Posts Tagged ‘ciaran hinds’

You’ve heard the scuttlebutt by now, of course — Justice League is a mess; Henry Cavill’s face looks ridiculous thanks to the shooting-schedule-necessitated decision to “erase” his mustache by means of CGI; the 9th-inning additional re-shoots are easy to spot; the so-called “DCEU” is doomed thanks to this film’s poor box office performance.

Some of these points are legit (the flick is certainly uneven, tonally and structurally, Cavill’s MIA ‘stache is conspicuous in its absence, the re-shoots (and brighter, “happier” color grading) undertaken by “relief” director Joss Whedon don’t fit in with Zack Snyder’s material), while others are clearly over-stated (the sub-$100 million opening weekend has been largely off-set by a stronger than expected “hold” over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday period), but at the end of the day, even after filtering out the noise (much of it generated by a certain competing comic-book-publisher-turned-movie-studio), the simple fact remains — this is obviously an up-and-down affair.

Which, believe it or not, is actually something of an achievement in and of itself — the forced departure of original director Snyder due to family tragedy definitely meant this production had to pull some kind of a rabbit out of its hat, and while Whedon (who in the end only gets a co-writer credit that he shares with Chris Terrio) clearly steered the ship into more “light-hearted” territory a la his fan-favorite Marvel Avengers flicks, it’s hard to tell how much of what he came up with originated in his own mind, and how much was dictated by WB execs who, let’s face it, were almost certain to part ways with Snyder anyway and were reportedly displeased with the “dark” tone of what he’d come up with prior to his exit.  Indeed, everything about the finished product that is Justice League feels focus-group-tested, specifically designed to appeal to as broad (and, some would argue, dumb) an audience as possible. Snyder’s visual ambition is on full display in the early going, but is completely absent by the time the credits roll; Hans Zimmer’s throbbing, rhythmic soundtrack work is gone in favor of  Danny Elfman’s nostalgia-heavy score; jokes (not all entirely successful) fly left and right; the body count is pretty damn low for a movie about an apocalyptic alien invasion. In short, this is a movie clearly trying to be as different from its predecessors, specifically Batman V. Superman : Dawn Of Justice, as possible. But that was never going to be an easy task with the same guy in the director’s chair.

Taking all that into account, then, the simple fact that Justice League succeeds in much of what it’s trying to do (like it or not) is pretty remarkable, and the DCEU definitely feels like it’s heading in a new, sunnier direction after this. The resurrection of Cavill’s Superman (achieved by means that can be described as “morally questionable” at best, seeing as how Ezra Miller’s Flash and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg actually dig his dead body out of the grave) seems as though it was designed to be the narrative catalyst for the change, and that’s all fine and dandy, but it sells Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman short (as does much much of the movie in general) given that the newly-formed team decides that she just can’t lead lead ’em even though she’s essentially carrying this fictitious “universe” on her back these days. That’s a pretty significant slap in the face right there.

Gadot’s not alone in getting the short shrift, though, by any means — supporting players J.K. Simmons, Amy Adams, Connie Nielsen, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Amber Heard, and Joe Morton all get stuck with roles that punch far beneath their respective weight classes — but by and large the main starts come out of this whole thing pretty well : Jason Momoa offers a decidedly revisionist, but altogether successful, take on Aquaman; Ben Affleck again gets the Bruce Wayne/Batman balance more or less exactly right (not so easy to do in this case since he’s saddled with a lot of decidedly-out-of-character “comic relief” material); Fisher proves to be an inspired choice to play Cyborg; Ezra Miller’s Flash starts out annoying but finishes up endearing; Gadot makes more than the most of a criminally-underwritten part. Hell, Cavill even finally appears to be enjoying this whole Superman gig. The principal cast, then, proves to be more than enough to carry this film through its not-inconsiderable story bumps, logical holes, shifting styles, and dodgy effects.

