Wednesday, November 25, 2015
"Always make the audience suffer as much as possible." ~Alfred Hitchcock
Watching a Hitchcock film is like being dangled over the top of a twenty-story building - nerve-wracking, irritating, intense and nothing else like it in the world. Hitchcock is the one forcing you to look over the edge of that building and he enjoys every second of our torment.
The film to best personify that vision is Hitchcock's "Frenzy," a movie that came near the end of his career and saw him return to his British roots. By this point, the code of filmmaking that had been in place since Hitchcock arrived in America had been removed and replaced with the beginnings of the MPAA ratings. So Hitch took full advantage of that and that he was only bound by British filmmaking rules. He didn't seem to care if "Frenzy" got an R-rating, as long as it meant he could do anything he wanted, including opening his film with a naked dead body floating through London.
"Frenzy" is Hitchcock at his most barbaric, not afraid to pull any punches as to what can be shown on-screen. He'll show violent acts of passion and have the next scene be about the terrible cooking of a police chief's wife (which she never eats until the end, always forcing it on her husband). This is what makes "Frenzy" so endearing, the lighthearted nature of a serial killer on the loose in London and it works brilliantly.
"Frenzy" immediately differs itself from any other Hitchcock film with the amount of horrifying imagery throughout. Grotesque moments are implied in films like "Rear Window," "Vertigo" and "Shadow Of A Doubt," but we never see it in action. In the famous shower sequence in "Psycho," the knife is never shown cutting into the victim's skin and Hitchcock lets the audience paint the picture.
But with this one, nothing is left to the imagination and Hitchcock becomes brutal yet honest with the lengths this killer will go to.
The first half of "Frenzy" is spent following Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) and his unfortunate luck with women, jobs and race horses. Blaney becomes desperate for money and goes to his ex-wife for help. She is sympathetic but won't tolerate his anger and drinking habit, so she slips him some money and pushes him away. Not too long after that though, she ends up murdered by the "Necktie Killer" and all the signs point toward Blaney as the suspect.
In a way, the plot of "Frenzy" reminds me of "Psycho." The first hour of both films are drastically different from the second hour, always keeping you on your toes, never too sure what will happen to any of the characters. I can say I was pleasantly surprised by the final fifteen minutes of "Frenzy," because I did not see any of it coming. This film does a wonderful job of breaking away from the Hitchcock formula, while still having the flare of a Hitchcock masterpiece. Combine that with a great sense of humor and unforgiving cinematography, and you have the most underrated Hitchcock classic.
Final Grade: A-
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
And so the games come to an end. Not with a bang, but with a dream.
There has been a running theme throughout the previous "Hunger Games" films - being used by more powerful people to achieve their goals and collect more power. To be pawns in someone else's "games." Since the beginning, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has been a tool for President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to keep his seat of power and control over the land of Panem, to remind the people who his way of life is what makes everyone else safe. But even when Katniss seems to break free of Snow's control, she falls into the palm of President Coin (Julianne Moore), and acts as the figure-head of her rebellion. Katniss thinks that she's fighting to take down Snow, when she's merely propagating Coin's agenda.
In the final installment of this franchise, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2," Katniss finally realizes that she is caught in the middle between the game of Snow and Coin, and wants to be able to think for herself. This makes the film less about ending a war, and more about finding yourself when all you've known is what someone else told you.
In this respect, Jennifer Lawrence nails her role and might have given her best performance in this franchise yet. While at times, Lawrence looks bored and uninterested, that might be on purpose. This is someone who had the role of "savior" thrust upon her, against her will, has seen thousands of people die for a cause that she doesn't fully believe in, and has been beaten down by the agenda of multiple presidents. This is a destroyed woman, who wants nothing more than to find a way out of all this, and the only way is to break free of all systems.
I've said in the past that the sole reason I was interested in the "Hunger Games" franchise was to watch Jennifer Lawrence continue to do what she does best - teeter on the edge of professionalism, eccentricity and insanity. I also said that this franchise was made to showcase Lawrence's talent as an actress.
