The Rover

Image“Fear the man with nothing left to lose,” is the prominent message from the official poster of David Michôd’s latest film, The Rover. Michôd is mostly known for his 2010 film Animal Kingdom about an Australian crime family. Four years later, Michôd is back in Australia with a film Quentin Tarantino calls, “The best post-apocalyptic movie since the original Mad Max.” I am a true Tarantino fan and have always been impressed with his knowledge of the history of film, but I have 2 basic faults with this statement. First, The Road Warrior, the first sequel to Mad Max, is the best post-apocalyptic movie since Mad Max. Second, The Rover is not even the tenth best post-apocalyptic movie since the original Mad Max.

The Rover is a piece of cinematic naturalism thematically reminiscent of last year’s All is Lost but with more characters. It is ten years since an economic collapse has crushed the civilization of Australia. The film is rather vague about how far reaching this fall has actually spread, but it seems at least semi-global and has certainly engulfed Australia in its entirety. An act of chance causes a speeding land rover to roll over and get trapped in a ditch. The three passengers rush out of the damaged rover and into a nearby parked car, which they steal and use to speed away. The stolen car’s owner Eric, played by Guy Pearce, frees the ensnared rover and hurries off in the direction of his stolen car. What follows is an exploration of a simple conflict where we discover exactly what there is to fear from the man who has nothing left to lose. Eric fiercely pursues the gang of thieves until, in an initial confrontation with the men, he is knocked unconscious and loses the trail. In another act of fate, a chance encounter with an injured man named Rey (Robert Pattinson) gets Eric back on track since Rey turns out to be the injured brother of one of the thieves. Eric and Rey form an antagonistic bond and much of the film explores the nature of their unusual relationship.

Part Crime and Punishment and part Of Mice and Men, the philosophy of The Rover basically examines the human psyche when civilization decays, and man must determine his own values and refine his own morality. The idea is sound and fascinating, but the film is not. This is a slow moving film, regardless of the frequent scenes featuring high speed driving and some sporadic intense violence. Furthermore, the score is obnoxious in its attempt to be atmospheric, and the narrative’s overall plot is underwhelming and thin. The film rests a lot of weight on the relationship between Rey and Eric, but there’s not enough for an audience to care about, and by the film’s conclusion, I didn’t care what happened to any of these people.

The Rover is not the important film Tarantino touted it to be, nor is it the important film David Michôd hoped it would be. It’s not a total failure and Pearce and Pattinson are good. They try their best to get us to see the value in the crippled animal that is this film, but in the end The Rover certainly “has nothing left to lose” and should be put out of its misery. C-

The Rover is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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How to Train Your Dragon 2

ImageDreamworks Studio is celebrating its 20th year producing films, and it seems appropriate that the film that marks this occasion is about a 20 year old underdog who has managed to succeed by charming and befriending the supposed enemy rather than brutalizing it. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but wait until I get to the part where I discuss How to Train Your Dragon 2 as a metaphor for American foreign policy!

How to Train Your Dragon 2, finds our hero, Hiccup (voiced once again by Jay Baruchel), enjoying the good life on his home Isle of Berk. Viking and dragon now live harmoniously thanks to Hiccup’s efforts to expose the compassionate nature of the once feared beasts. Now, dragons are domesticated pets on Berk, and the once relentlessly busy weaponry armory has been transformed into a saddle and bridle shop. Recreation is booming with the advent of a game that crosses polo with quidditch, and exploration is thriving with the swiftness of dragon transportation as opposed to Viking ships.

So the question remains, what conflict could possibly arise? The conflict comes in the form of an infamous villain by the name of Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) who captures dragons in order to enslave them and march on neighboring lands on a quest for power and land with the help of dragon catchers like Eret (Kit Harington). Upon the mention of Drago’s name, Hiccup’s father Stoick (Gerard Butler) promptly initiates a preemptive strike on Drago before he and his army can move on Berk. This, of course, angers Hiccup who prefers a more diplomatic approach, famously successful in the previous film.  

