REVIEW: Far From the Madding Crowd

Far From the Madding Crowd 3

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-

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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SPOTLIGHT: Michael Fassbender

Michael Fassbender is one of the most talented actors to emerge in recent years.  Since his breakout role in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, he has gone on an acting rampage with some of the most talented directors in the world, including David Cronenberg, Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino.  He often plays characters who you normally would not sympathize with, but his tremendous range and emotional depth make it nearly impossible.  Oscar recently snubbed him for his performances in Shame and A Dangerous Method, though he hopefully has plenty of time to wow them and a wider audience in the coming years.

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REVIEW: Drive

Drive
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Hossein Amini (screenplay), James Sallis (book)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks

Violence comes and goes with Ryan Gosling’s unnamed driver.  Like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, there’s no indication where he came from or where he’s going.  However, you get the feeling he’s been traveling place to place causing the same kind of chaos.

Drive doesn’t initially appear to be a movie of such violence.  The almost serene first half is stylistic perfection, with director Nicolas Renf tracking the driver from behind the wheel of a suspenseful, sneaky heist escape (in a Chevy Impala), to a movie set where he flips a car and to his initial meeting with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son.  He stumbles on the mob second hand, when Irene’s unfortunately named husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) needs to pull off a robbery to get some thugs off his back.

From that heist on, Renf holds no prisoners with the blood-letting.  It wouldn’t work if Gosling approached it with the same semi-charmed apathy he gives the character in the first half.  He trembles as the body count stacks up.

What makes Drive a film to remember at the end of 2011 is the moody, gorgeous cinematography and the first-rate score.  The brooding visuals mesh together with the electronic beat of Cliff Martinez’s music to create a neo-noir with an 80s synth rhythm.  Even when Renf and screenwriter Hossein Amini hack and slash these characters to bits, it never feels out of place.

There is a scene fairly early on in the movie where the driver sits with Irene’s son and watches a cartoon about sharks.  He asks the boy how he knows the shark is bad, and the boy says “Because he looks bad.”  This scene is important to understanding not just Gosling’s driver, but the principle villain as well.  While Ron Perlman is all-too at home in the campy role of a crime boss, Albert Brooks seems a little off-beat as a mob kingpin.  He delights in the role, though, going over the top without losing sight of the consequences of all the killing.

Drive is also unique as a noir in that it doesn’t let either of the attractive female characters (Mulligan or Christina Hendricks) expand into a femme fatale or even really expand much at all.  Irene is accustomed to tacking on a smile for her son, and Mulligan is perfect at conveying happiness and sadness with contrasting expressions in her smile and deep, dark eyes.

At the end, though, this is ultimately a man-made world of corruption and violence, and the driver is left to eliminate it to keep Irene and her son safe.  He works as a car repairman for a schmuck with a limp (a terrific Bryan Cranston).  Brooks’ Bernie Ross puts up the money to have the driver race a car for him.  He and Perlman’s Nino are so opposite that their scenes together in the garage and in their front of a pizzaria are one of the few things that detract from the movie’s mood.

You could split Drive down the middle for its nearly bloodless first half and its gory second act, but it also fits together as a convincing whole.  This is because Renf never loses sight of his characters.  Though the villains are undeniably evil, the hero isn’t all that good.  We’re left to root for him because we see him from all angles and see that his heart is ultimately in the right place.  He’s the good shark.

Grade: B+

REVIEW: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go
Directed by: Mark Romanek
Written by: Alex Garland (screenplay), Kazuo Ishiguro (novel)
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, and Sally Hawkins

Imagine as a child that your head is filled with ideas of life; of the aspirations and dreams of what it is meant to live it.  Your eyes light up at the prospect of being a doctor, a teacher, or anything else but a kid.  At that age, you’re ready to move on.

It’s not so hard to imagine those notions, because in one way or another we’ve all lived them, and it’s exactly that point that Never Let Me Go wants to hit home.  Though it takes place in an alternate reality where some people are raised to donate their organs to others, these are still people in every sense of the word.  They are allowed to live life, if on a much smaller time line.

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REVIEW: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Written by: Allan Loeb & Stephen Schiff
Starring: Michael Douglas, Shia Labeouf, Carey Mulligan, and Josh Brolin

There are political movies, and there are political movies done by Oliver Stone.  A man so unapologetic about his politics, he is for the fictional film what Michael Moore is for the documentary.  He aims not to provoke, but to convince.  Over the years, he has become the maker of subtle, brilliant excercises of filmmaking technique (the original Wall Street) to someone merely out to give a speech on an issue.

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TRAILER: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Written by: Allan Loeb & Stephan Schiff
Starring: Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Carey Mulligan, and Josh Brolin

It’s kind of weird that with the slew of franchise reboots and unwanted fifth entries in series, Oliver Stone has decided to make a franchise out of his 80’s exploration of the costs of big money.  Even when you look at the times we’re in, it seems odd that Stone wouldn’t just make a completely different movie with different characters that explored the modern age.  But here we are, leaving one of the worst summers in recent memory, heading into a fall that hopefully lifts the year up.  Stone can either help or hinder with his oddly risky sequel, and from the looks of the trailer, he may in fact knock it out of the park.

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