Saturday, October 31, 2015

Review: Love

Image courtesy of Alchemy. 
Those interested in the world of film will not be shocked to hear that French l'enfant terrible Gaspar Noe's latest provocation "Love" aims to take his particular brand of graphic cinema to the next level. On the other hand, you might be surprised to learn that the film is narratively more sedate than his notorious "Irreversible" or trippy "Enter the Void" and, unfortunately, almost to the point of being stultifying.

So, for every money shot - and in the case of this film, I'm not using this as a euphemism - there are endless scenes of the film's lead, Karl Glusman, walking about his Paris apartment talking to himself in voice-over on topics, such as why his previous relationship fell apart and why his current one doesn't satisfy him. It's the type of material that Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach could mine successfully in film after film, but for Noe it never catches.

"Love" is beautifully lit and very well shot, although it's musical cues are, well, unique to say the least. I don't know which one was more disorienting - the sequence during which Glusman and one of his lovers profess their undying love to one another in the shower to the tune of Erik Saties' "Gymnopedie No. 1" or the other during which Glusman and said lover take part in a graphically executed orgy while John Carpenter's score for "Assault on Precinct 13" blares over the speakers.

In terms of set up and plot, "Love" is fairly simple - in fact, too simple to justify the picture's near two-hour-and-20-minute running time - boy meets girl, girl suggests bringing in other girl, boy makes mistake of impregnating other girl, original girl gets mad and leaves, boy regrets staying with second girl, mother of original girl calls a few years later worried that her daughter might be suicidal and, well, you know the story.

When the actors - Glusman, Aomi Muyock and Klara Kristin - are not engaged in actual coitus - yes, nothing is left to the imagination here - we mostly follow flashback sequences during which Glusman and Muyock's character meet in a park, fall in love and, eventually, fall apart due to his jealousy, her drug habit and the aforementioned third girl played by Kristin. The abundant scenes of Glusman's voice-over monologues are all fairly standard stuff about the disintegration of relationships. In other words, no "Deep Thoughts" by Jack Handy here.

The numerous sex scenes are not - at least, I don't believe - meant to necessarily be considered sensuous, but rather matter-of-fact. The most interesting facet of Noe's film is, not surprisingly, its visual style.

The filmmaker's works always tend to be triumphs of style. His "Irreversible" is extremely disturbing and powerful, although its story is very simple. What makes gives it such a gut punch are its visuals and editing, which make the story seem all the more tragic. And while "Enter the Void" - which, like "Love" is a bit too long - lagged in some departments (character, story), it was filled with mesmerizing images.

So, "Love" is a good looking film, but it's missing something. And Noe asks his actors to not only bare all, but to engage in some very intimate activities here and the story and screenplay don't provide much in the way of meat (the need to crack wise here is nearly killing me, but I'll resist).

During one sequence, Glusman's movie director - which I italicize because during the course of the film we hardly see the guy shoot one frame of film - talks about how he wants to watch cinema about sex and love portrayed realistically. This is obviously what Noe wants to do as well and while he may have managed to do the first, he didn't quite succeed at the latter.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Best And Scariest Movies To Watch On Halloween

'A Nightmare On Elm Street.' Image courtesy of New Line Cinema.
Every year, I post a list of some of the best and most frightening horror movies to watch on Halloween. This year, I've compiled a list for AAA that includes everything from classics ("Psycho") and blockbuster additions to the genre ("The Exorcist" and "Jaws") to foreign entries ("Eyes Without a Face," for example) and pictures that deserve to have a bigger following ("Who Can Kill a Child?").

Take a look at my list and let me know in the comment section if there are any horror movies that you believe should have made the list. And Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Review: Rock the Kasbah

Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
It's always an added bonus to have Bill Murray onboard your film, even when the picture itself doesn't quite make the best of his presence. That's certainly the case with "Rock the Kasbah," the latest film from Barry Levinson that stars Murray as a washed up rock 'n' roll talent manager who claims to have once hung with the greats, but now lives out of a motel with his secretary/talent (Zooey Deschanel), a singer of modest ability who sings cover songs during gigs at dive bars.