While I still stand by that, the last film had me intrigued by the story more than anything. By this point, I already knew that Lawrence was going to astound me with her acting abilities. What I did not expect was the methodical disregard for sympathy, as Coin and Snow use every last drop of blood to play their chess game. It comes across like both had every last move planned out to the most minute detail, including the use of poison in flowers.
As always, Donald Sutherland as President Snow captures the duality of a man who takes pleasure in the pain of others, while always remaining composed and proper. Normally, this would be a role that was one scar away from being a Bond villain, but instead we get a man who has imposed his will upon others while making them think it was their thoughts. There is a point in this film that summarizes up Snow perfectly, coming near the end of the film, and we finally seem him cackle, as he believes the game has been won.
With all of that said, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" has some problems.
The previous two films have built up this final act as an all-out assault, trying to take back the world and free it from the clutches of the evil Snow. Yet, there are roughly three sequences that make the film feel like a war. Outside of those scenes, this feels small and uninteresting.
At about the halfway point, our motley crew of teenage heroes have to fight a hoard of "Mutts," though they might as well be straight out of a zombie movie. While the build-up to this scene was fine, with nice pacing and atmosphere in the cramped sewers, the pay-off was severely lacking, as the action sequence that follows is blurry, dark and far too fast to keep track of that it is impossible to tell what is happening. While this might have been a pivotal scene in the book, it was an unimaginative and poorly executed scene in the movie.
Overall, I was impressed by the "Hunger Games" film franchise. Going into each of these films, I did not expect other than to make us lose our minds over Jennifer Lawrence losing her mind. But each film in this series has been wonderful at messing with my expectations and giving us something a bit removed from the Hollywood formula.
When the weakest film in your series is the first movie, you know that something went right.
Is this a perfect ending to the "Hunger Games" franchise? No, but it was certainly a satisfying one that may or may not have been left up to interpretation on the fate of Katniss. Like the previous two films, this one has terrifying performances from Lawrence and Sutherland, Kubrick-ian production design and cinematography and a gripping conclusion to the story of Katniss' fight to find herself in a world of lost people.
Final Grade: B-
Thursday, November 12, 2015
To see the world through the eyes of an innovator is to see a bleak and often miserable existence. We might praise people like Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr. now, but during while these fighters were in a constant struggle against not only their own demons but against society for daring to be different. Most of the people who change the world do not get their recognition until after their deaths.
I can honestly say I did not know who Steve Jobs was until after he passed away and everyone would not stop talking about how he changed the way we looked at computers and invited them into our home. That the digital age of social media, instant access information and handheld devices would not be possible without Steve Jobs. And after the release of his biography, which detailed his turmoil with Apple and his personal life, it only seemed natural to turn his life story into a film.
That is, after the disaster that was Asthon Kutcher's "Jobs."
Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs" is a unique film-going experience that takes a vastly different approach to telling one man's life story while still capturing the essence of why this flawed creature is beloved and praised. Aaron Sorkin's writing shifts between pretentious and enlightening, but that is to be expected at this point. But Michael Fassbender's performance as Steve Jobs is what people are talking about, even if Fassbender can never reach the ego of this innovator.
The film details three key moments in Steve Jobs life - The reveal of the Macintosh shortly after the début of the "1984" Apple commercial, Steve's first independent creation of the NeXT computer in 1988, and his return to Apple with the creation of the iMac. Each of these takes place a few hours before Steve (Fassbender) showcases these products to the world, while we watch his life fall apart around him, including from Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), the CEO of Apple John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his personal assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) and Steve's daughter Lisa, who he constantly denies as his offspring.
How you react to this movie will depend entirely on how you feel about Fassbender's performance.
While he nails the emotional scenes, realizing how much of a prick he can be to the people who care about him, there is a certain air to his performance. I never got the impression this was Steve Jobs, just Michael Fassbender pretending to be Steve Jobs. You might argue that is exactly what acting is, but great acting makes you forget the illusion of cinema and feel that you're watching real people, not just actors trying to be someone else.
I felt the performances from Seth Rogan, Jeff Daniels and Kate Winslet were emotionally-driven and often sympathetic to those who had to consistently deal with Steve Jobs. But it always felt like I was seeing Michael Fassbender flaunt his ego, and not become Steve Jobs. Perhaps this was because the man has become a legend by this point that it almost impossible for any actor to portray him.
