Sunday, January 25, 2015

Review: The Duke of Burgundy

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
Peter Strickland's new film, "The Duke of Burgundy," is a fine example of a movie where I can admire the technique and, yet, be a bit divorced from the material. Much like Strickland's previous film, the far superior "Berberian Sound Studio," his latest is an homage to early 1970s films. While "Berberian" gave a nod to the Italian giallo films, "Duke" takes its inspiration from directors such as Jess Franco and Jean Rollin, although the sleaze-factor is significantly lower in Strickland's picture.

Although the film often looks great, I found it difficult to get into its rhythm and found long passages to be a bit of a snooze, which is interesting, considering that the film's central story revolves around a bondage relationship.

As I said, Strickland's film bears stylistic similarities to the Eurosleaze masters of the early 70s, but it's missing many of those films' attributes and despite the domination-based relationship between the film's two heroines, the movie is not erotic, there's no nudity whatsoever and much of the dominating involves the completion of household tasks. I'm not trying to be funny. For Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her maid, Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), eroticism appears to be defined by how harshly the former can direct the latter to clean her clothes or empty out her cabinets and how well the latter can perform said tasks.

Later, the characters attempt to extend their role-play fantasies, which requires Evelyn to sleep in a locked chest through the night. And, gradually, much like "Berberian Sound Studio," Strickland's latest eventually devolves into straight-up surrealism, much of which involves visually stunning sequences involving butterflies. Oh yeah, Cynthia happens to be an entomologist, which means we are treated to more than a few lectures on butterflies that are, at first, interesting, but ultimately too much in abundance.

Although I didn't quite love "Berberian," I liked it and found it to often be entrancing and spellbinding. "Burgundy" has a similar visual style and some truly haunting music on the soundtrack, thanks to Cat's Eye. But the film left me a little cold.

Toward the end of the picture, the women's relationship faces a bump in the road and we are sort of left to wonder how they will work things out. That could have made for an interesting film, perhaps more intriguing than the one we have. However, you can't review the film you wish you'd seen, but rather the one in existence. As it stands, "Burgundy" has some praiseworthy elements but, for me, it didn't quite grab me.

Review: Mommy

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
"Mommy," the latest film from Canadian enfant terrible Xavier Dolan, won the Grand Jury prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival and was a favorite among many who attended the festival. And yet, it's a film that I can admire for it's technical prowess and chutzpah, while at the same time feeling a bit removed from its characters and story.

One of my problems with "Mommy" is my inability to get around the fact that the characters often come off as grating. Now, I've long subscribed to the notion that characters do not have to be likable or relatable for me to praise a film. Think about it, many of the great films - from "Raging Bull" to "There Will Be Blood" - have featured lead characters whom you might not want to know in real life.

What makes "Mommy" a challenge in this department is that - although I can't read Dolan's mind or know his intentions - it appears we are supposed to relate to these characters and feel sympathy for them, which, I'll admit, is no easy task. The film's basic plot revolves around Diane 'Die' Despres (Anne Dorval, who gives a strong performance), a mother overburdened by Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), her nightmare of a son.

And, yes, Steve is a nightmare, which makes it difficult to identify with him as the rebel Dolan appears to think he is. At the beginning of the film, he's been kicked out of the juvenile detention center where he'd been staying after he set fire to the cafeteria, permanently scarring the face of another youth. He shouts racist slurs at an African immigrant cab driver and tells him to leave "his country." He gropes women's chests, who clearly do not want to be groped. He attempts to strangle his own mother. He taunts a woman with a stutter named Kyla (Suzanne Clement), whose own life becomes enmeshed with Diane and Steve, who are her neighbors.

For much of the film's padded two-hours-and-20-minutes, the story is presented in the "Academy ratio," which takes up just about half of the screen and is presented as a box in its center. The visual style - which, in this case, comes off as a bit of a gimmick - is intended to make the viewer - and, thematically, the characters - feel boxed in.

Twice during the film, the "Academy ratio" is broken - first, when Steve literally uses his hands to push open the box and allow the visuals to be viewed in a widescreen effect. This is scored to Oasis' "Wonderwall" and serves as the sequence in which the three characters - Steve on a skateboard, his mother and Kyla on bicycles - break out of their stressful existences.

