Friday, June 30, 2017

"Lost City" beautifully orchestrates a forgettable journey

Looking like a resurrected Heath Ledger in his prime - albeit with far less acting talent - Charlie Hunnam storms the battlefields of World War I and swings his machete through the period-piece-and-jungle-exploration British drama The Lost City of Z like a 20th century citizen who is somehow misplaced one hundred years into the past.  It's not that the character he portrays - Percy Fawcett, a young British military officer whose name sounds like a sink in a feminine designed restroom - looks completely out of place as he searches the Amazonian jungles for a long lost city, here referred to only as "Z"; it's just that he never quite externalizes that inner turmoil that characters in such obsession-turned-to-madness movies generally tend to (Aguire: The Wrath of God and The Pledge come to mind).

Perhaps that's the reason that Z mostly comes across as a Merchant-Ivory production crossed with a less-than-exciting Indiana Jones escapade: it simply fails to romanticize its setting, nor does it evoke the action and adventure adrenaline of Steven Spielberg's famed whip wielding American explorer.  The Lost City of Z is a grand looking movie, exquisitely shot and superbly designed from a pure production standpoint, but at nearly two and a half hours, it never quite achieves that epic status.  It comes close, though.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Sharks run around in circles in "47 meters"

Much like last year's The Shallows, 47 Meters Down tries to milk the last remaining ounce of suspense and tension out of a predator-in-the-water genre that has, for the most part, been dead in the water for decades now.  Mandy Moore and Claire Holt are two sisters vacationing in Mexico's resorts, with the former recently heartbroken and in sad spirits, and after they meet two young men during a night of partying, they are talked into scuba diving with large sharks while enclosed in an iron cage.  Can you guess whether or not their escapade will go over well?

The movie's general structure and plot are similar to 2004's Open Water, but unlike that independent original gem, missing here is a sense of danger, as well as the element of realism that made its two protagonists people that we could relate to.  47 Meters Down is a muddy thriller - both visually and stylistically - and had it been a short with only twenty minutes' running time, it just may have been an exciting ride worthy of its exhaustive premise.

The director, Johannes Roberts, isn't quite the creative auteur who deserves having his name appear before the movie's title a la Stanley Kubrick, and the movie's lukewarm box office and critical "success" only further ridicule that ego trip.  His movie is a rarity in today's cinema age: an 85-minute bore that never excels at any aspect of filmmaking whatsoever.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Ritchie's "King Arthur" is an overstuffed two-hour long trailer

Charlie Hunnam, that emotionally flatlined British heartthrob whose career (at least thus far) has been more about style than substance, portrays the legendary Leader of Knights of the Round table in Guy Ritchie's convoluted historical fantasy bomb, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.  It's an umpteenth re-telling of the King Arthur legend, but it has to be the first one where any coherent narrative is secondary to former Mr. Madonna's chaotic editing and over-the-top kinetic directing style (even the special effects look as if they were designed on someone's laptop computer hastily, and at last possible minute).

This is allegedly the first in a series of what Ritchie and his co-writers/producers hope will be a six-part movie franchise, but the overwritten/overproduced movie in question actually feels like six features crammed into one.  Imagine The Lord of the Rings trilogy, all nine hours plus of its running time, trimmed down to a two-hour feature film: it's a drag for the eyes and the ears, but especially the audience's minds, which by the end will surely be fried.

Had Ritchie concentrated on developing Jude Law's villainous Vortigern, or even given Hunnam a human element worth following - instead of practically racing through the entire narrative as if holding the fast-forward button at full capacity - Legend of the Sword may still have been a mess, but perhaps it would've been a memorable mess.  As is, it's an overstuffed turkey that, at a reported budget of $175 million, feels and looks like the cheapest expensive movie ever made.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Dreams of youth & perseverance come of age in "Ballerina"

For a movie with such high production value, I was surprised to find that Ballerina, a 2016 Canadian/French animated feature, has not yet been released in USA (it is currently set to be released on August 30th).  Resembling perhaps a lost-in-the-shuffle Pixar gem, it follows a young girl, Felicie, as she leaves her orphanage in Brittany behind in hopes of pursuing her dreams of dancing on the stage in Paris' biggest opera houses.  With the aid of her DaVinci-like inventor friend Victor, Felicie will soar high above the City of Lights, and I'm not talking just metaphorically.