That being said, Fassbender made Steve Jobs vulnerable. He showed that this was a man who wanted to make something of himself in the world and took every opportunity to showcase that. Because he was so caught up in changing the world, he would neglect everything that any normal man would, like his daughter. This is a man so absorbed in his own ego that he is astonished that other people don't feel the same way about him.
Because of that, I can't say that Fassbender's performance was off-putting. It works perfectly for Aaron Sorkin's screenplay, even if he does not fully emulate Steve Jobs. From the moment of Fassbender denying that he has a daughter to the revelation of why Time magazine made his computer the "Man Of The Year" and not him, this is a noteworthy performance.
Overall, "Steve Jobs" is about a man so caught up in changing the world that he forgot to be apart of his own world. The visual style of Boyle's film matches this theme and character-arc for Jobs, as we watch his dreams become larger than life, then all fall apart, only to rise from the ashes and for the world to see him as he sees himself - an innovator.
Final Grade: B+
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!!
Confession time - I'm not a big fan of James Bond.
To this day, I've only seen a few James Bond films, in particular "Goldfinger," "Dr. No," "Casino Royale," "Die Another Day" and "Skyfall." And while the two Daniel Craig Bond films I've seen have amazed, they have not made me want to see the other roughly 20 movies in the franchise.
It is like discovering the Godzilla franchise for the first time. You learn there are 30 films in the series, most of which aren't that great, and you're put off by a task so large that may not yield great results.
Even so, I'd still take Godzilla over James Bond. While Bond is the man who every man wants to be and every woman wants to be with, I could never get past his dead-pan reaction to every thing he encountered.
The building behind him blows up? Eh, it had it coming. The woman he was sleeping with is dead? That's a shame, have room service send me up another. Another assassin is after him? Is it Tuesday already?
I get that he is an assassin that has been desensitized to violence and crime over the years, but he has become so removed from reality that his childhood home blowing up gets little more than one quip out of him.
Do I hate the James Bond films? Not all. Like I said, I really enjoyed "Casino Royale" and "Skyfall," plus "Goldfinger" was action-packed and had a good sense of humor from Sean Connery. But I would not call myself a Bond fan, just someone who respects the franchise.
With that said, I also respect where the most recent Bond film, "Spectre" is coming from.
I've seen so many people bashing it for being boring, far too long and implausible, far removed from the realistic tone of the Daniel Craig films thus far. But "Spectre" was going for something much different from "Casino Royale" or "Quantum Of Solace," and that was to pay tribute to the older Bond films, like "Dr. No" and "Goldfinger." A film where the villain's plan is elaborate and convoluted, Bond is always grasping for even a moment's break, and the action is high and non-stop.
However, "Spectre" still has its share of problems.
Set shortly after the events of "Skyfall," James Bond (Daniel Craig) has been assigned one last mission by his former boss, to track down and kill a man who even his current boss, M (Ralph Finnes), has never heard of. What Bond finds though is a trail of bread crumbs leading him to a man who has been considered dead since James was a boy. This man, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) has a plan for Agent 007, and intends to use his shady connections to ruin Bond's life.
There are several memorable scenes throughout "Spectre," and they all deal with convoluted action sequences that would make "Mad Max: Fury Road" blush. The opening sequence comes to mind, where a building collapses onto Bond, followed by a fist fight inside of a helicopter over Mexico City with the streets overflowing with bystanders, hoping that the blades come nowhere near them. I was blown away to see the helicopter fly upside down yet moves so smooth through the air, as if it had been launched off a ramp.
Not to mention, preceding that sequence was four-minute unbroken steady cam shot that followed James Bond from the streets, into a hotel, and to the rooftops of Mexico City. Seriously, opening your film with a long scene that is unedited is one of the best ways to get the audience's attention.
The chase sequence through the snow-capped mountains of Austria was also breath-taking, as the plane Bond uses slowly disintegrates and the kidnappers get further away. It was also a nice change of pace to see Bond doing the chasing and being in a vehicle normally associated with the villains. I think I heard people in the audience clapping at the end of this sequence, and it rightfully deserved that.