Murray often plays louts who come to respect and be more considerate of those around him - think "Groundhog Day" as the gold standard as well as last year's "St. Vincent" - through shared experiences.

In "Kasbah," his Richie Lanz is offered to take Deschanel on a tour in Afghanistan, where she will be performing for the troops. But once they've arrived and are greeted with a few IEDs, she flees with the help of a paramilitary character played by Bruce Willis, one of several underwritten characters in the film, and Lanz is forced to find a replacement.

Through sheer luck, he overhears an Afghani girl named Salima (Leem Lubany) as she sings in a cave near her village, is impressed by her voice and attempts to convince her father to allow her to compete in "Afghan Star," which is an equivalent to "American Idol," with the exception of its having a "no girls allowed" policy. In other words, if Salima attempts to sing on the show - or pretty much anywhere else - she's putting her life in danger.

This is the type of film in which the lead character collects an assortment of oddballs - a random Afghani cab driver who is willing to risk his life during the number of incidents in which Richie puts it in danger, Willis's inexplicable gun-for-hire and Kate Hudson as a prostitute who runs her business out of a mobile home in Kabul, that is, until the screenwriters decided that she'd be the "hooker with a heart of gold" character, so she allows Salima to stay with her - for the hell of it, without much purpose for them to serve.

So, the deal is this: while it's still great to watch Murray be, well, Bill Murray, the rest of the film goes back and forth between creating actual tension and running off the rails. Much of what takes place forces the viewer to extend disbelief to great lengths - for example, would Murray's character really have made it out alive during the numerous times when he is stopped by various characters with assault weapons in the desert? And the entire final section of the film - no matter how good natured and well meaning it may be - in which Salima performs on "Afghan Star," not to mention the reaction to it, stretches credibility by magnitudes.

"Rock the Kasbah" is not a bad movie. It has its funny moments, which is a given when you've got Murray as your lead (gotta love his "I'm not a loser, I'm a quitter" quip), and it has its heart in the right place. But, unfortunately, it often has its head in the wrong place. This seems like the type of story that might take place in an alternate universe, but maybe not in Afghanistan, despite that it's allegedly based on a true story. Then again, so was "The Haunting in Connecticut."

Review: Suffragette

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Sarah Gavron's "Suffragette" takes the fairly typical approach that movies about historic moments often do - placing a fictional character (played by Carey Mulligan) at the center of actual events and focusing on her story - and the picture occasionally gives the impression of one out to earn Academy Awards. That being said, it's a fairly rousing film with a story that will provoke righteous anger from anyone who believes in justice for all.

In the film, Mulligan's Maud Watts works in a factory in 1912 England sewing shirts in fairly lousy conditions and lives with her husband (Ben Whishaw) and young son. One day, she spots a fellow worker named Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) among a crowd of women throwing stones through department store windows and calling for women's right to vote and is intrigued.

Slowly but surely, Maud finds herself participating in actions with the women's suffragette movement, doing everything from taking part in marches to planting explosives in mailboxes. Just as the movement is represented by Maud's character, the opposition is depicted in the personage of Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), a steely policeman who insists on the rule of law at all times and tells Maud and her fellow suffragettes that the world does not care about women's rights. He stands by as policeman punch women in the stomachs and approves when husbands beat up their wives for participating in marches and the like.

Most of the other male characters aren't much better, including the legislators who listen to testimony from women on their working conditions and still reject their right to vote and Whishaw's husband, who not only kicks Maud out of their home, but then - in a scene that might be pushing the boundaries of melodrama a little much - puts their son up for adoption after he determines he doesn't want to take care of him.

On Maud's side, there is some great acting talent. Helena Bonham Carter plays Edith Ellyn, a doctor who allows her apothecary to be the meeting place for suffragette meetings. Her supportive husband (Finbar Lynch) is the only likable character within several miles. And, of course, Meryl Streep pops up in one scene as Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the suffragette movement, who gives a rousing speech from a balcony.

So, even if "Suffragette" follows a standard approach to historical storytelling, the power of its story works all the same. And Mulligan, who I've long admired, brings the necessary gravitas to her character, whose suffering falls just shy of a heroine in a Lars Von Trier movie. And Gavron and cinematographer Eduard Grau bring the mucky, gloomy look of early 20th century England to life.

