Wednesday, February 24, 2016

New(ish) Releases!! Brooklyn, The Big Short, and Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn (2015)

Director: John Crowley

A great example of a simple tale told exceptionally well.

Brooklyn is the story of Eilis (pronounced "Ay-lish", and played by Saoirse Ronan), a young woman in Ireland who emigrates to Brooklyn, New York in the 1950s. Though very smart and attractive, Eilis goes through most of the typical stages of culture shock and homesickness. She eventually settles into her job and begins a romance with a charming young local man of Italian heritage. Just as she decides to fully commit to him, though, she is pulled back to Ireland by an unexpected tragedy. She is then torn between choosing between her old life in Ireland and her new one in New York.

There is nothing terribly complex about the plot in Brooklyn. Rather, its complexity lies in the emotions at play when someone must make a very difficult, life-altering decision. Eilis's is not a tale of epic, world-changing choices or even wide-sweeping tragedy. Instead, it is about more common life decisions which greatly affect the person who makes them and the people closest to them, when either option will cause severe pain to several people involved. In Brooklyn, the different options are set across the Atlantic from each other, but the vastness of the emotional differences is what gives the movie its dramatic power.

Brooklyn looks amazing. So amazing, in fact, that it is quite obvious that it is a work of fiction. The actors' good looks and the high sheen on every prop and set offers us viewers enough separation to realize that we are not watching a documentary or even a film memoir. This might be a weakness in other films, but in Brooklyn it works since the tale and the acting are organic and masterfully performed. In a way, it actually enhances the struggle and sadness Eilis deals with, given that it is happening in an otherwise supernaturally beautiful place.

I don't know that I will ever need to see Brooklyn again, unless I wish to drink in the aesthetic once more. It was, however, an excellent movie and well worth seeing.

The Big Short (2015)

Director: Adam McKay

Who knew that learning about big finance and a massive recession could be so entertaining?

With a dazzling combination of strong narrative, steady pacing, daring creativity, and phenomenal acting, director Adam McKay crafted Michael Lewis's source book into an educative and often surprisingly fun ride. The movie follows a few groups of individuals who were among the small handful to accurately predict the impending housing market crash in 2008. Leading us through the complicated tale is the fourth-wall battering ram narrator Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a smug financier who takes several breaks from his attempts to get filthy rich betting against the housing market in order to teach us viewers about exactly how things went so horribly wrong. It's a great device that spices up what could otherwise be some rather dull details about the minutiae of high finance. One could rightly argue that it is a narrative crutch, but it is an entertaining one.

The characters central to the story are portrayed as varied bands of oddballs, crusaders, noble aspirants to wealth, or some combinations of those three. The film versions of Michael Burry, the awkward mathematical genius and medical doctor-turned financier, and Mark Baum, a righteously furious financier with a serious grudge against corrupt bankers, are magnetic. The performances of Christian Bale and Steve Carell, respectively, bring them to life in hilarious and fascinating ways to the point that I found myself itching for the next scene with them. While those two stand out, the many players around them all nail their roles to a tee.

The unraveling of the causes behind the greatest economic crash in modern history makes for a fascinating and upsetting education. The Big Short, despite its steady humor, lets us all in on the rampant greed, irresponsibility, and grand-scale corruption that essentially allowed a relatively small group of wealthy bankers and financiers to bilk millions of people out of nearly a trillion dollars. It has a very similar feel to Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, though focused on the entire odious panorama of banking thievery rather than a single avaricious crook and his Biblical hedonism.

I would gladly watch this movie again, if not to try and pick up some of the economic and financial explanations more clearly, then to simply re-watch the great performances and galloping narrative. I don't know that this movie will win the Best Picture Oscar for which it is nominated, but it is definitely in that top tier of candidates.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Flawless technique. Crisp narration. Strong acting. Fairly predictable story arc. In other words, a Steven Spielberg film.

