All is Lost

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In the early 20th century, a literary movement known as Naturalism caught on as war suddenly began to grip America once again.  Influenced by the work of Charles Darwin, Naturalistic writers wanted to emphasize the dark, harshness of life as well as man’s lack of control of the natural forces that truly guide his fate.  All is Lost is as close to cinematic Naturalism as I’ve ever seen. 

Robert Redford plays a character whose name is never revealed, a typical trait of Naturalism as these forms of expression look to stress nature’s indifference to man. This indifference is further exemplified with the film’s opening scene where the man (Redford) awakens from a nap below deck on his sailboat to find that a stray floating cargo container had somehow drifted into the side of his boat, puncturing it and resulting in the boat quickly taking on water.  No explanation is given for this circumstance or than that it presumably fell off of a cargo ship and, as fate would have it, collided with the boat.  The man is a pensive man; he does not react wildly or make rash decisions, rather he weighs his options and relies on his experience and skills.  Redford’s is the only character in the entire film, and he is also a man of few words; accordingly, the script for All is Lost is only 32 pages long.  Thus, writer/director J.C. Chandor’s film looks to explore modern Naturalism at sea as deliberately as possible. 

All is Lost is a riveting achievement.  As we watch this man struggle through a series of events set into motion by that seemingly innocuous cargo container, we are forced to mull over our own mortality and our own suitability to circumstance.  Last year, Ang Lee’s adaptation of Life of Pi beautifully captured some of what All is Lost attempted to capture, but that film was far more Romantic in its aspirations.  All is Lost instead puts plot aside and seeks to pit man against nature in a rigorous, albeit somewhat predictable series of events.  The result is a compelling yet extraordinarily minimalistic effort that does feel redundant at times. 

Earlier this year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity also pitted man against incredible odds in a far more successful way.  While both films depict man’s struggle with expertise, Cuarón, like Ang Lee before him, understood the need to make the film a visual spectacle as well.  Thus, those films certainly utilize the media of film far more than All is Lost, while All is Lost relies more on Redford.  Fortunately, Redford delivers.  The sharp, witty con-man from The Sting is no more, but he has been replaced by a weathered and beaten sailor who may have the grit to do what Johnny Hooker never could – win an Oscar.  B+

All is Lost is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes.  It is a nailbiter and a triumph for Redford.  The score by indi-rock name Alex Ebert is also characteristically right on. 

 

 

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Thor: The Dark World

ImageSince this film is somewhat ridiculous, I have decided to write with a less than professional tone (See my Gangster Squad review for a similar example).  Warning, sarcasm ahead.

Marvel Studio’s onslaught of high-octane entertainment continues with this year’s Thor: The Dark World.  Things may have quieted down on Earth after the Battle of New York, featured in 2012’s The Avengers, but the same can not be said about Asgard.  It turns out that the evil dark elves, along with their leader, Malekith have been awaiting an opportunity to strike.  What do they want to strike and when do they want to strike it?  Well, it turns out the dark elves hate the light and they want to cast the universe in darkness.  A perfect opportunity arises when the 9 realms of the universe align, a convergence that only happens every 5000 years causing gravitational abnormalities and bringing about the Yang-Mills anomaly that could open crossroads to universe intersections like the nexus of all reality or, in the case of this film, a fault that starts a cosmic eclipse linking the dark elves’ realm, Svartalfheim, to Earth!

So, the stakes are high.

The aforementioned cosmic eclipse happens to open right in cutie-pie, scientist, Jane Foster’s (Natalie Portman) backyard.  This causes Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to reunite with Foster for the first time in two years.  While Foster feels a bit burned by the length of time her supposed love’s been away, it doesn’t stop her from joining him on a spur of the moment jaunt to Asgard in the hopes that she can aid the Asgardians in their fight against the dark elves.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy Thor: The Dark World, but the fact that I had to write a sentence that included dark elves, Norse realms, convergence, nexus, and cosmic eclipses lets you know that we’re dealing with a film that will not be everybody’s cup of “mead.”  Nonetheless, Marvel knows their core audience, and it seems that the Thor franchise is aimed directly at them (or us).  However, if you are not a “Thor” fan and are looking for a reason to see this film, you need look no further than Tom Hiddleston as Loki.  Hiddleston steals every scene he’s in and since it’s public knowledge that he will not appear I the sequel to The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World is your one-stop-shop to get your Loki fix.

