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The Book of Henry (2017)
"Violence isn't the worst thing in the world"
"The Book of Henry" is definitely not for people who like taut, coherent, logical plots devoid of standard clichés. As others have noted, it's really all over the place, and its mix of silly comedy and tear-jerker tragedy, realism and fantasy, cuteness and horror, and so forth doesn't exactly pan out in the end. Still, if you enjoy films that are simply different experiences, emotionally stirring even if they require you to heavily suspend disbelief, perhaps lay it aside altogether, this film will probably prove worth seeing, and you may really love it. It certainly keeps your attention with numerous surprises and much suspense. Fine acting by Naomi Watts and just about everyone else, along with some stunning scenery of the upstate NY setting, also help this film. I am glad to have seen "The Book of Henry" and would like to give it a higher rating, but with all its issues, I just can't.
The Lost City of Z (2016)
"Nothing will happen to us that is not our destiny"
Many people will approach this film expecting to see a riveting historical adventure. While there is a great deal of compelling exposé of Percy Fawcett and crew's exploration of the Amazon, encounters with Indians, wild beasts, and so forth, as well as some tense battle scenes of the WWI Battle of the Somme, those people are likely to be disappointed in the end. "The Lost City of Z" is more of a philosophical think-piece and character study of a tragic hero than anything else. The story of how Percy Fawcett must find the Lost City that he has no certainty actually exists, even when it means probable death and neglect of his own family, is thought-provoking, but no more so than many other films of this type. We don't really empathize that much with Fawcett's obsessions, mainly because the film doesn't make the unexplored Amazon seem terribly alluring, nor does it really show what makes him so confident the City is out there somewhere.
Some plot-holes and ambiguities, but nothing just ruinous. LCZ is basically watchable, with some pronounced draggy spots. Yet, it lacks that necessary something it needs to make it truly satisfying. The whole mood of the film is somber in a way that's likely to lose much of the audience. There have also been some criticisms of its lack of historical accuracy. I'm not really sure of the real story, but like most "docudramas," LCZ should certainly be taken with a dose of salt.
All this being said, the acting by all is quite good, and Charlie Hunnam (Fawcett) is an actor we're likely to see more of in the future. Same for the cinematography and directions, particularly in how LCZ utilizes details of its setting in time: It really takes us back to the early 1900s.
Svarta Madam (2017)
"Promise me that everything will be okay"
An interesting variation of the "Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary" urban legend and the 70s-80s films it spawned, "Svarta Madam (The Madam in Black)" avoids being blatantly derivative through its use of a different legend—the very Swedishness of which will prove compelling for audiences of other nationalities—and most of all, its use of subtle, keenly placed details. These details allow the audience to see, hear, and experience new things with each view. I've watched "Svarta Madam" twice and intend to watch it at least twice more. Fine use of atmospherics: As in most good horror films, what you don't see is far more crucial than what you do, and "Svarta Madam" shows you just enough. There are some great "jump" scenes too.
Fine acting by all, with special kudos going to Zalma and Oliver Lopez as young Emma and Alex. The close relationship between the siblings is adeptly shown and proves crucial to the story. While the resemblance between the two men gets a little confusing, the fact that Emma marries a man who looks and acts so much like her brother is significant.
The directing, screen writing, and cinematography are all expertly done: You can tell the makers of this film spent a good bit of time and trouble fine-tuning every little thing about it. The one criticism I might have is that "Svarta Madam" would have been enhanced by just a bit more dramatization of the 1633 back-story legend. Still, Jarno Lee Vinsencius is going places as a writer and director, and I am eager to see more from him.
Mörkret faller (2016)
"Who could clone all of this?"
"Darkness Falls" is a 15-minute short by Swedish director Jarno Lee Vinsencius, in Swedish with English subtitles. It begins with a young woman—Melissa, convincingly played by Joanna Haggblom—waking up in a snowy forest, suffering from amnesia. The psychiatrist she visits assumes that she was abducted and abused by human predators, and Melissa, understandably, seems to accept this assumption. Then she meets David, a strange man who tells her what's really happening to her and the rest of the world. It all sounds crazy to Melissa—again, understandably—but. . .well, just check it out.
For a film this short, the plot must be kept fairly simple, and the makers of "Darkness Falls" did an admirable job of compacting a basic conflict and storyline. It has many honed-down similarities to the various films based on Philip K. Dick's novels—"Blade Runner," "Imposter," "Screamers," et al—with some small but significant twists of its own. It's hard to see where it's all going--a good quality, of course—and one way or another, it doesn't end at all predictably. The mood and atmosphere, as you've probably surmised, are dark and creepily somber, but the film is not entirely humorless. The ultra-fine cinematography, visuals, pacing, and camera work enhance everything greatly; indeed, "Darkness Falls" won an award for Best Cinematography at the 2016 Roswell Film Festival, as well as several other awards and nominations. It is, of course, an indie made on a presumably low budget, but in the last areas mentioned, it tops many big company productions. There is no cheap gore and no sex/nudity; "Darkness Falls" accomplishes all it sets out to do without sensationalism or gimmicks.