Gavron previously directed "Brick Lane," the adaptation of Monica Ali's novel, which also portrayed a strong woman attempting to make a life in England during a distant time period (in that case, the 1980s). There have been calls from many quarters during the past year or so for more female representation in Hollywood, especially behind the camera. So far, only one woman (Kathryn Bigelow) has won Best Director and very few others have even been nominated.

The film culminates with a scroll of the years when women were given the right to vote in countries around the world, including some triumphs (England, 1918) and some late to the game (Saudi Arabia has promised that women will be able to vote in 2015 - yes, 2015!). The film suggests there's much more to be done - and that includes more movies about women that are made by women.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Review: Beasts of No Nation

Image courtesy of Netflix.
Based on the brief but intense and disturbing novel by Uzodinma Iweala, Cary Joji Fukunaga's "Beasts of No Nation" is a powerful war drama that often dares you to keep your eyes on the screen, its horrors are so unnerving.

Set in an unnamed African country on the brink of war, "Beasts" starts off as a family story in which Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah) and his family enjoy a happy life in a relatively comfortable home in their small village. His father is a teacher and his older brother attempts to perfect his dance moves in order to score with the young village women. War has broken out in their country, but it seems far away.

But then one day, soldiers arrive and Agu's mother and baby sibling are forced to flee to the capital, while Agu, his brother, father and incapacitated grandfather stay behind. Shortly thereafter, Agu is the only living member of his family left in his hometown and he flees into the woods, where he stumbles upon a group of rebels led by the ferocious father figure known as The Commandant (Idris Elba in top form).

With an army of mostly teenagers and pre-teens, The Commandant leads his troops into a heart of darkness that gives "Beasts" a slight "Apocalypse Now" vibe, the exception being that, in this case, Kurtz is leading the mission rather than being its destination.

Agu and his fellow new recruits undergo training on how to kill. During one particularly harrowing scene, he and other newcomers must run through a maze of rebels, who strike them with sticks. Agu notices one of the new soldiers failing to make it through the maze and getting his throat cut as a result.

It's difficult to pin down the film's most unsettling sequence, whether it's the one in which Agu is forced by The Commandant to take his first life, in this case an engineer whom Agu is ordered to strike in the head with a machete, or a later scene during which the rebels raid a house, kill a woman inside and stomp her child to death.

Fukunaga is no stranger to deeply unsettling material. His 2009 film "Sin Nombre" was an extremely violent story about Mexican gangs, while his amazing work on season one of "True Detective" proved he can be a master of the macabre. "Beasts of No Nation" takes it to a whole other level. It's a powerful film in which it's difficult to root for any of its characters, but even more difficult not to root for their survival. Francois Truffaut once famously said that "there's no such thing as an anti-war film." Had he seen this one, he might rethink that statement.

This weekend, I've seen two of the best child performances of recent years - Jacob Tremblay's work in "Room" and Attah's portrayal of the child soldier in "Beasts." I was amazed by the range of emotions and understanding of character these two very young actors showed. And I've been a fan of Elba since his iconic portrayal of Stringer Bell on "The Wire" and here he again shows how his supporting work can elevate whatever show or film of which he is a part. He's hypnotizing and horrifying as The Commandant, a figure with virtually no redeeming qualities, but whom Elba manages to humanize rather than turn into a cartoonish monster.

"Beasts" is the first film to be produced and released by Netflix, which already provides stellar shows, such as "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black," which is acclaimed and unseen by me. This picture and those shows should be an indication that the DVD service's executives have an eye for great material.

Review: Room

Image courtesy of A24.
Based on the popular and acclaimed novel by Emma Donoghue, "Room" is a compelling story that works well, despite my early fears that its story would be too, well, confining. The picture, directed by Lenny Abrahamson (who was responsible for the deliriously funny and strange "Frank"), tells the story of a young mother and her 5-year-old son who, for reasons I probably shouldn't divulge, spend their every waking moment in a small, claustrophobic room.

The mother (Brie Larson) once lived in the outside world, but her son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), has not only never seen it, but doesn't even know it exists. His mother has told him all his life that everything outside of the room is outer space and convinces him that the shows he watches on TV are solely there for their entertainment. Occasionally, a man shows up to have sex with the young woman and Jack is forced to stay in his closet, where he sleeps on a mattress.

