Looks Great, Less Filling

by George Wolf

 

Honestly, Oblivion is a film that is a challenge to critique.

Not that it doesn’t have weaknesses. The problem is, it’s assembled from parts of many other science-fiction movies, and naming those films would necessitate one big spoiler alert.

Spoiler alerts are for the weak, so let’s tread lightly and say that Tom Cruise stars as Jack (can we give this character name a rest please?) one of the last  “drone repairmen” on Earth. After decades of war with the invading Scavs, the planet was left devastated. Though victorious, most of humanity has relocated to a moon of Saturn, while Jack and his sparse mop up crew hang around to harvest resources and keep the drones working efficiently.

When a strange vessel crash lands, Jack defies orders and investigates, setting in motion a tumultuous chain of events.

While it may be true that sci-fi films have been borrowing from each other forever, Oblivion takes it up a notch. Not only are certain themes and plot devices instantly recognizable, but images and scenes considered at least famous (and at most, iconic) are shamelessly recreated.

Director/co-writer Joseph Kosinski, in just his second feature (after TRON:  Legacy ) expands the story he first pitched as an eight –page treatment for a  graphic novel.  It seems he was thinking visually from the start, and it shows.

Oblivion is gorgeous, showcasing a wondrous sci-fi world full of eye-popping cinematography (especially effective in the IMAX version).  From Jack’s outpost-in-the-clouds to his trips to the Earth’s surface in a pretty bitchin’ spacecraft, there is fertile ground for the type of poetic message Kosinski is after.

For a while, the substance keeps pace with the style, but it’s slowly bogged down by a script that ultimately can’t deliver the profundity it strives for. There is some humanity here, but not enough originality to keep the film from feeling overlong .

Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise, with the usual brand of charming intensity we’ve come to expect. Kosinski is still new to the game, but if his storytelling skills ever match his visual flair, he’ll be a player.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

Weirdly Pro-Viral

By Hope Madden

If you could catch Kim Kardashian’s cold, would you?

This is the intriguing concept behind writer/director Brandon Cronenberg’s seething commentary on celebrity obsession, Antiviral. Young Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) works for a clinic dealing in a very specific kind of treatment. They harvest viruses from willing celebrities, encrypt them (so they can’t spread – no money if you can’t control the spread), and sell the illnesses to obsessed fans who derive some kind of bodily communion with their adored by way of a shared herpes virus. Gross.

But the ambitious Syd pirates these viruses by injecting himself first, before the encryption. Eventually, his own nastiness-riddled blood is more valuable than he is, and he has to find a way out of quite a pickle. Maybe vitamin C?

As unfair as it may be to compare the work of a son to that of the father, Brandon Cronenberg seems to invite it. He obviously does not worry about suffering by comparison, treading as he does on ground so strongly associated with his father. Antiviral is not just a horror film, but a corporeal horror – a subgenre David Cronenberg basically owns.

Antiviral plays a bit like Videodrome – Cronenberg the Elder’s commentary on his era’s preoccupation with media. In both films, a salesman becomes as obsessed as his clients and watches his own body turn monstrous because of it. Junior inserts celebrity for technology, making his effort more timely, but he lacks the biting humor that elevated his father’s work.

Still, Brandon’s feature debut exposes an assured style uncommon for such an early effort. Visually chilly – all washed out whites with splashes of blood red – and emotionally distant, the world of Antiviral is as antiseptic as a hospital ward.

In lieu of character development, the film is filled with grotesquely fascinating ideas. Unfortunately, the tale is ultimately superficial because its focus is so one-sided. The celebrity-obsessed that populate the film are parasites, even cannibals, but the celebrity is inanimate. While I’m sure there’s a point being made there, the final image lacks any real punch because, while we’re made to revile the non-celebrity population and its vampiric adoration, we have no sense that they feed off anything human at all, so who cares?

Had the filmmaker explored the concept of celebrity – either to clarify their equal responsibility in cultivating this culture, or to hint at their corrupted humanity – the film would have felt fully formed rather than just very clever.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

For Your Queue: Who’s the smoothest, baddest mutha to ever hit the big screen?

Django Unchained releases this week. Woo hoo! Quentin Tarantino’s first Oscar winning screenplay since Pulp Fiction unleashes a giddy bloodbath that’s one part blaxploitation, two parts spaghetti Western, and all parts awesome. Astonishing performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Oscar winner Christoph Waltz might keep you from noticing the excellent turns from Sam Jackson, Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington. That’s why you’ll need to see it again. Lucky for you it’s available on DVD today!

For an homage with a more comical edge, we recommend 2009’s Black Dynamite, a hilarious send-up of the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Co-writer Michael Jai White is perfect as the titular hero who is out to avenge his brother’s death at the hands of..who else?…The Man. With character names such as Tasty Freeze and Cream Corn, and B.D. seducing the ladies with “you can hit the sheets or you can hit the streets, ” you can bet you’re last money this flick is superbad, honey.

