Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: "Omar"

Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Runtime: 96 minutes

For a film featuring a love triangle, constant paranoia, and betrayal, Oscar-nominated Palestinian thriller Omar rarely grabs one's attention. Though competent enough on all fronts, Hany Abu-Assad's topical film is ultimately built on flimsy emotional and psychological foundations. Rather than sink its hooks in and then dig deep, Omar is barely capable of poking beneath the surface once all of the narrative elements are established.

The end result is particularly disappointing because of the effortlessly handled opening act. Despite the gunshots and police abuse, watching young rebel Omar (Adam Bakri) sneak around Jerusalem hammers home the banality of the setting's violence and chaos. Watching military police taunt Omar by forcing him to stand on a rock for hours is only moderately tense as cinema, which somehow becomes unnerving in retrospect. These instances are eerily common place, and even expected. The near misses with the police are woven into Omar's life as if they're simply part of his daily schedule. 

Yet these establishing scenes, which also introduce love interest Nadia (Leem Lubany), and Omar's rebel comrades Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat), aren't given enough meat to support what follows. When Omar is roped into being an informant for Israeli authorities, the film seems ready to truly take off from a narrative standpoint. Instead, it starts to unravel. 

The most troubling thing about Omar's main plot is how little the film touches on Omar's psychological dilemma. Yes, he'll have to make choices about what he does or doesn't reveal, but Abu-Assad's thin screenplay allows for little room for the stakes to really settle (outside of the obvious). On the surface, we can see what Omar stands to lose, but the pacing just keeps clipping along, never bothering to dwell too much. Ironically, the somewhat nimble pace ends up working against the thriller elements of the story. After a point, Omar becomes mildly frustrating, as it goes through the motions. Only when the physical movement is at its height, as in a pair of dynamic on-foot chases, does Abu-Assad's approach actually connect. 

The glimpses of actual humanity, meanwhile, are often swept aside. That doesn't mean that certain moments don't register, however. A scene where Omar and Israeli agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter) share a laugh over the latter's wife and mother hints at what Omar could have been. There's actual complexity there: for all of the fear and manipulation, two diametrically opposed individuals can still bond over a simple, human moment, even as they're surrounded by conflicting circumstances. At the very least, a deep examination of this would have acted as a counterweight to the bloodless love triangle entanglement that arrives at the midway point. 

Even the writer/director's protagonist becomes partly culpable in the film's noble failure. Handsome though he may be, Bakri can't manage to project his internal turmoil. This single change would likely have upped the film's quality by quite a margin. Though the actor emotes effectively, never straining for show-off moments, there's a lack of true complexity. Rather than find ways of showing Omar's stressful situation, Abu-Assad and Bakri leave the make-up and fake blood to show us the damage. It's all about appearances with Omar, and sadly nothing more. 

Grade: C

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review: "Ernest & Celestine"

Director(s): Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar, & Benjamin Renner
Runtime: 90 minutes 

Advances in animation have brought us some truly spectacular achievements over the years. One need look no further than Pixar's finest to see how beautifully rendered and detailed an animated film can become. Yet despite the wonders WALL-E and Up conjure, it would be a mistake to write off hand-drawn animation, even though its time on the throne has long since passed. A film like the French production Ernest & Celestine, however, indicates that old fashioned, simpler-looking works are still a vital side of the animated world. Ernest and Celestine is more than just beautiful and charming; it's a film that clearly demonstrates that certain stories are best told with an old-fashioned touch. 

Where the average Pixar film is stuffed to the gills with detail (Merida's hair in Brave), Ernest & Celestine favors a look that combines pencil sketches and watercolor paintings. Based on Gabrielle Vincent's beloved series of children's books, the film's directors and animators only marginally tweak the author's visual style. The images are soft, rounded, and stylized, and complemented by a color palette that favors broad strokes over precision and perfection. 

That same statement also applies to Daniel Pennac's screenplay. Set in a world populated by the surface-dwelling bears and sewer-bound mice, Ernest & Celestine has a well worn story of putting aside cultural (not to mention species-related) differences. Pennac's story, in the hands of the three credited directors and the delightful voice cast, is simple, but never simplistic. The message may be anything but new, but it's handled with a delicate touch that avoids moralizing or cheap schmaltziness. 

If the brisk story (barely 90 minutes) has any weaknesses, they come early on, only because of the necessary set up of the titular bear Ernest (Lambert Wilson) and mouse Celestine (Pauline Brunner). Once the pair officially become literal partners in crime, the film is nothing short of a joy to watch. Ernest & Celestine has no big moments or twists, and instead takes pleasures in expressing the small pieces of the narrative with style and wit. Take, for instance, the police force of the mouse world, shown as an amorphous blob of faces and uniforms in pursuit of culprits. Then there's the film's standout sequence, in which Celestine's love of painting and Ernest's love of music come together for an ingenious living montage as winter gives way to spring. 