Now I’m not saying that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a thinly veiled allegory about American foreign policy and diplomacy in the 21st century. What I am saying is that a thriving civilization’s leader repeatedly ignores diplomatic methodologies in favor of military actions when dealing with foreign totalitarian enemies who may or may not be armed with stolen or illegally procured weaponry of domestic origin. Take that Disney!

Analysis aside, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is an enjoyable follow up to the 2010 original. A talented voice cast features America Ferrera, Kristin Wiig, T.J. Miller, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Craig Ferguson, and Cate Blanchett among others.  When it comes to recommending animated features, I ask myself three questions: Is it enjoyable and appropriate for kids? Is it meaningful? Will it at least amuse adults? This film is most certainly amusing for adults. There are well-rounded characters and a beautiful animation style the keeps you engaged. The difficulty comes with the first two questions. Kids love the dragons, and Dreamworks’s first priority was clearly to up the quantity of dragons: Mission accomplished. However, a complexity arises in the film’s quest for meaning at the sacrifice of appropriateness. Parental figures are often on death-watch in the majority of children’s animated fare for some twisted, sick reason, and that statement applies here as well. I won’t go too into the details surrounding this element as it is one of the film’s major reveals, but I will say that if one takes a moment to empathize with the film’s most tragic moment, one might find oneself getting a prescription for an anti-depressant. Nonetheless, the family angle and its relevance to the film’s climax vigorously enhances the film’s overall meaning and sets the stage for a parallel battle of “alphas” that is both visually stunning and intensely engaging. Since the film has already dabbled in the darkness by giving us a violently disfigured protagonist (Hiccup lost his foot in the previous film), we may as well accept the lesson that if you’re going to play with dragons, you might get burned. B+

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes.      

Edge of Tomorrow

ImageEdge of Tomorrow, the latest sci-fi/action film from Tom Cruise, is best marked coincidentally by two outrageously dissimilar events: the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the 30th anniversary of the film Groundhog Day. In fact, 70 years to the day prior to the US opening of the film Edge of Tomorrow, allied forces invaded Normandy suffering tremendous casualties but contributing to what would eventually be an allied victory in World War II. Now one may ask, who in their right mind would choose a day like that to live over and over and over? Well, that is precisely what John McQuarrie explores in his screenplay for Edge of Tomorrow.

Cruise plays Major Bill Cage, a coward of a military officer who has used his business experience and education to stay as far away from combat as humanly possible even with the world under siege by a brutal and powerful alien race. However, after pissing off the wrong general (Brendan Gleeson), Cage finds himself on a London army base under the command of Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton) with transfer papers listing him as a deserter and stripped of his rank. Now, Private Cage will be among the first to land on the beach of Normandy in a secret mission to catch the enemy by surprise.

It turns out the aliens have a secret weapon that makes the human resistance utterly useless. Several aliens known as “Alphas” possess an ability to “reset” upon death and relive the day with the knowledge of what will happen next. Thus, the aliens can always anticipate every enemy move and plan for it on a continual basis until victory is won. What the aliens didn’t count on and what cowardly Cage inadvertently discovers is that if a human were to slay an Alpha and be covered in its blood, that human would then absorb the same power to “reset.”

Armed with his new power but entirely without any skills to fight a war, Cage teams up with Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) a legendary soldier who secretly once had Cage’s power but lost it. Together, Cage and Vrataski may have what it takes to save the world.

The “reset” gimmick is most notably and skillfully used in the late Harold Ramis’s film, Groundhog Day. Many films have used similar gimmickry – some to good effect, some poorly – but few have used it so identically. Nonetheless, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Go, Swingers) captures the fun nature of Ramis’s film and instead of using this concept for romance, he re-purposes it for a more fitting genre: science-fiction. Liman gets the tone just right as he tracks Cage’s evolution from detestable loser to someone of merit, and it’s a fun ride. He weaves together a story that pulses with energy and humor, and the alien antagonists are worthy opponents, fast moving and very deadly. The film does get a bit lost in its own absurdity once in a while and Liman shamelessly uses the “reset” plot device to hit the audience over the head with the film’s theme about humans being in control of their own fate (Bill Paxton’s character is basically a Ned Ryerson, designed to spew the same thematically rich monologue every 15 minutes!). But I liked Edge of Tomorrow. Cruise proves he’s still up to the challenge of carrying a big tentpole of a movie, Blunt is a fine co-star, and Liman has produced a film that while somewhat familiar, is just fresh enough. B+

Edge of Tomorrow is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour 53 minutes.          

