Saturday, September 24, 2016

Eye in the Sky (2016) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on March 25, 2016.

Eye in the Sky provides a comprehensive cross-section of the logistics, procedures, and tolls associated with something that’s now taken for granted in modern warfare: a drone attack. For the average citizen, this seems to be a relatively straightforward situation - locate a target; fly an armed, unmanned aircraft to the scene; launch the weapon; and fly post-attack reconnaissance to determine if it was successful. As Gavin Hood’s film shows, there’s a lot more to it than that oversimplified outline. Terms like legal cover, rules of engagement, and collateral damage play a big part.

Eye in the Sky reminded me of United 93 - not necessarily in terms of the subject matter but because of the apolitical, clear-headed manner in which it approaches an act. Eye in the Sky isn’t based on any one particular incident but instead draws from many. There have been enough drone strikes that details have emerged about how these things are handled, what risks are deemed acceptable, and how the pilots cope with the immense stress under which they’re placed. The 2014 film Good Kill (with Ethan Hawke) might make a good companion piece to Eye in the Sky.

The situation is straightforward. Terrorists have gathered in a small house in a village in Kenya. Three governments have been involved in tracking these men and women (two of whom are British nationals and one of whom is U.S. citizen) to this location - Great Britain, the United States, and Kenya. The military operation is under the command of Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), who takes her marching orders from Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman). The drone pilots, Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), are based in America. Surveillance confirms that the terrorists are present but reveals something chilling: explosives being prepped for an imminent suicide bombing. Powell determines that the drone must strike quickly and decisively. But the presence of a little girl in the blast radius complicates matters for those watching from London.

The firing of a single Hellfire missile requires multiple approvals. The military leaders - in this case, Col. Powell and Gen. Benson - must confirm that the objective, killing several high-value targets and preventing a terrorist action - will be met. Lawyers must agree that the strike is legal. And political representatives must weigh the pros and cons of how the news will play in the media. There’s not much disagreement that the terrorists have to be stopped (although one voice argues that the objective should be capturing rather than killing - at least until a terrorist puts on a suicide vest). However, when it becomes apparent that one innocent girl has a high probability of dying, the stakes are raised. If she dies along with the terrorists, who wins the propaganda war? And what if footage of the attack, despite being a top secret mission, finds its way to YouTube? Before it’s all over, the U.K. Prime Minister and U.S. Secretary of State are consulted.

Then there are Watts and Gershon, two pilots who have never participated in any attack. They’re accustomed to flying eye in the sky drones - those that observe and record. Emotionally, neither is prepared to pull the trigger, especially when their close-up monitoring shows the girl going about her daily routine, unaware that death may soon rain down upon her. The psychological toll of participating in an action like this (which in real life has left some pilots with PTSD) is conveyed honestly and powerfully.  Sometimes antiseptic killing isn’t at all clean and, although the hardware and imagery may mimic video game controls and visuals, the pilots are all-too-aware that they are about to end an innocent life.

Eye in the Sky doesn’t sympathize with the terrorists. It’s clear what will happen if they aren’t stopped. The arguments against killing them have nothing to do with their guilt. At first, it’s a legal question - whether the drone has the right to kill American and British citizens, depriving them of due process. Once that’s resolved, it becomes about collateral damage. The coldly dispassionate contention (to which Powell and Benson subscribe) is that the greater good outweighs the immediate and unfortunate consequences. It’s not easy to accept, however, watching images of the little girl selling the loaves of bread that provide her family with much needed income. Difficult choices and consequences - these things lie at the core of Eye in the Sky’s drama. Nothing is simple or clean-cut. It’s 12 Angry Men in a different arena. There’s no right or wrong - only points and counterpoints.

The real-time format enhances the suspense. Although this is primarily a dramatic piece, there are times when the pacing makes it feel like a thriller. Tension arises from two aspects: whether the terrorists can be stopped and whether the girl will move out of the danger zone.

Quality acting enforces the sense of verisimilitude.  In his swansong, Alan Rickman reminds us that, although he may be remembered best for Die Hard and the Harry Potter movies, he was capable of a variety of roles one normally associates with character actors. Helen Mirren is credible as the tough-as-nails Powell, a military officer whose obsession with killing these terrorists has consumed her for six years but who recognizes the potential for tragedy in finally achieving success. Aaron Paul continues to expand beyond his Breaking Bad persona; despite limited screen time, he provides viewers a window into his character’s inner conflict.

Eye in the Sky is compelling, offering the best elements of a drama and a thriller. The film is philosophically challenging because, although it doesn’t guide an audience into picking a side, it illustrates facets of a complex issue without bias. Productions of this sort rarely appear outside of Oscar season and, when they do, viewers who care about intelligent, well-made movies would be remiss not to seek them out. [Berardinelli’s rating: ***1/2 out of 4 stars]

Labels: drama, thriller, war

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Café Society (2016) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Anthony Lane for The New Yorker magazine, on July 11, 2016.

The new Woody Allen film, Café Society, is set in the nineteen-thirties - you know, that far-off land where movies were movies, cars were like boats, and a guy could wear a suit the color of peanut butter and still look good. Aside from a glance at things to come, in Sleeper (1973), Allen’s preference, as a time traveler, has been for an express ticket to the past. The trip hasn’t always worked out, and Allen has been sage enough, in Zelig (1983) and Midnight in Paris (2011), to remind us how frail and treacherous history can be; and yet, more often than not, the destination has been a haven. Just look at The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Radio Days (1987), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), or the melodious Sweet and Lowdown (1999). Allen was born in 1935, which is why a movie like Radio Days, though full of tall warm tales, feels less like a fantasy and more like a family scrapbook.

