movie reviews April 2015

cut bankunfriended woman in goldavengers: Age of Ultronthe clouds of sils mariaMerchants of doubt


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Merchants of Doubt
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

It’s been a long, embattled nine years since Al Gore’s PowerPoint eco-crusade in 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth laid out the science behind climate change and made its human-made causes a subject for general concern. The force that quashed the momentum of the movie’s message and spent millions to fabricate a grassroots movement to promote confusion and denial is the starting point for the latest documentary feature by director Robert Kenner (Food Inc.).

Based on the book “Merchants of Doubt” by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, the film is a veritable forensics investigation into the cabal behind the politically motivated climate denial campaign. Not only that, highlighting information gleaned from four decades of scientific documents made public by the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, Kenner goes on to clearly and carefully expose that the players now casting aspersions on climate science for monetary and political gain are the same ones behind the denial of other public health and environmental dangers, such as DDT, tobacco smoke and acid rain.

A particularly bile-rising example follows the expose written by Chicago Tribune reporters Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe, which explains how the tobacco industry convinced California lawmakers to change the rules for fire-retardant fabrics instead of those for how fast cigarettes would burn down and cause house fires, profiting both the tobacco industry and manufacturers of flame-retardants. A win-win for those industries, but bad for consumers bathed in the toxic chemicals of their upholstered furniture.

Kenner gives proper credit to author Oreskes; in interviews she details her research in a credible but cheery tone. Such happy curiosity is instantly likable. The unsavvy scientists who were reluctantly pulled away from their research and systematically excoriated in the public eye, like geeky lambs to slaughter, are also given ample screen time, and they seem almost giddy to finally get their full say. By contrast, Marc Morano, professional taking head and founder of founder of the website Climate Depot, exhibits a tone-deaf callousness that must be fueled by either total arrogance or smug indifference to whatever audience a film debunking climate denial might find.

That assumption may not be entirely wrong. Kenner is probably just preaching to the choir, stoking the ire of those predisposed to believe the scientists, even if they don’t entirely understand the science. That’s why the star of the film is not close-work magician Jamy Ian Swiss, whose sleight of hand tricks provide a feeble metaphor for the subject of the movie, but Bob Inglis, the former Republican Congressman from South Carolina Republican whose transformation from climate change denier to unexpected eco-ally lost him his seat in the House. What changed his mind? He read the science. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 05/13/15)


The Clouds of Sils Maria
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Like the Maloja Snake, the Alpine cloud formation to which the film's title refers, The Clouds of Sils Maria initially feels languorous and amorphous, but slowly coalesces into a palpable experience that lingers beyond the theater.

Writer and director Olivier Assayas focuses on three women (and, likewise, on three actresses) of different ages and at different points in their careers, allowing the contrasts between the on-screen characters — and between those characters and our perceptions of the actresses who play them — to generate much of the movie's tension.

Juliette Binoche plays respected middle-aged French actress Maria Enders, who has capitalized on that reputation with endorsements and recent appearances in big-budget sci-fi blockbusters that sound a lot like current Marvel Universe franchise offerings.

On her way to accept an award for the writer/director who provided her breakthrough role as ruthless young seductress Sigrid in the play, Maloja Snake, Maria voices her desire to get back to productions that require more than "hanging from wires in front of a green screen." So she should jump at the chance when a hot, young director offers her a starring role in a London revival of Maloja Snake. There's one catch, though: Maria will not be reprising the breakout role of her youth, but will portray the older, vulnerable Helena, who is seduced and eventually driven to suicide by her protégé. The Sigrid part has been given to starlet and tabloid regular Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz).

Despite Maria's protests that she cannot play Helena, that she is Sigrid, her personal assistant Valentine (Kristin Stewart) pushes her to take the part and accompanies her to a remote cabin in the beautiful and very real Sils Maria, Switzerland to rehearse the part.

As Maria and Val Google Jo-Ann, watch YouTube videos of her much-publicized antics, and debate the merits of her current sci-fi hit, Assayas alternately satirizes and defends Hollywood entertainment and celebrity culture. The casting, too, allows a bit of self-referential reflection. Reading Maria the plot summary for a fantasy flick in which she's been offered a role, Stewart's Val derisively notes that werewolves have been tossed in "for whatever reason."

