Month: February 2014

Film Review- ‘The Hunt’ (2012) (****1/2)

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Clearly the bearded man doesn't understand he's messing with LeChiffre AND Hannibal.
Clearly, the bearded man doesn’t understand he’s messing with LeChiffre AND Hannibal.

“The Hunt”  ****1/2  (out of 5)

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Susse Wold, Lasse Fogelstrom, and Annika Wedderkopp

Written by: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg

Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg

*note- “The Hunt” (also known by its’ Danish title “Jagten”) has been nominated for a 2013 Oscar for Best Foreign Film despite having a release date set in 2012.  Due to its’ consideration as a 2013 nominee, I’m reviewing this as a 2013 release.

Community is an interesting word, isn’t it?  I’ve always been led to believe that the term embodies a group of people working together towards the same goals- fellowship and support in good times and bad.  No matter what country or region, it’s a universal idea.  Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” is a maddening, frustratingly brilliant portrayal of a good man embattled by a broken community, either too lazy or too proud to self-reflect.  It’s less of a commentary on pedophilia or child abuse and more a visceral commentary on what today’s idea of a community actually is, and the powerful way it can simultaneously build up or destroy an individual or group.

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is an average, lonely guy.  Recently divorced with a teenage son and a newer job, he’s made progress trying to piece his life back together.  Interestingly, he’s the only male teacher in a preschool-kindergarten, but as the movie tells us, it appears that was his only choice after his other school closed.  The children appear to adore him, and why not?  He’s kind, helpful, and approachable.  So approachable, in fact, that children come to him for solace, comfort, and even assistance using the restroom.

One particular child, his best friend’s daughter Klara (Wedderkopp), looks to Lucas to fill a role that her own parents haven’t been filling (which makes sense considering how much they fight).  Klara just craves positive attention, and who could blame her?  After all, it appears all she’s learning at home is animosity from her parents, and she’s even forced to view adult material by her brother and his friend at one point.  What child wouldn’t gravitate towards another adult male that isn’t the embodiment of things she doesn’t yet understand?  Unfortunately, the comfort that Klara finds in Lucas gets twisted in her mind with the need to ‘imitate’ adults, as she has been taught.  In a perfect storm of events, the headmaster of the school is made to believe (via Klara) that Lucas has molested her.

As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t a film about molestation- instead it’s about communities, society, and the power of conjecture.  From the moment that the headmaster suspects an issue, Lucas’ world falls apart.  Word spreads rapidly about his alleged wrongdoing, and because the audience is made to be aware of his innocence, our outrage begins.  This man endures alienation from friends, isolation from his son, a suspension from his job, an arrest, a savage beating from grocery store employees who ban him from shopping there, and violations to his property- even his pet.

This small community, so quick to rally around the young girl and her family, throws their entire weight behind destroying this man.  Even his best friend, the father of the girl, can’t rely on their friendship bond to decide whether or not he’s at fault.  Why bother waiting for evidence, a trial, or common logic, right?  I got a sense that this community is so ugly on the ‘inside’ that they couldn’t wait to take it out on someone else- Lucas was simply an easy target.  He’s a divorcee, lives by himself, is a male in a traditionally female job- he’s ripe for the picking.  As a society, we’re familiar with this situation, for if you exhibit any quirks or deviate from the norm, it’s suspicious, and by proxy guilty to some.

This film stirred such an anger in me, but not simply because child abuse was a subject.  I was more infuriated by the amount of ignorance displayed by a group of people who went out of their way to destroy a person’s reputation and livelihood.  Even when young Klara admits her mistake, people go out of their way to ignore what she’s really saying. It sure must have taken a lot of self-hatred and lack of understanding to push even further against Lucas.

This community puts on a show with a sense of closeness, but we know better.  Earlier in the film, we see these adults argue, get drunk, ignore their children, and it’s fine- but when a crisis happens, they’re a unified bunch, ready to take out their inadequacies on another.  I’m obviously aware that an actual crime like the alleged one in this film should incite anger in a community. What’s so galling, that this film reflects in such a concise manner, is the inability of people to look within themselves, and how damaging it can be to others.  

There’s a reason why we have law enforcement and courts in our world, for it’s a slippery slope when accusations fly.  We’re understandably so protective of children that our mind’s defense mechanisms open up during a crisis, disregarding reason and intuition.  “The Hunt”, showing the ugly side of smaller communities, will stick with me for some time. I watched a community shun the beliefs that it was likely founded upon.  The film’s most powerful moment, as a battered Lucas tries to pull himself together for a Christmas Eve service, is simply poetic.  A knowing look from Lucas to his best friend encapsulates the utter betray he must have felt.  It’s a moment that I imagine many innocent community outsiders have felt over time, for it’s clear our world is no stranger to snap judgments.  “The Hunt” is an important film to consider, and deserves mention as one of the best of the year.

