Monday, 21 April 2014

Captain America: Winter Soldier

Mindless quotient: 9/10. Sometimes even the lowest expectations are not enough. Why the critics and the masses think Winter Soldier is such a great film is a complete mystery to me. I’m sorry, masses, but I found Winter Soldier to be a waste of my time and money, even when I was accompanied by a couple who thoroughly enjoyed it. The Iron Man films are classics in comparison.

Winter Soldier is the latest film in Marvel’s ongoing Avengers/SHIELD saga, a saga that is making heaps of money but that holds almost no interest for me at all. This time, we’re treated with Captain America (Chris Evans), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). When Nick discovers that something is rotten in SHIELD, it’s up to Captain America to find out what kind of horror lurks beneath the army base in New Jersey where he was once in training, and then singlehandedly (okay, with a little help) defeat it. Oh, yeah, there’s a mysterious soldier (yawn). 

The film’s opening scenes are so abysmal, I was tempted to walk out after only ten minutes or so. But I figured at least there was no place to go but up. I figured wrong. It’s true that Nick’s discovery had huge potential. This could have been an engaging, suspenseful intelligent thriller about how we are being duped by the powers-that-be to live in constant fear so we will beg them for an Orwellian security apparatus. Alas, instead Winter Soldier went for thrills, with endless mind-numbing action, endless special effects, endless shooting (PG????? SERIOUSLY?????), and a predictable cliche-riddled plot. A complete mess. 

Robert Redford, what are you doing in a film like this? Your acting was by-the-numbers, your character was unconvincing, and do you really think Winter Soldier is advancing the film industry in any way? You do your awesome credibility a disservice by being part of the Avengers universe.

If you are one of the masses who can’t get enough of the Avengers, please tell me why, because I’m not getting it (at least The Avengers had some clever dialogue to enjoy along with its endless mind-numbing action). Okay, that’s enough complaining. For the hint of a positive political message and for the scene in which one person nonviolently stands up to the evil descending on our world, I am giving Captain America: Winter Soldier **. My mug is down. 

The Counselor

This 2013 film was written by Cormac McCarthy, directed by Ridley Scott, and starred Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt and Bruno Ganz. How could The Counselor possibly miss? And yet the critics thought it did just that, and badly, citing the pretentious dialogue, the campy feel and the dull story that seems to be aiming for something but never finds it.

It’s not the first time in the last year that I have watched a different film than the critics. Sure, the film is way out there, with scenes and dialogue that feel completely unreal and over-the-top. But so was Django Unchained, and the critics loved that one. I appreciated The Counselor much more than Django Unchained, not least because, from the very first minute, it had a theme and characters consistent with where it was going and with the message it aimed to convey (yes, there was one), and because it left the worst of its depravity off screen (though there was certainly enough onscreen as well).

Yes, The Counselor is a very dark and disturbing film, featuring a plot that revolves around the worst things human beings are capable of doing to each other, and I would recommend it only to those viewers who have no trouble watching that other film involving McCarthy and Bardem: No Country for Old Men. If you are one of those viewers and are looking for a unique intelligent artsy thriller that’s full of thoughtful dialogue instead of action, you might want to check it out. But do not expect to enjoy it.

That first minute I mentioned introduces us to the counselor (an unnamed lawyer played brilliantly by Fassbender) and the woman he loves (Laura, played by Penelope Cruz) as they’re having fun in their bedroom in El Paso, Texas, near the Mexican border. The next scene is in Amsterdam, where a diamond dealer (Ganz) sells the counselor a diamond for an engagement ring and waxes philosophical, something the counselor will encounter repeatedly from various men he meets in the film. 

The counselor next visits Reiner (Bardem), who offers him an opportunity to get in on a great investment. But when he goes to the middleman, Westray (Pitt), he is reminded that this investment involves a Mexican drug cartel and that the actions we take always have consequences. This is the clear message of The Counselor, which suggests that we are all complicit in the evils of this world, so we’d better be prepared to suffer the consequences.

The Counselor drives this message home with endless foreshadowing and storytelling. This is not a film offering surprising plot twists, at least not for the viewer (the men mentioned above have no idea that the driving force behind the film’s plot is neither a man nor a Mexican drug cartel but Reiner’s girlfriend, Malkina (Diaz)) . No, The Counselor wants you to know exactly what is going to happen, so that you can experience the relentless tension and the horror of it long before the worst happens (and we know the worst is going to happen).

This makes The Counselor a very difficult film to sit through, so it’s not surprising that the average viewer had no more use for the film than the critics did, but for me it worked, and it felt exactly like what one might hope for in a McCarthy/Scott film. Did the film have to be so dark and twisted to get its message across? I don’t know. 

Did I mention the awesome cinematography? I am giving The Counselor a surprising ***+. I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a cult classic one day. My mug is up, but beware of the dark liquid inside. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Le Week-End

Roger Michell’s Le Week-End stars Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan as Nick and Meg, a sixty-something couple who decide to spend their 30th-anniversary weekend in Paris. To call that a questionable decision is an understatement, given that these two people are dealing with deep anxieties and not a little late-life depression. From the start of their weekend, they are bickering about everything, and it generally goes downhill from there. 

