Tag Archives: Michael Sheen

Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris

Do you ever find yourself feeling drawn to or nostalgic for another time period? Like somehow even though you’ve never been, you feel like you miss being there? Owen Wilson has a case of this in Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, a charming, brilliant piece that comes across as a ‘small’ film but has some big and deep ideas to discuss with you, the viewer. Wilson is Gil, a hapless wannabe screenwriter who looks up to the literary giants of yesteryear as he meanders around present day Paris with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her family. He keeps going on about “Paris in the 1920’s in the rain” and how lovely it would be to see, hear and feel that for real. Her head is nowhere close to the clouds as his though, she subtly resents his whimsical daydreaming and yearns for suburban sprawl once they tie the knot. Now it’s impossible to really review this film without spoiling the enchanting central premise, so here goes: as he takes dreamy walks around Paris, he discovers that every night at precisely midnight he’s able to quite literally time travel back to the 1920’s. This puts him in close contact with aforementioned writers he considers titans and soon realizes are people just like him. I don’t know much about the figures portrayed here or whether the actors embody them truthfully, but they sure do a grand job of bringing their scenes alive. Kathy Bates is a robust Gertrude Stein, Corey Stoll dryly intones Ernest Hemingway, Adrien Brody is great very briefly as Salvador Dali, Tom Hiddleston as Fitzgerald and so it goes. This could have easily been a high concept, Owen Wilson In King Arthur’s Court style time travel film where the lessons learned are never all that striking or below the surface, but Allen wants to dig deeper. What is it about nostalgia that holds so much power over us? Would it be healthy or productive to live out those fantasies for real, and how would one come out of it? Gil finds a modicum of answer to these questions when he meets restless Adriana (Marion Cotillard, wonderful as always), but there’s a certain portion of theme here that lies in mystery, especially when her side off this phenomena comes into play, a thought provoking venture that I won’t go into here. The production team has wrought such a well lit, meticulously costumed Paris of the 20’s that you almost feel like they somehow tagged along with Gil each night and just filmed the thing there, it’s that good. The story rises up to meet it, and honestly as I type I can’t think of one single thing I disliked about this film. It’s engaging, never too simplistic nor too impenetrable, the actors are all clearly having the time of their lives (check out scene stealers Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy as McAdams’s kvetchy parents) and there’s just this charm over the whole thing that’s irresistible.

-Nate Hill

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PASSENGERS by Ben Cahlamer

Homesteading.  Many years ago, when land was plenty, the government offered it to people who were willing to till the soil, grow some crops.  Perhaps raise a family.  It was not an easy life.  In fact, you could probably retire today and still be tilling soil.

What in the world does this have anything to do with Morten Tyldum’s (“The Imitation Game”) new sci-fi film, “Passengers”?

Very little or quite a bit; it really depends on your point of view.  The intent of the government was to get people to become productive because they had no other choice:  they were cornered into a unique way of life that not everyone is cut out for.

In Jon Spahits’ (“Doctor Strange”, “Prometheus”) script, the meaning of homesteading, “a lifestyle of agrarian self-sufficiency as practiced by a modern homesteader or urban homesteader,” equally applies to the 5000 corporately-sponsored passengers aboard the Starship Avalon, destined for the colony planet Homestead II.

The trick is that the journey is so long, everyone on board is in hibernation and the state-of-the-art starship is on auto-pilot.  An engineer, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is woken up alone with no explanation and no one to communicate with.  He is eventually joined by author Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). As the only two souls awake on board the ship, they fall in love but not before disaster strikes.  Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne and Andy Garcia co-star.

Spahits’ script should have checked all the right boxes:  characters are well-fleshed out; the set-up was strong; social issues are at the forefront. The focus strayed from sci-fi-adventure to kitschy sci-fi-adventure-romance, where the romance just didn’t cut it. Preston’s reason for being woken up is clear; the emotional side of isolation became a focus instead of allowing his skills to move the character and the narrative forward, leading to the intended romantic angle; a wasted effort considering Jennifer Lawrence’s Lane tried too hard to remain in control, though her reasons for that become clear after a meltdown.  Had Fishburne phoned his performance from Earth, it would have been more convincing then what unfolded on the screen.  In homage to a Kubrick classic, Michael Sheen stole the show; but his role in a pivotal moment just fell flat.  Tight editing by Oscar-nominated editor Maryann Brandon (“Star Wars:  The Force Awakens”) keeps the pacing on track.

The script notwithstanding, there is one redeeming reason why this should be viewed on as big a screen as possible: the special effects.  In the tradition of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Scott’s “Alien”, Tyldum executes a strong, detailed technical look.

