The Light Between Oceans

September 5, 2016 by  
Filed under Brian, Reviews

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”)
Written by: Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”)

There is something about the way some directors — in their wisdom? Confidence? Daredevilry? — allow their actors the considerable space to breathe freely and to nakedly “be” that, when we’re lucky, results in electrically vulnerable performances, dazzlingly intimate in their heedless, tightrope un-selfconsciousness and breathtaking in their vital, textured fullness and authenticity. It’s the sort of freedom that can clear away tricks and tics, stripping things down to the personal and uncrafted, to the spontaneous, inadvertent starbursts of honesty and messy, trembling revelation that inspire special, unexpected, often whole-soul performances from even celebrated, marquee actors, with whose best we previously thought we were well acquainted.

David O. Russell does that. (Witness: Christian Bale in “The Fighter,” the tremendous ensembles of “American Hustle” and “I Heart Huckabees,” Mark Wahlberg in every Russell movie he’s cast in.)
And Derek Cianfrance does that.

Watch “The Place Beyond the Pines” and try to tell me that isn’t your favorite Eva Mendes role, or some of the best work you’ve seen from Cooper and Gosling. Watch “Blue Valentine” and tell me you don’t have to remind yourself to exhale because you feel just that certain that you’re eavesdropping on private moments you weren’t ever meant to see (but can’t possibly tear your eyes from).

Cianfrance’s latest, “The Light Between Oceans,” could hardly be called as “raw” as “Valentine” or as “gritty” as “Pines;” on the surface, in fact, “Oceans” — a sweepingly romantic post-World War I period piece lit like a sunkissed watercolor painting — might seem a departure from the director’s oeuvre of hard-hitting, in-the-room immediacy. Undeniably, though, it shares that observer’s sensibility, that commitment to intimacy that both trusts and challenges its towering, A-list cast. Moreover, a careful viewing of Cianfrance’s recent narrative work reveals a clear lineage, a shared DNA that leads to the conclusion that “Oceans” was, indeed, the next logical step to which this has all been leading.

Based on the best-selling 2012 Australian novel, “The Light Between Oceans” unfolds the sort of heady, tragic tale that might, in lesser hands all around, veer easily and permanently into the swamp of melodrama. Reeling from his time in the Great War, the intensely solitary Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) applies to become keeper of a lighthouse on the fictional Janus Rock, 100 miles from the coast and the nearest human being (a situation which screams metaphor, but not ultimately overbearingly so). In short order, he catches eyes with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) a schoolmaster’s daughter whose piercing boldness and effervescence, despite losing two brothers to the war, disarms Sherbourne completely. Love blossoms, the two decide to marry, and the nearest human being becomes much nearer, as the rapturous newlyweds retire to an idyllic, private life on Janus. As it tends to do, though, tragedy besets the couple, and the inability to bear a child leaves both (and particularly Isabel) despondent — until the day a baby washes ashore in a dinghy, bringing with it the promise of life and happiness, but also an uncommonly heavy choice.

Bathed in exquisitely aching restraint and soul-rending inner turmoil, Oceans is potboiler escapist theater at its very best and classiest. From the early-goings extreme-wide of a steam train billowing a florescence of smoke across an undeveloped landscape, the production design, costumes, setting, and masterful symphonic score by Alexandre Desplat weave a wonderfully nostalgic portal to the sumptuous epic romances that populated the ’80s and ’90s, such as “Out of Africa,” “The English Patient,” and the films of Merchant and Ivory. As my viewing partner noted, “Oceans” feels like a novel — in a very good way. The strength of its direction and performances more-than-ably support what might be otherwise oppressively weighty themes, and the film thrives when we’re given airless, desperate moments in which to co-suffer with our protagonists.

Vikander is at first a luminous firecracker, recalling Audrey Hepburn as she exudes irresistible, irrepressibly girlish glee to chip away at Tom’s first-act stoicism; as the film progresses, she seamlessly “matures,” contending with despair and tribulation in stunning moments of hoarse, raw-throated agony and quiet, hard vindictiveness. Fassbender, our oak, indisputably one of our greatest living actors despite breaking out relatively recently in 2008-2009, is absolutely tailor-made for the repressed torment that inhabits Tom, so much so that “Oceans” seems, finally, to make an incontrovertible and nigh-embarrassingly obvious case for what we all know in our hearts we’ve been clawing to see: Fassbender’s John Proctor in (Cianfrance’s?) The Crucible. (Seriously: Why deny it any longer? Let’s solidify the Day-Lewis heirdom. We’ll all be the happier and more blessed for it.)

