Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings

The idea of Gods and Kings as some kind of modern, not-your-grandfather’s Ten Commandments is a particularly rich bit of hypocrisy since Exodus amounts to little more than a riff on that Cecil B. DeMille staple. Rather than do its own world-building, Exodus carelessly hacks 90 minutes of screen time out of the 1956 version, patching it back together with clunky dialogue fixes meant to fill in all the epic storytelling you are not seeing. Characters spend a lot of time clarifying plot points the script failed to make clear in earlier scenes, like when Ramses claims that his mother (Sigourney Weaver) has always had it in for Moses even though Weaver is little more than a mute prop for the first 45 minutes of the film. Much of the plot, from the rivalry between Moses and Ramses to Moses's rushed romance and marriage, is covered in this "Wait, did we forget to mention this important plot point" fashion.

I’m no great fan of the Charlton Heston version of The Ten Commandments, but at least DeMille had the conviction of his hokey beliefs. Exodus doesn’t believe in anything except maybe the overseas box office value of large scale CGI destruction. It shuffles lifelessly from scene to scene with a lethargy better suited to portraying forty years wandering the desert, rather than the epic tale that precedes it. Its biggest innovation to the DeMille version is to drain it of all its delirious high camp folly and overwrought melodrama. You know. The fun...

Monday, December 8, 2014

Maleficent Tweet-a-thon

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Review: Still Alice

Let me cut to right to the matter on everyone’s mind and say that any Academy voter who checks a box for Julianne Moore for Best Actress next year will have no reason to feel anything but pride in his or her choice. Her performance as Alice Howland, a 50-year-old linguistics professor suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s is every bit as good as billed. But let us also acknowledge the plain truth that Moore’s work here is all the more impressive because she is doing the heavy lifting for a script and direction that are not operating at anywhere near her level. 
To point out that there is little exceptional or even all that much better than competent in Still Alice outside of Julianne Moore’s performance is to risk coming off like some sort of stone-hearted gargoyle. Who doesn’t feel the urge to pull some punches when presented with such an earnestly good intentioned film? And that is to say nothing of the reluctance to rain sour disapproval down on the Best Actress parade currently gaining steam on its march toward the Oscar podium. Who wants to spoil a perfectly good Julianne Moore coronation? Not this critic

Monday, November 24, 2014


What warped world do we live in where the biggest opening weekend of the year is considered a disappointment?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Of course, it is only by accident that the studio released such an oddity. Mockingjay would have had an action set piece to top them all were it not for the mercenary decision to chop the story down the middle, forcing the fans to eat their veggies in this half before they get there dessert in the next. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the idea adapting a book series in some ratio other than 1 book = 1 movie. Indeed, there is so much rich material in Mockingjay that is only fleetlingly touched upon that one could imagine a third movie being adapted out of Mockingjay without much trouble. But then the key word there is adapted, which we all know is verboten now that Harry Potter and Twilight have demonstrated that making a fetish of obsequious fidelity to source material is the path to maximum box office dollars. So instead of shaping the material into two films they just made one big movie and hacked it in two with all the grace of a Civil War surgeon sawing off a limb. The result is an ungainly film, which still manages to feel underdeveloped despite the extra breathing room

Monday, November 17, 2014

Review: Rosewater

A key part of Jon Stewart’s appeal is that no matter how maddening the news is he doesn’t lapse into ironic detachment. His isn’t someone throwing up his hands in surrender, but the guy who can’t help but marvel at the variety of ways government finds to sabotage our best intentions and allow stupidity to win out over rationality. So it should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Stewart that Rosewater, his directorial debut, is marked by the same earnest intellectual curiosity.
As director and screenwriter Stewart brings a sly complexity to material that could have been one note or overwrought in other hands. His trademark wit is not absent from the film but it has been restrained and left to simmer under the surface as Maziar Bahari’s months long imprisonment and torture at the hands of Iranian government steadily edges into the realm of absurdity. “Why would a spy have his own TV show?” Bahari protests when his interrogator presents a Daily Show appearance during which he is jokingly referred to as a spy as evidence. It’s a moment of indisputable logic that gets him nowhere, oppressive regimes not being famous for their sense of humor

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Detectives vs. Astronauts

I think this was a particularly clarifying exchange from my recent Interstellar Review so I am reproducing it here.

This was thoughtful comment was posted by a commenter called Mikadzuki:

OK, I have to say that I absolutely do not agree with the seemingly ubiquitous criticism of "too much exposition", even though I generally find myself in that camp when it comes to other movies.

In hard science fiction, IMO, the emotional core is (or should be) located in the science itself, which means that getting the relevant facts/characteristics/dimensions of any given thing or occurrence is crucial -- you want to be making calls about these things right there alongside the characters. If this movie is indeed (as Nolan claims) a call for renewed passion for science, then shouldn't it fuel a hunger for scientific inquiry in its audience, and make them hunger for data and more data? I never hear people fault a detective story for obsessing over the minutiae of a criminal case, then why must a story that is actually about staggering, mind-boggling things like time dilation on a planet orbiting a black hole skimp on the details?

