Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Short Takes: Godzilla, Belle, and Other Films Viewed October/November, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted (dir. James Bobin, 2014)

Truth be told, the Muppets' movies - much like The Muppet Show itself - have always been hit-or-miss,  living or dying by their human co-stars and impish humor in equal parts. The Muppets, the 2011 Disney reboot, succeeded largely thanks to the film's engagements with the Muppets' history and the affably goofy performances of Jason Segal and Amy Adams (themselves real-life Muppets). Muppets Most Wanted, the sequel to that film, doesn't quite fare as well.

Now reunited, the Muppets agree to stage a world tour with the help of Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). Dominic, however, is in cahoots with Constantine, "the world's most dangerous frog" who bears an uncanny resemblance to Kermit the Frog. Constantine swaps places with Kermit, landing the latter in a Russian gulag run by Nadya (Tina Fey) while the former uses the tour as a front to stage a number of heists.

As before, there are songs courtesy of Bret McKenzie, the best being "I'll Give It To You (Cockatoo in Malibu)," a goofy lite-disco number. But there's little in the way of the anarchic glee that is the Muppets' hallmark, replaced by gentle gags attached to a thin plot that's been stretched to its breaking point. Of the human performers, Ty Burrell fares the best, playing an thoroughly incompetent Interpol agent who has charming buddy-comedy chemistry with Sam the Eagle (now with the CIA). Fey and Gervais, on the other hand, never quite fit in, perhaps because their brands of humor aren't quite suited for the Muppet brand. The Muppets never fail to get a laugh; there just aren't enough in this film to earn the title "most wanted." C+

More after the jump.

Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski, 2014)

In 1960s Poland, Ana (Agata Trzebuchowska) is preparing to take her vows at a local abbey. One of the stipulations she must meet is visiting her family, and so Ana sets out to visit her aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Wanda, a hard-drinking former judge in Poland's Stalinist regime, reveals to Ana a major secret from her family's past, leading both of them on a journey that will help Ana better understand her past and decide her future.

Director Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love, The Woman in the Fifth) shoots the film with stunning deep-focus photography and off-center staging, giving the film a unique and stunning look. But the film's greatest strength is its acting, particularly Trzebuchowska and Kulesza. Trzebuchowska is stunning in her film debut, playing up Ana's quiet contemplation while never letting her cede into the background of her own story. Kulesza, a well-know stage and film actress in Poland, delivers a commanding performance that is big without ever being showy, tapping into the sorrows Wanda feels for her involvement in the nation's troubled past.

Altogether, Ida is a deeply moving, quietly stunning film about growing from the past. Those old wounds may never be healed, but they provide an opportunity for change. A

Godzilla (dir. Gareth Edwards, 2014)

The concept behind Godzilla isn't nearly as terrifying as it was 60 years ago, when Ishiro Honda's monster classic Gojira first debuted. At the time, Japan was still reeling from the fallout of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and the world watched in awe and fear as the United States and the Soviet Union stockpiled nuclear warheads and pointed them at each other. Mutually assured destruction seemed inevitable, and the possibility of intense, concentrated amounts to radiation mutating flora and fauna was very real. It was only a movie, and Gojira was only a man in a rubber suit. But the insinuations, the anxiety that drove it, were all too real.

Cut to today: after a number of goofy sequels that reduced the King of Monsters from a menace to a guardian of the human race, and the 1998 belly-flop that was Roland Emmerich's American remake, the monster that once encapsulated the consequences of the atomic age had been reduced to, at best, a cheesy B-movie icon and, at worst, a hype-man for Puff Daddy. Any potential for allegory had been lost in cheaply-produced fights with Mecha-Godzilla and Taco Bell tie-ins.

Luckily, Godzilla finds a way around this challenge. The film begins the destruction of a Japanese nuclear plant which ends with Joe Brody (an excellent Bryan Cranston) losing his wife (Juliette Binoche, with nothing to do) to a toxic cloud of radiation. Fifteen years later, Joe is obsessed with discovering the true nature of the disaster; his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) wishes him to leave the past alone. However, when a giant creature called a MUTO (massive unidentified terrestrial organism) emerges from the wreckage of the plant, the truth can no longer be hidden. Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) proposes only one way of defeating the creature: bringing in another monster, Gojira, to fight to the death.

