Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: Cesar Chavez

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Diego Luna's "Cesar Chavez" proves that Michael Pena is ready for leading man status, but the film itself is merely a respectable, but by-the-numbers, biopic.

Chavez was a key figure for the labor movement of the 1960s, fighting for the rights of farmworkers - most notably, grape pickers in California - and butting heads with exploitative farm owners and aggressive police.

Much of Luna's film focuses on Chavez's attempt to unionize the farmworkers of Delano, Calif. and the grape strike of the mid-1960s. The film does little to portray Chavez's personal life, outside of throwing in a subplot about how his older son grows to resent him, due to the fact that he spends more time with the striking workers than he does with his family.

The inclusion of this plot device is similar to depicting Ray Charles in the 2004 film of his life as a womanizer in that it attempts to show the flaws of its central character. In the case of Chavez, this is done primarily to prevent the film from becoming a hagiography.

There's enough stirring material here - from the mistreatment of the workers by the farm owners and police - and enough to get you riled up - documentary footage of Ronald Reagan referring to workers striking for their rights as "immoral" - to nearly make the film work.

And Pena gives a strong performance as the civil and labor rights leader, proving that he is ready to break out of the supporting actor category in which he has primarily been working for more than a decade.

But "Cesar Chavez" is a bio movie that mostly plays by the rules. In other words, we see filmed depictions of all the major historic events of its character's life and career without really diving deeper into who he was as a person. This is far from a bad film - in fact, it's well-performed, frequently riveting and obviously well-intentioned. It's just that a heroic figure like Chavez probably deserved a little more than a biopic that plays too closely by the rules of the genre.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Review: Noah

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
It should come as no surprise to those familiar with the work of director Darren Aronofsky, but "Noah" is certainly not your grandfather's King James Bible.

The picture is one of those type of mad visions that Hollywood once embraced, but is now typically too frightened to come near with a 10-foot pole. And yet, somehow, this film was made.

For starters, this is not a movie aiming for the faithful, nor does it provide much fodder for the doubtful. Much like Aronofsky's other works, the picture is a story of a character who pushes himself beyond a limit - in this case, physical and psychological - in order to reach his goal.

In the case of Noah, that goal is to please The Creator - the name repeatedly spoken, rather than God, during the film - whereas the characters populating Aronofsky's previous movies worshipped at the altar of success ("Black Swan"), discovery ("Pi") and drugs ("Requiem for a Dream"). "Noah" will probably be likened to "The Fountain," the director's 2006 critical and financial misfire (that I sorta liked, though I agree it's his weakest film) due to the religious themes that are frequently played out as fantasy or science fiction.

Russell Crowe gives his finest performance in some time as the titular figure, a decent man and environmentalist who is repulsed at how his fellow human beings have soiled the earth and mistreated its animals. He has visions from The Creator in the form of several dreams, during which flowers "grow from nothing" and the world is engulfed by water.

He discusses this vision with his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, having a grand old time hamming it up), and decides to build an ark that will house all of God's creatures and only a few humans - he, his wife (Jennifer Connelly), their three sons and the orphaned girl whom they raised (Emma Watson, great as always).

Noah is assisted in building the ark and protected by a group of gigantic stone creatures known as The Watchers that seemed to have wandered away from a Guillermo del Toro picture on a Hollywood lot and accidentally ended up in this film, As special effects, The Watchers are impressive, but they feel more than slightly out of place in this movie.

Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a descendant of that famous fratricidal maniac, shows up with a large, unwashed army of violent men in tow who decide they want a ride on the ark as well, but Noah makes it clear that he ain't selling tickets. Drama ensues.

I've gotta admit, the series of sequences during which the ark is populated with creatures big and small - - especially a knockout scene with all shape and size of birds - are dazzling to watch. And Aronofsky's portrayal of The Great Flood is just as epic as it needs to be.

There are a few twists and turns in the film, including a stowaway on the ark and the thought-to-be barren Ila (Watson) becoming pregnant and leading Noah to go off the deep end, so to speak. The biblical story of Noah is played out in this film, but there's a fair amount of fantastical elements added and liberties taken, most of which work pretty well (for example, Ila's character did not appear in The Bible), while a few others not as much (the stone creatures).

All in all, "Noah" is well worth your time. It's an expensive, special effects-heavy Hollywood picture that leaves you with more to think about than most of the other blockbusters released during any given year combined. It has its flaws, but they are mostly of the excusable type that occur when a great director makes an attempt at an insane vision.

