Friday, May 30, 2014

Maleficent


Veteran visual artist Robert Stromberg's Maleficent is a supremely efficient and dazzling motion picture. It presents the origins story of the evil queen from the Sleeping Beauty story economically, narratively, but with an extravagance of visual embellishments -- the grandest being star Angelina Jolie's cheekbones. They're absolutely amazing -- witchy and old Hollywood. In fact, every shot of the queen is wondrous. Jolie, one of the producers of the film, plays the wronged queen of the fairies and guardian of the creatures living in the magical moors that are threatened by greedy humans. (Yes, the parallel to Jolie's philanthropic work in developing nations is stark.) Spurned and dewinged by a man she foolishly trusted, Maleficent curses the daughter of the man whose treachery wins him the throne (Sharlto Copley). The queen's infamous curse is that on her 16th birthday the Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) would prick her finger on a spinning wheel's needle and fall into a death-like sleep. Over the course of those 16 years, however, Maleficent and her raven helper (Sam Riley) watch after the child who has been entrusted to the care of three inept and disputatious pixies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple) living in a cottage in an enchanted wood. The child touches the bitter queen's heart but nothing can reverse the curse but a true-love's kiss. It's an interesting twist but I'm not sure if young children, who will love the animation, will pick up on the film's message about the nature and meaning of love and devotion. Recommended.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Railway Man


Jonathan Teplitzky's film The Railway Man is a painful and highly affecting treatment of the true story of British World War II prisoner Eric Lomax, who along with scores of other Allied soldiers helped to build a railway from Thailand to Burma for their Japanese captors. Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) is discovered with a radio receiver he built from spare parts scavenged before the British surrender of Singapore and also connected to a map of the railway that he hid in a latrine. He is then beaten and starved by interrogators, led by the young "interpreter" Nagase. The scenes of his torture are nearly unwatchable but one must if one is to feel the full power of the film's conclusion. Most of the picture is told in flashback as Lomax, 35 years after the war, meets a lovely woman named Patti on a train to the Scottish Highlands. He is smitten, pursues her and they marry for she is taken by this rumpled, strange but loving fellow who seems fixated with train schedules. Soon after taking up house, Patti discovers Eric's wounds but only suspects how deep they go for he does not talk about them. The elder Lomax is played by Colin Firth (The King's Speech) with all of the classical discipline we have come to expect from this fine actor. And Nicole Kidman, whose screen work has always been interesting if uneven, has matured from girlish beauty into striking loveliness as Patti. Their friend and Lomax's fellow POW Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) warns Patti about the danger of probing into the regions that Lomax has guarded so carefully. But Patti is determined and it is that determination and sudden and surprising act by Finlay that lead to the confrontation between Lomax and Nagase that is the final act of the film. Though not a perfect film,  questions about the prisoners' liberation and Lomax's life before Patti are not answered,The Railway Man is human without being sentimental and it carries an important message. Highly recommended but some scenes of prisoner torture, including water boarding, are nearly unbearable.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Neighbors


Nicholas Stoller's Neighbors flexes the same kind of comedic homoeroticism  that has made wealthy men of writer / director Judd Apatow and his stable of actors, principally Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill. Though Apatow is not formally associated with this picture, the doughy Rogen stars along with the adonic Zac Efron as the neighbors of the title. Rogen and Rose Byrne play new parents living the American Dream in a college town when the Delta Psi Beta men and their coterie of busty babes move in next door. Rogen's Mac and Efron's Ted become quick "bros" but then after too many late night frat parties and a call to the local constabulary they declare war. Once the barrages of penis jokes, simulated (and actual) intercourse and references to ejaculate are unleashed, there's no turning back. And for the audience you either go along for the ride or cover your eyes and ears. Perhaps it is true as some have written that once you've passed through the dense cloud of sex and drug references you will discover the film's deeper message about maturity and responsibility. I can't attest to that because Stoller has dialed the outrageous meter up to 11 and the quiet pillow-talk between two stoned parents tagged on the end just seems a bit, er, anticlimactic after 100 minutes of unspeakable vulgarity. Recommended but not for youngsters or oldsters who can't take a joke.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Chef

Jon Favreau parlayed his wit and affability into an interesting interview program back in 2001 called Dinner For Five. The idea was for Favreau, known at the time mainly for his acting in Swingers, to talk shop with four friends who were also in show business. The conversations were not all riveting but the notion of gathering around the dinner table to talk about common passions is appealing (My Dinner with Favreau?). Food and passion are at the center of Favreau's latest film, Chef, a nicely constructed tale of family, friends, fortunes and forgiveness that features some of the most lovingly crafted scenes of food preparation I've seen since Babette's Feast (1987). Favreau, who is writer and director of this delightful picture, stars as L.A chef Carl Casper, who runs the kitchen of a high-dollar boite owned by the unimaginative Riva (Dustin Hoffman). Casper wants to explore the culinary landscape but is shutdown by Riva and, subsequently, is pummeled by a local food blogger who describes Casper's cuisine as "cloying." Though Casper is professionally stunted that's nothing compared with the disappointment he feels in his relationship with his 10-year-old son, Percy (a perfectly casted Emjay Anthony), who delivers many of the film's most genuinely touching and insightful moments. Favreau gets enormous (and enormously loving) support in this venture from John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale and Sofia Vergara. I'm disappointed that Scarlett Johansson was cast in a relatively small role that did not require the amperage that she inevitably brings. Highly recommended but be sure to eat before you go.

