Sunday, March 31, 2013

To the Wonder Review

With his new film “To the Wonder,” along with his 2011 critical hit (and Palm d’ Or winner) “The Tree of Life,” it’s safe to say that recluse director Terrence Malick has moved far, far away from the traditional film narrative. In fact—in the case of “To the Wonder”—he has drifted so far away that now he appears to be lost in his own little world of beautiful shots of nature and poetic voice-overs.

And there are plenty of shots of nature; sunlight shining through the leaves of a tree, sunlight reflecting off a clear body of water, a golden wheat field with roaming Buffalo, cloudy sunsets. There are also shots of white curtains gracefully blowing in the wind (speaking of wind, there is an awful lot of wind) -- hell, Malick can even make a carnival ride or muddy, bustling construction site look poetic. It’s all very pretty to look at and the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (who also did “Tree of Life”) is the only thing that gives “To the Wonder” any kind of energy.

The camera is always moving, always tracking the characters in each scene even when they themselves aren’t moving (which is hardly ever). It pulls in and pulls out and then twirls around, there’s never a static moment in the picture. It’s easy to get caught up in this exhilarating camerawork but after awhile, when you realize that not much else is going on, it begins to get repetitive and self indulgent. There are only so many times in one movie one can see the sun shining through leaves.

In “To the Wonder” Malick tackles the topic of love (falling in and falling out of it), specifically focusing on the ups and downs of one couple: Neil (Ben Affleck), an American, and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), who’s French. We watch as they fall madly in love, and then separate briefly whereon Neil meets a new girl Jane (Rachel McAdams, who’s acting talents are wasted in a thankless role lasting about two minutes) and then Neil and Marina migrate back together.

Javier Bardem also pops up once in a while as a lonely priest who we hear sermonizing about love and listening to people’s problems. Like most of Malick’s films, little on-screen dialogue is heard and instead the characters speak in those poetic voice-overs I mentioned before. They say things like: “What is this love that loves us?” or “my soul thirsts for you.” As with the nature shots, these are nice at first but then eventually become repetitive and self-indulgent too.

The problem with “To the Wonder” is that it’s relatively empty and--despite Malick’s obviously grand ambitions--feels slight. Affleck and Kurylenko do their best (even though Malick doesn’t seem concerned with performances) but we never really get a sense of their characters’ relationship. Part way through Bardem’s character says “love is not only a feeling it’s a beauty, you have to show it.” Well Malick shows us plenty of the love (scenes of them cuddling and spooning in bed, or in a heated argument) but we never feel it. Love is supposed to be something that’s intimate and yet we never get that intimacy. On top of that, Bardem’s character is never fully established and instead feels like an afterthought. Sometimes you wish Malick would cut back on style and let the characters and emotions speak for themselves. By the end of the movie you don’t really know who these characters are and wonder what point Malick is trying to make.

Like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson or any other auteur directors currently working, Malick will continue to make the movies he wants his way, which is perfectly fine. “The Tree of Life” worked because even with all of the poetic voice-overs and beautiful nature shots there was still genuine feeling and emotions. Plus, the film felt more complete, he took us on journey that had a beginning, middle and end. But in “To the Wonder” there isn’t very much feeling or emotion and it just sort of wanders around…in that golden wheat field with the buffalo.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Host Review

Andrew Niccol’s “The Host”—based on a sci-fi romance novel by “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer—is somewhat intriguing, has a better premise and contains a much, much better protagonist than “Twilight.” Unlike the weak and pathetic Bella Swan, the heroine of “The Host,” Melanie (played by the fantastic up and coming Irish actress Saorise Ronan) is resilient and a fighter. Since this is a Stephenie Meyer universe Melanie finds herself in a love triangle (well, actually in the case of this story it’s a “love quadrilateral” but more on that later) with two young hunks, but unlike the love triangle in “Twilight,” “The Host” doesn’t completely depend on the romance to push it along. Yes, in the end Melanie will be with one of those hunks but she’s still strong and can take care of herself and if this weren’t written by Meyer maybe she wouldn’t just end up with the guy. Oh well.

As I continued watching, I wanted “The Host” to be good. Not having read the book, I found myself pleasantly surprised by some of the developments in the plot and a little twist at the end. But unfortunately the movie is pretty much undone by a single plot device that’s used all throughout, and then the other flaws in the film start become more glaring. The set up is great: in the future earth has been taken over by an unseen alien force that has injected their souls into the human bodies. It’s an invasion but the souls don’t see it that way, they see it as perfecting the human race (you know, sort of an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” vibe).