The clash of high and low culture also draws from the public perceptions the stars bring with them. The older, respected Binoche inhabits the role of Maria effortlessly, embodying the role of star in glamorous evening gown and coiffure as naturally as that of the working actress arriving to rehearse sans makeup with cropped hair. And although Stewart has been the target of paparazzi culture, she transcends any residual hype or ridicule as Valentine, hidden behind huge glasses, her body drawn into a perpetual shrug, vacillates between affection and resentment toward her talented but self-absorbed boss.

As the actress and assistant run lines, Assayas draws from Bergman's Persona, allowing roles to overlap and creating ambiguity about whether the discussions of age, vulnerability and power are strictly dialogue or reflect more personal attachments and resentments.

The film is not without missteps. Although well cast as Hollywood brat Jo-Ann, Moritz is barely seen beyond the faux-TMZ clips, so she fails to make as great an impression as Maria and Val, and when she faces-off against Maria, the moment feels forced, compared to the leisurely pace of the rest of the film. And when Val disappears without explanation two-thirds of the way through the film, her presence is missed.

Still, in a film less about plot than about ideas and relationships, Assayas seems to find a comfortable ground somewhere between Bergman and Birdman in which to contemplate what it means to be a woman, on-screen and off. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 05/12/15)


Avengers: Age of Ultron
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

When writer-director Joss Whedon makes an Avengers movie, he has a burden similar to that of Atlas. He can’t simply make up a story that somehow involves The Hulk, Iron-Man, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Thor and Captain America. He has to carry the whole Marvel Universe on his back.

Considering that the Marvel Universe has enough characters and locales to rival our own, it’s forgivable if Whedon has to take a break or lets his payload slip a bit. Avengers: Age of Ultron reunites the heroes of the previous movie, which Whedon, also helmed, but lacks some of the verve of the previous installment.


Now that Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) now are used to working with each other, it takes some of the fun out of the film. The first movie had the ego clashes that gave it some wit and personality, something often missing from superhero flicks.

In addition to have to save Earth from some imminent and existential danger, the Avengers have the Herculean task of looking past their own interpersonal issues. This resulted in added tension and offered Whedon lots of opportunities to churn out reams of bon mots. It also made the Avengers seem human despite their superpowers. Stan Lee, who has yet another great cameo in this film, knew that giving his characters real world neuroses would make for smarter and more entertaining comics, and Whedon ably followed Lee’s template in the previous Avengers movie.

In the current chapter, Whedon seems unduly obligated to introduce characters or realms that will be important in future Marvel movies. As a result, there’s a sense that “I’ve sat through all this and have to wait for another film?”

Age of Ultron begins with the Avengers invading the headquarters of the sinister cabal Hydra. Inside is the scepter of Thor’s brother Loki, who caused so much havoc in the previous movie. Loki is the Norse god of mischief so it’s a good thing Iron Man, et al, have retrieved the weapon from the bad guys.

Or is it?

Tony discovers that the jewel inside of the scepter is actually a massive database that his computer system JARVIS (Paul Bettany) could theoretically retrieve and use as a defense system that could free the Avengers from having to ever rescue the whole population of earth again.

Sadly the temperamental Tony decides to keep his idea to himself and inadvertently unleashes a more lethal version of Windows 8. Ultron (voiced with appropriate relish by James Spader) is an operating system that can assume physical, robotic form in a way that makes him as powerful as any of the Avengers. While he might have the combined data of all of Apple’s mobile devices in his mind, Ultron is dangerous because he has such a narrow perspective. Being only hours old when he first appears, Ultron doesn’t have any sense of empathy or sense of his limitations.

To Ultron, Tony’s dream of bringing peace to the world means getting rid of all the warlike beings inhabiting it.

That means us.

Ultron’s also gets help from a pair of deadly twins. The male Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), can dash all over the place in milliseconds. He can punch out his adversaries before they can even see him. His sister Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) can get inside people’s head and plant upsetting nightmares and move objects with her mind.

Facing off against this bunch should result in some first rate adventure, but every now and then Whedon has to break up the action to explain why some supporting character in Iron Man or Thor’s individual worlds hasn’t bothered to show up for the party. It’s only a throwaway line or two, but even bothering to mention the absence of these people reminds viewers of Marvel’s bigger picture. This makes the current story seem less urgent.

As with the first Avengers film, there is lots of property damage. While Whedon knows how to stage it magnificently, it gets a little old to see a third of New York razed by the Hulk. While watching the destruction isn’t as sleep inducing as it was in Man of Steel because Whedon acknowledge that people can get hurt in all of the melee, the explosions still get dull after a bit of repetition.

