Saturday, November 30, 2013

Philomena


In the Roman Catholic Church, St. Philomena, a 14-year-old girl martyred in the early church, is the patron saint of children and youth.  In Stephen Frears's tender new film, Philomena is a devout Irish Catholic woman looking for the son who was taken from her while she was the ward of an abbey run by an order of sanctimonious nuns. Judi Dench plays the latter-day Philomena with all of the grace we've come to expect from this grande dame, and Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay, plays a scuttled and cynical BBC reporter commissioned to help her solve the mystery of her missing child. Frears is a wonderfully economical director, and he covers a lot of emotional ground in this film, which might at first appear to be a simple tale of odd fellows on a quest but is actually about the limitations of faith -- both real and imagined. Highly recommended.


Oldboy



Spike Lee's remake of the Korean thriller Oldboy is grim, cynical and pretty repugnant and a resounding disappointment. Lee continues to squander not just the gravitas he earned with some outstanding (though often maddeningly uneven) feature films  -- Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, 25th Hour, Inside Man) but the good will of those, like me, who love the man's cinematic vision if not to the man himself. Josh Brolin stars and Samuel L. Jackson delivers that thing he does but the most intriguing performance comes from the South African actor Sharlto Copley (Elysium, District 9) as the mystery psychopath who imprisons Brolin's Joe Doucett in a mock hotel room for 20 years and then releases him with the charge to find out why he did so or else Joe's daughter will be killed. It's all a sick and morally bankrupt affair and suggests that Lee may be channeling his creativity into his much more satisfying documentary projects.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Judging by the response of audience members during the screening of Francis Lawrence's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire that I attended today, the film will be enthusiastically embraced by the fan girls who, based on their gasps and giggles, think Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is ever so brave and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), ever so adorable, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) dreamier than dreamy and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) hilarious. I, on the other hand, found the second entry in this trilogy-plus-one based on the novels by Suzanne Collins an irritating diversion that features a slew of highly respected and respectable performers (Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright) out of their water (a deliberate pun for those who venture out). In this installment, Katniss and Peeta and 10 other hapless pawns are again tossed into gladiatorial games staged to give the huddled 90 percent in this dystopian world something to hope for while the privileged 10 percent dress up like peacocks on meth and cheer on the doomed competitors. All of this is probably quite profound in the books but as a movie it strikes me as just silly.

Friday, November 15, 2013

12 Years a Slave


Yes, British director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is as harrowing and horrifying as you have heard. It is also brave, sure and amazingly poetic, a stunning achievement in de-romanticizing America's "peculiar institution." The scenes of violence and human degradation on Southern plantations during the 1840s and '50s are truly and justifiably disturbing, but the words spoken by the film's astonishing troupe of actors -- Chiwetel Ejiofor as the slave of the title who was a free man in New York sold into bondage, Michael Fassbender as his savage master, Sarah Paulson as his master's bitter and vengeful wife, and the amazing Lupita Nyong'o as his master's tortured concubine --  are nearly Shakespearean. To some ears, the script written by American John Ridley, might seem unnaturally stagy but for me it raised the aura of the film above "pornography of despair" to something much grander -- nearly biblical. I loved listening to the characters speak just as much as I loathed watching the brutality inflicted by and upon them. It might be true that the language and the film's cinematic elegance and elliptical structure allow viewers to safely distance themselves from what they are seeing, but, to my mind, the only way to fully process the terror on the screen is from that dramatic distance. None of this is to say this is a weakness of the film. In fact, it might be its greatest strength and what will win it every major award this year. Bravo. Highly Recommended.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Thor: The Dark World


I'm a sucker for a primordial prologue (see Lord of the Rings), and veteran television director Alan Taylor's Thor: The Dark World has a fine one that goes all the way back to before there was light but not before there were evil elves in french braids who hated everything and everyone in the illuminated nine realms (a ridiculous concept of parallel universes that merges science and the supernatural). The leader of the curiously racially diverse band of Esperanto-speaking elves is Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) who wants revenge after being imprisoned for millennia by the beautiful, English-speaking Asgardians, whose most famous inhabitants are, arguably, the hammer-fisted Prince Thor (an impossibly handsome Chris Hemsworth), his one-eyed and disapproving father Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), and his trickster half-brother Loki (the impossibly cheeky and surely one day knighted Tom Hiddleston, the life of this party, IYAM). The key to all of the chaos that threatens all known realities lies inside of Thor's mortal heartthrob, astrophysicist Jane Foster (the toothy Natalie Portman), who uncovers the source of Malekith's malevolence buried in London (seems fitting, actually) and becomes its host. It's all wonderful comic book nonsense with a bristling sense of humor and some kick-ass battle scenes. One thing can be said about the film series based on Marvel comics, they really know how to stage a good onslaught. Recommended.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ender's Game


The young actor Asa Butterfield has Children of the Corn eyes, which are the most expressive part of his face. That's a good thing because as Ender Wiggin, the savant who is recruited to save Earth from marauding alien locust beings by leading a team of pubescent virtual warriors into battle, Butterfield has to look intently at three-dimensional game boy schematics, stare down rivals and superiors and weep for his lost innocence. Butterfield (who distinguished himself in both Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Mark Herman's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is up to the challenge in this film which is written and directed by Gavin Hood, based on Orson Scott Card's popular novel. Hood avoids a common danger of having such a young cast, a woodiness and lack of depth due to lack of experience, by limiting the young cast's interactions and time on screen. Fourteen-year-olds are not typically great at long expository scenes and pages of dialogue, the exception being Hailee Steinfeld (outstanding in True Grit in 2010) as Ender's soul mate Petra. What exposition there is in the film is left to the grown ups -- Harrison Ford, Viola Davis and Sir Ben Kingsley -- who are all fine if not terrific. There is a lot of cool stuff to look at in the film but despite the galactic backdrop and clashes the story feels familiar (Harry Potter?) and, ultimately, at least for me, unsatisfying.

Yesterday

  Director Danny Boyle's hummably insightful morality tale, Yesterday, is a sure starmaker for amiable Hamish Patel, who plays ...