Not to mention its less-than-compelling villain. Like a lot of people, I thought we were going to get a full-on clash with the villains of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World here, but in the end all we get is Ciaran Hinds as a lackluster Steppenwolf accompanied by a horde of dully-realized Parademons. Honestly, if I want a bad guy this generic and uninspiring, I’ll see a Marvel movie.

And yet, this still ends up being a somewhat pleasing — uhmmmm — crowd-pleaser. The character designs are cool, the pacing is brisk enough that you don’t need to think about the film’s flaws until it’s over, the action sequences (particularly those obviously overseen by Snyder) are stirring and dynamic, the “fist-pump” quotient is reasonably high. Yes, it’s clear that DC is trying to “Marvel-ize” their movies from here on out, but given the absurd amount of critical and financial pressure on them (Batman V. Superman and Suicide Squad both being successfully tarred with the “disappointment” label despite taking in about $900 million each at the worldwide box office, roughly triple their budgets) maybe “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” was the only option they were left with.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I realize I’m in the distinct minority in finding Snyder’s vision for these flicks to be inherently more compelling than your typical brain-dead blockbuster fare, but the people have apparently spoken, and while Justice League doesn’t quite hit all its marks — there’s no way it could —  for folks who felt the DCEU had gotten off on the wrong foot, it shows that WB is more than willing to adjust course “on the fly” in order to, as the Brits say, keep the punters happy. I’m a bit pessimistic going forward, to say the least, but there was enough of the DCEU that almost was on display here to have me leaving the theater reasonably happy. For now, at any rate.

"The Rite" Movie Poster

Okay, I admit it — I’m a sucker for exorcism flicks. Always have been, always will be. Ever since William Friedkin’s original The Exorcist burned itself indelibly into my memory as a kid, I’ve never missed a movie about some hapless schmuck in a robe trying to drive demons out of people.

And there sure have been a lot to choose from lately, haven’t there? Midway through the decade just passed it looked like this once-sort-of-mighty horror subgenre had finally run out of gas after the two different versions of The Exorcist prequel bombed at the box office, but now it’s  come roaring back with films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, last year’s indie-horror mini-sensation The Last Exorcism, and now this latest Anthony Hopkins starring vehicle, The Rite.

Of course, you don’t go into a movie like this expecting anything new per se (or at least you shouldn’t), the only question is whether they’ll serve up a familiar dish well. I’m pleased to report that for the most part, director Mikael Hafstrom and co. get the recipe right. And eating seconds (or thirds, or fourths, or fifths, as the case may be) isn’t the end of the world if the dish itself still tastes pretty good.

I haven’t eaten yet today. Can you tell? And I probably should, but before I do let me just say a few brief words about The Rite because an in-depth cinematic analysis really isn’t all that necessary here, just a glossing-over the relevant points so you can decide whether or not this is worth a handful of your hard-earned dollars a couple hours of your life.

First off, Hopkins is solid. As Welsh exorcist (can’t be too many of those around)Father Lucas Trevant he’s pretty much mailing it in for the first two-thirds or so of the film, but once he gets demon-possessed in the final act (whoops, gave something away there) he really pulls out all the stops and delivers one of his signature blood-curdling performances. Fun stuff all around.

The other nominal lead, young (and dubious, and reluctant — of course) exorcist-in-training Michael Kovak, is handled by an actor I’m unfamiliar with named Colin O’Donoghue. He’s got all the charisma of three-day-old pizza and if you give a flying fuck about him you’re engaging in a serious bit of charity, because there’s just nothing notable about his performance whatsoever, but you’re not going to this to see him (if you’re sane) so I guess in the grand scheme of things his painful lack of acting ability hardly matters all that much.

Hafstrom, who seems to have a pretty solid visual eye as a director and keeps things stylishly bleak and mysterious without venturing too heavily into music-video territory  or anything like that, has assembled a respectable little supporting cast that includes the always-awesome Toby Jones as the headmaster (or dean, or Father Superior, or whatever they’re called) of the seminary Kovak is nominally still attending (he’s trying to quit), Ciaran Hinds (last seen around these parts in Todd Solondz’ Life During Wartime) as a second-tier Vatican priest/functionary, the rather fetching Alica Braga as Kovak’s European fellow student-exorcist (evidently the Vatican is willing to go co-ed in this field — who knew?)/sort-of love interest, and Rutger Hauer, who it’s just plain always great to see in anything,  as Kovak’s mortician father.