Directors Eric Summer and Eric Warin bring the 19th century Paris back to life quite impressively, especially in scenes during twilight hours, where the shadows and the street lights combine to produce an exquisite image worthy of admiration.  Where Ballerina doesn't quite soar, for example - especially when compared to other, more successful female driven computer animated films such as Inside Out and Brave - is in its formulaic structure, which, even though it manages to charm, is simply lacking in real surprises.

Nevertheless, Ballerina (its alleged title in American theaters will be Leap!) is an imaginative portrayal of a young girl's dreams coming true against all odds, and its impressive animation should make even Pixar and Dreamworks envious.  Yes, its visuals really are that good.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"Wilson" protagonist an abomination from hell

Never once does Woody Harrelson's title character in Wilson resemble a human being that anyone could give a shit about.  His goatee-faced, thick-glasses wearing miserable dork waltzes through the movie insulting pretty much everyone in sight: a young man innocently sitting with his laptop at a coffee shop, a businessman trying to listen to music while traveling on a train, even a woman who politely asks to pet his dog.  After a brief existential crisis that follows his father's passing, Wilson discovers he has a long-lost daughter, and, together with his ex-wife (Laura Dern), he tries to get in touch with the girl, who's an even more social outcast than her abhorring father.

Wilson, based on a comic/graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (having never read it, I can only comment on the movie), follows this pathetic lead character through prison, where he also gets beaten to a pulp after insulting Skinhead inmates - and is strangely seen on friendly terms with the same gang shortly after he makes a joke involving a nun; who knew prisoners had such a primitive sense of humor. And the fact that he eventually beds not just Dern's character, but also that of Judy Greer - another woman outta his league - is a preposterous thought for all nice guys out there trying to (unsuccessfully) to get laid.

Wilson isn't a man, per se; he's universe's horrible joke inflicted on his fellow mankind.  Think of Borat, but without the naivety and the self-unaware ignorance, and especially without the laughs.  In other words, a complete asshole from top to bottom.


Monday, June 19, 2017

Malick's "Song" hums the same old tune

Ever since 2012's To the Wonder, Terrence Malick's movies have more or less consisted of two lovers staring, caressing and often appearing to be engaged in an extended foreplay with one another. A filmmaker of quiet, visual prose whose movies were once admired far and wide (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line), Malick has turned into a director whose works are all photographically beautiful, but are otherwise lacking in heart.  In other words, he's become the art cinema's Michael Bay: all style, very little substance.

In his most recent examination of the Music Festival scene, Song to Song, the reclusive auteur once again lures some beautiful actors in the likes of Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman, among others.  As Gosling's aspiring musician falls for the innocent and equally ambitious Mara, their relationship is affected by their acquaintance of a shady music producer, played by the ever engaging Michael Fassbender.  Their love triangle soon evolves into an orgy of relationships of both sexes (I honestly lost track of all the protagonists' lovers, just the way I did in Malick's last effort, Knight of Cups), and the romance at its center never quite emotes to anything the viewer will hang on to after the credits roll.

A Malick trademark of late is a series of exotic locales (both architecturally and in nature) during twilight hours in which everyone seems to be in a spiritual mood, an element used almost thoroughly for the third straight time here.  Song to Song may not be a great movie, but it's also less pretentious than its filmmaker's last two predecessors.  I just hope that Terrence Malick returns to making movies for his audiences some day, rather than just for himself.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Genocide & injustice at heart of Tex's "Patagonia"

Tex Willer has been the cornerstone of Italian comics for nearly seventy years now, and perhaps it's about time that the well known Texas Ranger has finally received a worthy English edition on the American shores across the Atlantic (The Lonesome Rider, a 2005 Tex English edition from SAF comics, has only recently been re-issued in hard cover format).  A product of the famed Sergio Bonelli Editore publisher (the same house that produces Zagor and Dylan Dog, to name just a few), Tex is a defining product of Italy as much as the Roman Colosseum, cinema of Federico Fellini, or pizza.  He's their definition of what an American Cowboy should look and sound like - yellow shirt and blue pants in tow.

                              Pasquale Frisenda as an impressionist who covers cowboys, horses and moonlight.