One night Melanie (who is part of a small band of humans resisting the invasion) is captured by the higher up Souls known as the Seekers and is injected with a soul. However, Melanie is a fighter and so when the alien soul is put into her body, Melanie’s mind remains. So now she’s of two minds, her old human self and the new alien who later becomes known as Wanda. One night, Melanie/Wanda is able to escape (very easily, in fact) and goes out to find her friends and family.

Now here is where we run into the fatal problem with “The Host.” Since there are two different minds in one body, we see Wanda talk through the body and we hear Melanie talk in an echoed voice over. A lot of the movie concerns the two persons talking to one another, which on film looks like one person talking to herself. This sort of thing works perfectly fine as a literary device but it’s nearly impossible to pull it off convincingly in a drama movie, especially in this story where Wanda and Melanie are talking all the damn time. It’s laughable, you can’t take it seriously and therefore it totally undercuts the movie’s serious, dramatic tone. It soon divulges down into the same unintentional campiness that the “Twilight” films bathed in.

This is all really quite a shame because “The Host” wants to be taken seriously. Melanie/Wanda eventually finds the band of human survivors that includes (among others) her uncle Jeb (William Hurt), her brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury) and those two young hunks, Jared (Max Irons) and Kyle (Jake Abel). Together they all try to get along while continuing to resist The Seekers. There are moments throughout that would be genuinely dramatic and compelling but sadly can’t be taken one hundred percent seriously. Overall Niccol’s direction is competent, having directed “Gattaca” he’s no stranger to science fiction environments, however his handling of the romance scenes between Jared, Ian, Melanie and Wanda (see what I mean by a “love quadrilateral?”) is admittedly corny and this not just because of the impossible device. Niccole stages them with the same glossy sappiness that you would see in a Nicholas Sparks adaptation (at one point, as Melanie/Wanda and Jared make out, it starts raining) with cheesy artificial guitar music and all. It also doesn’t help that Niccol’s script contains terrible lines of dialogue that would still be terrible even if the device weren’t there.

All of the actors (with the exception of Irons, who delivers all of his dialogue flatly) do their very best to make the whole thing credible, especially Ronan who convincingly portrays two different personalities at the same time. If you weren’t impressed by her acting abilities before, you should be now. But because the two-minds-in-one-body story device isn’t believable it dilutes the final product.

Too bad, because “The Host” is still a better made movie than “Twilight.” Sigh.


Beyond the Hills Review

“Beyond the Hills” is the best demonic possession and exorcism movie I’ve seen in years. Though, it isn’t technically a demonic possession movie because the supposed possessed girl isn’t actually possessed, just mentally troubled.

The director is Cristian Munglu, who directed the 2007 film “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 7 Days.” Like that film, “Beyond the Hills” isn’t exactly an upper of a movie. Munglu likes to work in cold, harsh environments. The story takes place at an Orthodox convent on the outskirts of a Romanian town during winter, of course. But like with “4 Weeks,” Munglu brings an immense amount of realism to the picture. It’s brutal but honest. No sugar coating. It moves at a deliberate pace. Most of the individual shots are lengthy (the shortest being perhaps 30 seconds long) and cinematographer Oleg Mutu mainly shoots in close up and medium shots which brings us closer to the emotions and tensions within each scene.

The “possessed” girl is Alina (Cristina Flutur) who, after living in Germany for a while, has come back to the Romanian town to see if her childhood friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), who has since became a nun at the Convent, wants to go with her back to Germany. Growing up they both lived in an orphanage but then Alina left to go work and live in Germany, leaving Voichita alone and a little abandoned. But now Alina is back and is the one feeling lonely. Meanwhile, Voichita has found refuge and a sense of belonging (as well as the Lord) at the Convent and doesn’t want to leave, despite the fact that she still cares for her friend. It’s never known for sure, but during some of their scenes together I got the impression that at one time they had more than just a regular friendship.

At this point we find out Alina is seriously troubled (something traumatic could have happened to her while in Germany but again we don’t know) and after attacking a few of the nuns she has an epileptic attack and is taken to the hospital. After a few days she’s quickly shooed away and has nowhere else to go. Voichita begs the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) to let Alina stay at the Convent. He reluctantly agrees but only if Alina finds God. The Monastery is, like the rest of the movie, cold as well as oppressive and claustrophobic. The priest—sporting long curly hair and a lengthy curly beard—is the only male and what he says goes. The rest of the nuns crowd around him and act like skittish sheep, always going to him when there is a problem. And it’s this position he’s in, along with the power and the trust that all of the nuns have in him, that leads to the later troubles in the film.

