Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: "The Past"

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Runtime: 130 minutes

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi knows how to create compelling, naturalistic scenarios - as evidenced by 2011's A Separation - but his latest film leaves quite a lot to be desired. In A Separation, Farhadi crafted an electric look at a couple struggling to move forward in their lives. With The Past, Farhadi shifts his focus to the way past events, recent and distant, come up to haunt the present. Yet Farhadi's look at the past proves far less compelling than his previous film's portrait of the struggle to move forward. 

The solid performances and confident directing are stuck trying to sort out a script (also by Farhadi) that remains frustratingly unfocused. Though the opening scenes seem effective, albeit much quieter than A Separation's fiery arguments, they quickly give way to mundane padding. When Marie (Berenice Bejo, who picked up the Best Actress prize at Cannes back in May) picks up her ex-husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the airport, the film seems headed in the right direction. The two actors have a comfortable, lived-in chemistry that Farhadi never mishandles or over emphasizes. It may not be as attention-grabbing as Separation's opening scene, but it sets the stage nicely and avoids coming off as though Farhadi is repeating himself.

Yet once Ali settles in (he's in Paris to finalize his and Marie's divorce), The Past starts to wander off. The film runs for 130 minutes, yet the most notable stretch after the opening scene doesn't arrive until 80 minutes have elapsed. Barely anything in between begs to be examined or probed for greater depth. There are no actively bad scenes in The Past, but there are a large number of them that are barely more than functional. The writing creates occasional sparks, but nothing substantial enough to start a real fire. 

More troubling is Farhadi's meandering focus. The Past begins as Ali and Marie's story, and gradually becomes more about Ali. That is, until it no longer needs him, and jumps over to Marie and her new boyfriend Samir (A Prophet's Tahar Rahim). Later on, Marie drops off as well, leaving the film's final scraps at Samir's feet. Shifting focus across protagonists isn't inherently wrong or misguided, but The Past certainly doesn't stand as a strong example. None of the main characters feel properly anchored or fleshed out, even after several delicate secrets come to light. 

By the time the (admittedly poignant) final scene arrives, one is left wondering what on earth the point was. For a film that spends so much time attempting to build up its characters, they rarely feel whole, as though they know their time as the film's central focus is about to expire. The Past starts off promisingly enough, with a set-up filled with ideas about past and present relationships colliding with each other. But beyond that set-up, there's hardly anything worth talking about when it comes to the execution, other than the head-scratching lack of focus. 

Farhadi proved his talents as a writer with A Separation, yet his script this time around is the film's Achilles Heel, rather than its best asset. And even though The Past is never truly bad, the directing and the performances aren't enough to significantly offset the deficiencies in the writing. It's the epitome of a respectable, yet totally unremarkable middle-of-the-road drama from a writer/director who is capable of so much more.

Grade: C+

Friday, December 27, 2013

Review: "The Wolf of Wall Street"

Director: Martin Scorsese
Runtime: 180 minutes

Though billed as a raucous dark comedy, it would be more accurate to describe The Wolf of Wall Street as a big, loud, three hour parade of horrors. This chronicle of real-life stock broker Jordan Belfort's rise and fall is a slice of excess that is, itself, excessive in execution. Despite stunningly committed work from Leonardo DiCaprio, and some very entertaining debauchery, The Wolf of Wall Street still feels too big for its own good, and this is after a hour of material has already hit the cutting room floor. 

Set amid the coke-fueled heyday of the late 80s and early 90s, Belfort's story begins when, at 22, he walked off of the bus at Wall Street hoping to make a name for himself. And, of course, he did, albeit in all of the wrong ways. As was the case with American Hustle, Wolf isn't terribly concerned about giving the actual plot developments the spotlight. Instead, it's content to allow the plot to momentarily pop up from its gopher hole, while it spends most of its time reveling in the big and insanely loud lives of the characters. 