Patagonia finds Tex Willer being asked by his friend, Major Ricardo Mendoza, to temporarily leave the American Wild West in order to join him far away, on the southernmost edge of South America, in order to help bring peace and justice to a conflict in which the local natives have been oppressed by the Argentinian military.  Having had plenty of experience dealing with indigenous people - Tex (also known as Night Eagle) had married a Navajo woman, and his son Kit is half Native American - the powers that be figured that Willer is the perfect archetype to bring about equality and awareness to the plight of people half a world away whose suffering mirrors those of their distant brothers and sisters on the Northern American continent.  Therefore, joined by his son Kit (it's the second most masculine name there is, according to Tex's creators), the iconic Texas Ranger sails the ocean blue, and heads to the distant Argentina.

                                                               Something's rotten in the state of Patagonia.

More so than an average episode of Gian Luigi Bonelli's Western creation - a hero whose motto more often than not is to "kick ass and take names", or even to "shoot now, ask questions later" - Tex Willer here plays against his type: a peaceful mediator on a continent not his own, where he only gets in a single fistfight (as always, he's never defeated, or made to look inferior), and kills only a couple of his enemies (justifiably in the field of battle).   Unlike another Italian graphic novel icon, Ken Parker, a poetic hero of the Western pulp whose compassion and generosity typically don't involve him committing much murder, Tex can be - and often is - a more "brutish" type of gentleman.  His guns are the ideological vessels of what's right and wrong, but seldom his prose.

                                              Night Eagle joins the Natives in their fight against the unfair authorities.

As illustrated by the masterful artist Pasquale Frisenda (Ken Parker and Magic Wind serials) and written by the ever-ingenious Mauro Boselli (who's been active on several Bonelli editions over the years), Patagonia (Epicenter Comics, 240 pages; $29.99) is a book that is equal measure marvel and wonder from a pure publishing perspective (to say nothing of its story and artwork, which are also impressive).  The large, hard cover exterior is complimented by slick, smooth interior pages, and the result is a complete package of perhaps the highest quality Bonelli comic book edition published in English - at least thus far.

                 Xenophobia and racism explored in Patagonia are still prevalent today, especially considering the 
                     rhetoric of the current POTUS.

The final act of Patagonia - SPOILER ALERT! - which involves Tex and his new allies fighting off the soldiers from atop of a mountain, feels a bit rushed.  One gets the impression that Frisenda and Boselli had filled nearly every single one of their allotted pages with the former's glorious illustrations that they simply ran out of space.  Still, Patagonia is a grand Tex adventure with one of the finest artworks you will ever see anywhere, a survival story that is humane and universal enough to be better than an average Night Eagle exploit.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Palmer comes of age in underwhelming "Syndrome"

An Australian backpacker (Teresa Palmer) traveling through Germany meets a nice-enough young man (Max Riemelt), and soon they are sleeping together in his apartment, which for some reason is located in a large apartment building completely void of any other tenants.  Consequently, he leaves for work the next morning, but the young woman finds that she can not leave his place, which is bolted by a large metal bar at the front door.  Did this guy lock her in so he can keep her for himself forever, or did he simply forget to leave the extra key?

There are your typical scenes in which the captive girl tries to escape, but then she accepts her fate a bit too easily, and after the first failed attempt, never tries to physically assault her captor again (I couldn't help but wonder why she just didn't stab him to death overnight as he slept, or even bash his head in with a heavy frying pan, but I suppose all our minds operate differently).  At nearly two hours, the movie is at least twenty minutes too long, and particularly superfluous is a scene in the woods, involving a woman and her two children.  It simply goes nowhere.

Cate Shortland's Berlin Syndrome - based on the novel by Melanie Joosten - lacks the disturbing, emotional element typically present in such obsession-heavy dramas, especially when compared to similarly plotted, recently released Australian gem, Hounds of Love.  Riemelt, in particular, never comes across as a convincing psycho; not even when he's bludgeoning a man to death does he look like anything more than an actor playing a weirdo.  Palmer, on the other hand, bears herself emotionally and physically in a way not seen before.  This is definitely her most daring role yet, albeit I wish it took place in a better movie.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Gadot inspires "Wonder" in the mind and soul

There is a scene late in Wonder Woman when its titular heroine, Diana Prince (played by Gal Gadot), nearly broken and defeated by her arch nemesis, Ares, The God of War, lays on the ground and contemplates if she can, in fact, ever stop the never ending carnage that he's inflicted on mankind during The Great War.  Her realization, at that very instant, of what exactly needs to drive the human soul is a moment that will forever transcend the superhero genre and elevate it to stuff of action legend - not unlike Diana's origin, which also traces all the way to the mythical gods of Olympus.