The original definition of a “B movie,” is a low-budget commercial film that is in some way inferior to major releases.  Thor: The Dark World does not fit this description entirely, but it has the feel.  It is a somewhat ridiculous film, but once it gets rolling, it is a lot of fun, especially the last 30 minutes.  It is certainly the weakest in the Marvel franchise, but so far that should not be too dissuading.  B

Thor: The Dark World is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes.  As with all Marvel movies, stay tuned during the credits for tie-ins to upcoming films.  Thor: The Dark World has a teaser during credits as well as one after credits.

Don Jon

ImageDon Jon presents a surprisingly adult perspective on relationships.  First time writer, director, and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt said he came up with the idea for Don Jon during the filming of a film called 50/50 with Seth Rogan.  In that film, Rogan (who wrote and starred in 50/50) tries to help his friend, played by Gordon-Levitt, through the drama of his recent Cancer diagnosis by coaxing him to lose himself in meaningless sex and to use his Cancer as a sympathy device with women.  Gordon-Levitt’s character Jon in Don Jon feels like a combination of those two characters, which is quite fascinating.

Don Jon, in essence, is a modern retelling of the classic Don Juan legends.  Here, Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a slick, confident ladies man – handsome, confident, and consumed with his appearance and the appearance of those with whom he desires intimacy.  As we get to know Jon, we are immersed in his chauvinism and addictive personality.  He hits the gym for his patterned out workout, he hits the church for his prepared confessions, and he hits the Internet for his regular masturbatory sessions.  He also hits the clubs nightly with his friends where they rate women on their appearance, hoping for the elusive “dime” or perfect 10.  That “dime” appears in the form of Barbara (Scarlett Johansson).  From the moment Jon and Barbara begin their romance, Don Jon stops being a character piece and starts being an intriguing look at adult relationships and how the opposite sexes view each other.  In most retellings of Don Juan legends, the protagonist’s sinful ways are dealt with very one-dimensionally in that he is punished for taking advantage of those around him.  Gordon-Levitt tries something different.  He tells a far more relatable story about how both men and women are guilty of attaching unreal expectations on each other due to stereotypes perpetuated by a society that profits on obsession; for men it’s the porn industry and for women it’s the fairy-tale romantic stories in the movies.

As Jon and Barbara’s relationship continues, Jon’s addiction with porn complicates things because Jon values the virtual more than the physical.  Meanwhile, Barbara’s addiction to romantic love stories puts unreal expectations on how Jon is supposed to live his life if he’s going to be with her.  All of this is explored with a careful eye by Gordon-Levitt, the director.  The culmination of which is his subtle introduction of Esther (Julianne Moore) as an older classmate in Jon’s night school course.  Gordon-Levitt did wonders for his film by including Moore, and it is apparent from the moment she appears.  His most impressive camera work, acting, and staging occurs in this act, and it all strengthens the film as a whole.

Gordon-Levitt has made a fine exploration of one sub-section of modern adult relationships.  While some scenes seem a bit forced in terms of situation and/or dialogue (i.e. the curtain rod scene between Jon and Barbara), most of what he does works very well.  Gordon-Levitt also brilliantly casts Tony Danza in a small part as his character’s father and gets an excellent little performance out of him.  It may not be time for Academy Award winning filmmaker, Joseph Gordon-Levitt just yet, but he does show promise behind the camera apart from in front of it.  B+

Don Jon is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 30 minutes.  It’s a good looking, well acted look at some modern aspects of adult relationships. 

The World’s End

ImageWell ladies and gentlemen, the Cornetto trilogy has finally come to a close.  Whether you knew it or not, director Edgar Wright and writer/actor/producer Simon Pegg teamed up in 2004 to create the most loosely connected cinematic trilogy of all time beginning with Shaun of the Dead, followed by Hot Fuzz in 2007, and culminating in 2013 with The World’s End.  The films share no characters, plot devices, settings, or  really any foreseeable connective quality.  What they do share is actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, passing references to a popular British ice cream treat called Cornetto, and a few surprises for die-hard fans.  Otherwise, these three films are as unrelated as could be.  What we’re left with is a social commentary wrapped up in an inside joke that unfortunately has no solid punch line.

The World’s End follows Peter, Andy, Oliver (also known as ‘Oman’ because of an unfortunate birthmark shaped like a 6 on his forehead), and ringleader Gary.  In 1990, Gary (Simon Pegg) and his four best friends attempted and failed to complete “The Golden Mile,” a 12 tavern pub crawl in their hometown of Newton Haven that ends at a particular pub named The World’s End.  Twenty years later, Gary’s life has paled in comparison to that fabled night two decades ago, and while he has not quite left the wild days of his youth behind, his friends have.  After recounting his happier days at a rehab session, Gary decides to reconnect with his reluctant friends and convince them to give “the Golden Mile” one more go.    

