The Forest


Natalie Dormer finds some of the plot points a little foggy.

Natalie Dormer finds some of the plot points a little foggy.

(2016) Horror (Gramercy) Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Rina Takasaki, Eoin Macken, Stephanie Vogt, Ibuki Kaneda, Noriko Sakura, Jozef Aoki, Yuho Yamashita, Terry Diab, Akiko Iwase, Nadja Mazalika, Lidija Antonic, Cami Djeric, Tales Yamamoto, Yasuo Tobishima, Osamu Tanpopo, Kikuo Ichikawa, Gen Seto, Yuriri Naka. Directed by Jason Zada

In Japan, the Aokigahara Forest has a lethal reputation. Located at the northwest base of Mt. Fuji, it has been for generations a place where people have gone to commit suicide, and thus has a reputation of being haunted even among some fairly rational Japanese citizens. It is not a place where tourists are encouraged to go.

Now that reputation is worldwide thanks to this horror film which kicks off the 2016 movie release year. Game of Thrones vet Natalie Dormer plays a dual role as twins; Jess, the black sheep who has left messes for her more grounded sister Sara to clean up all her life. The two have been inseparable since the death of their parents when both were six years old; Jess was traumatized because she actually saw the bodies (Sara was spared that by her grandmother (Diab) who raised the two of them afterwards).

Now, Jess who teaches English at a girl’s school in Tokyo has disappeared, lost in the Aokigahara and Sara, who refuses to believe that her twin is dead despite being told that since more than 48 hours have passed since Jess went into the forest that it was likely she had killed herself, travels to Japan to find her over the objections of her husband Rob (Macken). You see, Sara has this connection with her sister; she always knows how she’s doing, and her connection tells her that Jess is still alive.

When she gets to the Aokigahara, she meets Aiden (Kinney) an American travel writer doing a story on the forest for an Australian magazine. He is venturing into the forest guided by Michi (Ozawa) who the park rangers use to periodically go through the forest and pick up bodies of suicides who have been successful. He allows the distraught but certain Sara to accompany him on a run through the forest, but warns her to stay on the path and to disregard anything bad that she might see as the forest sometimes plays tricks on those who are sad. He reminds her that it is very easy to get lost in the 14 square miles of dense forest.

The three venture into what seems at first to be a beautiful mountain forest but soon Sara begins to hear things, and has visions of unpleasant memories from her past. Eventually they find Jess’ camp but not Jess herself. It is starting to get late and Michi is eager to return back home; they can search for Jess in the morning but Sara insists on staying the night to wait for her sister to return and reluctantly Aiden agrees to stay with her and make sure she’s okay. However, once night falls and with Michi gone, the Forest will begin its work on Sara’s mind and soon it becomes apparent that all of Sara’s inner demons are going to be used against her. Can she survive the night and find her twin? Or has Jess been dead all this time to begin with? Will the Forest claim another victim?

First-time feature director Zada is given a juicy concept to work with but writers Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai have let him down somewhat by muddling things up with the Sara/Jess backstory and making it more about their personal horror than about that of the forest. I would have preferred more focus on the Aokigahara and less on Sara’s childhood. The movie also suffers from dumb horror protagonist syndrome; who in their right minds would stay in an unfamiliar forest overnight, particularly one with as grim a reputation as the Aokigahara? And for someone who believes in a psychic connection between twins, Sara seems pretty disbelieving in ghosts and other supernatural phenomenon; seems to me that a character like that would be a little bit more open-minded. I get that Sara was frantic about her sister but you would think that level-headed sorts like Michi and Aiden could have talked her down.

But to the thing that brought you to see this movie in the first place. While there are some legitimate scares to be had here, there aren’t enough of them to make this more than of mild interest. Some of the images were downright creepy, but there’s nothing here you haven’t already seen before and in much better movies. The movie’s soundtrack also tends to give away every single scare, which after awhile tends to lessen the effectiveness of them.

Dormer, however, is another story. The Game of Thrones veteran has a rabid fanboy following and for good reason. However, more importantly, the girl has screen presence. With the right roles and a little bit of luck, she could be a big star in the not too distant future. She shows a good deal of range here, playing two diametrically different characters in the same film and making it work.

The rest of the mostly Japanese cast acquits itself nicely with Ozawa, a big star in Japan making his English language debut, also showing some big potential. Kinney, who is best known for his work in Chicago Fire, plays a role very different than that in his television show which bodes well for his future.