And even though Scorsese is much better at balancing free-wheeling character scenes and overall plot than David O. Russell, the scales are still tipped way too far in favor of the insanity. Yet to call Wolf a 'party movie' doesn't really sit right. There are drug-fueled blowouts and orgies a plenty, but their purpose is to repulse rather than to seduce. Belfort and his stock broker friends and associates lived large in the emptiest, most debased way imaginable. At the end of La Dolce Vita, Marcello Mastroianni laments the hollowness of his party-driven lifestyle, but he'd go sprinting back to any of those celebrations if he caught a glimpse of Belfort's exploits. 

Despite the film's considerable excesses, it's almost worth all three hours just to witness the gob-smacking amount of effort DiCaprio gives the role in every frame. Some of his previous collaborations with Scorsese have been held back by stiffness or self-consciousness. Here, however, the actor has truly gotten lost in the part. It's mostly sound and fury theatrics, but DiCaprio's every move is perfectly in sync with Scorsese's tone and vision: in your face, exhilarating, repulsive, and ultimately exhausting. Though it won't go down as his most nuanced performance, there's something impressive with how well DiCaprio simply lets go. A long, but worthwhile, scene involving quaaludes and co-worker Donny Azoff (Jonah Hill) includes some of the most impressive physical acting to hit the screen in the past decade. 

So, despite the expansive supporting cast (including Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Joanna Lumley, Kyle Chandler, and Jean Dujardin), the entire three hours truly rests on DiCaprio's shoulders. He certainly carries the whole thing pretty damn effortlessly, which is why it's a shame that Scorsese couldn't have simply given him less to carry. With essentially no change in Belfort's character over the course of the runtime, the nonstop hijinks become exhausting in all of the wrong ways. Scorsese's film is always watchable, but some additional reigning in would have been appreciated. There's simply not enough room for the plot to breathe properly. Had the chaos built to a clearer point, this complaint wouldn't be such a big deal. But the point of the whole thing is something that one can ascertain after the first hour or so. Everything else, however compelling, is merely indulgent to a fault. 

Grade: B-

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review: "Saving Mr. Banks"

Director: John Lee Hancock
Runtime: 125 minutes

Saving Mr. Banks begins and ends with shots of the clouds, which is just as well, seeing as the film seems to have been written and created with its head up among them. A sugar-coated, albeit never treacly, slice of Disney history, the film goes down easy, though it can't help but leave a sour taste in light of how events actually panned out. Emma Thompson is as effective and effortlessly watchable as ever as the film's lead, but even her work isn't enough to raise the material above (largely harmless) mediocrity.

Right off of the bat, it's clear that writer P.L. Travers (Thompson) isn't terribly enthusiastic about Walt Disney's (Tom Hanks) desire to turn her beloved Mary Poppins novels into a film. The stories, Travers insists, don't lend themselves to a feature film, especially if said film is to include musical numbers and, even worse, animated sequences. From the moment Travers sets foot on her flight from London to LA, she's standoffish with everyone from flight attendants to hotel bell boys. Her cheery hired Disney driver (Paul Giamatti) tells her that the sun has come out to greet her. Travers responds by remarking that the City of Angels smells like chlorine and sweat.

Travers' mood doesn't improve after meeting Disney, or the team of writers and songwriters who have been tasked with the adaptation (Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, and Jason Schwartzman). Hardly a line in the script goes by without a correction or objection from the protective author, who shoots down everything from set designs to the eventually famous lyric "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." If there are parts of Saving Mr. Banks that are legitimately entertaining and informative, it's the early butting of heads between the Disney creatives and the author. Thompson's no nonsense, almost school marm-ish delivery is a highlight, and lends some contentious spark to an otherwise adequate film. 

Less sure are the flashbacks detailing Travers' childhood in Australia, the experiences of which inspired the Poppins books. When Thompson is on screen, there's a level of restraint in both the writing and in Hancock's direction. With Thompson gone, however, the flashbacks often come off as a touch hoakey, despite events that lend a darker shading to the narrative. Instead of being anchored around Thompson, the trips into the past are shouldered on Colin Farrell as Travers' troubled, alcoholic father. Farrell has proven himself a talented actor, especially in dark comedies, but he seems miscast here. The overeager image he projects - in general or around his young children - tends to ring false. Moments between father and daughter that should charm are, instead, bland and hammy. More effective is Ruth Wilson as Travers' troubled mother, despite her performance largely consisting of reactions to her husband's actions. 