And even though the film will be released in US theaters with an American cast, it's worth seeking out the original French dub. Wilson, Brunner, and the supporting cast all turn in lovely work. Even when the writing becomes a tad broad, the cast is always a pleasure to hear. Wilson and Brunner's scenes together have just the right amount of push and pull, and the actors' voice work is nothing less than charming. 

Despite its lesson about prejudice, the real draw here is the central relationship. Though the ending is predictable, it is refreshing for its devotion to the two protagonists. The script makes its point, then backs off and concludes with a moment that returns to its characters, rather than a broad "happily ever after." Near the end of Ernest & Celestine, an end that arrives far too soon, Ernest tells Celestine that they have many adventures in their future. I hope he's right. 

Grade: B+

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Review: "Only Lovers Left Alive"

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Runtime: 122 minutes

While big budget vampire endeavors have mostly failed (critically and commercially), the independent and foreign circuits have been much more successful. 2008 gave us the Swedish Let the Right One In, and the following year saw the release of South Korea's Thirst. And, just last year, Neil Jordan's Byzantium, though hardly a consensus favorite, was still a success. These stories work because, despite their centuries old, supernatural characters, focus on character-driven intimacy, rather than grandiose battles. The same is also true of Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, in which the hazy atmosphere takes precedence over bloodshed and fangs. 

That's not to say that there isn't a good deal of the red stuff seen on screen, but it's almost never accompanied by violence. Detroit-based Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a total shut in, gets his blood from a nearby hospital lab. Though the temptation to feed on a human (or "zombie," as Adam derisively refers to them) remains, Adam remains resolute in his isolation. On the other hand, his lover Eve (Tilda Swinton), though hardly a party-goer, spends her nights traversing the ancient, empty streets of Tangier. If nothing else, Only Lovers Left Alive is proof that slow motion footage of Tilda Swinton never gets old. Other than excursions to meet friends or acquire blood (O-negative is the drink of choice), however, the ancient lovers remain in their brilliantly conceived apartments listening to music.

If anything, music seems to be the last thing that really holds them together. Jarmusch and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux open the film with a series of spiraling shots: first the night sky, then a spinning record, and then overhead views of Adam and Eve in their respective homes. Yet while Eve seems content to lie back and let the music drift over her, Adam slouches on his couch. His conditional immortality has taken a toll on him, to the point where he commissions his lone "friend" (Anton Yelchin) to find him a wooden bullet. Sensing her lover's emotional despair, Eve travels to Detroit (night flights only, of course), to reconnect with her eternal beloved one.

From that point on, Only Lovers Left Alive doesn't really change much. Even the arrival of Eve's wild sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), doesn't shake up the film's routine too much. There are conversations about past friends (Lord Byron, Schubert), drives around the most desolate parts of Detroit, and music to liven the mood. On paper, it sounds like it shouldn't work. There's so little that happens in Only Lovers Left Alive, which is why it's a good thing that Jarmusch and his collaborators nail the dreamy atmosphere from the opening frames. The pacing is hardly taut, but the combination of the photography and music is steadily engaging in its own laid back way. 

Atmospherics aside, the real draw here is Swinton. Known for her ice queen roles, it's refreshing to see her take a break and play a lighter, fun-spirited character. A lover of literature, Eve's apartment is practically overflowing with books from across the centuries. She thrives on her immortality, while still feeling the pangs of mortality when they hit (her scenes with John Hurt's sickly vampire version of Christopher Marlowe are among the film's best). Whether trying to dance for Adam and drag him out of his funk, or mourning the loss of a loved one, Swinton is the film's clear standout. 

By contrast, Hiddleston is something of a disappointment. Though the role calls for brooding intensity, there doesn't really seem to be a lot going on behind his eyes. We get a better sense of him based on his interactions with Eve, rather than Hiddleston's own performance. Though the actor certainly has the look for the role (vampires tend to come from chiseled, high cheek-boned stock), his presence here is curiously (pardon the pun) bloodless. Supporting turns from Hurt, Yelchin, and Wasikowska punch up the film, but it's still a bit disappointing that only half of the central couple is genuinely compelling to watch. Yet Hiddleston's role is so often passive, that there's little he can do to hold the film back. If anything, his flat work gives more breathing room to the rest of the ensemble. 

Aside from Swinton's lovely work, the second best performer of the lot is Jarmusch in his roles as writer and director. Only Lovers Left Alive could have easily drifted into repetitive tediousness, but I found myself caught up in every jam session, blood drinking, and nighttime drive. The techniques used in the film, like the slow motion, are smartly used, and never outstay their welcome. 

The artistic and technical aspects are also first rate, making smart use of the modest budget. Le Saux works low key wonders with scenes shot entirely indoors or at night, highlighting the immaculately designed apartments that house the titular lovers. The art direction functions as a smart interpretation of the minds of the characters: Adam's apartment is dingy and cluttered, while Eve's is ancient and beautiful. The former is bored of immortality, while the latter is at peace with it, and thrives on it. Only Lovers Left Alive may not have a lot to say, but it does know how to say it well.