Alina’s condition worsens, constantly losing her temper and causing trouble. This leads everyone to think she’s possessed and the priest feels confident enough in his priestly abilities to perform the exorcism. Now, of course the problem is Alina isn’t possessed; she’s mentally sick and needs real care. But the priest and nuns are limited in their view. Living in the convent they’re isolated from the world, and don’t ever go out to experience it. They have God and to them that’s enough, except it isn’t. Voichita seems to be the only one who really knows this isn’t the right treatment, but she’s conflicted between helping her childhood friend and her new commitment to the convent. And so the movie is depressing and somewhat infuriating. And the fact that Alina can’t be taken anywhere else is even more depressing and infuriating.

Even so, Munglu’s film is effective and achieves that effectiveness without using any melodrama or clichés. Everything feels authentic; there isn’t a musical score that swells up at key dramatic moments, the interactions and dialogue exchanges between characters feel natural and the actors are all so convincing that you don’t even notice they’re giving performances. The movie may be hard to watch but life isn’t always happy either. As with “4 Months” I’m not sure I’ll be watching “Beyond the Hills” again anytime soon but that doesn’t make it bad and it’s still the freshest movie I’ve seen of late that deals with the topic of demonic possession, even if it isn’t addressed so literally.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Room 237 Review

When Stanley Kubrick’s horror film “The Shining” came out in 1980, one of the major criticisms it received—besides the fact that it deviated so much from the original Stephen King novel—is that it felt like an underwhelming exercise from the aging filmmaker. Kubrick had made such challenging and bold pictures as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “ A Clockwork Orange”; what was he doing making a horror movie about a family that goes to look after a hotel for the winter that turns out to be haunted? In other words, people wanted more from Kubrick.

As with most Kubrick films, “The Shining” eventually went on to be re-viewed and regarded as a classic. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time and I think the reason why it’s so great is because it can be watched and appreciated on two levels. It can be enjoyed on a skin-deep entertainment level; the story and characters are compelling and contain Kubrick’s usual directorial flair (tracking shots, the uses of classical music, etc.). In addition, the movie is incredibly effective as a horror film because—like all great horror films—Kubrick doesn’t rely on empty “gotcha!” scares or a large amount of blood and gore. Instead he simply presents a terrifying image, (two ghostly girls, or a tidal wave of blood flowing out of an elevator) maybe abruptly or maybe not and then through craft (cinematography, or a music queue played at just the right moment) he lets the scary image speak for itself.

At the same time however, there are puzzles and ambiguities all over “The Shining.” Kubrick asks a number of questions but doesn’t necessarily answer all of them, instead letting the audience members draw their own conclusions. This is different from the novel. King’s 1977 book is a good, pulp horror read but once it’s done, it’s done. There’s really no reason to go back to it, whereas there is plenty to go back to and look at in Kubrick’s film. For example, the novel is about ghosts, but in the movie the supernatural happenings at The Overlook could be actual ghosts or a result of cabin fever, or a combination of both.
 But then there are the ambiguities that are more…out there. Ones that have to do with various social and historical concerns. In Rodney Ascher’s documentary “Room 237”, all of the supposed hidden meanings and subtexts of “The Shining” are explored. The film—which played at the 2012 Cannes film festival— is admittedly trivial but is an awful lot of fun to watch and highlights the pleasures in analyzing (and perhaps overanalyzing) a movie. He brings together film historians, journalists, film archivists, and filmmakers who are all convinced they’ve unlocked the secret meaning buried within Kubrick’s film.

We never see their faces; only hear their voices as they walk us through scenes from the movie, pointing out the various clues. It’s sort of like a video essay. Since I don’t want to spoil the entire experience for you I’ll just briefly go over three of the major theories that are discussed. The first one comes from ABC reporter Bill Blakemore, who thinks that the entire movie is metaphor for the genocide of the Native Americans. He points out such clues as the Calumet brand of baking powder in the background of a couple scenes, the Native American decorations all over the hotel lobby and the fact that the hotel was buried atop an Indian burial ground. The second theory comes from film historian Geoffrey Cocks, who thinks the movie reflects Stanley Kubrick’s concerns with the Holocaust. At one time Kubrick was planning to make a Holocaust movie but when Steven Spielberg started making “Schindler’s List” he thought the two projects were too similar and stopped. Cocks thinks since Kubrick could never directly address the Holocaust, he did it indirectly and he sees Holocaust references all throughout Kubrick’s body of work. The third theory is the probably the most wacko of the theories and so all I’ll say about it is that it links “The Shining” to the famous Apollo 11 moon landing footage (and the supposed artificiality of it). The organization of the movie can be a little clunky, Ascher jumps from one theory to another and back again, although I suppose he partly does that to show where the different theories overlap with each other.