The Aokigahara Forest has a great horror movie in it, but this isn’t that. While it isn’t awful, there aren’t enough reasons other than Dormer to really go out of your way to see it. While this wasn’t actually filmed in that forest (the outdoor scenes were mostly filmed in Serbia), the Aokigahara is a looming presence here. I suspect that some enterprising writer and filmmaker will eventually come up with a movie based there that will scare the crap out of us somewhere down the road. Until then, this will do, but just barely.

REASONS TO GO: Dormer shows some star potential. Some of the scares are pretty intense.
REASONS TO STAY: Wastes a great concept and a better location. Could have used more good scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of terror, horrifying images and disturbing thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dormer visited the actual Aokigahara Forest to research her part and ventured five meters off the path to take photos while walking through the forest; her Japanese guide and driver refused to step even half an inch off the path.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 11% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Here Comes the Boom

New Releases for the Week of January 8, 2016


The RevenantTHE REVENANT

(20th Century Fox) Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, Kristoffer Joner, Joshua Burge. Directed by Alejandro González Iňárritu

Hugh Glass, a legendary explorer of the American frontier, is attacked by a bear and left for dead by his own hunting party. Betrayed by his closest friend, Glass endures incredible odds to recover from his injuries, survive harsh elements and gain vengeance for unendurable grief and pain. The movie opened for an Oscar qualifying run and has garnered laudatory reviews and huge buzz. It’s definitely the movie to see this week.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Western
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity)

Carol

(Weinstein) Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler. Based on a Patricia Highsmith novel (and said to be auto-biographical), a married woman in the 1950s New York who is trapped in a loveless marriage of convenience falls for an ambitious dreamer of a store clerk. The two embark on an affair in an era when sexual relations between two women was taboo. When the husband discovers her infidelity, the wife is torn between her children and family and a life unfulfilling to her and rebelling against society’s norms to live the life she wants.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, Regal Winter Park Village, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: R (for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language)

The Forest

(Gramercy) Natalie Dormer, Eoin Macken, Stephanie Vogt, Noriko Sakura. An American woman journeys to Tokyo to find her twin sister who had ventured into the Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mount Fuji and disappeared. She discovers that the forest is notorious for being a place where people commit suicide and their angry and tormented souls haunt the forest. She will have to fight these spirits and the darkness within her to learn the fate of her sister – and survive her own trip into the forest.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic content and images)

The Masked Saint

(Freestyle) Brett Granstaff, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Diahann Carroll, Roddy Piper. A former professional wrestler discovers a different calling and retires from the ring to become a small town pastor. However, he finds his flock gripped in the vise of poverty and crime. Donning a mask, he moonlights as a costumed vigilante while trying to evade police and criminals both while reconciling his violent alter ego with his standing as a pastor and family man. Apparently, this is based on a true story.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith-Based True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando, UA Seminole Towne Center

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and thematic elements)

Wazir

(Reliance) Amitabh Bachchan, Farhan Akhtar, Aditi Rao Hydari, John Abraham. Two unlikely friends – one a wheelchair-bound chess grandmaster, the other a fearless police officer – are brought together by mutual grief. The two decide to aid one another in a cat and mouse game against a ruthless opponent lurking in the shadows who seeks to raise the stakes to the ultimate.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Mystery
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2


Katniss Everdeen has a thing about Snow.

Katniss Everdeen has a thing about Snow.

(2015) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Mahershala Ali, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Paula Malcomson, Stanley Tucci, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Elden Henson, Wes Chatham, Eugenia Bondurant. Directed by Francis Lawrence

When a franchise comes to an end, the hope is that it goes out with a bang. Everyone wants a Return of the Jedi but there’s always a danger of a The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part II. On which side will this girl power young adult franchise lean?

Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) is distressed that her erstwhile boyfriend Peta (Hutcherson) has been brainwashed by the evil minions of President Snow (Sutherland) to hate her to the point that he goes berserk at the sight of her. Although the rebel medical team is trying to break his conditioning, he remains a danger to Katniss and even a visit by baby sister Primrose (Shields) leads to another foaming at the mouth segment.

The timing of that is not so good, as the rebels are preparing to make their final assault on the Capital. Rebel President Coin (Moore) and her adviser Plutarch (Hoffman) are wary of allowing Katniss, who was brutally injured at the hands of Peta in Part 1 of the concluding volume of the franchise and then again during a raid on the District 2 armory, anywhere near the front although she continues to be valuable as a propaganda tool.