Grade: B/B+

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Review: "The Monuments Men"

Director: George Clooney
Runtime: 118 minutes

Even at just two hours, The Monuments Men feels longer than World War II itself. There is fascinating history in this story, but draggy pacing and a lack of stakes quickly drown this star-studded endeavor. Director and co-writer George Clooney has assembled a big name cast who are all dressed up with nowhere to go, even in a story set against WWII and the last days of the Third Reich. Neither convincingly dramatic nor sufficiently comedic, The Monuments Men is a misfire that casts significant doubts on Clooney's abilities behind the camera.

Rather than sit through The Monuments Men, you'd be better off watching the excellent documentary The Rape of Europa. Despite all of the big names and Hollywood gloss, Clooney's film is strangely inert from the get go. By contrast, the Europa doc is a fascinating, gripping account of an often-overlooked episode in the second World War. 

To call the characters in The Monuments Men underdeveloped would be an understatement. They are barely sketches. Even in the hands of a talented ensemble, the painfully thin writing is nothing but a hindrance. A good third, maybe even half, of the film is meant to be something of a comedy, but the results are often as flat as day-old Coke. Matt Damon, always watchable, is essentially human cardboard. He's not helped by the way the film sidelines his subplot for long stretches, to the point where it feels like years have passed each time we check in on him.

Meanwhile, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban are stuck with unbearably forced comedic relief, none of which is helped by the painful amount of time between lines of dialogue. For a film that should have such significant stakes, it's somewhat astonishing how badly Clooney botches the pacing here. Motivations are nonexistent, as is character development. What we're left with is a middling slog of a history lesson with nothing left to offer either historically or cinematically. Moments that should land hard evoke mere shrugs, while the overall impact of the journey is reduced to, "art is kind of important, no?"

But the biggest offender of all is just how self-congratulatory the whole enterprise feels. A few lines about the importance of art are merely tossed off, and this alone is supposed to make the whole journey mean something Important. Yet when a character stares in awe at an abandoned Rodin sculpture, there's no reason to care or share in that moment of awe. This same level of laziness is present from the get-go, which makes all two hours of The Monuments Men crawl by through an interminable series of episodes. The Monuments Men make look the part, but, as a film, it has all of the worth of warm champagne without any bubbles. 

Grade: C-/D+

Review: "The Lego Movie"

Directors: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
Runtime: 100 minutes

By all accounts, The Lego Movie shouldn't work. On the surface, it seems like the evil twin of Pixar's Toy Story franchise: a calculated attempt at cashing in on a name brand without any legitimate cinematic effort. Yet even though there's no doubt that The Lego Movie will help boost sales of the famous toys, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's film still stands tall as its own achievement. Rather than a cheap cash grab, The Lego Movie is a snappy, funny, and utterly delightful work with the right mix of broad appeal and actual cinematic smarts.

Though the story is full of cliches, including the prophecy-filled opening, Lord and Miller's script knows how to embrace and subvert cliches, rather than become weighed down by them. At its core, The Lego Movie is about an ordinary guy (Emmett, voiced by Chris Pratt), getting swept up in an adventure to save the world. Yet rather than settle for saccharine condescension, The Lego Movie has a little more going on under the surface, albeit not at first glance. 

Even without the final act (which I'll leave unspoiled), this is still a constantly engaging, frequently hilarious joyride. The stellar voice cast, which also includes Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Will Ferrell, Alison Brie, and Morgan Freeman, are all perfectly on point with their delivery. Even when confined to the limited expressions of the digitally enhanced Lego figures, these characters really pop. Equally impressive is how Lord and Miller manage to make the film equally enjoyable for all ages, without ever stooping into crude or gross-out territory. Rather than pander, The Lego Movie focuses on a charming, and ultimately touching story about creativity and independence, with just the right touch of subversion.

The animation is just as impressive. The figures all look sleek and polished, yet the movement still has the feel of actual Lego bricks. It's a decision that feels both retro and refreshingly new. Above all, what makes The Lego Movie stand out is that it truly feels like a work of love, rather than a glorified advertisement. There are real characters, a real (albeit traditional) story, and even a brief flash of genuine emotional heft. 

That's not to say that The Lego Movie hits the same highs as the best of the Pixar canon, but it's still and beautifully accomplished work of animation on all fronts. Once the story movies past the purposefully bland introduction, the whole project roars to life, and keeps the jokes and exciting set pieces coming with smart efficiency. Above all else, The Lego Movie is proof that, with the right levels of passion and care, commercial properties can function as their own enjoyable films. It's enough to make you forget that the whole project likely started as nothing more than a glorified commercial designed to make a few extra bucks.

Grade: B+