Diana's involvement with a righteous, honorable American spy Steve Trevor (played by the ever charismatic Chris Pine), will teach her about complexities of international politics when it comes to necessities of global war, and also about what it means to love someone, and to be loved in return (it sounds hokey, I know, but if you don't tear up by the film's climax, you just may be missing a heart).  Their relationship, which gradually grows before our eyes, is all the more memorable and heartbreaking because the two lovers' plight to "save the day and the world" puts them at odds of ever actually ending up together.  Such is always the mark of Hollywood's best romance epics.

Gadot, an actress of exceptional beauty, manages to easily convey her disdain to human indifference when it comes to the suffering of others; she's a performer blessed with unique talents, and I can not think of an actress more fitting for this role, both physically and emotionally.  Pine, with his wondrous blue eyes that can practically see right through you, continues to charm the pants of everyone he comes across, much as he did as Captain Kirk in Abrams' revamped Star Trek franchise.

More than any superhero movie that I can recall - DC or Marvel - director Patty JenkinsWonder Woman is an astonishing examination of a strong, ideological female's idea of - and eventual solution to - World War I bang-bang-and-blow-shit-up global bloodshed.  Its juxtaposition of spectacle, action, myth and fantasy - with a touching romance at its center - is Hollywood's finest such blockbuster since James Cameron's Titanic.  Now, in addition to The Dark Knight and Spider Man 2 (2004), comic book geeks can add Wonder Woman to the best-of-list of cinematic superhero achievements.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Bullets only free thing in this "Fire"

Hollywood bullets aren't what they used to be.  The characters - opposing sides in an illegal arms deal gone awry - at the center of Free Fire fire hundreds of them at each other for the majority of the movie, and not until they get shot about 7 or 8 times does anyone actually die.   This diverse cast of forgettable scoundrels is played by Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, and Sharlto Copley, to name just a few, and they all scowl, scream and threaten each other throughout, while the blaze of bullets continues to deafen not only the audience's ears, but also their boredom threshold.

Free Fire starts off well enough, but it is soon drowned by a shoot-out and pointlessly stretched out action scenes reminiscent of Guy Ritchie and Joe Carnahan (honestly, I thought this was some unofficial sequel to Smokin' Aces).  If it seems that I didn't say anything about the plot, it's because there isn't one, per se, only about twenty minutes of mediocre filmmaking and some sixty-plus minutes of bang-bang.  It's never a good thing when a movie that's under an hour and a half actually feels long.

Monday, June 5, 2017

"Life" just another Alien clone

The octopus-like monster at the center of Life resembles the slimy offspring from Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy (the giant octopod at the end).  Having been named Calvin by a group of children on Earth - as the astronauts who discovered him broadcast a live transmission from ISS (International Space Station) across planet Earth - the alien, initially the size of a child's hand, quickly grows into a rather large monstrosity as it feeds on the crew members (including a tiny white mouse) in order to expand.  Such are the biological needs of a life form that's been dormant on Mars for who-knows-how-long.

The similarities between Life and Alien (1979) are clearly present, but in general structure only.  What's missing here, when compared to that Ridley Scott sci-fi thriller, is a quiet sense of impending doom, and a subtle build-up to the carnage to come.  Oh, and did I mention that the cast - which includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson - as cosmetically gifted as they may be, simply lack that compelling, fearsome fire that Sigourney Weaver brought to the  aforementioned iconic franchise.  Not even when some of them get slaughtered do we give much of a shit.

More than anything, Life suffers because it has nothing new to offer to a genre that has already reached near exhaustion (Alien: Covenant also lacked originality), and even with a near $60 million budget, it just feels like an expensive B-movie.  The twist at the end (involving two pods heading to different destinations), however, is pretty neat.  If only the ninety minutes that preceded it were as compelling.