In the interest of not crowding this place up with separate posts, yet still giving everyone a chance to read a few things about movies that released late in the summer and in September this year, I decided to do a post of 7 small capsule reviews of Late Summer & September Releases. Presenting…..
Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg, 2015)
As with Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella earlier this year, I found myself simply enjoying the refreshingly old-school charm that Vinterberg instills in this movie. It’s a time-pass attempt if anything, but aiming significantly higher than Branagh’s mess. There’s something to say about a film which embodies a wholly visual splendor that compliments its fable-like romantic aim. The movie can be slyly looked upon as a play on the different types of the modern day male, and their different approaches to women. One is a sleek young ladies-man who encapsulates our heroine (Carrie Mulligan) with sexual desire, one is your shy beta-male who is desperately looking for a wife and promises her comfort and respect, and the third is a hard-to-get country fellow who just drags with the wind and plays it cool. The way Vinterberg’s film unfolds is undoubtedly melodramatic, and reminds one of those Oscar-bait and easy to forget 90’s romances, but it cleverly takes an age-old tale and winks at modern society’s male-female relationships with it and makes for a breezy lazy Sunday watch.
True Story (Rupert Goold, 2015)
True Story is just as pedestrian as its title. There’s nothing out of the ordinary which takes place in this film, aside maybe from the against-type casting of Jonah Hill as a serious New York Times journalist who battles his inner-demons and James Franco as a man accused of murdering his family. Similar in theme to Bennet Miller’s biographical narrative on Truman Capote and his interview of death-row inmate Perry Smith, True Story encounters familiar problems that arise amongst publication writers and those who decide to do their own controversial “exclusive” pieces. Jonah Hill’s Michael Finkle, a disgraced NYT writer who lied about his facts in a covers story he did on the African slave trade believes his career and his inner self-worth will be restored if he writes a book on the story of Christian Longo, a convicted murderer accused of smothering his three children and his wife and dumping their bodies in the river.
Goold’s narrative tries to tight-rope walk a line between Capote and Primal Fear where Finkle’s personal magnum opus piece, a potential best-selling novel to restore his character is at odds with Longo’s inability to display his true identity. The battle within the film thus, is not between two people but rather between the truth and lies, something that Finkle has already messed up before and now must confront head-on. Goold doesn’t really handle the film in a very astute manner however, simplifying the story into nothing more than a guessing game on Longo and a character study which goes no deeper than legal debate. We don’t learn anything about Longo or Finkle as characters other than their surface level frustration. What is revealed in the end never penetrates our surface because its never unexpected. True Story could have benefitted from character study of two people who lie, but its trumped by Goold’s fascination with telling a suspenseful yarn and a thrilling mystery, and in that, True Story’s real story gets lost.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015)
This might be the first Mission Impossible movie in which I didn’t leave the theater excited for the next one. Each filmmaker who has helmed the MI series, and they are prolific from Brian DePalma to John Woo (my favorite) to J.J. Abrams to Brad Bird have all instilled a personal vision of what makes Ethan Hunt, or more importantly, Tom Cruise, so damn likeable on screen. McQuarrie just kind of rolls with the punches here, and reduced the mighty franchise, one which I like more than James Bond and the Bourne films personally, to a simpelton’s action film. Rogue Nation didn’t introduce anything new for us, it didn’t challenge our perceptions of Ethan Hunt, all it really did was just give Tom Cruise a string of situations to get out of and thus, turned Mission Impossible from a canvas that an innovative filmmaker could fill with his signature style, into a ready-made template of action tropes… it became what Jason Statham’s action films have become… it became what the Die Hard series has become…. and frankly, that’s no fun.
Coming Home (Zhang Yimou, 2015)
When Yimou isn’t dancing with swords and blood, he is eternally fascinated by dynamics of relationships and China’s oppressive role in shaking and breaking them. Yimou shows us the irreparable damage and the utter decay of a husband (Lu) and wife (Yu)’s love and their daughter’s loneliness caused by the imprisonment of Lu during China’s Cultural Revolution. China’s history of deep political turmoil is one that affects many families, and on a level that to many Westerners seems impossible to overcome.
Adequately then, Coming Home is a complete departure of canvas for Zhang Yimou where the bright reds and oranges and shiny robes and flowers are replaced with dingy stairwells, muddy alleyways, and rusty train stations all viewed through a depressing color-filter. The humanism of Coming Home however is pure Yimou, as Yu’s Alzheimer’s makes her forget her husband Lu’s face and thus, even when he does return from his imprisonment, she thinks of him as a bothersome stranger and still longs achingly for the return of her “real” husband. Despite the obstacles, there is a fight within the characters to survive and to love a much more hopeful picture painted for a director like Yimou who’s earlier works displayed a furious anger and devastation towards China’s social ills. In this film we get a lot of melodrama and very aching moments of desperation and hopelessness, but they are countered beautifully by heartfelt compromise.
