Aug 11, 2014

Guardians of The Galaxy


This is what happens for reading reviewers who see so many crap franchises and tentpoles, that they think this is good. The first half hour of the number one movie in the world is an epically boring spectacle. The screen teems with digital stuff and nothing happens. Mindnumbing exposition about the different characters doesn't matter, as they are all as disposable as plastic action figures.
I may not be the target audience, but don't think I am incapable of enjoying a good fun movie (see any Spielbergian romp with dinosaurs or E.T.s). Guardians of The Galaxy is just calculated, mostly soulless dreck. Weren't comics supposed to be non-mainstream, off the wall content for nerds and misfits? As they become a billion dollar industry, they have lost their last shred of cool.
I enjoyed myself only when there was a lull in the space chases and explosions for some half-witted talk among the heroes. The spaces for dialogue seem to come on a timer, as do the meaningless chases and explosions. Entire villages (as my friend Katya says) of visual effects people appear at the end credits. Everything is crammed into the frame and polished to within an inch of its digital life but barely anything is touching, beautiful or awesome. And whenever your eye finds something worth lingering on, a fast cut is sure to swipe it out.
The guardians of the galaxy turn out to be a hastily assembled group of misfits (what else?), each with a chip on their shoulder because some evil guy (Lee Pace) did some evil thing to them. A lot of time is spent on explaining irrelevant details, but none on substance. It would have been nice to know why this comic book version of Dick Cheney wants to be so evil and to what purpose, because destruction for the sake of it is not very convincing, but he is just mean.
Chris Pratt plays the hero. He is very engaging as he tries not die of boredom himself while emoting to a green screen. The plot is about delivering a special ball that harnesses a lot of energy to Glenn Close, who is like the President of the Good Guys (We can safely assume by the red, white and blue color scheme that they mean the US). Close is wasted, as are John C. Reilly, Benicio del Toro, and other competent actors who probably had a couple more scenes and lines before the mindless action sequences chased them off the frame. The only one who gets to chew the scenery with gusto is the great Michael Rooker.  Bradley Cooper tries to be funny, lending his voice to Rocket, a rather vicious raccoon. He nails it on occasion. At some point Rocket gets his hands on a big weapon and he almost drools with pleasure. I found this repulsive and depressing, but this movie did not offend me as much as other gazillion dollar spectacles have. At least it is not pretentious, hectoring crap like Avatar. Movies that guzzle enough electric energy to sustain a small African country and then preach about the environment are cinema non grata in my book. If Guardians of the Galaxy is teaching us a lesson (one that we have not already learned from all the Pixar movies), please let me know which.
Zoe Saldana, now a minty hospital green, needs to do two things asap: 1. Eat. 2. Get a sense of humor. Eating may restore her sense of humor. She's so thin, she looks like she's on the verge of organ failure. Dave Bautista plays a muscle man who uses big words but has no sense of metaphor (cute) and Vin Diesel lends his voice to an animated tree trunk that only says one line. The jokes are only mildly funny, yet they feel like a balm after all the pointless chasing and shooting. I need to know: Guys, do you really find these fights and chases exciting? I felt like I was lobotomized and injected with paralyzing serum.
One senses that whatever made this script fresh and funny was whittled down to almost the lowest common denominator in the fear that some kid in Uzbekistan or another one in El Salvador may not understand it. This is how billions are made at the global box office. There is less talk and less time to develop characters in favor of more action, even if it is sloppy and confusing. I detected a faint trace of a love story between Pratt and Saldana, but it was so tepid, that I surmise the studio doesn't want to offend anyone in China, or wherever they may frown upon such things. This is unfortunate. American movies used to entice people. They seduced people into experiencing them, even if they had some concepts foreign to an international audience, they expected people to make the leaps needed to connect. And in the best cases they provided enough humanity, humor, and uniqueness to make it happen. I am convinced that the big studios could still make gazillions worldwide with less patronizing scripts. But these franchise movies are made to serve billions of people, like fast food joints.
And they are just as unhealthy and unsatisfying.


