Compelling, informative, tragic, and undeniably entertaining (often… MoreCompelling, informative, tragic, and undeniably entertaining (often unintentionally), Art of The Steal is an excellent documentary. The film examines the Barnes Foundation, named after Albert C. Barnes who, for many years, housed countless masterpieces of art (valued in tens of billions) in one building. The building, dedicated to be a purely educational institution, was awash in non-conformity in both presentation and execution, angering the establishment of his day.
The film documents the undermining of Barnes and his will, who laid out explicit instructions on the operation of his collection, as well as his intentions. We are introduced to a number of characters who, in their own way, seek to undermine this purpose. In many cases we hear them firsthand, other times we are introduced to their machinations by others. Taken literally, the film is about civil procedure, but at its heart, it's a film about greed and opportunism. The director, Don Argott, does a masterful job in presenting his case, and building tension. The legal subtleties of such a story are not necessarily interesting to most, yet Argott makes it positively cinematic, treating his subject with passion and skill.
In the end, it's a powerful indictment against supposed non-profit foundations, and the politicians who seek to capitalize for personal gain at every opportunity, with the Barnes collection marking a surprising intersection of all these interests.
With new attention being drawn to the story, having spawned a History… MoreWith new attention being drawn to the story, having spawned a History Channel miniseries, I thought it time to visit the acclaimed 1967 Bonnie and Clyde. Receiving large praise for its ingenuity and boldness, Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde can rightly be called a classic. It's a film ahead of its time in approach, style, and execution.
Watching Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, one might forget the way it redefined cinema for its time. This is a testament to how it has aged, being almost indistinguishable, and in many ways better, than modern films. The violence in this film is unflinching, not sanitized, but also not over-glamorized. The characterizations are surprisingly fresh and bold, casting two anti-heroes, both with deeply flawed personas and hints of even social taboos.
The film progresses at a brisk pace, yet never feels rushed. Penn guides the narrative in a way that feels organic and engaging, giving us necessary back-story, but never feeling the need to pander. The hallmark of the film is the central performances from Warren Beatty and Fay Dunaway. Both have a palpable chemistry, and both bring an enormous amount of charisma to the screen. Dunaway is perfect as the lonely, thrill-seeking, and self-destructive Bonnie Parker, and Beatty is superb as the vulnerable, yet dogged Clyde Barrow. These performances are set against strong action scenes, and within a script that emphasizes the characters, never attempting to force-thrills.
The one criticism of Penn's Bonnie and Clyde is the historical accuracy. To be sure, we expect liberties to be taken, and Penn's version is certainly more true than others, yet the film subscribes to some of the more dubious notions about the couple. The hints of Clyde's impotence, for example, seem to be a substitute for other questions regarding his sexuality, yet substance for this is lacking, with an actually and intense romantic relationship between the two being likely more accurate.
A strong film overall, largely befitting its classic status.
Ridley Scott's feature film debut is perhaps his most distinctive. Set… MoreRidley Scott's feature film debut is perhaps his most distinctive. Set in the Napoleonic age, the film follows the feud of two army officers, a feud that lasts nearly 16 years, encompassing several duels. It's a mature effort, one that relies on its great cast and cinematography for its dramatic heft. It's a film that represents some of Scott's best tendencies, while also illustrating his later growth.
The Duelists is not a thriller by any stretch of the imagination. It's a drama, and a fine period piece. The story is surprisingly simple and yet inexplicable. The actions of Feraud appear obfuscated, a man driven by an intense hatred and bizarre notions of honor, which simply mask for immense insecurity. In this sense, Harvey Keitel is unsettling, inhabiting his character in a way that is hard to pin down. The low-key, gentlemanly Keith Carradine is the perfect juxtaposition, and makes for one of the most successful elements of the film.
The film's visual sense is almost impeccable. Scott brings his characteristic visual ingenuity to full effect, reminiscent almost of Stanley Kubrick, in that it's the scenes visual tendencies that drive the film. The period piece elements are also well down, capturing a beautiful yet flawed era.
The film does have its problems, however. Scott is never able to achieve the level of dramatic engagement or tension here as he does in his later films, a symptom of a sluggish pace, but also of a script that is elusive in its characterizations. We see interesting characters, yet we're never completely let in. Scenes linger a bit too long, and tension rarely builds itself.
Overall, an interesting and impressive film debut.
Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart was brilliant, authentic, captivating, and… MoreScott Cooper's Crazy Heart was brilliant, authentic, captivating, and immensely insightful. When the trailers for Out of the Furnace were released, it seemed as if this could be repeated. With Out of the Furnace, we are treated to another family drama, one that has strong themes of fate, futility, free-will, and generational violence. It's a film that has all the working parts for a great drama, though it never quite lives up to the heights of Crazy Heart.
With Out of the Furnace, we see Christian Bale working a dead-end job of a soon-to-be outsourced steel mill, looking after his restless and hopelessly troubled brother Rodney, who oscillates with local underground fights and tours in Iraq. Through Rodney's exploits, we are introduced to Harlan DeGroat, a hillbilly crime lord with an extremely intense demeanor, played by Woody Harrelson. All of the characters are played to excellent effect by a cast that is headlined by Casey Affleck, Christian Bale, and an unusual performance by Forest Whitaker. These characters are placed in a bleak world seemingly devoid of hope and filled with a stagnant sense of energy, and a foreboding air.
The film itself has a very atmospheric and dark tone. It feels gritty, it looks real, and the world simply feels resonate. This is what the film does well, capturing the mood of the script, and executing with excellent performances. The family dynamics feel real, and I appreciated the film's refusal for forced endings or clichéd resolutions. Cooper is not afraid to take risks, and it shows.
My reservations about the film come from its lack of a really coherent message and through-line. The film's obsession with tone and bleakness seems to lose the point of what it's trying to say. There's a lot of interesting performances and scenes, yet they sometimes feel disjointed. The film seems as if it has a lot to say, yet by the film's end we are left wondering where the climax lead to, ending at a place without a clear resonance. Cooper was obviously attempting to go against the grain, yet one still needs a clear message in order to make a film impacting.
An overall strong drama that perhaps never quite lives up to its potential.
Red 2 benefits from the fact that we know what we should expect,… MoreRed 2 benefits from the fact that we know what we should expect, unlike its predecessor, alleviating one of the chief problems with the first film. In Red, we were entreated to a lot of camp, stylized action, and a story seriously lacking in credibility, yet the film always seemed as if it was trying for more, perhaps even taking itself a little too seriously. With Red 2, all pretenses go out the window, resulting in a film that is witty, satirical, often dumb, but always fun. It's a sequel that bests the first.
The tone in this Red is always consistent, it's whimsical, satirical, and very campy. This can be done well, and it can be done poorly. It is done well here, with all of the actors hitting on all the right beats, and the script finding a balance between silly subplots and what anchors the film, its humor. The film does a great job of keeping a brisk pace, but not too rushed, providing us with a wide variety of settings, and setting up its scenes well. Each location offers a unique texture to the story, with undeniably interesting characters. This, to be sure, is the greatest achievement of Red 2, its ensemble cast. Everyone on screen looks sold on the project, as much as can be possible with Willis these days, and brings their own unique spin. The performance by Anthony Hopkins especially was noteworthy, with him chewing the scenery with his affable, yet nefarious persona.
The story in this Red is a simplistic one, yet what Red 2 does well, and to some extent the first Red, is make the story appear all the more vibrant and interesting with back-story, countless factions and, as mentioned, a stream of interesting characters. The film captures the eccentricities of geopolitics in a unique (terribly simplified) way, that makes what we see feel different. It's not simply about action set pieces, rather the character moments in between.
For all it does right, Red 2 really is what it is. It's not serious, the plot is clichéd filled, the action scenes are ridiculous. Yet, the film knows this. It's camp, not for the sake of camp, but more for the sake of its peculiar sarcasm. All in all, it's an enjoyable ride.
There is perhaps not a harder genre than the science fiction genre, a… MoreThere is perhaps not a harder genre than the science fiction genre, a genre that requires an immense amount of ingenuity, visual sense, forward-thinking, and some sort of realist backing that keeps the story grounded. To do it in a mockumentary fashion is even more challenging, as witnessed by such failed attempts as Apollo 18. Europa Report, however, manages to weave a successful film that is part documentary and part found footage, in to one rather effective science fiction thriller.
The story follows a crew of six astronauts as they are sent to investigate possible life on Jupiter's moon. Interestingly enough, the story takes place in our contemporary time. The exposition is achieved through news footage and documentary-style, with the rest of the film being composed of cleverly conceived found footage devices.