The Gift (Joel Edgerton, 2015)
Inspired in no small part by Michael Haneke’s taught Austrian-French thriller Cache, Joel Edgerton finds himself directing an equally enticing if typically bloated thriller. This is a simple case of adapting for the audience. One thing noticeably similar is how Edgerton also films his movie in pans and dollys, and the residence of the couple (Simon & Robin) is equally as chic, modern, filled with whites and empty spaces as the residence of Georges and Anne and both couples are harassed by a stranger who leaves them with ambiguous keepsakes (in Cache, photographs, and in The Gift, well…. gifts) . A lot of the thematic elements however are taken up a notch into more deliberate, and more cinematically liberal territory, with the “stalker” delivering elaborate gifts and paying painfully awkward visits to the couples residence rather than anonymously sending mail as in Haneke’s film. While the twists that account for most of the films best and more disturbing moments are similar in the way they reveal more about the darkness hidden within the couple than within the stranger. This idea of outside entities coming in to rip a marriage apart through revealing skeletons in the closet is a brilliant premise for any thriller, and through Edgerton’s tight script and good character development, The Gift imparts us with, as the narrative draws to its conclusion, completely different views on the initial players in the game at the end, than at the beginning.
The Visit (M. Night Shyamalan, 2015)
Night Shyamalan is a peculiar cat in the cinema world, at least for me, because he is the only filmmaker, possibly with the exception of Atom Egoyan, who’s career has been a pure smooth and devastating downward slope from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. Consider The Visit then, to be a twist in the dénouement.
One thing I really enjoyed about this movie though, and what gives me a light at the end of the tunnel, was that it was completely void of any pretense. It was a pure, campy genre flick and it seemed like the cast and crew had a lot of fun making this movie adding their own little improvisations to it. The mix of comedy and horror was also equally refreshing because it creates a very disorienting, almost Lynchian feel to the whole ordeal. There are definite scares, and the signature Shyamalan twist, while not anything revolutionary or unique to the film, was still effective, probably the best twist he has implemented since The Sixth Sense and its because it wasn’t trying to impress anybody with shock or awe, its merely a cunning narrative ploy, a mischievous finger-pointing.
The movie is terrifying in parts, and Shyamalan implements a lot of the unique devices he mastered early in his career. Much like in his other movies, Shyamalan tells you what to be afraid of (in this case, demented grandparents) and builds all the tension off of that. The major drawback of the movie is that it remains sloppy in its presentation, and while Shyamalan tries his best to innovate with the “found footage” medium, there’s really not much new here. It’s a poor medium to use for this kind of movie and it reduces the haunting appearance and nature of the film’s surroundings down to an amateur video-project.
It’s certainly not the rousing “return to form” as claimed (more significant improvement). The movie however, is undeniably an upswing in his career, but at this point, for the cynics and those less eager to jump back on the bus, this film is more just the end of a torturous mess of a career, a self-immolation by Shyamalan that has finally been put out by a bucket of water. The Visit can be considered the fixing of a ship that has already sunk. The challenge now, is to see if Shyamalan can get it back anywhere near the surface of the water.
Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015)
Scott Cooper consistently has a sledgehammer of a topic to go crazy with on screen (see Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace) and yet, he manages not more than a small dent. What Black Mass has to rely on, and it does keep itself afloat enough that we can appreciate the film without necessarily thinking too highly of it, is Johnny Depp’s undeniable talent and dedication to playing Whitey Bulger. In a sense, this film could be considered Depp’s film itself because the way he looks, walks, talks, acts, is an authentic creation from the ground up by Depp himself, almost an ‘adapted’ character rather than a mimic of the real Bulger. Whitey is Depp’s vision from the first mark of pen to paper, and he paints the character to a level where we fear almost any move he makes. The one sequence where Bulger gets Morris to reveal his family secret recipe for steak and Morris blurts it out and then Bulger coldly asks “I thought it was a family secret”, we immediately shiver and tense up. It’s a sequence where we get the real “walking on needles” feeling where even the most light and well-intentioned move could be turned black by Depp’s Whitey. But outside of this, and of course a nice cast surrounding Depp, we have to shake our heads once again at Scott Cooper for a missed opportunity. Black Mass doesn’t bite in the narrative department and its overuse of the f-word, a desperate “wannabe like Scorsese” move can’t add even a hint of “edge” or “guts” to this film. Instead, what Depp brings is the extent of what you’ll get in terms of interest, and you better savor every moment he’s on screen.