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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The Big Wedding

ImageWith the highly anticipated release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, I decided to re-read the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic novel about moral decay in American Society.  Reading the book again was meant to assist me in my review for the upcoming Gatsby, but it turns out there’s another story of tragic spoiled Americans consumed with their own lavish excesses already in theaters, and it’s called The Big Wedding. 

The Big Wedding is a star-studded turkey of a movie that can be enjoyed as more of an oddity than anything else.  On the surface, it appears to be a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy about the goofy pitfalls that occur within the chain of events leading up to a big American family wedding.  However, Justin Zackham both writes and directs a film that if anything, actively attempts to rationalize dishonesty as an honorable and necessary trait within the family dynamic.

The story revolves around the Griffin family as they prepare for the wedding  between adopted son Alejandro (Ben Barnes) and his fiancé Missy (Amanda Seyfried).  The Griffin patriarch is Don (Robert DeNiro) who is hosting the wedding at his home that he shares with his girlfriend, Bebe (Susan Sarandon).  DeNiro continues his series of baffling role choices here, and it’s hard to envision what drew him to the character of Don, although he probably hasn’t played a character who takes this many blows to the head since Raging Bull.  The wedding draws an ensemble cast together that includes Don’s ex-wife Ellie (Diane Keaton) and Don and Ellie’s two children Lyla (Katherine Heigl) and Jared (Topher Grace) both of which vary in degrees of estrangement from Don.  The conflict hinges on the news that Alejandro’s biological mother Madonna will also be attending the wedding, and her ultra-conservative views on marriage and divorce cause Alejandro to plead with Don and Ellie to pretend to be married so not to offend her.  Various other subplots regarding Lyla’s marriage troubles, Don’s relationship with Bebe, and Jared’s awkward fling with Madonna’s beautiful daughter Nuria fill out the film’s 89 minute running time, but none of them are remarkably interesting or funny.  Additionally, Robin Williams is given absolutely nothing to do as Father Moinighan in a screenplay that feels like a series of wasted opportunities. 

While The Big Wedding certainly disappoints given its potential, it is oddly watchable.  Most of the characters are quite unlikable, and it begs the viewer to question whether this is intentional.  Katherine Heigel’s character is uniquely deplorable, an example being when she candidly announces who she needs to “lynch” to get a Cosmo.  Zackham makes it quite clear that every character has, in one way or another, used deception, fraud, or trickery as a recourse for trying to keep a family together.  This thematic exploration and justification for dishonesty feels wildly out of place in a supposedly fun wedding comedy, but it is a strangely fascinating direction to take.  Perhaps this film would work better if it were more Gatsby and less My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but what we’re left with is a bit of a mess, albeit a somewhat intentional one. D+

The Big Wedding is rated R and runs 89 minutes.  You might want to make sure there’s an open bar before attending this wedding.

Olympus Has Fallen

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High-adrenaline, fast-paced intense action, a victimizing, threatening enemy, and a strong, heroic lead character – Olympus Has Fallen succeeds where A Good Day to Die Hard miserably, miserably failed. On the other hand, it can also be said that Olympus Has Fallen succeeds where the original Die Hard also succeeded. However one wants to look at it, if you like any form of Die Hard, you are sure to like Olympus Has Fallen.

While the title may lead one to suspect that this is an epic Greek battle of the gods, this “Olympus” refers to the “most heavily secured building in the world,” the White House. Yet within thirteen minutes, a grisly surprise attack by North Korea causes this “Olympus” to fall and fall hard! Disgraced presidential security operative, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) finds himself in serious John McClane territory as he becomes the only eyes and ears that Speaker of the House and acting president Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) has on a hostage situation that includes President Asher (Aaron Eckart), Secretary of Defence McMillan (Melissa Leo), Vice President Rodriguez, and South Korean Prime Minister Lee (Keong Sim).

