It Comes at Night (**1/2): And…?

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It Comes At Night – 2017

Written and Directed by Trey Edward Shults
Starring Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Riley Keogh, David Pendleton

It’s been a long time since I have been drawn into a film like this. The lens has a romance with the images portrayed to the extent that our eyes are drawn into every image, as though lives depend on it. Through the first hour, we are building up to something which lives beyond the confines of a beautiful boarded up house in the woods.

The dread starts with the opening image of It Comes At Night. Grandpa Bud (Pendleton), suffering from the throngs of an absolutely horrid disease is taken out into the woods and very kindly and crudely put out of his misery. By the time we get to see the first images of the haunted eyes of his teenage grandson, Travis (Harrison, Jr.), we are transfixed. So much misery at such a tender age cannot be distorted through the reflection of flames off of the gas mask he wears as a form of protection from what their world has become.

The family includes his father Paul (Edgerton), mother Sarah (Ejogo) and Grandpa’s dog Stanley. It’s quite obvious by the precautions taken that this family is significantly overcome by the events taking place around them. And although there is no real indication of what it is that brought the disease harming the world outside into Grandpa Bud, Paul is pretty sure he’s worked out a magic formula for keeping it out.

There is one entrance to the house, protected by two doors. This is much like an airlock might function in a spaceship. The outer door is locked carefully and only Paul has the key. If someone breaches that, there is another locked door painted red that might help keep whatever it is at bay until the family has a chance to do something about it.

What happened to the other sides of the house?  What is preventing someone from plucking off the boards for any room at ground level? These are questions that only come up later for the viewer. For Travis and his family, there is only this one door through which anything goes.

The story succeeds most when we experience it through Travis. He is a young man whose life and family look hopeful in pictures on the wall. We see him go routinely to an empty room upstairs from which he hears many things happening in the house. He lives there a lot, form the look of it. Travis also experiences the trepidation that any young man tall enough to look like an adult but clearly not ready for the move into that stage. He defers to his father, who is really just as lost to all of this as his son. He just goes first.

Then there are the nightmares. Travis’ fears come alive in them, and they push him along. What is causing these nightmares? Do they portend the future or something lurking in the present.

The introduction of other people into this equation doesn’t start out well. It’s clear that Paul was waiting for a cataclysm to arrive, even if it looks like he is unsure how to live in a world while raising a family when it does. Where his caution ends and the danger begins is the question. Meanwhile Travis, with his kind heart, competes with the strain of a teenage body and everything that would push one to feel and want to do.

Harrison, Jr. is an incredible actor caught in his prime by a director who is a devotee to Terrance Mallick in the best way possible. Every image of young Travis resonates in a way that brings feeling to the forefront. We want this boy to live in a world beyond what he is trapped in now, even though we are given plenty of hints that this world is not a good place.

I am leaving the other characters out of this review because if you have a chance at enjoying the movie, it will be best that you discover them for yourself. The story has a chance at greatness for much of its running time, and then it falls completely off of the cliff.

What is presented gives the feeling Shults is a writer and director who enjoyed much cinema in the post Easy Rider and pre-Star Wars era. Most of the acclaimed films of this period are low budget, pessimistic and dire. What is not evident is that he understands what it was that made the endings of those films work. If he does know it, he does not show it here. Somewhere in the third act, the film starts to fall apart. We get details that conflict or we are experiencing a mirage experienced by one or more of the characters. What happens to Stanley only makes sense if we can believe that Paul and Sarah’s typical hyper-vigilance took the night off.

The performances in this film are exceptional. Each plays their role exquisitely as the script will allow. Harrison, Jr. was completely transfixing to me for much of the film. I found it very easy to identify with Travis in the ways our paths through adolescence were different as much as the ways we were alike.

The camera work, especially early on and definitely in relation to Travis, is exceptional. This is not novice work. It’s someone who knows how powerful silence and images can be.

Shults is an incredible talent who needs to find a story editor. Several points in the discussion between the family and outsiders find it very difficult to believe either of the parties understand where it is that they live. Places are so vaguely described it is distracting. Then to have this carry over a span of 50 miles, presumably on foot? It’s a ridiculous plot hole that punches holes the feeling of being consumed by the rest of what his beautiful camera work is giving us.

The theater crowd I was with to a person described feelings of incredible disappointment at the film as the credits began to roll. I don’t recall ever being in a theater that had such a collective exhale of disappointment. So much did patrons match my sentiments about the ending particularly, I was so surprised by the notion that each of us experienced the story the same way that it overrode any feelings that presented itself in the last 30 minutes. The most succinct of these notions was expressed by a young man 3 rows in front of me as he got up, stretched and looked at his equally hapless girlfriend.