Weisz, as a third, profoundly interested party, continues her run as one of Hollywood’s most intriguing and enigmatic screen presences, imbuing a potentially somewhat straightforward role not only with every drop and more of the requisite, excruciating pathos, but also with enough eye-darting lost-ness and unpredictability to bring the character vibrantly to life amid despair. Australian screen giant Bryan Brown also shines in a gruff-then-tender turn as Weisz’s father.

If the film falters, it is, unfortunately, in the end. For my money, the resolution is given too short shrift to land with an emotional finality proportionate to the rest of the story. I needed more time with it, a chance to go deeper. Two, three more short scenes, tops. There are extreme decisions and actions by our protagonists that seemed, at times, a bit to swallow, but they went down eventually, particularly as the events they set in motion and the artistry with which said events were handled justified any misgivings. The film, at day’s end, is good. Very, very, very, very, very, very good. Where “Blue Valentine” gave us frank, uncomfortable, exposed-nerve emotion, acutely beautiful in the openness of its wounds, and “The Place Beyond the Pines” set a harrowing, multi-generational, “Wuthering Heights”-style opera in a dingy, recognizable modern world of motorcycle crime and police corruption, “The Light Between Oceans” blends these spirits, foregoing the “edge” of 2016 for the chance to carry us away like we used to be, once, to wince tear-stained faces and open grateful hearts at the delicate intertwinings of love and pain. Oscar nominations, well-deserved, should be in the offing.

Jason Bourne

July 29, 2016 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones
Directed by: Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Captain Phillips”)
Written by: Paul Greengrass (“United 93”) and Christopher Rouse (debut)

When we last saw Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) nine years ago, he had finally found himself. It turns out his real name was David Webb, and he was a good soldier who signed up for the Treadstone program run by the CIA that created brutal, badass, and brainwashed assassins. After spending three films on the run, dodging surveillance and special agents unleashed upon him from various corrupt men and women in computer-filled rooms across the globe, Bourne was free—so to speak. So much so that you could be forgiven for thinking his story was over. After all, Damon and director Paul Greengrass had seemingly hung things up and Universal had moved on, crafting the unsatisfying side-quel “The Bourne Legacy” with Jeremy Renner as a Bourne-adjacent character named Aaron Cross.

In my review of that film from 2012, I accused the studio of pulling “a ‘Teen Wolf Too'” and making “a movie where everyone knows who Jason Bourne is, but since he’s not around they just made the story about this other guy who’s just like him instead and called it ‘The Bourne Legacy.’” Eager to get the eternally-bland taste of Renner out of everyone’s mouth, Damon and Greengrass returned to retake the franchise, and the result is…well, the pretty bland “Jason Bourne.”

Bourne foil-turned-associate Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) opens the film hacking into the CIA to steal classified files for the movie’s proxy Edward Snowden (the real-life Snowden and the rise of social inform this universe more than the original trilogy’s post-Cold War paranoia). When she’s made by agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) figures Bourne can’t be far behind. An assassin with ties to Bourne (Vincent Cassel) is dispatched to kill the pair. When Bourne slips through their fingers and is put on the trail of his dead father, Lee and Dewey work to stop Bourne from exposing the agency’s secrets. You know…again.

The problem with “Jason Bourne” is that it never finds a sense of purpose—much like the character himself. The first three films in the series were about Bourne finding out how he became who he is now—and those questions were answered. Nearly a decade later, “Jason Bourne” asks “what about Bourne’s dad?” And really, the answer is about what you’d expect. Stir in yet another corrupt CIA official, a half-hearted stab at social media privacy, and some frankly dolt-ish faux consumer electronics gear, and you might wish Bourne had stayed in hiding instead of going through the motions one more time.

Ex Machina

April 24, 2015 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
Directed by: Alex Garland (debut)
Written by: Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”)

After the SXSW premiere of “Ex Machina,” director Alex Garland was asked a directorial question, with this film being his debut after years of solely screenwriting. In a fantastically articulated answer, Garland explained that people tend to deify directors; a sentiment that he called “bullshit.” He contended that he is a writer first, and that every part of the crew from the director down was a “filmmaker.” Writer, director, filmmaker; the semantics, job titles and roles don’t matter. As long as Garland is putting his ideas to screen, like the fascinating ones he has with “Ex Machina,” the film industry is a better place.