Had the entirety of "Room" be spent in this tight space, I fear the story might have suffered for it. But just as the room-centered story begins to hint at being tedious, Jack's mother devises an attempt for him to flee the space and he eventually assists his mother in leaving as well.

The duo winds up at the childhood home of Larson's parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy), who have since divorced in the seven years of their daughter's absence. Allen's Nancy has since remarried and her genial husband has a dog with whom Jack can play.

What ultimately makes "Room" such a compelling movie - other than Larson's solid work and the Tremblay, who gives one of the best child performances in years - is that it's not so much about the strange situation involved in the two characters' being kept in the room, but rather their becoming accustomed once again to the real world.

Larson's character goes through various stages of grief and there's a particularly grueling sequence during which a news reporter poses some unsettling questions to the distraught woman. And, even more powerful, is the concept of a 5-year-old discovering the world anew and having to catch up on everything he has missed thus far. And Tremblay simply nails it. It's an especially tricky role for a young child, considering that most boys Tremblay's age are far from being fully formed human beings. So, for him to be able to portray such wonder and such knowingness at the same time at such a young age leads me to believe it's either through luck or sheer talent - or maybe both.

Abrahamson's adaptation of Donoghue's novel works because it allows us to discover the world through a pair of eyes seeing it for the first time. It goes from being a disturbing story about a woman and young boy trapped in a confined space to those same characters being trapped, of sorts, in the most wide open spaces imaginable by their fears to adapt to the world. It's a film that sneaks up on you and ends up being much effective than you might originally think it would.

Review: The Assassin

Image courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.
Hou Hsiao Hsien's "The Assassin" was rapturously received at this year's Cannes Film Festival by a majority of film critics and the picture ended up nabbing the Best Director prize. While I liked the film, which is often visually stunning, I'm not exactly sure why it's being hailed as one of the highly lauded filmmaker's best - which I don't think it is - or how it is different than your average wu xia film, other than in purely structural terms.

For those unfamiliar with wu xia, it's a genre that tells martial arts stories and could be seen as China's version of the western. Films that could described as having wu xia elements include Ang Lee's groundbreaking "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers." What differentiates Hsien's film is that the director applies his highly recognizable visual style and cinematic rhythms, which typically involve long shots in which characters are merely dots in the landscape and laconic sequences in which characters' faces do more of the talking than their mouths.

In "The Assassin," a mostly speechless warrior named Yinniang (Qi Shu), who lives during the Tang Dynasty years, is sent by her master to assassinate a political rival who, as it turns out, was a childhood friend. Yinniang had been separated from her family as a young girl and trained to be a martial arts expert and her skill is seen early in the film during a black and white sequence when she attacks a man on horseback and promptly slits his throat.

While Hsien's slow pace often befits his dramas, such as the highly praised "The Puppetmaster" and the lovely "Three Times," which is still my favorite of his works, it occasionally causes "The Assassin" to drag a little. It's a good film, but more the type that I can appreciate for its style and technique than feel engaged by.

That being said, there are sequences of breathtaking beauty in the film, including one in which Yinniang speaks to her master on a misty mountain, another during which the mist threatens to engulf a lake and others of brightly colored fields and majestic mountaintops.

The story is a little difficult to follow and I'm glad to see that a majority of the notices on the film say the exact same thing. But as is often the case with one of Hsien's films, the mood and rhythm of the visuals frequently eclipse the story. That is certainly the case here and, for this type of film, such a style yields mixed results. I can objectively say that "The Assassin" is a good film and one that I'd recommend to fans of world cinema, but it didn't quite grab me the way that Hsien's best films - "Three Times" or "City of Sadness," for example - did.

Review: Bridge of Spies

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios. 
There are two key shots that drive home the story of Steven Spielberg's gripping "Bridge of Spies," a true story about a tense negotiation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s.