From the symmetry of the Avalon to the look and feel of the interior corridors, the hibernation pods, the stars and space around the ship, everything has a very real or visceral feel about it and visual effects supervisor Erik Nordby rose to the challenge brilliantly.  The effects are supported by strong cinematography from the Oscar-nominated Rodrigo Prieto (“Brokeback Mountain”).  His attention to every detail, from lighting of cavernous interior spaces, to changing reflective lighting and exterior shots in space, Prieto’s work only enhances the visual impact.

Oscar-nominated film composer Thomas Newman (“Bridge of Spies”, “Skyfall”) resonates with the luxuriousness of the Aurora and the allure of space exploration.  Some of his dramatic riffs didn’t exactly jive with the onscreen action, but his music served the film well.

“Passengers” had all the right ingredients for a stellar show, its ambition steeped in “Titanic”.  Instead, its ‘Lost in Space’ meets ‘The Love Boat’ with all the drama that that entails.

For the intricately detailed technical effects work, “Passengers” is Recommended.  Aaron Spelling is probably rolling over in his grave.

TRON: LEGACY – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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It has been over 30 years since Tron (1982) was released in theaters. Made on the cusp of the home computer revolution, the film was a simple good vs. evil parable that saw a disgraced computer programmer hack into the network of the corporation that fired him only to be zapped into cyberspace where he got to see how the other half lived. Tron was a modest success at the box office and resoundly trashed by critics. It seemed destined to become merely a footnote in cinematic history as one of the earliest examples of computer graphics in a Hollywood film. Over the years, it developed a decent cult following who dreamed of a sequel some day. That time finally came.

Hoping for a lucrative franchise that doesn’t involve pirates, Disney ponied up a considerable amount of money so that the filmmakers of Tron: Legacy (2010) were able to utilize the same kind of 3D digital cameras that were used to make Avatar (2009) and the CGI technology used to age Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). And, in keeping with the original filmmakers hiring cutting edge composer Wendy Carlos, Tron: Legacy features an atmospheric score by hip electronica music duo Daft Punk. The end result is a stunning assault on the senses.

In 1989, hotshot programmer and CEO of Encom Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) disappeared, leaving his young son Sam with his grandparents and no indication as to why he left. Since the death of his wife four years before, Flynn’s behavior had become increasingly erratic and he had become obsessed about a brave new world, a digital frontier that he had experienced in Tron. Sam (Garrett Hedlund) grows up to become a rebellious chip off the old block as he breaks into Encom just so he can publicly embarrass the company’s current CEO. Since Flynn’s absence, Encom has returned to its old, soulless ways much to the chagrin of his long-time friend and current board member Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner). He informs Sam that he got a page from his father at the office in his old arcade.

Long shuttered and collecting dust, it is a cemetery for classic arcade games. Sam uncovers his father’s personal computer and before he knows it, he’s zapped into the computer world. Flynn’s prized program Clu (also Bridges) has taken over and rules the computer world with a fascist, iron fist. Flynn has become a fugitive and it’s up to Sam, with the help of a program named Quorra (Olivia Wilde), to make things right again.

Rather fittingly, the real world footage is shot in 2D but once we enter cyberspace, the film comes vividly to life with cutting edge 3D technology. Much of the iconography from the first film is present – the disc battle, light cycles, etc. – but amped up with The Matrix-like action sequences and three-dimensionalized. If there was ever a film would that begged to be given the 3D treatment it is this one. However, these effects aren’t that apparent or as frequent as one would hope which begs the question why even do it in the first place? Short answer: money. The filmmakers have basically taken the imagery of Tron and cranked it up to 11 – pure, unadulterated eye candy with things like dialogue and characterization taking a backseat. The attention paid to production and art design is phenomenal with all kinds of neon-drenched landscapes full of ambient sounds that will keep architecture buffs busy for years. That being said, the CG to recreate a younger version of Jeff Bridges, circa 1982, is distracting with its waxy, stiff look and dead, lifeless eyes, which, I guess, is appropriate for what is basically an evil clone of the real deal within the film.

Say what you will about the original Tron and its flaws but at least it was anchored by a playful and charismatic performance by Jeff Bridges who acted as the audience surrogate into a strange, new world. This time around, Garrett Hedlund takes on that role with limited success. The uninspired screenplay doesn’t do him any favors and so he does the best with what he was to work with, which admittedly isn’t all that much. Bridges plays a grizzled, burnt out version of his original character and with his beard and long hair it almost seems like the Dude from The Big Lebowski (1998) was zapped into the computer world. As if sensing this, Bridges even lets out a few Dudeisms at certain key moments in the film, which at least livens up the forgettable script.

