Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Graduation Review (2017)

It was all supposed to go so smoothly. Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a successful physician/devoted father living in a small Romanian town with his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) and teen daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Douglas). Eliza is a good student who is on track to graduate and obtain a scholarship to attend a prestigious university in the U.K. However, unforeseen chaos threatens to put this plan into jeopardy.

On the morning that Eliza is set to take her final high school exams she is randomly assaulted, leaving her shell-shocked and in no shape to focus on an exam. Being the devoted parent he is, Romeo is concerned about his daughter’s safety/health but he’s also worried about that scholarship. If Eliza doesn’t do well on her exams she won’t get the scholarship. What’s a concerned parent to do in order to preserve her bright future? Cheat.

So begins writer/director Cristian Mungiu’s methodical, understated drama “Graduation,” which thoughtfully explores the ethical dimensions concerning parenthood and the subtler modes of corruption that find their way into everyday life.

There are no overt forms of corruption and crime in this picture; there are no gangsters or rotten police officers and the resolution isn’t settled with violence. Instead “Graduation” focuses on smaller, seemingly less harmful, more ambiguous forms of corruption. On the one hand, it’s just a school exam, what’s the harm in Romeo manipulating the results, especially in light of what Eliza has been through? She’s a good student who hasn’t done anything to warrant such a traumatic incident. On the other hand, regardless of the circumstances, manipulating test results is still unethical and it could set a bad precedent. What other dishonest deeds are Romeo willing to do for his family? Dishonesty, whether big or small, is still dishonesty.  

Accompanying this dilemma, “Graduation” scrutinizes the ethical challenges of being a parent. The line between wanting what’s best for your child and controlling every aspect of their life and destiny isn’t always easy to see, especially for such a protective father like Romeo, who personally takes Eliza to school everyday and often exhibits helicopter parent tendencies. At a certain point, you have to step back a little and let your child/young adult live their own life, the way they want to live it. Romeo will clearly do anything to make sure his daughter can move on with her life but is that what Eliza wants? Does she even want to go to the U.K. in the first place or is that what Romeo wants?

Mungiu does an exceptional job of crafting a multidimensional protagonist that’s sympathetic and frustrating. Romeo is well intentioned; he genuinely cares about his daughter and wants her to have a great life, a better life than him. But as the film goes on, he becomes increasingly self-absorbed and constraining--projecting his own regrets and failures on Eliza’s life and being inconsiderate of her feelings. “Graduation” is about how our affections and selfish hopes for our children (and loved ones in general) can occasionally be suffocating and damaging, and can lead us down a path of dishonesty. The line between what’s right and wrong becomes murkier when family is involved. Mungiu examines these issues plaguing Romeo and Eliza’s relationship with restraint and nuance, never spoon-feeding the audience or resorting to melodrama.

After such heavy, deeply depressing dramas like “4 Months 3 Week and 2 Days” and “Beyond the Hills” it’s refreshing to see that Mungiu is capable of making a film that’s thought provoking and absorbing but also doesn’t make you want to commit suicide afterwards. “Graduation” is certainly no cakewalk but it also doesn’t wallow in gloominess/ tragedy and it ends on a hopeful (hinting that Romeo is capable of seeing the error of his ways) and ominously open-ended note--will all those small corrupt acts go unnoticed by authoritative forces forever?


The Lost City of Z Review (2017)

Is it weird that I found a film about a twentieth century explorer who goes missing in the Amazonian jungle while looking for a lost civilization to be highly inspirational?  I’m not saying I’m going to run off to The Amazon but while watching James Gray’s adventure/biographical picture “The Lost City of Z” the idea of exploration and traveling seems awfully appealing. That is by far the most surprising thing about “The Lost City of Z.”

With little more than that simple plot summary (explorer goes missing in jungle) I went into Gray’s film expecting an “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” type experience; another story of an obsessive, crazed and delusional conqueror aimlessly traversing mysterious jungles for wealth and personal glory. Instead, I got a more uplifting, more enlightening experience. Sure, British explorer Percy Fawcit (Charlie Hunnam, in a sturdy, wonderstruck performance) is obsessive and slightly crazy. You have to be if you want to explore the Amazonian jungle. But his obsessive and crazy tendencies don’t come from a sinister or antagonistic place but one of genuine curiosity and thirst for exploration. 

“The Lost City of Z” is about a man who becomes seduced by the wonders of the jungle and is never able to truly leave it. Even when Fawcit is back in England, or in a muddy trench during World War 1 the jungle’s alluring siren song (the tranquil sound of rushing river water, pleasant bird songs, the ambient buzzing of insects, the thrilling woosh of native Amazonian spears whizzing past his head) and the prospect of finding a previously unknown (to western knowledge) ancient civilization, linger in his psyche.