The hero of the new film is Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who lives in the Bronx with his father, Marty (Ken Stott), and his mother, Rose (Jeannie Berlin). We first meet Bobby as he arrives in Los Angeles, hoping to try his luck with his Uncle Phil. This is not such a bad idea. Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is a Hollywood agent, and we first meet him in a tuxedo, beside his pool, encircled by the beau monde of his trade. I’m expecting a call from Ginger Rogers, he says. Phil is forever expecting, taking, or making calls, although we never see the stars to whom, or of whom, he chats - not because he’s a fraud but because the movie gods of that epoch were and remain, to anyone of Allen’s vintage, beyond human reckoning, and certainly beyond impersonation. Likewise, when Phil gives his assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), the task of showing his nephew the town, what she and Bobby do is stand outside the homes of stars and gaze. They might as well be staring at the night sky.

The one place we do see a celebrity is onscreen - at a movie theatre, where Bobby and Vonnie watch Barbara Stanwyck, in Lady in Red (1935). It’s a perfect choice by Allen: not a great film but the sort of entertainment that - so we like to tell ourselves - swept smoothly into view on a regular basis. (And Stanwyck, in close-up, makes you catch your breath. That’s not nostalgia; that’s awe.) By now, needless to say, Bobby and Vonnie have grown close. Bobby is a klutz of the heart; rather than simply falling in love, he tumbles and trips - nicely caught in Eisenberg’s voluble patter, dotted with hiccups of anxiety. But there is, as there always must be, a hitch. Vonnie is stepping out with someone else. Worse still, the stepping needs to be stealthy, because the someone else is Uncle Phil.

Love triangles, like other forms of romantic geometry, are nothing new in Allen’s films. What’s different about Café Society is how casually the telling of the tale proceeds. It’s not that Allen is going through the motions but that the motions no longer consume him. (That could imply the mellowing of the years, but consider Robert Bresson, who was Allen’s age, in his early eighties, when he made L’Argent (1983) - a narrative as taut as piano wire.) The Phil-shaped twist, for instance, is introduced early, without a scrap of suspense, and, when we tack back East, to a subplot about Bobby’s no-good brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), a hoodlum whose idea of friendly persuasion involves a pit of wet concrete, the mood of the movie barely skips a beat. People get shot in front of us, yet we are left with the shrugging sense that no harm was done. Later, with Ben’s backing, Bobby returns to New York, and they open a night club. It thrives, attracting the same brand of tony folk who had once thronged around Phil’s pool. A resourceful clan, the Dorfmans.

None of this, you could claim, is remotely credible, but Café Society does not seem like a confection or a skit. There is a gravity to it, and a tug of sadness, that cannot be accounted for by the story. In Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), ostensibly a far more serious film, Allen says, of show business, that it’s worse than dog-eat-dog. It’s dog-doesn’t-return-other-dog’s-phone-calls. In Café Society, the hero says, of Hollywood, It’s really a kind of boring, nasty, dog-eat-dog industry. No kicker, no laugh. The performances, too, shy away from the nutty and the broad, and Carell, a master of the brave face, does a fine job of suggesting the strain behind Uncle Phil’s bonhomie. Better still is Stewart, who, despite the girlish touches in her outfits (headband, white ankle socks with strappy sandals), reveals a woman veiled in ruefulness, and her final moments, in which Vonnie muses on paths both taken and spurned, are a lovely act of suspension, done without a word.

If this film has a secret, it dwells in the cinematography - by Vittorio Storaro, no less, who shot The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, and Apocalypse Now. He worked with Allen on a segment of New York Stories (1989), but Café Society marks their first full-length collaboration, and the result is ravishing to behold - more so, I think, than any Allen picture since Gordon Willis filmed Manhattan in black-and-white. No one has delved more fruitfully than Storaro into the depths of color, exploring its contribution to political and physical extremes, and you could argue that Allen should have summoned him sooner, to chart Cate Blanchett’s prostration in Blue Jasmine (2013). Is Café Society too slight an occasion for Storaro’s inquiring art? Maybe so, yet there are scenes here - particularly the interiors, in Phil’s office, in the bar where Phil takes Vonnie on the sly, and in Bobby’s lowly apartment where Vonnie had promised to cook Bobby a dinner for which she doesn’t show - that burn almost painfully with Woody Allen’s yearning for the past. It lies there glowing, as recognizable as a movie star and as homely as a hearth, forever out of reach. [Lane’s rating: 70 out of 100]

Labels: comedy, drama, romance







Crown for Christmas (2015) [TV-G] ***+

A film review by Rissi JC for on Nov. 28, 2015. Click this link for the on-line version of the review.

 Crown for Christmas, is more than a little bit cute, primarily because a familiar British face shows up in the role of leading man – and he’s a king, no less!

Life for the Evans family has never been easy. But this Christmas, life for them is going to get a little tougher. The eldest sister, Allie (Danica McKellar) and her sister both lose their jobs as hotel maids following Allie’s disagreement with their boss.

Fortunately for Allie, Fergus (Pavel Douglas), impressed by her prompt return of a valuable lost watch, and in need of a temporary governess, overhears her dismissal. This prompts a job offer as a governess working for royalty. King Maximillian (Persuasion‘s Rupert Penry-Jones) is in need of yet another nanny to corral his precocious daughter, Theodora (Ellie Botterill). Allie seems the ideal choice, at least to get the king through the holiday season. But the more Allie gets to know him and Theodora, the more comfortable she becomes in this life with a red-headed princess and her widower father.

As adorable as Crown for Christmas is, however, the fact that the entire story takes place over a matter of a few days will leave some viewers feeling uncomfortable. I personally feel this adorable, contemporary fairy tale film could have been strengthened if there had been a longer space of time between Allie’s arrival and the eventual conclusion. True, this is a fairy tale and as such starts out reaching for the stars as is, however, selling the angst and character emotions would have been more believable had the timeline been altered just a little.

With that out of the way, this new film is as smashing as any of its Hallmark peers. The Cinderella fairy tale storyline is something I never tire of whether it’s set in the contemporary or historical world. For the most part, the cast of Crown for Christmas is fantastic, and in particular, the young actress who plays the princess was delightful. This says nothing of the addition of British star Rupert Penry-Jones as the leading man. Seeing him in this will be great fun for those of you fellow period drama aficionados who will recognize Rupert as Wentworth from Persuasion and also the adaptation of The 39 Steps.