Noted British actor Michael Sheen even shows up channeling David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona as Castor, a preening, flamboyant host of a nightclub where Daft Punk have a cameo as DJs. Using these musicians to do the score for Tron: Legacy was a masterstroke and they seem like the logical evolutionary step from Wendy Carlos. However, those fans expecting them to recreate their trademark dance music might be disappointed as they opt for a more orchestral score that at times is reminiscent of early 1980s John Carpenter, in particular Escape from New York (1981), while also referencing Vangelis, Maurice Jarre and Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight (2008). Their finest moment comes during a battle at Castor’s club where Daft Punk gets to really show off their musical chops as they segue from ambient music to pulsating dance music to bombastic beats that accompany with the action. Along with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for The Social Network (2010), theirs was one of the best soundtracks of that year.

maxresdefaultTron: Legacy replaces the “information just wants to be free” message of its predecessor with a “sins of the father” theme as Flynn attempts to stop Clu, his Frankensteinian creation, and repair the damage done between him and Sam. Tron: Legacy manages to make this world and its characters accessible to those not familiar with the first film by basically rehashing its plot, blow-by-blow, which may disappoint fans. However, it does feel like a continuation of the first film with all kinds of references to things that happened in it. There is also a rather nifty cameo by a notable character actor that hints at a possible villain for the next film, if this one makes enough money. Of course, there is the usual criticism that the dialogue is weak, the story is formulaic and there is a real lack of characterization – all issues critics had with the original film. Tron: Legacy certainly lacks in these areas also, but like the first film, the visuals are so impressive, so captivating in the way they immerse you in the computer world, that you tend to ignore the flaws, relax and enjoy the ride.

Richard Donner’s Timeline: A Review by Nate Hill

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I really enjoyed Richard Donner’s Timeline, despite some bad reviews and an awful reputation. It’s based on a book by the great Michael Crichton, and centers around what is one of the most fascinating and enjoyable premises out there: time travel. There’s nothing like a time travel flick, in any way, shape or form. I’m a sucker for them. This one starts off with an archeological dig somewhere in England, leading to the abrupt discovery of forces that allow a wormhole in time to be used, sending people back to the middle ages. Paul Walker discovers that his researcher father (Billy Connolly) has made the leap back in time, and may be in trouble. Along with his sort of girlfriend (Frances O Connor) and his father’s friend (Gerard Butler) they venture back to find him, and of course everything goes wrong. They land smack in the middle of a skirmish between a poncy English lord (Michael Sheen) and the leader of the French faction (Lambert Wilson), with no identities, nothing to defend themselves with and not a clue what to do. Back home in our time (or, rather, 2003. Time flies, don’t it?), the head of the program responsible for harnessing the wormhole’s power (a slimy David Thewlis) is a greedy prick who can’t really be trusted with the technology, prompting the suspicion of his assistant (Matt Craven). Walker, Butler and company are now faced with a full on castle siege that’s quite the dandy set piece, forced to take up arms and fight for their lives as well as a way home. Walker is amusingly out of place in a medieval setting but it works considering the plot. Butler is terrific, bringing his old world style to a character arc that is lovely to see play out. Connolly, although not in the film that much, lights up the screen with his genial kindness and likability that he brings to every film. Neal McDonough, Anna Friel and Marton Csokas also costar. It’s simply an adventure piece that doesn’t think logistics too much, and in turn doesn’t require you to do so either. Underrated stuff.

THOMAS VINTERBERG’S FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

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Charlotte Bruus Christensen is the true star of Thomas Vinterberg’s exquisitely produced film version of the classic Thomas Hardy novel Far From the Madding Crowd. Christensen is a camera artist that I’ve previously not been aware of, but now my attention is on full alert. Her work here is the definition of painterly and sumptuous, with one shot after another that feels museum worthy, utilizing lush color, a terrific sense of composition, and more than a few instances of natural light that felt like the actors and crew were filming at some very extreme or odd hours in an effort to capture the organic beauty of the landscape. I’m always ready to get swept up by intoxicating cinematic imagery, so I have to say, this one immediately grabbed me from that perspective. The film itself is a solid soap opera, anchored by the radiant Carey Mulligan, playing an interesting if emotionally prickly character that makes a bunch of mistakes along the way to potential happiness. The trio of suitors who all come calling for her are played by Michael Sheen (perfectly square), Jim Sturgess (perfectly sleazy), and Matthias Schoenaerts (perfectly hunky). All three men get some quality moments, and the script changes perspective a few times which I found clever, but this is certainly Mulligan’s story, and she, rather expectedly, handles it all with class and charm. There are some WTF? moments of character motivation and there’s a haphazardly directed scene involving Juno Temple missing her wedding (I know these were the days before texting but c’mon!), but overall, this is an enjoyable, comforting piece of costume drama, splendid in all area of production value (the costumes and set decoration are divine), but really bolstered by the magnificent eye of a cinematographer who took full advantage of the pristine landscapes, over-cast British skies, and lots and lots of sheep. Did I mention there’s tons of sheep in this film? Be still my heart.

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