Oddly, the most effective secondary thread has nothing to do with Mr. Disney or the Travers family's Outback melodrama. Though their scenes rarely build outside of a few quips, Thompson and Giamatti's slow-building friendship leads to a lovely conclusion that feels more in line with who Travers was, and what she stood for. The movie eventually has her won over by the 1964 Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke film, which undercuts the author's resilience and regret over the enterprise. On the other hand, Travers' relationship with her happy-go-lucky driver, however embellished or invented, have a mark of truth to them that transcends the otherwise pedestrian material, albeit only by a hair's breadth. 

The rest of the film is a handsome, though uninspired, technical package, nicely capturing the period without doing anything to truly stand out. From the costumes to the generic Thomas Newman score, it all looks and sounds right, even though none of the techs leave an impression. In many ways, Saving Mr. Banks resembles last year's Hitchcock, another film about creative battles behind iconic Hollywood products. It gets the job done and provides a few moments of enjoyment, but it's ultimately little more than a sanitized take on a story that has thornier complexities  that deserved to be unpacked and explored. 

Grade: C+

Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"

Director: Peter Jackson
Runtime: 161 minutes

Many argue that The Two Towers, the second of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is the strongest film in an outstanding cinematic trio. Middle installments come burdened with moving pieces and are unable to finish with a bang. At least, they're not allowed to finish with as big of a bang as the final entry, which gets the benefit of wrapping it all up. The Two Towers, however, overcame that by creating its own epic ending, yet still making it clear the obstacles that lay ahead in The Return of the King. It was a spectacle having its cake and eating it too, in the very best way. That same success, sadly, is nowhere to be found in The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson's middle chapter of this three-part adaptation of Tolkien's The Hobbit. Instead, it's the film that many likely feared Jackson's original trilogy would be: bloated, emotionally hollow, and suffocated by visual effects

Whatever flaws one can find with last year's An Unexpected Journey (and there are many), that at least had a proper beginning. Desolation kicks off with an unnecessary flashback to dole out catch-up details, and then hits the ground running. Unfortunately, the film's feet are made of glass. The mix of hand-crafted and computer-generated sets and models is even more glaringly obvious than in Part I, which breaks the spell immediately. While certain VFX shots in the original trilogy no doubt look a tad dated by now, they at least still have a lived-in, tactile feel. By contrast, the blend of CGI and reality is amateurish at best, with the lighting for the green screens casting a hazy glow over an unfortunate number of scenes. The vaseline on the lens look has been put to great use before (Casablanca is still stunning), but here it just looks cheap, and even unfinished.

More disappointing is how much Jackson's storytelling skills have dropped in quality. The plotting is agonizingly drawn-out, yet what little character exists is often rushed. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, handsome even underneath the make up), is a compelling figure, yet this time around he only has one note to play. The supporting band of dwarves, meanwhile, often feel interchangeable. Like excessive characters in a horror movie, they exist merely to fill the frame when the action kicks in. And while Jackson and his co-writers deserve credit for creating a badass female elf warrior (Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel), they also stick her in a totally bloodless pseudo-love triangle that drags things down even further. Even Bilbo (Martin Freeman), our supposed guide and protagonist, feels like an afterthought until the finale. 

Thankfully, after all of the build up, Jackson does hit a home run when he reaches the super-sized climax. The villainous dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), is stunning. Both the visual effects and Cumberbatch's performance are excellent, and together they create the single best thing about an otherwise misguided pair of adaptations. Even the story's several cutaways to other matters (the elves, the townsfolk near Smaug's mountain lair, Gandalf - remember him?) can't throw off the thrill once the dragon takes center stage. The varied set pieces Jackson wrings out of the encounter are excellent. Smaug is rendered so well that even the lackluster work on the backdrops finally stops being a bother. 