Even these many years later, one of my most favored TV Christmas movies (or one of them, for there are many) is A Princess for Christmas (starring Outlander’s Sam Heughan and Merlin’s Katie McGrath). This one doesn’t quite take its place but as with anything you sit down to watch this time of year, this is full of twinkle lights and fabulous holiday cheer. One thing I am sure of, no matter where this one falls in your personal rankings of Hallmark’s originals, this is sure to leave you with a smile.

[Blogger’s comment: Crown for Christmas is a typical Hallmark reworking of the story of wealthy/titled/royalty falling for commoner/nanny/governess, which we’ve seen countless times, from Roman Holiday (1953), The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) and The Sound of Music (1965), to Pretty Woman (1990), Titanic (1997), Notting Hill (1999), Maid in Manhattan (2002), What a Girl Wants (2003), The Notebook (2004) and The Prince and Me (2004), to name just a few. This Hallmark version washes all the tension out of the story and we’re left with a sweet fantasy, which rarely reflects what happens in real life (example: Charles and Diana). Is Allie (Danica McKellar) really going to leave her younger sister and brother, move from New York City to the tiny Western European principality of Winshire, marry its widowed monarch and live happily ever after in a huge fairy-tale castle? Oh, sure!]

Labels: Christmas, comedy, romance

Steve Jobs (2015) [R] ****+

A film review by James Berardinelli for on October 15, 2015.

When considering Steve Jobs, the first thing to recognize is that this isn’t a bio-pic. Oh, the movie uses Jobs’ life as the basis of its story and cherry-picks facts and reminiscences to form the skeleton. But screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle aren’t interested in offering another re-enactment of the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story. They have something more ambitious in mind. Their goal is to illustrate the tyranny of genius and how a great mind doesn’t always mean a great person.

Steve Jobs is structured as a three-act play and, like a stage-bound production, it features few sets and relies heavily on acting, pacing, and dialogue. By always putting the characters under the pressure of a ticking clock, Boyle creates a constant sense of urgency. With the restlessly moving camera preferring long, swooping takes to short, static ones, there’s a sense of movement and energy that belies the limits of the locales. It’s not unlike 2014’s Birdman, although the approach isn’t as fanciful or extreme.

At the center of the chaos is Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender), the iconic co-creator of Apple whose wardrobe of a black mock turtleneck, blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers became his uniform. Jobs is undeniably brilliant with an arrogance to match his intelligence. He believes in his own infallibility, accepting it as a defining precept. He mellows with age but not so much that he is willing to concede anything to anyone.

Act one takes place in 1984 where Jobs is unveiling the Macintosh in front of an adoring audience. As the curtain prepares to go up, control-freak Jobs is stalking his underlings behind the scenes, browbeating Andy Herzfeld (Michael Stuhlberg) to get the demo computer to say Hello, driving his assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) nuts with his complaints and demands, and berating his ex-lover, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston). Chrisann has brought Jobs’ five year old daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss), with her. She wants him to know that his offspring is now living on welfare because his child support payments are insufficient. Jobs refuses to acknowledge paternity but nevertheless forms a fragile bond with Lisa. His relationship with his daughter comprises the movie’s emotional core as things change and evolve over the next 14 years.

Act two takes place in 1988 just before another product launch: NeXT Computer’s Cube. No longer with the company he founded, Jobs is plotting revenge against those who ousted him, especially Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels). We also see Jobs interacting with his daughter Lisa (Ripley Sobo), now nine years of age.

Act three takes place in 1998. Jobs is back at Apple and more at home in his own skin. He has mellowed, to the extent that anyone with his personality could be said to mellow. The event is the product launch of the iMac. For Apple, this is a turning point - the beginning of the company’s ascendancy. Before the presentation, he clashes with several people. One is his old buddy, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who wants Jobs to acknowledge the efforts of the Apple II team - something he refuses to do. Another is his daughter Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine) who, at age 19, has set aside some of her illusions about her father.

Michael Fassbender, who is a lock for the Best Leading Actor award nomination he should have gotten for Shame, doesn’t bear a strong physical resemblance to Jobs. In fact, Ashton Kutcher, who played the role in 2013’s lackluster Jobs, was more effective in capturing the character’s look. But Fassbender is a magnetic, compelling presence. We never once doubt that he is Steve Jobs. His force of personality, enhanced by Boyle’s shot selection, holds the audience in awe for two hours. The supporting cast, which includes such heavyweights as Kate Winslet (almost unrecognizable), Seth Rogen (perhaps the best dramatic performance he has given), and Jeff Daniels (in a role not dissimilar to the one he played in The Martian), provides an element of balance but no one steals a single scene from Fassbender.

As a psychological profile, Steve Jobs is probably shallow but the decision to focus on his personality rather than the events of his life make this a more interesting account than Jobs or the documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. The dialogue crackles with wit, anger, and passion. By matching Sorkin’s words with Boyle’s style and Fassbender’s talent, Steve Jobs has hit the trifecta. Although based on Walter Isaacson’s book, it fudges history a little in the name of compelling cinema. The movie’s portrait of the title character is likely to leave viewers ambiguous as they struggle with the question of how much arrogance, boorishness, and incivility can be forgiven in the name of genius. Steve Jobs doesn’t so much tear down the myth of the man as reshape it into something more volatile. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** ½ out of 4 stars

[Blogger note: In one of the final scenes Jobs is talking with his daughter Lisa, who’s wearing a Walkman. He tells her he’s going to replace that “brick” she’s carrying around with something that will hold 500 to 1000 songs… a look into the future at the iPod.]

Labels: biography, drama

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Entourage (2015) [R] ***+

A film review by James Berardinelli for on June 3, 2015.