That being said, that story of "Spectre" was nothing special and almost ruins the earlier Bond films. As it turns out, Christoph Waltz's character is actually Ernst Stavro Blofeld (complete with cat and scar across the eye) and he blames everything bad in his life on James Bond, and that he was the one who orchestrated villains like Le Chiffre in "Casino Royale" and Silva in "Skyfall," just to get back at Bond.
In other words, Le Chiffre didn't want to get out of the clutches of terrorists across the world or anything personal, but was all a puppet for Blofeld's needs. Silva didn't want revenge on M for abandoning him when he needed her the most, but was a tool to get back at James Bond, because Blofeld apparently had daddy issues.
I wouldn't have had a problem with this if Blofeld's reasons for hating Bond weren't so baffling - Blofeld's father adopted Bond after his parents died, and Bond "stole his father away from him." Waltz makes the comparison to a cuckoo, which throws out the babies of another bird's nest so that another set of parents will take care of it. Except that, based off the photos, Blofeld's father clearly spent time with him after adopting Bond, and the two were together in the accident that supposedly kill them.
And all the while, Bond has no reaction to any of this. He just found out that Blofeld killed the only woman he ever loved, sent a former agent to kill his boss, and he says nothing about substantial about it.
Up to that point, the story is one action set piece to another, in trying to get Bond to Blofeld. But once we get to the reason behind Spectre going all out in stopping James Bond, the plot goes all over the place, trying to wrap everything up nicely.
"Spectre" does not even take advantage of Christoph Waltz's talent, as he always speaks in a low tone of voice, unimpressed by anything. Even when torturing Bond, the man "responsible" for all his pain, he looks as though he'd rather be eating a sandwich. Waltz is at his best when he's living it up and having a great time taking advantage of other people's naivety and stupidity, which is absent in this role. That is unfortunate.
Overall though, "Spectre" was a blast. High on action and low on intelligence may be a different game than the previous Craig Bond movies play, but as a tribute to the Connery Bond films, this one pulls it off nicely. The story is a mess and the acting is not as crisp as it has been, especially from Waltz, but the action sequences are some of the best this year. This is not one of the best James Bond films, but it was certainly a fun one.
Final Grade: B-
Sunday, November 1, 2015
Sometimes a films' greatest crime is being just average.
You never forget a truly great film, as Steven Spielberg has proven countless times and has done so since the mid-1970s. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a godawful film can leave a lasting impression on you. In place of excitement and awe with a great film is frustration and laughter in a bad film. Movies like "The Room" and "Plan 9 From Outer Space" might be glowing with faults and bad storytelling, but you remember how bad it was. You are reminded why you have standards and that these films don't hold up to them. They're entertainment of a different kind.
But a movie that falls in the middle is something else entirely. A movie that is neither good or bad has very little to remember about it. Scenes will come and go, do their job adequately so that you don't notice anything special but you don't question anything, and leave you feeling like nothing was gained or lost.
An average film is a forgettable film.
Such is the case with Spielberg's newest film, "Bridge Of Spies." I would not say there is anything wrong with this film, as it does a fine job at keeping the suspense of the Cold War and does not stray from that. But nothing truly outstanding shines in this film either. It was a by-the-numbers spy thriller with a bit of courtroom drama thrown into the mix. While it does have the Spielberg style and has a captivating performance from Tom Hanks, that is about all "Bridge Of Spies" has to offer.
My favorite scene comes about an hour in, when a CIA agent is questioning Hanks' character about his actions - defending a known Soviet Union spy and pleading that he not be sent to the electric chair. Hanks brings up how he is Irish and that the agent must be German, but that what makes both American is that they believe in the Constitution - that all men are created equal and deserve to be treated as such, even known enemies.
Beyond that, not many scenes stuck out to me. I'm writing this hours after watching "Bridge Of Spies" and I can hardly remember any scenes. I recall the plot of a prison transfer during the Cold War and tense moments once Hanks moves the action to East Berlin, where the film takes on a "Schindler's List" feel, but the sense of atmosphere and focus is lost.
Final Grade: C+