Nonetheless, Katniss heads to the Capital against direct orders and accompanied by her Hunger Game friend Finn (Claflin), her former boyfriend Gale (Hemsworth) and Boggs (Ali), a veteran warrior. She is ordered to steer well clear of the battlefront and to stay far behind the lines and make propaganda videos. President Snow has peppered the Capital with lethal traps designed by the Hunger Games designers. Some turn out to be more lethal than others.

As Katniss gets closer and closer to the Presidential palace and the confrontation between the two looks to be inevitable, she will discover the price for revenge may end up being incredibly high and that there are people close to her who have motives of their own that may well not include Katniss’ survival as part of the plan.

The production design for the movie is superb – it looks sleek and wow-inducing. The special effects are solid and the action sequences are thrilling. For many viewers, that’s all the movie really needs. For me, though, while there are a few scenes that contain emotional payoffs (none of which I’ll use here to illustrate as I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, although fans of the book will know what they are), the movie didn’t have an emotional resonance with me that the conclusion of an epic series should.

I could say part of the problem is that there are too many characters, many of whom I couldn’t keep straight, but that was true of the Harry Potter series as well and I had no trouble figuring out who was who. I could also say that the movie relied overly much on action rather than character, but that was true of the first Star Wars trilogy and that movie resonated with emotion at the end.

I think the problem is a blend of both issues; too many characters, many of whom had little development. To author Suzanne Collins’ credit, she didn’t rely on the love triangle that many young adult franchises with female heroines tend to utilize. However, there are too many extraneous pieces in the puzzle and the movie would have been better off leaving them out entirely, which might have been bad news for fans of Claflin and Hemsworth but good news for Lawrence’s fans, because I think the primary problem here is that Lawrence really gets short shrift here.

I sometimes wonder if Katniss Everdeen is really a good role model for young women; there’s a fine line between being headstrong and being mulish. There is also a fine line between being spontaneous and being foolish, as she takes a lot of chances that put lots of other people at risk, some of whom pay the ultimate price for it. Yes, that weighs heavily on Katniss’ soul but I guess our heroes these days have to be a little self-centered to be relatable.

The worst part is that there seemed to be no momentum, no fire. Certain cast members, particularly the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone and Donald Sutherland, did their level best but for the most part this felt very emotionally flat to me. Judging from the box office for the movie which has been okay but not what was expected, some of their fans haven’t had that connection either. I’ll admit that maybe I woke up on the wrong side of the bed the day I saw this, but for whatever reason the movie didn’t connect with me and I really wanted it to – I’ve generally liked the series but it felt like it ran out of steam here rather than finishing with a flourish.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of eye candy. Some emotional payoffs.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too long. No momentum.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence as well as some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene near the end when Haymitch reads a letter from Plutarch to Katniss was supposed to be dialogue from Plutarch, but actor Philip Seymour Hoffman who played the role, passed away before the scene could be filmed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Divergent Series: Insurgent
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Peanuts Movie

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1


Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence get serious.

Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence get serious.

(2014) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Willow Shields, Mahershala Ali, Paula Malcomson, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Stef Dawson, Sarita Choudhury. Directed by Francis Lawrence

It has become something of a habit now for Hollywood to take the final book in a young adult franchise based on a book and split it in two; this has been done for the Harry Potter series, Twilight and now The Hunger Games with the same fate planned for the Divergent series. This is a blatant cash grab that cynical studios use to squeeze every last penny that they can out of a successful franchise. As for the Potter series, the first part was the weakest movie of the eight-film franchise (although the second part turned out to be one of the strongest). In the Twilight series Lionsgate both movies were poor and the final entry the worst of the entire series.

In this penultimate film, the events of Catching Fire have led to the complete carpet bombing and destruction of District 12, home of Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) who has been taken to the previously-thought abandoned District 13. However her love Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) had been left behind and was captured by the men of President Snow (Sutherland) and brought back to the Capital. There he is used as a pawn, with interviews conducted by the smarmy Caesar Flickerman (Tucci) which essentially are propaganda pieces.

District 13 president Alma Coin (Moore) is wary of using Katniss for the same purpose; clearly Katniss is shell-shocked and not in an emotional state where she is able to be a spokesman for the revolution that is sweeping Panem. However uber-patient ex-boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) is on hand to help Katniss make it through; old friends Haymitch (Harrelson), Effie Trinket (Banks) and Finnick (Claflin) are there to support Katniss. Rescued from the rubble of District 12 are Kat’s sister Primrose (Shields) and mom (Malcomson).

