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The opening scenes from Paddington, the new film about the eponymous English toy bear called, well, Paddington, appropriately enough, has some incredibly gorgeous and glorious animation. When a bear first appears, it’s as if every single whisker and individual hair of his fur is alive and moving, gracefully flowing even.
The animated movement of the bear and the intermix of animation of real live actors is just about faultless and the filmmakers have contributed some marvelous bits of magic as well, such as a doll’s house that reveals the house Paddington lives in and shows what is going on in the other rooms when the doors swing open, or a wall with paintings of trees on it with leaves that flutter away when the weather, symbolically, changes inside the house.
The movie, with a screenplay by Hamish McColl and the director Paul King (based on the character created by Michael Bond) is also witty. In fact, it’s often very witty. It’s almost a cliché that English films are going to outwit their American counterparts these days. It just seems to be part of the British character that they can’t escape. Read the rest of this entry »
There is a sculpture in Chicago in front of City Hall. It’s by Picasso. It’s okay. I thought it was rather derivative and that there wasn’t anything that special about it. To be honest, what I thought when I first saw it was that Chicago paid a fortune to get the great artist to create a sculpture just for the city and all we got was…a Picasso. And I thought we deserved more.
I have now seen every one of writer/director Nicole Holocener’s movies, and I’ll definitely keep on seeking future ones out. I’ve enjoyed them well enough, and her dialog and characterizations are strong, insightful and full of empathy, something most movies seem to lack these days (though I do wish she would do something about her flat and routine visual style).
At the same time, though, I am finding myself, well, wanting more than enjoying them well enough. I find myself so wanting her to take a leap forward, so wanting her to make her Annie Hall, her Dogma, her Raising Arizona or Fargo, her Pulp Fiction, her Lost in Translation. Instead, what we’re getting here, in her new film, Enough Said, is…a Picasso. And it’s a good film, but it’s also just…a Picasso.
The basic story revolves around Eva (a perky Julia Louis-Dreyfuss), a divorced mother who makes a living as a masseuse, who meets two people at a party: the refined, somewhat snobby poet Marianne (Catherine Keener, and what movie by Holocener would be complete without Keener in it) and the less refined, teddy bear Albert (James Gandolfini in his next to last film performance, which gives the whole thing an unintended, but somewhat, whimsical sadness to it). Marianne hires Eva to massage her and the two become good friends. Albert asks Eva out and they become lovers. What Eva quickly finds out, but the others don’t know, is that Eva and Albert are bitter, bitter, bitter exes who keep telling Eva how awful a mate the other one was.
In other words, the basic set up is a farce and it’s a great idea. Unfortunately, the pacing is anything but. And after while, I found myself antsy because all I was waiting for was the big reveal. And it took what seemed a longer than necessary period of time to get there.
I’m also not sure I fully bought the relationships either. And I don’t mean the present tense ones. The more Marianne and Albert talk about each other behind each others’ backs, Eva never seems to ask the most logical question of the story: why did they ever get married in the first place? They seem to be the last two people who would ever go out on a first date, must less tie the knot.
Eva and Albert’s relationship is a bit more convincing because both Louis-Dreyfuss and Gandolfini work very hard at it and there is a sweet chemistry to the two of them. At the same time, I sometimes got the feeling they started a relationship simply because there wasn’t anyone else around. In the end, the most convincing couple in the room are Sarah and Will (Toni Collette and Ben Falcone), Eva’s best friends and comic relief. They seem so right for each other and Collette and Falcone give razor sharp performances, they’re the kind of couple who get each other even when they get on each other’s nerves.
In the end, maybe Holocener isn’t that interested in making that leap forward. That may not be the direction she wants to go in. And I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe that’s okay. And maybe it’s just a prejudice of mine that artist’s should take leaps forward. But god, I so wish she would. We have enough Picassos.
The Fifth Estate, written by Josh Singer and directed by Bill Condon, is a hi-tech espionage thriller disguised as a bromance, or a bromance disguised as a hi-tech espionage thriller. I’m not sure which. I’m not sure I want to know.
