Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review: "The Railway Man"

Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Runtime: 116 minutes

The present day scenes of The Railway Man, based on the horrific WW2 experiences of Eric Lomax, take place in 1980. It's a shame the film wasn't made in that same year. Boasting the sort of prestige-y, historically-driven material that used to get big budgets and sweep awards seasons of yesteryear, this story feels a bit stale. Though the cast is of high caliber, writing and directing positions have been filled by novices. Were David Lean still alive, he would have no doubt worked a small miracle with Lomax's tale of suffering and forgiveness. Instead, The Railway Man is bland and uneven; it's an adequate, moderately stirring story that deserves much, much better.

Helmed by Aussie TV director Jonathan Teplitzky, it's not surprising that The Railway Man is a bit too modest in vision. Recent BBC miniseries like Birdsong and Parade's End have as much, if not more style and visual flair. There's some nice photography, especially in the WW2-set flashbacks, yet it remains a rather muted, stuffy-looking project. 

This shortcoming wouldn't stick out so much if the writing or directing had a better handle on the story. In 1980, WW2 vet Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) is struggling to uphold his marriage to Patti (Nicole Kidman). Lomax is crippled by memories of his traumas on the Pacific theater, when British forces in Singapore were overtaken by the Japanese. The brutality that followed was so brutal that Lomax shuts down whenever Patti tries to get him to open up. 

At least, that's what we're told through a conversation Patti has with Lomax's old war comrade Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard). Jumping between past and present, The Railway Man never grounds itself in adult Eric's life enough to make his eventual reckoning a genuinely compelling moment. Though the 1980-set scenes are filled with all of the big-name actors, it's in the Singapore flashbacks that The Railway Man works best. It's unburdened with filling in psychological gaps, precisely because it exists to create them for the scenes in the future. 

And, despite one or two wobbly, visual effects-driven wide shots, the wartime scenes do feel more convincing, despite their limited scale. Once captured by the Japanese, the British were tasked with building a railroad in Southeast Asia, enduring hellish physical and mental conditions. It's this very story that inspired the classic The Bridge on the River Kwai, albeit told in a far less compelling manner. Whatever registers in the The Railway Man does so at a depth just below skin deep. Young Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) and his comrades are played by a host of unmemorable folk who do no better than the extras filling out the frame. 

The present day cast, thankfully, are much easier to watch. Despite some clunky dialogue, Firth, Kidman, and Skarsgard all do their best to support the script's weak foundations. Firth fares best by virtue of the film ultimately coming down to his decades-long struggle. His interactions opposite Kidman and Skarsgard are convincing, although they're in dire need of expansion. No one is helped, however, by the shoddy opening act setting up Eric and Patti's romance, which is stitched together like a rather dreary-looking romantic comedy. The film gets a small boost in the final half hour thanks to the introduction of Hiroyuki Sanada (as the adult version of Lomax's main interrogator), yet by that point it's not nearly enough. 

So, even though The Railway Man is never exactly boring, it can't help but feel a bit stodgy, even in its best moments. It's not an embarassment for anyone involved, but rather a disappointment. There is such rich material at the heart of Lomax's story, yet Teplitzky and the screenplay keep fumbling around. It's never emotionally stillborn, but it's also moving too slowly to make a mark on the viewer the way that WW2 did on Lomax himself. 

Grade: C

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Review: Joe

Director: David Gordon Green
Runtime: 117 minutes

After a few head-scratching studio efforts, director David Gordon Green has finally found his way back to his roots. It's been less than a year since the director's previous film, Prince Avalanche, showed signs of a return to the director's origins as a sharp observer of forgotten, rural America. Prince Avalanche, however, was but a lightweight appetizer compared to what Green has conjured this time. In Joe, the director delivers one of his strongest films, and re-establishes himself as a leading voice in American independent cinema. 

Based on the novel by Larry Brown, Joe is ultimately an examination of father-son dynamics. Yet, as the opening scene shows us, this neck of the Texas woods is filled with heartbreak and abuse. It's a decrepit part of the country where many adults have stopped caring, forcing children to grow up far too soon. Among those children is Gary Jones (Tye Sheridan), who lives with his alcoholic father Wade (Gary Poulter), along with his indifferent mother and mute younger sister. Desperate to provide for his family in ways his parents won't, he joins up with a local group led by ex-con Joe (Nicolas Cage). Joe and his crew are hired by lumber companies to poison trees, thereby giving the lumber giants a reason to clear forests for the sake of planting more useful trees. 

In a way, Joe calls to mind last year's Mud, which featured young Mr. Sheridan falling in with a man with a criminal past (played by Matthew McConaughey). Despite some impressive acting and filmmaking, however, Mud was ultimately undermined by its padded script and last minute contrivances. Joe, by contrast, is a much richer, more assured work that gets more mileage out of its vaguely similar premise. Mud was the work of a director still trying to find his voice. Joe comes from someone who is reasserting his voice with great refinement.