The second break from the "Academy ratio" comes later in the film as Diane fantasizes that her son lives a normal life, gets married and so on. It's one of the film's more powerful moments but, unfortunately, it only serves to lead up to an ending that was, in my opinion, a little more melodramatic than was necessary.

The film's actors give performances that are worthy of praise, even if their characters are often difficult to spend time around. This is Dolan's fifth feature - and the guy is only in his mid-20s, so that alone is impressive. But I've yet to be completely sold on one of his films. "Mommy" has much to admire, but I can't wholeheartedly recommend it. The performances and some of the visuals are pretty strong, although I could have done without the visual gimmickry and a number of sequences felt underwritten, as did the intentions and motivations of the film's characters.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Review: The Wedding Ringer

Image courtesy of Screen Gems.
Movies like "The Wedding Ringer" are pretty much critic proof, meaning that the picture's success has very little to do with what those who review it think of it and more to do with marketing. That being said, this movie is not quite as bad as some of the other entrees in its genre - the crude, male-centric buddy comedy - although I can't exactly endorse it.

In the film, Kevin Hart - working with slightly better material than some of the other recent comedies in which he has starred - plays Jimmy Callahan, a guy whose career revolves around providing "best man services" to men getting married who have few friends.

In this case, he's providing support to the hapless Doug Harris (Josh Gad), a schlubby, but good natured fellow who is both parentless and friendless. Doug is engaged to an attractive young woman whom he believes is out of his league, so he wants his wedding to go off without a hitch.

Doug has lied to his fiancee about a best friend named Bic Mitchum, whose shoes Callahan is paid to fill. Callahan also has to round up a group of seven groomsmen, assembling a bunch of deadbeat types whom Doug says looks like the Goonies if they, and I quote, "grew up to be rapists."

Since this is your typical buddy comedy, there's a fair amount of raunch and physical comedy, including a grandmother who is set on fire, a football game with a group of rowdy and foul mouthed senior citizens and a sequence in which a man's, um, valuables are covered in peanut butter and attacked by a dog.

The problem with "The Wedding Ringer" is that it's just not that funny. There are a few laughs, but many of the jokes - and, unfortunately, often the ones that aren't particularly humorous - are repeated twice, in case any one didn't catch them the first time. One particularly curious example is a strange rendition of Nilsson's "Coconut."

However, while the film didn't make me laugh all that much, it's occasionally a likable enough effort due to the bromance chemistry between Hart and Gad. I can't recommend the film, but you could do much worse - especially in this genre.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Review: Blackhat

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Michael Mann's latest film may not rank among his best, but it's worth while seeing for fans of the filmmaker's work and those who enjoy technically adept, swiftly paced thrillers.

The film gets off to a little bit of a sluggish start as U.S. and Chinese officials wring their hands over a cyber terrorism attack that shuts down a Hong Kong nuclear reactor and kills many of its employees. A Chinese cyber detective (if there is such a thing) played by Leehom Wang tells an FBI agent (Viola Davis) that the only person he trusts well enough to seek out the hacker is Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), who is serving prison time for some illegal hacking activity of his own.

Hathaway is released and assists the FBI with its case and, in the meantime, falls into bed with Wang's sister, Chen Lien (Wei Tang). In terms of story, "Blackhat" doesn't bring anything to the table we haven't seen before. The film is filled with technical jargon that will likely pass over the heads of most who are familiar with writing code and the like and there are more than a few unnecessary scenes of computer circuitry in action that I could have done without.

But Mann's films typically play as procedurals and his best - "Thief," "The Insider" and "Heat" - often give you an inside view of how a particular profession works. In those cases, cops and robbers, whistleblowers and, yes, thieves. While "Blackhat" isn't one of the director's finest films, it still works as a detailed procedural, frenetic action thriller and timely take on cyber terrorism, considering the recent Sony hack. And it's often fascinating to watch this group of professionals - computer hackers and code writers - in action.

And similar to the filmmaker's previous works, there are some lovely visuals - neon signs bathing its characters in their glow - juxtaposed with the type of in-your-face handheld camera work we've become familiar with in the "Bourne" series.