The plot, such as it is , concerns our intrepid young not-really-sure-he-wants-to-be-a-priest going to Rome to learn the ins and outs of exorcisms in a last-ditch attempt to, frankly, have some faith scared back into him since his meter’s running pretty low in that regard, and along the way he teams up with Father Lucas and learns that all this demonic possession shit is for real and a nasty demon entity migrates its way from a young girl into Lucas himself (I gave that away already, so no need to shout at me twice or anything). Basic stuff, supposedly “inspired by true events,” since the old standard disclaimer of “based on a true story” is probably a bit too much of a reach in this case.

Have you seen it all before? Of course. Have you seen it done better? No doubt.

And frankly, in recent years, you’ve seen it done a lot worse, too. The Rite isn’t out to shatter your view of reality or leave you with indelible nightmare images of a world you’d rather not face or anything of the sort. At least I hope that wasn’t the film’s  intention, because it sure falls well short of the mark as far as that goes. It seems more likely to me that it’s just out to do a solid, competent job of telling a story we’ve seen dozens of times over and are sure to see dozens of times again. It succeeds well enough in that regard, and since that’s the absolute most I was hoping for anyway, I’m prepared to give it my — uhhmmmm — blessing.

"Life During Wartime" Movie Poster

So, anyway, Todd Solondz is back with a new film, and not too many people seem to care.

I caught his latest, Life During Wartime, a sorta-sequel/sorta-variation on his 1998 breakout hit Happiness,  at a Saturday matinee showing at the Uptown Theater here in Minneapolis, essentially indie film central of the upper midwest, the day after it opened — and there were exactly seven people in the auditorium, myself included.

Talking briefly with a couple of moviegoers after the show, they essentially had the same reaction I did — it wasn’t bad by any means, but we all felt, I dunno — kind of underwhelmed by the whole thing. Todd Solondz has grown up and learned to divorce himself from his characters a bit, but I think I preferred the less-analytical, more directly-involved (for good or bad) style of his previous efforts. Hold tight and all will (hopefully) be explained —

First off, if you haven’t seen Happiness, don’t bother with this at all. Solondz assumes the audience is all familiar with the characters,  even though each and every one is portrayed by a different actor than last time around (Solondz seems hooked on the idea of changing our perception of his characters based on changing who’s playing them, and uses those changes as a way of questioning the fundamental nature of identity itself — an interesting and challenging move, to be sure, but frankly one that he used to much better effect is his last (and for my money best) film, Palindromes, where the actress (and in one case actor) playing the lead role of Aviva changed several times within the film itself), and he doesn’t bother to really provide much of a point of entry for anyone late to the party.

Fair enough, I guess, it’s his call to make, but certainly the effect on any new viewer is going to be alienating to say the least. But given that alienation is a central  concern in all of Solondz’ work, maybe that’s intentional. It’s certainly carried over into his overall approach approach as a filmmaker.

And that’s where my main beef with Life During Wartime lies — in his previous efforts, Solondz has either treated his characters with outright disdain (Happiness, Storytelling) or something approaching a sort of genuine level of sympathy and human concern (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Palindromes). In this flick, though, he approaches his subjects with a kind of detached, almost journalistic eye that works decently enough in conjunction with the minimalist production design and straightforward scripting in creating a sort of bare-bones, take-it-or-leave-it environment for his characters to function in, but it never really directly involves the viewer in any sort of way with the events unfolding onscreen.

I’m assuming all of this is quite intentional on his part (Solondz is too talented to assume anything else), and furthermore I can see why he’s chosen to go down this road — as with Happiness, the themes he’s dealing with here are intensely painful and harrowing, and viewing them through a kind of cold, clinical lens produces a juxtaposition, and a tension, between storytelling style and subject that’s interesting, to be sure, but in the end not entirely rewarding.

