Tag Archives: Films

‘Red Army’ an interesting documentary

Documentarian Gabe Polsky illuminates the world of Soviet hockey in his film Red Army that predominantly features defenseman Vyacheslav Fetisov, the captain of the CCCP team during the 1980s.

The film is not so much about the Soviet hockey team as much as it is about how that team came to represent the nation, its rise, its beliefs, and its eventual splintering. Highly detailed are the events of the Miracle on Ice in 1980, the 1984 and ’88 Olympics and the mass exodus of Soviet players to the NHL in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

As a history piece, the viewer gets a strong overview of Glasnost and Perestroika and what life was like for Soviet families during the upheaval. As a sports documentary, the viewer gets to see how the Soviet hockey culture was orchestrated, from Anatoli Tarasov’s innovative training techniques and revolutionary style to competitions against Western teams to the Soviets intense preparations (unable to live at home and training at heart rates of 220) to the dictatorial regime of coach Viktor Tikhonov.

Being mostly Fetisov’s story, the viewer comes to see the man as quirky, dedicated and stubborn. He is highly entertaining, especially his interactions with Polsky himself. Without his wit and humor, the film would not be nearly as enjoyable.

What is missing from the film however, is more a broad sense of the issues from different sources. Other than Fetisov, the interviews are based around Scotty Bowman, Alexei Kasatonov, Vladimir Krutov, Vladislav Tretiak and Vladimir Pozner among others, but contrasting points of view, say from other members of the KGB or Tikhonov (who declined to be interviewed), would have helped to provide a more well-rounded film. As it is, the viewer latches onto Fetisov and his interpretation of history, which may or not be entirely accurate (his personality certainly lends itself to exaggeration at the least). The result is also a fairly straightforward narrative without deep reflection.

Red Army is a funny, intriguing and informative documentary that may not break ground in terms of style or worldview, but manages to entertain the viewer and remind them of a time when the Cold War spread to every corner of society, including sports, and how that competition created the greatest hockey dynasty of all-time.

 

‘The Intern’ is breezy fun

Many people will complain that The Intern is not deep enough or pervasive enough. They will say it is too sentimental and trivializes real issues about marriage and careerism. All their arguments are valid, but they are also missing the point of a Nancy Meyers movie. The writer-director of films such as It’s Complicated (2009), Something’s Gotta Give (2003) and What Women Want (2000) isn’t known for making edgy, topical films. She makes enjoyable, rom-com fluffy movies. So yes, the story of a retiree working as an intern for a female boss in Brooklyn could have been more reflective and a modicum for our current times, but if you go into the theater expecting a Nancy Meyer’s movie, you’ll have a good time.

Robert DeNiro stars as Ben, a retired widower. On a whim, he gains an internship for a clothing line run by Jules (Anne Hathaway), a woman trying to juggle a burgeoning business while still being a mother. Her marriage with her stay-at-home husband Matt (Anders Holm) is suffering because of her addiction to work, an addiction that may force her to consider hiring a new CEO for the company. She looks down at Ben since he is 70 years old, but Ben does not give up on her, seeing the seams of her life start to unravel. He works hard and gains her friendship, helping her sort through her issues with her job, her marriage and her relationship with her young daughter.

If it sounds wishy-washy, it is. That’s okay. Nobody makes rom-coms anymore. You have summer blockbusters, dramatic Oscar winners, teen romances, animated films and dumb comedies. That’s all that gets made now. So perhaps The Intern is just a passable comedy, nothing better than a few laughs for a more mature crowd. It’s still a few laughs more than you would get at The Green Inferno which opened on the same day.

The internal politics of the film are also highly questionable. Without giving too much away, feminism takes a sort of half-hearted victory lap, taking a win in one subplot and getting lopped in another. There was really an opportunity to show a strong, independent woman CEO standing up for herself which sort of happens in the film, but that kind of determination also occasionally requires sacrifices and Hathaway’s character doesn’t need to make any.

In addition, the idea that the older generation did things more nobly than the current generation is also somewhat groan-worthy. Some things may be true (a loss of human interaction in today’s workplace) while others are not (the inherent sexism and racism). Ben could have been on just as much of a journey as Jules, learning about how certain things done today improve upon things done yesterday, learning how to take orders from a woman for the first time in his life. However he already starts the movie having learned all this. In effect, he is perfect and not that dynamic (similar to Keanu Reeves in Something’s Gotta Give).