 

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Film Review- ‘RoboCop’ (2014) (***1/2)

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Keaton, stop calling me Commissioner Gordon...
Keaton, stop calling me Commissioner Gordon…

“RoboCop” (2014)  ***1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earl Haley, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, and Samuel L. Jackson

Written by: Joshua Zetumer, based on characters created by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner

Directed by: Jose Padilha

**CAUTION- POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

The original “RoboCop”, while revered by many, was a dreadful chore to watch.  It’s an overindulging film that thinks it’s saying something about the world we’re in, but is too dumb to know better. The message, if there was any, was lost soon after the first limb was shredded.  Director Paul Verhoeven has often believed with his films that he’s ahead of the curve-  I can’t deny that his films have been innovative, and even groundbreaking at times, but always for silly reasons.  The first “RoboCop” had unprecedented and copious amounts of violence, “Total Recall” left us with a new ‘mammary arrangement’ as the most memorable scene, and “Basic Instinct” wore out multiple VCRs as a result of one leg-crossing moment.  Verhoeven’s “cynicism as satire” angle never quite hit, and his “RoboCop” fails as a result.  This isn’t a review of the 1987 version, however- Jose Padilha’s remake is a sleeker, smarter, and overall better film than the predecessor, hitting the marks that the original missed.

Joel Kinnaman (TV’s “The Killing”) is well-cast as Alex Murphy, an undercover detective for the Detroit PD who’s hot on the trail of Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), a known drug lord.  Conveniently, Murphy “gets too close” and becomes a target.  Vallon and two corrupt officers then plot to eliminate Alex by planting a ‘device’ in his car- right in front of his home.  It’s a devious action- for it clearly could have taken out his wife and child (although it does neither, nor does it seen to damage the house).

Alex is not so lucky- with burns all over his body and amputated limbs, he has no quality of life.  Luckily for him, OmniCorp founder Raymond Sellers (Keaton- remember him?) wants to ‘help’.  They’ve been looking to win over public opinion to put their robots in harm’s way and not people.  Of course, public opinion contends that because  robots don’t have emotion, they can’t operate with the difficult discernment required of soldiers and/or cops.  This means they need Alex.  With his wife’s (Cornish) reluctant permission, Sellers and Dr. Dennett Norton (Oldman, in another film-grounding performance) advance the company’s cybernetics technology to merge Alex’s conscience with a robot suit, thus making him the world’s first ‘cyborg’.

What could have turned out silly (like the original) is actually given some resonance with this new film.  Although we aren’t given much screen time with Alex and his family pre-explosion, I loved that the filmmakers decided to flesh out the scenes introducing him as RoboCop.  We get glimpses of blood-cleansing and cranial-computer chip fusion that are both difficult to watch but also plausible.  Padilha wisely allows these first scenes upon Alex’s re-awakening to ‘walk’ a bit, and it gives the entire process a depth we don’t expect from this ‘type’ of film.  It encourages us to explore this whole concept and ask interesting questions, which is what good science-fiction should do.

What questions are these, you ask?  For beginners, Clara’s decision is a would-be first; millions upon millions have had to make end-of-life decisions for their spouses, but she’s the first one that has to consider allowing her spouse to become something else- a cyborg.  Could we accept our loved ones in a state like RoboCop Alex?  Is it really enough just to have someone exist, or do you need all of them, including their personality, to love them?  Also, where would the society in “RoboCop” draw the line?  Like all technologies, it would likely become more accessible to people, including in the home.  Could a dying Fido last longer in a ‘RoboDog’ apparatus?  Should Fido last longer?

Intentionally or not, “RoboCop” explored the willingness of our brains to accept outside, or ‘robotic’ influences.  Alex is ‘controlled’ by OmniCorp, but his brain spends plenty of time trying to override the programming.  Is it possible that the electrical and chemical activity in our wildly complex brains would be able to accept another system, or would it continue to stay its’ staunchly autonomic self?

On top of that, Samuel L. Jackson’s fanatic talk-show host of a character throws out words like ‘pacify’ and ‘safe’.  These catchy, focus-group tested words, used to encourage viewers, support Sellers and OmniCorp’s push to remove government restrictions.  Jackson’s portrayal may remind you of the various talking head blowhards on TV now.  These personalities are not interested in journalism; instead they push a veiled, business-oriented agenda, which shines through in the character’s final screen moments.