Aug 9, 2014

Cinema Classics: Double Indemnity


The best movie showing in town right now is 70 years old and sharper, fresher and nastier than anything out there. Double Indemnity, the fantastic film noir based on a novel by James M. Cain, with a screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (just mull this over for a moment), is a jewel: a kind of mashup of classic hardboiled noir sprinkled with Billy Wilder's jaundiced sense of humor.
This movie is a delicious, bitter joy.
Fred MacMurray, a lug, but whom Wilder used well (see The Apartment), plays Walter Neff, an insurance salesman that gets ensnared by femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, the magnificent Barbara Stanwyck, a very alluring anklet-wearing dame. Poor Phyllis is trapped in an unhappy marriage. Feigning innocence, she suggests taking out an accident policy for her husband. Like any insurance agent worth his salt, Neff can smell a rat, but the twist here is that he knowingly bites. It's not that he doesn't know trouble when he sees it, is that he sees trouble and he joins it. He makes it worse. Nobody is innocent.
Chandler and Wilder are interested in ambiguity and great areas. Phyllis (not the sexiest name for a femme fatale) tells a tale of marital woe. She claims she is married to a horrid man who stifles her and humiliates her. She may be lying, we think, to butter Neff up. But later we see the husband in action, and indeed, he reeks. She was telling the truth. Like all good sociopaths, she bends and arranges the truth to suit her purposes.
Best thing in the movie, in my view, is Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, an insurance claims adjuster who distrusts everything and everybody. Robinson is one of those actors in old movies who seems to be more natural, more modern than everyone else (Spencer Tracy was another one). He completely inhabits this fastidious, suspicious man with a moral certitude and a verve that no one around has. It is a beautifully written character and Robinson fills him in. He is given one of the funniest monologues ever written. It's about death. Absolute greatness.
One of the heartbreaking ironies of the film is that Keyes leaves no stone unturned in his quest for human corruption, but he is naive about his colleague Neff, whom he never suspects. This seems like a trifle, but it is killer stuff. Do we really know people? When even the most punctilious skeptic about human nature can be fooled, we are all in trouble.
The movie is beautifully shot with hard angles and shadows. La Stanwyck glows from the inside out, but the most sparkling gems are the words that flow out of the characters like diamonds, a mile a minute.

Aug 6, 2014

Yves Saint Laurent


A surprisingly good biopic: edgy, sexy, gossipy and with two enormous actors from the Comedie Française in the main roles. I did not expect much (as a rule, never expect much from biopics) and I was very entertained and moved by this look at the rise and fall of Yves Saint Laurent, directed with panache by Jalil Lespert. I suspect that if it weren't for the contributions of Pierre Niney as YSL and Guillaume Gallienne as his partner, Pierre Bergé, the movie would be a notch below. But these two actors inhabit their roles and their relationship with total commitment and extraordinary acting. Lespert is also an actor, which may account for his sensitive direction.
As Saint Laurent, Niney gets the look, the walk, the designer moves, the petulance just right. He is a sensitive young man in Algeria, and then working in Paris as Christian Dior's assistant. He becomes head of the house of Dior at the tender age of 23, after the master dies. He is an obsessive worker, and an inspired artist. He is also emotionally volatile.
The movie does great justice to his designs. It's delectable fashion porn. Drool as you watch the period authentic, not anorexic models parade the lovely clothes he did at Dior, to which he added his own whimsical touch, and marvel at the stuff he did to influence fashion forever, when with the help of Bergé, he founded his own couture house.
There was a family (I suspect Mexicans) sitting in front of me, dad, young son and daughter) who squirmed in their seats like live clams at all the scenes of love and longing between Yves and Pierre, and Yves and other men. They were not happy campers, these viewers, but I was, because I did not expect this film to dedicate time to YSL's sexy (and compulsive) gay life. This part of his identity is treated both with verve and as a matter of fact, as should be.
The story is told in retrospect by an aging Bergé, who was the business genius behind the scenes, the man who understood YSL's talent and championed him through thick and thin. The classic dichotomy between the tortured genius and the shrewd businessman gets a more intimate, personal treatment. Theirs is a complicated love story, which may be the reason the movie works. It goes deep into the relationship, as opposed to just being a series of milestones in the life of a famous man. Yves and Pierre had spats and jealousies and Yves could behave like an ungrateful brat, but they were together until the end.
Gallienne gives one of the finest performances I have seen on screen recently. He does not have to affect the real Berge's mannerisms, as Niney does with YSL, but he creates a solid character, a creative, exuberant businessman and ruthless protector of the love of his life.
Without expensive period soundtrack, the lovely music by Ibrahim Maalouf enhances the decades really well, going from 1950's cool jazz to disco, to opera, as YSL's life becomes more and more fabulous and spins out of control. The fashion is presented with great authenticity and it shows the enormous influence of YSL on the way we dress today.

