Thursday, September 24, 2015

Capsule Review: Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922)

Filled with bravura special effects and complex sequences, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler was the first Mabuse film - adapted from the book by Norbert Jacques and directed by the legendary Fritz Lang (who would later helm two more films featuring the character/concept. Split into two parts, the film introduces us to the master of disguise and mind control, who uses his powers - and an assortment of thugs - to pull off massive cons and bend people (and the economy) to his will. The film is presented in two lengthy parts, with a total running time of 270 minutes. The first half is subtitled A Picture of the Time and shows off the post-WWI cynicism of the German people that would eventually lead to the rise of National Socialism (itself eerily prognosticated by parallels between Mabuse and Hitler). Despite its length, it moves briskly and it's easy to see why Mabuse - who clearly influenced the later villains in Bond films and elsewhere - captured the public's imagination.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review: Lucy

It’s not uncommon to walk into a film screening with a preconceived notion of whether you will like the movie or not. Sure, this is kinda against the ethics of the film critic, but I’m willing to bet I wasn’t the only one to walk into the last Riddick flick with a chip on my shoulder.

That being said, I have to give it up for Luc Besson’s latest directorial effort, Lucy. Everyone sitting in the audience of my screening knew it would be dumb, but were hoping for at least a fun dumb. Besson, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed the film, somehow has produced a movie that is so stupid that it goes so far outside of his comfort zone as to become perhaps his finest work to date.

Scarlett Johansson stars as the titular Lucy, a college student abroad who finds herself caught up in the European drug trade. Kidnapped, she awakens to find that her stomach has been sliced open in order to hold a baggie of illegal narcotics, with orders to transport the booty by an evil drug lord (Oldboy’s Min-Sik Choi). Once the baggie bursts and the contents begin flowing into her system, the fun begins.

Besson has never had the reputation for bringing smart films to the screen, so maybe that is why Lucy ends up being so outstanding. Don’t get me wrong, the whole concept of humans only using 10% of their brain’s potential is a laughable concept, but Besson pushes through any flawed logic by sheer willpower. Here we have the extremely poor man’s version of Tree of Life, with Johansonn traveling through Earth’s history as a silent witness to both its birth, as well as its death.

Taken as given, Lucy is his greatest cinematic feat to date. If there is a tragic flaw, it is in the casting of Johansonn. Game as ever, the actress does her best to inhabit the role, but there is a vibe that this kind of thing is behind her now. Whereas an unknown actress would blow folks away with this degree of a performance, here one can’t help but wonder if after watching her perform for close to two decades onscreen, maybe the college kid roles can go to someone else now.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Review: Tim's Vermeer

Some of the best documentaries come not from revelations made before the camera starts rolling, but from subjects that the filmmaker just finds interesting. Think of the great docs held in high-regard: Hoop Dreams follow a pair of young basketball players before college and the pros ever come into the picture; Roger & Me was Michael Moore’s attempt to find out why General Motors decided to destroy his hometown; and the list goes on.

With Tim’s Vermeer, filmmakers Penn & Teller (yes, the magicians) focus the camera’s lens on their friend Tim Jenison, a Texas inventor fascinated by one of the great mysteries in art history: how 17th-century Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer was able to paint masterpieces that were near-photorealistic, 150 years before the invention of the photograph?

Tim has followed his fascination with various subjects into a pretty comfortable lifestyle, with his inventions bringing millions of dollars. In his attempts to recapture the exact conditions in which Vermeer worked, he spends countless dollars on studying and building work spaces of exacting detail; calling on his family and friends to pose for hours at a time; and even manages to finagle a private showing of the Vermeer inside the Queen’s private collection at Buckingham Palace.

While Tim’s story is fairly interesting, one wonders how much more interesting it would be with a veteran storyteller behind the camera. While the magical duo of Penn & Teller has charisma to spare on stage, here they fail their friend in bringing his story to the screen. Even at a short running time of 80 minutes, it plods along at points, making one wonder if it would have worked better as a short doc all along.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Review: Wadjda

Some films are powerful because their simplicity hold a powerful truth within the picture being shown. WADJDA, the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia as well as the first in the country to be directed by a woman, is one such film. To be produced in a country where women are expected to stay quiet is quite a feat, and one that would not be as strong if it were made anywhere else.