Not that there aren’t some positive and touching moments along the way, but the best one can say about this relationship is that it suffers from a serious failure to communicate. Le Week-End also features some very funny moments, especially when Jeff Goldblum comes on the scene as a former student of Nick’s who is enjoying all the success (a new bestselling book) which Nick has always craved but never found. The problem is that the funny and touching moments all seem to have a bitter edge (not in itself a bad thing but it does hinder one’s enjoyment of those scenes). 

While I am a huge fan of dialogue-heavy well-acted European films about relationships and the meaning of life (Le Week-End has many similarities to Before Midnight, my favourite film of 2013), this film about the ups and downs of marriage and the struggle of wondering whether one’s life has had any meaning suffers from a few too many scenes that make no sense in the context. Specifically, there are too many conversations between Nick and Meg that just don’t feel believable, as if they haven’t spoken to each other in years and now suddenly decide they should try communicating while in Paris. That kind of writing grates on me in a hurry.

This review seems quite negative, but that’s not because I didn’t enjoy the film (I did) but because I was expecting better. Broadbent and Duncan do a wonderful job, the writing is generally intelligent and full of wit and wisdom, the setting is marvellous and well-filmed and I give Le Week-End a very solid ***. My mug is up but I was hoping for a tastier brew inside.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Iron Man 3

Having felt that Iron Man 2 was mediocre at best (review can be found on this blog) and having seen that the critics didn’t think much of Iron Man 3, I missed this film at the theatres. But with Marvel superhero films coming out every few months, we thought we should do some catch-up, so I finally broke down and watched Iron Man 3 on blu-ray.

The bottom line is that I like number three much more than number two. It is funnier, the acting is better (Ben Kingsley is terrific), the score is better, the cinematography and special effects are outstanding and the writing is much sharper (even sharper than in the first Iron Man film, which was one of those super-mixed-messages films, no doubted exacerbated by having three writers). There are even comments about violence and some anti-government satire, as we saw in the first film (the plot concerns an American conspiracy, involving at least one government leader, to blame the explosive side effects of an American scientific experiment on Middle-Eastern terrorists).

The second installment of the Iron Man series felt like a waste of time, whereas the third, like the first and The Avengers, at least felt like it was making an effort to be intelligent. The last half hour was full of predictable mindless action and there are no serious attempts to redeem the villain (dare I hope for better from the upcoming Spider-Man?), but that is to be expected in superhero films. Iron Man 3 gets a very solid ***. My mug is up.

Now it’s off to Winter Soldier next week to see our favourite American super-patriot: the super-wholesome Captain America. 

Monday, 31 March 2014

Blockbuster Weekend: Noah (new link) & Divergent

To prove that I am a nonconformist (i.e. divergent), I spent Saturday afternoon at Silver City, watching the weekend’s two biggest blockbusters. The result was not what I had anticipated, but I can’t say I’m that surprised (when it comes to film criticism, I am indeed a nonconformist as often as not). 

I have written a long review of Noah for the Canadian Mennonite and will provide a link as soon as it’s available, but I will say a few things here. First, I’m a big fan of Darren Aronofsky, who is known for making deeply disturbing and surreal indie films. I’ve loved every film he has made, and two of them (The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream) are among my all-time favourite films. Second, I know that making Noah was a long-time dream for Aronofsky and that it had nothing whatsoever to do with making a Hollywood film or making the big bucks. I can respect that, even if the film looks and feels like a Hollywood CGI thrill ride instead of the thoughtful drama I had hoped for. Third, I know Aronofsky was making a film about environmentalism and the relationship between justice and mercy. I have no doubt his heart is in the right place. Fourth, I really wanted to like this film (since people like Gareth and Jackie liked it), so I tried hard not to over-analyze or be too sensitive to the violence.

Sigh. I have to say it: ‘Epic’ fail. For me, the film’s focus on the evil in the hearts of its male figures (and humanity in general) outweighs the attempts to highlight mercy in the end. Way too much violent action (as in The Lego Movie) to allow room for a redemptive ending. Not to mention that the film only exacerbates the huge theological flaws of the Biblical account (see review). I did like Methuselah and the women and the acting of the four major actors (Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins). But the bottom line is that I have no interest in ever seeing Noah again. I must therefore do the unthinkable and give an Aronofsky film **+. My mug is down. 

And then along comes Neil Burger’s Divergent. The critics, who generally liked Noah, panned Divergent, so I probably wouldn’t have watched it if it hadn’t been for Janelle, who had just finished reading the book (not that she loved the book; she just thought she needed to see what the film did with it). On the other hand, I have a soft spot for dystopian films, so who knows. 

Anyway, it’s easy to see why critics panned Divergent. It is a rather simplistic and uncreative filming of a simplistic story. Shailene Woodley’s acting is flawless, but the rest of the acting (even Kate Winslet’s) is uninspiring, if passable. The Hunger Games films were much classier in every way (as was Noah), featuring much better acting and more creative cinematography and music. The romance doesn’t really work for me either, though I’ve seen worse. And then of course there’s the ending, which is full of redemptive violence (as one might expect). 