Anne Hathaway works in the film, but Robert DeNiro really stars. He is highly relatable, has perfect comic timing and brings the best out of the rest of the cast. It is hard to believe that he once played vicious killers in films such as Taxi Driver (1976) and Goodfellas (1990), but it just goes to show you that he is one of the greatest actors of our time.

The Intern will make you laugh. It will not make you cry. It does not stick with you or make you think. It is an enjoyable night out. Is that really so terrible?

 

‘Jurassic World’ a so-so reboot that is still plenty of fun

The nostalgia surrounding Jurassic Park (1993) is high. It is the same problem that has plagued franchises such as Star Wars or Indiana Jones or The Terminator. Every time a new entry tries to reawaken long dormant franchises such as these, it has such trouble stacking up against nostalgia. So the deck is already stacked against Jurassic World from the start.

Jurassic Park is the millenial generation’s King Kong (1933), an adventure film that redefined special effects and influenced a generation. While it is certainly far from flawless (the characters are a tad one-dimensional, the ending is a deus ex machina), it is an immersive dinosaur extravaganza that still holds up today.

It is just incredibly difficult to follow up however with something that is not just a rehash of the original. The basic premise has always been man undervalues nature and tries to profit off of it, dinosaurs escape and eat people and man learns a lesson about its place in the world. There are no other story avenues really to explore after that. So Jurassic World is trapped trying to find something new to say while remaining true to its predecessor.

The film really tries. There’s genetic mutation, a fully functioning theme park, training raptors, weaponizing dinosaurs for combat… but at it’s heart, the Jurassic Park franchise has always been about running away from dinosaurs, and there is no escaping that.  However, the film manages to still be fun.

Set 22 years after the events of the original Jurassic Park (the other sequels are pretty much ignored), Jurassic World focuses on Owen (Chris Pratt) as he attempts to train the park’s Velociraptors, and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), a park department head, and her relationship with her two nephews Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach (Nick Robinson). Working behind the scenes, the park’s scientists, seeking to boost sales, have created a genetic hybrid, the Indominus Rex, a creature they quickly lose control of and who goes on a murderous rampage throughout the island.

The characters are pretty cardboard-cut. Real credit should be given to stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard for getting as much as they do out of the script. The rest of the cast are pretty much forgettable dino-food.

Stronger motivations were needed to really punch up the characters. For example, the hybrid is treated as a rather mundane enterprise for the company. It is just an experiment gone bad. What would have really made things more interesting is if business were dropping. There are hints that people have grown stale with dinosaurs, but this could have been accentuated much further. Perhaps the Masrani company that owns the park is falling apart, and Mr. Masrani (Irrfan Khan), instead of being a relative nice guy as he is in the film, demands the biggest attraction yet, putting all this pressure on Claire to save the park, which pushes her towards tampering with nature in a way never before tried, raising the stakes for everyone associated with the park, their last chance, only for it to blow up in the worst way possible. This would have revealed a bit more about the characters, especially Claire, showing her obsession with her job and why she never has contact with her nephews or family.

Similarly, Owen is also never really given a reason for his attachment to the raptors he trains. He mentions something about being in the Navy and one date with Claire, but it severely lacks in emotional stakes. Perhaps while in the Navy, Owen does something terrible which exposes him to his animal side, a facet of his personality that he sees he has in common with the raptors (think to Quinn’s monologue in Jaws (1975) that reveals something of his character). This bonds them, and he is left to wonder just what part of his personality is real: the animal, which is symbolized by his remoteness and connection to animals, or the human, his caring for others and ability to have a higher moral judgment. And then this dynamic gives him an arc as he works to save Claire from the monster she has created and reveals his humanity.

Director Colin Trevorrow gets some good action out of the story and there are some tense moments, but nothing on scale to the original. Steven Spielberg has always been able to build up suspense and create a moodiness that few other directors can. Whether it be the vibrating glass of water, a tracking shot of a Dilophosaurus approaching a victim or a Velociraptor slowly opening a door handle, these small moments of buildup really add a lot of terror to the original film. Trevorrow is unable or unwilling to use similar cinematic techniques to raise the suspense of his film, keeping viewers from truly being on the edge of their seats.