Working with several notable collaborators, Green turns Gary Hawkins' adaptation into a richly atmospheric slice of Gothic Americana. The rural settings are captured beautifully through the clean, textured visuals, and they get an extra kick from composer David Wingo's understated and captivating score. Despite the stately pace, editing is smartly handled, with a standout montage providing one of the film's most effortlessly evocative sequences.  

Green's understanding of atmosphere and place are invaluable, but they aren't alone in making Joe such a triumph. Cage and Sheridan, whether sharing the screen or not, prove to be perfect fits for Green's take on the material. For Sheridan, it's yet another notch in his belt as his indie cred soars even higher. For Cage, it's a return to form, as well as the actor's best work since the underrated Matchstick Men (2003). Cage can be inconsistent, but here his bursts of tightly wound anger feel authentic and lived-in, as opposed to hysterical or laughable. Hawkins' script may be a hair thin when it comes to Joe's history with violence, but Cage's performance is more than enough to fill in the small holes found on the page. When he's working opposite Sheridan, those small holes seem even less significant. 

Even as Joe careens toward its rather expected finale, it retains interest thanks to the attention to both characters and setting. Joe's world is a grimy one, filled with dilapidated houses and dirt roads, but Green ensures that the toughness is never overstated. There are tough realities to be confronted, but that doesn't mean that all hope has been extinguished. Certain omissions prove mildly questionable (yes, it's a microscopic town, but not a single cell phone?), but Joe remains convincing. Past mistakes can weigh one down, or provide motivation for growth and change. Mr. Green, thankfully, has opted for the latter interpretation, for both his film, and his career. 

Grade: B+/A- 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"

Director(s): Joe Russo & Anthony Russo
Runtime: 136 minutes

Compared to the attention that Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Thor all received as part of Marvel's cinematic universe, the first Captain America film felt like an afterthought. Though not a disaster, Joe Johnston's take on the patriotically monikered hero felt like a less significant development in the run up to 2012's The Avengers, despite the major jump in time it had to go through to catch up with the rest. The good Captain has no superpowers or super armor, and his entire concept feels outdated in the current superhero revival that's dominated Hollywood for about a decade. 

Yet where Marvel's other Phase II films, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, have stumbled, Captain America has thoroughly redeemed himself with his second outing. The sequel, subtitled The Winter Soldier, explores new ground for its title character, and does so while working in genre elements unlike anything encountered in the Marvel universe to date. With a smooth script, engaging performers, and efficiently doled out commentary, The Winter Soldier is the best standalone Avengers film since the first Iron Man

When we first run into Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) this time, he's more adjusted to the modern world, albeit still with questions (he keeps a list of things to try or research). Yet he remains an insanely buff fish out of water. One of the best things about Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's screenplay is how it weaves Rogers' clashes with the modern world into the conspiracy-flavored story. S.H.I.E.L.D., the military intelligence agency tasked with filling in the gaps of the Avengers, finds its leaders under attack. Rogers is already on iffy terms with  S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The pair have rather different views on honesty and freedom, and Rogers feels increasingly uncomfortable with the level of surveillance that S.H.I.E.L.D. is tapping into. 

Things don't get much better when a series of calamities befall the agency, putting the Captain on the run from his former comrades and co-workers. Only the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) seem trustworthy. Meanwhile, a dangerous assassin named The Winter Soldier is running amok, complicating things even further.

However, even with all of this plates spinning, new directors Joe and Anthony Russo keep the film running smoothly. The different Marvel characters offer opportunities to explore different genres on their own, and The Winter Soldier does by far the best job. In its DNA are strands of spy thrillers and the conspiracy films of the 70s (Robert Redford even appears as an upper echelon S.H.I.E.L.D. member), right alongside the flashier, more expected superhero components. Though the pyrotechnics get a bit heavy in the finale, the film remains committed to its plot and characters enough to hold together. 

With so many potential explanations for everything going on, it would have been easy to mess up the big reveal. Yet again, the film surprises. In a fun cameo from the first Captain adventure, The Winter Soldier is able to lay out its big moment in a way that is genuinely exciting. That it is able to do so while establishing a connection to the previous film (which took place in World War II), while still upping the dramatic tension in the present, is an even bigger accomplishment. Where other Phase II films moved inches forward with actual developments, The Winter Soldier takes massive leaps forward, introducing a complicated new world order to an otherwise overly safe cinematic universe.

The actors seem to be having quite a bit of fun with it as well. Though it would be all to easy for a character like Captain America to be dated and bland, Evans' portrayal remains charming, rather than sleep-inducing. The trickiest part of the Captain, his old fashioned, slightly idealistic worldview, comes through nicely as it clashes with modern ideas of politics and national security. Meanwhile, Johansson and Mackie make nice contributions as the Captain's would be sidekicks. Their histories (or cover stories) are, like other character development, handled efficiently, giving them enough weight to be resonant, yet never melodramatic. Each character is also given enough to do when it comes to the action, thus ensuring that no member of the main cast feels like filler.  It's especially nice to see Johansson get so much more to do with her Black Widow character, and it makes the promise of an upcoming solo film for her seem like an even better idea. Charisma may ultimately win the day over raw displays of acting prowess, but that's exactly what this sort of adventure calls for, and the main actors deliver without forcing the chemistry. 