For those of you just returned from the Antarctic, The Fifth Estate is about the Private Lives relationship (you know what I mean, can’t live with, can’t live without type thing) between Julian Assange and Daniel Berg, the creators of the king of all hacker sites Wikileaks. And what a relationship it is, too. Like any good Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie, they meet cute; flirt; get jealous of each others’ lovers; try to sabotage each others’ relationships; cheat on each other; have make-up sex (in the form of releasing a shocking video of the American military shooting and killing unarmed civilians and journalists—it was good for me, was it good for you, too?). The love affair metaphor here is so heavy handed that it is embarrassing and even cringe worthy at times (you almost want to yell at the screen, “get a room, already, why don’t you”). At one moment I expected Assange to say “You complete me” to Berg and Berg to say to Assange, “I wish I could quit you”. The only place it really deviates from formula is that unlike most rom coms, The Fifth Estate has an unhappy ending as Berg, like any good starter wife, gets traded in for a younger model.
If this movie had been made in the 1950’s, I would have expected it to star Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck and Zachary Scott or Fred MacMurray. Instead we have Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange (with shocking white hair as if he were an elf extra in the Lord of the Rings) and Daniel Bruhl as Berg. There’s absolutely no chemistry between the two and their characters just never come to life (though I have to say in Cumberbatch’s defense, he is stuck with imitating someone with one of the dullest speaking voices in some time).
And poor Berg. After giving some solid and satisfying performances in such films as Good Bye Lenin!, The Edukators and Inglorious Basterds, he just can’t seem to find a role that suits him. And it doesn’t help that here he can’t get any more heat going with his co-star than he could with Chris Hemsworth in Rush, another Beatrice/Benedict relationship that also couldn’t get off the ground (or out of the starting gate).
It’s all so unfortunate. Because when the film focuses on the actual Wikileaks story, it’s rather exciting. Condon’s direction just refuses to let the action lag and the whole thing is filled with a bunch of fun visuals to keep the tension, well…extremely tense. But whenever the thriller returns to the love story, the whole thing sinks like the Titanic, taking its two stars with them.
I must say, though, it does have an interesting supporting cast. Some surprising people keep popping up, like the future Dr. Who, Peter Capaldi; Mike Leigh refugee, David Thewlis; Downton Abby ex, Dan Stevens; and the wonderful Moritz Bleibtrau, one of Germany’s best actors (Run, Lola, Run; Munich; and the Baader Meinhoff Complex).
It also has Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as U.S. state department officers who, for some reason, always feel a tad out of sync with the rest of the movie. Part of this may be because they are too familiar of actors for their roles. But part of it may be because they give the most vibrant line readings and their platonic romance is infinitely more believable than Cumberbatch’s and Bruhl’s.
About the only positive thing I can say about the rash of apocalyptic movies lately is that most of them have been in the planning for years, which means that they may no longer be reflecting a zeitgeist, and in fact may be a few years behind the times. If this is true, then the new bunch of movie ideas of the future may very well offer a slightly rosier view of our future. We can only hope, because these movies are giving us precious little of it.
World War Z (directed by Marc Forster and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, and J. Michael Straczynski) is basically Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, but with a zombie twist. The premise may be pure fantasy, even ridiculous if you like, but there’s just enough realism to the background, to the way such a preposterous event would be handled, that it gets under your skin in a way other apocalyptic movies don’t. Like another recent apocalyptic film with a similar fantasy premise, Battle Los Angeles, the movie is just a tad too real.
In many ways you know the story. A virus breaks out that turns people into rabid beasts that have no other goal than to spread the virus to other hosts. It’s up to our intrepid hero, Gerry Lane (blond, blue eyed Brad Pitt, natch) to save the world, or save it the best it can be saved. To do so, he must travel the globe from New York to Korea to Israel to Spain, with a side stop in…New Jersey (oh, well, no “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” itinerary can be perfect). In fact, this may very well be the first travelogue zombie flick.