Wadjda is a young girl (Waad Mohammed) living in Riyadh, struggling with the rules that are set before her. At first she attempts small personal rebellions, such as wearing sneakers under her robe to school, or playing Western music much to her mother's dismay.

Ultimately these build into a desperate search for money in which to buy a bike. Wadjda has been playing with a neighborhood boy named Abdullah, again against her mother's wishes, and her goal becomes to beat him in a bicycle race. This is not allowed for girls, so Wadjda secretly discovers little ways in which to acculamate enough cash to purchase the bike on her own. While this is happening, her mother quietly deals with the pain of knowing her husband is considering bringing a second wife into the family, in the hopes that she may finally bear him a son.

Director Haifaa Al-Mansour's film debut is a surprisingly strong one, as it features a story that should be a crowd pleaser for any young girl watching. Transplanting the concept of "grrl power" into a country where that ideal could get you killed, Al-Mansour manages to keep the film relatively light. Wadjda's idea of memorizing passages from the Quran in order to win a contest's cash prize could just as easily have taken place in an American film's Bible Camp setting.

In the end, Wadjda is an excellent beginning for a developing film industry. Already submitted to the Academy Awards as a consideration for Best Foreign Film at next year's ceremony, Al-Mansour's artistic triumph could end up being a sign of progress for both her industry and her nation.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: The Way, Way Back

If you drive deep into Eastern North Carolina, there is a small town in Bladen County named White Lake. Less than 1,000 people make it their permanent residence, but during the summer the campgrounds around the lake swell with folks who own little trailers that become their unofficial summer residences. Once the sun sets, you are liable to find more golf carts on the roads than cars, as people drive house to house looking the next keg party or pig pickin’.

These images are what first came to mind upon viewing Academy Award winning screenwriters (The Descendants) and first time directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s The Way, Way Back. Set during a summer seemingly made to be 14-year-old Duncan’s personal hell, he finds himself trapped on vacation in a spot much like what I described above with his mom Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend (Steve Carell), and his teenage daughter. The evenings are packed with neighborhood parties and cookouts, and the days spent surrounded by teenagers he could not be less like. Every family outing becomes a journey into embarrassment for Duncan until he meets the manager of a run-down water park, Owen (Sam Rockwell), who takes the kid under his wing and somehow manages to coax him out of his introverted shell.

Many have lauded the comedy-drama since its premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, but I was nowhere near prepared for what I found when I walked into the screening a couple of weeks ago. Expecting something along the feel-good lines of a Little Miss Sunshine, perhaps even a slightly less hipster Juno, what I found instead was a heartwarming coming of age tale that invites us into a boy’s life for a short while, but long enough to watch as he develops the coping skills to make it as an adult. Anchored by a fine performance by Liam James, the young Duncan must deal with a potential stepfather who views him as an opponent for his mother’s love and a shy nature that allows girls his age to taunt him with rumors of incest. Even his only mode of escape is a pink bike that has seen better days.

Perhaps the finest work by actors in TWWB would be the duo of Collette and Allison Janney, here playing a mom incapable of making the right decision. The two actresses play their roles from exact opposites of the spectrum, with Collette all quiet and loving to those around her, and Janney searching for the inch of scenery that she has yet to chew. The two weirdly counteract each other and bring the best out of the other in each scene they appear in together.

Faxon and Rash have made quite the auspicious debut behind the camera here, as they battle the remnants of the summer shoot-em-up season for a spot near the top of the box office charts this weekend. Regardless of where the film ends up on Sunday night, I already know there is a place waiting for it on my year-end Best of 2013 list.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Review: Red 2

An elderly man fakes his death to trick his friend into delivering a tear-filled eulogy while he’s still alive to hear it. A skit from a random episode of Betty White’s Off Their Rockers? Nope, just another example of the filmmakers’ belief that old folks be crazy in Red 2.

We open in Costco, where the happy star-crossed lovers from the first film, Frank (Bruce Willis) and Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), are beginning to show that their relationship may not be built to last. Frank is more than happy to play the role of happy retiree now that the US government has no reason to hunt him down, while Sarah is beginning to miss the excitement that drew the two together in the first place.