And yet ... I enjoyed Divergent much more than Noah and more than The Hunger Games films (the latter is primarily because of the games themselves, which I can’t but find offensive as a viewer, though I have no trouble with the ‘concept’). Divergent’s tale of a city divided into five factions, in which teenagers must choose their lifelong faction based on a test and their birth-faction, may be simplistic, but at least it’s a captivating thought-provoking story, not just a flashy CGI action fest. At the heart of the story is Tris, whose test is unclear, thus making her divergent, one of the most dangerous kinds of people in the city (according to the Erudite faction, at least). The concept of being divergent and why it’s so dangerous (other than making one immune to conformity) is under-developed (one of the film’s many flaws). And yet ... as someone who has always been strong-willed and resistant to conforming, I had a definite affinity to both the idea and the main characters. 

So, yes, Divergent is a flawed film, full of unexplored potential. But this is a film I would gladly see again (despite the redemptive violence, thus proving that it was not just the violence in The Lego Movie and Noah that bothered me so much). I would even like to give it ***+, but don’t feel that would be justified (as opposed to being a reaction to seeing Noah just before). So for now, Divergent gets a solid ***. My mug is up.

Friday, 28 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (updated again)

Despite limiting himself to a unique genre of quirky, intelligent and surreal comedy dramas, Wes Anderson has become one of the best filmmakers of the 21st century. The Grand Budapest Hotel may be his greatest film yet and is by far my favorite film of 2014 thus far (it’s early).

During a series of flashbacks within flashbacks (each with its own aspect ratio) which take us back from 2014 to 1932 (in an ‘alternate-reality’ world), we are introduced to the adult Zero Moustafa (played by F. Murray Abraham), who narrates much of the film. When he was young (in 1932, played by Tony Revolori), Zero was the lobby boy at The Grand Budapest Hotel, an enormous, gaudy, pink edifice set high in the wooded hills of the imaginary Eastern European country of Zubrowka. Zero’s supervisor, mentor and friend in those days is M. Gustave, the hotel’s concierge. It is Gustave (played perfectly by Ralph Fiennes) who becomes the focus of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Early in the film, Gustave and Zero get caught up in the affairs surrounding the murder of Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), a woman who had frequented The Grand Budapest Hotel and had grown rather close to Gustave (who appears to be a gigolo). The question is: ‘Who killed Madame D. and who will inherit the huge family fortune?’

While The Grand Budapest Hotel is darker and more serious than most of Anderson’s films (allowing for a greater depth of feeling and character), it contains many hilarious scenes as the suave Gustave tries to use his charm and quick wits to avoid spending his life in prison. Meanwhile, Madame D.’s eccentric son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), uses his sinister agent, Jopling (Willem Dafoe), to hunt down the only witness to the murder. There are a few brief scenes of shocking (and out-of-place?) violence along the way, but it’s all incredibly clever (the dialogue is brilliantly-written) and great fun.

The acting in this perfectly-cast film is superb. Besides the actors already mentioned, The Grand Budapest Hotel also features Bill Murray, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Owen Wilson and more. The film’s cinematography is likewise outstanding, with an endlessly creative use of colour in each perfectly-framed scene. Many of those scenes are stolen from classic films, especially 1930’s and 40’s film noir and Hitchcock, which makes the film extra fun for film buffs. Indeed, The Grand Budapest Hotel as a whole feels very much like a 1930’s comedy mystery, a feeling enhanced by the wonderful old-fashioned score (by Alexandre Desplat).

Besides being an extraordinary work of cinematic art that exudes the joy of pure filmmaking, I also think The Grand Budapest Hotel has some thoughtful things to say (despite Anderson’s refusal to admit that the film has anything to say other than whatever a viewer may take away from the film).  For example, there is the repeated quote: “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” For all his faults as a supercilious snob, Gustave is a good, courteous and loyal man who represents one of those glimmers of civilization. The adult Zero says of Gustave: “I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it. But I will say he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.The Grand Budapest Hotel is, in many ways, about the desire to return to the glory days of a vanished past that never existed.

In my favourite scene in the film, Gustave questions Zero’s motives for coming to Zubrowka from some ‘barbaric’ Middle-Eastern country. This conversation clearly satirizes present-day attitudes toward immigrants, the Middle East and the question of which parts of the world are really more civilized. The film as a whole also satirizes authority and governments of all kinds.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is an extraordinary film that I would recommend to all if it weren’t for its R rating (brief scenes containing language, sexual content and violence). If you’re an Anderson fan, you should have seen the film by now. If not, this film is a good place to start. I am giving The Grand Budapest Hotel **** and it will almost certainly make my top ten films of 2014. My mug is up.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Son of God

I like to watch Jesus films during Lent, so I took advantage of the fact that a new one was actually playing in the cinema this year. My review of Son of God can be found at the Third Way Cafe website (link below), but I should add something from my notes that didn't make it into my review:

If Son of God was meant to do more than make money (i.e. if it was meant to attract more than just Christian audiences), then my assessment is that it will be judged a failure. Reports from secular viewers would suggest (as does my review) that the film was not compelling enough or understandable enough to attract secular audiences.

Here is my review: