about a boy and his family, plain and simple. It may be about made-up characters but it has the same power as Michael Apted’s Seven-Up documentary series. Within this one movie, you watch a kid age from age seven to eighteen without having to suspend your disbelief. That’s good enough for me.

There will be a lot of arguments, as to whether the film’s lead, Ellar Coltrane, has given us a praise-worthy performance. He does manage to hold the movie together. It was an unquestionable gamble but I think he did what Linklater tries to get out of most of his players, which is to relax and be natural. Some of his best films don’t feature very skilled acting. Dazedand Confused comes to mind. I don’t need or expect realistic acting from his movies, just realistic situations.

The movie has a visually consistent look while showing us music and fashion trends, which come and go, among other things that make me feel old. We get to see Coltrane and his on-screen sister played by Lorelei Linklater (Richard’s daughter), attend a Harry Potter book release, in costume for the occasion. We also get hints of Star Wars fandom, of the prequel-based videogame generation. Yes, I’ve seen kids in my own life enjoying these things, but my point is that most of them are grown-up now. I’m reminded of what has fallen into the realm of common nostalgia. Maybe it’s time for me to take interest in World War II.

It is also amazing to see the parents in the film, portrayed by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, start off in their prime as sexy movie stars who will slowly age into what look like someone’s parents. It’s threatening.


Are you, whoever you are, going to like Boyhood? Among a few phony sounding exchanges in the lead character’s later years and the standard overused element found in a lot of Linklater philosophical dialogue “I was reading this article where…,” I would say that the movie does feel longer than it needs to be. I think that editor Sandra Adair had a big job that required a few more decisions to condense this project into a standard movie length. The goal was to take eleven years of footage and spend the last year making it into something that felt like a movie. The 165-minute cut I saw could have waited for blu-ray. My only warning, aside from the film’s deep artistic ambition which may alienate those who want to be entertained, is that it may bore some. On the other hand, it will fascinate too many others –myself included.