If nothing else, Entourage (the movie) can be considered a faithful follow-up to Entourage (the TV series). That's good news for anyone who enjoyed the series up to the end and not-so-good news for those who lost interest along the way or never were interested in the first place. As with Sex and the City, HBO saw an opportunity to extend a brand from the small screen to the big screen and jumped at it with gusto. Unlike Sex and the City, however, Entourage lacks the large, passionate fan base that would make such a transition a slam-dunk success.

Entourage, like Sex and the City, is for the true believers. Anyone else need not bother. Narratively, the film is a bore, rivaling Aloha for this summer's film with the least compelling storyline. There are some amusing moments but, like the TV series, Entourage is more interested in getting chuckles than guffaws. Maybe we should be thankful - at least the comedy isn't embarrassingly over-the-top. The movie features no well-written female characters and seems more interested in cramming as many cameos as possible into its 106 minutes, than focusing on the five main actors who kept the series afloat.

In order to provide some latitude for forward movement, Entourage has to undo some of what occurred in the final episode of the TV series, which aired four years ago. To that end, the marriage of Vince (Adrian Grenier) and Sophia is over before the honeymoon finishes. Eric (Kevin Connolly) has severed all romantic ties with his baby mama Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui), although the two remain friends. Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) is still rich but has lost a few pounds. And Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) remains on the lookout for that elusive big break. Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) has returned from his self-imposed exile, with the blessing of Mrs. Gold (Perrey Reeves), to run a studio.

From these jumping-off points, Entourage goes essentially nowhere. The main storyline chronicles how Vince, having been given control of a major motion picture (called Hyde) by Ari, makes his directorial debut and goes over budget, creating worries about whether he has crafted a monster failure. Meanwhile, Eric and Sloan are doing a will they/won't they reunion dance. Turtle is pursuing a relationship with MMA star Ronda Rousey and Johnny continues his attempts to further his acting career. Ari discovers that running a studio isn't great for his stress management, especially when a major financial stakeholder (Billy Bob Thornton) sends his undiscriminating son (Haley Joel Osment) to Hollywood to oversee post-production of Hyde.

A lot of the material focuses on how movies get made. The process, purportedly presented from a cynic's perspective, is greatly sanitized. Much of what transpires during the course of Entourage, including a bevy of insider's jokes, will appeal more to those who work in and around the industry than the average movie-goer, who is less concerned about how movies get made than with the final product.

As was true in the series, Ari provides a much needed jolt of energy to a too laid-back production. Piven's manic performance proves that the focus of the film should have been on his character. Of the main quartet, only Kevin Dillon keeps us awake when he's on-screen. Adrien Grenier, Kevin Connolly, and Jerry Ferrara hardly register. Haley Joel Osment, unrecognizable from his famous child self, does a credible job portraying a creepy and loathsome twit.

Director Doug Ellin knows these characters, having shepherded them for 96 episodes over eight seasons, so it's no surprise that they act and talk like they did in the series. The problem is that, with all the inconsequential banter, pointless subplots, and meandering narrative, Entourage has a decidedly exclusive feel to it. It is designed for a small group of viewers and remains unconcerned about whether anyone outside the bubble will have a good time. Maybe that's the right approach since it's doubtful anyone but an Entourage fan would bother to see the movie in the first place. If they did, they likely wouldn't find the experience welcoming or enjoyable. [Berardinelli’s rating: ** out of 4 stars]

Blogger's comment: After watching Entourage the film, we binge-watched all eight seasons (96 episodes) of the TV series, over the course of two months, and then watched the film again. We appreciated it much more, knowing the backstory, and if there is ever an Entourage sequel, we'll definitely be in line to watch it. Blogger's rating: **** out of 5 stars.

Labels: comedy, filmmaking

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Big Short (2015) [R] *****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on Dec. 21, 2015.

Against all odds, The Big Short works. In fact, works is an understatement for what director Adam McKay has achieved with his improbable adaptation of Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book about the 2008 global financial crisis. Writing in Vanity Fair’s December 2015 issue, Lewis says the following: My job, as I saw it, was to make the reader badly want to know about credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. This, in turn, became McKay’s obligation when he made the movie. And one of the major reasons The Big Short succeeds is because McKay does this. Using gallows humor, likable protagonists, and a variety of nonstandard filmmaking techniques (like having characters address the audience directly), McKay maintains a high level of energy for more than two hours and dares us to become bored.

The Big Short merges narrative elements with a pseudo-documentary exhumation of what happened during the years leading up to the 2008 collapse. The characters are all either real-life people who told their stories to Lewis or slightly fictionalized versions (with the names changed to protect the guilty). The film is both instructive and highly entertaining. McKay goes out of his way to inform viewers about the underlying causes of the instability but he does so with tongue-in-cheek irreverence. One device he employs is to hijack celebrities to provide explanations. Margot Robbie gives a lesson while enjoying a bubble bath. (Admittedly, it’s tough to concentrate on what she’s saying). Celebrity chef Anthony Bordain uses a fish stew analogy. And Selena Gomez plays blackjack.

This is more in McKay’s wheelhouse than one might initially assume. The former SNL writer has previously directed a handful of features - all comedies (including Anchorman and its sequel). That background is an asset for The Big Short. The comedic edge gives the film greater resonance. Not only does it leaven the heavier material but it impels the narrative with a natural momentum.  The snarky tone will appeal to those who have always been distrustful of Wall Street’s business practices. McKay in no way uses this for humorous sport, however; there’s a deep current of anger and outrage underlying the comedy.

The Big Short cherry picks characters from the book - not every person profiled by Lewis makes it to the screen. The focus is on five individuals: Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially awkward financial genius; Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a broker with a conscience; Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a rapacious investor out to make a killing; and the duo of Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), a couple of amateurs who see the opportunity of a lifetime. Burry is the first one to identify the dangers inherent in the way Wall Street is overvaluing bonds backed by sub-prime mortgages. As early as 2005, he is sounding the alarm bell but no one is listening. So he turns this into an investment opportunity by shorting the bonds - essentially betting that the housing market will collapse. Vennett reaches the same conclusion and discusses it with Baum who, after a private investigation, agrees with him. Geller and Shipley are in the right place at the right time and, acting under the advice of ex-broker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), get a seat at the big boys’ table.