“I thought this was supposed to be scary.”

(**1/2 out of *****)

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Loving (*****) brick by brick

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Loving – 2016

Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, Nick Kroll, Martin Csokas, Bill Camp

The thing about Jeff Nichols movies is that one can feel them as well as viewing them. Richard and Mildred Loving are not brilliant people. They are just ironically named lovers who become married on the verge of a good and necessary change. Yes, they are interracial and that makes them part of that change. Thing is, they still have to work, pay bills and carry on. There are not a series of grandstand moments and brilliantly phrased quotes. The line that sticks with me is the last one quoted before the end credits.

He took care of me.

This hit me because the actions that the Loving’s take with each other are always the small things, right down to handing a glass of water and a gentle massage when the other comes out of the heat. This is stuff people do for one another when they are in love. At least this its my experience. It’s defiance of gravity. It’s working around it.

Richard (Edgerton) is a laborer who becomes a brick layer by trade. Throughout the years with everything that happens, we always see him out there, laying bricks down. Just as importantly, we get to see the bonding agent applied to every layer. They don’t forget the little things. This movie is all about the stuff that fills in the cracks.

Mildred (Negga) is smiling, uncomplaining and always at work herself. Making sure that the house is kept in order and the children are grateful and ever learning. The children are described as bastards in the eyes of the law.  We get to see the obvious pain this causes the parents. Not by words, but by enduring.

Edgerton and Negga present nomination worthy performances in an divisive age. No matter what side of the political coin, we’ve seen race used as a political gimmick that puts steps forward like those endured by the Lovings in jeopardy. No one today suffers like they did back then. On the other hand, those times were not augmented by “protesters” paid to wreak havoc and spread fear of “others.”

Daniels, Edgerton and Negga show love happens regardless of politics and differences. We see their experiences and are allowed to judge for ourselves. The people presented are not all bad and good. Rather, they are working within an oppressive system and leading people in the way they best know how, while still maintaining their homes and jobs.

If you haven’t figured it out, Jeff Nichols is one of the best filmmakers today. After so many years of enjoying his style and his incredible depth, I had an intake of breath when I found he would be covering the story of the Lovings vs. The State of Virginia. If he had make any false step, I would have been in a well of misery. Thankfully, he stays true to the subject, not making any false political comparisons to events and politics of today. There are no false equivalents. There is just Richard and Mildred. And I am loving the way they took care of one another.

(***** out of *****)

Jane Got A Gun (***1/2): Hell’s coming with me

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Jane Got A Gun – 2016

Director Gavin O’Connor
Screenplay Brian Duffield, Anthony Tambakis, Joel Edgerton
Starring Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Boyd Holbrook, Rodrigo Santoro, Noah Emmerich

Sometimes things don’t turn out like you planned. At one point you can have a hot script as yet unproduced. Then you snag an Oscar winning actress and a renowned female director. Then you get Michael Fassbender and Jude Law. Then Jude Law is replaced by Bradley Cooper. Somehow out of that you get Joel Edgerton and Ewan McGregor and a new director in Gavin O’Connor. Adding to this we get Tambakis and Edgerton of O’Connor’s beautiful Warrior to rewrite parts of the script. Then they say this means the film is in trouble. I don’t understand how one comes to this conclusion in these trades. It seems like the film wins in every trade except possibly Cooper for McGregor. I will call that one a draw. Overall, at this point, the only drawback is that they get the name from an Aerosmith song that has nothing to do with old west justice.

Prior to Jane Got A Gun, there has not been a lot that this reviewer has been excited about in Portman’s career. She started out like gangbusters with Leon: The Professional. Since then it’s been a middling collection of estimations on what a beautiful young actress should do. It’s like she and Keira Knightley took the same class on career advancement. She won an Oscar for Black Swan in a performance for which she really had no business being nominated. She has two modes: severe and affected. Her range has to expand before her looks recede. This is a good start.

The story starts out with Jane Hammond (Portman) and her daughter waiting for the arrival of her husband (Emmerich). When he arrives, he is near dead and Jane fixes him up as good as she can. They are on their way, he tells her between gasps and screams of pain. She should take their daughter and leave.

She does take her daughter to a safer place, but then she seeks out assistance in the form of her ex-fiance Dan Frost (Edgerton), who initially refuses her after reminding her of the obvious. In her effort to secure more supplies at the general store in town, she is assaulted by one of the gang of John Bishop (McGregor) who is in pursuit of Jane and her husband. She escapes and makes her way back to her home with some help.