 

Rare Baseball Reels at the Wex

By Hope Madden

The sun is shining, the air is warm – it must be spring. If that puts you in the mood to play ball, you sound just like Dave Filipi, Director if Film/Video at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Rare Baseball Films, the Wex’s tribute to Filipi’s favorite sport. For the second year running, the footage comes courtesy of the UCLA Film& Television Archive, pulled specifically from their cache of newsreels. The lifelong Minnesota Twins fan took a minute to talk baseball, geekdom, and how well angel dust mixes with bourbon.

 

Columbus Underground: Rare Baseball Films is in its tenth year. It must be very popular.

Dave Filipi: It’s been pretty popular since the first year, but it’s definitely become more so – seems like more people find us every year. It’s something that I’m personally very interested in, but if it wasn’t popular, we wouldn’t do it this regularly. I like doing it, though. As long as people like it, and as long as I can get footage, we can keep doing it.

 

CU: So, years back, the season approached and you just got an itch to watch a bunch of baseball movies?

DF: One year, it was getting close to when we’d do our schedule for March and April. I thought it would be fun to do something to mark the beginning of the baseball season. I thought I’d try to do something with the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Because it’s all archival stuff, they don’t let it off the premises. But the person there at the time said, “If you’re willing to show really nice digital transfers, we can send that instead.”

It’s worked out really well because they can send all this footage and we can look at it here and we can edit it here. It actually makes it go a lot smoother.

 

CU: How do you choose the pieces for the program?

DF: Most of the stuff we show is actually a lot of snippets – maybe the only two interesting minutes out of a 30 minute documentary. A classic example of that from a few years ago is a clip from a film called Baseball Versus Drugs. It’s from the early Seventies, it’s very dry, very clinical. It has doctors sitting behind desks and telling the dangers of drugs.

At almost the very end, there’s a minute or two of this major league baseball player at the time, Pete Richert, who’s visiting a Baltimore classroom with kids who were maybe 9 or 10 years old. He’s telling them not to do drugs, but giving them this inappropriately graphic information. “If you’re taking angel dust and you drink a quart of Jack Daniels…” He’s going into really explicit detail, and these kids are sitting in the class with their mouths open.

Most of that film you would never show to anybody, but that two minutes is what I’m looking for.

 

CU: What similar highlights we expect this year?

DF: Every year people ask if we’ve found any footage from the Negro Leagues. And it exists, I know it exists, but in working with the Hall of Fame and then with UCLA, no Negro League footage ever came up. But there was a clip this year. It’s really, really interesting.

And there are a couple of clips of Japanese baseball from the Thirties, which is obviously before World War II. One is an American newsreel of the Japanese leagues, and the commentator is pretty racist. He’s trying to be funny, but he’s making all these derogatory comments, any kind of negative verbal stereotype that you can think of. We’ve never had anything like that before.

 

CU: What are you most excited about?

DF: There’s a really interesting – this is for baseball geeks only – there’s a 30 second clip of Christy Mathewson warming up in 1908. Stuff like that is pretty rare.

 

CU: You worked with Cooperstown for years but moved to UCLA last year. What prompted the switch?

DF: Because of staff shortages, and just a shortage of resources overall, they (Baseball Hall of Fame) have not been able to provide me with new footage for the last couple of years. It almost got to the point where we would have to stop doing the program.

They’re really hurt. Their budget is very tight and they don’t have the resources. I think people assume – such a popular tourist destination – but they’re not part of Major League Baseball and Major League Baseball doesn’t send them a check for a million dollars every year. They’re a nonprofit like everyone else, and they’re hurting for funds.

UCLA has this incredibly nimble and exhaustive database of newsreels.  I can say, Hey, can you do a search of baseball and send me the list? And they sent me this huge list. It’s been great working with them – it’s kind of just like shopping, in a way.

 

CU: Did this all start because of your own passion for baseball?

DF: I have always really, really loved this game. I really can’t remember not being into baseball. I just was a total fanatic, from a very early age, and not just contemporary baseball. I like history in general, and so I really would get obsessed with Babe Ruth and Roberto Clemente.

Before the Internet, everyone would have a baseball encyclopedia and pick a name and look up how many strike outs they had, things like that. Unlike any other sport, it’s all there in the numbers. You can check out a game in 1910, you see it all there.

 

You can see it all, too. The program unspools this Friday and Saturday (April 12 and 13) at 7pm. Visit wexarts.org for tickets and details.

Originally published on Columbus Underground.

Weekend Countdown: Best Underseen Sports Flicks

Jackie Robinson’s history-making story hits big screens this weekend with the lovely if superficial 42. It’s a crowd pleaser sure to be seen by millions. But in case you’re in the mood for a great flick you and most everyone else missed, we present the five best underseen sports films.

5. The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters (2007): “I wanted the glory, I wanted the fame. I wanted the pretty girls to come up and say, ‘Hi, I see that you’re good at Centipede.’” With dreams this big at stake, you cannot look away.

