AD ASTRA (2019) – Emotionless On Purpose, Science Fiction Flick Still Dull

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ad astra

Remember the famous tagline from ALIEN (1979), In space no one can hear you scream? 

Well, the tagline for AD ASTRA (2019), the new science fiction movie by writer/director James Gray, and starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut searching for his missing father on a mission to save the Earth, should be In space no one can hear you snore.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Yep, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few moviegoers found themselves dozing during this one.

And that’s because AD ASTRA is as cold as space and just as devoid of emotion. Now, admittedly, this is on purpose, since the main character prides himself on his lack of emotion and detachment from others, all in the name of remaining focused on his missions, and this is definitely a main theme in the movie, that this type of thinking takes a toll on human relationships. But it also takes a toll on the human audience’s patience.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) became an astronaut to follow in his father’s footsteps. His father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) is remembered as the most famous astronaut of all time, as he led one mission after another in search of extraterrestrial life, and his final mission took him to the far reaches of space where he was never heard from again.

But now strange energy surges are threatening Earth, and Roy’s superiors inform him (without really showing him any proof, by the way) that they believe his father is still alive, and that he’s responsible for these deadly energy surges. They believe Clifford McBride has become deranged, and they also believe that Roy will be able to reach his father in ways they can’t and convince him to stop. Seriously, this came across as such a flimsy excuse for a mission that I almost laughed out loud. I mean, they’re going to send an astronaut halfway across the solar system because he might be able to convince his dad to stop, when it still hasn’t been 100% established that his father is responsible in the first place? Ludicrous.

Anyway, Roy agrees, or as he says, what choice did I have? See, the space agency in this movie is one of those— repeat after me–– evil companies!—- that show up often in movies as sort of a de facto villain. If you don’t do what we want, Roy, you won’t be coming back. That sort of thing.

On his way to find his father, Roy has plenty of time to reflect on his life, especially on how his focus on his career has affected his relationships— his wife, for instance, has left him— and how he pretty much is alone.

And when the film talks about Roy’s journey discovering secrets that challenge the nature of human existence, that’s what it is really talking about: human interactions. That’s pretty much the theme of the movie. We can’t succeed alone. We need human interactions and relationships to be human. And the film seems to be making its point by subjecting us to two hours of Roy’s brooding journey as proof. See, this guy alone is a snooze.

AD ASTRA reminded me of an old episode of the classic STAR TREK TV show. I could just see Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beaming down from the Enterprise on a planet in search of the brilliant scientist who went missing and may now be deranged. In fact, there was an episode just like this. And it was much shorter and much more interesting than anything that happens here in AD ASTRA.

Speaking of STAR TREK, Brad Pitt shows about as much emotion in this one as Mr. Spock. Again, this is by design, but it makes for a long two hours. In fact, this one felt more like three hours in the theater. And Pitt’s stoic narration sounds like someone being forced to read the dictionary.

Pitt was much more enjoyable a few weeks back as stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019). I wouldn’t place AD ASTRA up there with Pitt’s better films.

And Pitt is pretty much it. Everyone else in this one is reduced to small supporting roles, including Donald Sutherland who plays a family friend, and Liv Tyler who plays Roy’s wife. In the supporting cast, Tommy Lee Jones probably fares the best, and that’s not saying much. He doesn’t show up till the end, but at least he has some emotional scenes.

The ending is pretty much the best part of the movie, but don’t expect anything mind-blowing a la INTERSTELLAR (2014) or ARRIVAL (2016). The ending here works on a much smaller scale, but it’s still satisfying, not just in a grandiose science fiction sort of way. It works because the father-son reunion is the first time the film really becomes emotional, and the scene where Roy reacts to his father’s decision is the best moment in the film. It’s the moment where Roy finally loses control and allows emotion to overtake him. And then later this allows him to see his life differently. Satisfying, yes, but not exactly awe-inspiring science fiction material.

Still, the point is well-taken, and it fits in with the general theme of the film.

The movie looks good, as the scenes in space are crisp and clean. Yet, like the story, the visuals don’t exactly awe or inspire. Probably the best sequence in the film, aside from the ending, is when the ship carrying Roy to the faraway space station makes a detour to answer a distress call. But even this scene is more subdued than it could have been.