Christian Bale, who is no stranger to radical appearance changes, de-glamorizes himself in order to portray Burry. Bale adopts some of Burry’s mannerisms and idiosyncrasies (such as his preference for always being barefoot) and believably conveys the sometimes off-putting personality of a man afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome. Not to be outdone, Steve Carell submerges his physicality and personality, although by nature Baum isn’t as compelling an individual as Burry. While Bale and Carell have the most screen time, a host of other big-name players make appearances including Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo, Marisa Tomei, and Mark Strong.

This is the second unorthodox feature adaptation of one of Lewis’ books and is fundamentally more successful than Moneyball. It was possible to fashion the 2011 movie into a slightly off-kilter bio-pic. The Big Short, because of the necessity of educating viewers about a variety of terms and processes, necessitated a different approach. McKay (along with his co-screenwriter, Charles Randolph) found the sweet spot. As a result, The Big Short works not only on a narrative level but as a teaching device, and it achieves the latter without seeming to talk down to an audience. There have been other movies about stock market corruption. Most, like Wall Street and J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (also about 2008), view the situation through the lens of a thriller. McKay, like Martin Scorsese in The Wolf of Wall Street, illustrates that comedy can be an effective tool in telling a story like this, provided it’s used with scalpel-like precision. The cuts made by The Big Short are deep and devastating in what they reveal about how 2008 happened and, tellingly, how little has changed since then. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** ½ out of 4 stars]

Labels: biography, comedy, crime, drama, finance

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Everest (2015) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on Sept. 18, 2015

Mount Everest has been conquered. Since the day in 1953 when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to stand atop the summit, thousands have successfully climbed the mountain. Their reasons for making the ascent are as varied as the climbers themselves but often have to do with proving something (to themselves or others), fulfilling a dream, or inflating an ego.  Sometimes more than one of those things. On May 11, 1996, however, the dream became a nightmare from which eight climbers didn't awaken. Directed with powerful verisimilitude by Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur, Everest provides a condensed, partially fictionalized chronology of how the mountain became executioner and tomb for five of those eight people.

Everest is more disaster film than adventure yarn, although it relies heavily on the man-versus-nature aspect of the situation. Unfortunately, as is often the case with productions that focus on the struggle to survive against impossible odds, the human elements are often shortchanged. In this case, character development is neglected in favor of awe-inspiring views. There are times when we feel like we're on the mountain. Unfortunately, our companions - the men and women populating the screen - are never more than half-formed.

(The events chronicled in Everest were previously depicted in a 1998 documentary of the same name. David Brashears, whose images comprised the earlier account, is a minor character in this movie. Comparing the two - to the extent it's fair to compare fiction and non-fiction - there's little doubt that the documentary is the better film both in terms of its visuals and its immediacy.)

Everest opens with a sluggish first act characterized by the introduction of too many underdeveloped characters. For the most part, they are identified by a defining trait or two. New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) is the leader of the expedition. He has a loving, pregnant wife (Kiera Knightley) waiting at home for his return. His clients include Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a wealthy Texan in a troubled marriage; Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), a writer; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a postman who has scrimped and saved to afford the trip; and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a woman who has previously achieved six of the Seven Summits. Also headed for the mountain is Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), the leader of a rival climbing group. Everest takes an inordinate amount of time to get the pieces in place. However, once the group departs base camp and begins the ascent, the film sloughs off its slow pace and transforms into a gripping tale of survival, life, and death.

The movie's final two-thirds detail the torturous difficulties encountered by the climbers as they strive to reach the so-called Death Zone and what happens to them on the descent when a blizzard sweeps in. There are several deaths, one seemingly impossible survival, and a harrowing helicopter rescue. The screenplay, credited to William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, tries to tweak the audience's emotions by introducing some sentimentality but these efforts are largely ineffective. The mountain dominates everything, including the existences of those who made foolish decisions in attempting to surmount it.

Everest's triumph lies in its ability to convey the difficulties and dangers of the journey. Climbing the mountain, which stands at more than 29,000 feet in height, is no pleasure jaunt. Through a combination of on-location footage, digital chicanery, and in-studio filming, Kormakur is able to replicate the climb with startling effectiveness. The big screen is helpful in amplifying Everest's majesty - the visuals won't be as impressive viewed on a television or (worse) a tablet and/or phone. The 3-D, on the other hand, although not detrimental, isn't used to good effect.  It's simply there, an unnecessary add-on that does little beyond inflate the ticket price. Too bad it's not available in 2-D IMAX. That would be the preferred format.

Everest boasts an impressive cast but, aside from Josh Brolin and Jason Clarke, no one is tasked with giving an Oscar-worthy performance. Character-actor Clarke doesn't overwhelm with a memorable performance but his role is central and he has enough screen time that we're likely to remember him. Brolin, on the other hand, brings energy to a thinly-written role. Everyone else does what they're asked to do - Kiera Knightley, Emily Watson (as Rob's business partner), Jake Gyllenhaal, and John Hawkes. Sam Worthington (as a climber involved in the rescue effort) and Robin Wright (as Beck's wife) are superfluous. Everest may be many things but it's not a showcase for the respected actors who appear in it.

Everest is a different animal from a garden-variety disaster movie. Although some of the beats are the same, the symphony is darker and more haunting. The true story aspect is one reason; the lack of reliance on genre tropes and clichés is another. Everest is not replete with hard-to-believe acts of heroism, annoying kids, and plucky pets. It also doesn't feature an unnecessary human bad guy; the mountain is sufficiently implacable adversary. And, if Everest serves no other purpose, it functions admirably as a deterrent to answering the age-old question of Why [climb the mountain]? with a glib Because it's there. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Blogger’s comment: Films made in 1997, 1998 and 2015 all take us along for doomed expeditions up the tallest peak in the Himalayas in May 1996. The story has also been told in at least five books by survivors, most famously in journalist Jon Krakauer's 1997 best-seller Into Thin Air, which is the primary basis for the screenplay of 2015's Everest.