Some of the more critical reviews have been due to the supposed lack of plot and character development in "Darkness Falls." I can see where those critics are coming from, but I (and obviously many others) just don't see it that way. How good this film is has as much to do with the audience's perspective than it does with intrinsic qualities. Most of us are used to movies being at least an hour in length, and if the audience cannot adapt to its condensed format, "Darkness Rising" will seem more like a prolonged trailer than a real film. Still, reading a 1-5 page short-short story on paper, we don't expect a whole lot of background on the characters, but if the story's done well, we can generally see all that's really necessary. There is no reason why the same thing cannot be accomplished on film, and "Darkness Falls" succeeds in doing that. Up until the events shown in these 15 minutes, Melissa is apparently an everyday "normal" person—Anything else about her is pretty irrelevant. This sort of minimalism is not for everybody; nevertheless, the rising popularity of short films such as this is exciting, and they have many advantages: You can take in several a day, easily rewatch, and all that kind of stuff.
"We don't discuss the future here"
After witnessing the horrible death of his "dementia"-stricken grandfather, with no one believing what really happened and everyone assuming that he has "mental health issues," Jacob Portman finds himself back in 1943 at Miss Peregrine's home on Cairnholm, an island off the coast of Wales, immediately after his grandfather left the wartime safe-house to join the British Army. Miss Peregrine's home is for "peculiar" children, and Jacob's company there includes weightless and aerokinetic Emma, with whom he quickly falls in love, pyrokinetic Olive, invisible Millard, and several others. The gothically beautiful Miss Peregrine is an "ymbryne" who can turn into a bird and manipulate time. *Note: Some of the names, ages, and abilities from the book have been changed or reversed, and for the sake of simplicity, there are fewer children.* There, Jacob discovers his own "peculiar" abilities and the important mission that awaits him.
The first two-thirds of this film (from the director of "Edward Scissorhands" and "Corpse Bride") more than justify sitting through all of it. In terms of sheer originality, "Miss Peregrine's Home" rivals the Harry Potter series, the Oz stories, and all but the very best of Disney. That being said, it probably isn't for really young children: Some disturbing monsters and death imagery, along with a fairly complex plot. No serious gore though: Most "tweeners" or older can most likely handle it. There are a number of truly beautiful moments along with some keen nuances regarding who's really crazy, what's really real, the fine differences between people, and the unique strengths and weaknesses that make up every individual. MPHPC is expertly filmed, with some breathtaking visuals of Cairnholm, and the acting by most of the major players is equally great, with special kudos going to Eva Green as Miss Peregrine, Finlay MacMillan as Enoch, and Ella Purnell as Emma.
Unfortunately, things start to derail toward the end, degenerating into some of the worst action-horror clichés at the climax. The ending's very pretty but is so hurried that it's a little hard to make sense of. It seems that MPHPC's makers couldn't quite pack the essential story-line of Ransom Riggs's novel into two hours, a common problem (i.e., pacing) in so much of today's filmmaking. I would have welcomed another 30-60 minutes of this, but oh well. Seeing this film made me all-the-more eager to read the book.
The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
"People love a good story"
Some of the online photo-stills make "The Legend of Tarzan" look pretty hokey, so I was a little hesitant about paying to sit through it in the theater. Having now taken the chance, I can happily say that this film is definitely not another feeble disappointment like 1984's "Greystoke." Though purists may dislike the fact that it's not directly based on any one of Burroughs's novels, there is still basic loyalty to his Tarzan mythos, and the way it incorporates some true history—King Leopold's exploitation of the Congo Free State, poaching of its game, and horrible enslavement of its natives for profit—adds a great deal of relevance for a modern audience.
While it's obviously intended mainly as plain old entertainment, "The Legend of Tarzan" meshes humor and heartbreak very well, and the many action sequences are riveting without going too far in asking us to suspend disbelief. No, it doesn't all make perfect sense, but perfect sense can hardly be expected of a fantasy of this kind. The visuals and animation are quite arresting; most of the animals look real, the one glaring exception being the Mangani apes. But then again, this film reminds us that the Manganis are NOT gorillas or chimps. As in Burroughs, they are a separate legendary species--a missing link of some kind, perhaps? The script is generally decent even though many of the lines sound more 21st than 19th century. Good acting by all the major players, but those who play the native Africans steal the show.
Some budget constraints are evident, and it's an ambitious storyline to pack into two hours: The whole pace of the film is a bit hurried. Regardless, anyone who's interested in seeing another Tarzan film in the first place should not be disappointed and may really love "The Legend of Tarzan."
"The Devil holds fast thy eyelids"
New England, 1630: A family is banished from their plantation community over unspecified practical or doctrinal differences--father William's "prideful conceit" is all that we are told. They make a rough homestead in the wilderness, where their infant son disappears in the literal wink of an eye while under the care of eldest daughter Thomasin. . .catch the connotations of her name? A lot of creepy stuff follows.
While the plot line's a bit too hazy to be truly satisfying, "The Witch" is better and more original than most recent horror efforts. If more solid folklore and theology were brought in, this film might have been really great. It also could have worked better if the supernatural were left out altogether and everything was kept in the characters' guilt-ridden heads—or at least implied to be. I got a little restless during the draggy middle portions which, luckily, don't last long. That being said, those who want lots of action and constant surprises probably won't dig "The Witch." This film is also quite bleak, so the easily dejected should also perhaps avoid it.