But then the "ending" comes crashing in and ruins the fun of it all. We still have another full length film to wrap this all up (one that originally wasn't supposed to exist). Jackson and company more than deliver with the titular dragon (and there is a lot of material with him), yet the final cut to black is a rude reminder of just how much this adaptation has been dragged out. It's the worst sort of fan service, trying to give every moment of the (quite slim) novel its due, and then throwing in a bunch of other nonsense to fill in the gaps. You're better off buying a ticket and then finding something to do for an hour and a half. That way, you'll skip nearly all of the narrative fat, and only enjoy the good stuff. Best to sully your cinematic memories of Middle Earth as little as possible. 

Grade: C-

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review: "Out of the Furnace"

Director: Scott Cooper
Runtime: 116 minutes

Grim and brutal with absolutely nowhere to go, Out of the Furnace is a revenge drama lacking depth and purpose. Director Scott Cooper's follow up to 2009's Crazy Heart has some admirable performances, especially from leading man Christian Bale, but it has absolutely nothing to say. There may be important issues present, but they're delved into superficially at best.  

Set in the Rust Belt, Out of the Furnace at least looks right for the part. The mix of handheld camera work and grimy visuals are well suited to the failing steel-mill town where the action takes place. But right from the get go, Cooper's story, co-written with Brad Inglesby, feels like a rough sketch of a plot or a rough draft. This story of brothers Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck) seems desperate to say something about the hard times ailing places like the Rust Belt (in this case, Braddock, Pennsylvania). Early on, Russell sips a beer in a dimly lit bar, while the 2008 Democratic National Convention airs on TV, promising hope and change to an audience that already seems destined to be forgotten. 

Then there's the matter of Rodney, who's struggling to find work when he's on leave from the Army. Despite a stint in prison, Russell is the "good" brother of the two, always taking care of the house and dutifully going to his job at the steel mill. Rodney, meanwhile, falls in with the wrong crowd when gets roped into illegal fights run by the likes of John Petty (a burnt orange Willem Dafoe) and drug dealer Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Given DeGroat's fiery temper and violent urges, it's hardly a surprise when things go south, and the film switches from would-be character study to a revenge drama. 

Yet Cooper and Inglesby appear to be under the impression that the choice of setting is enough to inform the characters beyond their basic archetypes. They are wrong. Rather than get in the heads of the characters, Out of the Furnace moves dutifully through the motions, just like Bale's Russell. It does what it needs to do to get from point A to point B, and then it's simple done, with no deeper meaning or gravitas to create a sense of purpose. 

The stacked ensemble, unfortunately, isn't able to do much with the painfully basic material. Bale is an effortlessly compelling leading man, and the first half of the film gives him a few chances to really shine. But in the larger picture, none of it adds up to a substantial sum. Affleck is angry, Zoe Saldana cries, Dafoe wears a heinous turtle neck sweater, and Harrelson is foul and creepy, but there's nothing else going on. The supporting ensemble mostly feel like wasted effort, an even bigger shame considering the talent involved on camera. 

To his credit, Bale holds the whole enterprise together as the protagonist, but any sense of intrigue or mystery to his quest for vengeance is dealt away with from the start. We know everything he can possibly learn in his journey, which makes Out of the Furnace a bit of a slog to sit through. There's nothing hugely objectionable about the film, but there's simply nothing there underneath the grimy photography and hardened faces to justify the film's existence. In a way, it's almost hard to call Out of the Furnace "bad," as its biggest crime is simply that it has absolutely nothing going on outside of its most basic components, all of which have been used to better effect in dozens of other films.