Bridge of Spies's greatest strengths lie in its source material and in its actors' and director's technical abilities in terms of storytelling in film. At this point in their careers, guys like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg simply do not drop the ball. Ever. This is not to say that everything they do is fantastic. In fact, I find very little creativity in anything they do. However, they are also masters of professionalism and the technical aspects of film. Their movies always look great, feature clear narratives, and allow top-flight actors to play their roles extremely well. Bridge of Spies is no exception. Sets and costumes look great. The lighting, cinematography, and editing are above reproach. Lines are delivered in appropriate tones and with expert timing. None of this should surprise anyone who has seen more than a few Spielberg's many films. The only criticism that one can level at Spielberg is that he really never takes any artistic chances. By now, though, we know that, as great a director as he is, the man is simply not an auteur.

The story itself is certainly an interesting slice of real history. Hanks plays James Donovan, a brilliant insurance lawyer in the 1950s who is tapped by the U.S government to be legal counsel to Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Abel is accused of spying for the U.S.S.R., and the U.S. government wants to ensure that Abel is shown to be given competent legal advice, so as to avoid any public accusations of mistreatment or lack of due process. The case was one of many such ostentatious political maneuvers during the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Donovan does an exceptional job, even managing to help Abel avoid what would have almost certainly been the death penalty. Three years later, Donovan is again recruited to negotiate a prisoner exchange, whereby the U.S. will exchange Abel for a captured U.S. pilot and a captured college student. Donovan must achieve all of this under very shady and uncertain circumstances in a chaotic East Berlin, where the infamous Berlin Wall has just been completed.

The summary itself should spark a fair amount of interest, and the tale is unfolded as well as one would expect from this group of film-making talents. I must say though, as is typical for most of Spielberg's movies, the ultimate outcome was never really in question (and no, I hadn't read anything about this case before seeing the movie). Thankfully, some of the details and the paths which the story takes are a bit surprising, but the ultimate destination held nothing remarkably thoughtful. Of course, this can be due to the limitations of telling a historical tale. This doesn't make it any more exciting, though.

I personally put this movie in that second tier of this year's Best Picture nominees: "Very good, but not winning material". It's a very well-done movie which will probably have no lasting impact on the landscape of cinematic history. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films for 2015

I usually try to catch the collections of all of the Oscar-nominated films in the "animated short film" category, which are always shown as a collection in a theater near me. This year's set was, as a whole, one of the best groups I've seen over the four or five years that I've seen these collections:

As always, you can expect a vibrant display of color in Pixar's
entry in the category this year.
Sanjay's Super-Team 

Director: Sanjay Patel

This year's Pixar Studios entry. It's a mostly visual tale about a young Indian boy, Sanjay, who is obsessed with a cartoon superteam of vibrantly costumed heroes. When his devout father has him leave his TV show to pray with him, Sanjay reluctantly joins him at his prayer station. Just as Sanjay's attention starts to completely drift, though, his imagination is sparked by the wondrous Hindu figures in his father's prayer box. What follows is a dazzling action scene in which Sanjay envisions the Hindu gods becoming versions of the superteam characters, who fight off a menacing monster of darkness. As usual for Pixar, the animation and visuals are first-class. The story is a nice little departure for them, too, into the realms of a religion which is not common in the U.S. Still, it's not the best Pixar short I've ever seen. This one was my third favorite of the nominees.

World of Tomorrow

Director: Don Hertzfeld

Mind-blowing. Strong words, I know, for an animated short film, but they are appropriate. World of Tomorrow is a simultaneously hilarious, poetic, and brilliant little piece of speculative fiction. Using rather rudimentary visuals, this 17-minute short tells the story of Emily. A very young Emily is visited by a distant clone of herself from 227 years in the future, who begins telling her about many of the things to come. The future Emily tells tales of space exploration, memory control and
Yes, the animation might look crude at a glance, but its
abstract style makes perfect sense for the story and dialogue.
manipulation, extra-sensory communication, and many bizarre facets of future civilizations which one might find in some of the most fascinating and creative works of science-fiction. The future Emily delivers even the most terrifying and wondrous facts about her future in a dry monotone, which enhances the comedy value exponentially. An unexamined look at this film's visuals might make it seem cheap and simple, but they actually serve as a very plausible way of depicting how the young Emily, who is probably around 3 years old, is attempting to process ideas which are far beyond her mental grasp. This is one of the most creative animated films I've ever seen, and it was my favorite of the group.