From here it is a series of preparations and flashbacks. Each one is placed in an effort to answer each question as it arises. To move the story along, essentially. It does it’s job, even if it doesn’t leave any room for nuance or questions. If you wonder what happened at any particular moment, just hang on a few beats and the answer comes.

What the script does not answer adequately are any of the questions surrounding the pursuit of Jane and her husband. He’s been a wanted man for years, yet he lives outside of town. How far away they both are from the Bishop gang is never adequately addressed. When they decided to settle down and raise a family, what kept Bishop and his numerous men from stumbling across them unless they were states away.

Better handled is the progression of events that conspire against women in the old west. As she admonishes her husband for cursing as she dresses his wounds, one thinks, my what an environment she makes in her home. Later, we discover a whole host of atrocities that have been performed on her in the recent past, it occurs to us the strength and resilience one woman must have had among all of those grotesque and evil men in the dust.

Portman does a great job putting us in her shoes but in no way overselling it. This is the actress I have been waiting for since Leon. It has to be no coincidence that she produced this film. Let’s hope she acts in more of her own productions in the future.

Edgerton is excellent in the meaty role of a man betrayed. He releases his aggression in interesting ways and does not let it interfere with his compassion. There are a lot of ways one could play this role between the lines, but Edgerton finds the margins are much more memorable.

Emmerich has little to do in the present, but his flashbacks are neat. He shows us a character who finds right and wrong have a clear delineation and when he decides to act for righteousness, it’s one of the best moments of the film. Leave it to O’Connor to give the fourth lead this kind of gravity and it’s nice to see an actor of Emmerich’s experience seize upon it.

McGregor, called in late to replace two actors, does the most with a role that demands nothing so much as twirling his mustache and dying last. How he goes is very entertaining, though. Hang in for it.

O’Connor has not done nearly as much as a director of his caliber since his incredible last effort, Warrior, mentioned earlier. If nothing else, Jane Got A Gun shows that he can take other people’s material and make something that we can feel. It’s a good, memorable western that allows us to know we come from a stark reality. It is a film that college students of today should watch before they make another demand for safe space. People can survive a lot tougher battles than words.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Midnight Special (****) has a familiar shine

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Midnight Special – 2016

Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard

“…Where heading for the day of reckoning
I’m telling ya, it’s all building up to something
Something that can be repeated with fire…”

Pete Townshend – Give Blood

Jeff Nichols career has been a steady uphill climb until now. His simple approach with complex characters in more complex situations has been a recipe that no others in his field have come close to matching. Each of his first three films, Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud, have reached the classic status. This time out, he was given a budget to match his rising esteem in the business. What he did with it borders on great, but fails in the one aspect that seems irrelevant to his talent – special effects.

The story revolves around a family that is reconstructing after being separated by a cult. The father, Roy (Shannon) has just procured his child, Alton (Lieberher) with the help of his childhood friend Lucas (Edgerton). That his friend willingly surrendered his career as a state trooper exemplifies the importance of the mission. The cult had excommunicated Alton’s mother (Dunst) whilst its leader took the role of Alton’s father, even going so far as to adopt him. All of this happens offscreen before  we ever see any of the characters.

Now the men and boy are on the run. They encounter some dangerous circumstances, even from those that they are supposed to trust. Some of this is extremely surprising, more for what happens than who it happens to. At the same time, the federal government has gotten wind of the disappearance and take advantage of the situation to close in on the cult.

Alton, we discover, has certain abilities that have brought concern to those who keep secrets. At the same time, his gifts have convinced the cult that something is going to happen within days. Both groups have sent forces out in an attempt to reacquire Alton as he and his now reunited family make their way to a set of coordinates ordained by the boy.

Paul Sevier (Driver), who is working for the government, is trying to piece it all together. His efforts within the reach of the government, the forces of the cult and the family must converge at some point. All of this is plays out in a fascinating way.

As with every Jeff Nichols story, the story, acting and dialogue are superb. Michael Shannon is the engine and is once more the de facto altar ego for Nichols. His fierce determination to get his son to where he needs to go pervades every scene. Shannon has had a wonderful career, but he reaches another level working with Nichols. It’s a partnership that one has to hope is rewarded one day.

His son gradually grows in understanding of his ability and his role in life. Lieberher has the gravity to evolve before our eyes in a believable way. His Alton is childlike and wise at once: a tough trick to pull off for a child actor, much less someone writing for and directing the actor.

Edgerton gives a great performance in what would be a throwaway role for most stories of the kind. His motivations are rarely clear, but his loyalty is unquestionable. He has an incredible Texas accent, given his Australian heritage. It’s a character that should be just the driver, but in Nichols’ and Edgerton’s hands, he is a person we come to know, if not entirely understand.