An interesting blend of supernatural and psychological horror. Keeps you guessing who's really evil--the parents, the children, neither, or both? Is the rabbit just a rabbit, the goats just goats? Is the silver cup really just an heirloom? Is it deliberate witchcraft, unwitting obsession or possession, or is the family just stir-crazy, overworked, and over-worried about how they'll survive the upcoming winter? Some of the middle details, along with the turnabout at the end, help to answer these questions, though they don't entirely--and who wants them to? The children's attempts at fun and games—or are they more than that?— add a great deal. It's easy to see why young kids would be bored out of their minds and willing to do just about anything for entertainment in these surroundings.
Obviously fairly low budget, but the directors made good use of what they had to work with. A small cast and narrow use of settings, but good visuals, costume design, and dialogue. The latter is easy enough to understand if you know your basic thee-thou-hithers, etc. Still, it's hard to follow everything in a few places due to the heavy accents and muttering, so subtitles may be necessary—I saw this in the theater, where there were none. While "The Witch" avoids stereotyping the Puritan characters as completely austere and humorless, it conveys the setting pretty convincingly. Good acting by all the main cast, but especially those who play the four children.
The Revenant (2015)
"We are all savages"
I was utterly entranced for the entire length of this long, sad, and starkly beautiful film and didn't want it to end. The action sequences—bear attack, attacks by hostile Indians, struggles with other natural elements—truly take the audience Right There with their ultra-realistic cinematography, costume design, and sound effects. Very good, often splendid acting by just about everyone, with special kudos going to Will Poulter as young Jim Bridger, and, of course, DiCaprio as protagonist Hugh Glass. Tom Hardy is also great as antagonist John Fitzgerald, a character who, no matter how much the bad guy he is, is still given a sprinkling of sympathetic qualities. The way that Glass and Fitzgerald resemble each other in both appearance and certain mannerisms is another interesting effect.
I've noticed some complaints about THE REVENANT's length, and I can see why many will find its 2.5 hours overwhelming and draggy in certain places. The main reason why I can't quite give it ten shiners is that its plot follows the same basic pattern of so many other western vengeance dramas, particularly in its rather predictable ending. Still, the unique details and twists keep this from really hurting the film. The sheer number of supporting characters makes it hard to place who's who; nevertheless, this was obviously hard to avoid and also leaves room for multiple viewings—I'm sure many will be as eager as I am to watch it again. Finally, some of the script/dialogue is rather flat and does not convincingly evoke the 1820s; e.g., "Yep, the Indians are always stealing our s__t!"
Some other notable things about THE REVENANT:
--Wonderful use of parallels in details such as the bear cubs left motherless, the lone buffalo abandoned by the herd as it's devoured by stalking wolves, and the old Indian left behind in the abandoned village.
--Amazing visuals of the Rocky Mountain setting and Glass's dream sequences.
--The fact that THE REVENANT is based upon a true story (taking many liberties, of course) and that most of its primary characters were actual people leaves room to read-up and dig a little deeper.
"If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one"
The single most remarkable thing about this film is how it uses a confined scope to its advantage rather than otherwise, something that would only be possible in a docudrama of this sort. The makers of "Spotlight" were obviously seeking to avoid cheap sensationalism. There is no use of flashback, and the interviews with the now-adult victims are brief yet detailed enough to make their point. There is little showing of the pedophiliac priests, and the public outcry that followed the first exposures of the scandal in Boston and throughout the world is effectively limited to the after-notes. Yet, it as if you are the proverbial fly on the wall of the "Boston Globe" and flying along with their reporters on the street. While a film of this sort will never have huge mass appeal--which may in itself be several strikes in its favor--it's two-plus well-worth-it hours for anyone with a serious interest in the whole explosive affair within the Roman Catholic church. I was utterly entranced.
The details and complications are hard to completely follow on first view, and the sheer number of characters makes it difficult to place who's-who in some cases. That doesn't, however, conflict too much with the big picture. "Spotlight" is also quite revealing of the dilemmas and politics that take place within a newspaper office and its dealings with local VIPs.
Much of the success of "Spotlight" is, of course, due to the fine, fine quality of the acting and script. Special kudos to Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and all the actors who play the various victims. The subtle development of "characters" such as the cantankerous but obsessively dedicated and conscientious attorney Mitchell Garabedian (similarly well-played by Stanley Tucci) is also commendable.
The Martian (2015)
"I'm the first person to be alone on an entire planet"
I'd heard nothing but great things about this film beforehand. After seeing it, my verdict is "Good, but far from great." It certainly keeps your attention, and is an interesting mix of science fiction, survival tale, thriller-diller, and political intrigue. What it shows about NASA's dilemmas in how/when they tell the public what is happening, how they assess the respective risks in their various options, and so forth is pretty convincing. Still, I have to wonder if NASA would really go to all this expense and trouble in trying to save one person whose odds of survival are stacked this high against him.
A few other random points:
*Some breath-taking Martian and outer space scenery. I would have liked more in this department, particularly on Mars-in-general, but I suppose that one of the film's strengths is that it doesn't try too hard to bedazzle us. The primary mission here is to show one fellow's fight to survive in a distant and hostile environment.
*Some real surprises and turnabouts which, particularly toward the end, descend into yeah-right unlikelihoods and too-easies. Many people, it seems, would rather have big stretches and reaches than boring predictabilities, and the whole story is, of course, pretty unlikely, though not impossible. Nevertheless, the makers of this film could have tried a little harder in several key places.