Pitt also saves the movie. There is nothing special about his character, or any of the characters. As in Battle Los Angeles, they are all fairly bland with dialog that falls more than a bit flat. But Pitt takes control in the old fashioned way of a John Wayne. If you don’t have a three dimensional hero, you at least have someone incredibly handsome and charismatic to look at.
What’s more, his travels not only help him solve the mystery of the outbreak, it also enables him to meet some of the first rate thespians of other countries. I don’t know who the casting director is, but he or she is worth their weight in gold. As Pitt travels from place to place, he runs into such top notch character actors as Luki Boeken from Israel (who usually only produces film); Peter (The Loop) Capaldi from England; Piefrancesco (Columbus in Night at the Museum) Favino from Italy; Ruth (12 Years a Slave) Negga from Ireland; Moritz (The Baader Meinhof Complex) Bleibtreu from Germany. Perhaps the biggest find of the movie is Daniell Kertez who gives a powerful and touching performance as an Israeli soldier who gets co-opted into the fight. Mireille Enos of The Killing is also along for the ride; she has the embarrassing and thankless task of the “those also serve who sit and wait” role of Pitt’s wife (sigh).
Though the screenplay cheats once or twice when it comes to the rules (especially a scene on an airplane), and though it has some of the clichés one often sees in genre films like this (a child with asthma, a car that won’t start—though both seem thrown away and used at unimportant points in the story), it is rather intelligent. It does something really clever: it tells us at the beginning to look for clues. And through Pitt’s eyes we do. Because of this, the plot is not just a series of meaningless action sequences in a vacuum. We know it’s going somewhere.
In talking about sic-fi films, the critic Susan Sontag said that “[s]cience fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster”. She also made one another pertinent observation, that one of the continuing themes of these movies it that by giving the world a common enemy, it brought a unity to mankind; all wars and disagreements stopped as all the nations on the earth joined forces as one to defeat this threat to the earth. She was mainly referring to the films of the 1950’s, but in the end, this is the ironic happy ending of this movie as well.
Can Channing Tatum steal a movie? That’s certainly a question I never thought I’d ask. Even stranger, it’s also not a question I’d ever thought I’d answer, “yes” to. But he actually achieves this remarkable feat in the new action film White House Down. Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that he was one of the producers, insuring that the movie would play to his particular strengths. But it must be said, his underplaying naturalness and the stumbling way he says his lines are the primary joy one gets from this action film.
The story revolves around a domestic terrorist plot to take over the White House. It climaxes with the possibility of missiles being launched in which the world as we know it would cease to exist. But since this is a movie directed by Roland Emmerich, that’s not really what’s at stake. Nuclear war could break out; millions could die; the world could become a radioactive wasteland. But for Emmerich and writer James Vanderbilt all that’s irrelevant. In the end, all that really matters is if Channing Tatum’s character Cale can earn back the respect of his young daughter. No, I’m not making this up. Really. And it’s almost as close a call as those launch codes getting into the wrong hands.
How much you enjoy White House Down will probably depend on your tolerance level for silliness on the day you see it (it’s one of those movies, you know the kind, where everyone starts out being a crack shot and then, once the big opening action sequence is over, no one can hit anyone else except when it’s convenient for the plot). I guess, though, if truth be told, I was in a particularly good mood that day, because I kind of got a kick of the sheer lunacy of it at times.
It does have a nice supporting cast, with Richard Jenkins as the Speaker of the house, as well as a welcome appearance by the veteran Michael Murphy as the VPOTUS. Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum have a nice chemistry together (actually, Tatum has a nice chemistry with everyone). And for what it is, Vanderbilt’s screenplay is very well written: stupid, over the top, preposterous, but well crafted where everything that happens has a payoff (sort of a variation on those lines from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible”, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions”).
If you’re a Republican, see the first half. If you’re a Democrat, see the second.