And while I wouldn't rank "Noah" with Aronofsky's best films - "Black Swan" or "Requiem for a Dream" - I wouldn't have wanted anyone else to have directed this movie. This is a film where big risks were taken and they mostly pay off.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Review: Jodorowsky's Dune

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
"Jodorowsky's Dune" tells the story of one of the greatest movies never made - or, at least, never filmed. For those not familiar with the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean filmmaker who, along with David Lynch and several others, gave birth to the midnight cult movie with his completely insane and brilliant 1970 film "El Topo." I'd also highly recommend his "Santa Sangre" and, for those willing to go completely off the deep end, "The Holy Mountain."

In the mid 1970s, Jodorowsky was told by a producer with whom he worked that he would be able to get funding for any movie he wanted to make following the cult success of "El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain," which he made with money donated by John Lennon.

Jodorowsky decided he did not just want to make a film, but a life changing spiritual experience that would alter the course of humanity. I'm not being snide here - the director himself said his ambitions and, very likely, his experience with mind altering drugs helped to convince him that Frank Herbert's "Dune" was just the project to do such a thing. Those unfamiliar with Herbert's epic sci-fi tome, "Dune" follows an interplanetary feud over a precious spice. The novel was written in the 1960s, so take that as you will.

So, for several years, the filmmaker put together a dream team of collaborators and crafted a shot-by-shot book of the film in its entirety that blew the minds of all in Hollywood who got their hands on it. And yet, the picture was too ambitious, too strange and too expensive. The storyboards created for the film suggest that it could have been lightyears ahead of its time and that, by comparison, "Star Wars" or "Alien," which would come just a few years later, would have technologically been no match for it.

Much of the documentary, which is directed by Frank Pavich, is in a talking-head format with Jodorowsky, now 84 years old, and some of the talent involved in the crafting of the never-made 1975 film. These scenes are interspersed with animated shots of the storyboards in action and clips from other Jodorowsky films. The documentary remains riveting first and foremost because it seems clear that Jodorowsky's "Dune" would have been a remarkable picture. Also, it helps that the director is such a character - funny, passionate and quirky in all the best ways. "We were raping Frank Herbert," he says of his fated production, "but with love."

Jodorowsky's team included Dan O'Bannon, who did the visual effects for John Carpenter's "Dark Star" and would go on to work on "Alien," as well as surrealist H.R. Giger and acclaimed artist Jean Giraud for set and character design. The cast of the film was to include Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, David Carradine and Salvador Dali, while the music was to be handled by Pink Floyd and Magma.

Much like last year's entrancing "Room 237," which offered various conspiracy theories to explain the true meaning behind Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," "Jodorowsky's Dune" is a documentary about cinematic myth-making. In this case, however, the mythical film was never actually made - at least, not Jodorowsky's. Lynch went on to direct the film, resulting in the only true flop of his career, although even his film had more than a few memorable visuals (f.e., those worms). It's a shame that Jodorowsky's vision never made it to the screen - but, at least, we now have Pavich's fascinating documentary.

Review: Nymphomaniac Vol. I

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Danish enfant terrible Lars Von Trier's latest - a two-part chronicle of a self-proclaimed "Nymphomaniac" - finds the filmmaker at his most cinematically - if not necessarily, thematically - ambitious. It will be difficult to render a final verdict on the entire project until "Vol. II" drops in two weeks, but while the film does not have the pointed commentary of "Dogville" or the grandeur of Von Trier's 2011 masterpiece "Melancholia," the first half of "Nymphomaniac" has more than its share of memorable sequences and appears to be a prelude for much darker material to come.

After an uncomfortably-long fade to black following a brief title card flash scored to Rammstein, we spot the body of a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) laying in a dank alleyway where snow is slowly falling. She is discovered by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a recluse who lives in a small apartment around the corner from the alley.

Following their semi-awkward introduction, Joe begins to tell the tale of how she arrived in the alley with a beaten and bruised face. "I'm a bad person," she says, beginning her story in childhood where she lives with her caring father (Christian Slater) and "cold bitch" mother (Connie Nielsen).

From an early age, Joe has a proclivity toward sexual activity. During one particularly memorable scene, teenage Joe (played with courage by Stacy Martin) and a friend play a game on a moving train during which they attempt to collect the most sexual conquests prior to the train's final stop. It is somewhat of a relief that Joe's sexual awakening and increasingly disturbing addiction are not linked to anything in particular - no early molestations, traumas or divorces. The picture does not try to psychoanalyze away her condition with any easy answers.

The film is told in a digressive style in that Seligman often interrupts Joe's storytelling to insert his own opinions - which, oddly enough, cover everything from fly fishing and dessert forks to Baroque music. The film's stylistic piece de resistance involves a three-way split-screen effect during which Joe talks about how, much like a piece of music, her three main lovers act together (not literally) as various instruments (not literally) that compliment one another.