Bear Story

Director: Gabriel Osorio

Great animation, but overly sentimental. Bear Story follows a humanoid adult bear who uses a complex mechanized box to both entertain children and tell the story of how he was abducted from his wife and son into a zoo. The animation is digital, and it showcases some spectacular visuals which emulate other animation forms such as stop-motion animation and elaborate, moving dioramas. The story, however, is all about the low-hanging fruit of making you feel sorry for the fluffy, sad bear. No new ground being tilled, here. This wasn't a bad film, but it was my least favorite of the group, by far.

We Can't Live Without Cosmos

Director: Konstantin Broznit

Terrible title, but great little film. Using relatively simple, hand-drawn animation, this film follows a pair of aspiring cosmonauts. The two are roommates who are among a larger group of potential cosmonauts competing for the chance to go into space. There is a touching yet unsentimental feeling to their story as it unfolds, and there is a wealth of great visual storytelling and gags. This one found a rare and welcome blend of gravity, humor, and creativity to make for what I thought was the second best film of the set.

The short Prologue features some stunning, traditional
pencil drawing to tell its story of the horror or warfare.

Director: Richard Williams

The hardest-hitting of the bunch. So hard-hitting and graphic, in fact, that this one came with a disclaimer suggesting that young children not see it. Prologue goes old-school with its graphics, using color pencil sketches to depict a battle between four ancient warriors, seemingly from Classical Greek times. The four soldiers, armed with spears and bows, brutally attack and kill each other. The final images convey the horrors of warfare, and everything is done without the use of dialogue. This one showed some nice traditional animation skills and sticks with a profound, if not exactly novel, message. My fourth favorite of the group, though right on par with Sanjay's Super Team.

Final Thoughts

This year's was actually a good group, top to bottom. In recent years, there have always been at least one short which seemed pointless beyond displaying some commendable animation. In past years, there have also been at least one extremely sappy, sentimental entry, which almost always wins. This year, though, I felt that only Bear Story was conspicuous in its attempts at your emotions. The others steered well clear. If I had my way, World of Tomorrow would be the hands-down winner this year. In terms of creativity, it is well beyond the other entries. If it doesn't win, I expect that Sanjay's Super Team could pull in down, both for its strong animation and its culturally inclusive nature. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

New(ish) Releases (2015): Ex Machina; Dope; Straight Outta Compton

Ex Machina (2015)

Director: Alex Garland

A brilliant piece of original speculative fiction.

Ex Machina begins with Caleb, a young computer programmer in a large company, winning a competition to spend a week with his company's eccentric, reclusive, and brilliant founder, Nathan. Caleb is taken to Nathan's home in a beautiful, isolated area, where he is told that he will take part in a ground-breaking experiment. Nathan has been building robots with cutting-edge artificial intelligence, the long-time dream and goal of computer programmers whereby a machine actually possesses all the deepest and most complex intellectual capacities of human beings. Caleb's job will be to interview Nathan's latest creation, Ava, a robot given the form of a beautiful young woman. Nathan is told to apply his knowledge as a programmer to assess whether Ava could pass as a human.

Within the first few days of his stay at Nathan's beautifully sleek but confined home, Caleb senses something amiss. His host drinks himself into a total stupor every night. Several parts of the house are firmly locked by Nathan's state-of-the-art smart home security measures. Caleb is charmed by Ava when they first meet, but she soon tells him that Nathan torments her, out of the sight of others. Eventually, Caleb is mentally scrambling to determine whether he is part of some twisted experiment, or whether he is being manipulated by one or both of the hyper-intelligent beings in the house with him.