Writer/director James Gray has made a competent yet cold space drama that could have used more drama. It’s all very robotic, and again, that seems to be the point, that the human race has lost its way in terms of human interactions. I get the message. But that didn’t make the film any more enjoyable. Gray also wrote and directed THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016), a biography adventure that also struggled with emotions. Maybe Gray should try his hand at a movie about Vulcans.

Ad astra, by the way, is a Latin phrase that means “to the stars.”  And AD ASTRA the movie seems to be saying before we concentrate on the stars we might want to get ourselves in order here on Earth first.

—END—

 

 

 

 

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – Tarantino’s 9th Film Enters Fairy Tale Territory

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At first glance,  ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino, seems to be an exercise in style over substance.

It takes place in Hollywood in 1969, and Tarantino masterfully captures the look, feel, and very essence of the time, with impeccable costumes, set design, and a killer soundtrack. Watching this movie, I really felt as if I had been transported via time machine back to 1969. The experience was that authentic.

Tarantino also gets top-notch performances from everyone involved, especially his two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.

The style, the filmmaking expertise, it’s all there.

But the substance? The story?

That’s harder to find because ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD takes its sweet time, and for most of its two-hour and forty-one minute running time, it’s not in a hurry to get anywhere, and so it tells its multiple stories with as much urgency as two guys sitting inside a saloon drinking whiskey. In short, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

And yet it’s told with an affection that clearly shows this time period and these characters and their stories were a labor of love by Tarantino. And it’s all light and funny, in spite of the fact that it’s built around one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history, the brutal murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson’s insane minions. There is a strong sense of dread throughout the movie, knowing what’s to come, and then— well, then Tarantino decides to have some fun at our expense.

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD is mostly the story of two men, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Dalton is somewhat of a “has-been,” as his last major starring role in a western TV series was from a decade earlier. Now, he’s reduced to playing the villains on 1960s TV shows like MANNIX and THE FBI.

This is clearly wearing on Dalton and is one of the prevalent themes in the movie, of how quickly success can pass one by, and how artists of a certain age need to work harder and be open to reinventing themselves if they want to remain relevant. There’s a lot of truth to this part of the movie. As we age, we have to make adjustments. One of the ways Dalton eventually reinvents himself is by going to Italy to make “spaghetti westerns,” and so it’s easy to see here how Dalton’s story is inspired by the real life story of Clint Eastwood, who did the same thing in the 1960s.

Stuntman Cliff Booth’s best days are also behind him, but he’s taking it much better than Dalton, because, as he says, he was never a star to begin with and so as far as he is concerned he’s still living the dream. He enjoys being Dalton’s “gofer,” driving the actor wherever he needs to go, being a handyman around Dalton’s home, and just hanging out.

Dalton, who lives in a Hollywood mansion, is miserable, while Cliff, who lives in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater, is happy, but this doesn’t stop the two men from being best friends. They truly like each other and care for each other, and the dynamic between DiCaprio and Pitt in these roles is a highlight of the movie.

And while Dalton and Cliff Booth are fictional characters, their famous neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, are not. They are real, and tragically, Sharon Tate’s life was cut short on August 9, 1969 by the insane groupies of Charles Manson.

So, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD also tells the parallel story of Sharon Tate, and the film really allows its audience to get to know Tate as a person.

These parallel stories move forward until that fateful night in August 1969, and in spite of the comedic elements of this movie, there is a sense of dread throughout, that builds as the film reaches its conclusion, a conclusion that suddenly introduces a major plot twist allowing the film to keep its light tone. I have to admit, for me, this was a head scratcher.

As a result, I’m not so sure ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD works as a whole, but it does have a lot of little parts that work very well.

The best part by far are the two performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. They work really well together, but this isn’t a buddy movie, and so they’re just as good if not better in scenes where they are not together. Some of DiCaprio’s best scenes are when Rick Dalton is acting as the villain in a 60s TV western, trying to prove that he still has what it takes. DiCaprio also enjoys a couple of outstanding scenes with a child actor played by Julia Butters who at one point tells him sincerely that his performance with her was some of the best acting she had ever seen.

Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the livelier of the two characters and the one who is larger than life. Cliff, as we learn later, lives in a veil of infamous secrecy as rumor has it that he killed his wife and got away with it. Cliff also enjoys a fun scene in which he tangles with Bruce Lee, one of the more memorable sequences in the movie. 

Cliff is also one of the connections to the Manson family, as he befriends a young woman Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who’s part of the Manson clan. And a quick shout-out to Margaret Qualley who steals the few scenes she is in with one of the most energetic performances in the movie. She’s terrific.

The scene where Cliff drives Pussycat back to the ranch where the Manson family resides is a perfect microcosm for the entire movie. Cliff brings Pussycat to the ranch, a place he worked at years earlier. Concerned that this group of hippies may be taking advantage of the ranch’s elderly owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), Cliff wants to make sure the man is all right.

In an extremely long and meandering sequence, a lot like the entire movie, Cliff gradually makes his way through the various members of the clan, learning where George is supposed to be “napping.” He eventually makes his way to George’s room, and in a scene where you fully expect George to be dead, it turns out he is only napping, and what follows is a highly comedic banter between Brad Pitt and Bruce Dern, which is the route the film ultimately takes.

Which brings us to Sharon Tate. As I said, Margot Robbie is excellent in the role. On the surface, Robbie makes less of an impact than DiCaprio and Pitt because she has far less screen time than they do, but underneath the comedy and the drama Tate’s quiet spirit drives things along, and Robbie’s performance makes this happen.

Unfortunately, people can be defined by their deaths, especially if they were murdered. Tarantino seems to be pushing back against this notion with Sharon Tate. In ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino lovingly crafts Sharon Tate as a real person and not just as a footnote to the Manson murders. The film paints a portrait of Tate as a beautiful person, and really allows that persona to sink into its audience. I liked this. A lot. However, I would have liked it even more had Margot Robbie been given more screen time as Tate. She largely plays second fiddle to main characters Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.

The entire cast is wonderful. I’ve already mentioned Bruce Dern and Margaret Qualley, but the film also has key contributions from Kurt Russell and Timothy Olyphant.  Also present are Dakota Fanning and Al Pacino, and look fast for Maya Hawke who is currently starring in Season 3 of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS.

So, you have this meandering movie, which looks terrific and features powerhouse performances by lots of talented actors, with a fairly funny script, although the dialogue is somewhat subdued from the usual Quentin Tarantino fare, and it’s taking its sweet time, taking its audience for a pleasant ride with the knowledge that tragedy awaits. All of this, I didn’t mind and mostly enjoyed.

But it’s the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD that I find most problematic and is the part of the movie that is the least effective. To avoid spoilers, I will not get into details, but what happens here is the film enters into the realm of alternate reality, and once it does that, well, all that came before must now be looked at with a different lens, and a new question arises, which is, why did we just watch all this? 

In other words, for me, one of the reasons the movie had worked so well up until the ending was it was a piece of historical fiction. Fictional characters were appearing in a real setting (1969 Hollywood) with a canvas of real events in the background. Once these events are changed, the film enters the world of fantasy, of historical reimagining, and once this is done, I don’t think the film possesses the same impact.

In short, to turn this tragic story into a comedy, even with the best intentions, is something I’m not sure entirely works.

At times, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD seems to be a love letter to Sharon Tate. I liked this part.

At other times, most in fact, it’s a take-no- prisoners shoot-em-up dramedy about an aging movie/TV star and his laid back infallible stunt man. I liked this part, too.

But the last part, the punch line, seems to be Quentin Tarantino’s desire to do what he did to the Nazis in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) to Charles Manson and his “family.” It’s this last part that, while good for some laughs, seems the most out-of-place.  While there are hints in the film that this is where this story is going to go, it still feels jarring to watch the events unfold, events that change history, and thrust the movie head first into fairy tale territory, appropriate I guess for a movie entitled ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD.