Also, as for letting the visuals carry the meaning, aren't such marvelously counter-intuitive things as wormholes, higher dimensions and singularities actually lessened by being presented merely as inscrutable images? Don't they need to be described at length in words and/or numbers for their beautiful oddity to even come into play at all?

Sorry, I'm completely in love with this film and the unexpectedly harsh critical reception has put me a bit on the defensive, but I hope my main points are coming across.

My response:

Great point, Mikadzuki, about the comparison to detective fiction.

I would counter that in a detective story the exposition involves the twist and turns of a case, not in the basic defining of what a private detective is and how they operate. We are expected to pick that up through action and context. With Nolan he is often defining the rules of his universe well into the second half of the film. Like in Inception (which, for the record, I like a lot) the experts are still explaining the rules of a dream to each other late in the film when all the risks should be well established. There is a certain gracelessness to the way he squeezes in big chunks of info. His screenplays feel as if they are cut down from a 6 hour miniseries.

Compare that to some sci-fi like Blade Runner or Moon where there lay out "here's what a replication is" or "here's what Sam Rockwell's mission is" early on and spend the rest of the film exploring that idea. Sure there are some twists and turns along the way, but we know where we stand.

I don't think this is a fatal problem, but I think it detracts from films like Inception and Interstellar. It's probably why I think Memento remains his best film. Because the need for constant explanation was baked right into the premise.

Also, when I say let the images carry the story, I don't mean complex scientific concepts like wormholes. I mean character and emotional story beats. LIke how the image of McConaughey cutting through the farm after that drone eliminated the need for a big clunky monologue about how we have lost our capacity for wonder. Or instead of a hokey monologue about love being the strongest force in the galaxy, simply show father and daughter connecting across the limits of space and time. Nolan is great at finding these images but I wish he trusted them to stand on their own.

Friday, November 14, 2014

World Building

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review: Interstellar

With its plot about humanity taking the next step of evolution into outer space, it was inevitable that Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar would be compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey. But despite surface similarities the comparison is a poor one. Nolan has never shown any inclination towards the kind of mind-expanding abstractions that constitute Kubrick’s version of the infinite. It is no coincidence that Interstellar’s plot centers around Jessica Chastain’s quest to complete an equation. Nolan movies demand answers. Even when his films appear to be ambiguous they pull back to reveal an underlying order. The mysteries of The Prestige are shown to be a complex web of interlocking secrets; the infamous spinning totem from Inception’s ending isn’t an enigma so much as the precise punchline to an elaborate riddle. Even the blazing anarchy of the Joker takes the form of moral conundrums with tidy binary choices.
So to complain that Nolan is no Kubrick is both accurate and something of a non-sequitor. Nolan is not going to stop being Nolan and whether that qualifies as a good thing will vary according to viewers’ willingness to ignore the persistent groaning sound of the plot buckling under the weight of ponderous exposition. Interstellar is no different than Nolan’s other films in this regard, but it’s also the same in that its peaks are so amazing they justify wading through all manner of shortcomings to reach them. Interstellar may be overstuffed and clunky and it crosses the line into silliness more than once, but every so often it will lay a fingertip or two on the sublime. How many films can make that claim? 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: John Wick

The screenplay for David Leitch and Chad Stahelski’s John Wick is so simplistic it rises above laziness until it reaches a kind of glorious absurdist joke. What “plot” there is (and I’m typing those quote marks as hard as I can) could be adapted into a book for beginning readers without much stretching:

See John Wick's wife die. John sad.
John's wife leaves John dog. John slightly less sad.
See Russian mobster kill John's dog. John mad.
See John Kill. Kill, John, kill!

To gripe about the thinness of the script is to miss the point.  A movie like John Wick is all about getting to the good stuff. When the story is pared down to such a degree it's a giftwrapped opportunity for filmmakers to show off their chops by filling all that empty space with creatively staged mayhem and wild, indulgent detours - two things for which I am always on board. On such occasions, I am more than will to disengage higher brain function for 100 minutes, lean back I nmy seat and say "Show me what you got!" silly grin on my face, drool collecting on my popcorn...

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Circle of Life

Review: Fury

At this point, it feels like there are enough World War II movies to reconstruct something close to the entirety of the conflict, across all theaters of operation. Audiences can be forgiven if the appearance of yet another crew of hard-bitten soldiers marauding through the German countryside in David Ayer’s Fury strike us as more than a bit superfluous. The diffrence this time is that Fury wants to strip away the gauzy Greatest Generation glow that has diminished other depictions of this subject matter. No American flags flapping in the wind, no swells of violins, no famous battles. Just the anonymous, grisly work of tank combat in the waning days of the war, where the only task left is to feed enough of the remaining enemy into the meat grinder to hasten the inevitable German surrender.
It's a compelling argument for Fury's existence, at least for the first half of the film. As the tank rolls along, however, Fury surrenders its attempts to navigate the harsh no man’s land where ethics and war collide. What began as a corrective against the false comfort of your granddaddy’s war films morphs into a compilation of war movie clich├ęs, complete with characters dying in order of billing, and glorious hero shots of doomed last stands against impossible odds. By the end it’s Frank Miller’s 300 with tanks. 
“Ideals are peaceful, history is violent,” says Brad Pitt's weathered tank commander Wardaddy...