“The Lost City of Z” is a celebration of exploration and adventure, not in the context of conquest, not as a means of acquiring wealth, land and commodities, but adventure for the sake of shear curiosity and personal discovery. Fawcit wants to visit new lands and observe new cultures for his own personal enlightenment and education. Fawcit is both progressive in his views and alienated in his home country, where he’s surrounded by people who still have a Eurocentric mindset. Even the established explorers are narrow-minded and flat out racist in their view of people and cultures outside of the West, referring to the Native Amazonians as “savages.”

"The Lost City of Z" is an enriching film about getting outside your comfort zone and opening your mind to different people and cultures. It depicts the pure joy of exploration—venturing to strange and unfamiliar places is good for the soul.

Throughout the picture, Gray brings depth and dimension to the Amazonian jungle. This is not a dark, one-dimensional continent of antagonism and savagery but a place of beauty and innovation. In a scene towards the middle, Fawcit and his team spend a few days living with a tribe of natives, where they observe advanced farming and fishing techniques and simply converse with the villagers--getting to know them. These natives aren’t savages or colonial subjects but fellow humans.
Gray humanizes this region of the world while at the same time retaining its mystery and otherworldliness. The picture puts us firmly in the shoes of an outsider—seeing things that few westerners have seen. Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji evoke this particular time period and place extremely well. The movie was shot on heavily saturated 35 mm film; the scenes often look grainy and have a yellowish tint. This effect gives the movie a beautiful and authentic period look, as if you’re looking at old photographs or an ethnographic film made about the region. Though you’ve probably seen The Amazon before, (whether in person or in a media) while watching “Lost City” it feels like you’re seeing these places, along with Fawcit, for the first time.

With all that being said, Gray avoids completely romanticizing his film and subject both by emphasizing the grittiness and palpable danger of trekking through a jungle (whether it be hostile natives, violent river rapids, harmful reptiles and insects) and showing the negative effects this kind of life can have on your loved ones. Fawcit may adore the jungle and its inhabitants but he frequently neglects his loyal wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and kids. These domestic scenes provide Fawcit with some much-needed depth, particularly when they expose a glaring shade of hypocrisy.

A few days before his second expedition, Nina expresses her own interest in exploring the Amazon along with him, an idea that Fawcit immediately shoots down. A heated argument follows, wherein Fawcit explains that a woman’s place is in the home. For a guy with such progressive views regarding race and other cultures, this is an incredibly sexist thing to say. Ultimately, I wish the film devoted more scenes to this matter (after that argument, the issue is pretty much dropped) but it’s an interesting point of conflict that makes Fawcit into a three dimensional, flawed character.

Even with its classic linear biopic structure, “The Lost City of Z” took me by surprise with its near flawless craftsmanship, its humanist and sympathetic outlook on cultures outside The West and the way it beautifully illustrates the joys of traveling and adventure. Maybe I will run off to The Amazon after all.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Free Fire Review (2017)

A light and easily digestible genre treat, “Free Fire” is pure cinematic joy.  At a scant eighty minutes the film is succinct (throwing us into its nutty and ultraviolent scenario) and freewheeling--fueled by snappy comedic dialogue, bullets and gore. Directed by rising British auteur Ben Wheatly, (“Kill List” “High Rise”) “Free Fire” giddily illustrates how easy it is for a seemingly stress free underworld deal to go terribly wrong. How exactly? Just throw ten testy, aggressive gangsters with fragile egos into an abandoned warehouse (circa 1978) and watch as chaos ensues over the course of a single night.

At the beginning of the night, two gangs arrive at an old Boston warehouse for a gun deal. They make small talk with one another, the usual tough guy ribbing for the most part. It’s nothing too serious, yet. But during the next ten minutes Wheatly shows how little things like petty insults can eventually snowball into something bigger. Other issues arise; the gang selling the guns brought the wrong type and personal vendettas between rival gang members find their way into the mix. The water quickly boils over and before long the first shot has been fired and the two gangs find themselves in a gunfight.

But even that doesn’t go as smoothly as it should. Instead of being a nonstop barrage of bullets and mayhem the gun battle is slow and clumsy, happening in fits and spurts. From time to time, they even forget why they’re fighting in the first place. The gangsters trade shots at one another—both gunshots and more petty insults. There’s an awful lot of bickering and joke making throughout but that’s what makes “Free Fire” so entertaining. Wheatly’s script (co written with Amy Jump) is full of delightful rapid-fire banter and one liners (“I’m not dead, I’m just regrouping”). It’s not enough for these impulsive, thin-skinned gangsters to shoot one another, they have to insult one other first. Wheatly seamlessly blends comedy with absurdist violence, violence that gets increasingly gory as the night goes on.