To his credit, Whedon can, thankfully, still pen banter that’s livelier and more musical than real world discussions. When men and women flirt in his films, it sounds like something that might lead to actual romance. After suffering through hours of George Lucas and Michael Bay’s ideas for pickup lines, it’s refreshing to hear something that’s as entertaining as any kissing that might come later.

Marvel’s astonishingly deep bench of heroes and villains does give filmmakers a lot to play with, but every now and then, it’s refreshing to catch an adventure that leads to another for reasons other than contractual obligation. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 04/29/15)

Haiku
The Avengers: Age of Ultron

It’s OK if an
Avengers movie has just
some of the cast there.


Woman in Gold
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

There’s no question that any attempt at reclaiming property taken from Jewish families by Nazis requires the consideration of justice. However, director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) has once again planed away the burrs of a true story to prevent their snagging his tidy narrative.

In Woman in Gold Curtis presents the six-year legal battle undertaken by Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) and her lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), the grandson of the composer Arnold Schoenberg, for the restitution of Altmann’s family heirloom — Gustav Klimt’s 1907 “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” — seized by the Nazis not long after the March 1938 Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. Adele Bloch-Bauer was Altmann’s aunt; Klimt a family friend who benefited from the frequent patronage of the Bloch-Bauer clan. Neither the provenance of the painting nor Nazi plundering is at issue here.



It’s somewhat unexpected but not objectionable that the Nazis are not the metaphorical doomed giant in this David and Goliath-type tale. In the script, written by playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell in consultation with the real-life Schoenberg, they’re minor villains who show up inevitably but briefly in flashback. These colorful blasts to the pasts largely serve to elicit an emotional response to the Bloch-Bauer family, and the casting of Tatiana Maslany as the young Altmann gives them an unaffected tenderness. The true target of Altmann’s pent-up disdain (Mirren portrays this with a solid, satisfactory mixture of anger and fear resembling a pinched-lip PTSD) is the collusive Austrian government and its incited citizens whose harassment of Viennese Jews culminates in the Kristallnacht pogrom just eight months after the Anschluss.

When Altmann filed her first claim to the painting, generically renamed “Woman in Gold,” it had been hanging as a showpiece of national pride in the permanent collection of Austria’s Belvedere Gallery for 60 years. The Austrian government was under the impression that by keeping the painting on display it had been honoring the final wishes of the painting’s subject — Adele Bloch-Bauer, who died in 1925 from meningitis, and left a will bequeathing the painting to the gallery. In a pivotal moment in both the case and the film, Schoenberg uncovers the original commission, proving that the painting was never Adele’s to pass on.

This is an interesting twist, but the film urges its viewers to ignore the complication of competing wills and any consideration of what justice in this case would really mean. It also stacks the dramatic narrative against the actors charged with defending the contemporary Austrian position. Journalist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl) is the sole sympathetic Austrian, and even he isn’t fully drawn.

That Curtis inserts a scene between Altmann and Ronald Lauder (Ben Miles), the heir to the Estée Lauder fortune, in which she insists that in the event of her winning her case the portrait will not be for sale, to then add a postscript that Lauder promptly bought the painting from her for a record-breaking $135 million, is frustratingly naïve of him. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 04/24/15)


Unfriended
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

The basic premise for a horror movie has pretty much remained the same: “Someone or something is out to kill me and I have to get away.” Start intellectualizing what this evil force is and painstaking building defenses against it, and the movie veers away from horror and into sci-fi. Keeping the story grounded in “getting away” builds on the impending horror of it all. The dressing so to speak is adding a little gore.

Director Levan Gabriadze and writer Nelson Greaves keep Unfriended firmly in the horror category. It helps to keep it basic to the horror realm when your characters are playing self-centered and germinal teenagers.

Where Unfriended moves into the unusual amid the genre is the setting. The film takes place entirely online in a chat room via Skype with images shown through each character’s laptop. It takes a little time to get use to with many viewers almost anxious for the scenes to move into the so-called real world. The shifting screens and the moving cursor finger could have been fatally distracting to the film. What lifts the concept into the exceptional is the quick editing, keeping the characters’ faces up front and tightly enclosed within the computer screen — mimicking what billions of people see online when chatting with friends  — and the strong acting from the cast. Tie that to the basic horror theme and Unfriended is a good, maybe great, horror treat.