It's the film's smart direction and well-realized script that makes the film's elements work. The world-building feels current and realistic. The script refreshingly takes science at least passably seriously, introducing real-world situations and problems, entreating us to a crew and ship that are fragile, and hopelessly outmatched against the bleakness that is space. The footage is put together coherently, and to good effect. There is rarely any over-bearing narration, or irritating figure heads spelling out what has just occurred, rather we are left to witness events as they unfold, with the emotional backdrop of real-world implications.
The performances are strong all around, crucial for a film that relies on very intimate relationships. The crew composes many different personality types and demeanors, yet all interact in believable and identifiable ways. The direction creates just the right amount of tension, and delivers us a narrative told in a very methodical manner. It never feels rushed, it occasionally feels slow, but the last act is all the more effective for it.
Europa Report does have its faults, however. The emotional resonance in the last act is never quite what it should be, a symptom of never fully identifying with one character, and the short running time. The pace is a bit sluggish in parts, though never overly slow.
The biggest flaw is the documentary aspect of the on-Earth personnel, we never quite get a dramatic through-line for them. The way they are utilized should seemingly pay-off differently than it does, and thus I felt more could have been done with that aspect.
Overall it's a nice addition to the genre.
A widowed ex-DEA agent retires to a small Louisiana town, looking to… MoreA widowed ex-DEA agent retires to a small Louisiana town, looking to get out of the life for the sake of his young daughter. An unfortunate sequence of events brings his past back to haunt him, trouble ensues, and the ex-agent is forced to confront what he wanted to leave behind. This is the plot of Homefront, the new Jason Statham film which, on its face, sounds indistinguishable from other Statham films, not to mention scores of other B action films. Perhaps its this knowledge and low expectations, but Homefront actually manages to transcend these parameters and is instead a film that both delivers and surprises, a B action film that actually thrills.
The premise, to be sure, is familiar. The ex-agent set-up, the precocious daughter, the past that comes back to haunt, it's all very cliche and over-done. Yet Homefront manages to execute on this premise to a very strong degree, and then surprise. It does this by giving us strong performances, especially by Kate Bosworth, whose delivery as the white-trash meth addict mother was the headline of the film for me. James Franco, oddly enough, was also effective, with a characterstic Statham performance that, though it lacked depth, had a strong charm and action prescence that was needed for the material. The script also gave us some refreshing scenarios, it was Bosworth's character that, instead of being weak and victimized, was actually the source of the antagonism. It was Statham's daughter that was strong, not needy and vulnerable, yet ready to stand firm. This gave the film some subtext that other similarly themed films don't have.
The action in Homefront is also very well choreographed and shot. Shooting scenes feel especially impactful, and are easy to follow. The director, Gary Fleder, used Statham's action prowess to notable effect, having some of his better action scenes as of late, some of which are almost grippingly effective. This is true of the chase scences in well. Fleder also didn't overdue the action, and made it feel more organic to the story, not simply jumping around from action set piece to action set piece.
This is not to say Homefront is without its flaws. The cliches are endless, the jumps in logic plentiful. One scene saw Statham's car roll-over countless times, only to have him emerge seemingly unharmed, and perhaps even more energized. The dramatic elements are good for what it is, but it's not a fine drama. Taken on its own terms, however, it's a surprisingly good ride.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire proves to be that rare sequel that, in… MoreThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire proves to be that rare sequel that, in most respects, outperforms its predecessor. In Catching Fire, we see Katniss Everdeen returned to another Hunger Games, this time competing with other winners, as the political climate continues to escalate in its precariousness.
The first film was effective, to be sure, yet Catching Fire feels like a more mature, even darker, endeavor. The emotions here are more effective, they feel more authentic. This speaks to the film's more in-depth exploration of its themes. Whereas the first installment was occasionally rushed and overly concerned with exposition, this Hunger Games takes a more methodical approach, with a renewed emphasis on the characters. In fact, this is the most effective thing about Catching Fire, its focus on character development. The central character dynamics at the heart of the film anchor it, which makes the action all the more compelling on the screen. We are also entreated to characters that have complexity, not simple villains or protagonists, but people with flawed characters, and yet identifiable motivations.