*Though I've never been a huge Matt Damon fan, those who are should enjoy his performance as marooned exobotanist Mark Watney. Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, and a couple of others steal the show insofar as acting goes: It's just unfortunate that we don't see more of them. Much of the dialogue, particularly Watney's—"In your FACE, Neil Armstrong!" etc--is rather hokey and not quite as clever as intended.
*While I'm a novice in these areas, some of the science and technology here is obviously implausible, and I would guess that most rocket scientists and physicists would find it downright ludicrous in a number of spots.
*Last but certainly not least, the zero-g scenes are a lot of fun. Trying to leave the stadium-style theater at the end, I was so marvelously disoriented that I walked UP toward the camera portal instead of DOWN toward the exit. (Yes, I mean this in a good way.)
"If you aren't going to cry about this, what are you going to cry about?"
"Grandma" is a good funny-serious, light-heavy film. It doesn't try to be anything truly special, which is one of its biggest strengths. While I did hear a few lols from the people behind me in the theater, the humor is mostly of a quieter variety, and it's almost entirely in the script. The plot is much the same way: There aren't a lot of big turnabouts or serious action. A few draggy spots, but the tension builds slowly and subtly. Predictable, but not ruinously so. There were times when I got impatient with "Grandma," but in the end, I was glad to have seen it. There are also few films this brief whose brevity works so well in their favor. All that being said, people in search of absolute hilarity, lots of excitement, and what-not should probably look elsewhere.
Lily Tomlin gives a nice performance as the somewhat unstable, misanthropic, but ultimately compassionate Grandma Elle Reid. Julia Garner quietly tops her--and I think it was intended this way--as Sage, who appears at first to be a stereotypically vacuous adolescent-in-crisis yet turns out to be much wiser and stronger than we realize. Marcia Gay Harden's performance as the Sage's mom/Elle's daughter is brief but memorable. The three generations of women are quite fascinating. There have been complaints about the "shallow" characterization, as well as the apparent feminazi agenda. Still, Grandma's old boyfriend Karl (Sam Elliott) is one of the strongest characters in the film, and he's developed very well in a short space of time. Although I'm a guy who's pretty sensitive to misandry, I was not at all offended by any of the film's apparent statements. Without trying too hard, "Grandma" has much to show about familiar relations, life and humanity, and various other things.
Obviously adult subject matter, but Sage's unplanned pregnancy is treated with just the right mix of sensitivity and levity. Lots of f-bombs, but no nudity, gore, or violence. Many mid-teens and up should enjoy "Grandma"; "R" rating notwithstanding, most younger audiences would probably be bored and confused by it.
Ghost in the Machine
Laura Barns has some very embarrassing party videos of her posted to YouTube by certain friends (?), commits suicide, and returns to hack into her little circle's Skype/Facebook/Youtube/Google Mail/iChat accounts and play them off in deadly games against one another.
UNFRIENDED is a scarily fun film, more of the "jump scene" variety than the truly haunting, layered type, intended, it seems, mainly for the adolescent and adolescent-at-heart. I saw it in the theater and can testify that it elicited several screams of terror and loud "Eews!" of surprised disgust, mainly from the high school and college-aged kids in the audience. When it comes out on DVD and (appropriately) Instant Video, it will be a good one to watch late at night in a darkened house. Something will be lost by not seeing it on the big screen, but the Blu-ray version will definitely have its perks. There is some really gross and disturbing stuff here along with some humor, but UNFRIENDED does a nice job of separating the modes and not trying to make the scary stuff funny and vice versa.
Highs: All of UNFRIENDED takes place in the above-mentioned online forums between its teenaged characters, with virtually no view of the outside world. There's probably already a name for this technique ("cybernatural"?), but I have no idea what it is. Though confining, the whole effect is interesting; UNFRIENDED will most likely help spawn a whole new subgenre, just as the "Blair Witch" films assisted in the birth of "found footage." Some of its imitations will no doubt be quite awful; however, with a little more imagination and budget, others should well surpass UNFRIENDED. While it doesn't get preachy in this regard, there is also some nice satire on the foibles and pitfalls of social media.
Lows: It just seems that the makers of this film could have been a little more inventive in places. Though there are some good small surprises, the whole plot follows a rather predictable pattern. There are numerous blank spots and contradictions, which is almost to be expected in a film of this sort; nevertheless, a more cohesive storyline would have been easily possible with a little more work and thought. Character development is tough in a short film using this online technique, but still, the high school cast seems soooo stereotypically California teen and comes across as a bit vapid. They're all toh-tally obsessed with who slept with whom, who started that rumor about who, who scored some good weed, etc, and that, like, keeps them from being as convincing as they might be. A little more back-story and character introduction, especially in showing what led up to Laura's suicide, would have helped, but I can see why the directors and writers didn't want to get into that. All that being said, UNFRIENDED still succeeds at believably showing adolescent rivalries and love-hate relationships even when its characters are utterly flat stereotypes.
UNFRIENDED is a film that depends entirely upon the individual. Many are bound to love it just as many are bound to be quite disappointed. It's mostly one for funzies and can't be taken too seriously, a very good very bad film. If you just enjoy a nice horror ride with something of a new twist, UNFRIENDED should be worth watching. If you enjoy dissecting films for quality of plot, acting, and so forth, there will be much you will love to hate. Taking this film for what it is, lesser qualities aside and crabby old man of nearly 50 though I am, I basically enjoyed it.