As for the picture's acting tour de force, the show-stopper scene comes courtesy of Uma Thurman, who plays the jilted wife of one of Joe's lovers. In one of the film's funnier moments, Joe gives the man an ultimatum, not because she wants him all to herself, but because she believes it will scare him away. Then he shows up with his suitcase at the door. Shortly afterward, Thurman appears with her three children in tow, asking whether she can show the kids Joe's "whoring bed" and reminding them never to find themselves in similar situations. It's a scene that is equally hilarious, emotionally fraught and horrific. Thurman gives her best performance, though a brief one, in some time.

One of the key elements to Joe's character is her self-proclaimed war against love. She keeps her men at a distance with the exception of Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), to whom she lost her virginity. During a twist of fate, Joe later works for Jerome in his office and, during the picture's final sex scene, proclaims a line that will set up the second film. The only other man for whom Joe feels any affection is her father, who we see slowly wasting away in a hospital bed during a scene that is meant to be upsetting and emotional as well as provide a bit of foreshadowing, but ends up being one of the movie's weaker sequences, slowing down its momentum.

Of course, much of the writing on "Nymphomania" has focused on the numerous - and graphic - sex scenes. But it's pretty obvious - both from a visual standpoint as well as due to the concept of Joe's emotional removal from her various flings - that Von Trier does not intend for these scenes to be titillating. One particular slideshow of various, um, equipment is meant to come off as clinical.

Where "Nymphomaniac" stands in Von Trier's overall body of works remains to be seen. While I enjoyed "Vol. I" and appreciate the director's ambitious and daring approach to the material, the picture hasn't - as of yet - hit me as hard as "Melancholia," "Dogville," "Breaking the Waves" or "Dancer in the Dark." But I've yet to see "Vol. II." And even if the entire film ends up being second tier Von Trier, that's still something that comes pretty highly recommended.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Review: Need for Speed

Image courtesy of Touchstone Pictures.
The machines may have already won - that is, if "Need for Speed" goes on to follow the success of the "Fast and the Furious" and "Transformers" franchises. Moviegoers whose idea of a good time consists of watching large pieces of metal and plastic fly through the air and occasionally slam into other large pieces of metal and plastic might possibly love "Speed," which is - not surprisingly - based on a video game.

What's particularly sad about the film's human element, which takes an obvious backseat to the machinery, is that it includes Aaron Paul's first post "Breaking Bad" appearance and the return of Michael Keaton, who was also featured in last month's ode to clunky pieces of steel, "Robocop."

Yes, perhaps I'm taking this all a bit too seriously. To be fair, "Need for Speed" has more than a few car chases that are well-shot and exciting when they need to be. And despite a script filled with hammy expository dialogue and outright weirdo flights of verbal fancy, you can't completely drown out the screen presence of actors (Paul, Keaton, etc.) with loads of it to spare.

The picture follows the story of Tobey Marshall, a small town street racing god and mechanic who gets sent to prison after an arrogant former pal and now professional racer (Dominic Cooper) challenges him to a race that leaves the brother of an ex-girlfriend in the morgue. Cooper's Dino Brewster, however, gets off scot-free.

Marshall gets out of the pen two years later, determined to prove his innocence and Brewster's guilt as well as defeat Dino in an illegal race held once every year by a mysterious man named Monarch (Keaton), who acts as some sort of delirious Greek chorus to the action. Thrown into the mix are several mechanics who once worked at Marshall's garage as well as a young British woman (Imogen Poots), who acts as the love interest.

Tobey and the gang must make a two-day trek - at top speeds, of course - from New York to California, where the race will be held. What basically follows is one absurdly ridiculous sequence after another. My favorite is a scene during which Marshall's pals drive alongside his car in a gasoline truck and attempt to fill up his car at 100 miles per hour. At least two characters are required to hang off their respective vehicles to fill up the car, risking their lives. The obvious question: Why not just pull over for five minutes?

Paul gives the material his best, bringing some level of characterization to the underwritten Marshall. He's a great actor when given the right material, so let's hope his next project will give him more to chew on, a la "Breaking Bad."

And it's great to see Keaton back in action - but, good Lord, can we please find him something better to do than this? His character spends the entirety of the film facing the camera, narrating the film's action as if it were that complex and needed further commentary (the whole thing reminded me of the Andy Cohen show that follows the "Housewives" programs. And, yes, I've seen the "Real Housewives"). Keaton is forced to gesticulate, shout, rhyme - yes, rhyme - and make bad puns. His scenes bring the action to a complete halt. On the other hand, while they may be unnecessary and strangely out of place, these scenes at least bring a little personality to an action movie otherwise filled to the brim with cliches.