The story unfolds simply. A group of friends gather online to talk. An unknown “friend” appears. At first the group thinks it’s another friend yet identified; then they conclude it’s a computer glitch.

Blaire, played by Shelley Hennig, emerges as what could be called the leader of the group as they try to figure out who is this unknown friend. Blaire asks the group’s computer geek Ken (Jacob Wysocki) to remove the unwanted intruder. When Ken fails, tension within the group builds.

When it’s revealed that the new friend is Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), a girl known by the group as a fellow student who committed suicide, the tension within the group moves to fear. Laura eventually makes her intentions clear — she’s out for revenge for the posting of a video of her online in an embarrassing situation, one that moved her to kill herself. Those responsible will pay.

One by one members of the chat room group are eliminated. The methods of their demise aren’t exactly clear and what power Laura exerts on the fellow teens remains a mystery. But it doesn’t matter. What’s conveyed is the mounting fear and overwhelming terror, particularly from Jess, played by Renee Olstead that each one is going to pay with their life.

Unfriended could have been a disaster, and even as good as it is not everyone will appreciate its unique presentation of this horror story. Still, the strong acting from all members of the cast and the savvy editing makes this film a near classic. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 04/24/15)


Cut Bank
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Dwayne McLaren (Liam Hemsworth) wants out of Cut Bank, MT. The small town’s only claim to fame being “the coldest spot in the nation.” But it’s more than the weather chafing at Dwayne. Cut Bank offers nothing by way of a future for the brooding hunk especially when you’re caring for an ailing father (Stephen Hair) drifting closer to the grave.

Guilt nags at Dwayne for wanting to leave his dad. But the feeling is offset by the attention from girlfriend Cassandra (Teresa Palmer) who is willing to follow Dwayne to Butte after she wins the title of Miss Cut Bank.

Going to Butte isn’t enough Dwayne tells Cassandra; he dreams of the West Coast so he concocts a plan. Nobody gets hurt, the money gotten and shared, and Dwayne and Cassandra are off to California before anyone knows different. But it doesn’t work out that way.

From early on Cut Bank will remind viewers of Joel and Ethan Coen, particularly their films Blood Simple and Fargo, minus the ice and snow. Not surprising considering director Matt Shakman’s directing credits include FX’s “Fargo” and HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” The unexpected twists in events, unanticipated behavior and reactions from the characters, the black humor and weird outcomes are here in Cut Bank but just a little too tidy — especially in the ending — to really have the story stick very long.

For a little while it seems a real murder has occurred, Dwayne has it on video. Sheriff Vogel (John Malkovich) is convinced but what he can’t figure is why someone would kill the postman. Sure George Wits was off-kilter (played to the max by Bruce Dern), but why shoot the old coot?

The shooting of George brings Joe Barret (Oliver Platt) to town as a postal inspector. Seems there’s a reward for anyone who has evidence that a postal employee has been killed. Joe needs to see George’s body to finalize the reward. That’s a little tricky considering George is hiding out waiting for his cut of the money.

Dwayne works hard to manage the affair, toying with the idea of shooting George himself. But he can’t and then it seems providence comes in play in the form of Derby Milton (Michael Stuhlbarg). All Derby wants is a 1950’s lunchbox that was suppose to be delivered to him by George. But George was (supposedly) shot before he could complete his rounds and the mail has disappeared.

The more desperate Derby gets in wanting to find that lunchbox, the more bodies begin to pile up, including the near-death discovery of Big Stan Steeley (Billy Bob Thornton), Cassandra’s father and one wary of Dwayne intentions on just about anything. Eventually Derby focuses in Dwayne and Cassandra as Sheriff Vogel discovers Derby’s source of obsession.

But the nail biting dissipates quickly as the film works to put a happy ending on the murderous affair. What’s left is a sort of love-lost/love-gained rational on the part of Sheriff Vogel and Big Stan Steeley, and an off-into-the-sunset trip out of town. No one really hurt, just a dead Indian, kooky mailman and crazy taxidermist in need of a lunchbox.

Cut Bank could have been a better film. Part of the problem is Hemsworth who underplays Dwayne, seemingly not really understanding his character. Dwayne could have easily crushed pint-size Derby who apparently has some sort of Vulcan death-grip by the way he manhandles much larger opponents.

The standout pro in film is John Malkovich, playing a small town, church going cop who can’t or won’t ever leave Cut Bank. The cold suits him just find.  (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 04/10/15)




Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Mike Ireland can be contacted at mike.e.ireland@gmail.com


 

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