Labels: adventure, biography, drama, history, thriller, tragedy

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Ex Machina (2015) [R] ****+

A film review by James Berardinelli for on April 15, 2015.

Artificial Intelligence has always been a common science fiction theme.  The Frankenstein-influenced concept of a human being giving life to a new entity - one that can think and act independently - has teased writers with its potential. Now, as we move deeper into the 21st century and technology speeds forward at a breakneck pace, the gap between the fiction in this concept and its parallel reality is closing.  Perhaps this is one reason why there has been an uptick in the number of movies with Artificial Intelligence as a plot point. The field isn't yet overcrowded (and, considering the richness of the subject matter, it may never be) but Ex Machina joins Her and Chappie as recent films that have explored these ideas.

One of the most persistent and compelling questions about artificial intelligence is what it entails. At what point is consciousness achieved? When does an entity transcend the ability to do nothing more than follow complex programming and begin to think on its own? At what point does a machine cease to be a tool and earn the status of a life form? These questions lie at the heart of many stories about this subject matter and Ex Machina is no exception. Although the movie is principally about two human beings, the most intriguing character by far is the robot at narrative's center.

Her name is Ava (Alicia Vikander) and she is the latest in a line of A.I. prototypes developed by genius computer scientist and noted recluse, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Bateman, the CEO of the world's biggest search engine company, runs a competition among his employees with the winner earning the right to spend a week with him at his remote estate. The lucky selectee is Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) but he doesn't learn until he reaches his destination that Nathan intends for Caleb's stay to involve more than conversation and observation. He wants Caleb to participate in a Turing Test - to interact with Ava and determine whether she can pass for a human. Caleb is astonished by how real Ava seems - so much so that he begins to wonder about the morality of Nathan's interactions with her. Caleb's feelings for Ava appear to be matched by hers for him, but is she truly experiencing emotions or merely mimicking them? And is he in control of the situation or is Nathan acting like a puppeteer, pulling not only Ava's strings but Caleb's as well?

Ex Machina avoids the trap of becoming too technical. The storyline is straightforward and doesn't involve a lot of technobabble. Nathan doesn't spend excessive time explaining how he created Ava, although he mentions (to Caleb's dismay) that she will eventually be killed to make way for the next, more advanced prototype. To Nathan, creator-god, these machines are no different from any other advanced computer. He's interested in perfecting them but doesn't see them as unique life forms. To Caleb, the outsider, the truth is more fluid and Nathan's actions more questionable.

This is not an action-oriented science fiction film and, while some special effects are employed, they are limited and mostly low-budget. (Ironically, Gleeson and Isaac moved from this production to the new Star Wars film, where words like limited and low-budget don't apply.) Ex Machina focuses primarily on evolving its themes through interaction (between Caleb and Ava) and dialogue. The movie is broken into several acts, each of which focuses on a session between Caleb and Ava who are separated by a clear wall - they can see each other and talk but not touch. Everything is monitored and Nathan looks on from afar, evaluating and judging. Director Alex Garland (the writer of several Danny Boyle films, making his feature debut behind the camera) builds a restless, unsettled tone. Aspects of the ending strain credulity while simultaneously crystalizing the themes Ex Machina has evolved throughout its 108-minute running time.

From a performance perspective, the most impressive acting is provided by Alicia Vikander (the Swedish actress in The Danish Girl, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Seventh Son, Testament of Youth and A Royal Affair), who captures Ava's allure by presenting her as seemingly guileless with a difficult-to-pinpoint inhuman quality. Oscar Isaac plays a variation of the mad scientist role - more Dr. Moreau than Dr. Frankenstein. Nathan is unquestionably a genius but also quite possibly mad. He's a narcissist with a god complex who can be by turns charming and chilling. Domhnall Gleeson, whose star is rising, interprets Caleb as a flat and uninteresting individual, but that may be more a matter of Garland's intention than Gleeson's portrayal. And there is a kind of weird chemistry between Gleeson and Vikander.

Ex Machina employs fewer twists and one might expect, although there are some surprises along the way. For the most part, however, Garland is less interested in playing games with his audience's expectations than he is inviting viewers to sit beside Caleb and evaluate Ava. In the final analysis, the movie doesn't offer much about the subject that hasn't been previously explored, but the soil is fertile and many ideas germinate. This is a cautionary tale about where technology could be leading and its low-key, claustrophobic approach lends an immediacy that many bigger, grander, more spectacular films lack. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: drama, mystery, sci-fi, thriller, tragedy

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Paper Towns (2015) [PG-13] ***+

A film review by James Berardinelli for on July 24, 2015.

Paper Towns is the third coming-of-age story to reach screens during the summer of 2015, following in the wake of the vastly superior Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Dope. Based on the novel by John Green, Paper Towns is an exercise in artifice. The contrived storyline offers little opportunity for characters to grow and the meandering narrative trajectory and anticlimactic ending will have some viewers wondering why they bothered.

Coming-of-age stories work best when they are populated with relatable characters. In Paper Towns, the narrator and protagonist, Quentin (Nat Wolff), is grounded but uninteresting. He is defined by a single personality trait: his conformity. He's a studious guy who gets good grades, never cuts class, and doesn't sneak out of his house at night. He is seduced out of his cocoon by the girl across the street. She's Margo (Cara Delevingne), one of the most popular girls in school and Quentin's private obsession. Like Quentin, Margo isn't a real person - she's a wafer-thin movie confection defined exclusively by her free-spiritedness. Since Paper Towns is presented from Quentin's perspective, it's understandable that Margo would be so poorly drawn (we're seeing her as he sees her, not as she is). It's less explicable why the same is true of Quentin.