The first shot opens the film - we see a man staring into a mirror as he paints himself on an easel set up in his small Brooklyn studio. The man, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), will soon be arrested by police and accused of acting as an undercover Russian spy. In this shot, we do not actually see Rylance head-on, but rather his reflection in the mirror and his face on the canvas. Abel is actually two men - a spy, but also the Irishman and average citizen he is pretending to be. Spielberg's film is filled with characters and situations in which being straightforward is often not an option.

The second shot is at the film's end after attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) has taken part in a negotiation during which he attempts to trade Abel, who is his client, with not only the Russians in exchange for a U.S. pilot whose plane was gunned down during a top secret mission, but also the East Germans, who have arrested an American student studying abroad on obviously false charges. At one point during his trip, Donovan is riding a train and spies a group of Germans attempting to flee East Germany and climb over the wall into the west, but are gunned down. One of the film's final shots is of Donovan, who is again riding a train, spotting a group of boys in New York running and climbing over a wall, but in play.

Donovan is a perfect role for Hanks, who has come to resemble filmdom's Everyman and for good reason. His characters are noble, but not stiff as many righteous movie characters tend to be in their upstandingness. Donovan is, for lack of a better phrase, a good man. He believes in justice and doing the right thing, even when it's not popular. And, in his case, it's certainly not.

Although he is a tax attorney, Donovan is asked by the U.S. government to represent Abel during his 1957 trial after he has been outed as a spy. The judge in the case clearly wants the trial over and done with as well as an easy conviction. Donovan, on the other hand, believes that everyone deserves a fair run in court and points out that while Abel is an enemy, he is not a traitor since he is not an American and that he has done right by his own country. Nevertheless, Donovan's work on the case earns him scolding looks from virtually everyone and a few bullet holes through the window of his home.

But after U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down during a reconnaissance mission over Russia, Donovan is brought on board to negotiate Abel's trade for Powers. Donovan also presses for the release of a student who has been arrested in East Germany, but the CIA isn't interested in the young man, primarily due to the fact that he is not equipped with top secret information. However, Donovan is determined to do what he believes is right.

Spielberg captures the look and feel of 1950s America without overdoing it and Hanks's character feels like an archetypal figure that Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart might have played during that time period. Hanks is excellent as Donovan and Rylance has deservedly sparked some Best Supporting Actor discussions for his work as Abel, who is pretty funny for a guy possibly facing a death sentence. His "would it help?" punchline that he continuously uses when Hanks questions whether he's nervous about his fate is a tip-off as to who co-wrote the film's screenplay - Joel and Ethan Coen.

Spielberg's oeuvre is primarily populated by two types of films - visually large-scale but narratively intimate fantasies ("E.T." or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") and films that dramatize pivotal moments in history during the past two centuries - for example, "Lincoln," "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Munich." "Bridge of Spies" is an engrossing, occasionally thrilling and thoughtful Cold War drama that is anchored by some great performances, reliably terrific cinematography by Janusz Kaminski and the type of visual storytelling you'd expect from a great like Spielberg.

On occasion, critics have given the director flack for how handles the emotional content of his stories, but I think it speaks to his great talents that his films, "Bridge of Spies" for example, have both intellectual and emotional heft.

Review: Crimson Peak

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Guillermo de Toro's gothic horror drama "Crimson Peak" is visually sumptuous and a triumph of set design even if the picture is not particularly scary. The director, whose metier is cinematic grim fairy tales, has paid close attention to the small details in this film, from the costumes to lavishly decorated hallways and rooms of the titular estate, and the film's visuals are all the better for it.

So, while the film is not among del Toro's best movies, which typically combine political intrigue or historic backdrops a la "Pan's Labyrinth" and "The Devil's Backbone," it's still a good piece of entertainment.

In the picture, the amusingly-named Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) yearns to be a writer and lives with her industrialist father in late 19th century Buffalo. They are visited by a British pair of siblings - Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) - who are interested in doing business, but during their stay, Thomas woos Edith, much to the chagrin of her father, who clearly doesn't trust the guy.

However, Edith's father is brutally murdered during one of the film's surprise bouts of graphic violence, leaving Edith distraught. Thomas comes to the rescue and whisks her away to his creepy old palace in England, where clay in the soil seeps up through the ground and causes the snow during the winter to have the appearance of a sea of blood, hence the estate's nickname and the film's title.