Now, I realize these theories sound ridiculous and a few of the smaller theories (one involving a Dopey sticker on Danny’s bedroom door) feel too far fetched but the theorists support their wild claims with evidence from the movie, and so you can’t just write them off right away. You also have to remember that Stanley Kubrick was incredibly intelligent, a great chess player and was known to be a perfectionist when it came to shots and compositions in scenes. Blakemore even mentions seeing a picture of Kubrick stacking cans and boxes of food in the pantry part of the hotel set where the Calumet cans are. Kubrick liked to make challenging films and so it’s very possible that he had one, or maybe more, of these themes in mind while making it and put in these subtle clues for the viewer.

Whether any of these theories are “right” or “wrong,” “Room 237” reminds us of one of the great things about cinema and art in general. We all have a different perspective and interpretation of a movie or work of art, influenced by our backgrounds, interests and our overall outlook on the world. Even though these theorists are watching the same movie, they all took different meanings out of it. Art is subjective and so there’s no one right answer. Kubrick may not have intended any of those underlying themes but it’s those underlying themes that have kept the movie alive. It’s thirty years later and people are still talking about “The Shining,” still analyzing it and still enjoying it. That’s why it deserves to be among all of the other great films in history.

Note: This rating is really only mean't for people who are fans of "The Shining" or who are really interesting in film analysis and interpretation. I'm not sure how wide of an audience it will attract.

GI Joe: Retaliation Review

Except for a few entertainingly funny (when the movie acknowledges its campy roots) moments, John M Chu’s “GI Joe: Retaliation” is a relatively underwhelming CGI action ordeal. After completing a mission in Pakistan the Special Forces group known as the GI Joe’s are suddenly ambushed and all but three are wiped out. The attack was ordered by the president of the United States. However, the president is actually Zartan—a super evil guy who’s part of the evil, Cobra organization—in disguise and he wants to get the Joe’s out of the way so he and his Cobra pals can use nuclear weapons to take over the world. But before doing that they have to break their leader, Cobra Commander, out of prison (how many action movies start with the bad guy being broken out of prison?).

And, it’s up to the remaining Joe’s to stop Cobra and…you know, whatever.

For how much CGI action and explosions there are, the movie on a whole feels rather slight and like it was only made to set up the next movie (which, based on how this one ends, there will be one). There’s not a lot of excitement and surprise. “GI Joe: Retaliation” is itself a sequel to 2009’s “GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” I haven’t seen that film but luckily at the beginning of “Retaliation” it tells me what I’ve missed: who the good guys are, who the baddies are, where they are at what time and so forth.

The only real surprise in the movie comes when a certain someone is killed off early on. I won’t say anymore on it but while this surprise is good because you don’t expect it, Chu also gets rid of the movie’s only real interesting good guy and we’re left with a dull group of heroes. Dwayne Johnson plays Roadblock and while he can do the action scenes effortlessly he’s not really an “actor,” and has never given much of a performance in any of his movies. He’s also the only person in the movie who takes the material seriously, which is the wrong approach to a modern “GI Joe” movie.

The other good guys aren’t any better; there’s the sexy Jaye (Adrianne Paliki) and Flint (D.J Cotrona) who are both so bland and add absolutely nothing to the movie. Then you’ve got the two ninjas: Snake Eyes (Ray Park), who wears a full suit of armor and a mask concealing his face. He also doesn’t talk, so no personality whatsoever. And there’s sexy woman warrior number 2 Jinx (Elodie Yung) who may as well be masked and in a full suit of armor. And finally, Bruce Willis shows up as a veteran Joe who just happens to have a massive arsenal of guns for the group to use. Willis seems to be here for two reasons: the paycheck and just the fact that he’s “Bruce Willis,” the aging action star.

The Cobras are more fun to watch, but that’s because they’re cartoon villains. The president is played by Jonathan Pryce but he also plays Zartan in disguise. Watching him you can tell he’s having so much fun, cracking jokes and being all evil. He can be extremely hammy at times but at least he’s embracing the silliness of the material, something that the Joe’s don’t do enough of. That’s the only way a movie like this can work. Considering that the main bad guy is named Cobra Commander (yep, that’s it, no real name) the characters have to be silly and self-aware.

The climax (which involves a nuclear arms meeting at Fort Sumter of all places, between the world leaders and the “president”) is, like the rest of the movie, underwhelming and relies on the overdone ticking-time-bomb-in-a-brief-case cliché. The city of London is also completely annihilated but the movie quickly moves on without addressing it again, even at the end amidst the medal giving ceremony. “GI Joe: Retaliation” isn’t terrible, only because it sometimes acknowledges its campiness but it’s also not all that good. As I said before it’s simply…underwhelming. Nothing else to say.