The movie opens with an interminable 30 minute setup. For about half that time, we are treated to glimpses of Quentin and Margo's childhood as they grow up as best friends. (Their differences are italicized in a scene where they are shown bicycling side-by-side with him wearing a helmet and her without one.) Through this, Nat Wolff provides a voiceover talking about how invigorating it was to be around Margo but how, in the end, they drifted apart.  Then, one night a few weeks before the Senior Prom, she hijacks him to be her accomplice on an adventure that includes a series of revenge-fueled pranks. After that, she disappears but leaves behind a series of clues for amateur sleuth Quentin to piece together. In order to find the love of his life, he must leave his comfort zone, even going so far as to skip school and embark on a 1200-mile road trip.

There's a saying about road trip movies that the journey, not the destination, matters. In Paper Towns, the journey is dramatically inert - an empty half-hour comprised of minor misadventures and inane chatter among the five friends in the car. The movie's final act is disappointing. I admire what the film is trying do with respect to defying conventions but the means to achieve this are awkward. After sitting through about 95 minutes, one deserves a little more than sermonizing about what it means to grow up.

Wolff, who was fine in The Fault in Our Stars (last year's John Green adaptation), shows little in the way of emotion or range here. It's hard to say whether the blame lies with the actor (and, by extension, director Jake Schreier) or with the character. Quentin is dull and his development as a person seems more cosmetic than organic. Has he really changed? British model Cara Delevingne imbues Margo with an intriguing quirkiness but she's not on screen long enough to make more than a fleeting impression and she and Wolff share no chemistry. The actors who portray Quentin's friends and traveling companions are as forgettable as the characters they play.

Paper Towns is perhaps best viewed as a flight of fancy. That's the only way to overcome the suspension of disbelief curve. Little of what happens in the movie - either during the initial night adventure, the subsequent investigation, or the road trip - could happen in the real world, so we must assume this is a parallel universe where adults are as relevant and intelligible as those in a Charlie Brown cartoon. This is, after all, a movie about teenagers. Why clutter it up with old people?

To an extent, Paper Towns is all about perspective. Seen through the eyes of Quentin, this is the story of how a boy, trapped by his own fears and insecurities, learns to break free as a result of his single-minded pursuit of love. A different but no less valid point-of-view might argue that this about how a boy, driven by an unhealthy obsession for a girl, acts recklessly and irresponsibly (nearly causing death or injury to five people) in his stalking of her. A better, more self-aware movie (consider The Spectacular Now, also written by the duo of Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber) would have found a way to fuse the two interpretations, but this rote screenplay lacks the necessary insight.

The success of The Fault in Our Stars has led distributor Fox to be bullish about the prospects for Paper Towns, but the films aren't comparable. The Fault in Our Stars is heartfelt and guileless - a touching depiction of what happens when youth clashes with mortality. Paper Towns is shallow and chokes on its own glibness. It's hard to believe both movies germinated from the pen of the same author. [Berardinelli’s rating: ** out of 4 stars]

Blogger’s comment: Screenwriting duo Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber co-wrote (500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars. All of those are far superior to Paper Towns.

Labels: comedy, drama, mystery, romance, teenager

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Martian (2015) [PG-13] *****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on Oct. 2, 2015.

The Martian is the latest in a series of realistic science fiction films - movies that eschew the space opera elements of the genre and concentrate instead on believable aspects. Following in the wake of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (and featuring two of the same cast members), The Martian speculates about how a near-future manned Mars mission might evolve. With the exception of a slightly over-the-top ending, the film mostly avoids the Hollywood-isms that sometimes degrade science fiction into futuristic fantasy. This is neither an action-oriented motion picture nor a special effects extravaganza. It's an introspective story about what it might be like to be the sole inhabitant of a distant world and knowing that instant communication isn't possible and a rescue is at best a year away. It's also an examination of how necessity truly can be the mother of invention - not only for the survivor but for those on Earth seeking to find a way to save him.

The events of The Martian transpire in the near future, although an exact date isn't given. As the movie opens, the six-person crew of the Ares 3 mission are on the planet's surface conducting experiments and gathering samples. In addition to astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and mission Captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), the crew includes pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), chemist Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie), and specialists Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara) and Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan). The approach of a major storm - one that has the potential of tearing apart the fragile artificial habitat and, literally, tipping over their escape rocket - forces Lewis to order an emergency evacuation. In the race to the escape craft, Watney is struck by a piece of flying debris, lost, and presumed dead. He is reluctantly left behind by his fellows. When NASA receives the news, director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and Mars mission controller Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) make the news of the death public.

Watney isn't dead, however. Although injured, he is able to use an emergency medical kit to close a wound and, after coming to terms with the enormity of his situation, he assesses what he will have to do to survive. Within a month, NASA has become aware of his survival and, not long after, rudimentary communications are possible. The film then becomes a race against time to save Watney before his provisions run out.

Most movies about Mars (and there have been a lot of them) are hybrid science fiction-horror or science fiction-thriller productions with little emphasis on the science fiction part of the equation. Since The Martian isn't interested in the exploitation aspect, that makes it an outlier in the Mars canon. Instead, it's a close cousin to sci-fi stories like Moon, Gravity, and Interstellar and deals with some of the same themes and ideas as Cast Away and Touching the Void. The Martian's drama evolves from showing how the character copes with isolation. There are certainly physical challenges but the psychological difficulties are the most compelling ones.

Although the concept of a modern day Robinson Crusoe marooned on Mars might sound like a depressing proposition, the film's tone never ventures into dark and downbeat territory. Without detracting from the seriousness of the situation, director Ridley Scott infuses the production with moments of low-key, appropriate comedy. Watney's introspective video journals illustrate not only his practicality and innovation but his wry (sometimes gallows) sense of humor. Likewise, some of the Earth-based scenes, while not openly comedic, are played with a lighthearted sensibility.

For Matt Damon, this is a rare opportunity to show his range. Neither action hero nor supporting character nor George Clooney sidekick, he gives a performance to rival The Departed as the best of his career.  One key difference: here, he isn't surrounded by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, and Martin Sheen. This is Damon's movie and it's hard to find a flaw in the way he brings Watney to life. The fear, the anguish, the loneliness, the desperation, and the joy… they're all there. Only once does Watney give into despair and, on that occasion, it doesn't last long. The secondary cast is impressive, with names like Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Sean Bean lending their talents, but their roles aren't large. They support and never threaten to take the spotlight away from Damon. (Considering that he also played a stranded astronaut in Interstellar, one wonders whether he has become Hollywood's go-to guy for this kind of character.)

