Archive for July, 2013

Ministry of Fear

Year of Release: 1944     Directed by Fritz Lang.   Starring Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond, and Hillary Brooke.

Fritz Lang crafted a remarkable atmosphere of suspense, tension, and mystery in his 1944 film noir, Ministry of Fear.  The opening of the film sets the mood as the camera focuses on the swinging pendulum of a grandfather clock, underscored by Victor Young’s ominous music.

Steven Neale (Ray Milland) has been patiently watching that grandfather clock as it approaches six o’clock.  Once the hour strikes, his psychiatrist enters and informs him that he is now free to leave the asylum in which he has been living for the past two years.  As Neale exits, his doctor gives him one piece of advice: avoid any entanglements with the police, because that would lead to an unfortunate re-arrest.

Neale clearly intends to take this advice seriously, which leads to classic mystery complications when he inadvertently becomes involved in a Nazi espionage conspiracy.  After winning a cake due to a mistaken identity at a fundraiser, he finds Nazi spies chasing and threatening him.  Since the whole story is very outlandish and would make him appear insane, instead of going to the police Neale hires a bumbling detective, who arrogantly insists he is not some fraud showman “like Sherlock Holmes.”  When the detective mysteriously disappears, the police suspect Neale of foul play.

Meanwhile, Neale has befriended the brother and sister (Carl Esmond and Marjorie Reynolds) who organized the fundraiser, both of whom are concerned that their charity organization is being used by the Nazis to mask a spy ring.  Since they are German, having fled to England to escape the Nazis, Neale is further afraid to alert the police, because he does not wish them to be indicted on account of some of their members who have been abusing the society.

Although Ministry of Fear hits all of the expected plot points for an espionage thriller, it does so with a surprising amount of wit and nail biting tension.  The identity of the Nazi mastermind remains unclear until the final climax, even if an alert viewer will narrow the identity down to one of two characters.  There may or may not be a femme fatale.  It is unclear whether the police can be trusted.  The villains learn damning evidence about Neale’s past, which they use to manipulate him and further complicate the mystery.

Neale’s past legally compromises him without morally compromising him.  The reason for his stint in the asylum and reticence to notify the police was that he was declared guilty of euthanizing his wife.  He was tempted to acquiesce her request for a painless death as she was dying of cancer, but after purchasing the lethal drug he chose not to give into the temptation and kill her.  However, she found the drug and administered it herself.  A woefully inaccurate summary of the events by another character is twisted by the villains as a rationale for their own actions.

There is an interesting parallel between the plight of the brother and sister whom help Neale along with Lang’s own journey as a filmmaker.  In 1934, Lang left Germany after running afoul of the Nazi party and emigrated to America.  It is not unreasonable to speculate that the tension and aura of fear are as poignant as they are, because Lang based them on some of his own experiences.

Throughout Ministry of Fear Lang plays the uncertainty and suspense masterfully, and he does not relent until the final scene.  Even the lead-up to the final confrontation is meant to deceive the viewer.  This level of suspense is the primary factor which makes Ministry of Fear an effective and memorable film noir.

 

Content Advisory: Intense atmosphere of suspense and menace, references to a contemplation of euthanasia.                               Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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The Bling Ring

Year of Release: 2013     Directed by Sophia Coppola.       Starring Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, Georgia Rock, and Leslie Mann.

I do not understand the lukewarm reaction that this film has been receiving from critics and the rather negative reaction from general audience members.  The criticisms run the gamut from saying the film is boring with unlikeable protagonists to the film is relentlessly preachy to the film has no idea of what it wants to achieve.  I thought Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring was a clever, biting satire that holds an unflinching mirror up to our society and its obsession with celebrity and material possessions.

The most baffling reaction is the claim that the film somehow glamorizes the behavior of its depraved teen protagonists.  Just because the protagonists in a film make poor moral choices, does not mean that the film defends or glamorizes those choices.  No one would seriously argue that The Godfather celebrates Michael’s descent into evil, but he is the protagonist of that film.  Similar to her father’s masterpiece, Sofia Coppola allows her story to unfold without overt commentary, but she does critique the immorality of the young protagonists of her most recent film.

The Bling Ring is based on actual events that occurred four years ago, when a group of Californian teenagers broke into and robbed celebrities’ homes, after discovering the addresses and the celebrities’ absence via Google.  Coppola changed the names of all the characters, but the basic concept of the story is unchanged.  Socially awkward Marc (Israel Broussard) is befriended by popular Rebecca (Katie Chang) on his first day at an alternative high school.  He is there for skipping too many classes at his old school, and she was caught with an illegal substance.

Very quickly, the two are attending parties together, where Rebecca shows Marc how to steal from unlocked cars.  They then move up to the homes of their acquaintances who are on vacation.  Finally, they hit the gold mine: homes of celebrities who are away.  Soon Rebecca’s close circle of friends joins her and Marc as they hit the homes of Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge, Orlando Bloom, and Lindsay Lohan to name a few.  The names of the victimized celebrities are unchanged from the actual crimes.

The device that Coppola uses to criticize the choices of the teens is a documentary style of interviews that occasionally interrupt the story.  These interviews are conducted by reporters and the teens’ lawyer, who wish to understand the rationale behind the burglaries.  The interviews give no reason, but they highlight the cluelessness, selfishness, and complete lack of growth from all the characters throughout the entire film.  One character insists that the burglaries and arrest were a good thing for her, because it forced her to stay positive and learn from the experience.  What she learns, she never says.  None of the characters ever admit that their actions were wrong.  Instead they concoct absurd rationales, attempt to analyze what the others were thinking, and shift the blame onto them.