It is rare to get a science fiction film that is confident enough to keep its pace measured and its aesthetic simple and clean, but this is what Ex Machina does. The result is a striking work with a ton of intellectual and emotional power. The character of troubled genius Nathan is fascinating to attempt to analyze, though such an exercise is difficult for much of the film. Caleb, the far more sympathetic character, evokes the kind of feeling which we reserve for the good-hearted and vulnerable. The three-way psychological war is subtle enough that it never relies on cheap thrills or obvious melodrama. There is tension, but it is cerebral in nature, and it builds wonderfully to a shocking finish.

When taken with other films penned by Alex Garland, such as Sunshine and Dredd, Ex Machina means that I now have a smart, modern science-fiction movie writer who I am glad to follow to the theater.

Dope (2015)

Director: Rick Famuyiwa

A phenomenally creative update to the "coming up in the 'hood" movies of the late '80s and early '90s.

Dope chronicles several very tense and sometimes funny weeks in the life of Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a high school senior growing up in 2014 in Inglewood, California, an area notorious for its poverty and danger. Malcolm is an unusual kid for his time and place - he's a young black man with a passion for learning at school, science fiction, punk music, and 1990s hip-hop and rap music and clothing styles. Basically, he's a geek. He and his two misfit friends, Jib and Diggy, spend far too much time trying to avoid the various perils rife in his neighborhood, tellingly nicknamed "The Bottoms."

One night at a club which Malcolm and his friends have nervously wormed their way into, a gunfight breaks out over a raid on a drug deal. After the chaos abates and the trio flee to safety, they discover that an entire brick of uncut cocaine has been stuffed into Malcolm's backpack, which had been placed behind the bar for safekeeping. This puts Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy in the difficult position of deciding what to do with it. Various social pressures and personal desires assert themselves, understandably, as these three nerds in the 'hood try to cope with a situation which could land one or all of them in prison.

Following such a description, you may be surprised to learn that Dope is an incredibly funny movie. Malcom, Job, and Diggy are such awkward fish out of water, despite being natives to The Bottoms, that their simplest, everyday interactions are often comedy gold. This is enhanced by some great direction by Rick Famuyiwa. For sections of the movie, Malcolm is almost a Ulysses-type character. He needs every bit of his considerable smarts to survive an array of dangerous and bizarre characters and situations. Almost every stage in his mini-epic journey has a distinctive sense of place, and it makes a viewer eager to see just what awaits Malcolm and his comrades around the next corner.

Dope is a wonderfully clever update to films from the late 1980s and the 1990s like Juice or Boyz In The Hood. It shines a light on a part of the United States that is far too often overlooked, and it does it with style and respect. A larger message is there, but it is not what you might expect, and it is nowhere near as heavy-handed as those earlier groundbreaking movies.

The original members. Unlike many of the "gangsta" rappers
who followed in their footsteps, these guys came by their
anger and perspectives honestly, as the movie shows.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Director: F. Gary Gray

Slick and compelling dramatization of the formation and dissolution of one of the iconic music groups of the late 20th century.

While the above-reviewed film Dope is a brilliant fictional tale of modern life in a rough section of Los Angeles, Straight Outta Compton is the dramatized tale of the very real hardcore rap group N.W.A. in the late 1980s and early 1990s in neighborhoods not far from the Inglewood in Dope. Those of us over age 35 are bound to have strong recollections of the waves that this group made at that time, and this movie does the members' stories justice.

Blessedly, the movie doesn't bother going back too far into the lives of the group's members. Rather, it picks up just before they come together and start performing. Director F. Gary Gray made the savvy move to quickly establish the social ills that Andre Young, O'Shea Jackson, and Eric Wright (Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy E, as they were better known) and fellow N.W.A. members lived every day. The movie then jumps into just how they channeled their frustrations, anger, and musical talents into a form of rap music that became wildly popular while scaring the pants off of the conservative white establishment. The focus on how the music reflected and was influenced by incidents such as the Rodney King beating and other institutional racial injustices is what propels this movie beyond a mere music biopic.