Review: Enemy

Image courtesy of A24.
Denis Villeneuve's "Enemy" has one of the better freak-out endings in recent memory and it's the type of film that critics will say defies you to make sense of it. But much like David Lynch's "Lost Highway," Villeneuve's follow-up to last year's terrific "Prisoners" is filled with clues that certainly add up to something and is not just a willy nilly exercise in opaque weirdness.

The picture opens with a creepy, dreamlike scene during which Jake Gyllenhaal enters a low-lit room filled with men watching naked masked women engaged in various erotic scenarios, some of which include large, hairy spiders.

We then cut to Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal), a downbeat professor who is lecturing his students on the nature of totalitarianism, reminding them that the Romans "used bread and circuses" to divert the public's attention and that dictatorships thrive on lessening education, artistic expression and any other means of allowing a person to be an individual.

Adam soon learns how it feels to no longer be an individual after discovering his doppelganger in a low budget film that was suspiciously recommended to him by a colleague. The man's name is Anthony Saint Clare (that's right, Gyllenhaal again), a B-level actor whose pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon) even looks a little like Adam's on-again, off-again girlfriend (Melanie Laurent).

Bell suggests a meeting between himself and Anthony, which he soon regrets. He starts to unravel after alpha male Anthony proposes an uncomfortable scenario involving the two men's significant others.

Not since David Cronenberg has the city of Toronto been made to look so ominous. The camera creeps behind Gyllenhaal as he walks through the city's mostly desolate streets, over which electrical wires resembling spider's webs dangle. Even most of the interior scenes are fairly dark, the film's characters attempting to hide from - well, something - in the darkened corners of their apartments.

Gyllenhaal is one of those actors who does not always get the credit he deserves. His terrific work as both the nebbish Adam and the cocky Anthony is on par with his best work - "Donnie Darko," "Zodiac," "Brokeback Mountain" and "Prisoners." He pulls off not one, but two tricky roles here.

So, ultimately, what is "Enemy" about, you might ask? Is it an allegory for totalitarianism and, if so, does the film's final creepy image relay whom is running this particular show? The film is based on the novel "The Double" by Nobel winner Jose Saramago, who lived under a fascist regime for many years in Portugal.

Or is it about the dual nature of self and how one element of a being's personality can take charge over another? Or is it something completely else? Regardless, this is an unsettling little movie with two strong lead performances - by the same actor, mind you - as well a visual style that leaves viewers with an impending sense of doom and a final scene that most will not see coming and will hardly forget.

If "Enemy" doesn't quite reach the heights of Villeneuve's previous film, "Prisoners," it's still a very worthy addition to Villeneuve's already impressive resume, which also includes the Academy Award nominated "Incendies" and the haunting school shooting drama "Polytechnique." Here's a director you'll want to keep an eye on.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is Wes Anderson's best film in a decade - if not more - and it finds the filmmaker in a more reflective and melancholy mood than usual.

The picture begins in 1968 as a writer (Jude Law) relays his run-in with the owner (F. Murray Abraham) of the once-great palatial titular structure who, in turn, tells of how he came to inherit the hotel. The story flashes back to 1932, where the action is primarily set, and Abraham's character is a young bellboy named Zero (Tony Revolori) who comes under the tutelage of one Mr. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a dandyish concierge at the hotel who makes no secret of the fact that he beds many of the elderly female clientele, including the 84-year-old Madame D. (Tilda Swinton).

Gustave and, to an extent, Zero find themselves in a quandary after the octogenarian winds up murdered and Gustave, much to the dismay of the woman's greedy family - which includes Adrian Brody and a sinister enforcer played by Willem Dafoe - inherits "Boy with Apple," a priceless piece of artwork.

Since this is a Wes Anderson movie, cameos abound, including Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum (whose bad luck extends to his cat and his hand), Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel and a slew of other characters, most notably Bill Murray, during a wonderful sequence in which a group of concierges come to Gustave's rescue.

And, of course, the film is impeccably shot with the stylistic pans and tracking shots you'd expect from an Anderson film as well as the dollhouse establishing shots, including an especially lovely one of a dining hall that is repeated twice. Anderson's signature humor is also on display here. "Grand Budapest" is, perhaps, the director's funniest in a while. The biggest laugh for me came early when a young boy interrupts a monologue. Trust me, you'll know it when you see it.

Given the timeframe in which the picture is set, Anderson's latest is a bit heavier and sadder than his previous works and more tragic. The hotel's newest denizens toward the end of the story merely play a small role in this film's narrative, but they'll go on to haunt Europe for more than a decade. And at least two characters are lost to the continent's horrors of the 1930s.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a wistful, funny, imaginative and wonderfully acted (Fiennes gives what may be his most humane performance to date) bildungsroman with an historical backdrop. If "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" remain my two favorites of Anderson's films, this one would likely join "Bottle Rocket" or the underrated "Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" in the second tier.