Monday, March 31, 2014

Noah / *** (2014)

It’s just as well that the biblical legend of Noah, the man whom the great creator would task with building the Ark to save animals from Earth’s greatest flood, would arrive in the hands of Darren Aronofsky. Already a specialist at character studies revolved around people obsessed with nearly infeasible tasks, here is a filmmaker who takes less direct an approach than most of his contemporaries would with the material, and instead discovers a persona withered by a sense of deep inner turmoil. That it finds the time to descend into this prospect is astonishing given the urgency of the sweeping narrative, but it justifies the crusade with one notable takeaway: when we pit man against creation, is there anyone strong enough to thoroughly fulfill the will of a God whose silence can be harsh and mocking?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Beyond the Shadows

“I lost my way among empty streets.”
– Dr. Borg, Wild Strawberries

Let me tell you a little about yours truly in the years leading up to 2005. The writer, critic, movie enthusiast and person you see now, in many regards, is a much different man than what existed preceding that bracket of time. Much has been said about events that transpired over that period – perhaps the strangest and most traumatic of my adult years – but what would be the relevance of digging that all up now? I’ve never been one to wallow in victimization when it comes to looking back on how things transpired, because it is redundant to the decisions I make in the aftermath.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Rear Window / **** (1954)

Layers of psychological awareness betray unassuming audiences of “Rear Window,” and most are not easily disregarded by its three observant main characters either. There is a disquieting resonance in what their eyes and ears absorb; from an apartment window overlooking a closed courtyard containing numerous dwellings, the busy lives of an assemblage of suburban tenants are seen in full disclosure, as if participants in an intricate stage play of wordless drama. Some events converge as neighbors interact in passing, while others simply occupy space in peripheral subplots. They are the kinds of people that do not concern themselves with hiding behind shades or curtains, but does that create a right in others to observe so closely? If some such lives are absorbed by fatal circumstances, is this notion of snooping then justified? The questions become even more vital once the tone is set by a sardonic massage therapist, who makes a pointed observation in an early scene of the film that seems to reveal the essence of our collective modern standard: “We’ve become a race of peeping toms,” she concedes.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Napoleon Dynamite / 1/2* (2004)

When I was in high school, those of us branded as unpopular sorts were rather thankful to skirt through the cliques with minimal notice. As awkward as it is to be on the outside of teenage coteries, it is usually more discomforting to be in the crosshairs of those who relish the opportunity to expose your social dysfunction. I admired those that stood their ground when the time came for their own public ridicule, but didn’t necessarily envy their positions; many were simply too enraged or impatient to be silent, while others lacked the skill to avoid such situations in the first place. One constant between them, though, was that their unconventional traits shielded others from recognizing the often brilliant minds that were concealed underneath. Watching “Napoleon Dynamite,” I was curious as to what some of those former classmates of mine would have thought of the eccentric main character that occupies the majority of this story. Would they have been sympathetic to his inept social skills, or infuriated by his lack of mental capacity?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Divergent / ** (2014)

Somewhere under the muddle of cynicism and pathos that “Divergent” offers, an idea of great inspiration is struggling to take root. There exists a need in modern fiction writers, I think, to transfer the bleak overtones of apocalyptic yarns to the imaginations of young adults these days, but the premise at the center of this one piqued my interest in ways most recent endeavors like this could only hope for. The movie’s first scenes are a good launching point for that notion; dialogue from the main character reveals a cultural structure in which people are divided into factions by personality types – wisdom, kindness, honesty, selflessness or bravery, to be more specific – and each alliance plays a key role in holding together a society seeped in unrest. The setting, meanwhile, is clarified by a spectacular establishing shot in which skeletal remnants of Chicago jut out from the ground like gnarled branches, and a high fence that surrounds it hints at terrible dangers that lurk outside the borders. How things like this came to be is but a footnote to the audience, but it does emphasize the urgency of the early voice-over: can you doubt these grim observations after knowing what an infrastructure like Chicago can be reduced to?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Predators / **1/2 (2010)

“Predators” begins with a shot of stupefying ambiguity: a man named Royce awakes and discovers he is plummeting towards the ground from high in the air, completely oblivious to how he got into such a grim predicament. There is a sudden realization that he is armed with a parachute, and down he glides right into the bushes of a foreboding jungle, where similar faces of incredulity too begin appearing from the skies above. None of those who survive the fall know one another, but that is the least of their worries: what circumstances placed them together in this damp and dangerous space to begin with, and who or what is behind their unlikely gathering? To an audience slightly more informed than the victims of this ambiguous circumstance, this much is constant: things are about to get very grim for each of them, especially when the presence of a rather familiar movie villain emerges in the shadows.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Lifeboat / ***1/2 (1944)