Pulling the strings in District 13 is Plutarch (Hoffman) a cynical but brilliant marketing man who is selling the revolution to the people of Panem whereas President Snow is selling safety and security while providing neither. A villain of the first order, he callously orders the bombing of a hospital in order to set an example of what happens to people when they allow a visit from the Girl on Fire who is now referred to as the Mockingjay. This pisses Katniss off enough to pull out of her funk temporarily – until the callow Peeta makes another plea for peace. Who knew the face of revolution would be so emotional?

And so after that atrocity the rebels are finally moved to push into an offensive against the Capital, giving them the opportunity to rescue Peeta and the other Victors held captive by the President, including Finnick’s girlfriend Anna (Dawson). However, they don’t begin to see the depth of the game being played by President Snow – and how far he is willing to go to win it.

As any fan of the series will tell you, it’s all about Katniss and thus it’s all about Jennifer Lawrence. Normally I’d say that’s a pretty safe bet; after all, she has become one of the hottest actresses in the world, with Oscar wins as well as starring in one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood today. However, I can’t say as I like what is happening to her character here.

Now I’ll admit that it should be taken into account that I’m not a teenage girl nor have I ever been one – nor am I likely to ever be one. I may be getting this all wrong but I feel cheated a little bit by what Katniss has become in this movie. I had always viewed her as a good role model for young girls; strong, independent, able to defend herself and those around her and with a strong moral compass. I’m not sure what the author’s intentions were  but I saw the same thing happen to Bella Swan in Twilight as well. Both series were written by women but I’m not sure if they were saying it’s okay to be ruled by your emotions to the point where you become virtually immobilized by them, or if they’re saying that’s part of being female.

I don’t know about that part. How is it role model material for your strong, independent heroine to be literally whining “It’s not fair!” while pining away for her boyfriend to the point that she’s willing to let all sorts of people – including her sister and mom – be killed because she’s too emotional to act to prevent it. That kind of self-centeredness may be part of modern culture but it seems out of place for a movie heroine. Of course, my perceptions of what a role model should be may be hopelessly outdated but I do like to think that there are some things that are fairly basic and timeless.

Lawrence is a terrific actress but she seems curiously lifeless here. Even so, she still manages to dominate the screen and while this isn’t her best work, it certainly is enough to carry the movie. She gets some able support, particularly from the late Hoffman whom the film is dedicated to. Mostly though this is a lot of people going through the motions for a paycheck and Moore, also a fine actress, looks distinctly uncomfortable in an unfortunate wig.

There’s just not a lot of energy and life to this movie even though the visuals are well shot and there are some pleasant moments in idyllic forests. Most of the movie takes place in District 13’s underground bunker and is perpetually underlit. Even without 3D this movie is dark and dingy-looking most of the time. You have to admit though it does set a certain kind of bleak mood.

There is subtext here about image-making and its use in manipulating opinion, and while that is a fascinating subject, the filmmakers tend to thunk us over the head with a shillelagh rather than skewer us with a rapier which would be much more preferable. There isn’t a lot of subtlety here but then again, I get the sense that the filmmakers don’t respect their target audience a whole lot. Certainly the kind of girls that identify with Katniss are capable of understanding subtlety.

This is a big disappointment for me. Thus far I’ve actually enjoyed the series and was looking forward to seeing this one. Although it is reasonably entertaining to earn a feeble recommendation, I was hoping for so much more. With any luck,  the finale next Thanksgiving will pull out all the stops and let the series end on a high note rather than a whimper or a whine which is where it seems to be going. Prove me wrong. Please.

REASONS TO GO: Some pleasing eye-candy. Lawrence is terrific even when she’s subpar.
REASONS TO STAY: Turgid and boring. Lacks any kind of spark. Katniss, a strong and courageous soul, is reduced to a weepy teen pining for her boyfriend and feeling sorry for herself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some intense violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hoffman passed away a week before filming concluded; rather than recasting the part, the filmmakers did some rewrites so that the portions Hoffman didn’t film could be incorporated in different ways.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Divergent
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Daybreakers

The Counselor


Michael Fassbender doesn't know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

Michael Fassbender doesn’t know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

(2013) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Bruno Ganz, Toby Kebbell, Emma Rigby, Edgar Ramirez, Dean Norris, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic, John Leguizamo, Fernando Cayo, Paris Jefferson, Andrea Deck, Giannina Facio. Directed by Ridley Scott

When we choose to abandon the straight and narrow, we do so most often because of greed. We want more than we would otherwise be entitled to by the dint of our hard work and effort, so we take the shortcut. Sometimes we escape with a tidy sum to put by for a rainy day but more often than not, we reap the consequences of what we have sewn.