Friday, May 23, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past




Peter Dinklage makes cinematic hay of the delectable role of Bolivar Trask, a scientist intent on protecting the human race from an inevitable mutant uprising in Bryan Singer's enjoyable but perplexing X-Men: Days of Future Past. Dinklage, best known as Game of Thrones' Tyrion Lannister, dominates the crowded film that stars, to varying degrees, Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence in a curvy, spectral time-travel tale that sends Jackman's Wolverine back to the '70s to avert Trask's murder at the hands of Lawrence's blue shape-shifter Mystique, a killing that would lead to the eventual annihilation of mutants and their supporters. The film is all reliably weird and nonsensical, and Singer's signature comic relief is delivered by American Horror Story's Evan Peters as the jokey kleptomaniac Quicksilver. X-men veterans Patrick Stewart, Ian MacKellan, Halle Berry and Shawn Ashmore are more or less placeholders. Oddly, Anna Paquin who has played Rogue in the previous films gets star billing and is seen for maybe 10 seconds at the end of the film. Recommended.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Godzilla (2014)


Not 10 minutes into Gareth Edwards' weirdly off-kilter remake of the 1954 classic Godzilla, stunt-casted Bryan Cranston delivers a cringe-inducing scene. He's an American nuclear engineer in Japan who is forced to shut the door on his slow-footed wife (Juliette Binoche) and her team as the belly of a nuclear reactor in full-meltdown fills with radioactive gas. It's a stunning wreck of a scene that introduces this stunning wreck of a movie. Edwards ably stages scenes of mayhem and destruction as Tokyo, Vegas and Frisco are reduced to rubble and kindling by the gargantuan deep sea lizard and his two leggy foes, the M.U.T.O.'s. British actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a big-eyed cipher, is the human star of the film, as the skeptical son of Cranston and Binoche's characters, who is a bomb disposal ace. Oddly, he never does actually get to show his bomb-defusing stuff, though, because he's too busy running toward or away from screaming monsters and screaming people. The real weakness in the film, IMO, is that we have no human villain to cheer against. It's tough to unload your animus on 300-foot-critters that humans created and who eat our weapons as if they were chili dogs. Reap, sow and all that jazz.The film also features the reliable David Strathairn as an admiral who is tasked with the destruction of the big battling baddies. His character is introduced in a truly bizarre tracking shot on the deck of an aircraft carrier as Strathairn's character addresses the crew, his back to the camera. When he finally turns to face the camera, I'm sure most of the folks in the audience were thinking, "Who the hell is he?" The picture is no biggie but see it if you must.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel


Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel has beautfiul, fractal intimacy, which is to say it is lovely, complex and cold. That is NOT to say it isn't entertaining because it is, quite delightful, because like those geometric puzzles that fascinate math-nerds, Grand Budapest's component parts -- script, art direction, cinematography and performances (principally Ralph Fiennes amd Tony Revolori) -- are precise and astounding. It's a technical marvel, much like the work of Peter Greenaway (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; The Pillow Book), but, alas, lacks an essential warmth. Recommended.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Noah


Three-quarters of the way through Darren Aronofsky's Noah, the titular character and his family are huddled in the ark with the remains of the world's critters and he retells the creation story. The story is fairly close to biblical text but the visual elements are pulled straight from the Evolutionist's Bible. It's a pretty neat trick. In fact, the entire film (which stars Russell Crowe as Noah and Jennifer Connelly as his wife, who was not given a name in Scripture but is called Naameh in the film) is tricky in that one is never sure of the point of this cagey retelling of The Flood. Has Aronofsky (a skilled visual artist, for sure) recast the ancient story of the Creator's great displeasure with his Creation (at least the human element of it) as an environmentalists' cautionary tale (the CGI animals are marvelous) or is it, like others of Aronofsky's films, a weird study of destruction and delusion. I must say I spent so much time trying to puzzle out this question that I never connected with any of the rage and emoting on the screen and there's plenty of it courtesy of Ray Winstone as the murderously carnivorous Tubal-cain and Emma Watson as another filmic construct Ila, the once-barren but then miraculously fertile wife of Noah's oldest son, the noble Shem, played by Douglas Booth). Crowe and Connelly (a compelling coupling in A Brilliant Mind) are good here -- he's all righteous stoicism and she's all weepy, loving connivance. Recommended but it's not a Sunday School lesson.

Yesterday

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