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ALLIED (2016) Hearkens Back to 1940s Classics

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The best part about ALLIED (2016), a love story and thriller that takes place during World War II, is that it hearkens back to classic movies like CASABLANCA (1942) and Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS (1946).  The worst part is that in spite of the nostalgia it evokes, it fails to rise to the levels which made those 1940s classics so memorable.

That being said, ALLIED is a solid film that is much better than the lack of hype surrounding it would lead you to believe.

ALLIED opens in 1940 Casablanca, where we meet Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) a British intelligence officer on a mission to assassinate a key Nazi figure.  He’s working with Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) a French Resistance fighter, and the two are posing as husband and wife as they work to infiltrate the inner circles of the Nazi regime in Casablanca.  It’s a bold assassination plot, and their chances of survival are slim.

But survive they do, and as they make their escape from Morocco, Max asks Marianne to come back to London with him and marry him, which she does.  The two of them, having risked so much to pull off their ruse in Casablanca, have clearly fallen in love.

The two begin a life in World War II London, even having a baby together, and life is as good as it can be for people being bombed regularly by the Nazis.  But things take a sinsiter turn when Max’s superior officer Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) informs him that British Intelligence suspects Marianne of being a Nazi spy, and that if proven true, that Max will have to kill her.

The final third of the film follows Max’s efforts to learn the truth about his wife- is she a spy or isn’t she, and if she is, then what will he do about it?

I really enjoyed ALLIED, although the film falls short of being something special.

I especially enjoyed the beginning of this movie.  It takes its time setting the stage for the assassination plot by Max and Marianne.  Lesser films would have begun with the assassination and jumped right into the marriage between Max and Marianne.  By inviting us into the stress and anxieties behind their ruse, the film really allows its audience to get to know Max and Marianne and to see just how it is that they fall in love.  It makes the second part of the film all the more painful because we see these two go through a lot and grow very close.

The scenes during this part of the movie involving Nazis are also very suspenseful and well done.  The opening third of the movie is compelling and tense.

The movie also looks great, fully capturing the period, which one would expect from a movie directed by Robert Zemeckis.  And it’s interesting that Zemeckis directed this movie, because you know he’s the guy behind such visual flicks as the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988), FOREST GUMP (1994), and THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004), but there really isn’t anything all that visual about ALLIED other than its period piece window dressings.  I mean, the film looks wonderful, but knowing that Zemeckis directed this one, I expected even more in terms of cinematic flair.  That’s not meant to be a knock on Zemeckis but simply an observation that knowing his resume I thought his work here was not all that reflective of his signature style.

The screenplay by Steven Night is as solid as the rest of the movie.  As I said, it does a nice job in the first act of allowing us to be a part of Max’s and Marianne’s love story.   The second act keeps things moving as the action switches to wartime London, and of course the final act turns things up a notch as the audience is eager to follow Max on his investigation, to help him learn the truth about his wife— is she a spy or isn’t she?

I thought the one place where the movie didn’t excel was its ending. Like the rest of the movie, it’s satisfactory, but it’s nothing special.  I had hoped that a phenomenal ending would put this movie over the top, but that was not the case.  It’s certainly not a bad ending by any means, but CASABLANCA it ain’t.

Night also wrote the screenplay for THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014), a wonderful film that was one of my favorite movies of 2014 yet seemed to fly under everyone else’s radar.

If Brad Pitt seems quite at home wearing a World War II military uniform, that’s because he’s already done so in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) and more recently in FURY (2014).  As Max Vatan, Pitt is just OK here.  I’ve seen him deliver far better performances— in MONEYBALL (2011), KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012), and THE BIG SHORT (2015), to name just a few recent ones— than he gives here in ALLIED, where he seemed quiet and reserved throughout. For a man fearing that his wife is a Nazis spy, he never really shows the amount of angst one would expect from a man in his position.  It also doesn’t help that Pitt seems to wear the same blank expression on his face throughout the movie.  Sure, it’s the look of a man who is a covert intelligence officer, who is trained not to let others see his true feelings, so in terms of the plot of the movie, it’s fine, but in terms of letting an audience know what he’s thinking, it doesn’t fly.