The counselor (Fassbender) – he is never given a name in the film – is a sharp lawyer who must have been absent the day they were handing out a conscience. He’s all about the Benjamins, although he is madly in love with Laura (Cruz) whom he has proposed to. While his practice is making him a decent amount of money, he is raking in the cash like he’s printing it thanks to his relationship with Reiner (Bardem) who is part of the Mexican cartel, and middleman Westray (Pitt) who brokers the deals.

Reiner is arranging for the shipment of some drugs from Mexico to Chicago in a septic truck. Being the paranoid sorts that they are, the truck is only going to go as far as Arizona before finishing it’s journey. The Mexican nationals driving the truck get it to its destination, then a courier is supposed to take a kill switch needed to start the truck to the next driver who will finish the job.

Unfortunately, the courier is ambushed and killed on his way to the next driver and that courier happened to be the son of Ruth (Perez), a high-up member of a cartel family that the counselor is defending on a murder charge. To make matters worse, the counselor had sprung the courier from jail after a reckless driving and speeding arrest, which led the cartel to believe that the counselor had something to do with it.

Reiner, Westray and the lawyer are all at risk as are their immediate loved ones which in Reiner’s case is the ice-cold financier Malkina (Diaz) and in Westray’s case is nobody. Malkina, who has a soft spot for watching jaguars take down jackrabbits in the desert and knows more about what’s going on than Reiner or the counselor suspect, promises Reiner that she is going to leave at the first sign of trouble but in point of fact she’s long gone well before that.

As you would expect from a screenplay written by Cormac McCarthy, the plot is very complex and requires a good deal of attention on the audience’s part, particularly during the first few scenes of the movie where those paying close attention can pretty much garner everything they need to figure things out.

The cast is impressive as you might expect with all the A-list power behind the camera. Fassbender is a busy man these days but makes time for a role which is as much of a cipher as any he has played to date. Not only is his character given no name, he isn’t given much of a soul either. That seems to reside all in Cruz who is unaware of the depths of the double dealing her groom-to-be is sinking to.

Bardem, as always, is interesting whether he is shamelessly hamming it up (as he is here) or underplaying discretely (as he does in Skyfall). As you can see in the photo above, there is nothing subtle about Reiner and for that kind of role, Bardem is a good first choice (or fallback as the case may be). Pitt is serviceable as the wise and worldly Westray who understands exactly what sort of people they are up against.

I’ve never been particularly a Cameron Diaz fan but this might be my favorite performance of hers to date. Malkina is a manipulative predator, weaving a web of lust and betrayal and then striking as true and as deadly as a cobra. It is one of the best female villain roles since Cruella de Ville – while Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster did show someone who was evil, you can’t really call truly call the role that of a villain.

The movie is pretty convoluted in places and there are a lot of characters who show up, say a few lines and then disappear for good. Perhaps the audience might have appreciated combining some of these roles or at least having other characters mouth the platitudes. The bean-counters would have appreciated it as well.

McCarthy is never a particularly easy read and this screenplay, an original story by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, isn’t always easy to watch. The sex is in your face (quite literally at times) and those who are uncomfortable with sexuality will certainly be disturbed by what they see here. There are some pretty violent moments as well with at least one beheading and a lot of bodies being shot to pieces. Those sensitive to those sorts of things should take note too.

Still, this is a solid thriller that is a little smarter than most and a bit better-written as well. It is a grim movie that just gets bleaker as the film goes on and as the Counselor and his allies realize that they are trapped in a situation that there is no escaping, try as they might. This may not end up in anyone’s top 5 Ridley Scott movie lists but it should certainly make his top ten.

REASONS TO GO: Generally smart and well-written. Fassbender, Bardem and Pitt are terrific and Diaz makes a surprisingly vicious femme fatale.

