Posts Tagged B-rated films

The Wall

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Doug Liman.                   Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, and Laith Nakli.

Two soldiers, a sniper, and a crumbling stone wall. As Scott Renshaw pointed out, this scenario basically writes and films itself, which makes the occasional stumbles all the more frustrating. Even with those stumbles, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) does a good job of milking this premise, crafting a tense thriller in which a cat and mouse game is set against the backdrop of the “won” Iraq War.

Criticism of the Iraq War and the notion that there could be any victory from that mess abounds throughout the film. The first title card tells us in 2007 the USA declared victory and the war was over, but the irony and dishonesty of that claim is highlighted by the opening shot of two soldiers camouflaged as they observe an oil pipeline where soldiers had been ambushed by an attack. Later, when the sniper hacks their radio signal, he asks them what they’re still doing in his country if the war is over. Finally, the closing shot will remain one of the most surprising conclusions of any film this year, and it strongly reinforces the notion that the Iraq War is unwinnable.

The film’s politics are unmistakable, but they are never heavy handed, and they provide added tension to the confrontation between Sgt. Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the unseen sniper (Laith Nakli). Less successful is the backstory for Sgt. Isaac which is hinted at throughout the film, but when it’s made explicit in the last act, it comes across as a half-baked attempt at guilt and trauma which adds nothing to the psychological and physical standoff between the soldier and the sniper.

The other major misstep of the film is the scriptwriter Dwain Worrell’s decision to make the sniper a genius psychopath more knowledgeable than Hannibal Lecter who knows everything going on inside Isaac’s head, has orchestrated his plan to the last unexpected detail, and is fazed by literally nothing. Eventually, the characterization begins to approach caricature.

However, the cat and mouse game is largely successful due to the commitment of the actors and Liman’s skilled directing. At ninety minutes, the film moves along briskly even as it never changes location. I questioned the wisdom of a couple cuts to the sniper’s point of view – they really dissipated the tension – but otherwise, the editing brilliantly redirects our attention from the one soldier to the other, to the wall, to the corpses scattered around the pipeline, and to any possible location of the sniper. Liman knows precisely where to place the camera to achieve a balance between knowing what is happening and feeling just disoriented enough to share in the soldiers’ confusion and discomfort.

The Wall doesn’t make the most of its premise, but it gets enough out of it to be an engaging and thoughtful thriller with a worthwhile cross examination of the costs of invading Iraq, and Doug Liman proves his chops for directing action sequences once again.

 

Personal Recommendation: B-

Content Advisory: Frequent obscene language, intense violence, including brief but graphic images of bullet wounds.

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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Beauty and the Beast

Year of release: 2017                Directed by Bill Condon.                Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, and Audra McDonald.

 

That Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s latest live action adaptation of one of their animated classics, works as well as it does, is an impressive testament to the power and beauty of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s score, which is the main star of this movie.

After the success of the live action updates of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon, it was only a matter of time before Beauty and the Beast received the same treatment, especially considering there already was a successful Broadway musical based on the 1991 animated film. However, considering those three aforementioned films all notably broke with their far less than perfect predecessors, the 1991 animated Best Picture nominee is in many people’s opinion (including my own) the finest work of art that Disney has ever produced. As might be expected, director Bill Condon’s excessive reverence for the original results in a copying of the source material, which inevitably pales in comparison.

I do not mean to suggest that this Beauty and the Beast is bad; for the most part, I more or less enjoyed it, as needless as it was. The production design is exquisite; the cast is solid; and of course, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s score sounds great with any decent performers.

In my mind, the biggest problem is that in addition to the unoriginal copying of the animated film, down to camera movements and costume design, is that the few times this film does break away and introduce something new, those changes are rarely for the better.

For instance, the film opens by acting out the entire prologue in which the Prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed and transformed into the Beast. While we get to see some lovely set design and hear Audra McDonald sing (more on that momentarily), seeing the Beast as a Prince undermines his ability to frighten us by turning him into something of a deserving victim. The notion that he’s a real monster, not just a monstrous person, heightens the Stockholm Syndrome element of the fairytale, and it also makes both his ultimate transformation and Belle’s heroism more dramatically satisfying.

Even the one good change from the original is undermined by later changes that should have been rejected in early drafts of the script, never mind being shot. Maurice (Kevin Kline) and Belle (Emma Watson) have a wonderfully supportive and intelligent relationship which starkly contrasts the bumbling old crackpot whom Belle supports in the original. However, in this film there is no possibility for the townspeople to say, “Crazy old Maurice,” which inspires Gaston’s devious plot to force Belle’s hand in marriage. Nonetheless, the film is beholden to that plot point, and the way in which it is now set up necessitates other changes to the original which are so evil and sinister that they seem jarringly out of place in a fairytale geared toward family audiences. To make things worse, those changes occur two scenes before the title number, which really impacts our ability to enjoy the gorgeously lush song.

Regarding the performance of the title song, Emma Thompson has an excellent voice, and while she unfortunately has to stand in the shadow of Angela Lansbury’s iconic performance, she proved herself capable of that when she played Mrs. Lovett in the NY Philharmonic production of Sweeney Todd three years ago. The more striking change, at least for me, was the decision to change the key of the song from the warm and rich D-flat major of the original to a cooler and higher pitched E-flat major. That’s the biggest difference, and probably the main reason many people will say the song is has less emotion here than it does in the original.

As to the rest of the cast, everyone gives their roles their all, even if all of them are outperformed by their counterparts in the original. Emma Watson is a fine singer, but she notably has the weakest voice of the entire cast, which is a little bit of a problem, considering she’s the lead. Her feminist portrayal of Belle comes across effortlessly. As Gaston, Luke Evans has a surprisingly good tenor, which is a notable change from Richard White’s baritone, and Evans makes the bullying malevolence of the villain even more apparent. Josh Gad’s fairly sympathetic portrayal of Le Fou is another break with the original, as is his overhyped “gay moment,” which consists of three fleeting sight gags about trite stereotypes.

The staff of the castle gives enjoyable vocal performances, even if their character design lacks imagination compared to the castle itself. Ian McKellen (Cogsworth) is a fitting curmudgeon, Ewan McGregor (Lumiere) has so much zeal in his performance that he overcomes his goofy French accent. Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) is enough of a comforting presence without copying Lansbury. Audra McDonald (the wardrobe) has by far and away the best voice of everyone (as to be expected), and it is a massively missed opportunity that she only has two brief verses to sing.

Finally, as the Prince and the Beast, Dan Stevens’ performance definitely lands more on the prince side of the character, which I think is problematic, because it weakens his transformation. Stevens has a very good baritone, and his performance of the Beast’s new solo, “Evermore” by Menken and Tim Rice, is haunting and beautiful. That performance, coupled with Josh Groban’s rendition over the end credits makes me fairly confident in saying that song will win the Oscar for best original song. It’s also a pretty great song which naturally fits into the original score.

As much as I would want to resent this film for being an uninspired attempt to replicate the original when there were so many possibilities to take this fairytale in a new direction, there’s enough good material that I have to give credit where credit is due and admit that the film was a mostly enjoyable rendition of the tale as old as time, even if it can’t hold a candle to Disney’s animated masterpiece.

 

Personal recommendation: B-

Content Advisory: A couple risqué sight gags, intense scenes of peril and menace.           MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Teens and up

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Maggie’s Plan

Year of release: 2016    Directed by Rebecca Miller.   Starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Travis Fimmel, and Maya Rudolph.

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Portraying different perspectives can be difficult in film. In writing the technique is natural – the author just switches to a different narrative voice. However, a film’s story is primarily told through the camera, which usually acts as a sort of third person observer, independent from the limited perspective of a specific character. One of the most remarkable aspects of Maggie’s Plan is the way director/writer Rebecca Miller shifts the narrative perspective from that of the titular protagonist to an independent third person observer over the course of the film.

The first act of the film is told from the perspective of Maggie, played by Greta Gerwig with her typical awkward charm and effervescence. Since Maggie is headstrong and somewhat blinded by her determination, she sees the world in clear terms of black and white. As a result, her friends and acquaintances appear almost as caricatures, or slightly too much for the story – a criticism she levels at her lover John’s (Ethan Hawke) novel.

However, after an unexpected shift coupled with a chronological jump of a few years, the narrative perspective of the film pulls back to that of an independent observer and allows us to see all the characters as they are. Maggie is determined, organized, and very optimistic, but she is also a control freak, or “bossypants,” as called by her friends’ young son. Ethan Hawke’s John is an accomplished scholar and lecturer, but something of a man-child and a workaholic as well. John’s wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) first appears as an oppressive witch, but as we learn more about her, her strong will is mitigated by her compassion and concern for her family.

MV5BNjUzMDgyODE0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTMzMjc2ODE@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_In order to fully reflect the shifting narrative perspectives, the actors subtly alter their performances. When we first meet Georgette, Moore speaks with an over-the-top accent for the shrewish foreign wife. That accent naturally mellows as the audience sees her from a perspective other than Maggie’s. With her seamless fluctuation between stony and sensitive, Moore nearly steals the movie. When Maggie is infatuated with John, his immature ticks come across as cute, but Hawke makes those ticks more exaggerated when we are meant to see him as less mature than we initially thought.

Maggie herself is highly organized, independent, and seemingly in charge of her life. The film opens with her planning to become a single mom via artificial insemination and avoid the pitfalls of a romance. Her best friends (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph) express some hesitance at her headstrong confidence that everything will go exactly as she wants, but she shrugs them off because she knows she is in control. As Maggie’s manipulative scheming makes a mess not only of her life, but John’s and his family’s as well, the irony of the control freak masterminding a scenario in which she has no control is highly apparent. I particularly appreciated the honesty of the film in depicting the pain and difficulty caused by divorce, affairs, and artificial insemination.