Do you see what I mean?  “RoboCop” is supposed to be a dumb remake of a dumb movie, right?  We should never expect to take ideas from this, or think about it at all more than five minutes after the credits roll, right?  I suspect the difference this time around involved bright, creative people like Padilha and the writer (writers?) seeing something deeper within the framework of the original film, then deciding to extrapolate.  The result is a surprisingly thoughtful, smart, and almost prescient science-fiction movie- not at all a dumb action film.  It’s the type of film that should be remade- the original is bad, and they made it better.  If only all remakes cared to be so thoughtful.

Film Review- ‘The LEGO Movie’ (**1/2)

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Emmet (Chris Pratt) tells it like it is.
A ‘unikitty’, a blind hippie/wizard, a wild biker girl, Batman, and a worker.  Yep, just how I envisioned it while making my own LEGO creations.

“The LEGO Movie”  **1/2  (out of 5)

Starring (the voice talents of): Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Charlie Day

Written by: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord, & Chris Miller (story); Phil Lord & Chris Miller (screenplay).  Based on the LEGO building block toy created by Ole Kirk Christiansen

Directed by: Phil Lord and Chris Miller

It is likely that at some point you have put together a LEGO set, or at least sat in a doctor’s office as a child and fiddled with “Duplo” blocks.  The innovate building toy has been around for over 60 years in various incarnations, and over time has become ingrained in our culture- so much so that the licensed lines are commonplace.  With licensing came comics, innovative and fun video games, and alas, short and full-length films.  A feature-length film is really a culmination of years of success coming to a head.  While not an entirely empty excuse to rake in more cash, “The LEGO Movie” falls short.  At best it brings forth a few guffaws, and at worst it’s pun overkill, forced emotion, and boredom.

Please, allow me to ‘build’ my case ‘brick by brick’ (see, I can do pun humor too!).  Until the first “LEGO Star Wars” video game arrived in 2004, I was blasé about the brand.  The gameplay was immensely enjoyable, and the cut scenes interspersed between levels were light and humorous.  Additional “LEGO” games were made, each seemingly more unique than the previous one.  This led to the creation of short films, beginning in the “Star Wars” universe, and they’ve been excellent- made with the right balance of pun humor and quirky fun for adults and children.  Like any good farcical comedy, the creators turned the subject on its’ head, poking fun at the material whilst revering it.  The entire LEGO media experience has been rewarding for myself and my child until now.  Everything was awesome (see the film to understand that statement).

Keeping that in mind, you’d think it would be a drop in the bag that I’d enjoy this immensely, but that’s not the case.  I can’t help but compare “The LEGO Movie” to everything else the company has put out thus far, and in comparison, it doesn’t hold up.  The story is pretty straightforward- Emmet (Pratt) is a ‘regular guy’ who literally falls into an interesting situation.  Adventurous Wyldstyle/Lucy (Banks) sees him as the ‘special’- the one meant to overthrow malicious “Lord Business” (Ferrell) and keep him from permanently gluing everything together.  Of course, that’s just the WORST for LEGO figures, as they love to build.  There’s also a blind shaman/wizard (Freeman) guiding Emmet, and somehow he teams with Batman (Arnett) and a host of other random minifigures (including Han Solo and crew?) to stop the ‘lord’ from doing his ‘business’.  See what I did there again?

None of this is silly through the eyes of a child, however.  The viewing I saw was chock full of cheering little ones.  The frenetic nature of the film may be a big draw to those kids, but it just wore me out, to the point of restlessness.  Maybe it had something to do with the ‘stop-motion’ style of animation.  Maybe it was just the hyperactivity of the plot, or the way that certain characters spoke.  Maybe I’m getting old enough that these kinds of things finally hit me, and I’ve turned the corner.  It would be easier if I could say the film was dull, that I didn’t laugh at all, or that it was an empty enterprise.

None of that is true, and one can tell the care the creators put into the film.  Consider this- most animated films of later years have done their best to make the film enjoyable for kids and adults alike, and thus its made for everyone.  That’s a benefit to everyone- the audience doesn’t have to fake it and snore through 90 minutes, and the kids actually remember it afterwards.