REASONS TO STAY: Convoluted and hard to follow in places. Unrelentingly grim.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some fairly graphic violence and language, along with a few morbid images and a fairly extensive and graphic amount of sex and conversations about the same.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Production shut down for a week in August 2012 after the suicide of director Ridley Scott’s brother Tony, who was also a co-founder of their production company Scott Free. The movie is dedicated to him.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scarface (1983)

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Winged Migration

Rush


Another day at the office.

Another day at the office.

(2013) Biographical Sports Drama (Universal) Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Jamie de Courcey, Pierfrancesco Favino, Natalie Dormer, David Calder, Alistair Petrie, Colin Stinton, Augusto Dallara, Ilario Calvo, Patrick Baladi, Vincent Riotta, Josephine de la Baume, Brooke Johnston, Hannah Britland. Directed by Ron Howard

Race car drivers are a breed unto themselves. While here in the States our focus tends to be on the NASCAR circuit, the Formula One drivers have the attention of the rest of the planet and for good reason; Formula One cars are, as one character in the film puts it, essentially coffins strapped to bombs. In the era this film took place in, 25 drivers would start out the racing year and two of them would die sometime during the year without fail. Why would anyone sane do something like this?

James Hunt (Hemsworth) is the kind of star that makes the sponsors salivate; handsome, irreverent and talented, he is fearless on the track and will make moves that would give even veteran drivers pause. Niki Lauda (Brühl) on the other hand is an Austrian with cold, technical precision and focus. While Hunt loves the spotlight, Lauda prefers solitude. Whereas Hunt drives for the thrill, Lauda drives for the victories. They are both ultra-competitive and it was inevitable that the two would become rivals.

In 1976, the two were vying for the Formula One championship – Lauda for Ferrari, Hunt for McLaren. They drove the best cars in the world and it seemed that Lauda, the defending champion, had the upper hand but after a horrific accident in Nürburgring for the German Grand Prix, Hunt had the golden opportunity to make up lost ground and pass the hospitalized Lauda, whose lungs were so badly burned after being trapped for nearly two minutes in an 800F inferno that they had to be vacuumed out while he was conscious. Against all odds and against doctor’s advice, Lauda returned to the track two months later to set up a head-to-head battle that would grab the attention of the world and make for a legend that endures today.

Howard is one of the best storytellers in Hollywood today and at his best his movies not only pack an emotional punch but stimulate the intellect by giving us something to think about. Here, Howard uses the rivalry between these two men (who actually respected each other a great deal and were friends after they retired from racing) to try and get at the mindset of men who risk their lives by driving in circles around a track for a trophy and a check.

Hemsworth is sometimes regarded as a handsome muscle boy who is best known for playing Thor  and very likably at that but the kid can act. He gets the look and mannerisms of the infamous bad boy of racing down to a T but also shows some insight into the insecurities that often drove Hunt. When his racing team collapses under a mountain of debt, Hunt turns into a bit of a prick and eventually drives his wife, supermodel Suzy Miller (Wilde) into the arms of actor Richard Burton. Under the wisecracks and the braggadocio there is a ferocious competitor who is out to prove to the world that he will live on his own terms and nobody else’s.

However, I think that the movie might just launch Brühl to the next level of stardom. He is mesmerizing as Lauda, wearing a dental device to simulate the overbite that earned Lauda the nickname “The Rat” among his fellows. Lauda was thoroughly disliked and didn’t care that he was; all he cared about was wringing every ounce of performance out of his machines and at that he was a master. He’s arrogant and charmless – his marriage proposal to Marlene (Lara) is “if I’m going to do this with anyone, it might as well be you.” Makes a girl’s heart beat faster, doesn’t it?

It is his intensity that Brühl captures best however. The nightmarish injuries that Lauda endures, the unimaginable pain of the burns is captured not only by the body language and the screams but in the eyes. Brühl looks like a man suffering the agonies of the damned – none worse than having to sit on the sidelines and watch his insurmountable lead erode race by race. For a competitor like Lauda, there could be no torture more terrible.

Peter Morgan, who wrote the screenplay, did it on his own; no studio commissioned it so the movie was deliberately written with few racing sequences just in case that the film was made on a non-major studio budget. Some lament that this is a racing movie without racing but in true point of fact it is not; this is a movie about people, not cars. Be aware that the movie is loud and intense however – the race scenes that are in the film accurately capture the noise and chaos of an actual race so that you might imagine you can smell the rubber and the asphalt. However, once the cars are moving I have to admit that the sequences aren’t anything to write home about.