After winning a company-wide contest, programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited to spend a week with his reclusive boss and tech CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Previously unsure of what the week would entail, Caleb soon finds out that Nathan has built artificial intelligence, and that he is there to perform a test on its intelligent human behavior. However, as Caleb gets to know the A.I., Ava (Alicia Vikander), he sees that things may not be what they seem.

Another word about “Ex Machina” cannot be written without first acknowledging the staggeringly great performance from Isaac. Equal parts charismatic, humorous, dark and enigmatic, Isaac shows expert level character building and chops. It’s a down-to-earth performance that gives what could easily be an off-putting, egotistical, super-genius character into an affable, fun-loving guy. He’s also responsible for a completely unexpected and equally hilarious dance sequence that will easily go down as one of the best moments in any film this year.

Garland’s smart and ambitious screenplay keeps an air of mystery that allows every moment to unfold without knowing is what to come. After a great set up to pique interest, Garland throws a wrinkle into the film that keeps audiences on their toes. Without getting into too many plot details, motives begin to come into question and the complexity of the story and relationships kick into high gear, allowing audiences to flex their mental muscles to stay engaged.

As “Ex Machina” comes to its dramatic conclusion, there are moments where the storytelling becomes a little too dense and thematically crowded. As a result, the different themes at play get a little muddy and it takes a little unpacking to find the prevailing ones. Even with an overstuffed ending, “Ex Machina” is jam packed with moments of brilliance and bursting with originality. It’s atmospheric, intimate and joins Mike Cahill’s “Another Earth” and Duncan Jones’ “Moon” as one of the best original sci-fi films of the past several years. Also, that Oscar Isaac dance scene.

Seventh Son

February 6, 2015 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Ben Barnes
Directed by: Sergei Bodrov (“Nomad: The Warrior”)
Written by:  Charles Leavitt (“Blood Diamond”) and Steven Knight (“Locke”)

Since the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy came along 14 years ago, followed a decade later by HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” popular culture has had all of its swords and sorcery needs met with high-end product, media that blends imaginative storytelling with committed performances and cutting-edge special effects. But that hasn’t stopped rival studios from attempting to make a quick buck riding the fad’s coattails. Now, it’s easier than ever to throw some actors in suits of armor and cloaks, ship them off to a Canadian forest, and film them swinging swords in the air while some special effects studio digitally renders a dragon or giant or whatever it is months down the road in a cramped Burbank office park. The latest knock-off is the dismal “Seventh Son,” and the only surprise in the film is how they managed to land both Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore for what has to be the worst-ever reunion of “The Big Lebowski” cast members committed to film.

Starting, as these things do, with a mysterious evil once thought banished returning to threaten the entire world, “Seventh Son” opens with a witch named Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore) transforming into a dragon in order to escape her mountaintop prison. You see, the Blood Moon is coming up, and when witches do something on the Blood Moon, they can rule the world or whatever. But she needs something? Or she’s just waiting for the days to pass until the Blood Moon rises? Frankly this plan is thinly sketched. Anyway, Mother Malkin calls upon her “Mortal Kombat” reject family of witches and warlocks to prepare for the inevitable attack led by Sir Gregory (Jeff Bridges with an accent like a bad Sean Connery impression performed through a mouth full of peanut butter), an unfortunately-named Spook, a breed of knight who specializes in hunting down supernatural creatures. Along for the ride is his new apprentice Tom Ward (Ben Barnes), a seventh son of a seventh son, supposedly seven times stronger than the average man but really just sort of okay. And his mom is a witch too, so he’s got that. Ugh, this thing is a mess. Rest assured there’s a fight between the Spooks and the witches and it is all very boring.

While Barnes and his half-witch love interest Alice (Alicia Vikander) look pretty enough, absolutely no effort is made by either one to fit into the time frame, forgoing the genre standard British accents and speaking with flat American dialects and with the speech patterns and sarcasm of modern 20-somethings. At least they fare much better than whatever the hell it is Jeff Bridges is doing with his voice, chewing every single word like a piece of bubble gum and spitting them out through a sub-Peter Dinklage in “Game of Thrones” over-enunciated squawk. This aggression will not stand, man.