REVIEW: Far From the Madding Crowd

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Far From the Madding Crowd
Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg
Written by: David Nicholls (screenplay), Thomas Hardy (book)
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge

Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd is often too shackled to its narrative to truly resonate.  It seems forced and prodded along every step of the way, and almost nothing seems to spring out of the story’s perceived humanity.  It’s only fitting that Madding Crowd’s most beautiful, haunting moment involves animals; a dog chasing a herd of sheep over a cliff and to their death, with an overhead shot lit by the rising sun catching their needless tumble.

Their shepherd’s (Matthias Schoenaerts) subsequent burst of rage seems to reverberate through the the top of that cliff, and it resonates more than nearly any other emotion on display for the rest of the movie.  It’s too bad, because Madding Crowd’s cast truly gives it their all.  Carey Mulligan’s performance as Bathsheba Everdene occasionally manages to convey a sense of inner life, of a stubbornly independent farmer grappling with a trio of attractive suitors.  In addition to Schoenaerts’ farmhand Gabriel Oak, there is a wealthy, middle aged next-door neighbor (Michael Sheen) and a blunt, charming-on-the-surface soldier Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge).

Far From the Madding Crowd

Oaks and Troy rarely share the screen, but they are the two main contenders in the quiet war for Bathsheba’s affection.  Though the men all come from different social ranks, those ranks do not dictate which of them Bathsheba must marry.  If that were the case, William Boldwood (Sheen) would naturally win over the other two.  Madding Crowd draws much of its drama from Bathsheba’s reluctance to want to marry at all, and Boldwood never really stands a chance.

Sheen plays him that way, too.  He has a look of crippling self-doubt nearly every time he talks to Bathsheba, and he’s framed at an awkward distance from the action, not wanting to be pulled into it. His performance is a good example of how the movie fails to convey the full depth of its characters’ feelings.  Boldwood ultimately sacrifices his freedom for Bathsheba; (spoilers ahead) he shoots Troy as he grabs her and demands that she obey him.  There is a quick shot showing a prison door close on him and a brief scene that shows dresses and gifts in his house with her first name and his last name stitched on them.

Had Vinterberg embraced the melodrama at the heart of Madding Crowd instead of opting for a more restrained adaptation, scenes like those could have been devastating instead of throwaways.  Instead, it’s a tedious movie sprinkled with visually sumptuous moments, like the first time we see Oaks see Bathsheba, bending over backwards to go under low-hanging branches while on her horse.  The way she’s framed by the trees she seems to be floating across the screen; a few minutes later he’s asking her to marry him and she laughs.

I wish the movie had more scenes like this, ones filled with a genuine longing.  There’s a rich emotional history etched on Mulligan’s face, and she conveys joy, desire and regret over the course of a single smirk.  The same could be said of Schoenaerts’ stare; sadly they’re both trapped in a movie where none of that ultimately matters.

Grade: C-

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Short Takes: The Skeleton Twins, The Drop & The Hundred-Foot Journey

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The Skeleton Twins- Any enthusiasm I have for Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s dramatic and comedic chemistry in The Skeleton Twins is drowned out by the rest of this unrelentingly sloppy movie.  Hader plays Milo, who returns home to live with his unhappily married sister Maggie (Wiig) after attempting suicide.  There are, of course, dark family secrets, vast pools of resentment, a dead parent, a shitty parent and plenty of other dysfunctional family cliches.  The script, co-written by Mark Heyman and the director Craig Johnson, shifts tone so abruptly that it’s impossible to be invested in the story they’re trying to tell.

Hader and Wiig have undeniable chemistry and cast a wide net of emotions to try and make this script work.  A couple of times they are successful.  There’s an absolutely hysterical scene where Milo goes to the dentist’s office where Maggie works and they get high on laughing gas and ramble.  It’s also one of the few times where the movie’s deep undercurrent of sadness actually contributes something to the story and doesn’t seem overdone. When they talk to each other in this scene, their problems seem unforced because Johnson lets it unfold organically.  The other conflicts largely stem from sex, which Milo has with his old high school English teacher and Maggie has with her scuba instructor.  It’s aggressive, unearned, empty misery.  Grade: C-

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REVIEW: August: Osage County