Howard will no doubt be in the Oscar conversation again this year for the first time in five years, and I don’t have a problem with that. This is intense entertainment sure but more it is an examination of what makes people like Hunt and Lauda tick, and with performances at the level that Hemsworth and Brühl deliver, they are the first salvo in the 2014 Oscar race. Gentlemen, start your engines.

REASONS TO GO: Hemsworth and Brühl are impressive. Focuses on the differences that made them rivals.

REASONS TO STAY: More of a character study; the racing sequences are few and unimpressive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of cussing, some pretty disturbing images of the aftermath of a fiery crash, sexuality and nudity and brief drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second collaboration between Howard and writer Peter Morgan; the first was the Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grand Prix

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: In a World…

Casanova (2005)


Casanova

Casanova doing what he does best.

(2005) Romantic Comedy (Touchstone) Heath Ledger, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Oliver Platt, Lena Olin, Omid Djalili, Stephen Greif, Ken Stott, Helen McCrory, Leigh Lawson, Tim McInnerny, Charlie Cox, Natalie Dormer, Robert Levine, Lauren Cohan. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

 

All men dream of being Casanova. Not the actual man but having the same characteristics; being irresistible to women, bold, self-confident and protected by powerful friends when the chips are down. In some ways, his image has become a parody; the real man was notorious self-promoter and his memoirs are fairly unreliable, but he told a good story.

Casanova (Ledger) has been bedeviling the women of Venice to the point where the Doge (McInnerny) has been warned by the Inquisition that a Cardinal Pucci (Irons) has been sent for the sole purpose of arresting the lover. Casanova is warned to either leave the city or wed someone, this someone being Victoria (Dormer), who is loved in turn by Giovanni (Cox) and whose sister Francesca Bruni (Miller) has bewitched Casanova.

Francesca is kind of a Renaissance Gloria Steinem and espouses equality for the sexes. She despises everything Casanova stands for, therefore in keeping with Hollywood convention you know she is going to fall in love with him, although Casanova will have to impersonate her own fiancée, Papprizio (Platt) – Genoa’s own King of Lard – to win her hand.

The problem here is that Hallstrom and the writers aren’t sure whether they’re making a bedroom farce or a screwball comedy and the difference between the two is pretty significant. It’s set up to be a comedy but there are swordfights and rooftop chases. Casanova comes off like  a cut-rate Douglas Fairbanks, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those aspects are some of the movie’s highlights.

The late Heath Ledger made this the same year he made Brokeback Mountain and it was clear he was just coming into his own as an actor. He is self-assured and handsome, not relying on his looks nearly as much and beginning to show signs that his raw talent is beginning to gel, talent that would culminate in his Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight just three short years later. It makes his untimely passing all the more poignant.

The comedy here is mostly supplied by Djalili as Casanova’s long-suffering valet and by Platt. If you’re going to cast Platt as the King of Lard, you’d better have some scenes to back it up and Platt, one of the most underrated character actors in the past decade in my opinion, has some great moments where he gets to swashbuckle as well, and holds his own doing it. Reminds me of his work as Porthos in the 1993 version of The Three Musketeers.

It’s a shame that the script went in the modern rom-com conventional direction of boy meets girl, girl hates boy, boy wins girl, girl breaks up with boy and while I don’t want to give away the ending, Helen Keller could see it coming. Okay, maybe that wasn’t the most sensitive way of putting it.

If you take the attitude that this is going to be some fun entertainment with a little titillation, not a whole lot of originality and very little historical accuracy you’re going to like this just fine. I just wonder why they didn’t use the “real” exploits of Casanova from his memoirs – some of those were far more interesting and outrageous than what we got here.

WHY RENT THIS: Ledger is superb. There is a swashbuckling feel that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Errol Flynn movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Falls back on Romance 101 clichés too often. Lacks genuine wit.

FAMILY VALUES:  This is a film about one of the world’s most legendary lovers; no surprise there is a whole lot of sexuality in it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the opening sequence, Casanova is trying to evade the Inquisition by leaping through a window into the University of Venice. There is in fact no such institution; the building he is leaping into is the Teatro Olympia, one of the first Renaissance-era theaters and located 140 km away from Venice.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a pretty solid featurette on the costume design and those costumes are rather lavish.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $37.7M on an unknown production budget; I don’t think this movie cost an enormous amount to film so I think it recouped it’s costs and maybe made a few bucks but not more than that.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Finding Nemo