A Master Builder


This new collaboration between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory (My Dinner With Andre) is an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's classic play. In the absence of Louis Malle, who directed their wonderful Uncle Vanya in 42nd Street,  Jonathan Demme is at the helm. If you are expecting the same lovely modern rendering of a classic play on screen, you may be disappointed.
For starters, Jonathan Demme is not Louis Malle. He is nowhere near Malle's elegant finesse and his subtle direction of actors. Demme holds the camera close to the actors' faces, which makes for more intimacy, but also, on occasion, a need for dramamine. The actors alternate between naturalistic acting (Shawn did the adaptation), and exaggerated displays of theatricality. The only one who breaks your heart is the great Julie Hagerty as Aline Solness, the Master Builder's wife. As for the young woman who comes back into Halvard Solness' life to exact revenge, Lisa Joyce is so over the top that she elicits titters. She has some good moments, and it is a very hard role, but playing a woman unhinged by childhood abuse, she is 19th century hysterical in a story set today. Solness wears a track suit. Things don't quite jell. Demme can't find a unifying style in the actors, nor much emotional coherence.
Wallace Shawn, as compelling an actor as he is, is grossly miscast in the role of Halvard Solness, an authoritarian, ruthless architect. Shawn was a wonderful and credible Uncle Vanya, but he is not the right type for the role of a man, larger than life, who is, among other things, catnip to women.
Solness needs to be a rock star.
The movie starts promisingly. There is something interesting about monstrous egotism in a small package. Yet one pictures a man who is feared and revered and who is devastatingly attractive to those around him, despite being, or precisely because he is, a massive creep. Frank Langella comes to mind. Two young women drool all over Solness. In this version, this is not believable.
Why this play now? It's about a man who cannot abide competition, a man who has calculated and built his success on the suffering backs of the people around him. He will take down anything and anyone that gets in the way of his rise. He has no scruples. This topic should last an eternity, and Ibsen was much ahead of his day in his acute perception of the all-encompassing domination of men over women. The play is written as a series of powerful revelations that shed light on how spectacularly rotten Solness has been all his life. All his prestige is founded on the basest behavior. Sort of like anyone in power ever.
When well done, adaptations of plays on film get past the staginess and straight into the emotional power of character. Malle did that brilliantly with his Uncle Vanya, which started as a rehearsal with the actors, who then took off and became the characters. Roman Polanski did wonders with Carnage and Venus In Fur, but he is a master filmmaker, as well as an accomplished stage director.
But Demme's and Gregory's muddled approach is not inspired as a filmed play, nor a compelling film. And at over 120 very talky minutes, it's hard to sit through.

Jul 27, 2014

Magic In The Moonlight


Very enjoyable, gorgeous on the eyes (cinematography by Darius Khondji) and better written than usual, this new romantic comedy by Woody Allen concerns itself with questions about the existence of God and the validity of spirituality. Its flimsy plot is helped enormously by the inspired casting of Colin Firth as Stanley, aka Wei Ling Soo, (in the roaring 20's people were still breezily unaware of their own racism) a world-famous magician and debunker of spiritualist charlatans, and Emma Stone as Sophie Baker, a medium who claims to have contact with the spirit world. Stanley is brought to a villa in the south of France to expose Sophie, who is holding seances for a rich, gullible American family in order to make them part with their money. Romance and complications ensue.
We can be forever grateful to Allen that he didn't write a part for his persona this time around, with a hapless actor trying to do him. Firth plays the egotistical Stanley with misanthropic, haughty elan. It's a joy to watch him handle comedy and romance to perfection, a little more ruffled and over the top than usual. He lands the punchlines with exquisite timing and delivers the dialogue without sounding like a comedian begging for a laugh. He can also turn a withering look into hangdog puppy eyes in a blink. He's a class act and it is a seamless performance. With a lesser actor, this would be a lesser movie.
My only gripe about the charming and very adroit Emma Stone is that she is way too thin. This girl needs some meat on her bones. Otherwise, she more than holds her own parrying with Firth. She is spunky, confident and funny, which is no mean feat. Allen knows what classic romantic comedies used to be like (hint: nothing like the vulgar fart fests of today). This time, he seems to have been kinder to his heroine, and instead of his usual semi-hysterical shrews, he gives us a smart, independent, grounded woman who doesn't take to Stanley's patronizing sitting down.
It's the first time in years that I can watch a Woody Allen movie and not cringe at his misogyny. Stone is way too young to be a romantic interest for Firth, but I was able to brush this off because they are both delightful. Besides, Allen is hardly the only director guilty of ageism in film. This is normal in American movies, where actors much older than Firth are given girlfriends who could be their grandchildren (see any movie with Liam Neeson or Harrison Ford).
As for where Allen lands in the debate between reason and spirituality, he tricks us, like a magician, into thinking one thing and ends up, after a couple of twists, squarely, and safely, on the side of love. This is the best comedy he has written in years.