Victoria Jelinek


World War Z

World-War-Z-NewPosterAn unexpected outbreak of a zombie plague leaves the world in shreds. Former UN worker Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family receive refuge on a governmental ship safely anchored at sea in exchange for Gerry traveling around the globe to find a cure.

Adapted from the grim book written by Max Brooks (son of Mel), we journey around the globe with Gerry, a family man who once ran operations for the UN in countries were most mortals wouldn’t survive a day. With governmental and military infrastructures in disarray, and entire countries experiencing radio silence, Gerry, alone, must trace the origin of the outbreak. Most apocalyptic blockbusters open by teasing the audience about what’s to come, but this one hits the ground running, with an entire city (Philadelphia) being overrun before you’ve settled comfortably in your seat. The opening scene – in which Director Marc Forster keeps the monsters practically unseen, creating an unnerving sense of the chaos — also sets the pace for the rest of the film, in which millions of people die, but scarcely a drop of blood is seen. Horror fans longing for large scale carnage will likely come away unsatisfied, but I appreciated the lack of gore. And the film is scary due to horrifying imagery, such as when the zombies go after prey, swarming like angry locust, screeching and chomping their teeth.

I watched this movie because I’d read about the development and production debacle involved in its making, and was curious to see how it ended up. Granted, it’s arguably bland, few of the characters are memorable, and the ending feels abrupt and flat-footed, but it’s also slick, taut, and holds together nicely. It’s certainly not the disaster many predicted it would be during its distressing birthing. In fact, despite costing an enormous amount of money for Paramount to make (a purported 230 million), it doubled this expenditure in worldwide box office sales alone…

 

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The Monuments Men

monuments_menAt the end of WWII, Frank Stokes (George Clooney) puts together a crew of art experts willing to brave the front lines in order to rescue continental Europe’s cultural heritage from the Nazi’s obliteration of the pieces, and the Soviets pillaging of them.

I unabashedly like George Clooney, who also directed and co wrote this film. I know he’s arguably “too earnest,” and a bit “too slick,” but I don’t care – I appreciate his efforts. That said, this latest endeavor was disappointing. It’s a handsome film, and the concept is great – art geeks braving the ruthlessness of war to do the right thing and save our collective treasures. But the film is not focused, making the pieces incoherent and episodic. It wants to be an important film, asking (repeatedly) whether a work of art is worth a human life. It also seems to want to be like the daring Nazi-bashing escapades of yore, with its whistling score. It also seems reminiscent of a Danny Ocean orchestrated heist. Not one of these objectives is successfully accomplished, though, due to a poorly constructed story that does not have one unifying’ job’ that brings all the seams together. It’s a shame, too, ‘cause the idea has potential, there are several excellent scenes, and the cast is talented…



Oscars 2014

academy-awards-filmstrip-logoI was told when I worked at a talent and literary agency in Hollywood many years ago that the formation of the Oscar awards was a cynical endeavor. The legend went that there had been a rash of sordid incidents in Hollywood in the 1920’s involving starlets and wannabes who came to Los Angeles from all over the US, and so the Oscars were set up by the big bosses of the day as a way to create a nobler image of Hollywood and garner some good press. I’m not sure this tale is true, but I don’t dismiss its possibility outright. What is certainly true is that because of the prestige and positive exposure of the Academy Awards, studios spend millions of dollars and hire publicists to promote their films during “the Oscar season.” This practice has generated accusations that the Oscars are influenced more by marketing, than by quality. In 2009, William Friedkin, himself an Academy Award winning film director and former producer of the ceremony, described the Oscars as, “the greatest promotion scheme that any industry ever devised for itself.”

Despite its potentially disreputable origins and many criticisms of the event, the Oscars are still a grandiose affair I love. Speaking of grand, I’m going to make my predictions about the Best Picture category, and then wait with bated breath to see if I’m correct. I think that the Oscar will go to 12 Years a Slave or The Wolf of Wall Street. My reasoning is that the Academy will not award Steve McQueen Best Director, given his age and his competition in this category, and unless they award Chiwetel Ejiofor Best Actor, they will not want to appear racist by overlooking this film in the major categories (racism is still a hot subject in the US). Moreover, Brad Pitt’s production company produced it, and there have been some bad press and disappointed expectations regarding his costly movie World War Z, so the industry might want to generate some positive feelings. If it is, indeed, 12 Years a Slave, a movie I found beautiful to look at, but too didactic and self-conscious, it won’t be the first time nepotism and guilt won the day (I remember sitting open mouthed when Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture in 1999). If it’s The Wolf of Wall Street, then it will be in an effort at atonement for the fact that Scorsese has never won the Best Picture award, despite his films Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. Best Director, yes, but never Best Picture. Moreover, Leonardo di Caprio has never won an Oscar, so he may get the Best Actor win, but if he doesn’t, there could be the desire to create a balance with the Best Picture. Don’t get me wrong, I loved The Wolf of Wall Street, but I don’t think it deserves Best Picture. I can live with this win, however.