The world building in Catching Fire is also taken to the next level. Everything feels more well-realized, with amazing CGI, excellent visuals, and an overall universe that feels real. The costumes, the sets, the entire context of the film inhibits itself organically, a strong testament to the film's technical merits.
This is not to say Catching Fire is free of flaws. The scripting can be a bit obvious, especially in its dialogue. Too often are we entreated to intense discussions amongst characters literally spelling out the motivations and themes, "we need fear" "as long as they believe in her", when the film really does not need to do that. I feel that moving forward the franchise needs to move away from spoon-feeding its audience, and instead move toward the intelligence and subtlety it's capable of.
An overall excellent follow-up.
As the Marvel Universe continues to expand, one can't but help wonder… MoreAs the Marvel Universe continues to expand, one can't but help wonder when, if at all, the quality will begin to suffer. Up to this point, the studio has been turning out high-quality films, with Iron Man 3 representing a surprisingly effective follow-up to Avengers. With the first Thor, we got a film that was fun, funny, light, yet undeniably charming and effective. With Dark World, we get a film that manages to repeat some of the success of the first Thor, yet fails to seize upon the moment of the subsequent Marvel films, feeling adequate, but not satisfying.
My biggest disappointment with Dark World was that the film's universe didn't feel organic to the subsequent events the other Marvel films. Throwaway lines to "New York" doesn't count in and of itself. Iron Man 3 achieved this with a darker tone, and a more shaken Tony Stark. With Dark World, references to the other films feel gimmicky and shallow. Taken on its own merits, this Thor never achieves the same wonder as the first, and thus suffers from an un-involving, almost lazy, narrative. The set-up feels recycled, but with new characters. The events themselves all feel very familiar, making much of what happens seem like a placeholder for the ultimate finale. At the end of this Thor, it is easy to find yourself asking if that was really it, as if most of the significant plot points occur in the very third act and with the after credit scenes.
This is not to say that Dark World is poorly done on a technical or acting level. The performances work, with Chris Hemsworth embodying the perfect Thor, having noticeable chemistry with Portman. Tom Hiddelston's Loki continues to be the most interesting thing about the series, offering a complex man that is often fascinating in his machinations. The action set pieces are well staged, and the Universe itself is well realized from a scope-standpoint, offering great visuals. The problem is that none of this is really taken to its true potential, following a largely predictable trajectory.
In the end, it's an entertaining film. We get what we would expect, but nothing more. Perhaps Marvel has set the bar too high, as the ambition of such a vast interconnected Universe is unparalleled, and the execution thus far has been superb. As it is, one cannot help but feeling a little let-down in this case.
Long associated with action films and high-brow science fiction… MoreLong associated with action films and high-brow science fiction adventures, 1492: Conquest of Paradise represents one of director Ridley Scott's less noted films. It's a film that is quiet, grandly scaled, beautifully shot, and very ambitious. It's also a film with narrative flaws, a lethargic pace, and perhaps an overly generous take on Columbus.
The best thing about 1492 is Scott's world building. We are entreated to fantastic cinematography, with shots that capture the vastness, wonder, and yet stark nature of the real world. Scott films his scenes with a masterful sense of scope, never placing his characters above the scenery, as a skillful reminder of the grand stakes at play. The world-building is equally impressive, with sets that are fantastically realized. It's a period piece that doesn't simply look like its' period, but rather inhibits it. As such, the technical merits of 1492 can scarcely be questioned.
The film's narrative, however, is a mixed bag. The performance by Gerard Depardieu was surprisingly strong, offering a more complicated view of Columbus than other film treatments. The supporting cast is also fairly well received, and is served by a script with intelligent dialogue and a keen eye towards subtlety. The trouble comes from the film's almost disengagement with its subjects. We see Columbus's struggles, but never feel them. We see the stakes, but never quite feel involved in them. The film suffers from a disengagement, most likely originating from it hands-off approach towards Columbus. Had the film tried to be more of a character study, giving us more of the human dynamics (particularly the politics involved), it would have been more successful. The treatment of Columbus is also undeniably generous, painting a man ahead of his time, relentlessly ambitious, but also exceedingly humane. History would perhaps suggest some of these notions are a bit dubious, Columbus was a rather hard man.
Overall, however, I found the film engaging. The technical merits alone made it always watchable, and the story itself was treated with great respect by Ridley, who populates the story with interesting characters, strong performances, and large scale, though with plenty of problems along the way.