Dunst is to be commended in her performance. She totally disappears into the character. We feel the guilt, elation and a connection to the reality of this most spectacular series of events. It’s tough to imagine her kissing Spider-man with the feeling one possesses while seeing her attempt to reconnect with a son she is seeing change even in the short time they’ve reconnected.

Driver here plays the Charles Martin Smith role in the story. We see his dedication to curiosity and what is right even through the machinations that seem oblivious to good as a concept. That he is better here than he is as Kylo Ren should not be a surprise. Here’s hoping he can apply some of the depth to his next outing donning the mask and saber.

Many of the elements and filming methods of the story are borrowed from other movies. We feel an obvious connection to Starman and Close Encounters. The strangest similarity is perhaps the one least intentional. Everything works for the most part until we find this similarity in the midst of the confusing final act. It makes one wonder if the reason for the delay in releasing the film (from November 2015) is due to how closely it resembles a film that was released last year. It’s too close for comfort even now. Despite that drawback, the final shot of the film succeeds for those who enjoyed the way Take Shelter ended.

Nichols succeeds with this story, but not to the level of his previous work. The pace works, and the effects are in keeping with the rest of the story up until that big reveal. If you loved what Nichols has done before, you will like this one. That it’s not the groundbreaking work one would hope for feels like a disappointment, and that’s a little unfair. If you hadn’t seen the previous work of the director with his number one actor, you’d think this film is more than fine.

(**** out of *****)

Black Mass (**) is not moving

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Black Mass – 2015

Director Scott Cooper
Screenplay Jez Butterworth, Mark Mallouk based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, W. Earl Brown

As someone who has seen Goodfellas somewhere close to 30 times, I don’t have to say how much I can appreciate crime drama at its best. It’s a difficult line to walk, deciding which real events and real people to leave out, what characters and events to meld together. One thing that cannot be left out is a compelling story driven by characters one can identify with and root for and against. For the Scorsese classic, we are drawn into the world through our tethering to the perfectly expressed thoughts of Henry Hill (Liotta), who lived by a code that was consistent, if not one the normal Schmo would find comfortable. This code is presented through a procession of scenes that build upon one another as the character grows within his environment. He doesn’t grow a conscience and decide he needs “out.” Furthest thing from it. He does what he has to in order to survive, and then lives with adjusted consequences.

Ever since that film, many mob stories have come and gone, most trying but failing to duplicate it’s success. Scorsese himself tried it again a few times, failing with Casino and even more spectacularly with The Wolf of Wall Street, but scoring an Oscar with the good, but not great The Departed. The last of which is one of the many recent Boston “Southie” mob tales that have come out of the real life that Whitey Bulger lived. It’s a shame, after The Departed, The Town, Mystic River, The Boondock Saints films and The Equalizer, we reach the point where we’re taking on Whitey in depth and the formula has run out of steam.

It’s easy to blame the glut of films that take place in that world, but it is more than this that contributes to the feeling of tired resignation one gets while watching a film that is technically telling Bulger’s story proficiently and uncompromisingly. There is technique in the buildup of scene after scene, but it is a tired one that does not try anything new. Someone messes up, they go for a car ride, they get whacked. Someone gets arrested, they talk (or don’t) they go for a car ride…you know.

By the time I am finished watching Johnny Depp in his strikingly blue eyed makeup for 2 hours of this, I don’t know anything more about Whitey Bulger than what I read in the paper, saw on the news or elicited from The Departed. Plenty of people tell us who Bulger is, and we see him do things all the time. We never really know why he does them, because he was a fully convicted, served and released member of the Alcatraz club by the time we first lay eyes on him. Everything he does afterword is strictly driven by opportunity.

Where one suspects the story is trying to go is the story of FBI Agent John Connolly (Edgerton). He is trying to play both sides and score points while allowing his lifelong friend to thrive. There is some real grist here for a story, and it would be a great film if they could have done anything close to a believable job. I have yet to see the film where I believed that Edgerton acted poorly until this one. Even Uncle Owen from the dreaded Star Wars prequels outshines here. His performance is laughably underwritten and almost qualifies as parody. It’s one thing when we see him interrogate a witness against Bulger. We then see him go right out in public to question Bulger. Next thing we see is the witness dying. Got it.

We then see Connolly attempt to go through the same ritual with his disbelieving co-workers not once but two more times on screen. As if we didn’t get the point.

Then there is the disintegrating relationship with Connolly and his wife. It has all of the motions of other films where the husband gets in too deep and the wife gets spooked, but absolutely nothing in the way of a convincing execution of these events. From the moment they have their little make-out session at the beginning of the film you can almost see him being locked out in one hour screen time.