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August: Osage County
Directed by: John Wells
Written by: Tracy Letts (screenplay & play)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper and Ewan McGregor

There’s more capital ‘A’ Acting per minute in August: Osage County than in any movie I’ve seen in recent years.  It’s as if instead of holding the Oscars this year, they’ve decided to lock a bunch of award-hungry famous people in a house and let them fight to the melodramatic death for the trophies.  That isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially when the script (adapted by Tracy Letts from his Pulitzer-winning play) is a more vulgar version of nearly every hateful, generic family drama ever created.  Bruised souls, past wrongs, marital turmoil, generational gap humor and a handful of “gasp!” revelations don’t form a story as much as scattered scenes meant to highlight the various thespians.

In that regard Meryl Streep practically swallows the movie whole as Violet Weston, the pill-addicted, “truth-tellin'” matriarch of this emotionally volatile clan.   Director John Wells lavishes so much attention on her darting eyes and fading-but-indignant pride that the actress takes center stage even when it’s not her turn.  Watching any Streep movie in the past few years this isn’t really a surprise.  The Iron Lady was practically a one-woman show, and the very capable Amy Adams got engulfed in both Julie and Julia and Doubt.  The only one to really hold their own against her in recent years is Philip Seymour Hoffman as the embattled priest in the latter.

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Short Takes: Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Oldboy and More

With 2013 winding down and noteworthy releases pummeling theaters in droves hoping for awards attention, here are a few movies I saw recently that I either didn’t have time to write about or didn’t have enough to say to merit a full review.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire- A big improvement over the first film.  The second half in particular is visceral and engaging.  Jennifer Lawrence actually looks like she wants to be here this time around too, turning Katniss into a full-fledged character instead of her deadly-but-lifeless turn in the original.

Catching Fire also feels more thoroughly alive and consistent.  Director Francis Lawrence revels in the excesses of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian nightmare but doesn’t lose sight of its dread.  He plunges right into the story from the get-go, which meant a somewhat rocky start.  By the time Katniss and Peeta are plunged back into a second round of Hunger Games, though, he paces it exceptionally well.  Grade: C+

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Oldboy- Spike Lee’s adaptation of Oldboy is better than the cult classic Korean film by Park Chan-wook.  Although it is more awkwardly stylized between an homage to that 2003 original and Lee’s own aesthetic sensibilities, it is driven by a mapped-out worldview that that movie sorely lacked.  It doesn’t come off as a revenge fantasy as much as a nihilistic journey into bottomless torment.

Oldboy is set in 2013, but the past seeps into nearly every scene.  As Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) sifts desperately through his life for the key to a torturous mystery, I was reminded more of David Cronenberg’s underrated 2002 film Spider than anything else.  The movie falters most when it tries to reenact scenes from the original instead of standing on its own bold feet. Grade: B-

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All Is Lost- This movie is almost completely dependent on an audience’s on-screen history with Robert Redford.  After a brief letter reading at the beginning, he doesn’t speak hardly at all for the rest of the movie, nor do we really get any sense of who this man is.

J.C. Chandor may have meant for this vagueness to convey an existential journey, but I left it feeling like I did after Gravity: admirable and efficient filmmaking driven by its own concept instead of any idea or purpose.  Redford is a weary, sometimes captivating old man at sea, but the movie is otherwise empty and dull.  Grade: C-

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Ender’s Game- This movie will likely be eclipsed by all the glory being lauded on Katniss and company.  It’s actually a much more consistent and thrilling final product, and one of the best big budget studio releases of the year.

However idiotic and creepy the author’s views on gay people are, this (from what I understand) very loose adaptation is a terrifically conceived, well-acted spectacle. The action scenes are well-orchestrated without hovering over the violence, and the movie never loses sight of the fact that these are children being trained for war.  It also features several young stars who have given great performances in recent years, from Hugo’s Asa Butterfield to True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld and Little Miss Sunshine. Grade: B

Bastards

Bastards- Claire Denis’ latest is an unremittingly bleak neonoir about, among other things, sex trafficking.  She is a master of using expressive close-ups with her talented crew of performers; however, that humanity is in the service of a bleak and often overly-callous story. I walked away from Bastards not really feeling anything for the characters, but there are sequences so grotesque and haunting that the movie is undeniably effective.  I look forward to seeing it again and (hopefully) appreciating it a little more.  Grade: B-