Underneath the impressive displays of destruction (a sequence in Honolulu particularly stands out), the film lays out a parable of environmental disaster, with one clear message: the Earth has a way of restoring order. Here, Gojira is that method, an awesome creation of karmic retribution. Director Gareth Edwards uses the same techniques he did with the small-scale indie Monsters (2011) to great effect here, keeping the camera low to the ground and close to human beings to emphasize the massive scale of these creatures. The film never stops being a visual treat, doing so in a way that's not self-conscious about its special effects.

If there's anywhere that Godzilla suffers, it's in the human characters. No one is really given any dimension, though Cranston certainly gives it his all to convey Joe's conviction. Everyone else is more or less there to keep the story humming along between set pieces. But those set pieces are impressive, and the film works like gangbusters as a smart, engaging blockbuster. B+

Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy, 2014)

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a master manipulator and sociopath. He knows exactly what to say, even if it's just Intro to Business Principles jargon that doesn't really mean anything in context. He's a self-made man in the purest sense of the word, luring others into his orbit with his slimy charisma and intellectual confidence. When Nightcrawler opens, he's a petty thief stealing scrap metal for money. But when he discovers the lucrative profession of filming gory accidents and crimes and selling the tape to Los Angeles news programs, he may have finally found his calling. And he'll do anything to get to the top.

In a certain sense, Nightcrawler plays like a funhouse-mirror horror show of American "by your bootstraps" capitalist lore, a Horatio Alger tale if Alger had been a huge David Cronenberg fan. Dan Gilroy, making his directorial debut (he's previously written for the Bourne franchise), presents Lou's journey as the extreme of entrepreneurship, as Lou is willing to do whatever it takes - blackmail, tampering, manslaughter - to turn in the best footage. It does for journalism what American Psycho (2000) did for Wall Street yuppies.

But the film is more than that. Most importantly, it's a showcase for Gyllenhaal, who in his career has never really had a chance to shine like this. Certainly, he's had his moments, such as his terrific, Oscar-nominated turn in Brokeback Mountain and his surprisingly internalized work in last year's Prisoners. But Nightcrawler is the first time Gyllenhaal has really been given sole possession of the spotlight, and he takes full advantage of it. He plays Lou with a highly-combustible mixture of narcissism, charm, and menace, letting little bits of Lou's facade fail but never completely shattering it. In his hands, Lou is a man who fully believes in his own bullshit; what's more American than that?

Truth be told, much of the film succeeds thanks to Gyllenhaal. Rene Russo is terrific as a graveyard-shift news producer who's taken with Lou's work, and she does a great job of playing a woman whose moral compass is certainly messed up but not completely broken. The film falters, then, in Lou's partnership with Rick (Riz Ahmed); it never feels completely lived-in, and Rick is such a sketch of a character that it hinders the film's later act. Yet even here, Gyllenhaal livens every scene. Like Lou, he's completely in control of his talent. B+

Fury (dir. David Ayer, 2014)

Of all modern wars, the one that Hollywood continues to be fascinated with is WWII. This makes sense on a certain level: it was a war of epic scale, spanning from Europe to the Pacific, and it came at a time when the United States (and the rest of the world, to varying degrees) was suffering the effects of economic collapse. More than that, it was the last war the United States where the fighting felt "justified;" the cause was roundly supported, and the public was mostly unaware of the carnage soldiers witnessed. Though the films vary from rah-rah patriotism to cold examination, Hollywood remains wholly fixated on the conflict.

Fury begins in 1945, with the war in Europe reaching its end as Allied forces move deeper into German territory. Norman (Logan Lerman), trained to be a typist in the Army office pool, is reassigned to a Sherman tank commanded by Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt). Norman is to serve as an assistant driver in the tank, alongside Wardaddy's battle-hardened crew of Gordo (Michael Pena), Bible (Shia LaBeouf), and Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal). Norman witnesses the horrors of war first-hand as the crew fends off the enemy, one mission at a time.

Coming from writer/director David Ayer, one can expect a reasonable amount of camaraderie and an examination of masculinity while providing plenty of armrest-gripping thrills. Yet for all the film's ambitions, it still comes up a bit short, even as it succeeds. The first two-thirds of the film are a fascinating examination of masculinity and warfare, especially the damning middle act in which Wardaddy and Norman discover two women, Irma (Anamaria Marinca) and Emma (Alicia von Rittburg), hiding in an apartment. For a brief moment, the film evokes the violence - physical, emotional, sexual - of war enacted upon the civilians caught in the crosshairs, and deeply questions the "heroism" of these men. But then the film's third act devolves into a blood-pumping shootout, resolving exactly as anyone with a passing knowledge of these kinds of movies would expect (Ayer's previous film, End of Watch (2012), suffered the same problem). Even though it's tense and well-done, it still detracts from the morally-complicated films that preceded it. It's a shame, because for a good bit of its running time, it seemed like Fury could really be something remarkable. Instead, it was merely above-average. B