"God dwells not in strength, but in truth"
As you've probably surmised, LEVIATHAN is not the film to see if you're in the mood for something fun and uplifting, nor is it for those who crave fast action with lots of dizzying twists and turns. Nevertheless, this film brilliantly incorporates a fairly simple, straightforward plot with a rich variety of complex themes, and while it may seem slow-moving to many, it's truly gripping and full of surprises. It moves at such a natural pace that it often seems slice-of-life, but there remains a solid beginning, middle, and end to this story. Certain key events that most Hollywood films would show in graphic detail are left out of the picture, which will disappoint some viewers; all the same, these omissions serve a definite purpose. With special mention going to Sergey Pokhodaev as young Roma, a truly sympathetic character, the acting by all is as immediate and real as acting can be, which helps to convey the subtle, complex, and ultra-intelligent development of virtually every character here. Without being at all heavy-handed, it espouses certain Christian ideals, skillfully contrasting them with the frequent hypocrisy of the church. LEVIATHAN is obviously no comedy, but it's far from completely humorless. Set and filmed in a small fishing town near Murmansk in northwestern Russia, the scenery is as bleak as most of the film's other elements. But again, this only serves to enhance the sad realism of a film that's not easily forgotten.
Into the Woods (2014)
"Witches can be right--giants can be good"
INTO the WOODS cleverly intermeshes several well-known fairy tales, adding some nice flourishes: A brash and gutsy Red Riding Hood, a cockney-speaking Jack of the Beanstalk, and a handsome, charming, yet philandering prince. Those who generally like this sort of thing will probably find IW worth seeing. There's also plenty of meaning if that's what you're after. A few other noteworthy lines: "Are you certain that your wish is what you want?"; "You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice"; "Even flowers have their dangers"; and finally,"'I shall always love the girl who ran away'—'And I, the faraway prince.'" Nice performances by just about everyone, but especially Meryl Streep as the Witch, Lilla Crawford as Red Riding Hood, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, and David Huttlestone as Jack.
The biggest problem is that IW may prove too draggy—it would have benefited from being 15-20 minutes shorter--and complicated for many younger audiences, too tame and sappy for many older ones. This film takes place in a kingdom whose citizens sing about 75% of what they say to the same old loud-rhyming riff, making it distractingly seem like a parody of a bad stage musical; the script is so much better in the remaining 25% where they speak in normal fashion. Although IW is truly funny in a few places, it tries just a bit too hard in that area, and the humor is often forced. Some nice visuals, but it's not up to Disney's usual standards. The creators of this film had a difficult and ambitious project on their hands; regardless, IW lacks both the cohesive plot and the emotional impact of something like MALEFICENT.
Oh, well. If you find the rest of the film at least watchable, you will probably find the very, very end well-worth getting to. I also have to admire the way this film addresses the mortality of its characters.
The Theory of Everything (2014)
"Only time, whatever that may be, will tell"
"The Theory of Everything" is worth seeing for anyone with a basic interest in Stephen Hawking. A pretty nice job of juxtaposing Hawking's scientific breakthroughs with his own (and everyone else's) human relations is its strongest suit. Eddie Redmayne's performance as this difficult-to-portray character is outstanding: He captures the disabled Hawking's perceptions and point of view very well. The film is slow but evenly paced, with a quiet humor throughout. Yet, the transitions are jerky and abrupt in many places, and we don't really see Jane's reasons for attraction to him, nor how, when, and why the marriage fails. Like many other things here, it all happens suddenly and randomly for no apparent reason. This may have been at least partly deliberate, as universal happenstance is another theme here, but still. . . The time-frames toward the end are also a little unclear, and there is little age-progression in most of the major characters.
As others have noted, there is relatively little about Hawking's science in this film, and what there is is pretty basic. "The Theory of Everything" is not meant, of course, as a detailed exposé of singularity theory; however, just a bit more in this area would help to illustrate some of the more personal themes here. Most of the dialogue is also pretty ordinary: "The Theory of Everything" keeps trying to reach for a depth that it never quite achieves. In a number of places, it stops just as things start to get interesting. It seems that the directors of this film were faced with a common dilemma faced when all the central characters are still with us and likely to be among the first viewers: They were making a film centered mostly on the Hawkings' personal life but were compelled to avoid getting TOO personal.
Anyway, the theater concession stand attendant told me that she loves everything about this film, as many other people obviously do, so my reasons for being disappointed by certain parts of it are clearly not shared by everyone out there.
"I see now how much like them we are"
After experiments on chimpanzees infected with the mind-enhancing Simian Flu virus go awry, the chimps escape and the backfiring virus decimates most of the human population. Complete background is available at planetoftheapes.wikia.com: It might be helpful to look over this site before seeing the movie, especially if you're like me and haven't seen the earlier RISE Of The PLANET Of The APES. The chimps, along with gorillas and orangutans--also subjects of experiments or possibly liberated from the zoos?--develop a rudimentary civilization of their own, hunting with spears and arrows and riding horseback. Small contingents of humanity survive, however, and soon a band of apes in the forests near what's left of San Francisco encounters a hold-out of these survivors. There are some attempts to peacefully coexist, but . . .