To be stranded on the open seas alongside Tallulah Bankhead would be a fate well worth the uncertain aftermath. While most actresses of the golden age were swept along with the current created by ambitious cinematographers, here was a force that unconsciously rebelled against all accepted traditions: robust and dominating, with a presence so intoxicating that all eyes – even those behind the camera – were immediately hypnotized by her splendor. Considered at the time to be the most popular stage actress of her generation, the audience’s love affair with her on the big screen was, alas, a brief one; outside her starring role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat,” a descent into the world of cinema included only a small handful of bit roles and cameos, not to mention a few isolated television appearances. Some, perhaps deservingly, chock that reality up to her stylistic resemblance to Bette Davis; already occupying the limelight as an eccentric beauty in full command of powerful abilities by the 1940s, Davis’ success cast a shadow that Bankhead probably had little chance of escaping from. Now her name drifts through the mind of most of today’s moviegoers like an unknown whisper, but her impact carries a distinct echo. The most famous of these relics: the villainess Cruella DeVille at the center of Disney’s “101 Dalmatians,” who was directly inspired by the late diva’s frank and often enthusiastic delivery of courtesies and euphemisms.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Nymphomaniac: Volume I / ***1/2 (2014)

When it comes to the human sensations that seek to consume us, sex is often the most destructive. If our passions have the capacity to unravel temperaments, then intercourse with another can send ripples through all facets: physical, emotional, even psychological. It inspires a wide range of dissonant emotions, ranging from joy to satisfaction and even pain, occasionally in succession to one another. Pleasure at its primal core is an earthly luxury, but there exists a boundary at which that privilege becomes outright addiction – some are so absorbed by the excess that it fragments their perspective. And yet the degree to which one seeks sexual release in high increments may in fact reveal a side of our human nature that is rarely recognized: the concealed part of our psyche that craves chaos and disregards control or consequence. Consider this fascinating paradox when the characters of “Nymphomaniac: Volume I” are on screen – do their carnal conundrums exist because they submit to incessant physical stimulation, or is there a darker nuance unravelling them in between orgasms?

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Lego Movie / *** (2014)

Of the myriad of entertainments at our disposal in the movies, I can scarcely think of one as bizarre as “The Lego Movie” – peculiar not just in the sense that its style originates from offbeat means, but because it manages to use the material as a launching point for a story of remarkable insight. When an idea like this arrives at our notice, who could have guessed that the concept would fall into the hands of movie artists who were intent on wrapping their offbeat images around a stimulating plot? Certainly not this movie critic. With vague reservations, I wandered into a local theater playing the picture several weeks after it had won the attention of box office analysts, curious as to how an endeavor about characters made of blocks could really work in today’s fold. Among the many revelations contained here, the greatest is nothing more than a friendly reminder: never underestimate the power of ambitious filmmakers, regardless of their technique.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire / ** (2014)

Leonidas of Sparta would have benefitted from having a man like Themistokles standing in his ranks. When the king of a war-driven city in the Greek countryside ignored the advice of oracles and marched 300 soldiers against the vast Persian Empire in protest of their invasion, his impulse came from a place of foolish defiance rather than strategy. What did he hope to accomplish or inspire, despite that the men in his ranks were bred for such war and taken to the absolute peak of fearless engagement throughout their upbringing? The admiral of Athens, on the other hand, stands in contrast with more thoughtful convictions – in his eyes, success is achieved by uniting with neighboring allies rather than marching into a hopeless onslaught severely outnumbered. Had he been present during the course of events in “300,” perhaps the egos and utter madness of Spartan soldiers would have been undermined long enough for certain logic to overtake their misplaced confidence, allowing for a much different outcome.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

American Hustle / **** (2013)

Movie enthusiasts occasionally need something to remind them of their love of the medium, and those endeavors that emphasize the pure joy of going to the cinema are usually the most striking. David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” is the latest of that elusive standard, a movie as perfect as they come. Somewhere during the manic struggle that occurs between filming and editing a picture, here was a director who caught sight of a powerful sense of inspiration, and tethered it to his work as a means of taking a fairly conventional story and giving it an enthusiastic footing. You can sense the intuitive genius weaving its way through the formula right from the opening scenes; whereas a straightforward depiction would have been dominated by subdued drama and actors caught in monotone execution, this film comes out swinging with an unmatched intensity, and captures performances that seem freed from the shackles of standard. To call the end result an absolute triumph would undercut more apropos labels; it seeks to be one of the best films of the year, and transcends that goal.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The 2014 Academy Awards: A Final Snapshot

There was a moment early in the 86th Academy Award telecast where the host, Ellen Degeneres, called attention to a lavishly dolled up Liza Minnelli, referring to her as the “best Liza impersonator I have ever seen.” It followed with the definitive zinger of the night (“Good job, sir!”) and the most unpleasant look on the face of a notable audience member (Miss Liza appeared to be none too pleased). Most probably would find such a comment a norm for most modern comedians, but for Ms. Degeneres, it was the closest she could ever come to creating a sensationalized criticism of anyone in her audience. After the audacious demeanors of hosts like Seth MacFarlane and Jon Stewart in recent years, Ellen emerged as more subdued and engaging, often playing it safe so that the words of the movies spoke for themselves.