The central roles are so nicely handled that it hardly matters that the Winter Soldier himself is a bit undercooked as a villain. Those who have seen the first film or looked at the cast list will know his true identity. But, unlike the other characters, his past experiences don't register enough. He's more of an empty villainous pawn that a compelling antagonist in his own right. 

Similarly, most the tech categories don't offer much of worth, accomplishing their jobs at a plain, functional level. The compromise of this modern-day Captain America is that, in isolation, his new world is a bit of bland setting from a visual standpoint. Sound, stunt work, and editing, at least, have the appropriate punch to lend an extra oomph to the relatively grounded action sequences.

Thankfully, the film's heart is in the right place where it counts. Visually impressive it may not be, but The Winter Soldier certainly makes up for it with its sharp attention to characterization and plot. It also deserves credit for tackling modern issues like government surveillance, modern warfare, and preemptive "kill lists" such that it feels germane to both narrative and character growth. There are no heavy-handed monologues striving to transform The Winter Soldier into an overbearing philosophical diatribe. Instead, these important issues play a role in creating a better sense of the world in which the Captain still struggles to blend in with. That extra touch of thought is what allows this Marvel sequel, the last building block before next year's The Avengers: Age of Ultron, to be thematically resonant while still providing rollicking blockbuster entertainment. 

Grade: B

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Review: "Under the Skin"

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Runtime: 108 minutes

It's been a decade since Jonathan Glazer's last film, the unfairly maligned Birth, hit theaters. His newest effort, which he's been trying to get made since 2002, is a chilly calling card that makes one hope his next project won't take nearly as long to debut. In Under the Skin, an adaptation of Michael Faber's novel, Glazer goes even deeper down Kubrickian rabbit hole as his cinematic voice continues to bloom. Though slow in pace, this minimalist sci-fi drama boasts an eerie, hypnotic atmosphere, as well as a captivating and subtle turn from star Scarlett Johansson.

Yet while Under the Skin's style calls to mind Mr. Kubrick, its narrative shares more with Nicolas Roeg's famous The Man Who Fell to Earth. That film starred David Bowie as an alien making his way through human society, albeit in a rather passive way. Glazer and Johansson's woman who fell to earth, however, is much more predatory. Her sole mission, which we learn only through visual storytelling, is to lure men back to her lair and consume them. How she does this is never explicitly shown either, though Mr. Glazer captures one such devouring in an unsettlingly abstract sequence in the first half. 

Filmed using guerrilla techniques (many of Johansson's interactions are with everyday, unaware citizens of Scotland), Glazer's main goal is to make Under the Skin a sensory experience. Even with the often glacial pacing, it's a decision that pays off in the long run. Under the Skin's early scenes are its most difficult to get through, but only because they're so in sync with Johansson's nameless predatory protagonist: cold, aloof, alluring, and existentially unnerving. 

Had there been no progression from the initial seduce and attack structure, Under the Skin would certainly have become a chore to sit through. So it's with great relief that, after a significant encounter shakes the alien's faith in her mission, that the frost-bitten puzzle pieces start to add up to something greater. Though there are other, parallel interpretations worth exploring (most notably involving power and gender), Under the Skin's primary journey is one of a predator coming to sympathize with her prey. Early on, she drifts through her strange surroundings, only showing emotion when it becomes necessary. Yet after her fateful encounter, the cracks start to show, even as they're often obscured in inky black shadows.

Much of this comes down to Johansson's finely tuned performance, which is tasked with carrying the entire enterprise. Watching this blank, withdrawn observer shift from domineering seductress to curious investigator of the human race is a quiet miracle thanks to what Johansson is able to communicate with her face. In Birth, Nicole Kidman received considerable attention for a prolonged silent reaction shot during a scene at an opera. Johansson's performance in Under the Skin is that same bit of acting stretched out over 108 minutes. Under different circumstances, it could have easily fallen apart, but Glazer has once again worked wonders with his leading lady to produce a low key, yet intelligently crafted performance. 

The lone drawback to Glazer's approach is that it could prove too arctic to engage with at all. In planting us so firmly in the head of the alien wanderer, Glazer makes the film difficult to truly get lost in at the start. Even when Under the Skin does start to open up, it's in tiny increments. As such, there are a few scenes here and there that could probably do with losing a few seconds here and there, if only to get to the heart of the narrative a tad faster. 

Still, it's commendable how Glazer sticks to his vision and never wavers for the sake of accessibility. Under the Skin is defiantly cold, even when it finally asks us to feel some sense of sympathy for its central character. Underscoring it all is Mica Levi's brilliantly strange music, which only intensifies the feeling that we're viewing our world through the lens of another. At her core, Johansson's alien is just too fundamentally different to exist within our world, unless she sticks to her violent programming. Yet just because she, and Under the Skin, are hard to relate to, doesn't mean that they lack value. Quite the contrary. It's that very obtuseness that demands that we look so much closer. 

Grade: A-