“The LEGO Movie” may have been aiming to please everyone, but what made LEGO media work before is missing here.  Tack on a confusing, sappy real-life scene at the end between father and son and it shifted into overkill for this reviewer.  It performed so well that we can expect a sequel.  My suggestion?  Hire those responsible for the earlier fare, and recapture the original spirit that didn’t need such clamor to work.

Film Review- ‘The Monuments Men’ (**)

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Hey captain, can we go watch "Raiders of the Lost Ark" now?
George, thanks for getting us all together for this party, I mean movie.

“The Monuments Men”  **  (out of 5)

Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett

Written by: George Clooney & Grant Heslov (screenplay), Robert M. Edsel & Bret Witter (book)

Directed by: George Clooney

One of the more memorable scenes in film is the last moment from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, where the camera slowly pans up to reveal an entire warehouse of artifacts.  Granted, this was a place of ‘secret things’, not necessarily artwork.  However, that film did cover the fact that the World War II-era Nazis hoarded thousands of cultural artifacts from across the Eastern Hemisphere.  They wanted it all for themselves- for if you rob a people of its’ culture, you rob them of their spirit, as the theory was.  These are big ideas, ripe for extrapolation on-screen, either as a dead-serious drama, or as quasi-adventure film, a la Indiana Jones.  “The Monuments Men”, however, never settles for one idea, and thus doesn’t have an identity.  The result is a muddled, aimless enterprise of a film that combines a fantastic cast, then doesn’t do much with them.

I’ll declare myself a big fan of George Clooney, but his directorial efforts have brought about decidedly mixed results despite stellar casts before.  “Good Night, and Good Luck” is a very good film with a specific focus.  “The Ides of March” seemed to exist simply to tell us what we already knew- politics are corrupt.  The Chuck Barris biopic “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” was also an unspectacular, yet star-studded shoulder-shrugger of a film.  In other words, it’s hard to really get a grasp on how creatively talented Clooney is behind the camera.  The only common thread I gather is that his films start with an inspired idea, and he simply presents it to us on-screen.  Some just keep our attention longer than others.

“The Monuments Men” cannot keep its’ own attention for long, not even to enrich the main characters (real people, for which real facts exist to extrapolate on).  The film wastes no time in gathering this apparently motley crew, in a sequence so rushed it reeks of a montage. We do know this to be true, however; there were, in fact, a group of middle-aged men that joined the Army in World War II in hopes of recovering stolen art.  They were, as the film shows us, an unlikely group.  They were indeed brave by definition for heading into war zones.  They did, in fact, recover thousands upon thousands of pieces of art across Europe.

What else were they, however?  Other than brief, obligatory mention of families back home, the film doesn’t provide much nuance or inspiration to any of these characters.  That’s a crying shame when you consider the massive talents in the cast.  Clooney?  The affable ‘really cool guy’. Damon?  Eminently likable.  Murray?  Capable of showcasing a broad range of abilities.  Goodman?  Everyone’s favorite ‘dad’ figure.  Dujardin?  Limited exposure to American audiences, but already an Oscar winner.  The film asks us to care deeply about these men and what happens to them, but it clearly overestimates our zest for the actors themselves.  So little time is spent with them as a group and exploring what made them tick, and it just doesn’t work.  On top of that, what exactly did this magnificent conglomeration of actors bring to their roles?  For all the fanfare about their grouping, it doesn’t seem to have brought the best work out of any of them.

An exception to that would be (big surprise) Cate Blanchett as a French woman forced to catalog the art Nazis were stealing from her own community.  Not only is she important to the mission (and the film’s resolution), but her character’s longing to feel anything other than hatred for Nazi action lends this film a steely emotional grab it so desperately needed.  I envisioned there could have been a different film centered around this Claire Simone- a woman forced to betray her beliefs, then forced to watch, then forced to catalogue all of her culture’s artistic heritage, then forced to smile about it.

As straightforward as it is, the story of “The Monuments Men” may have worked better in documentary form.  That would’ve afforded whatever filmmaker took on the project a chance to show the individuals involved with the ‘Monuments Men’ mission- without associating our notions of these actors with them.  There are multiple ideas with which to work in this film, but no strong, emotional connection is created with any of them.  We’re not sure whether Clooney wants us to laugh at the myriad of personalities thrown together for a decidedly non-traditional mission, or be moved by the wretchedness of war and Nazi malfeasance.  Even the most poignant moment in the film, taking place in an Allied camp at Christmas time, seems out-of-place and awkward in its’ silence.  I wasn’t sure whether I should be laughing or crying.  It’s precisely the type of confused reaction you might expect when you watch a film that has no idea what it wants to be.