Category Archives: hollywood

Live-action ‘Beauty and the Beast’ a cashgrab snore

Disney continues its run of uninspired, derivative live-action adaptations with “Beauty and the Beast.” Directed by Bill Condon, the film follows Belle (Emma Watson) as she meets the Beast (Dan Stevens) who… well, you know the plot.

The film feels more like an excuse to photograph lavish set design as its story is exactly the same as the animated film. Right down to the jokes pretty much, there is nothing new in this film, and the end result is that the movie is boring. You know what’s going to happen exactly as it happens. So while it’s pretty to look at, that’s no excuse for good story.

The cast is fine for the most part. Luke Evans is adequate as Gaston in a role that is far too villainous for its own good. Emma Watson does an okay job with Belle, but Dan Stevens as the Beast, in all his CGI monstrosity, is distracting. All the digital effects substitute realism for design and the result is a disconnect with whatever story we have. Special effects are supposed to blend in with the story, not be a central focal point.

In conclusion, the film is less a film than a mass marketing enterprise. It sells nostalgia instead of ingenuity. It sells it well though. The film has grossed half a billion dollars in the United States. Instead of nothing ventured, nothing gained, Disney has finally achieved nothing ventured, millions gained.

 

‘Selma’ a stirring film

Director Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” could easily have been another standard biopic, an awards-based driven film that uses Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy for its own Oscar potential. Thankfully, the filmmakers have wisely kept such chest pounding to a minimum as the story focuses on only a brief section of Dr. King’s life, the period of time in Selma, Alabama where blacks were voting rights drew national headlines. Much like Lincoln” two years earlier, seeing a great man act in a single event helps reveal his past, his message and the hope he instills for the future.

David Oyelowo gives a terrific performance as Dr. King, carefully blending oratory, humility and fear together in a searing portrait that gives the audience a bit of the man behind the legend. Carmen Ejogo stars as Coretta Scott King in a much too brief role, the dynamic between them really the anchor of the film, the struggle between love for the cause and love of the family. As the drama in the state begins to accelerate and pressure is put on government officials such as Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) over the rights of minorities as well as the general safety of everyone involved, the film ramps up the drama and tension to great effect, providing a parallel to our own times with recent events such as Ferguson, Missouri and other instances of police brutality. Whether intentional or not, these parallels give the film an urgent feeling of a need for righteousness.

While the overall film is very strong and the central message both timeless and current, there are some elements of the film that are a bit manipulative. Several protesters are designed as overly sympathetic, meant to pull on heartstrings. This feels manufactured and more rounded characters, with real flaws, would have produced just as strong an emotional reaction. The film also categorizes people as either racist or not, and various levels of gray between the two would have added more balance. And the presence of Oprah, while certainly a strong performance, pulls the viewer out of the story onscreen, same as the abundance of star-laden roles in “12 Years a Slave” pulled the viewer out of that story. For films about the importance of the everyday person and how groups of dedicated anonymous citizens can positively influence the world, it is usually stronger to focus on actual unknown actors rather than stars.

Some may find issue with how President Johnson is portrayed and whether or not his hesitation with the voting rights issue was true. While this is certainly a valid point, without opposition from the White House, the film would not be as strong and the message of needing to promote the general welfare despite politics would not carry across. What matters most of all is that President Johnson did sign the Voting Rights Act and his legacy is secure enough (or tarnished depending on your point of view) to not be influenced by a single film.

The violence and a call to action in “Selma” feel real. The film’s greatest achievement is its ability to not only recollect the past, but also tie in the message of equality to the present and give the audience a view of a still unfinished journey in this country. Whether that journey will ever be completed remains to be seen, but as long as movies like “Selma” continue to remind us of the roads we have crossed and have yet to cross, the call to action will not die.

 

‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’ a solid work of craftsmanship

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) tells the story of Riggan (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor known for playing the superhero Birdman in a number of films, as he tries to stage a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a last desperate plea for true artistic brilliance. He is forced to deal with a dwindling budget, his demanding agent (Zach Galifianakis), squabbling actors (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and his recently-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), all while tackling the little voice in the back of his head that continually reminds him how much of a failure he has been throughout his life (which also just happens to be his Birdman alter ego).