Fading Gigolo

ImageWhen the HBO comedy Hung, about a male PE teacher/prostitute living in Detroit trying to make ends meet, got cancelled, I doubt you gave it a second thought. I doubt you sat down and wondered where else could this concept take me? And I truly doubt you said, “What if John Turturro played the prostitute and Woody Allen played his pimp?” Well regardless of your lack of thought on these ideas, John Turturro presents his own spin on them in Fading Gigolo. Part male fantasy and part satirical take on the state of life, passion, and Judaism, Fading Gigolo is hard not to like on some level, mostly due to the relationship between its central duo.

It’s hard out there for a florist…especially in New York City. Fioravante (Turturro) has been watching his bills steadily rise as his days at the flower shop are being cut like the stems of his roses. That is until his friend Murray (Allen) approaches him with a wild idea. Murray too is in financial woe, having to close his rare bookstore and trying to contribute expenses for his roommate (Jill Scott) and her four young boys. After overhearing that his sexy dermatologist (Sharon Stone) is interested in having an affair, Murray instantly suggests his friend Fiorvante for the job at the low, low price of $1000. And just like that, Fiorvante and Murray are the world’s unlikeliest pair to be employed in the world’s oldest profession.

The ridiculousness of this concept takes some getting used to, but it is still quite enjoyable to watch. Allen channels his neurotic confidence with panache and the absurd plot allows him to deliver some one-liners that are among some of his best. Murray turns out to be an effective pimp, even setting up Fiorvante with a ménage-a-trois with Stone’s dermatologist character and her gorgeous friend played by Sofía Vergara. I told you it was one part male fantasy.

Turturro as writer/director also pairs this fantastical storyline with another subplot involving a widowed Hasidic Jewish woman named Avigal (Venessa Paradis) living in an Orthodox neighborhood and who happens to be excellent at curing head-lice in young children. When Murray’s roommate’s children become afflicted with lice, he takes them to Avigal and upon meeting her, he sees a woman who could perhaps benefit from the talents of Fiorvante. This is the craziest plot development of the entire film; this strange but sweet comedy suddenly turns its gaze on the traditions and gender roles of the Hasidic faith.

Nonetheless, Fiorvante and Avigal do have some chemistry and begin to fall in love, allowing Avigal to strike back at the loneliness that comes with being a widowed wife of a Rabbi. It is easy to see this development as somewhat offensive to this subset of the Jewish tradition, but upon further analysis of what Turturro’s doing here, it is actually a fascinating piece of satire. Fiorvante’s chief obstacle in his relationship with Avigal is an obsessive neighborhood watchman named Dovi (Liev Schreiber) who does not approve of Avigal’s sudden disregard for some Hasidic traditions. Dovi is an authority figure and while he clearly wants to appear to uphold his religious traditions, he can not admit that his true interest is not in religious law but Avigal.

In a scene late in the film, Turturro’s character stands static inside a revolving carousal staring out at the camera and at Avigal. It serves as a metaphorical moment that reminds us that we are all on this crazy merry-go-round called life together and sometimes love finds us in the strangest of circumstances. Therefore, a relatively fair message sifts its way through the comedy and oddness of this film; Fiorvante’s romances with rich, bored, spoiled housewives are very different than those who simply want contact and companionship. I’m not sure if a 57 year old prostitute and his 79 year old pimp are the best messengers for this point, however.  Woody Allen fans will enjoy this obvious nod to Allen’s style and subject matter by Turturro.   However, some may not find this movie very appealing, but I assure you it’s smarter than it sounds.  B-

Fading Gigolo is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 30 minutes.