Grade: C/C-

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Review: "American Hustle"

Director: David O. Russell
Runtime: 128 minutes

About halfway through David O. Russell's American Hustle, I suddenly realized why it all felt so vaguely familiar. Sure, the beginning had a bit of Goodfellas vibe with the tone of its voice-overs and flashbacks, but there was a second ingredient that evaded my grasp. And then it hit me: Ocean's 11. Like Soderbergh's film, Russell's latest feels like an excuse for a bunch of familiar players to get together and make a fun movie with a bunch of heinous, period-appropriate hairdos. Sure, the film is talked about as a possibly big Oscar contender, but it's really more of a laid back heist movie that just happens to have a diamond-studded ensemble. Combine the two aforementioned films and you have a rough approximation of what it's like to watch American Hustle. That is, without any of old-fashioned skill of Scorcese's mafia classic, or the effortless crowd-pleasing of Steven Soderbergh's caper remake. 

A fictionalized take on the FBI's ABSCAM sting operation in the late 70s, American Hustle opens with an attempt at cheekiness: a title card reading, "A lot of this probably happened." The film isn't out to take itself too seriously. Instead, it's content to pack a blandly appealing, toothless sense of humor in a stab at broad accessibility. That said, the title card is hardly an unforgivable sin. That's where the voice over comes in. Covering not one, not two, but three different characters, American Hustle's voice over is some of the most ill-conceived since the opening of The Descendants. The saving grace of the latter film is that after the first 15 minutes, George Clooney shut up. The three-pronged vocal assault here - from Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper - may not be constant, but it does pop up across the entire film, which spans a little more than two hours. 

Suffice it to say that the film's first quarter is easily its weakest. There's a lot of ground to cover, with everything from childhoods to personal motivations blasted through, all at the expense of a proper anchoring in the characters. We've got schlubby con man Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), his mistress Sydney Prosser (Adams), and Richie DiMaso (Cooper), the FBI agent who eventually manipulates the pair, all competing for our attention, which gets the film off to a jumbled start. Aside from an amusing opening bit with Irving arranging his labyrinthine combover, there's little to latch on to, seeing as so much information is simply being thrown our way.

But while we're on the subject of hair, it's worth noting that American Hustle does have a great deal of fun with with its characters' coiffures. Adams and Jennifer Lawrence (as Irving's alcoholic shut-in of a wife) are largely spared, save for when the former goes to a party with Janice Soprano hair, being the victims of follicular atrocities. The men are less fortunate. In addition to Bale's combover, there's also Cooper's hilariously tiny and tight set of curls, a nice externalizing of his finicky  tightly wound persona, and Jeremy Renner's bouffant, which may possess its own gravitational pull. 

Like some vicious bit of aesthetic justice, the men's looks are made to suffer, even as the women remain dressed up and lightly objectified (every other one of Adams' outfits bares quite a bit of skin). When Sydney compliments Richie on his perm, the moment comes across like a bit of meta commentary. She seems to find it attractive, but when she references the amount of effort he puts into such a 'do, it's difficult not to laugh.

It's the sort of humor that Russell has retained and broadened over the course of his last few films (including The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook). There are dramatic scenes here (the best of which belong to Adams, in wildly different scenarios), but American Hustle isn't out to plumb the depths of its characters and their morally grey world. It's all a bunch of star-powered razzle dazzle that only momentarily catches fire. It's a film caught between giving its actors room to play off of each other, while also trying to keep its plot moving forward, only without the level of detail that might have made for a more compelling narrative. 

So, as fun as it is to see these stars play dress up and spout moderately amusing dialogue, the film as a whole can't help but feel lacking. As a drama, it never has stakes necessary to generate tension (save for one last minute, and very fun, twist). As a caper-comedy, it's too removed from the specifics of its plot to feel like there's much of anything really going on. And, as a character study, it's far too thin. The hairstyles are, frankly, often more fun to pay attention to. And as much as Russell throws in dolly zooms on his actors' faces, American Hustle never truly takes flight the way his last two films did. The closest that American Hustle comes to capturing the fire of The Fighter or Silver Linings is in a brief bit of physical comedy involving Lawrence drunkenly singing along to the Bond theme "Live and Let Die." Unfortunately, like the movie as a whole, the moment is only superficially engaging, and ultimately superfluous, despite its best intentions.

Grade: C+