The expanse of digital technology has often left current filmmakers under the pretense that since they can construct anything they want in a computer, they should. But the absence of real objects, of dirt and rain and grime, creates a hollow feeling, one that Jurassic World is often plagued with. The park is too pristine, the digital effects too plentiful and the atmosphere too placid. It lacks the characters covered in mud, the rainy moodiness and the beads of sweat pouring off of people’s brows that makes things feel real. It seems to be more of a videogame environment than a real location, and this disconnect keeps the audience from really experiencing the park.

Now, having said all that, the primary purpose of a Jurassic Park film is to entertain, and Jurassic World is nothing if not entertaining. It keys in on the nostalgia of the original film to great effect, playing with the conventions of the monster movie and the action movie, poking fun of and admiring them. There are some truly breathtaking moments, such as the pteranodon escape, the gyrosphere sequence, and, above all, the climax. The last twenty minutes of the movie nearly make up for all its flaws along the way, creating the type of dinosaur slug fest that appeals to the inner child of all of those who worship prehistoric beasts. It is worth the price of admission itself.

So, yes, Jurassic World is a deeply flawed film, but it is also a fun one. It is sad to see so many films coming out of Hollywood that are simply “good enough”, that never strive to be the type of jaw-dropping, have-to-see experience like the original Jurassic Park. Those movies no longer seem to be made. Jurassic World is just another cash grab, cashing in on a bygone era, but at least it delivers something close to wonder and amazement. That at least deserves some kudos.

 

‘Wonder Woman’ a fine film, but could have been more

Directed by Patty Jenkins, “Wonder Woman” is by far the best film in DC’s extended universe (though in honesty, that’s not much of a hill to climb). Diana (Gal Gadot) lives on Themiscyra, a hidden Amazonian land. When Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes onto the island, he lets the kingdom know of the great war happening beyond the sea. This appeals to Diana’s sense of duty and she ventures out to save mankind.

Being the most famous superwoman in the world, it’s past due for Diana to get her own film. Gal Gadot has a great balance of strength and earnestness, though a tad too much naivete, but her virtue represents the character well. The action scenes are exciting and it’s refreshing to see a superhero movie tell a superhero story; a hero who really is just trying to save people.

The problem though is that Wonder Woman is a female superhero and her femininity is not pushed for her benefit except in a few brief instances. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, intended for her to be used as a representation of the power of women, and she certainly is in the film by simply kicking ass, but the repressive male world could have been utilized more and in turn boost her message. Perhaps instead of a band of men that go to war with her, she brings together a group of undervalued women and teaches them the ways of combat and of breaking free from their bonds. And the villain could have been accentuated to represent male oppression. Diana’s presence alone carries a lot of weight surely, but her representation as a feminine power symbol could have been far expanded.

The story is rather thin and predictable as well with some on-the-nose language, but the corniness serves the narrative well. After all, when your villain is named Dr. Poison, you shouldn’t take things too seriously. It should be fun.

And as dramatic as the fight scenes sometimes are, the conclusion of the film is another big, dumb, loud battle with lots of explosions and lightning and blah. A simpler conclusion would serve better.

But the character of Wonder Woman is strong and that is the central point. It’s no longer just a boy’s club of superheroes anymore and with the public on her side, pumping millions of dollars into her movie, maybe, finally, female superheroes will be treated with more respect. It’s way past due.

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.

 

‘American Honey’ starts strong but fizzles

Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, “American Honey” tells the story of Star (Sasha Lane), a poor girl from Texas who decides to join a ragtag group of young adults trying to sell magazines in the Midwest. She is recruited by the charming but shifty Jake (Shia LaBeouf), whom she falls for.

The film starts out promising, really putting you in the action of the story as Star takes a flyer on this group of “rejects.” Her desperation for survival and her attraction to Jake really shine through and the camerawork makes you feel as if you are really there.

However, the film is nearly three hours long, and by the middle of the story, the viewer knows where the narrative is going which really makes the last half feel especially cumbersome.

It’s a shame because the story as a parable is very interesting; a modern-day Oliver Twist set in the Great Recession. Some stronger editing and a stronger ending would have really made the film a winner.