One of the effects of embracing sin is that it makes one stupid.  The Bling Ring puts that idea into clear relief.  The choices of the teens become increasingly reckless as the film progresses.  They posts pictures of their conquests on Facebook; when a surveillance video is posted on the news, they do not care, because it is too dark to identify anything about the thieves.  They even enjoy the gossip and buzz that the media is creating about the mysterious “Bling Ring.”  When finally caught, they are more interested in how they will be received by the public; none of them are concerned about potential jail sentences.

The film’s other major critique is America’s obsession with fame and fortune.  The media makes a huge deal about the Bling Ring, and the public is extremely fascinated.  After being exposed, Marc receives over eight-hundred friend requests on Facebook.  The parents of the teens are equally ignorant and obsessed with worldly values.  Leslie Mann plays a mother obsessed with karma and “the law of attractions,” who “homeschools” her daughters, by which she means she forces them to spend the day exuding positive energy so they will be successful, like Angelina Jolie.

Among the young actors, Emma Watson really stands out in a role very different from Hermione.  She is terrific as the daughter of a cheerfully clueless mother obsessed with New Ageism.   Watson captures the wide range of her character’s emotions: insecurity, arrogance, and feigned regret.  She does a very good job of emulating an American accent.  If someone had never seen Harry Potter, it would be a credible mistake to think she is American.

Coppola’s direction impressively sets the mood for the film.  She opens the film with five of the teens climbing over a fence, not knowing that they are being observed by a security camera.  When they break into the house, the opening titles begin with a blaring soundtrack reminiscent of an alarm.  Coppola’s selection of aggressive, rhythmic pop music underscores the destructiveness of the teenagers’ behavior.  She also captures the irony that pervades the movie.  One scene is dark yet amusing as Watson’s character claims to have learned from her mistakes and overcome them.  It is quite clear she has learned nothing.  Another scene has a parent fretting about her daughter’s nutrition just as the police come to arrest her daughter.

Does The Bling Ring promote and idolize theft and celebrity worship?  To me, that seems as absurd as claiming Schindler’s List promotes and idolizes anti-Semitism and Nazism.  If that comparison is overly snarky and condescending, I apologize, but I really cannot fathom how anyone could argue The Bling Ring ends up defending the behavior of the teens.  It is rather a thought provoking film about the dangers of celebrity worship that makes a lasting impression through impressive performances, sharp directing, and an unsettling use of irony.

 

Content Advisory: Some obscene language, much teenage drug use, some mildly sexualized dancing, semi-risqué outfits, and portrayal of theft and other crimes.                                MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A-

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Despicable Me 2

Year of Release: 2013     Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud.        Voices of Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Elise Fisher, Benjamin Bratt, and Russell Brand.

The success of the original Despicable Me can be mostly attributed to two factors: the cute and touching relationship between super villain Gru and his adopted daughters, and more importantly, the goofy, subservient minions.  The relationship between Gru and the girls is still developed and forms a decent part of the sequel, even though it was more important in the original film.  And the minions are back in spades.

Steve Carell reprises his role as Gru, no longer a villain, adjusting to life as a good guy and as a father.  He has turned his laboratory into a jelly making factory.  However, his longtime associate Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) feels unfit for this line of work and quits to take up a new job offer where he can be evil again.  Meanwhile Gru’s neighbors and his daughters are encouraging him to get married and setting him up on blind dates so the girls can have a mother, even though Gru has no interest in tying the knot with anyone.

When Anti-Villain League (AVL) agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig, in a much funnier role than the mean Miss Hattie in the original) kidnaps Gru in order for him to help the AVL with a top secret assignment, he is reluctant to accept, but changes his mind after Dr. Nefario quits and the jelly business goes awry.  Gru’s assignment is to find the villain who stole an arctic laboratory where a serum was being developed to turn innocent creatures into brutal, invincible killers.

While searching for the serum and for the thief, sparks begin to fly between Gru and Lucy to the delight of Agnes, (Elsie Fisher) while Edith (Dana Gaier) routinely says “Ew” at any sight of romance.  Edith’s protestations form comic relief as Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) strikes up a relationship with a boy whose father may or may not be a former nemesis of Gru’s.

The story is fairly formulaic for a family film, and there are a couple places where it lags.  In recent action flicks from this summer, lags in storytelling have been masked by noisy explosions and fight scenes.  Despicable Me 2 has a much more welcome and enjoyable approach to insert energy into the story the few times that it stalls: add comic relief via the minions.  Hardly five minutes pass without some sort of their antics.  There are a couple times when one could almost say there is too much of the minions, but they are so much fun that their frequent presence seems justified.  The minions do feature prominently in the story’s climax, which ties together and explains the earlier segments that featured them.

After my screening was over, some children were already quoting some of the minions’ funniest lines as they exited the theatre.  I imagine parents will be listening to many scenes reenacted for days.

There are a couple subtle references to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is always a good path for a comedy to go.  At Agnes’ birthday party, a group of minions dress up as bumbling incompetent knights and wreck havoc on the proceedings.  A surveillance video of a science lab shows a harmless rabbit transforming into a vicious killer, recalling the Rabbit of Caerbannog.  The entire concept of the serum is based on the same humorous principle of the killer rabbit: a cute innocent creature is somehow made a monster.  In both films the monster is stopped by a ludicrous weapon as well.  A chicken also serves as a fierce guard.

Co-directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud studied what worked in their first film, they repeat it here, and it still works well.  As of right now, another sequel/spinoff is in the works.  Instead of being titled Despicable Me 3, its current title is Minions.  As longs as the screenwriters can keep coming up with decent minion jokes, which is not that hard given their inherent goofiness and cuteness, the franchise will continue with decently entertaining films.

Content Advisory: Occasional rude humor and mild peril.                              MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up.

Personal Recommendation: B

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