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Enough Said- Nicole Holofcener has directed some of my favorite episodes of Parks and Recreation and Enlightened.  That being said, both of the movies I’ve seen by her (this and Please Give) are pretty unbearable.  Though there are a pair of excellent performances from Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and the late James Gandolfini, Enough Said feels half-conceived and lazily executed.  The conflict, that a woman is dating a friend’s ex and starts seeing his flaws the more she gossips about him, could be resolved in three minutes.  The story is so enthralled by a condescending upper middle class whiteness that it never seems to grasp that.  Grade: D+

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Passion- See Brian De Palma’s latest instead of the remake of Carrie.  It has a very, very uneven first half but by the time the corporate revenge narrative double and triple reversed I was enthralled at the spectacle.  The ballet/murder split-screen is among the finest and most beautifully done sequences this director has ever done, which is saying quite a bit.  Grade: C

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Carrie- De Palma’s Carrie is easily one of my favorite horror movies of all time, so I was extremely skeptical about a remake.  Kimberly Pierce seemed like the right choice to tap into the isolation of Carrie White, but the final product has none of the outcast humanity or grit of her other films.  Sadly, it felt like Stephen King’s story had been adapted to the world of an uninteresting CW show.  The crucial prom scene goes off without a hitch, and Julianne Moore is dementedly over-the-top as Carrie’s religious nut mother, but the movie is stale and uninteresting. Grade: D

REVIEW: Blue Is the Warmest Color

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Blue Is the Warmest Color
Directed by: Abdellatif Kechiche
Written by: Abdellatif Kechiche & Ghalia Lacroix (screenplay), Julie Maroh (graphic novel)
Starring: Adèle Exachopoulos, Léa Seydoux, Salim Kechiouche and Benjamin Siksou

A three-hour epic of writhing limbs and ferocious love, Blue Is the Warmest Color is without a doubt one of the most unforgettable and complicated movie-going experiences of year.  The performances are so raw, the young actresses so vulnerable in their portrayal of this intense relationship, that it nearly transcends some of its director’s problematic depictions of them.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s film deeply impressed this year’s Steven Spielberg-led Cannes jury, taking home the Palme d’Or but also sparking intense debate.  Julie Maroh, the writer of the graphic novel, said that while watching the sex scenes it became clear to her that there were no lesbians on the set.  She connected the way Kechiche shot those scenes to a later conversation in the film, where a man at a dinner party discusses how sacred and mystical the female orgasm is.

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REVIEW: World War Z

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World War Z
Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard & Damon Lindelof (screenplay), Max Brooks (novel)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz and James Badge Dale

There is no grand re-imagining of the zombie movie with this adaptation of Max Brooks’ critically acclaimed World War Z.  Despite the hype and the presence of Brad Pitt, it is almost disarmingly straight-forward.  A contagion is spreading, turning everyone into zombies, there is a cure somewhere and a man must go find it.  And he does.  And that’s pretty much it.

Director Marc Forster ensures that it’s quite a thrilling ride, opting for frantic, well-choreographed action sequences than flesh-ripping. By the end, though, it felt like a story that, while sincere, was ignorant of the fact that this movie has been made fairly continuously for the past few decades.  It doesn’t do something new with the idea of zombies, the filming technique is similar to the frantic style of 28 Days Later but on a larger and less gory scale.

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REVIEW: The Great Gatsby

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The Great Gatsby
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Written by: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce (screenplay), F. Scott Fitzgerald (novel)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgarton

Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is a rollicking, cinematically frenzied and inconsistent take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel.  It is pop art done in the most extreme way, using what it likes from the source material’s Roaring Twenties setting and glossing over the rest with Lana Del Ray and Beyonce.  This is why as an adaptation of what many consider to be “The Great American Novel” it fails miserably, but as a movie it is far from miserable.

Fitzgerald’s novel is not a work of maximalism like this movie is.  It is the story of parties ending, and of dreams and identities being born, shifting and dying.  Luhrmann may have many of the more beautiful passages flash on the screen in fancy font as Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) narrates, but he is clearly more in tune with the party than the language or the themes of the source material.

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