The best performance in the movie belongs to Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard.  She nails Marianne’s persona.  In the opening act of the film, Marianne tells Max that she is successful at fooling people because her emotions are true and real.  She really does like the people she is infiltrating, and so her emotions are genuine and difficult to see through.  Which makes things all the more complicated for Max later when he’s trying to decipher if she is a Nazi spy or not.  Cotillard captures this duplicity brilliantly.  Because of her performance, the audience really believes that she is in love with Max, but like Max, we’re not so sure if these genuine feelings are legit or simply part of her job as a spy.

Cotillard is also terribly sexy in this role, and I enoyed Cotillard here better than in other Hollywood movies I’ve seen her in, movies like INCEPTION (2010) and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012).

Jared Harris, an excellent actor who has a ton of credits, and who I have particularLy enjoyed in such movies as SHERLOCK HOLMES:  A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011) where he played Professor Moriarty, and the underrated Hammer Film THE QUIET ONES (2014), as well as the TV series MAD MEN (2009-2012) where he played Lane Pryce, is good here in a supporting role as Max’s superior, Frank Heslop.

For some reason, ALLIED has received almost no hype. I suspect, based on things that I’ve heard and read, that the powers that be had little faith in this movie.  It’s actually a pretty good movie, especially if you enjoy World War II period pieces.

Is it as good as those classics I mentioned at the outset of this review?  No, but then again, not many films are.  But it’s still a solid movie from beginning to end, worth the price of a movie ticket, and good for an enjoyable two hours at the movies.

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BEST MOVIES OF 2015

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 movies I saw in 2015:

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10.  IT FOLLOWS- ***- This was my pick for the top horror movie of 2015.  It makes #10 in my overall list.  Terrific horror movie by writer/director David Robert Mitchell.  It’s creative in its execution, suspenseful, has a superior movie score, and is very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s early work back in the 1970s.

9. THE MAN FROM UNCLE – *** – a critical and commercial disaster, this film nonetheless worked for me, so much so that it was one of my favorite movies of the year.  I loved the polished direction, the slick music score, and the whole 1960s “spy feel” of the film.

Sure, the two leads could have been more charismatic, but I still found it all terrific fun.

8. CHAPPIE- *** 1/2- one of my favorite science fiction films of the year.  Sure, it’s all very melodramatic and overdramatic, but this tale of a robot with artificial intelligence really worked for me.  Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker for the films of writer/director Neill Blomkamp.

7. MAD MAX:  FURY ROAD – *** 1/2- my pick for the best science fiction movie of the year.   George Miller, who directed the original films starring Mel Gibson, returns to his roots here with a film that is exceedingly exciting and features some of the most imaginative chase scenes I’ve seen in quite a long time.  Tom Hardy is fine as Max, but it’s Charlize Theron who steals the show in this one as tough as nails heroine Imperator Furiosa.

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6. AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON – *** 1/2 – Excellent sequel to THE AVENGERS.  I love the Marvel superhero films, and their AVENGERS movies are among their best.  Nonstop entertainment.

5. THE BIG SHORT.-*** 1/2

I really enjoyed this intriguing drama about the home mortgage crisis and the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008.  Christian Bale is getting all the hype with buzz of a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he’s good here, but I liked Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling even more. Well-acted, well-written movie that tells a story that’s a real eye opener.

Written and directed by Adam McCay, most known for his comedic work, directing such films as ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004) and THE OTHER GUYS (2010).  McCay puts this background to good use as THE BIG SHORT, in spite of its heavy and oftentimes depressing subject matter, is very light and quirky in tone.  McCay also wrote the screenplay for the Marvel hit ANT-MAN (2015).

Brad Pitt rounds out the solid cast.

4. BRIDGE OF SPIES – ****- The main reason I liked this Steven Spielberg Cold War thriller was Tom Hanks’ performance.  I’m not always a big Tom Hanks fan, but he knocks the ball out of the ballpark with his spot on performance as an attorney asked to defend a Soviet spy.  The story which follows is captivating and riveting.

In addition to Hanks’ standout performance, Mark Rylance is also excellent as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  This is also quite the period piece, as Spielberg meticulously captures the Cold War period.  At times, you feel like you’re watching a dramatic museum exhibit.