Once "Blackhat" gets moving, it's pretty exciting and although its characters are slightly underdeveloped, Mann has a knack for using his actors' glances and body language to stand in nicely for dialogue. It's fitting that a movie about heroes and villains who communicate through codes most of us do not understand also features interaction between these characters that can be slightly elusive. This is a solid entertainment, even if Mann fans may have been hoping for a little more.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Nominations for the 87th Academy Awards

The nominations for the 87th Academy Awards, which will be held on Feb. 24, were announced this morning from Los Angeles.

On the whole, this year's choices did a pretty good job of recognizing the best in film from 2014. As always, my gripes were less with the films chosen than with those omitted.

Below, you'll find the list of all the films nominated, plus my thoughts at the end on which films should not have been nominated and what should have gotten a nod instead.

Check back on the site during the week before the Oscars for my picks on which films I think will and should win.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Review: Predestination

Image courtesy of Stage 6 Films.
Michael and Peter Spierig's "Predestination" is the type of film for which someone created the word mind-bender. And it's a good one, even though you might find yourself struggling to completely connect the dots and put all the puzzle pieces together to explain away the picture's labyrinthine story once the film's various plot twists have all been revealed.

Based upon Robert Heinlein's story "All You Zombies," the film is a thriller involving time travel and an agent (Ethan Hawke) who is tracking down a terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber, who is responsible for a horrific attack on New York City in 1975.

Just a short way into the proceedings, Hawke meets a person (Sarah Snook) - and I use that word for a reason - who started out as a girl, became a man due to consequences out of her control and then became, well, I can't exactly divulge that.

This sequence is set in the early 1970s and it involves a significantly long back story that Snook relays to Hawke in a bar. Viewers may wonder why this woman's story begins to take precedence following an opening sequence during which Hawke fails to catch the bomber but, trust me, it all falls into place.

Snook's character was dropped off at an orphanage as an infant and found herself to be not only tougher than all of her schoolmates growing up in the 1960s, but also smarter. She excels in virtually everything, but not love. A fated romance with a mysterious man leads her to some drastic life changes, all of which she discusses with Hawke's character.

The film jumps back and forth through time to the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s and the filmmakers manage to capture each era pretty impressively. The tale is a twisty one and - pretty much at all times - compelling. And the Spierig Brothers - who also directed "Daybreakers" and "Undead" - allow for the story to remain mysterious, unveiling its surprises slowly. Just when you think that one plot twist has blind-sided you, an even better one soon follows. The filmmakers do this without the film seeming gimmicky.

This is a solid little sci-fi thriller that is opening in limited release, but could easily be a sleeper - at least, I think so - through word of mouth. I'm surprised it hasn't opened wider, especially considering that January typically offers little in the way of competition.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Review: Taken 3

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Ahh, Liam Neeson - such a likable guy and a very good actor as well when given the right material, which "Taken 3," alas, is not. It's not exactly a bad movie - it's enjoyable enough in spurts in a generic way - but I can't exactly recommend it, that is, unless you feel the need to watch the exact same film over again that you've likely already seen - namely, "Taken" or "Taken 2."

In this film, which promises to be the last of the series, Neeson reprises his role as Bryan Mills, the ex-government operative and all-around tough guy who can get out of any pinch. He and his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) have remained friends and there is a hint that they might rekindle their relationship, despite her being married to another man (Dougray Scott), who immediately strikes you as sort of creepy.

But Janssen's character is discovered murdered in Mills' apartment and, this being a movie, he becomes the prime suspect, fleeing the scene and trying to figure out who is responsible for the crime. And since this is a Hollywood action movie, there's also the detective (Forest Whitaker) who Mills is always one step ahead of. Naturally, the detective also sorta-kind-of believes in Mills' innocence.

There's a slew of baddies, most notably a group of Russian gangsters, led by a guy whose virtually inaudible dialogue detracts slightly from his scariness. And there's another villain who I can't exactly discuss without giving away plot details.

Regardless, there's a twist late in the film that you'll very likely see coming as well as action sequence after action sequence, none of which are particularly inspiring, but most of which are handled well enough for this sort of thing.

