Celebrity

Celebrity1Director: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Charlize Theron, Melanie Griffith, Winona Ryder, Famke Janssen

After a favorable reception from my recent vintage review of Crimes and Misdemeanors, I thought I’d strike while the iron’s hot and review another Woody Allen film I’ve come to appreciate.  Celebrity is a comedy about a very topical phenomenon that has reached an even more unbelievable status than it had 17 years ago when the film was released.  That phenomenon?   That anybody, with a little luck, can achieve a celebrity status and find love. Every character in this film is either famous or in search of fame. Director Woody Allen’s main thought that he is trying to convey is that celebrityism is not achieved by people who earn it or deserve it, but rather by people who are lucky or more fortunate.

The story surrounds two paralleling main characters Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) and his ex-wife Robin (Judy Davis). After Lee attends his high school reunion and sees that all of his classmates are boring, old, and balding he begins to go through a mid-life crisis and he realizes that he has never actually felt true love. Accordingly after 16 years of being married to Robin, Lee decides to divorce her. Lee then goes on a quest to find love and fame. Allen places Lee in several situations where he conveys his opinion that we, as a society, do not celebrate the people that we should. First Lee meets the seductive, yet married actress Nicole Oliver (Melanie Griffith), whom he is supposed to write an article about. Nicole takes Lee to the house she lived in as a child, and although she states that she is happily married, she still feels it is ethical to service him orally, as long as she does not sleep with him. She denotes this by saying, “What I do from the nick up, that’s a totally different story.” Here, Allen demonstrates how people who achieve a high celebrity status, come up with a moral system that suites themselves, but not necessarily the rest of society. Her statement, besides having the sexual interpretation, also means that whatever she feels is moral in her mind is therefore justified.  Coincidentally, this echos a similar theme explored in Crimes and Misdemeanors as well.

Next, Lee meets a supermodel (Charlize Theron in one of her first major roles) that is popular solely because of her jaw-dropping good looks. Theron’s character remains nameless throughout the film. Allen purposely did not give her a name in order to stress how people who see these beautiful people are not concerned with who they are, just what they look like. This goes the same for Leonardo DiCapro’s character Brandon Darrow. Although he is a drug abusing, woman beating, hotel-trashing brat with no creative vision, he is still considered a huge star because he has got a pretty face.

After the supermodel leaves Lee, he becomes serious with a more practical and logical woman named Bonnie (Famke Janssen). Bonnie is made to seem virtually perfect; she is beautiful, sexy, intelligent, and nice. However, Lee loses interest in her and feels that he has to move on. The importance of Bonnie’s character, besides the fact that she shows what a shallow and low man Lee is, is that she is responsible for destroying Lee’s ticket to stardom, which is also directly related to the destruction of Lee’s chance for love.

Lee leaves Bonnie for Nola, (Winona Ryder) a woman who has been in and out of his life for some time. Nola is an actress with her own career on her mind. She is not willing to commit to a relationship and can not reach an emotional bond with Lee because she is on her own quest for fame, much like Lee.

Lee’s acts are strongly contradicted by the transformation of his ex-wife Robin. Robin, at first, is shown as a shy, sexually frustrated, Catholic woman. After Lee leaves her, Robin’s friend books her a session with a famous plastic surgeon that ends up examining her while he talks to a TV camera and interviewer. Robin’s transformation begins here when she meets Tony (Joe Mantegna) a television producer. Tony shapes her and makes her into a celebrity reporter on an Entertainment Tonight like show. No sequence shows Robin’s changed lifestyle better that the one near the film’s end where Robin is shown rushing around the tables of a restaurant, interviewing various stars. She eventually stops and talks to Donald Trump. Trump tells her that he is going to tear down a cathedral and put up a “really tall building.” At the beginning of the film, Robin’s Catholic upbringing would have come through and caused her to become highly upset by this statement, however, here Robin simply says, “Oh, that’s nice.” Here we see that although Robin has accepted love and been rewarded by fame, she has lost her identity.

Robin attains fame without even looking for it while Lee never reaches a celebrity status after all of his attempts. This again restates the film’s statement that love and fame are attained purely by luck.  Allen drives his theme home in an ending scene that is crucial in establishing the film’s meaning.  First of all it re-introduces the characters to the audience, so we can see where many of them finally end up.  Allen’s techniques used throughout the entire film prove to be some of his most ambitious. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s eloquent shooting in black and white requires a creative use of lighting. The music is always soft and relaxing. Beethoven’s 5th and the “…So You Want to be in Pictures,” song are heard throughout the film in different situations. One more solid technique is Allen’s relaxed cutting rhythm throughout the film. Most of the film’s shots are long and relaxed. There are very few short or fast paced scenes.  Allen seems to have a lot to say on this subject and with a running time of 113 minutes, this is one of his longest films.

At the end, this is another vibrant and beautifully rich film from Woody Allen both contextually and artistically.  His career is one of reinvention and sometimes that can result in films that are a little ahead of their time.  This is likely the case with Celebrity.  Agree or disagree with Allen’s theory on love and fame, but to me, this film plays much better today than it did in the late 90s.  A-

Celebrity is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 53 minutes.  

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Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Montage of HeckDirector: Brett Morgan

Screenwriter: Brett Morgan

Cast: Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, Courtney Love

After watching Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, there’s a sense of disillusionment left behind. Speculation on the tortured genius of Kurt Cobain has been a part of the zeitgeist since Cobain’s suicide in 1994. Films, books, and interviews have been levied by the dozen on this subject, and yet still there’s an ominous curiosity surrounding the legacy of Kurt Cobain.