As soon as she arrives, Edith, who claims to have been visited by the ghost of her mother as a young girl and has a penchant for seeing dead people, senses that something is awry. I'm not sure which of these was the tip-off - ghoulish beings coming out of closets or through the floorboards and whispering warnings or Lucille's increasingly erratic behavior.

While "Crimson Peak" is a little light on story, it's heavy on atmosphere, visuals and - perhaps, a little too much so - special effects. There are some nice touches, from leaves falling through the estate's roof and drifting down through the light to the entryway and a spooky old elevator that creaks and clangs. The performances are all pretty good, although Chastain steals the show as the peculiar and sinister Lucille.

Del Toro's films typically have a macabre element and I've found myself more engaged with his work when it has a little more context, such as "Pan's Labyrinth," as opposed to his comic book or blockbuster-esque ventures. "Crimson Peak" is good entertainment, even if it's not among the director's best work. It's a feast for the senses and those who like their horror movies to be rich in atmosphere will likely have much to admire.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Review: Knock Knock

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Eli Roth's recent "The Green Inferno" assaulted the eyes with its nonstop barrage of gore and severed body parts, but his other new film, "Knock Knock," assaults the ears with its nonstop barrage of bad dialogue and shrieked lines. The only reason that the former might not qualify for the worst film of the year is due to the existence of the latter.

As I mentioned in my recent review of "Inferno," Roth knows his horror and he has displayed some talents in front of ("Inglourious Basterds") and behind (the "Thanksgiving" trailer in "Grind House") the camera. But neither of his films this year - one beyond-the-pale grotesque and the other tin eared - makes use of those talents.

"Knock Knock," which is a reworking of the 1977 film "Death Game," tells the story of a husband/father-of-two (Keanu Reeves) who is left alone for the weekend, only to be visited by two young women who engage him in a game that is, at first, sexual and then, later, brutal. It wants to be provocative in the same way that Michael Haneke's "Funny Games" films wanted to be (and, as a side note, those were the only two of that terrific Austrian director's works with which I couldn't engage) and even features a somewhat similar setup, but it ends up annoying more than disturbing.

One night, Evan's (Reeves) doorbell rings, he answers it and is greeted by two young women (Lorenza Izzo, who is married to Roth, and Ana de Armas) claiming to be lost who are searching for a party during a rainstorm. Evan, attempting to be a gentleman, invites them in to use his phone and gives them towels with which to dry off.

And then things take a turn for the unbelievable. Evan and the two women - who are named Genesis and Belle, which I'm sure are meant to stand for something - begin to take part in a conversation so absurd that it makes the interview scene in "Fifty Shades of Grey" come across as kitchen sink realism. Immediately, Evan begins to feel uncomfortable as the two ladies make frank references to their sexual encounters and I started to feel ill at ease as well - not because what is being said is unsettling, but because I was astounded that someone thought this dialogue represented any conversation that has ever taken place on planet Earth.

The situation becomes more and more ludicrous, leading to a threesome between Evan and the two women - and then, a deadly game in which he is tied up and tortured. The whole time, the two women refer to him as a "molester," even though the film never actually entertains the concept that Evan has abused his children or anyone else's. There's also a sequence during which Evan is forced to play a game-show-type scenario in which Genesis asks him questions and if he answers incorrectly, she blasts loud noises into his eardrums via headphones. The scene is supposed to be disturbing, but instead it's grating.

Although the film is already a remake, of sorts, of another film, the filmmakers even have the gall to blatantly rip off another horror movie, the overrated 2008 "The Strangers," during another scene in which Genesis explains to Evan why she and Belle chose him to torment. And there's another scene in which the women hint that they've been spying on Evan even before they showed up on his doorstep, leading the audience to believe there will be a bigger reveal at the end. And then there isn't.

The entire cast is forced to suffer through bad dialogue, although poor Reeves gets it the worst during one sequence in which he must use a pizza delivery analogy to explain why he has slept with the two women, despite his being married.

"Knock Knock" is pretty lousy. I wasn't a fan of Roth's recent "The Green Inferno," but I could at least admire that picture's technical prowess, despite its utterly repellent sequences. But "Knock Knock," on the other hand, is a mess from concept to execution.