Eazy E's business partnership with manager Jerry Heller is
at the crux of much of the drama. Actors Jason Mitchell
and Paul Giamatti add plenty of power to their dynamic.
The movie is not flawless. A bit of research can tell one how certain details are glossed over or completely ignored (Dr. Dre's abuse of women, for one) or how certain events in the film either did not happen or were manipulated by the writers for more narrative punch. It also comes as no surprise that the movie's executive producers - Ice Cube and Dr. Dre - are painted in the most positive light. The movie also slows a bit when it comes to Eazy E's HIV diagnosis. Still, the lion's share of violent and unhinged incidents depicted can be confirmed with a bit of research, so one should fight the urge to dismiss the wilder elements as pure fiction. Pure truth or somewhat embellished, the movie is extremely well-paced, well-acted, and it remains interesting for nearly all of its 140-plus minutes. This is true even for someone like my wife, who knew very little about the group or its members but enjoyed the film.

Obviously, anyone with a severe distaste for gangsta rap will have difficulty with this film, as it does feature a considerable amount of the music of the era. That aside, and if one can handle the very authentic blue language and hedonism on full display in the movie, then they should give this one a go. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Oscar Stuff: Live Action Short Nominees

I got a chance to see the five nominees for the live-action short films. The Oscar website here has synopses and some previews. Here's what I thought:

The nattering Jewish trio who are trying to get back home in
time for Shabbat. Their attempts to work with silent nuns
provide some nice, light comedy in a tense part of the world.
Ave Maria

Directors: Basil Kalil and Eric Dupont

This 17-minute film is solid, pure comedy, and I thought it the third best of the group.

Taking place in the West Bank of the Israel/Palestine region, it tells the tale of a Jewish family - a son, his wife, and the son's mother - who run their car into a statue of Mary in front of a convent housing five nuns who have taken vows of silence. The gags all stem from the eight people trying to dance around their various religious beliefs, practices, and vows in order to get the Jewish trio back to their house before Shabbat begins. It's an amusing affair, well-acted and shot, and it makes for some welcome humor set in a place best known for its violence and intolerance. 

Shok (Friend)

Director: Jamie Donoughue

Harrowing story set in 1990s Kosovo, where two Albanian boys confront the horrors of violent ethnic discrimination. The movie is not without some small doses of humor, but much of what is depicted is injustice, fear, and sorrow. The framing device is thoughtful and moving, and the acting and cinematography are outstanding. Well worth seeing once, but probably too grim to see again. The second best of the bunch, in my view. 

Alles wild gut (Everything Will Be OK)

Director: Patrick Vollrath

Set in modern Germany, this short is the story of a father who is attempting to flee the country with his young daughter. The crescendo of tension and emotion is paced extremely well, and the acting is excellent. This is especially true of the young girl. However, the story ultimately fails to satisfy, as we are never given enough of the father's story to decide whether his desperation and sorrow are well-founded or not. The final scenes drag on rather brutally, and I came away with little to feel over it other than vague discomfort. My fourth favorite of the five.

With subtlety and humor, this shy, stuttering fellow evokes
the kind of empathy and engagement that some of the other
nominated films failed to capture. 

Director: Benjamin Clearly and Serena Armitage

Clocking at 12 minutes, this is the shortest of the group, and also my favorite. Told from the perspective of a young Londoner with a crippling stutter, we get a great sense of just how frustrating such a condition can be. It is a charming, rather light story, with the protagonist trying to work up the courage to meet the woman whom he's been chatting with online for 6 months. There are several smart and thoughtful additions to this romantic angle, which prevent things from becoming sappy, and the technical merits are top-notch. Certainly not the most hard-hitting of the group, but the one which I felt showed the most all-around cinematic skill. 