The World’s End does very well moving from point A to point B providing lively introductions to the characters and Hangover-style laughs as the group of friends reminisce over past antics and attempt to reclaim the passion of their youth.  Pegg’s performance as Gary is uproarious and sharp.  His reaction to Andy (Nick Frost) ordering a tap water rather than a proper pint is comic perfection, and his various monologues are quick witted, fast, and smart.  Unfortunately, the film hits a stumble moving from point B to point C and does a world class face plant on its way to point D. 

I want to preface this next point by saying that I do not think From Dusk Til Dawn is a good film, nor do I feel that The World’s End is a bad film, yet a comparison must be made.  From Dusk Til Dawn, the George Cloony/Quentin Tarantino vampire western, is notoriously critiqued in the following way: “It was pretty good until the vampires showed up.”  The World’s End will likely receive similar word of mouth, except replace “vampires” with “alien robots.”  The movie does not come entirely off the rails upon the revelation of alien robots, but the tone becomes uneven and “ludicrous” becomes a word that might be used to describe the events from that point forward.  Proponents of the film will cite Shaun of the Dead as a film that similarly injects a sudden influx of horror into an otherwise silly comedy.  However, the mixing of genres in that film works far better than in this one.  The “body snatching” alien storyline interrupts all of the progress made in the film’s first half and unfortunately leads to an incredibly unsatisfying conclusion.  

The World’s End is admittedly British.  By this, I mean that the humor, styling, and overall mood of the film is dry and at times very silly.  Fans of this type of humor know what I mean, and those who go through life saying, “I don’t understand what’s so funny about Monty Python and the Holy Grail” should stay miles away from The World’s End.  The film works somewhat well as a critique on the globalization of society where the boys find the pubs they once loved for their individuality becoming increasingly “starbucked,” resembling one another in every detail.   Additionally, Wright and Pegg have written a film that cleverly alludes to films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s The Thing in quite nuanced and ingeniously fresh ways.  Quite a bit works in The World’s End, but ponderous choices are made from time to time that will leave audiences scratching their heads.  Overall, The World’s End is funny but also preposterous, and it fails to successfully convey a satisfactory point about being middle-aged or the loss of youth, both of which are so strongly introduced in the film’s first half.  I for one would enjoy a film about these five guys rehashing the past and drinking – end of story.  There is no doubt that Wright and Pegg are a good team, and while Pegg is becoming more of a household name thanks to high profile roles like Scotty in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films, he still has plenty of passion for his roots.  As they leave the “Cornetto” behind, I think strong collaborations are in store for the future.  B-

The World’s End is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes.  Aside from Pegg and Frost, the cast also features some interesting cameos (some more obvious than others) as well as Martin Freeman (currently playing Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films), who successfully revives the phrase “WTF,” and Rosamund Pike (soon to be seen in David Fincher’s Gone Girl) who successfully revives the phrase “oh crumbs.”

Elysium

ImageWhat if Wall-E were real?  That’s the question director Matt Damon and director Neill Blomkamp try to answer in Elysium.  Actually, there have been plenty of films depicting world-ending scenarios this summer, nonetheless, this is the one that stars Matt Damon, so pay attention.

The word “Elysium” actually refers to a Greek notion of the afterlife where those chosen by the gods would spend eternity.  Blomkamp’s Elysium reveals a similar idea with the ironic twist being that the “chosen few” are simply the world’s wealthiest and most privileged.  Here Elysium is a space station constructed miles above Earth’s atmosphere designed to house the planet’s most fortunate, so that they can maintain their lavish lifestyle without the burdens of living on an overpopulated Earth.  The year is 2154.  Max (Damon) is an average guy living in L.A. who finds himself in a life or death situation that can only be cured by the advanced medical treatments available on Elysium.  Elysium’s strict immigration laws prevent unauthorized travel to the haven, leaving Max to desperate measures.

Blomkamp’s film is wonderfully directed.  With brilliant juxtapositions between Elysium and Earth, he designs a very well made story that looks all too real!  Scenes of sweeping, Eden-esque beauty are shattered by guerrilla-style wildness of a civilization clinging to existence.  Slightly reminiscent of Minority Report, Max’s humanity and loss thereof is accentuated with symbolic intensity and careful pacing.  His decent into despair is marked by a crude cyborg-like surgical implant that Blomkamp uses to remind us of how close we are from becoming a race of data transfer capsules.  The film’s various villains are united and yet compartmentalized representing a visionary balance of complexity that while slightly excessive could have been tremendously overbearing.  Blomkamp’s previous film District 9 was in a similar topical vein, and while it was a better film overall than Elysium, this latest film is a finer directorial effort, perhaps worthy of Oscar’s attention, although unlikely given the film’s weaknesses in other areas.