Wheatly assembles an impressive ensemble cast, including Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson and Sharlto Copley among others, who all deliver delectable scenery-chewing performances. Copley as an eccentric South African gangster, Hammer as the suave bushy bearded liaison between the two gangs and Larson as the token female and craftiest criminal of the bunch are the standouts.

And well, that’s pretty much it. “Free Fire” doesn’t have a lot of depth to it. The characters, while fun, remain fairly two-dimensional and I wish Wheatly would have established the setting/atmosphere a little more. There’s no real substantial reason why the action is set in the 70’s. Additionally, the film isn’t nearly as weird or as ambitious as some of Wheatly’s previous pictures. “Kill List” and its genius blend of mundane crime thriller and “The Wicker Man” remains his best work. Never the less, “Free Fire” is still a violent and funny good time.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Fate of the Furious Review (2017)

There are three great sequences in F Gary Gray's “The Fate of the Furious,” (the eight installment of the “Fast and the Furious” franchise) a couple of which are strong set ups for movies in their own right.

The first is the movie’s opening sequence, set in the streets of Havana, Cuba, wherein Dom (Vin Diesel) challenges a random heavy Raldo (Celestino Cornielle) to a street race to defend his cousin’s and new wife Letty’s (Michelle Rodriguez) honor. It’s simple and well choreographed, and it even involves Dom driving an old beat up car that eventually catches on fire. The second sequence involves sometime government agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and mercenary Deckard (Jason Statham) in a German prison, who make trading insults into an art form. Seriously, I could watch these tough guys bicker back and fourth for hours. The sequence eventually culminates in an outrageous prison riot/melee fight. And the third sequence involves Deckard, his brother Owen (Luke Evans) and a third person who will remain unnamed so as not to spoil the fun or the plot. Lets just say a very famous British actress makes a delightful cameo. All three of these sequences are intimate and character driven, while also providing giddy action movie thrills.

I wish I could say these sequences were enough to make a good movie but that’s not the case. “The Fate of the Furious” can be awfully fun, thanks mostly to its lovable, vibrant band of silly characters. However, it can also feel excruciatingly dull and redundant. A lot of this has to do with the way the franchise has evolved. At around the fifth installment (“Fast Five”) these movies slowly turned from straightforward action flicks about illegal drag racing, gangsters and heists, into big dumb action cartoons involving physics defying action set pieces and global espionage. Dom, Letty and Hobbs, along with fellow crewmembers Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris) became super spies, saving the world from terrorists and having fun doing it.

While the global espionage angle felt fresh in the sixth film and was tolerable in the seventh it now feels stale and uninspired. Super hacker/terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron, elegantly cunning and soft spoken) has stolen the launch codes for Russian nukes that she plans to set off, thereby plunging the world into chaos. That’s it. That’s her motivation. I know... bland, right? How many more movies involving nuclear weapons theft and the threat of world annihilation are we going to have to endure? On top of that, we get scene after scene of characters in high tech control rooms rapidly typing on computers, spouting technical mumbo jumbo that makes your mind wander and lots of hacking into various GPS/surveillance systems. Between the “Bourne” franchise and the countless other cyber action movies that have come out of late, this stuff is beyond played out.

Even the big finale, wherein the Fast crew infiltrates a Russian military base, can’t help but feel overwrought and disingenuous. These guys are ex criminals, car experts and government spies but now they can also take over a heavily armed, well-guarded military base like Seal Team 6? The sequence is preposterous even for this franchise. Worse, it feels desperate, as if the filmmakers are saying: “we know this espionage plot is super generic but watch the crew get chased by a giant nuclear submarine across the ice!”

The other major problem with “Fate of the Furious” has to do with the franchises focus on the importance of family. As outlandish as these movies have become, the theme of family and loyalty is the one element that’s taken very seriously, that grounds these flicks in reality. Over the course of the last four films this crew has gradually developed into a tightknit and ever-growing family-- a family that gets together for potluck dinners after they save the world. This aspect can be cheesy at times but it can also be endearing. Outside of the ridiculous action, the genuine bond that has developed between these characters (and the witty chemistry between the cast) is the main reason why we keep watching.

The global espionage plot in “Fate” is set into motion when Cipher turns Dom against “the family.” This is an intriguing hook but ultimately the reasoning behind his betrayal is lazy and contrived, pushing the other established family members to the sidelines and introducing a new character that we’re supposed to be automatically attached to. The emotional stakes are low and Dom’s familial dilemma is undercooked.