It’s been a full decade since everything went to hell for the Jordan family in the first film, and the three sisters who were the focal point of the first film have moved on — eternally depressed optimist (I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not) Joy (Shirley Henderson) has settled down and married former (or so she thinks) obscene phone caller Allen (Michael K. Williams), but things aren’t going so well and she’s haunted by visions of her ex-boyfriend who committed suicide, Andy (Paul Reubens —one of the truly great things about this film is seeing Pee Wee Herman himself back in action). Uptight-and-always-in-denial Trish (Allison Janney) has moved to Florida and told her kids that their pedophile father Bill, who’s actually due to be released from prison any day, was a  great and heroic sort of guy who died a tragic death.  She’s met an older guy named Harvey (Michael Lerner) whose staunch support for Israel and sexual — well, normalcy — have made her fall instantly in love with him. And uber-successful sister Trish (Ally Sheedy) has given up poetry for screenwriting, moved to Hollywood, cut off ties with her family, and started dating Keanu Reeves. Yes, really.

Things start to go south for the family pretty much from the word go, though — Joy (who gives this film its title with one her corny musical compositions, as was the case with Happiness) learns that Allen hasn’t been able to give up his X-rated prank call habit and flees to Florida, then Hollywood, hoping to find solace with her family (good luck with that). Cracks start to form in Trish’s carefully-constructed dam when her 12-year-old son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) learns the truth about his dad. Things only get worse when the old man gets out of  jail and seeks out his their eldest son,  Billy (Chris Marquette) at college. And Helen is — well, Helen, and essentially completely divorced from basic concepts of human empathy and understanding, wrapped up in a completely self-absorbed cocoon of pure selfishness.

At this point I may as well admit that I find some of the casting choices a little bit disappointing in relation to the earlier film — the sisters are all well-chosen, but Jon Lovitz was a lot more interesting as Andy than Reubens is (painful as it is for me to say that), Philip Seymour Hoffman was a much more memorable Allen than Williams is, Dylan Baker was a much more terrifyingly real Bill than the detached and damaged figure Hinds portrays, and geez, Renee Taylor as family matriarch Mona can’t hold a candle to Louise Lasser (the ladies’ father, played with his usual consummate professionalism in Happiness by Ben Gazzara, is missing and presumed dead).

I have no doubt that a lot of the differences between how the characters came across the last time around and how they come across here can be more than adequately rationalized as being a realistic portrayal of where they are in their lives now versus where they were then, and represent a natural evolution of the kid of people they would become given the events that have transpired in their lives. I’m cool with that. But that doesn’t mean the actors, and the director, necessarily chose the best way to try to make this phase of their respective stories as interesting as the last was.

Sure, each character’s “arc” (God how I hate that term) is interesting enough in and of itself, but again, Solondz’ detached approach never makes any of the various plotlines as genuinely involving as it could be, and that makes all the difference here. And I’ll state again, while I have no doubt this artistic decision was made quite deliberately, it still doesn’t make for as satisfying a viewing experience as we got the first time around.

I guess a lot of folks are going to say that our guy Todd has simply matured as a filmmaker, but it seems like some of the fire in his belly has gone out a bit. Happiness was as genuinely disturbing to this reviewer on first viewing as films like Salo and Cannibal Holocaust (and no animals — or humans — were harmed in the process), but Life During Wartime feels less like a sequel, or even a variation, and more like an addendum. It’s central theme of forgiveness for the unforgivable feels heavy-handed and frankly shoehorned in, as if to prove there was more of a point here than just saying “oh, by the way, here’s what happened to these people in case you were wondering.”

I don’t to bitch too much here, this is still a more interesting and challenging film than 99% of what’s out there. But given the high level at which Solondz set the bar with Happiness, it has to be said that his folow-up feels like something of a missed opportunity.