Butler plays this role well. He’s tough but also sympathetic. Director Antoine Fuqua keeps the action fresh, moving, and increasingly relentless. He also keeps it dark, and not just figuratively. Much of the film takes place in a darkened White House at night, which results in some confusing and disorienting action scenes from time to time. Butler’s main objective is to infiltrate the presidential bunker where North Korean terrorist Kang (Rick Yune) menacingly tortures and executes hostages until his demands for the US to withdraw all resistive forces from Korean territory are met. Kang is an excellent villain and Yune plays his part to a cold and ominous effect.

Olympus’s greatest advantage is its pacing and relentless action. There is little character development, barring a short prologue at the beginning that reveals the rift between President Asher and Banning; thus, the characters are hardly memorable. Instead, it is shooting, killing, stabbing, kicking, and punching and lots of it. The film isn’t lazy about its action though, and it is for this reason that it is successful in rising above average action fare. It is doubtful, we will see Olympus Falls Again, but for a one and done “kicking ass and taking names” kind of movie, this one feels like Die Hard on a “Good Day.” B+

Oz the Great and Powerful

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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a triumph in entertainment longevity. Since L. Frank Baum’s novel was published in 1900, the story has found relevance in the lives of generations of fans and has undergone countless reimaginings from page to stage to its most recent screen makeover, Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful.  Oz is Disney’s second notable big budget update on a classic children’s tale after 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, and the comparisons are numerous, which may or may not excite you.

Like Alice, Oz is somewhat of a frame story where the first act takes place in the real world, and a set of circumstances launches the main character into a magical new world.  James Franco plays Oz, a traveling carnival illusionist with lofty goals but little ambition to put in the effort to reach them.  Franco does well as Oz.  His early scenes depicting Oz’s sleazy ethics and immoral ways with women ring true of a young Woody Allen.  This neurotic zeal and ironic self-confidence is very entertaining and it is some of the film’s best material.  However, Raimi does not waste his time getting Oz to…well, Oz.  Oz is transported to the Land of Oz by way of a fortuitous tornado, a way of transportation clearly not uncommon to early 20th century Kansas.

The Land of Oz looks  great and there are some incredible details woven into its fabric, and with a visionary director like Sam Raimi, this is to be expected.  However, the film does lose some of its freshness upon its shift to Oz.  The film is actually at its best when it is developing Oz’s character at the beginning.  Once the film actually moves to the Land of Oz, it gets a bit convoluted.  The Land of Oz is being terrorized by a wicked witch, and far too much time is wasted pretending that the audience doesn’t know which of the film’s three witches is the bad one.  Eventually Oz allies himself with Glinda (Michelle Williams) against Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz).  Weisz is especially effective and it is unfortunate that at some point down the line, we know a house is going to land on her.  To add to the already bloated storyline, Oz also befriends a flying monkey (Zach Braff) and an orphaned enchanted china doll (Joey King), both of whom refer to characters and events set up in the film’s opening act. As the film goes on, it certainly begins to fizzle, but it is not without its charm and is incredibly respectful of the reputation Oz’s legacy has established.

A well-known film critic gave a favorable review to Oz the Great and Powerful partially because he said it, “does not rest or fall back on formula.”  This is a movie that begins in a real-world setting (in black and white), magically transforms to brilliant color upon the main character landing in a fantasy world where he then meets three odd “friends in need” who all team up to defeat a wicked witch.  What part of this is not formulaic?  Additionally, what part of this is not 2010’s Alice in Wonderland?  It’s not that the film is a bad film, but let’s be honest – we’ve seen this before.  What Oz has going for it is visual charm, a good story, and a feel-good tone; all of this working to create an effective movie experience.  Oz the Great and Powerful was released in both 3-D and IMAX and it is The People’s Critic’s recommendation that it be seen in 2-D, but in IMAX if possible.  The 3-D is not worth the surcharge since most of its effect is gimmick based, although the kids will get a kick out of the flying arrows or the water being spit at the screen.  IMAX screens, on the other hand, definitely enhance the fullness of the world that Raimi and everyone else “behind the curtain” created.  B-

Lincoln

Lincoln Steven Spielberg is quite possibly America’s most recognizable director. His career spans decades and has produced some of the most memorable films and characters in American cinematic history. Nonetheless, his prominent status has caused skeptics to write him off as superficial, crowd-pleasing, overly melodramatic, and at times corny. These attacks on Spielberg are not always unwarranted, however, his body of work is mostly impeccable and, at times, avant-garde. With Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s 31st film as director, Spielberg focuses on the 16th president’s chaotic battle to pass the 13th amendment. While the battle to make the film was also rigorous, it seems that the final product is worthy of both battles.