There's only so much you can say about Hollywood franchise films such as these after they've reached their third entry. "Taken 3" might not be as bad as its Rotten Tomatoes score might lead you to believe, but it's paint-by-numbers action filmmaking all the way.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Review: Into the Woods

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
I remember, as a child, going to see the Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's "Into the Woods" and enjoying it. It's a clever show, so it's a disappointment to find Rob Marshall's film to often be such a chore. It's not a bad movie, but it's lacking somewhat in inspiration, despite boasting a cast that features Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Christine Baranski, James Corden, Chris Pine and Tracey Ullman.

For those unaware of the source material, "Woods" combines several fairy tales, playing out their stories, but then filling its second half with the further adventures of characters such as Cinderella, Rapunzel, a wicked witch, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and a baker and his wife.

The film is at its best when it riffs on these beloved stories and makes the characters a little different than you might remember them - for example, Little Red Riding Hood is a notorious snacker, while Cinderella's ability to communicate with birds borders on being disturbing, especially when they poke out the eyes of her wicked stepsisters.

And to everyone's credit, the cast can sing. I'd already heard Kendrick's voice in "Pitch Perfect," Depp in "Sweeney Todd" and Corden in films that required belting it out, but I had no idea of Streep's abilities, although one should never bet against her numerous talents.

Still, "Into the Woods" often drags and, much like Peter Jackson's recent "Hobbit" trilogy (the latest of which is reviewed here), this picture's existence seems to be justified merely by Hollywood's unexplainable requirement to put every famous children's story (or variation thereof) on celluloid. Don't believe me? Then, check out trailers for the upcoming live action "Cinderella" and "Paddington" or observe the recent remake of "Annie."

Of the five feature films Marshall has made, three have been musicals - the Academy Award winning "Chicago," which remains his best, the so-so adaptation of "Nine" and, now, this. "Into the Woods" has its moments, most of which are due to its performers, but it's not among the more inspired of the recent slate of musicals made into movies.

Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
And so ends Peter Jackson's prequel trilogy to his acclaimed "Lord of the Rings" films, not with a bang, but with a... well, a series of bangs. Those hoping that this third "Hobbit" film might rise above the just-decent-enoughness of the first in the trilogy and the mediocrity of the second will likely be disappointed that "The Battle of the Five Armies," ultimately, doesn't add up to much more than the two films preceding it.

It's not a bad film, but much like the other two "Hobbit" films, a little unnecessary. The picture is filled to the brim with special effects and battles, fiery speeches, characters making sacrifices and individuals constantly being referred to as (Blank), son of (Blank). Those who go into the film knowing exactly what to expect might enjoy the experience, while others might find it a bit of a slog.

Jackson's original trilogy was visually stunning and thematically resonant, whereas this prequel trilogy feels overly abundant in special effects-driven set pieces and slightly muddled, thematically and narratively.

J.R.R. Tolkien's novel, "The Hobbit," which has been split up into three movies by Jackson and company, had a fair amount of humor, mostly due to Bilbo Baggins' (Martin Freeman) easygoing nature and lively spirit. Jackson's films are deathly serious and Bilbo, despite being the lead character, often gets relegated to the background, while in the foreground battles continually rage.

This film begins where the last one left off - with the dragon Smaug attacking Laketown, leaving Bard (Luke Evans) to battle him. Meanwhile, the dwarves and Bilbo have ascended the Lonely Mountain, where Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) has taken his place as king and become a bit of a tyrant, due to the allure of the mountain's treasure.

Bilbo is left to make a decision to prevent a war between the dwarves and elves over the mountain's treasure, but since we know this will be averted, there's also the looming threat of an attack by the orcs as well as a peculiar battle involving Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) with some evil spirits that seemingly has no place in the proceedings.

The film's narrative merely serves to act as a prelude to the already seen "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, much as George Lucas' second "Star Wars" series set up the original three films. That being said, the special effects are impressive and the film has a few solid set pieces, including one in which Thorin battles the commander of the orcs on the ice. But all in all, "The Battle of the Five Armies" feels a bit more obligatory than inspired.