As a director, Ridley Scott is by no means a can't-miss proposition.  Although one can rarely fault his ambition, the results have been mixed, especially in recent years. When it comes to science fiction, however, Scott's track record is solid: Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus - two bona fide classics and one flawed but compelling odyssey. The Martian is a different kind of film from those but no less impressive. Scott uses special effects as a tool to enhance the experience rather than as the means to define it. Many of the effects in The Martian are of the practical variety with CGI used primarily to add an otherworldly flavor to the Martian landscape. The space sequences are nearly as good as those in Gravity. The 3D, although not as impressive as in Alfonso Cuaron's 2013 picture, feels neither gimmicky nor unnecessary. As uneven a director as Scott can be, he can do some amazing things when he's on; this is one such occasion.

The Martian is based on Andy Weir's novel of the same name and uses a similar science-based approach to many of its scenes. NASA was involved both at the script stage and during filming and, although there are instances in which The Martian takes liberties with the laws of physics, it presents one of the most accurate screen depictions of space travel to date. This authenticity is one of the factors that attracted Damon and Scott to the project and Weir's continued involvement brought NASA on board.

In releasing The Martian, 20th Century Fox has fired the first shot in the 2015 Oscar competition. Although the science fiction genre is more often associated with the escapist fare of summer than the serious offerings of the fall, The Martian is an exception. Those who crave nonstop action and seizure-promoting editing may find this film's pace too deliberate. They may be unable to appreciate its character focus and slow but undeniable build-up of tension. This is science fiction for sophisticated audiences and, as such, a fulfilling and satisfying experience. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** ½ out of 4 stars]

Labels: adventure, drama, sci-fi

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Intern (2015) [PG-13] ***+

A film review by James Berardinelli for on Sept. 24, 2015.

If The Intern had confined itself to the unlikely relationship that develops between thirty-something entrepreneur Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway) and seventy-year old retiree Ben Whittaker (Robert DeNiro), it might have worked. Unfortunately, writer/director Nancy Meyers has bogged down the narrative with questionable scenes, tangents, and subplots that take the focus off the April/October friendship and drag the running time out to an unacceptably long two hours.

Retirement means different things to different people. For some, it's an opportunity to unwind and relax after a lifetime of work. Many people enjoy living a life of leisure where demands on their time are few and far between. For others, it's a roadway to boredom. They may not have loved their jobs but now they have far too many hours to fill and the monotony of not doing anything meaningful becomes oppressive.  Ben is a card-carrying member of the latter category. A retired widower, he finds himself marking time until the end - existing rather than living. An opportunity to do something arrives in the form of an advertisement for Senior Interns. A growing online fashion site wants to give back to the community by hiring a few over-65s and Ben goes after the position with relish. After being hired, he is assigned as the personal assistant to Jules, who runs the company. Jules, however, doesn't relate well to old people and things start out strained. After a while, however, Ben's disarming, parental approach breaks down her barriers and the two become close.

The Intern is a romantic comedy without the romance. Meyers goes into overdrive ensuring there's not a whiff of sexual tension between Ben and Jules. Is it artificial?  Perhaps, but Meyers is compensating for Hollywood's long tradition of pairing aging leading men with much younger women. There's a counter-argument to this, however. Romantic or quasi-romantic companionship doesn't demand sexual frisson - consider the sublime way in which Lost in Translation handled it. A more mature approach might have acknowledged the possibility of attraction without requiring either party to act on it. As it is, Hathaway and DeNiro develop an appealing platonic dynamic. They mesh well together, which makes it a shame that the movie takes so many extraneous detours.

Some attempts to add depth to the characters don't work. A romance between DeNiro and a masseuse played by Rene Russo is so underdeveloped as to be pointless. On the other hand, too much time is spent on Anne Hathaway's marital woes - a little exposure to these would have gone a long way. There's also a bizarre interlude in which Ben and his fellow interns become involved in a heist. This comedic segment feels like an outtake from a Woody Allen movie and, although amusing as a stand-alone skit, it's out-of-place in the larger scheme. Finally, there's an instance of foreshadowing that is (thankfully) ignored. Like too many aspects of The Intern, it's orphaned. It's hard to determine whether the final cut underwent significant tinkering post production or whether the screenplay was never properly vetted before filming began.

Meyers is known for witty screenplays that emphasize the female perspective. Her best known films are the Diane Keaton/Jack Nicholson romance, Something's Gotta Give, and the Meryl Streep/Steve Martin/Alec Baldwin triangle, It's Complicated. Both are lighthearted, enjoyable romps - funny enough not to be taken too seriously but with a hint of insight. In between, however, she was responsible for the messy The Holiday, a rambling, bloated production that resembles The Intern closely in tone and temperament.

Without question, DeNiro and Hathaway elevate the material. They're Oscar-winning professionals and their acting is on display. They make us care about unevenly written characters. In terms of comedic and dramatic content, The Intern is hit-and-miss. Notions about ageism and corporate prejudice against female CEOs are grazed but not explored in a meaningful or compelling way. In the end, the only thing that keeps us from walking out is that we like Ben and Jules, especially when they're together. Had The Intern been better focused and a good bit shorter, that might have been enough. [Berardinelli’s rating: ** out of 4 stars]

Blogger’s comment: Nancy Meyers has 16 screenwriting credits and six (6) directing credits, including: The Intern, It’s Complicated, The Holiday, Something’s Gotta Give, What Woman Want and The Parent Trap. She’s known for light films with little drama depth or character development, no memorable dialogue, but gorgeous costumes and sets, to such an extent that her films have been described as interior design porn. Personally, I’m a big fan of her earlier work, especially What Women Want and The Parent Trap, but her later films… not so much.

Labels: comedy