Day One

Director: Henry Hughes

Leave it to an American director and production company (AFI, surprisingly) to offer us a film using immensely high production values to tell a ham-fisted tale that borders on insulting. Day One is the story of a female Arabic-English interpreter on her first day on the job in Afghanistan. In probably the most insanely unrealistic combination of dramatic instances ever to take place in a few-hours span, she is nearly blown up, is almost forced to cut a dead newborn out of a terrified local mother, actually deliver the newborn when it is found to be living, then look over the newborn and its older cousin after the mother dies and the father is taken into custody by U.S. armed forces. This short felt so emotionally manipulative and heavy-handed with its commentary on maternity that I was actually angry about it. Despite the skilled cinematography and acting, this was easily my least favorite of the group.

Overall Thoughts

This is actually the first year that I've managed to see the short film nominees. It was a mixed bag, to be sure, though all films showed strong technical merits. Though I obviously liked Stutterer the best, my guess is that Shok is likely to win, given its much harder-hitting nature. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

New Release! The Revenant (2015)

This movie poster offers a sample of the breathtaking solitude
that is as much a part of this movie as any character or
plot point. 
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

It lives up to the hype, but don't expect any kind of feel-good adventure tale with The Revenant.

What you have in this movie is a rather basic tale of survival for the sake of revenge. Like most great stories, though, it is less about the basic plot and more about how it is told. In the case of The Revenant, the strengths lie in the stunningly beautiful, terrifying, and isolated landscapes; the world-class acting; and the brilliant cinematography and overall direction.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a scout for a band of fur traders in the Montana/South Dakota regions of the U.S. in the 1820s. After a brutal surprise attack by a native American tribe, Glass and a handful of others, including his half-breed son Hawk, narrowly escape and begin a log trek back to the safety of the nearest Army outpost. Along the way, Glass is attacked and severely wounded by a grizzly bear. He is eventually left for dead by another member of the survivors, the cunning and ruthless John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who also murders Glass's son in front of his eyes. Glass spends several brutal weeks recovering from his grave injuries, avoiding hostile natives and other hunters, and slowly making his way back to the outpost, where he hopes to catch up to Fitzgerald.

The film is, as you might guess, incredibly brutal. My lasting impression is of Leonardo DiCaprio wincing and grunting in pain for much of the movie. You feel every ounce of his struggle through the camera's eye, and this is exactly as director Inarritu wanted it. Similar to movies like The Grey or basically anything by Werner Herzog, a major theme is the simultaneous beauty and pitilessness of nature. Humans like Glass can be honorable and unbelievably tough, but the natural world, including people given to their most animalistic instincts, have no sympathy. It is hardly a heart-warming message, though one well worth considering now and then. It is especially worth considering when framed in such an expertly-constructed movie.

A scene towards the end of the camp raid. Apparently, this
sequence was so complex that it required a month of
rehearsal before they could actually film it. 
Director Inarritu had his great break-out last year with the singular movie Birdman. While The Revenant is a vastly different movie in many ways, there is a vitality and mastery that it shares with Inarritu's other films. In Birdman, the director showed his skill with using extremely long, unbroken takes. He employs the same technique to one of the opening scenes, in which the fur traders are attacked by a regional tribe. It is one of the most intense and amazing sequences I've ever seen. It was a combination of the opening chaos and ferocity of Saving Private Ryan with a dark version of Dances With Wolves, only producing something which is somehow more stunning than either one of those predecessors. This was just one of the earliest and most striking sequences through the movie.

Lest you think that the movie is a dull sequence of pain and misery, it should be clear that it far transcends the physical travails of its main characters. A few of the encounters and nearly all of the landscapes take on a dreamlike (sometimes nightmare) quality that can have a near-hallucinatory effect. There are times when a viewer is likely to completely forget about Glass's mission of vengeance and become rapt in the majesty of his surroundings. If one is in the right frame of mind, this movie can provide an experience that only the most artistic and well-executed movies can offer.

The Revenant is not for everyone, as this review might imply. It's message (if you can call it that) is a dark one, and the violence is brutal and unflinching. However, the visuals are some of the absolute best you will ever see in film. I don't feel the need to see it again any time soon, but I can foresee a cold, wintry night on which no movie but The Revenant will satisfy me.