DAWN of the PLANET of the APES ("DPA") is a fun, enthralling, and carefully filmed prequel that does a nice job of showing the back-story of the earlier "Planet of the Apes" films of the '70s. It begins as a thoughtful science fiction drama, gradually descending into more of a fast action-driven thriller. Still, I'm sure a thriller is what most people are after here, and I'm not sure how it could have gone any other way. Even in the violent latter portions, there are some touching moments and interesting turnabouts, with excellent special effects throughout.
There are all kinds of potential themes and parallels in this film. The dual dove/hawk power struggles between the competing chimp alpha males--pragmatic and basically peaceful Caesar versus embittered Koba--and two human alpha males--conciliatory architect Malcolm versus the more bellicose former Chief of Police Dreyfus--are especially interesting and do much to support the story. As in the earlier films, some may find the apes a bit over-idealized with all their noble "Ape not kill ape!" business. Chimps can be quite vicious and are often cannibalistic: Apparently they're supposed to have evolved beyond that here (even though they obviously haven't completely). A few more choice minutes toward the beginning on how the ape society develops, particularly in how the orangutans and gorillas, who take a vague cheap seat to the more numerous and practical-minded chimps, are supposed to fit in would have been a plus. There's one gibbon or monkey sentry shown early-on, but s/he's apparently a loner. Yep, a more diverse ape society would have been great, but I guess you can't expect everything. While it can be fun to analyze and interpret DPA, too much of this is likely to ruin a film that's intended mainly as simple entertainment.
All that being said, there's some interesting character development in DPA: Caesar and Koba are particularly fascinating even though the former seems more like a man in a chimp's body than an evolved chimp. Perhaps that's the point: For better or worse, brilliant Caesar was more responsive to the early experiments and became "more like us." Still, why oh why does he speak English even to his fellow chimps? Nevertheless, Andy Serkis does a magnificent job with the voice, the motions, and everything else he was given in portraying Caesar. The costume design is more problematic. The primary chimps, along with the cute babies (actual chimps?) look quite real, but many of their supporters are less so. While the orangs and gorillas look real, they are a bit bigger-than-life. The humans all look amazingly clean and well-groomed considering the conditions under which they've been living. Still, the human acting is generally good, with some fairly memorable performances by Jason Clarke as Malcolm, Keri Russell as his nurse-wife Ellie, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Malcolm's son, Alexander.
For all its kinks, DPA does an admirable job of showing some truly fantastic situations in the most convincing manner possible, and I'm sure anyone who's enjoyed the other "Planet of the Apes" films will like this one.
"So you see, the story is not quite as you were told"
Angelina Jolie gives an outstanding performance as adult Maleficent; ditto for Isobelle Molloy as young Maleficent and Ella Purnell as teen Maleficent, a fairy with the body of a cute young fairy girl who matures into a beautiful woman with large, plain, but VERY powerful brown-feathered wings and twisted ram's horns. At an early age, Maleficent makes the mistake of befriending a human boy from the neighboring quasi-English realm who ultimately hurts and betrays her. From there, the story, with many clever deviations and without seven dwarfs, follows some of the rough pattern of the fairy tale popularized by the Grimm Bros/Charles Perrault and the earlier Disney movies. Elle Fanning also gives an impressive performance as Aurora ("Snow White").
MALEFICENT strikes just the right balance of fantasy and reality, humor and horror, meaningful storyline and simple entertainment. There are all sorts of reasons to enjoy this film: The unique version of the story itself, the visuals, the character study of the protagonist, you name it. For me, the single best thing about MALEFICENT is its vivid portrayal of the Fairyland Moors, complete with pixies, elves, dryads, naiads, dragons, talking toads, Bokwus-like tree giants, and a host of others, including a were-crow.
This is a film without absolutes: No one is completely evil or noble, and no one, no matter how powerful, is invincible. MALEFICENT goes much deeper than the original tale of the handsome prince randomly falling in love at first sight with Sleeping Beauty and awakening her with a kiss from the evil swoon imposed by her horrible wicked fairy godmother. There are all sorts of big themes here: Good versus evil (and there are intermixtures of both in all the major characters), love versus lust, deception, greed, and so on. Many historical parallels can also be seen, the British Empire and American expansion to name just a couple. Yet, all the film's allusions will not get in the way of anyone who just wants to watch it for the rich and surprising ride it gives.
Some violent (and entertaining) battle scenes and disturbing images, but no serious gore. There's probably nothing here the average 8-year-old can't handle. Still, MALEFICENT is primarily a fairy tale for adults. Younger children may be confused by who they're supposed to root for, who's supposed to be "good" and who's supposed to be "bad." "Good" characters, after all, generally do not have horns. All the same, it provides a fine illustration of the complexities of human and other natures.
While the script and soundtrack could have been a little better in places, the whole quality of the acting, filming, and everything else is superb. Great use of Anglo-Celtic accents. Last but far from least, a beautifully fulfilling and well-earned ending.
"Did you have a good day at school?"
I enjoyed ENEMY but can still understand the negative reviews. Those who want a really solid storyline that makes complete sense will definitely NOT enjoy it.