Elysium’s main problem is in the writing.  The problem is that Elysium should be more upsetting than it is.  It attempts to invoke the spirit, the outrage, and the temperament of the Occupy Wall-Street movement, showing a wealthy 1% looking down on a struggling and desperate 99%.  However, this is done in a rather heavy-handed way that comes across simplistic and, at times, stereotypically vapid.  This is most apparent in examining Jodi Foster’s Secretary Delacourt who attempts to plan a coup for seemingly no better reason than because her fascist ways are more fascist than the current fascist in charge.  Foster does her best with what she’s given, but a complicated issue is reduced to a shred of viability, turning what could have been a deeply stirring sci-fi commentary into just another by the numbers hero tale.  Questions are left unanswered especially in the film’s closing act, which offers a naive and, while plausible, uneven resolution.  Not to mention that the film fails to soften the reality that Damon, Blomkamp, and company are pandering to a low to middle class audience about the gap between the haves and the have-nots.  I had a similar issue with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby from earlier this Spring.  This is the “Catch-22” of A-List Hollywood in the economically polarized 21st century.

Pompousness aside, Elysium offers a fast-paced, stirring, visually well-made exploration of a slice of humanity.  While it may not accomplish what it set out to do contextually, it is still a worthy film deserving of some credence.  B

Elysium is rated R and has a refreshingly appropriate running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes.  While not the near masterpiece of sci-fi that was District 9, Elysium is a good summer movie and a great example of visionary directing. 

The Way Way Back

ImageThere is something compelling about Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s new coming of age comedy, The Way Way Back.  In the tradition of Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and Moonrise Kingdom, The Way Way Back unfolds in a deliberately subtle way, drawing audiences in with charm and substance.

The story follows 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), a wallflower who spends the summer with his mother at her new boyfriend’s seaside resort home on the East coast.  Duncan’s mother Pam (Toni Collette) hopes the trip will give Duncan a chance to bond with her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and his teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) as well as give Duncan a chance to make some friends and come out of his shell.  Things do not go as planned as Trent’s overbearing personality clashes with Duncan’s, and Steph is more interested in getting a tan than hanging out with Duncan causing him to feel more isolated and undervalued than ever.  It is not until he stumbles upon the nearby Water Wizz waterpark and unexpectedly befriends its manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell) that Duncan discovers who he really is and what is most important.

It is difficult to put your finger on exactly what it is about The Way Way Back that is so engaging.  On the surface, it is simply a story about a young boy who doesn’t fit in until he meets a group of confident, expressive people that teach him to value himself.  This is all well and good, but there is more to this film than just that.  What writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have made is a subtle allegorical film that symbolically captures the nature of growing up, and that’s what makes it special.  Scenes where characters argue over the rules of Candy Land, discuss the ocular abilities of ghost crabs, and ponder the mythology of what happens within the tube on a waterslide all assist in deepening the figurative message of the film.

Furthermore, the film sets its aim on the hypocrisy of adults who have it set in their mind that they deserve an extended childhood of poor decision making but shouldn’t expect such behavior from their own children.  Many of the adults in the film are seen shouting orders to their kids, setting curfews for their kids, and giving advice about how their kids should act only to turn around and get fall-down drunk, cheat on each other, and disappear all hours of the day and night.  This is perhaps the film’s most dynamic and serious theme and it is worth noting that the film does not attack the idea of an extended childhood for adults, but rather it attacks childish adult role models who have unrealistic expectations for those who look up to them, given the example they set.  This point is most successfully made in the character of Owen.  As a water park manager and perpetual goofball, Owen is constructed as a foil to the other adults in the film.  His character is honest and dependable while also being a child at heart.  The relationship that develops between Owen and Duncan is touching and welcomed.