3.  JOY-**** -Critics did not like this comedy/drama by writer/director David O. Russell which tells the story of Joy Mangano, the woman who created the Miracle Mop, but I absolutely loved this one.  Jennifer Lawrence turns in a phenomenal performance as Joy, and this movie clearly belongs to her.  A quirky, funny film that is every bit emotionally moving as it is humorous.  It reminded me a lot of Russell and Lawrence’s earlier pairing, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The fine supporting cast includes Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, and Dascha Polanco.

This cast led by Jennifer Lawrence combined with the creative directorial style of David O. Russell makes JOY one of my favorite films of the year.

2.  SPOTLIGHT-**** – For me, SPOTLIGHT was the most disturbing film of the year, and its second best.  It tells the story of how The Boston Globe exposed the scandal in the Catholic Church and uncovered truths which before this story most people refused to believe.  The number of abuse cases in Boston alone were staggering.

The film is amazingly underplayed, and it’s able to do this because the story itself is so horrifying.  All it has to do is tell its story, and that’s enough.

SPOTLIGHT is a fine example of a true life horror story that is more disturbing than most genre horror films.  In addition, it’s also one of the best movies about newspapers and reporters ever made.

Amazingly well-acted, its cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Brian D’Arcy James.

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1. SICARIO – **** – Any one of my top 5 picks could have been my number movie of the year.  They’re all that good.

However, my personal favorite of the year because it both pushed all the right buttons and is the type of movie I love- a riveting suspenseful dark thriller- is SICARIO.

I loved this thriller about an FBI agent thrown into the midst of the drug war with a Mexican cartel.  Emily Blunt is outstanding as FBI agent Kate Macer.  Even better is Benecio Del Toro as Alejandro, a mysterious hitman who in spite of his shadowy cold-blooded agenda, always seems to have Macer’s back, even when he holds a gun to her head.

Josh Brolin is also excellent as a calm, cool, and confident government agent who recruits Macer but is too shady to earn her trust.

Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the SONS OF ANARCHY actor who has a lot of other acting credits as well.  This is his first screenplay.  It’s a good one.

Some of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in a while.  A must-see movie.  My pick for the #1 movie of 2015.

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And that’s my Top 10 List for 2015.  What’s yours?

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

Like Its Undead Characters, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994) Has Aged Well

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Interview With The Vampire posterStreaming Video Review:  INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994)

By

Michael Arruda

 

I have to confess that I’ve never been a fan of Anne Rice’s novel Interview With The Vampire for the simple reason that when it was published in 1976, I had just read another vampire novel that immediately became one of favorite books of all-time:  Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.  As a twelve year-old reading Rice’s novel, I simply couldn’t get King’s novel out of my head.

And so when the movie version of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE was finally released in 1994 I wasn’t all that excited to see it.  Plus, I was not a Tom Cruise fan at all, and so with Cruise in the lead as the vampire Lestat, I was even less interested in it, and to be fair, I did not give this movie a fair shake upon its initial release.  I was quick to dismiss it.

Recently, I decided it was time to give this movie another look.  For starters, as Tom Cruise has aged, he has chosen more interesting film roles, and I’ve actually enjoyed his performances over the last ten years or so.  Plus, after the TWILIGHT movies, I figured INTERVIEW would seem vastly superior in comparison.

I was right.

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE has aged well.

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE begins in modern day, where a young man Daniel Malloy (Christian Slater) interviews a vampire, Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt).  As Louis tells his story, the time shifts to the past, to 1790s New Orleans, where Louis, distraught over the recent death of his wife and infant baby, wants to die.  Instead, he’s turned into a vampire by Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise).

The story then follows the love/hate relationship between these two vampires.  Louis hates being a vampire, and refuses to drink the blood of humans.  Lestat seems to go out of his way to torment Louis, while claiming to be trying to help Louis survive.  When Louis threatens to leave, Lestat turns a young girl Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) into a vampire so Louis will have another friend besides himself.

Eventually, Louis and Claudia escape from Lestat and travel to Paris because they have heard that other vampires reside there.  They meet the vampire Armand (Antonio Banderas) who leads a band of vampires who live on the streets of Paris.  Eventually, Lestat returns to reclaim Louis and Claudia, setting the stage for the film’s conclusion.