Review: Steve Jobs

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
For some moviegoers, it's a deal breaker if a film follows a character who is unlikable or with whom they cannot relate. Admittedly, I've never understood this complaint - take "There Will Be Blood" for example: unconscionably sinister character, remarkable movie. The reason that I bring this up is that those who have a difficult time spending two hours with a character with whom it is difficult to sympathize will struggle through Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs."

As portrayed by Michael Fassbender (very well, I might add), Jobs is a megalomaniac who will not recognize as his own the girl who is obviously his offspring, fails to give his own co-workers credit, alienates most of his "friends" and never hesitates to remind all those around him how much of a genius he is. And he is. And Boyle's film does a pretty fantastic job of giving us a glimpse of the man, but without going the whole biopic route.

So, no, this is not the comprehensive Steve Jobs movie that the Ashton Kutcher picture tried - and didn't exactly succeed - to be. Rather, the movie is set around three scenes - the 1984 launch of the Macintosh, 1988 debut of the NeXT and 1998 iMac unveiling. And each sequence finds Jobs butting heads with those whom he respects and works with - Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), marketing director Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Apple's CEO and father figure for Jobs, who was an orphan.

The other plot line that weaves its way through Jobs's product launches is one involving his refusal to acknowledge his daughter, Lisa, and the girl's mother (Katherine Waterston) and, eventually, his decision to form a relationship with the girl. It's this plot line that manages to humanize Jobs, who comes across as arrogant and, mostly, cold with his fellow employees.

Since the film's script was written by Aaron Sorkin ("The Social Network" and "The West Wing"), the dialogue is snappy and clever as you'd expect and the writer deftly blends scenes in which the characters mix tech jargon with conversations involving personal matters.

There's an interesting early scene in which Jobs is lambasting his co-workers after they are unable to make the Macintosh say "hello" during its debut launch. He wants the computer to lose the stigma of being a scary object as portrayed in films, such as "2001: A Space Odyssey," and believes that if it can greet the audience, it could put people at ease.

And that's one of the keys to Jobs, at least in this film. He's off-putting and seemingly a cold fish to those around him, who believe he's more interested in gadgetry than human interaction, but Jobs believes he's changing the world (and, he obviously did) and that relationships with computers are, in his mind, just as complex and significant as those with other human beings.

There are some great scenes of characters facing off in the film, most of which involve Winslet's voice of reason attempting to compel Jobs to act like a father toward his child, but there's another terrific one late in the film during which Wozniak has made his latest failed attempt to convince Jobs to recognize workers on the dated Apple II during the iMac launch. Jobs, of course, won't do it on the grounds that it's his work and ideas that have helped Apple rise back to the top. Wozniak, in one of the film's best lines, tells him, "You can be decent and gifted at the same time. It's not binary."

Boyle's films are typically characterized by zippy editing, musical cues and flashy camera work. "Steve Jobs" is primarily set within small rooms in conference centers and the action is mostly centered around dialogue. And yet, Sorkin's writing and Boyle's direction mesh very well. This is a fast paced film that is primarily driven by people talking. The casting is also impeccable - Fassbender nails the role, despite not particularly looking like Jobs, while Rogen and Daniels bring the necessary pathos to their characters. Winslet, always great, takes a character that could have been a throwaway role and breathes life into it.

This is Sorkin's second script about a genius who built an empire revolving around the world of computers. David Fincher's "The Social Network" is a little better than "Steve Jobs" due to its complexity and ability to be about more than just the story of Mark Zuckerberg. But Boyle's film is also a fascinating glimpse at a figure who was brilliant - revolutionary even - in his line of work, but lacked the capacity to empathize with others. One of the most riveting elements of this film is how it doesn't require us to empathize with him either, but still allows us to see his humanity - even if in small doses.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Review: The Walk

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
First things first: yes, James Marsh's transfixing documentary "Man on Wire" is still the best film made about high wire artist Phillipe Petit and, no, it probably wasn't all that necessary for a feature film to be made about him, considering how well that 2008 film covered the story.