The film creates the illusion that it was shot in one continuous take, various effects used to hide the cuts. By removing the cuts in the film, the viewer is forced to stay with the characters continuously, never having the luxury of an edit to escape the drama onscreen. At times, this becomes a bit of a show-off technique and distracts from the plot, some of the scene transitions a bit overdone, but the effect is nevertheless compelling and commendable for a movie of this type.

Michael Keaton steals the show for his portrayal of Riggan. His own self-doubt echoes in every frame of his performance. The rest of the cast is also very good, especially Edward Norton and Emma Stone, who portray their incredibly flawed characters with a strong degree of empathy.

The film is able to balance comedy and drama in a very compelling way, keeping both in check as Riggan breaks down over the course of the film. It is an incredibly raw vision of life, full of love and hate for the self, for others and for the world. Films that are able to balance both humor and tragedy carry a richness with them that creates an encompassing feeling for the viewer, and Birdman, with a few tonal discrepancies, handles this balance very well.

What is most interesting about Birdman however, is how many themes it manages to juggle without toppling over into incoherence. The film is about how self-love and self-loathing are equally present in ourselves, the inability of true works of art to overcome works of pedestrian violence and sex, how pressure and failure can drive you over the edge, how motivations can actually mean little in the grand scheme of things, how an age of instant media can create sensationalism for sensationalism’s sake, among a list of other things. Indeed, there are so many interpretations from just one viewing that multiple screenings are sure to elicit further theories. The film rustles inside the viewer’s head, and that is all an audience member can ask of a movie nowadays.

‘Steve Jobs’ a blast

One of the complaints you often hear about biopics is that they don’t get the facts right. They take too many liberties with the source material and distort their subjects so much that it becomes a disservice to the individual. And while this is true in some circumstances (“A Beautiful Mind” (2001) for instance), it is unrealistic to expect biographical truth from any film. The human life is too complex, too nuanced, too multi-dimensional to completely capture in two hours. All we can expect is a dramatization that captures the spirit of the individual. So it is that “Steve Jobs”, the latest biopic of the famed computer whiz, directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin, captures the spirit and complexity of its titular subject.

Jobs, played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender, is presented as a megalomaniac, running over anyone who doesn’t follow his lead. The real Jobs’ widow attempted to shut down the production of the film because of its harsh portrayal, but there is no denying that just based on the facts of the man’s life, his refusal to recognize his daughter, his firing and return to Apple and his strained relationship with co-inventor Steve Wozniak, that the man was no saint. The film expertly captures the dark nature of the booming computer business from the 1980s into the 1990s, and Jobs represents the struggle at the top of the food chain, the man who refuses to be swept aside, who knows that his vision is the only one that can bring about the revolution the world deserves. So while he is indeed a jerk, he is also an icon that has transformed the world, and the film views him as such.

The film is structured in three specific acts, each featuring the debut of a new Jobs’ product: the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT cube in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. The same characters keep appearing in these scenes as well, each helping to peel back a layer of Jobs: Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld, Katherine Waterston as Chrisann Brennan and three different actresses (Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo and Makenzie Moss) playing Jobs’ daughter, Lisa.

Jobs spends the film arguing with those around him, taking credit for things he likes, bashing things he doesn’t, using people as a means to an end. He mentions during one of his fights with Wozniak that, “Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.” He is the conductor of the computing world, pushing everyone he knows to reach the apex of technological perfection. And with tried and true Sorkin-esque dialogue, it is an impressive display of barbs, quips and put downs.

This is not to say the film does not have issues. It goes by so fast sometimes that it is difficult to keep up. Jobs borders so heavily on unlikable that many may simply lose compassion in the man (though his personal drive makes him endlessly interesting). And there is not a complete conclusion, the third act ending abruptly on a somewhat predictable note.