Belle (dir. Amma Asante, 2014)

Director Amma Asante's second film, Belle, is based on a wholly remarkable true story. Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) was born to Captain John Lindsay of the British Royal Navy and Maria Belle, an enslaved woman in the West Indies. Captain Lindsay entrusted his uncle, William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England's highest court, with caring for Belle in his absence. Belle was treated as family, albeit of lower social standing; she reportedly did not dine with the family, but would join them in other social activities. Because of her mixed race and noble upbringing, Belle occupied an unusual place in British society: considered inferior to white society, but superior to the lower classes and racial minorities.

The film streamlines Belle's life into something fitting a period romance: Belle (Gugu Mbawtha-Raw) is just beginning to understand her place in society, her eyes being opened thanks to her uncle's (Tom Wilkinson) new protege, John Davinier (Sam Reid), and the case of the Zong, a slave ship that may have drowned all of its cargo (meaning, slaves) in the interest of collecting insurance money. Belle is also being courted by Oliver Ashford (James Norton), whose mother Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) has designs on the enormous wealth Belle has inherited from her father. But Belle finds herself drawn to Davinier, much to the chagrin of her uncle. With the Zong case nearing a verdict, Belle awaits hearing her fate, both in love and in society.

Naturally, the film plays fast and loose with history (Belle didn't actually meet Davinier until after her uncle's death, in 1793, for example), but not to the detriment of the storytelling. Asante uses the period trappings to examine the effects of race during this time period, skewing the conventions of this genre in a way that feels both fresh and revealing. She handles these ideas best when expressing them subtly, such as in the ways that Belle excludes herself from her family or in her inclusion in a portrait with her sister-cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). It's less effective when the dialogue heavy-handedly spells them out, but these moments are few and far between. Mbawtha-Raw delivers a stunning performance as Belle, playing her as a woman who respects the society she was born into but dares to challenge her place within it. She has terrific chemistry with Reid, who, questionable accent aside, gives a fine performance as well. And Wilkinson is dependably great as the Earl of Mansfield, giving him both fiery conviction and gentle tenderness. Belle would be worth watching just for the real story that inspired it. Thankfully, it's a great movie as well. A-

Noah (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2014)

Noah is the kind of excessive, confused, utterly fascinating film that only Darren Aronofsky could make. Following up his hugely successful (and terrific) horror film Black Swan (2010), Aronofsky decided to make a very-expensive film based on the Biblical story of Noah, a man whom God instructed to build an ark to protect his family from a coming flood that would wipe out the rest of humanity. There's no doubt that the studio was seeing the potential dollar signs: Biblical entertainment is remarkably successful at the moment, and Aronofsky had established himself as a director capable of bringing in the cinephiles and the masses alike. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, a lot. Noah (Russell Crowe) inhabits a world that can only be described as steampunk medieval fantasy, along with his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connolly), sons Ham (Logan Lerman) and Shem (Douglas Booth), and adopted-daughter Ila (Emma Watson). Noah receives his message from God, but his family is uncertain of his apparent madness. Meanwhile, Noah must defend his family from Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), a vicious warlord who killed Noah's father. Noah seeks the protection of "fallen angels," and before long, the rains begin to fall.

Without a doubt, this isn't the story as it is in the Bible. The "fallen angels" are essentially rock monsters, and their discomforting designs make them tough to appreciate. The world Aronofsky creates for this story is confusing and inconsistent, with too many elements at odds with one another to effectively navigate. That's true of the storytelling, too: Noah is striving way too hard to be so many things that it fails to succeed at any of them. That includes an epic adventure, an environmentalist fable, a family drama, and a character study. That does not include a faithful Biblical adaptation, however.

And that's actually for the best. Divorcing itself of its roots, Aronofsky does manage to make some interesting comments about the nature of belief and the thin line between faith and insanity. In fact, the characterization of Noah - and Russell's committed performance - is easily the most interesting and well-done aspect of the film. Noah claims over and over that he is following God's will, but the film never provides evidence for the existence of God outside of Noah's perspective. To everyone else, he seems to have gone mad, consumed by violent obsession until he's pushed beyond his limits. There's no doubt that this film is an ambitious, bloated, convoluted mess. But it's a fascinatingly ambitious, bloated, convoluted mess. C+

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