That being said, "The Walk" is a good time and the final 30 minutes or so of the picture are completely breathtaking and, if you are afraid of heights, nerve wracking and nauseating, despite the fact that we already know how the story turns out.

For those unaware of Petit's incredible stunt, the French high wire artist strung a cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center shortly after their completion in 1974 and walked for approximately 45 minutes along the wire without a harness or any other means of preventing him from falling hundreds of stories to his death.

The wire walk was an amazing moment of its time, a feat that, at first, seemed completely reckless, but was soon overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of what one human being could accomplish through skill and bravado. In the film, Petit (portrayed well by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) comes off as equally arrogant and charming. He's the type of guy who makes you roll your eyes, even though you know you like him anyway.

We get a brief flashback to Petit's youth, when he watches a high wire artist at a circus and immediately falls in love with the concept. As a cocky young man, he enlists the help of a Czech high wire performer (Ben Kingsley), who attempts to teach him the tricks of the trade, but young Petit doesn't want to hear all of his advice. A few years later and more mature, he calls on Kingsley's sage wire walker for tips and draws together a group of "accomplices," which include a girlfriend, a few fellow Frenchmen and several New Yorkers, to stage the "coup" of his walk between the towers.

So, while it's difficult to compete with the real thing - in other words, the recreation of these events pales a little next to the actual footage of the event captured in "Man on Wire" - Robert Zemeckis's film still manages to turn the "coup" into a stunning cinematic experience.

As I mentioned, the final 30 minutes or so of the film are pretty incredible. At first, the shots of Gordon-Levitt walking along the wire with the city many stories below gave me a bit of vertigo, which is telling as to how effective the sequence has been recreated. But then you get swept in by the gracefulness of the high wire walk and how completely insane/gutsy Petit must have been to pull off such a stunt.

And there's a nice touch in which a character later tells Petit and his crew how New Yorkers had, at first, hated the towers, which they considered a monstrosity looming over the city, but then came to like them after the high wire walker christened them with his act. The film's final shot is of the towers before fading to black that acts as a, thankfully, subtle reminder of what was lost at that very site.

Zemeckis's films have often been about characters with potential who find themselves at the center of something incredible and rise to the occasion. His filmography is filled with such stories - "Back to the Future," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", "Forrest Gump" and "Contact," to name a few. "The Walk" is similar, but in this case it is the character himself who makes that incredible moment come about. And while I still contend that "Man on Wire" is the Phillipe Petit movie, Zemeckis's film is well worth your time.

Review: The Martian

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Much like Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity," Ridley Scott's "The Martian" is a story about a soul stranded in space, although the cast of Scott's film is significantly larger and the space in which the lead character survives is less confined. It's one of the director's better films in a while, although I liked "Prometheus" and thought "American Gangster" was woefully underrated.

In the film, Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a botanist on a manned mission to Mars who gets left behind after his crew, which includes Jessica Chastain and Kate Mara, believe him to be dead. The film juggles two plotlines - Watney's attempts to stay alive via growing a garden in a greenhouse he creates on the red planet and NASA's attempts to send a rescue mission.

As a one-man show, at least in his own plotline, Damon gives a strong performance, portraying a character who uses humor and scientific know-how to prevent him from giving in to the overwhelming odds of his survival. And the NASA crew which includes Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kristen Wiig, is faced with the "Saving Private Ryan" conundrum: is it worth risking the lives of a group of people to save the life of one?

More so than any other recent sci-fi that comes to mind (well, maybe "Interstellar"), "The Martian" is heavy on the science and although I don't understand some of the concepts presented in the film (I, alas, was not a science major), it's refreshing to see a film that puts so much credence in it and isn't afraid to risk alienating some viewers by delving deeply into scientific concepts.

Although the film looks great, Scott and company do not rely too heavily on special effects here as most other movies about space exploration likely would. First and foremost, this is a character drama and human interest story, so the emphasis is on the storytelling, not CGI.

There has been a recent renewal of interest in space travel - at least in the movies - through films such as "Gravity," "Interstellar" and, now, this one. And all three of these films have captured the terror, but also the wonder, of the galaxy. I really enjoyed "The Martian." It takes a little while to become completely invested in it, but once you are, it's a riveting and tense drama about survival, loyalty and courage.