Additionally, Dom doesn’t get to have much fun this time around—the majority of his scenes being extremely morose and static. In these moments, “Fate” is a full-fledged drama, a mediocre drama at that. The film’s attempts at serious philosophical discourse between Dom and Cipher are simply idiotic and done without a shred of irony. These scenes might have worked if a better actor played Dom but Diesel simply doesn’t have the dramatic chops to go toe to toe with the great Theron. He recites his lines in a low affected grumble, talking slowly, savoring each word and phrase with zero awareness of how melodramatic he is.

In the end, the combination of a generic convoluted espionage plot and half-baked family drama sinks “The Fate of the Furious,” overshadowing the strength of the cast and those three sequences.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Queen of the Desert Review (2017)

German director Werner Herzog is usually at his best when he tackles ambitious, obsessive, larger-than-life (and a little delusional) explorers and thrill seekers who create their own destiny and try to make a name for themselves whatever physical or psychological cost. Characters that somewhat mirror Herzog’s own drive as an artist and explorer. Sometimes these characters fail miserably, like in the case of “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” or “Grizzly Man,” and sometimes they succeed like in “Fitzcarraldo.” Either way, it’s an unforgettable and hypnotic cinematic journey.

Unfortunately, in the case of his latest picture “Queen of the Desert,” about the life of explorer Gertrude Bell, the journey is mostly just dull and repetitive, which is especially disappointing. Even Herzog’s lesser films are still eccentric and enigmatic enough to hold your interest.

Born to an affluent family, Bell (Nichol Kidman) quickly escaped a life of bland domesticity in England and headed off for the Middle East. At the dawn of the twentieth century she traveled around Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Arabia, writing down her observations, working as an archeologist and made lasting friendships and political partnerships with the native people. Eventually her work was used by the British government to establish the countries of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran following the Arab revolt.

 “Queen of the Desert” may be Herzog’s most glossy and romanticized film. The seventy four year old director loves the infinite sun drenched sand dunes (with people on camelback crossing over them) contrasted against the cloudless, baby blue sky. And as the title suggests, Herzog clearly has great affection and admiration for his subject—portraying Bell in such a radiant and glamorous light. She’s intelligent and fiercely independent--traversing this dangerous terrain unescorted with confidence and some stubbornness. At the same time, Bell is graceful and down to earth in her interactions with the local people. She treats them as fellow human beings (with respect and dignity) and not as imperial subjects, or worse, as “the other.”

However, “Queen of the Desert” never finds its footing. This is partly due to the picture’s immense scope and traditional biopic structure; there’s enough material here to fill a three-hour film or a miniseries. But at two hours and eight minutes the picture feels frustratingly abbreviated—mechanically moving through various chapters in Bell’s life without any of them really making an impression. Bell’s expeditions and meetings with different Arab tribes are interesting but far too brief in duration. During one expedition, there’s a great moment where Bell bonds with a Sheik over their shared love of the poet Virgil. But after this quick moment of genuine and unexpected human-to-human connection the action cuts to Bell’s next expedition. It would have been nice to see more of her interactions with this particular Sheik and his people.

The expeditions should be the meat of the film but far too often they fizzle out or get glossed over so Herzog can have more repetitive “Lawrence of Arabia”-esque montages of Bell riding her camel through the desert, or showing her writing in her journal, or pensively staring out into the horizon. Furthermore, the film’s abbreviated nature renders the Arab people that Bell comes into contact with one-dimensional. Even Bell’s trusted assistant/guide Fattuah, (Jay Abdo) who was apparently important enough in real life to warrant his own epilogue in the film’s closing minutes is treated like a thinly sketched acquaintance.

The only material that makes any kind of lasting impression is Bell’s romantic life. Herzog devotes a large chunk of the movie to Bell’s affair with British Embassy secretary Henry Cagdon (James Franco) and later she has an affair (mostly via letters) with British army officer Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damien Lewis). This is all well and good but considering “Queen of the Desert” is about an independent minded explorer it feels weird (and little insulting) that her romantic life is the only resonant aspect of the film.

 Near the end, the picture introduces a potentially interesting wrinkle: the tension between Arab independence and British colonialism. Even after helping them revolt against the Ottoman Empire, Britain still wanted control/influence over that area. After all, they’re the ones who cut up the land and determined the boundaries of those countries. However this intriguing dilemma (and Bell’s own conflicted role in it) comes too late and ends up feeling like an afterthought, another stale bullet point. In its attempt to be a sweeping period romance, a biopic and an epic adventure picture, “Queen of the Desert” is ultimately bland and unfocused.