Filmmaker Brett Morgan (The Kid Stays in the Picture) looks to end that curiosity once and for all with a tremendously in-depth documentary composed of Cobain’s own journal writings, home video recordings, and media appearances sewn together and punctuated with animated reenactments of stories narrated by Cobain himself that were found on cassette tapes discovered by Morgan. As documentaries go, this is one of the most stylish and innovative examples the genre has ever seen. Morgan expertly designs his Rock Doc to be drenched in the art and music of its subject in some penetrating ways. And yet Morgan’s biggest success is also, perhaps the film’s greatest adversary: assuring the audience gets an authentic depiction of Cobain.

The film opens in traditional documentary fashion, shedding a light on Cobain’s upbringing, interviewing his family members, and showcasing through some wonderful home videos that Cobain was the typical suburban kid. However, the evolution of the Cobain we have come to revere is depicted to be a result of divorce, neglect, drugs, and irresponsibility. The boy we meet in the film’s opening scenes would go on to write “I Hate Myself and Want to Die,” but would likely not hate himself and want to die. Thus, as  Morgan does what good filmmakers do and lifts the veil on his subject, I admit I became more and more turned off.

That being said, the film is quite excellent regardless of what one thinks about its subject. While Morgan occasionally may go for style over substance, documentary films often thrive on revealing truth and allowing an audience to absorb and decide for themselves; Montage of Heck ultimately delivers in that area.   Furthermore, Nirvana fans will revel in some of the exceptional footage assembled here, but the film’s honesty is unnerving at times. Watching a heroin-soaked Cobain try to interact with his baby daughter disgusts me to a previously unknown level of disgust.

Overall, what Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck does well is cast an intimate depiction rarely seen on film. The method is remarkably effective, but if you are a fan of Cobain’s, be prepared for some of the mystique to ware off. B

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is not rated, but received a TV-MA for its television broadcast. It has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers2Director: Joss Whedon

Screenwriter: Joss Whedon

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlet Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, and James Spader

When all was said and done, 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers, became the third most lucrative film in box office history. Now with James Wan’s Furious 7 poised to unseat the superhero spectacular, Iron Man and friends return to make sure the Avengers stay on top!

Still, how do you follow up the third biggest movie of all time? Well Joss Whedon, a guy who never met a cliché he couldn’t skewer, handles things very nicely with Avengers: Age of Ultron. When we last left our Avengers, they had just vanquished Loki and his alien army, saving New York and metaphorically the world. Four Marvel films have been released since 2012’s The Avengers, which have advanced the universal plot somewhat, but basically the team has had no need to reunite…until now!

Reviewing a film of this nature and anticipation is a bit of a challenge. Expectations are high, spoilers are forbidden, and a very thin line separates formulaic from entertaining. Nonetheless, Avengers: Age of Ultron ultimately lands on the entertaining side, mostly thanks to the “vision” (pun intended, see the movie) of writer/director Joss Whedon.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) seemingly refocused by his battle with The Mandarin from Iron Man 3, has decided that the world is still too vulnerable to outside threats. The answer? Implement a peacekeeping program called Ultron in the hopes of harnessing the power of Stark’s supercomputer JARVIS to shield the planet from future alien attacks. The problem is that Stark’s own program is conceived of an artificial intelligence so advanced that it develops a plan of its own, manifesting itself in a robotic personage and plotting to eliminate humanity in favor of an evolved robotic intelligence.  Of course, this is simply the conflict devised to reunite Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) for another adventure, but fortunately, the film does not rest on its laurels too long.

Here’s where Whedon shows his expertise and distinctiveness. The three clichés common with sequels are mixing things up, adding something new, and darkening the mood. With Avengers: Age of Ultron, Whedon does not avoid these potential pitfalls, but rather embraces them with vigor. So much so, that he shatters them with new energy. Whedon, a true comic fan, takes advantage of the development built through Marvel’s ten previous films and “mixes things up” by sprinkling in a series of events that fractures the team’s cohesiveness organically. He does this by mining some previously established developments rather than adding something in that would doubtlessly feel abrasive.

Ultron, eventually voiced by James Spader, is a very appropriate villain for the direction this franchise is heading. Aliens have been The Avengers’ most common foe, but Ultron takes a tip from arguably the best Marvel film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and becomes a metaphor for paranoia and fear. Ultron uses information as a weapon and in essence is also the impetus for introducing the film’s two newest characters The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Russian twins with an axe to grind against Stark’s weapons background and some pretty impressive powers. Of course, Whedon is not satisfied in adding something new simply for the sake of a sequel; instead, he uses the twins to give the film an opportunity to reveal more depth to the individual Avengers, something the first film was unable to do as an “origin story” and something usually reserved for the individual entries in the franchises.  Black Widow and Hawkeye, the two Avengers without an individual film about them, benefit most from this element of the film.

At the end, Avengers: Age of Ultron does not have the feel of high, global stakes like the previous film, but that is exactly why these films have not grown stale. We are constantly introduced to a new angle, and in this case, one that may leave some feeling a little confused on what the future holds for these beloved heroes. The one fault I find with the film is, while it has moments of thoughtfulness, I think given the amount of depth developed over ten films, this film could have been more ambitious. The scenes that work, work very well and while there is probably at least one too many fight scenes, there are still plenty of extremely enjoyable “quieter” scenes where these actors get to have fun with the characters and continue the tongue-in-cheek humor that fans have come to expect and appreciate. This is yet another infinity stone in the crown of the Marvel cinematic universe leaving this summer’s Ant Man as the sole film entry left that can smudge phase two of Marvel’s unstoppable success. A-

Avengers: Age of Ultron is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes. As promised by Whedon, there is one short scene mid-way through the credits, but no other extra scenes after that.