The best performances in this film are with Bulger’s accomplices:

Weeks, as played by Plemons, is a vacant ship, just doing nothing but being faithful. He has no other connections than Bulger and although we never see why he turns on him, that is the fault of the script only. W. Earl Brown as Martorano is like an older and wiser version of Weeks. He is ruthless, but his strict adherence to code gives us plenty of understanding why he would rat on the increasingly erratic and unpredictable Bulger.

The best acting is Cochrane’s take on Flemmi, who has his heart wrenched out quite cinematically but does a great job keeping a stiff upper lip.

Johnny Depp looks primed and ready to roll in his performance of the titular Black Mass. He is a void that continuously sucks in those in orbit around him. It makes one wonder what he could have done with perhaps a half-hour more screen time, or some genuine exploration of his character. It’s not his fault we never get to see him before he is a convict.

The experience rings hollow, unfortunately, and all of his work will be sadly forgotten by the time the next Boston crime story surfaces.

After scoring an initial win with Crazy Heart, Cooper has shown himself to be a competent if not particularly driven director. He hits every note here with such a thud, it plays like some sort of climax. By the time the story reaches it’s end, it feels more like a long day’s work than an experience.

Hard to tell how much of this is due to the bland script, which Jim Sheridan wisely left his name off of. I haven’t particularly loved anything Butterworth has written, although Liman, Blunt and Cruise did make something nice out of Edge of Tomorrow. Oh, and it might have helped having McQuarrie around for that one too.

While I never seek out Johnny Depp, I don’t root against him either. It was sad thinking that this might be one of the rare opportunities he’ll ever get for some real credible acting. In all of the obvious energy he put into his performance, this film is adrift from the first moments.

(** out of *****)

The Gift (****) that cannot be returned

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The Gift – 2015

Written, Directed and Starring Joel Edgerton
Starring Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall

Joel Edgerton is one of the more talented actors I have seen in recent years. His work in Animal Kingdom, Warrior and more recently The Great Gatsby are a good start for the uninitiated. At first glance of the trailer, this movie seemed right out of the mold of the Single White Girl / Pacific Heights your neighbor is a creep variety. The last thing I need to spend my time on is another rote antagonism movie. And although Bateman is given a free pass by most, he’s about the level of Rebecca Hall for me. Not bad, but not a done deal. There are more than a few of each of their films I didn’t even bother reviewing.

Once I discovered that the entire crew of the Dan Le Batard Show enjoyed it, I decided to give it a shot. I was overjoyed to discover that not only was Edgerton in the film, he was writing and directing for the first time. This will be different, at least. So long as the producers don’t get in the way too much.

The story begins with Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall) buying a house back in Southern California after a rough last couple of years in Chicago. Hints are given about the loss of a child in utero, as well as a dependency on pills. Things are moving forward for the couple though, slowly.

Things take a turn when, at a store near the new house, they come across Gordon (Edgerton). He is a former schoolmate of Simon from way back. At first glance, it appears as though Simon can’t recall. Soon, though, he is amazed to realize that Gordon does not seem anything like the “Weirdo” that Simon knew. Just the same, there is no intention on following up once Gordon gives Simon his number.

Not that it matters. The next day, Gordon appears at their new house while Simon is working. He is bearing gifts. Robyn is thankful for his thoughtfulness and somewhat impressed by his manners and calm demeanor. She pushes her husband into inviting him over for a thank you dinner. The budding friendship is anything but awkward. It is rather forced. The interplay between the three characters is enough to keep each step somewhat believable enough to call for a willing suspension of disbelief.

That there is more to Gordon is a given. It is quite obvious that he has an agenda. Where this movie wins, though, is in giving layers to the husband and wife. Nothing is as it seems, and good is a matter of degrees and appearances. The movie gives all the appearance of a by the numbers thriller as it slowly turns up the tension. There are odd, unexpounded moments, and it’s tough to tell what the state of mind of each character is in, as they are mostly in flux. Even if one can call some of the shots, they likely won’t get most.

Hall plays the pivotal role. Her vantage point is the crux for the viewer, as she is the closest thing to a constant. The way she views things has an effect on our perspective. Edgerton plays Gordon with a serene quality that swings between being potentially insane or completely rational. Bateman plays a familiar role almost like he was made for it. If I say anymore, I could ruin it.

The Gift is not a perfect film by any means. It has a generic sheen over everything and there are a few times where people outside of the situation say things that are only meant to further the plot. This can be forgiven, however, for the cleverness of the twists and the acting. As for Edgerton, it’s a great start in the deepening exposure to a very interesting talent.