My biggest complaint is that the ending ties all the plot points together too neatly. While I appreciate the ending’s inclusion of a character who had been out of the film until then, the simple solution it offered undermined the messy consequences that the characters had all learned to live with. As a result, it returned to the too-muchness of the beginning when we only saw characters via Maggie’s perspective.

Maggie is another successful creation of Gerwig’s. She may not be as strong and as loveable and funny as Gerwig’s recent collaborations with Noah Baumbach, but Gerwig’s naturally joyful persona successfully anchors this story about learning to let go of control, and she’s bolstered by strong performances from the rest of the cast as well.

 

 

Content Advisory: Brief sexual activity with partial nudity, frank discussion of artificial insemination including a non-graphic depiction of the procedure, and casual rough language throughout.               MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: B

 

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Hail, Caesar!

Year of release: 2016          Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.       Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, and Michael Gambon.

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If there is one thing that the Coen brothers have proven throughout their entire career it is that they are masters of assembling oddball ensembles and intertwining their lives in ways that are both funny and/or tragic. Hail, Caesar! lands firmly on the funny side, and it is an intelligent and enjoyable tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood, impressively balancing one of the largest ensembles the Coen brothers have created.

At the center of Hail, Caesar’s! eccentric ensemble is Josh Brolin’s everyman producer Eddie Mannix whose job is to clean up messes which the stars get themselves into and make sure all productions for Capitol Pictures roll along smoothly. After seeing Brolin as the idiotic Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men and the dimwitted but menacing Tom Chaney in True Grit, he turns in an equally impressive performance as the quick-thinking straight man who must balance all the flailing comic acts which surround him.

Those acts include: George Clooney’s bender-prone megastar Baird Whitlock who gets kidnapped; Alden Ehrenreich’s stuntman cowboy Hobie Doyle whom the studio is determined to turn into a serious actor; Ralph Fiennes’ self-serious drama director Laurence Laurentz who can’t abide the lousy acting of Doyle; Tilda Swinton’s bMV5BMjM4Njg1Nzg4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDI3MTA2NzE@._V1__SX1303_SY579_usybody reporter; Channing Tatum’s tap-dancing and singing Burt Gurney, the studio’s other megastar; Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran, the scandal-prone megastar who must maintain a pure, innocent public persona; and Frances McDormand’s hilariously crusty film editor.

That’s not even all the characters, and as much fun as it is to watch the Coens juggle all the acts successfully, some of the stretches in between are not nearly as inspired. However, the series of extended cameos are delightful, and they alone make the film worth watching at least twice. Ralph Fiennes proves once again that he is brilliant comedic actor, continuing the success he had in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Channing Tatum and Tilda Swinton both steal every scene they are in. Aldren Ehrenreich’s southern drawl fits the Coen’s dialogue perfectly, and Michael Gambon’s narration sets the mood for a tribute to an era of storytelling now past.

At the center of all the shenanigans is the filming of Capitol Pictures’ prestige Biblical epic Hail, Caesar! – a tale of the Christ (a tagline originally from Ben-Hur). And Christ features into this movie in several ways. From the opening shot of a crucifix looking down on the audience, to Mannix’s frequenting the sacrament of Confession, to a dispute about the nature of God among a Catholic priest, an Orthodox patriarch, a Protestant minister, and a Jewish rabbi, and to the filming of the titular tale of the Christ, the Son of God and faith are what tie the film together.

Even more remarkably, this is one of the most straightforward, sympathetic, non-cynical portrayals of faith that the Coens have ever done. There are some lighthearted jabs at the difference of opinions among various denominations, but those are in a spirit of laughing with the characters not at them. The overall attitude is one of respect for faith, which is integral to Mannix’s work in maintaining the movie business which the Coens so obviously love. A scene toward the end drives home the idea of vocation in a way that is both dramatically satisfying and spiritually rewarding.

In addition to the good natured jokes about religious differences, Hail, Caesar! also intelligently plays upon and subverts classic film stereotypes from the ’50’s. The foolishness of egotistical actors is the main concern of Mannix’s job and a frequent source of humor. A subplot involving a MacGuffin is handled with a brilliant dose of the Coens’ trademark dark humor, showing the characters involved that they are not in control like they think.

Mannix also believes he is in control of his life and all the studio’s productions. However, the film is framed by shots which remind the audience that no one is in complete control of his or her own life, a theme which has shown up in nearly every Coen film from Blood Simple to Inside Llewyn Davis. However, unlike the unrepentant, self-centered league of morons from Burn After Reading, some of these characters take notice of the grace which surrounds them, and the religious imagery that overshadows the film can affect anyone who chooses to allow it to. With a large cast of eccentric characters, skillful tributes to the filmmaking industry, and the idea that grace is available for any fool who seeks it, one thing that is quite simple is that Hail, Caesar! is a Coen brothers’ movie through and through.

 

Content Advisory: A fleeting, mildly suggestive dance move; mild comic violence.   MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested audience: Teens and up

Personal Recommendation: B+

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Bridge of Spies

Thanks to Ken Morefield for publishing my review.

 

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/1morefilmblog/bridge-of-spies-spielberg-2015/

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