The biggest reason I’ve never been a huge fan of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE is its high drama vampire plot.  I prefer my vampires a bit more monstrous than the undead folks who populate INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.  While I do enjoy the individual struggles these vampires face, I don’t like the main story they find themselves in.  I like watching Louis deal with his disdain for vampirism.  I like watching Lestat’s manipulations and dramatic musings.  I like watching Claudia’s bursts of teen angst and emotion.  However, the main story arc here plays more like a soap opera plot to me than a vampire tale.  It also doesn’t play like much of a horror movie.

So, what did I like better this time around watching INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE on Netflix Streaming twenty years after its initial release?

For starters, the acting is very good.  I liked Brad Pitt as Louis, although at times he did seem a little less horrified than he should have been about his condition.

Tom Cruise probably impressed me the most, which I find ironic, since his performance probably turned me off the most when I first saw this movie back in 1994.  He’s very good as Lestat.  He doesn’t quite capture Lestat the way I imagined him from the book.  I remember him being a darker character in Anne Rice’s novel, but Cruise infuses him with so much dramatic energy, at times, it was like watching Liberace as a vampire, and Cruise captures this essence without being comical.

A very young Kirsten Dunst is also exceptional as Claudia, and she steals most of the scenes she’s in.  Likewise, Antonio Banderas was impressive as Armand, as was Stephen Rea as Armand’s fellow vampire Santiago.

I also enjoyed the look of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.  Director Neil Jordan has created a very good looking horror movie.  It’s all very atmospheric and hearkens back to the Hammer vampire movies of old.  Jordan’s previous film before INTERVIEW was THE CRYING GAME (1992) which back in the early 1990s I liked much better than INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.

Anne Rice wrote the screenplay, based on her novel, and it’s adequate as those things go.  Again, the story has never wowed me.

Another reason I enjoyed INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE more today than when it first came out is the TWILIGHT series.  Having had to suffer through those movies over the past decade, the way they reduced vampires to one-dimensional caricatures in a young adult romance, was one of the more painful cinematic experiences I’ve ever had to endure.  One movie, okay, that’s not so bad.  But an entire series of these clunkers?  Ugh!

So, in comparison, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE is like the Mona Lisa, which by the way, is another movie title by director Neil Jordan, as he directed the well-received MONA LISA (1986) starring Bob Hoskins.

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE has aged well. It boasts a solid directorial effort by Neil Jordan, and visually it’s very impressive.  It’s well-acted by Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Kirsten Dunst.  True, it’s still not my favorite vampire tale, but it does have rich resonating characters who more than make up for the weaknesses in the story.

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FURY (2014) – Brutal War Tale Does Its Job

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Fury-2014Movie Review:  FURY (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

If there’s one message in FURY (2014), the new World War II action movie starring Brad Pitt, it’s that war is a hell that just won’t quit.  Even in the waning days of the war, the fighting continues, oftentimes with more ferocity than ever before.

To this end, FURY succeeds.  It’s a brutal in-your-face slugfest between Allied soldiers and the Nazis.  We see heads blown off, eyes stabbed out, and even a severed face lying on a tank seat.  It’s not for the squeamish.

Where FURY lags, however, and what prevents it from being a superior movie, is a lack of character development and a limiting story. FURY plays out like a slice-of-life portrait of five World War II soldiers battling against the odds in the final days of the war, as the Allies penetrate further into Germany.  It’s not the most dangerous mission ever undertaken, nor is it the most heroic war tale ever told.  It’s simply five men doing their job.

It’s less about the mission and more about the men, which is fine, except that this kind of a story deserves deeper character development.  While we do get up close and personal with these guys, the film never jettisons its action scenes in favor of scenes where we get to know these characters, save for one, perhaps the best scene in the movie, where the soldiers share a dinner with two German women.