Enter Marvin (John Malkovich), with a theory of a new conspiracy against the elder agents. It seems that someone has leaked the orders of a mission the two were on during the Cold War that involved the transport of a portable nuclear device. After a failed assassination attempt by government operative Jack Horton (Neal McDonough), the trio go on a globetrotting adventure that finds them ducking a hitman with a grudge (Byung-hun Lee), as well as their old friend Victoria (Helen Mirren).

Dean Parisot has been in Directors Jail since Fun with Dick and Jane failed to light up the box office in 2005. Mostly working in television since then, Red 2 is Parisot’s first feature in 8 years. Hopefully his bunk is still open, because I don’t believe this will be the film to cause his peers to figuratively raise his jersey to the rafters. Dull action sequences; uninspired work from Willis, and wasted efforts by Malkovich, Mirren, and Parker; and the latest in a long line to attempt to include comic panels as transitions without coming off as cheesy; all of this can be found inside!

A few of the actors manage to produce enjoyable work, but only by using the age-old method known as “chewing the scenery”. Brian Cox returns as Russian ally Ivan, who once again saves his friends’ hides while taking time to woo his beloved Victoria. David Thewlis appears as a Frenchman selling information to the highest bidder, with an incredible ability to avoid capture. Last but certainly not least is Anthony Hopkins as Bailey, the ill-fated creator of the nuclear weapon, who is also more than he seems.
How does Red 2 rank when compared to the first installment of the franchise? It’s actually really hard to say. While I enjoyed the first one quite a bit, this one failed to connect with me. I suppose it can be blamed on Parisot’s inability to draw the same “fun” out of the performers that original director Robert Schwentke (R.I.P.D.) managed to produce. Suffice it to say, this is probably one you can afford to skip.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Review: The Internship

Nearly 10 years since their massive box office hit Wedding Crashers was released, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson have teamed up again for The Internship. In their latest, Vaughn and Wilson play two salesmen who find out over dinner with a client that their company has gone under. Finding themselves unemployed with little in the way of marketable skills, Vaughn signs the duo up for an internship at Google, believing that their outgoing personalities will make up for what they lack in computer skills. Upon entering the Google campus, however, they discover that they are surrounded by fellow applicants that are half their age and an authority figure (Aasif Mandvi) who seems to be on a mission to kick them out.

From the very first scene it is clear that the easy chemistry Vaughn and Wilson showcased in Crashers hasn’t waned in the decade since. These two actors are never better than when they have a partner of equal strengths to trade zingers with onscreen, and an argument could be made that they are the best comedic duo of the past decade.

The screenplay, co written by Vaughn and Jared Stern (The Watch), attempts to meld characters borrowed from 80s buddy flicks with the product placement that modern Hollywood has turned to in order to finance their gigantic budgets. Vaughn’s Billy McMahon loses his job, house, and girlfriend all in the first five minutes, and upon discovering how wonderful Google appears, talks his slightly-more-adjusted best friend into dropping everything and joining him. This scenario is lifted almost beat for beat from Stripes, with Vaughn and Wilson slipping comfortably into the Billy Murray and Harold Ramis roles, the only difference being a change of scenery.

Where it would be easy to go wrong by pushing the “old guys fighting the young kids” scenario, the screenwriting duo and director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) display a light touch. They never have the partners outright complain about those crazy kids today; instead, the pair are caught off guard by things that could easily slip past folks in their 40s who aren’t addicted to the internet, such as cosplay and Instagram.

Where the script tends to fall flat is during the scenes in which the film has to remind the audience of how great a company Google is. For folks that hate characters holding cans of Coke uncomfortably to showcase the logo, this movie may cause strokes. Be prepared to walk out of the theaters knowing all of the benefits that Google offers their employees, such as free food, nap pods, a spiral slide inside the office lobby, and free transportation around town. In perhaps a nod toward reality, toward the end the kids tell the oldsters that they want to work there not only for the perks, but because new graduates coming out of college are lucky to find any kind of work these days.
The Internship may very well scare away a portion of their potential audience due to that flagrant brand hyping, and that’s a shame. Whether we knew it or not, there is a reason that Vaughn and Wilson chose this film as a renewing of their partnership, and anyone who enjoyed their previous films should appreciate the chemistry they will find here as well.