ENEMY is a strange, solipsistic, rather Kafkaesque Canadian production based on a novel by Portuguese author José Saramago. Introverted history professor Adam Bell, well-played by Jake Gyllenhaal, discovers his apparent doppelganger in B-movie actor Anthony "Daniel" St. Claire. Bell's girlfriend and St. Claire's pregnant wife--similarly well-played by Mélanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon respectively--also bear a more-than-passing "incidental" resemblance to each other. After a brief stalking by Bell, the two men meet and discover that they are indeed perfect facsimiles of each other. They both try to keep things congenial and then go their own ways, but that, of course, simply cannot happen. The first hour of this dark, humorless film is pretty draggy, but some weird and unexpected stuff happens in the last 30-40 minutes. A lot's open to interpretation, but ENEMY's whole conflict, it seems, has two basic possibilities that I won't give away.
A sort of poor man's FIGHT CLUB, ENEMY raises the questions, "What if I were to meet someone who looks and talks exactly like me, with certain personality likenesses as well as certain differences, who's led a completely different life than me? Would we like each other? (And how much do we like ourselves?) Would we want to trade places?"
While definitely not for all tastes, ENEMY is nothing if not different. Though the budget was obviously low and the scope is limited, it's generally well-produced. One final thing: I can't make up my mind about the constant synthesized drum-rolls and "mm-MMMMB!" sounds. Though they add suspense to this simple but intriguing film, sometimes it seems that less would be more here.
"What keeps me alive is restraint"
I've never been a huge Nicholas Cage fan, but he really won me over with his memorable performance as Joe, a tough but paradoxically sensitive, hard-drinking, lonely, childless, and at times, it seems, clairvoyant ex-con who runs a small forestry service and gives a good shake to anyone who looks him in the eye and works hard. Tye Sheridan is similarly good as Gary, a stalwart 15-year-old with an abusive alcoholic father who comes to work for Joe and unexpectedly finds a surrogate father in him. There is an interesting alter-ego effect between Joe and Gary's father, Wade "G-Daawg," who, interestingly, was convincingly played by Gary Poulter, a homeless man who died on the streets of Austin a couple of months after JOE's filming was complete.
There have been a lot of comments about how depressing and "slow" JOE is, and it's definitely not the thing to see if you're in the mood for something fun and uplifting or something with tons of thrills and action. It's a slow-burner with a quietly hypnotic plot and a mildly explosive--and very moving--ending. While it's not quite on the level of 1996's Oscar-winning SLING BLADE, it's reminiscent of that film, with a similarly believable anti-hero as its central character. Though JOE is understandably not for all tastes, the realism is undeniable: This is the sort of stuff that really happens and the kind of people who really exist.
"You have a beautiful family--It's nice to be part of it"
Desperate, drug-addicted, and homeless, Kelly (Gabriella Wilde) and Jonas (Thomas Dekker) have a random stroke of luck and find themselves squatting in the lavish home of the wealthy Silvermans, who are vacationing in Greece. Jonas rationalizes that it should be their privilege to do this because rich people are all corrupt pigs anyway, but Kelly watches the Silvermans' home movies and finds them to be more tragically ordinary and human than Jonas will ever realize. Jonas gets a little too eager and greedy with the Silvermans' expensive jewelry and cars, arranging a lucrative deal with a dangerous racketeer, and to tell you any more would be spoilous.
SQUATTERS is well-acted by just about everyone involved, with especially memorable performances by Wilde and Luke Grimes as Michael Silverman. Some other reviewers have criticized its Hollywood-slick portrayal of life's underside in L.A., and it could have shown a bit more sympathy in that area, but what it does show seemed pretty realistic to me. The general cinematography is excellent, with some really pretty south Cali scenery.
On the other hand, the transformation that Kelly and Jonas make is pretty unconvincing, as are certain other things, e.g., Jonas's safe-cracking abilities, and wouldn't the maid be coming by occasionally? The ending's somewhat rushed plus a little too neat, easy, and Peter Pan for many tastes. Overall, it just seems that the directors and writers could have made a little more-in-general happen here.
Still, SQUATTERS does have some interesting turnabouts and nice old morals to it. The fine acting and expert production help compensate for some of the basic flaws to the story, and I like the way it left me rooting for both Kelly/Jonas and the Silvermans.
How I Live Now (2013)
"During the war, we stopped looking for reasons why things happen"
HOW I LIVE NOW is a poignant, disturbing, enthralling, and horrific film. Wonderful soundtrack and natural imagery that contrasts beautifully with the ugly and treacherous human world. Allegorical qualities: We don't know many of the specifics of who the terrorists are, the backgrounds of many characters, their full names, exact locations in Britain, etc. In those and many other respects, HILN is more for the heart than the head.
Good performance by Saoirse Ronan as Daisy, a brash, cantankerous, and troubled American teenager who is sent to live with some distant relatives in the English countryside. Ditto for the others who play the various teenagers and children. However, the relationship between Daisy and Eddie develops a bit suddenly and unconvincingly; with everything else that is happening here, the character development suffers. I have not yet read Meg Rosoff's original novel, but I would guess that it is yet another book that can never be done justice on screen. Nevertheless, I found this film well worth watching, and it should prove especially useful as a basic illuminator for the book.