Daniel Day-Lewis once again disappears into his role, playing Abraham Lincoln in such a way that it is hard to imagine anyone else capable of playing this historical figure. Day-Lewis plays the part with a quiet confidence. Lincoln’s voice is portrayed with a surprisingly warm, high registered tone. This is apparently, historically accurate and is a nice touch. Spielberg seems to know what he has here and takes a subtler approach from the technical aspect, allowing Day-Lewis and a host of other A-List actors to propel the film. Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader are particularly good as Thaddeus Stevens and W.N. Bilbo, respectively. This subtlety from the director’s chair is a good decision, and while Spielberg’s approach is subtle, the film is complex. It doesn’t hurt that Oscar nominees and winners are in dozens of supporting roles, prompting a superior ensemble experience. Writer Tony Kushner adapts Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography expertly without losing any majesty. Kushner’s dialogue is Shakespearean at times and great importance is placed on what is said, not just who is saying it.

Lincoln wisely examines the final few months of the president’s life as he begins his second term. This is not a traditional bio-pic; it separates itself from the routine of that genre and simply tells a great story about a president who happens to live his life through a series of great stories. Lincoln’s political objective is to pass the 13th amendment abolishing slavery through the House of Representatives before the inauguration. This plan hinges on swaying lame-duck Democrats who are about to leave office to support his position. The film is truly an allegory for contemporary politics. It is very hard to watch Lincoln and not draw some pretty steep comparisons with the pageantry and stubbornness of today’s political landscape.

Most of Lincoln works very well. Lincoln the storyteller, Lincoln the lawyer, Lincoln the husband, and Lincoln the politician are explored evenly and with merit. The only major flaw comes when the film attempts to examine Lincoln the father. It is a well-known fact that Steven Spielberg has had some father issues. He often directs films with protagonists who have a dysfunctional relationship with their fathers. In Lincoln, this element is investigated through Lincoln’s relationship with his oldest son, Bob (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Unfortunately, this story is immensely under-developed and symbolically vapid. While Lincoln’s home life is deeply important to understanding the man, the misunderstanding between Lincoln and Bob leads to one mildly interesting scene that still would have been mildly interesting even if Bob was not a part of it. Regardless of Bob’s significance, the conflict between father and son seems thrown together compared to the more pressing conflicts in the film, resulting in a missed opportunity.

Meanwhile, Lincoln offers plenty for history buffs to sink their teeth into, and yet the story is accessible to all audiences. Spielberg takes some narrative chances to use unknown history to make well-known history compelling and interesting, especially in the film’s final act. This is Spielberg’s finest effort in some time. All in all, we are given a portrait of a very great man, and we are reminded of what qualities make a man great. A-

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2

ImageWe may be edging near the saturation point of vampire-related entertainment, however, as brooding, Washington-state-based, vampire/werewolf romance films go, Breaking Dawn: Part 2 easily ranks in the top five.  Twi-Hards have been waiting over four years to finally see how the cinematic adaptation of the Stephenie Meyer series of books will end.  All things considered, the end result is actually rather exciting.

Breaking Dawn: Part 1 left us staring into the (red) eyes of Bella post-pregnancy and post-transformation.  Part 2 begins at this same moment as Bella adapts to her new vampiric life-style and her new role as mother to the half-human, half-vampire child, Renesmee.  Now if you haven’t managed to suspend your disbelief at this point, leave the theater; I’m sure Lincoln is playing right next door.  Regardless, as Renesmee rapidly grows, the Cullen clan finds themselves in new territory, raising a natural newborn.  Furthermore, word spreads to the Volturi that such a unique child exists and that it might be immortal, and therefore, illegal.  This looming inevitability of a final showdown between the Cullens and Volturi drives the plot unlike any of this film’s predecessors, and as climaxes go, this one is by far the best.