When FURY opens, Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) who commands the tank “Fury” has just lost one of his men, which leaves the rest of his crew, Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia Lebouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady “Coon- Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) angry and upset.  Collier receives new orders to take his small group of tanks and intercept a squadron of Nazis.  Even though the war is drawing to a close, the Nazis are not giving up, and the fighting is more vicious than ever.  As such, the Allies are enduring heavy casualties, and Collier and his small group of tanks are being asked to do a job which normally requires more firepower, which they just don’t have right now.

Collier’s crew is assigned a new soldier, the very young Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) who’s only trained as a communications officer and is as green as a cucumber when it comes to combat.  After razzing him initially, Collier’s crew welcomes Norman into the fold, even as he admits he has no desire to kill anyone.

The tanks are ambushed, and all of them are destroyed except for “Fury,” which leaves Collier and his crew to take on the Nazis on their own.

FURY was written and directed by David Ayer, who earlier this year wrote and directed the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner SABOTAGE (2014).  I enjoyed FURY much more than SABOTAGE.  Ayer also wrote and directed the police drama END OF WATCH (2012).  He wrote TRAINING DAY (2001), the film in which Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar, and he wrote the original THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001).

Ayer has been around, more as a writer than a director, and of the films he’s directed that I’ve seen, FURY might be his best yet.  It has a solid story, exciting action sequences, tense war action, and a competent cast.  The action is fast and furious, and the battle scenes do not disappoint.  Sure, more attention could have been paid to character development, and it could have used an additional plot point or two to lift it above the standard war movie, but as is it’s still a very satisfying movie.

Brad Pitt is solid as Sgt. Collier.  He’s the rock which holds his men together, and he’s the driving force that pushes them through the dark places.  In front of his men, he’s a bull, but alone, he breaks down, succumbing to the war horrors engulfing them.  I continue to enjoy Pitt’s string of recent performances, including roles in such films as INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009), MONEYBALL (2011), and KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2011).  Pitt was probably better in all three of those films, but his performance here is a good one, and it’s a role I enjoyed more than his most recent work in WORLD WAR Z (2013) and THE COUNSELOR (2013).

Just as good as Pitt is Logan Leman as green soldier Norman Ellison.  It’s largely through Ellison’s eyes that we see the horrors of the war, and we watch as Ellison goes from a naïve boy to a hardened soldier.

Both Shia LeBouf as “Bible” Swan and Michael Pena as Garcia are very good, but it’s THE WALKING DEAD’s Jon Bernthal as the animal-like Travis who stands out among the tank crew.  Travis is such a violent visceral character, and Bernthal has a field day playing him.  As we saw when he played Shane on THE WALKING DEAD, Bernthal is a very talented actor who I hope continues to land bigger and bigger roles in the movies.

While the action scenes are topnotch, especially the tank battle in which the Allied tanks are outgunned by a single Nazi tank, the best scene in the movie isn’t an action scene.  It’s when Collier brings Norman into a German home in which they find two young women.  While the other men engage in wild sex with the local German women, Collier shows Norman a more civilized get-together, over a home-cooked meal.  Of course, civility only goes so far, as Collier bursts into the woman’s home with a rifle and orders them to make dinner.

When Norman retreats into the bedroom with the lovely young Emma (Alicia von Rittberg), they share an intimate conversation and have what appears to be consensual sex.  Afterwards, when Emma leaves the bedroom, she looks at her cousin and smiles at her.  I don’t think Emma would be smiling had she been raped.  The whole point of this scene is that Norman is not a brute and that he doesn’t force himself upon the girl.  Then again, he’s a soldier with a rifle, and so certainly the door is open for interpretation.

Of course, when Travis, Garcia, and Swan arrive, that’s a different story, and Travis does everything in his power to humiliate and degrade Emma, in spite of Norman’s and Collier’s protestations.  The range of emotions throughout this sequence goes far deeper than at any other point in the film.  It’s the best scene in the movie.

I wish there had been more scenes in the film like this.

But as it stands, FURY is a very good movie.  It’s a down and dirty World War II thriller which serves as a sad reminder that war is a brutal ugly business.  As Brad Pitt’s Wardaddy Collier says in one of the best lines from the film, “It (the war) will end soon, but before it does, a lot more people have to die.”

For the men inside Fury, it can’t end fast enough.

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