I’ll be gutted if American Hustle wins. Talk about nepotism and a popularity contest. Writer/Director David O’Russell has delivered fine films, such as The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, but this isn’t as good as it’s touted to be. Sure, the actors are charismatic and capable, the production design is entertaining, the soundtrack is nostalgic, and there are fun costumes, as well as a lot of time devoted to amusing hairstyles, but there’s little point or suspense to this film.

I’ll also be upset if Philomena wins either Best Picture or Best Adapted Screenplay. Sure, it’s harrowing subject matter (see my thoughts on 12 Years a Slave and the appearance of being sympathetic), the acting is brilliant, the humor is good, but this shouldn’t be confused with the Best Picture or the Best Adapted Screenplay. The Former ‘cause there are more comprehensively great films this year in the category. The second, for the same reason, and because there is a storyline introduced and dropped rather clumsily that should eliminate it from this honor: the scene is the one in which Philomena and Martin meet her son’s adopted sister, who came with him from the convent. Mary (Mare Cunningham) states they did not have a happy childhood, and suggests cruelty on the part of their adopted father, but this is not developed. She claims that Philomena’s son never mentioned or considered their origin, Ireland, or his biological mother, a fact that is later completely discredited. I was left with many questions about Mary’s motives for lying, and the inclusion of this scene in the film, and believe that without developing these provocative storylines introduced here (which the film did not) this scene should have been cut. Its insertion niggled me, and I suspect its inclusion is a clumsy attempt to create a sense of ‘jeopardy” before the third act. But I digress.

Captain Phillips was suspenseful and well shot, but not the Best Picture in my opinion. Nor is Her. Relevant, and a great concept, but not the Best Picture. And I think that despite Spike Jonze’s contacts and cult status in the biz, even the Academy won’t give this film the win. Gravity is beautiful and has lofty existential themes that I find incredibly interesting, but if this wins it will be because the Academy doesn’t want to seem as though it didn’t get it. It’s more likely Alfonso Cuaron will get Best Directing (though I hope Alexander Payne gets it). I’ll be happily surprised if either Dallas Buyer’s Club or Nebraska wins Best Picture (though, as mentioned, I’m fine with the atonement and ‘career honor’ motivations prompting Scorsese’s film to win). If neither Dallas Buyers Club nor Nebraska win the Best Picture, then I hope to god that they win Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay, respectively – they deserve it (see my notes on Philomena), or that one of them gets the Best Actor win.

It would be too lengthy a piece to cover the race for Best Actor and Best Actress, or Best Supporting Actor and Actress. Suffice it to say that the competition is thick (please let it be Matthew McConaughey or Bruce Dern! Please let it be Judi Dench or Cate Blanchett!) But, again, it’s worth remembering that members of the Academy choose the winners – these are fallible folks who work, or have worked, in the industry of movies.  Similar to the rest of the big honors, the acting prizes have been criticized for not recognizing superior performances so much as being given for personal popularity, sentimental reasons, atonement for past mistakes, or as a “career honor” in order to recognize a distinguished nominee’s entire cannon of work…watch it all with a grain of salt, and enjoy the fete.



Nebraska

Nebraska posterAging, booze-addled, and confused Montana resident Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) repeatedly tries to make his way on foot to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to claim a $1 million Mega Sweepstakes marketing prize. To keep him from harm, Woody’s son David (Will Forte) drives the old man there, stopping for a visit in his father’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska to break up the journey.

Woody’s old stomping ground is a boundless rural plain, punctuated by barns, pick up trucks, rusting farm equipment, and churches.  Shortly after arriving, Woody and David are joined by Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) and their other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) for a reunion with Woody’s family. Before long, ancient grudges rise to the surface, prompted by the prospect of money. Over the course of the film, David begins to learn more about his mom and dad, and, therefore, himself. And we, the audience, are prompted to contemplate the nature of family, our origins, our dynamics, our choices, and our movements.

Director Alexander Payne has already demonstrated that he is a talented filmmaker, as evidenced by his films Election, Sideways, and About Schmidt. Like these other films, this film is heavily nuanced, subtly comedic, and incredibly observant. The performances are affecting, the cinematography is beautiful (shot in black & white), and the screenplay is seemingly effortless.

 



The Dallas Buyers Club

dallas-buyers-club-2013-03The true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a promiscuous straight man who finds out he’s HIV positive in Texas of 1985. When doctors tell him he has days to live, he turns to black market medicine and becomes an unlikely hero.