(**** out of *****)

Exodus Gods and Kings (****): Moses, Ramses II, God and his Angels

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Exodus – Gods and Kings (2014)

Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, María Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Andrew Tarbet, Isaac Andrews
Screenplay Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian

The prospect of a big budget film based on The Holy Bible is immediately deserving of skepticism these days. For some, like Aronofsky, use it to “explore the space”  adventurously within the original source. Most others, like Scott, openly admit that they shape the story and the cast to make the film as profitable as possible around the world. In this way, it’s kind of like a Transformers movie, but in the worst way possible. The formula works financially, as a little over 3/4 of the films $270 million gross has been outside of North America. We can expect certain allowances and even certain differences, which for many detract from the sincerity of the approach.

Scott is one of the most visually striking, if sometimes editorially distant, directors of our time. His desire for clarity of vision at times leaves the story in its wake. Having four writers for this tale further raises a red flag. The hopes for this experience are high, but the expectations are minimal.

The result is a remarkably deft presentation that does a good job giving a plausible reading of what everyone who has seen The Ten Commandments will recognize.  We start out seeing Moses and Ramses II as brothers in arms. If not brothers by blood, their combination spills much blood.

Moses (Bale) is a skeptic of the Gods Egypt worship. His confidence is more with himself than anything else. Ramses II (Edgerton) is to succeed his father, Seti I (Turturro) as Pharaoh of Egypt. His confidence in himself is lacking. The love between the brothers is not lacking. When Moses saves the life of Ramses II on the battlefield, the dynamic changes between the two. This unease is exacerbated through the death of Seti I, until a secret about Moses reaches Ramses II through the treacherous lips of Hegep.

Ramses confronts Moses about this, setting in motion a chain of events that leads Moses to become the leader of the Hebrews. This, of course is all the work of God. Moses is a Hebrew who by prophesy was to be the leader of the Hebrew slaves. Soon enough, Moses is banished, goes on a journey in which an attempt is made on his life thanks to Ramses II’s mother Tuya (Weaver). Escaping that, he then finds love (Valverde) and starts a family. Nine years later, he is called upon by God to fulfill his destiny and free his people.

At this point, Ridley Scott chooses to show the true meaning of the word Israel: to wrestle with God. To that end, we see Moses speaking with Malak (Andrews as an Angel of God) in barely civil terms. This is a verbal, philosophical and religious wrestling match. Scott makes a conscious choice to show Moses as believing what he’s seen, but not being able to completely accept what he’s been told. This perspective is something many people can identify with more than the Moses of tradition who was maybe more accepting. To be sure, the plagues and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was as much for Moses’ belief as it was for Pharaoh’s. This is made clear n this version of the story.

The acting of the leads is excellent. This is big budget Bale at his best. We can see the journey he’s made from beginning to end in crystal clear terms. His relationship with Ramses II demonstrates how love can be driven south by fear and eventually, greed. Edgerton’s performance, more subtle, is also more memorable. His Ramses II rivals Yul Brenner’s in depth and scope. The greatness in both performances is in that we can see ourselves in both of them. They are not straight up good versus evil. They can be seen as examples of God’s power.

Of the supporting performances, only Mendelsohn’s wicked and deceitful Hegep stands out. His actions are integral as those of Pontius Pilate. A career in middle management which one would defend by shining the light on others. The rest have almost no moments of actual personality as they do reciting plot points. One wishes we would have had more time showing the dichotomy with Aaron (Tarbet) and Ramses II as brothers of Moses. What we get instead is a series of blank stares from Aaron, watching Moses talk to (apparently) no one. It’s a missed opportunity.

What can be admired about Exodus… is the focus. God’s wrath shown through Malak. Moses and Ramses II’s growth into their historically significant roles against one another. We see the wrestling match between Moses and God. We get that Ramses II moves from uncertainty to maniacal in his demand for respect and love. This is feeling of inadequacy is subtly hinted at in the triangle relationship between the two brothers and their father, Seti I.

If one is looking for historical accuracy, it should be noted that the events are more interpretations than they are Biblically accurate. The plagues are expounded upon, and the Israelites suffer as much as Egyptians. It is entertaining to see the leading minds and religious experts try to explain to the Pharaoh how one plague might lead to another or be easily overturned by ritual.

It is less entertaining to see Moses lead the Hebrews to perform what are essentially acts of terrorism against the Egyptian women and children, and then rationalize it in the name of their freedom. One could conceive that this is Ridley Scott taking sides on terrorism in the modern day, which is something Israel has to battle constantly. If he is trying to make a point about Israel’s hands being dirty, then he is making too big of a stretch based on historical evidence. This is but one small segment in the story. It does detract from the character that Scott, Bale and company hope to create, as it is not the same Moses that would historically downplay his earlier heroism in saving his brother on the battlefield.