But Sorkin, Boyle and Fassbender are all at the top of their game. It is a moving, heartfelt film that illuminates one of the 20th century’s most interesting individuals. It reminds us that we are still in the midst of the technological revolution, but no one has yet to take the baton from our previous conductor.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” a lackluster end to the franchise

“The Hunger Games” franchise has always suffered from two contrasting factors pulling it in opposite directions; the one pushed by the studio trying to make a teen pop sensation, filled with love triangles and movie stars and glitzy action, and the other pushed by the source material, somber and melancholic, filled with allusions to revolutions and dystopian futures. Those conflicts come to a head in the final installment, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 2.”

Directed by Francis Lawrence, the film picks up right where the last film left off, with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) recovering from her injuries after a brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), tried to kill her. Determined to kill President Snow (a fantastic Donald Sutherland), the man who has caused her and so many others such heartache, Katniss blows past the leader of the resistance, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), and sets off on a daring mission to infiltrate the Capitol headquarters, assisted by a band of fellow soldiers, including her longtime friend/romantic interest, Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

While the last film was a mostly humdrum, sleep-inducing affair, this final film is filled with action pretty much from the get-go. The action sequences themselves are not particularly impressive, but they are engaging enough.

The problem is that the film could really say so much more about the current political climate and how violence has become a form of entertainment and how social revolutions transpire, but the storyline is bogged down by its need to adhere to a PG-13 rating and emphasize its teen appeal.

Jennifer Lawrence appears tired of the role of Katniss and who can blame her; with each successive film, the concept has grown more and more stale. Without any actual Hunger Games in the final two films, the interest in the story is markedly lower. It certainly does not help that the third book is the weakest written of the three, with Katniss having few substantial decisions in the plot. With her on the sidelines being swallowed up by events out of her control, the viewer loses emotional stakes in the character. She really needs to be front and center, directly confronting the forces of antagonism with legitimate stakes in her life, regardless of what’s written in the books (the conclusion of the film is a prime example of a protagonist needing to participate more). It can not be stated enough that film adaptations work best when the source material is used as a guideline, not a blueprint. Katniss simply needs to drive the plot more for there to be sustained interest in the movie.

The film is also in such a rush to get through the narrative that it cares little for potential character-building moments. For that reason, the emotional impacts of many important moments are lessened because we are not fully immersed in the character’s lives. It is another one of the problems of splitting films in parts and releasing them years apart; the halves are not as powerful as their sum.

The film is exciting at times, moving at others, but really feels like a missed opportunity as it is more of a by-the-numbers project. Film series should built up to their conclusions and “The Hunger Games” got less interesting with each passing sequel.

The Best 25 Movies of the Last 25 Years Part 3

Part 1

Part 2

8. Lost in Translation (2003)

As indie film took over the industry in the 2000s, Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” asserted itself as a quiet, brilliant character examination that utilized so little but created so much. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an aging actor doing advertisements in Tokyo. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is abandoned in a Tokyo hotel as her photographer husband is out on assignment. A chance meeting brings them together in this land of personal emptiness, and they connect in a way that is so purely human over the course of the story. Revealing their inner fears, hopes, regrets and loves to each other, as the film connects these two lost souls, we feel that connection and remember the connections we ourselves have made and lost over our lives in such a poignant way.

7. Moonlight (2016)

A film about being black, poor and gay all at the same time,  Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” is a tale of acceptance and identity. Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) grows up with a mother addicted to crack. He befriends his mother’s dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Terea (Janelle Monáe), and they become surrogate parents to him. As he learns about his homosexuality, he is picked on at school, with only one friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland), whose relationship with him grows over the course of the telling. The film is told over three periods of Chiron’s life, from youth to adolescent to adult to fully illustrate his journey. It is about the barriers we create to hide from the cruelty of the world and how those barriers block us from true connection. A beautiful story, “Moonlight” will become a classic in the years to come.

6. Unforgiven (1992)

Clint Eastwood not only crafted a great film with “Unforgiven”, he made the defining Western movie. When a prostitute is cut up in the town of Big Whiskey, the whorehouse puts a bounty on the wrongdoer’s heads. William Munny (Clint Eastwood) is called to collect the reward from a young gunslinger, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett). They partner up with Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and begin the trek to hunt down the two men. Big Whiskey’s sadistic sheriff, Little Bill (Gene Hackman), poses a direct threat to their efforts. The film utilizes the tropes of the Western genre, but places a moral compass in the middle of the narrative, showing how killing takes something intangible away from the killer. No film has ever been able to create as much heart from the genre as Eastwood did, and the film stands as the ultimate statement on the Western.