Woodroof is Texas trailer-trash, working as an oil company electrician and screwing former rodeo glories while off his head on booze and lousy coke. He doesn’t pay attention to his declining health till a work accident lands him in the hospital. Woodroof initially refuses his diagnosis, and then he defies it. Abandoned by his redneck friends and fired from his job, Woodroof does not despair and, instead, hazards into Mexico for unsanctioned drugs and alternative treatments in an effort to stall the disease. We discover that Woodroof possesses a nimble mind, as he realizes an opportunity for a swift buck and quickly deciphers baffling medical science and pierces through hospital bureaucracy and governmental bluster. He creates the club of the title, a shrewd legal dodge in which desperate sufferers of AIDS don’t buy illegal medicine, but pay a monthly membership fee in which drugs are a perk. To navigate the marketplace, Woodroof gains an unlikely guide in the form of transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto), another AIDS victim refusing to be victimized.

But this isn’t a hackneyed Hollywood offering about a journey of self-discovery. Nor is it a vulgar sentimental film. Woodruff does not become a different person – he remains a scheming asshole and lowlife, and it’s his offensive personality that gives him the elixir for survival. Matthew McConaughey’s latest film is yet another indication that he has left fake tans, bulging biceps, and silly flicks, and is actually an exciting and talented actor, as evidenced in his most recent films, such as Mud, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, and The Lincoln Lawyer. McConaughey has turned the victim narrative on its head with a completely convincing portrayal of a hostile, but unbreakable spirit. This is a truly remarkable film with an independent spirit, full of characters that are both romantic and fallible.



Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn Davis poster1961, the West Village, New York. Singer-songwriter Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) skulks at the fringe of the folk-revival scene, bothered by the memory of his dead partner, and hoping for a big break to land in his lap. Meanwhile, the unwelcome pregnancy of a brief liaison with Jean (Carey Mulligan) and the accidental adoption of a cat, create a series of mishaps that lamentably fail to alter anything about Llewyn’s life.

Inspired by the memoir of real-life folk hero, Dave Van Ronk, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen brothers’ serious films. While the film is quirky and darkly comic, primarily via Llewyn’s expressions to the absurd people and circumstances around him, the film is based upon an unsexy musical scene and infused with melancholy. Additionally, its hero is not likeable. For example, he tries to borrow money from a friend (played by Justin Timberlake) for an abortion when the friend is the boyfriend of the said girl. He laments the suicide of his partner in their flourishing musical duo, but he’s the one left suffering, right? He’s a man who doesn’t deign to connect with others, yet he can’t function alone. He takes responsibility for the ginger Tom, but he alienates everyone around him, even long time fans.

That said, Llewyn is captivating. His observation of the absurd injustices in the world around him, is as relevant today as is was then.



12 Years a Slave

12-Years-a-Slave-Movie-PosterCirca 1841. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living with his family in Saratoga N.Y., earning his living as a violinist. He is lured to Washington DC by two entertainers promising work. After a night of drinking with them, Northup wakes up in chains and is sold into slavery. Following Solomon’s kidnapping, he’s owned by different plantation owners. The first offers him some responsibility, some kindness, and a violin, and consequently might be the most brutal of Northrup’s owners. It is Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), however, who is the most colorfully cruel. Fassbender introduces Epps as a sadistic drunk, but he becomes a more complex character as the tense relationship with his wife (Sarah Paulson) and his self-loathing are revealed and manifested in his obsessive affection for a young slave girl.

12 Years a Slave is an absorbing film – intelligent and starkly severe. In line with director Steve McQueen’s background as a fine artist, it is also beautiful. Practically every shot could be a still photograph or a painting. There is gorgeous metaphorical imagery in contrast with the violent and physical reality for the slaves. And, as is evidenced in his previous films, McQueen does not shy from human physicality, with scenes, here, of beating, lovemaking, and working, which are visceral, humiliating, and horrifying. This adaptation could have been a feel-good film, a survivor-who-beats-the-odds sort-of-thing, but it’s not, which is appreciated. From the ‘get-go’ this film is despair incarnate that does not make you feel like crying by its conclusion, but, rather, leaves you stupefied.

This is not a common evocation today. I applaud McQueen’s effort, and I value the skill of his refined and remote approach while dealing with potentially incendiary subject matter. But it is for the same reasons that 12 Years a Slave is being heralded as a masterpiece – its ‘objective’ gaze, its aesthetic, its treatment of the subject matter- that I have issue with…the film feels self-conscious, contrived, and didactic. What feels fresh and authentic about this film is its cast: the hero, Chiwetel Ejiofor, his tormentor, Michael Fassbender, the cruel wife, Sarah Paulson, the hideous slave broker, Paul Giamatti, and even Brad Pitt’s Canadian abolitionist (though I swear he begins the scenes he’s in with a southern U.S. accent and ends with a northern one).