Still, the overall story is solid enough and the visuals (as usual) striking enough that it makes the film worth watching. It’s not close to his best work, but it is inspired and it certainly does not plumb the depths of Robin Hood. Just don’t expect to have your local Christian or Jewish worship center presenting this film any time soon. On the other hand, we should just feel fortunate that the ending doesn’t take place in China.

(**** out of *****)

I Don’t Have A Vote: 86th Oscars…feel the excitement

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The 86th Annual Oscars – Try to stay awake

My excitement for the Oscars has never been more quaint.  I enjoy the spectacle, but more often than not find myself astounded at who is nominated (Gravity? Really?  For anything more than technical?) and who is not (The Great Gatsby?  Really?  For only technical?).  This year I was given the gift of my fellow blogger WeMissE’s perspective on the Oscars.  He very thoroughly covers the event in his article, leaving me the freedom to give my version of Siskel and Ebert’s If We Picked the Oscars.

My short list of who should have won, regardless of nomination:

Film: The Great Gatsby
Director: Baz Luhrman – The Great Gatsby It’s more than a spectacle.  It’s more than music.  It’s more than a great book.  Luhrman knew this, and apparently not many others felt the same way.  His reputation with good, but not great films like Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet precede him to the point where most only see the same this time.  It’s too bad.
Actor: Will Forte – Nebraska I know the storyline is supposed to go with the old guy on this one.  Problem is, Forte did the lion’s share of the brilliant work in this understated – some might say boring – update on The Straight Story where the old man needs to get somewhere.  Forte’s gentle spirit lifts this story from observational sad humor to a ray of hope for humanity.
Actress: Mia Wasikowska – Stoker – The power of her performance is in the subtle combination of being haunted and playful.  I often enjoy Wasikowska, but this role is her best.
Supporting Actor: Joel Edgerton – The Great Gatsby – Narrowly beating out Bill Nighy’s measured performance in About Time, Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan is the highlight to an exceptional cast.  He should win for the confrontation with Jay Gatsby alone.  I will never think of ice chips on a hot day in the same way.
Supporting Actress: June Squibb – Nebraska This is one time that the Academy got it right.  June Squibb’s role as nagging wife goes from obnoxious to multi-dimensional brilliance in a minimal amount of screen time.
Original Screenplay: Mud – Jeff Nichols – Film after film, Nichols brings words to the screen better than anyone.
Adapted Screenplay: Luhrman and Craig Pearce The Great Gatsby – Luhrman and Pearce take everything that works from the classic and makes it relevant for all time.
Animated Feature: Frozen – Finally, an animated Princess film where the heroine (or in this case, two) is not beholden to a man.  This alone makes this the best Disney Princess film ever.
Best Original Song: “Young and Beautiful” Lana Del Rey, The Great Gatsby – “Let It Go” is a great vocal and a wonderful song, but Del Rey’s song is a remarkably moving dedication to everything that no one understands.

The show will be big, and I am sure something about the holocaust will win.  Meryl Streep will not, but don’t worry, she’ll be nominated again next year.  So will Woody Allen, unfortunately.  That’s Hollywood.  Feel the excitement.

The Great Gatsby: His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one…

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The Great Gatsby – 2013

Director Baz Luhrmann
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke
Screenplay by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce based on the book by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“It was all for her.  The house.  The parties.  Everything.”

Daisy is his Rosebud.  But she’s so much less.

The moment his heart was fulfilled was the moment that he discovered it had a hole in it.

Every day is a party, hosted by the man with the greatest reputation.  Every day, the host waited for that train in the distance.  Someone across the water.  He built an empire with her in mind at the placing of every brick.  She his weakest point and, unfortunately, his foundation.  It’s a story as old as writing.  The spurned lover who conquers world, but cannot conquer their own heart.  Baz Luhrmann captures all of this in the hue of a beautiful green light.

The Great Gatsby is a story that has been many times put onto the big screen.  Until now, it’s been as elusive as Daisy.  A masterwork story that is as unfilmable as it is unforgettable.  Luhrmann just made it unforgettable.  Anyone seeing the movie for the visual splendor will not be disappointed.  It is perhaps the most beautiful film he’s ever made.  Every scene seems as surreal as our national memories of the roaring 20’s.  The Cohen brothers tried to do this once, with the Hudsucker Proxy.  It did not work at all.  Luhrmann, a native of Australia, hit the nail on the head.  If you see no other film this year for the sheer beauty of it, see Gatsby.