Beyond the writing, what makes The Way Way Back such an enjoyable and poignant film is its ensemble cast.  James is very good as Duncan, who in the film’s first act successfully depresses the audience with his extreme “introverted-ness.”  Collette expertly reveals Pam’s conflicted nature throughout the film, and Rockwell gives an immensely enjoyable performance as Owen where he gets a chance to showcase his warmth and quick wit rather than his usual quirky, off kilter types.  Steve Carrell does well against type as the highly unlikable Trent and Allison Janney adds one more scene stealing role to her already abundant resume as Trent’s neighbor, Betty.  Additional side characters are well cast including Duncan’s potential love interest, Susanna (Annashophia Robb), mismatched couple Joan and Kip (Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry), and Owen’s girlfriend Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph).  The strength of the cast and the film’s symbolic texture do well to balance out the fairly predictable story and the audience familiarity with the shuffling, depressed American teenager (which is becoming a somewhat unwelcomed cliché).  Rash, fresh off of his Screenwriting Oscar for 2011’s The Descendants, emulates his enigmatic title by illustrating that he will not be sent to the “way way back” of the film industry any time soon.   B+

The Way Way Back is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes.  As summer winds its way to a close, this is a fitting film to make an effort to find and see. 

The Lone Ranger

ImageIn this cinematic summer for baby boomers, two classic childhood heroes have been reborn on the big screen.  Both Superman and The Lone Ranger were developed into radio shows and comic books in the 1930s, and they would then go on to have their heydays in the 1940s and 1950s with popular TV shows.  It appears popular culture’s climate is having a nostalgic moment as origin stories of beloved heroes of the past are being introduced to a new generation of viewers, and so far so good.

For The Lone Ranger, director Gore Verbinski teams up with Johnny Depp for the fifth time after three Pirates films and 2011’s Rango.  It was the surprising success of the latter film that perhaps explains the evolution of their latest project.  The days of major box office success for the Western genre have all but ridden off into the sunset.  However, Rango, an animated film starring Johnny Depp as a pet chameleon who ends up in a lawless, desert outpost, legitimized that the genre may be on a resurgence and that kids may be a prime audience.  When included with 2010’s True Grit and 2012’s Django Unchained, three of the top four grossing westerns of all time were released between 2010 and 2012 demonstrating a rebirth of interest in the genre for both adults and kids for the first time in over 20 years.  Thus, Disney’s The Lone Ranger represents an inevitable attempt to get those two audiences together.  But is the film good enough to do it?

All in all, yes it is.  The Lone Ranger follows an ex-Texas ranger, John Reid (Armie Hammer), and his Indian friend, Tonto (Johnny Depp), as they try to exact justice in the American Old West.  The film begins in 1933, and is told in flashback to a young boy by an elderly Tonto, an odd choice of narrative structure.  We learn that Reid is the older brother to legendary lawman Dan Reid.  Dan’s pistol packing ways sharply contrast with John’s educated, John Locke inspired attitude towards law, justice, and government.  When Dan invites John to come along on a manhunt for escaped convict Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), an ambush leaves John clinging to life and crushing his perspective of what he thought would be a more civilized West.  John’s savior comes in the form of Tanto who saves his life and joins him on a renewed quest for justice.

The story has all of the makings of a classic western adventure, but it does hit a few snags.  Hammer and Depp are excellent and their exchanges are fun and entertaining.  Initially, it feels an odd choice casting Depp in the role of Reid’s Indian companion, and given his introduction as an elderly Tonto, I was quite skeptical.  However, Depp’s charm comes through, and he treats the role with respect and charisma.  Verbinski knows his way around an action scene and some of the railroad stuff is exciting and well-produced.  The first half of The Lone Ranger develops the origin of the character and plays out as a well-crafted western.  Filmed on location in the picturesque and renowned Monument Valley, Arizona, the film looks and feels authentic.  Additionally, the climax is a tremendously entertaining sequence that will have crowds smiling and cheering.  However, the film does makes two nearly unforgivable mistakes that do negatively affect the film’s overall reception.  First, Verbinki, known for the more-is-better approach, stretches the story out for an unnecessary two and a half hours bringing the plot to ludicrous scenarios like Mexican stand-offs and ridiculous ways to aim guns at people but never pull a trigger.  This type of film does not have the substance to withstand this type of running time, and while the film clearly nods to classic westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West, it is hardly complex enough to demand this type of attention.  Second, like Man of Steel, a franchise is clearly in the works here and much of the greatness that is The Lone Ranger is overtly left for future installments.  For most of the film, the “mysterious masked man” is nothing but a bumbling buffoon cutting his teeth in silly situations.  The confident seeker of justice and serial adventurer is yet to come.  Nonetheless, the climax is a welcomed payoff that almost erases the bad taste left by these errors, and the score and taglines are used sparingly and effectively.  Fans of the original should be pleased and new fans will be made, kemosabeB-

The Lone Ranger is rated PG-13 and as mentioned above has a running time of 2 hours and 29 minutes!  A decent supporting cast includes Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson, and Barry Pepper.  After the initial credits start an extended scene closes them, but this scene is more symbolic than enduring and does not culminate into anything major.