Devil's Knot (2013)
"There's power in the blood"
Based on the book by the same title, DEVIL's KNOT is a docu-drama about the 1993 ritual murders of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. This film does not contain any basic information that is not already covered in the documentaries PARADISE LOST and WEST of MEMPHIS. It does, however, provide some fairly interesting reenacted personal perspectives of the various parties: victims' families, the accused "Memphis 3" and certain of their friends, the police and prosecution, the defense teams, etc. DEVIL's KNOT makes for a compelling enough show and is expertly filmed with decent but not great acting. Though I'm sure that there are some misrepresentations of certain details, it is faithful to the basic events of this case. The biggest limitation is that those who have read the various books and seen earlier films will not find anything terribly new here while casual viewers who are unfamiliar with the case will find all the various characters and shifting perspectives confusing.
Colin Firth gives a nice performance as private investigator for the defense Ron Lax; ditto for Reese Witherspoon as Pam Hobbs. DEVIL's KNOT might have worked better with a stricter focus on one or maybe both of these characters, even if that meant ignoring certain other people and factors in the case.
Regardless, this film is very revealing of how incompetent police work, selective use of evidence by the prosecution, and public hysteria in this rather superstitious Bible Belt community led to the denial of reasonable doubt for the accused "Memphis 3." Without telling you what to think or pointing the finger unduly, it also cursorily examines other potential suspects. There are some brief bits of courtroom drama, but again, the focus changes just as things get really interesting.
In short, DEVIL's KNOT is quite watchable, but the attempt to tell the entire story in a narrative of less than two hours is inadequate and dissatisfying.
WARNING: Though there's not a lot of gore, there are some brief and graphic post mortem shots of the young victims.
"This is my kingdom, my paradise"
When trigger-happy NYPD Officer James fatally shoots an innocent man, the man's mother, a voodoo high priestess, throws a curse against the Department. The precinct captain must enlist the help of unpopular weirdo voodoo high priest Officer Ruda in order to break the curse and set things right.
THE CURSE--as the title reads in the Redbox version--has very arresting (npi) beginnings. The remainder of the film is not quite as gripping, and the sequence of events is a bit hard to follow. Several prominent plot-holes and question marks, some of which are rather inexcusable. Otherwise, there is a solid and tangible storyline here. The number of characters is similarly confusing, but the acting and script are unusually good for an Indie of this sort: It often seems that you're watching via eyes and ears in the walls of the NYPD. Despite the narrow, confining camera eyes, the cinematography is striking with its varied views of NYC.
A crime thriller, a horror film, and a bit of something indefinable, THE CURSE is just a very different all-around experience. Though they don't remedy everything, its strengths compensate for its weaknesses pretty well. Simultaneously chilly and silly, this film is definitely one of the better recent Indies that I've seen. With more funding, THE CURSE could have been something quite impressive, and even as is, it exemplifies low budget appeal.
"Sometimes people don't know what they need"
Low budget Australian affair about an obscure and remote mental "hospital" whose star patient, Patrick, forges a bloody bond with new smart and able but unsuspecting nurse Kathy Jacquard (Sharni Vinson). The opening prologue seems to promise another predictably lame slasher flick, and the entire film is a little slow to develop, yet the last half-hour or so entails some interesting and creative layers and twists. This film becomes a lot more distinct once we get to know Patrick's story. Decent all-around acting, with good performances by the three women who play the nurses: Vinson, Rachel Griffiths, and Peta Sergeant.
It seems the makers were trying to create a circa 1950 Gothic horror film set in the age of GPS with modern horror tropes (something like that). A valiant attempt, but PATRICK would have been better if it were more consistently modern. Many of the props (nurses' uniforms, etc) look unrealistically antiquated, and the outside views of the hospital. . .well, you can tell it's not an actual building. The constant rubber stamp suspense symphony soundtrack also gets a little annoying--There's just no need for it except in a few select spots. All the same, none of the various weaker points should get too much in the way if you're a big horror fan.
Some brief "incidental" nudity and a fair measure of really nasty-gory death and dismemberment. Still, PATRICK makes good use of its gore, using it briefly and shockingly.
Adult World (2013)
"You really are a bizarre little creature, aren't you?"
ADULT WORLD is an odd whimsical comedy about Amy (Emma Roberts), a naive, sheltered,recent college graduate with an impractical degree in "Poetry" who yearns for publication and recognition but doesn't seem able to impress anybody anywhere. In desperation, she takes a low-paying job as a clerk in a sex store, which, though it serves as a symbolic backdrop for the story, isn't the real focus. This film is all about growing up, facing the world, and becoming, for better or worse, an "adult."
Mood-wise, ADULT WORLD reminds me a bit of SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK: There's a name for this type of humor, but I'm not sure what it is. I wasn't digging it at all for most of the first hour. As others have noted, the characters seem more like cheap caricatures, and Amy in particular is treated as a glib joke of a person. But the way life (and this film) seem to be constantly laughing in her face gave me compassion for her, and I'm sure others will have the same reaction. We've all been there, haven't we?
For most of its length, ADULT WORLD's storyline seems as unfocused as its character development. Yet, again, it meanders its way to a conclusion that is both meaningful and touching, and again, therein lies its magic.
An interesting assortment of supporting characters, most of whom initially seem as cardboard as Amy herself but blossom as the film goes. Particularly noteworthy are John Cusack as reclusive a-hole writer Rat Billings and Evan Peters as nice normal guy coworker Alex. Austerely beautiful cinematography of the smaller town upstate New York setting. Good thematic soundtrack.