In spite of this, there is certainly no shortage of excessive melodrama or corny moments of tepid dialogue.  While Stewart and Pattinson have reached an iconic status as leads Bella and Edward, they continue to fail to deliver powerful performances in these roles.  Throughout the series, both leads seem too comfortable resting on the idea that these characters do nothing but whisper, stare, and have sex.  If you buy Kristin Stewart as a caring mother in this film, I have the actual bowie knife that killed Dracula to sell you.  Taylor Lautner holds his own as Jacob, who’s scene with Bella’s father Charlie Swan (Billy Burke) steals the movie.  Nonetheless, no one goes to see this series of films to be wowed by the range of its actors.  In fact, this film introduces so many characters that none of them have much time to shine (sparkly or otherwise).  What these characters do bring is a host of new X-Men-style super powers, which are enjoyable elements to the film.  Thus, the film delivers in other ways.  Its pacing is strong as it does not dwell on any one moment in its journey to the final showdown.  Additionally, its action is crisp and deliberate; there is very little to distract from the story’s momentum.  The cast does their job, but these successes are the result of writers Melissa Rosenberg and Stephenie Meyer along with director, Bill Condon.

The vampire craze that started all of this may be starting to show some signs of declining slightly, yet this is a fairly strong send-off to an epically successful series of adolescent-aimed pop culture.  It is clearly the best of the series, which adds a significance to all five of the films.  The closing credits illustrate this as they celebrate the entire cast of the films together.  Pop culture vampires may be in their eclipse rather than beginning their new moon, but Twilight certainly lived to see the break of dawn.  B

Skyfall

ImageSkyfall marks the Bond franchise’s 50th year and 23rd film in that time. For those familiar with the franchise, it is not rare to see the world of Bond tweaked, updated, modernized, and “freshened up.” Skyfall is a very different Bond film, in that regard. It seems director, Sam Mendes goes out of his way to saturate his film with thematic trappings that chastise the egoism of youth and praise the wisdom of age. This is an intriguing direction to take, but it does slightly miss the mark.

In Skyfall, Daniel Craig reprises the legendary role for his third time. After a tragic mishap in Turkey, Bond finds himself off the grid and at a crossroads. A surprise attack on MI 6 forces his hand to once again enter the fray of espionage where he is met with doubt and reservation both by M (Judi Dench) and newly appointed Chairman of Intelligence, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). It seems the world of espionage has become a digital one and the artistry of the field operative is becoming superfluous. Nonetheless, Bond is reassigned to active duty to track down an ex-operative and cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem), fueled by revenge against those in the British government whom he believes betrayed him.

The Bond films that rest on a revenge storyline are historically some of the weakest entries in the history of Bond, and this one fits nicely in that group as perhaps the best of the weak. The action starts strong in classic Bond style, as 007 chases down a terrorist with a hard drive that contains all of the identities of undercover agents throughout the world. Bond and M’s relationship is explored in Skyfall in much more depth than ever before, and this film does advance the mythology of Bond a bit more than some other previous entries. However, the film does hit a snag as Bond goes through the motions of tracking down leads throughout China. It is in China where Bond delivers his line, “Bond, James Bond,” and it is also where he drinks a Heineken (Heineken reportedly paid $45 million dollars to have Bond sip their brew in Skyfall). Furthermore, the climax, which does reveal the film’s namesake, also feels a bit clunky and hokey. While Bardem’s villain, Silva does provide some memorable scenes, he is simply a melodramatic excuse to allow Bond to remind us not to underestimate the power of some spit and elbow grease. Silva is, instead, a missed opportunity to chew the scenery along side some of the best Bond villains.

Skyfall is not a bad Bond movie, and it is certainly not a bad movie. Sam Mendes accomplishes his goal of creating a heavy-handed thematically driven exploration of Bond’s inner workings. This is by no means a bad idea. However, this deviation from expectations is not executed with precision and allows the film to flounder in parts. There are some sequences that are absolutely heart pounding and the film leaves us eager to see what’s next; just don’t expect to see your Heineken investment pay off just yet. B-