The cast is perfect.  As Daisy, Mulligan has found the role of a lifetime.  The trick of Daisy is that one needs to see her as a haunted object of desire, but then allow her to be revealed as the kind of person who does not live up to the dream.  She is, though, still a person, complex, beautiful, shallow and horrible.  Mulligan has been the first two things many times on film.  No role has allowed her the chance to round herself out to be the other two.

As her horrid and obtuse husband Tom, Joel Edgerton may seem over qualified, if a lesser director had been at the helm.  Luhrmann and Pearce’s script, though, shows the brilliance in casting such a talented actor.  When faced with the crisis of his life, Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan comes alive.  His perversity is what gives him the advantage over his earnest, yet baseless foe.  He sees through his adversary and decimates him.  Absolutely fearless moment that elevates every other less challenging scene in the film.

Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway is wonderful as the narrator.  We see the film through his beautifully naïve eyes.  He wants the dream, almost as much as his hero, Gatsby.  When it doesn’t happen, he is broken.  Luhrmann brings him further into madness than the book, but it works for more than one reason.  Maguire has made a wonderful career of being quiet and watching.  He has the difficult job of understanding everything, but only when it’s too late.  His information could save the hero of his story, if only that hero did not have ignorance as his Achilles heel.

That hero, Jay Gatsby, is just another in a long line of great performances by DiCaprio.  Capturing the intrigue, the desperation, the courage and ignorant grace of one of the biggest characters in the last 100 years, DiCaprio’s performance has echoes of other performances, like The Aviator, Catch Me If You Can and even Django Unchained.  All of these men are resourceful and flawed.  Brilliant and myopic.  They have the world in their hands, but they weren’t looking for the world.  The were concentrating on something smaller than that.

There is not much talk about this film winning the big Oscars.  It doesn’t even sound like it’s going to receive a significant number of nominations.  This really can’t be too big of a surprise, I guess.  It was a popular film, and the reviews kind of write themselves for Luhrmann’s films.  Nice sets, great color, cool soundtrack, surreal.  It has all that.  If you keep your fixations on that, you might miss something better.  I just don’t see how you could.

(***** out of *****)

Zero Dark Thirty or Forty, Whatever it Takes.

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Zero Dark Thirty – 2012

Director Katheryn Bigelow
Starring Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Ehle, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Harold Perrineau, Chris Pratt, Édgar Ramírez, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini
Screenplay Mark Boal

I spent much of the Bush administration reading books about the wars in the middle east after 9/11.  Most of it was read in disgust with Cheney’s and his administration. Along the way, through osmosis, I learned a thing or two about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj.    This helps me understand about 5 minutes of the story.  So much information is pushed in the 157 minutes of Zero Dark Thirty, that by the time we get to Maya (Chastain) starts writing the number of days since they found the house that Bin Laden was supposedly housed (and killed) in, it feels like coming out of a fog.

Screenwriter Boal and Director Bigelow go to such lengths to clarify where we are at every step of the way, the process feels like night class at a community college.  It is labored at a few points, and it suffers a bit from the Brad Pitt-Moneyball syndrome, but overall, the movie is smart.  The cast is as good, with some big name actors chewing scenery and other character actors taking in the view.

The film is brave at points, including depicting torture being performed on humanized detainees by likable characters.  The lead is  a woman, giving her a barely tolerable overachiever who is not afraid of how she looks to anyone else.  It was a tough role to execute properly and Chastain gives a solid effort, only occasionally let down by the script making her a martyr genius.  The last 40 minutes are thrilling and thorough, even if they miss the customary two to the head for each aggressor.  They manage to keep the politics out of it, even if the viewer still has a hard time believing the overall story.  The best that can be said is a “possible jackpot.”

The biggest complaint for us is the use of Jennifer Ehle’s character, Jessica.  Her character has unquestionable intelligence and limited anticipation of succeeding.  Still, she has pluck.  This is what we expect from the heroine of Pride and Predjudice and Contagion.  For some reason, her character becomes inexplicably idiotic, along with everyone else around her.  This is necessary to portray for the plot, and perhaps to depict real events.  The thing is, in presenting it as they do, they take away the intelligence of the good guys as well as the bad guys.

No amount of doubt in the truthfulness of the venture of the last killing of a man supposedly dead several times over can take away from the power of seeing Chastain as the film fades to black.  Through this visage, one finds it easy to identify with someone who has concentrated on no one else but Bin Laden in over a decade.  You believe that she believes.  You know she’s been hollowed out and has nowhere else to go.  In her tears, the film puts a human toll on our nation’s burden since that fateful day.  There is strength and vulnerability.  There is aggression temporarily suspended.  What is lost, however, is a sense of purpose.  There is no better actress working today.  Although, before seeing this movie, I would have considered Ehle in the running.

(****1/2 out of *****)