5. Schindler’s List (1993)

“Schindler’s List” is more than just a film. It is a transcendent statement on humanity; the despair and the simultaneous hope that it brings at the worst of times. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a Nazi who owns a factory. As the exterminations of the Jews begin, he decides to save as many souls as he can, hiding them in his factory as “workers.” As the war drags on and the death camps continue, he attempts everything in his power to save his workers. Brimming with history and sorrow, director Steven Spielberg uses all of his creative talent to create not just the story of Schindler, but of the entire Holocaust. Haunting, humbling and unforgettable, it is the most revered film of all time.

4. City of God (2002)

Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God” tells the story of three boys, Bené (Phellipe Haagensen), Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino) and Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues). All three live in the slums of Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s. Li’l Zé and Bené become crime lords while all Buscapé can do is witness the events surrounding him through the pictures he takes. The film’s narrative weaves together themes of poverty, opportunity, violence, yearning and history as Li’l Zé’s mob gang rises and falls. A coming-of-age story, the film examines social derision and the problems of the modern world in a powerful way.

3. There Will Be Blood (2007)

Paul Thomas Anderson has only made 7 feature-length films, but his vision and style are distinctive and incredible. Perhaps his greatest achievement is “There Will Be Blood”, starring a sensational Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview. On his quest for oil and power, he comes face to face with competition in the form of religion, personified by a radical preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). The conflict between business and religion illustrates the methods both use to control the people they need, and in so doing, it relegates both as unethical and corrupt. Perhaps nothing speaks to modern times more than the themes utilized in Anderson’s film.

2. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Few filmmakers have defined an era as much as Quentin Tarantino did during the 1990s. From his breakout hit “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), Tarantino blew the roof off with “Pulp Fiction”, as swag and as defining a film as has ever been made. Whether it is the Royale with Cheese, the gimp or walking with the shepherd, the memorability of the film is uncanny. Tarantino brought the B-list storyline into mainstream moviemaking and paved the way for indie films to become a leading force of the industry. “Pulp Fiction” is one of those films that will always be remembered, ingrained in pop culture with as much vitality as “The Wizard of Oz” or “Star Wars.”

  1. Fargo (1996)

We finish this list with, in my opinion, the best filmmakers of the past 25 years: the Coen brothers. As great as “No Country for Old Men” is, their ultimate work came 14 years beforehand: “Fargo.” It is the story of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a man who hires two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so he can collect the ransom money from his stringent father-in-law. But the star of the film is police detective Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) who is tasked with investigating the murders that transpire as Lundegaard’s plot spins wildly out of control. The Coens don’t make films that are easy to digest. They take a bit of thinking to figure out what it all means and even then, you may find yourself changing your mind upon a second, a third, a fourth viewing. They are artists in an era where more and more of the industry is inundated with banality and a dearth of ideas. When the Coens make films, it’s a cinematic event, and “Fargo” is their seminal work, a film with interesting characters, an ingenious plot, an uncommon theme, great acting and fantastic writing and directing. It is everything we love about the movies.

The Best 25 Movies of the Last 25 Years Part 2

Link to Part One

17. The Social Network (2010)

The finely tuned tandem of director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin create a fascinating examination of the dawn of social media with “The Social Network.” Swirling testosterone mixed with betrayal and the potential of billions of dollars combines to alter the lives of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) in ways none of them can imagine as their project, Facebook, shoots off to become a phenomenon the world has never seen before.

16. No Country for Old Men (2007)

A masterpiece of cinematic craft, the Coen brothers create a folk tale from Cormac McCarthy’s source novel. When Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) discovers a bag full of money after a drug deal goes wrong, he runs off, initating a cat and mouse chase that features one of the greatest villains of the modern era in Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Tommy Lee Jones plays the cop chasing the whole situation and who realizes the depths of carnage in the world around him. It is a brilliant examination of violence and the harm it does not just to the perpetrators and victims, but the soul of every man in the community.

15. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Hollywood had never really made an honest look into the slave trade until Steve McQueen’s immersive “12 Years a Slave”, a film that brought home the horrors of slavery and the crushing weight of its history. Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man kidnapped by a couple of journeymen and sold into Southern slavery. His journey takes him across two plantations, one run by a semi-decent man (Benedict Cumberbatch) and one by a sadist (Michael Fassbender). A reminder of the pain and disgrace of slavery in United States history, the film examines how the act of slavery is not just a restriction of freedom, but a perversion of basic human decency.

14. Toy Story 2 (1999)

Perhaps no company has defined the past 25 years more than Pixar. Using ground-breaking CGI technology, the original “Toy Story” changed not only animation, but all filmmaking. The fact that it is a great film is an added bonus. But it is with “Toy Story 2” that Pixar officially became a cinematic powerhouse, with a film that added to the first film’s heart, humor and durability. When toy Woody (Tom Hanks) is stolen by a toy store owner who will sell him to a foreign collector, the rest of the gang (Buzz (Tim Allen), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Rex (Wallace Shawn) and Slinky Dog (Jim Varney)) will team together and venture out to save him. It is the story of Jessie (Joan Cusack) however that steals the heart of the viewer, a cowgirl toy abandoned by her owner and unsure if she can ever love again. A story about friendship and youth, all the “Toy Story” films are remembered by the child in each of us.

13. Groundhog Day (1993)

A modern day Frank Capra film, “Groundhog Day” takes a comedy premise (What if you lived the same day over and over again?) and imbues it with a deeper quest about life’s purpose and the value of love and community. Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a grumpy weatherman sent to Punxatawney to cover the annual Groundhog Day ceremony. Phil can’t leave however because he keeps living that same day over and over again. As he falls in love with his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), Phil must cope with his seemingly hopeless situation as it drives him to near-insanity. Perhaps Bill Murray’s finest performance, he and director/writer Harold Ramis craft a film that simultaneously makes the viewer laugh, think and love all at the same time.

12. A Separation (2011)

Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” is a brilliant interpersonal drama about gender, marriage, responsibility and truth. Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami) are trying to secure a divorce because he doesn’t want to leave the country due to his ailing father while she does. He hires a housekeeper, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), but when Nader’s father nearly dies when he is out, he blames her for negligence and attacks her. As events spiral out of control, the viewer can’t help but think of the state of the globe and the changing dynamics of old world versus new world in it.

11. Spirited Away (2001)

Hayao Miyazaki has been at the forefront of Japanese animation for the past quarter century and perhaps no film of his Studio Ghibli has been more admired than “Spirited Away.” Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) and her parents are moving to their new home when her father takes a wrong turn while driving, and they enter a magical world. When her parents are turned into pigs, it’s up to Chihiro to navigate the mystical land and find the help she needs to save her family and return to the normal world. The film is among the most creatively inspired movies ever made with breathtaking images and a moving story seemingly taken out of mythology.

10. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)

Perhaps the greatest trilogy ever made, Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” is a composition of everything we love about cinema: big, adventurous, thrilling and heartfelt. In the land of Middle-Earth, young hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) is given the ring of power. He must destroy the ring before it falls into the hands of its master, Sauron, who will use it to enslave the world. With a fellowship to guide him, his journey takes him across the world as war breaks out among the kingdoms of the land. The trilogy brought writing, acting and special effects together in a way that may be unequaled, and it has become a beloved piece of cinema history.

9. The Dark Knight (2008)

Boldly asserting a new type of superhero film, Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” incorporated many of the lingering feelings of the post-9/11 world into its narrative. Batman (Christian Bale) joins forces with Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to bring down the mob plaguing Gotham city, but the Joker (Health Ledger) emerges from the darkness, threatening their hopes and pushing each of them to their limit. Heath Ledger’s defining performance as the Joker gives the film edginess and charisma, and the encompassing idea of heroism and what that means makes “The Dark Knight” the greatest superhero film ever made.

Part 3