4. Goon (2011): Rude, crude, bawdy and flat-out fun, this Canadian film about minor league hockey surprises on every level, delivering a hilarious and fascinating underdog tale.

3. Sugar (2008): Filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) offer an insightful tale about Dominicans chasing their dreams of playing Major League baseball and, in the process, deliver a quietly powerful take on immigration.

2. Undefeated (2011): No, not Sarah Palin’s unintentional comedy. This Oscar-winning doc treads familiar ground, but the intimacy and honesty that emerges from the story of an inner-city football squad make it irresistible.

1. Murderball (2005): Best sports doc ever. Paraplegic rugby teams competing in the Paralympic Games are not interested in your pity. “We’re not going for a hug. We’re going for a fucking gold medal. “

 

 

Too Safe at Home

by George Wolf

 

Just this week, Major League Baseball announced the formation of a task force charged with finding ways to reverse the decline of African Americans in the sport.

Even if it wasn’t timed to coincide with the release of 42, that announcement would bring Jackie Robinson to mind.

The story of Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier is heroic, inspiring, and uniquely American. So why did news of a movie version bring immediate fears of how that story could falter?

Well, precisely because of some of the aspects 42 incorporates into its brand of storytelling.

To be fair, writer/director Brian Helgeland’s film is solid in areas that will most likely move audiences to cheers and applause. Crowd-pleasing aside, though, Helgeland’s biography too often becomes hagiography, casting Robinson as a near-biblical figure in a way that ultimately does a disservice to his achievements.

Helgeland, though more experienced as a writer than director, displays a nice feel for the pacing of Robinson’s story and for the historical details of the era. Rather than crafting the film as a slow build to Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Helgeland takes the tale from Robinson’s days in the Negro Leagues through his first season in “white baseball” with a speed that is brisk but never hurried. Though clocking in at slightly over two hours, 42 never feels bloated.

For baseball geeks like me, the rosters are familiar, the stadiums look great and the on-field play is competent. On those fronts, which are indeed important in a film such as this, thumbs up all around.

But as good as much of it looks, there is little intimacy.  Chadwick Boseman is terrific as Jackie (looks like him, too) but isn’t given the room to explore anything beyond a one-dimensional saint.  Harrison Ford gives a solid, albeit sometimes scenery-chewing performance as Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, leading a supporting lineup that is stacked with talent. The Tenth Man Award must go to John C. McGinley. His dead-on turn as legendary announcer Red Barber provides a joyous reminder of baseball on the radio.

Reminders are fine, but if that’s all Helgeland was after, he needed to aim higher. We know Robinson is an American hero, but he was human.  We see some of the ugliness he faced (most likely a very small, watered-down sample), but we don’t feel his human struggle to the degree that we should.

This lack of depth is surprising, as Helgeland has penned complex, intelligent scripts before, such as Mystic River and L.A. Confidential. With 42, he is tentative, too afraid to stray from the Hollywood formula for fear of swinging and missing.

Ironic, and disappointing.

      Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

Dictatorship Just Doesn’t Sell

By Hope Madden

“We have to find a product that is attractive to the people.”

That may not sound like democracy to you, but in Chile in 1988, advertising became the new democracy.

At least, that is, according to co-writer/director Pablo Larrain’s Oscar nominee, the slyly comical No.

When longtime Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet caved to international pressure, allowing a national referendum to determine whether he would rule for another 8 years, the wildly fractured “No” campaign decided to employ marketing tactics to strengthen their chances.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene, the young upstart ad exec – rat tail, acid washed jeans and all – who seems to embody Pinochet’s myopic view of Chilean prosperity. His advertising gig keeps all the lures of capitalism at his fingertips. He even has a microwave – the country must be doing OK, right?

But looking beyond his new car and soap opera photo shoot, he can see the oppression masquerading as abundance. So he relies on what he understands – consumerism – to craft an opposition campaign that’s more commercial than anything the world had seen.

Bernal gives his character a fascinating set of traits. He’s shallow enough to recommend boiling down decades of oppression, vanishings and abuse to a jingle and a Pepsi-style ad, but his lost expression and tenderness with his son (Pascal Montero) show a man struggling to do right by his country.

Larrain‘s aesthetic is all ’88 – it feels like you’re watching an overused VHS, but that low-rent quality gives his film more than a throwback feel. It articulates the sense of a population kidding itself about its quality of living.

Not all is as light as it seems in Rene’s world, and the same can be said for Larrain’s film. He builds a real sense of foreboding, of impending danger. When Pinochet’s campaign accepts the popularity of the No approach, they abandon their underestimation and hire Rene’s boss to rebrand them. It’s a pissing contest between two colleagues on one level, but beneath that there’s something sinister, something that illustrates the way a regime’s ugliness spreads by way of quiet acquiescence.

Plus, there are mimes!

No meanders, loses focus, and perhaps undersells Chile’s tragic backstory as openly as the No campaign’s ad exec did, but the film gets points for its clever, layered examination of a precedent setting approach to the toppling of a regime.

All because Chile rocked the vote.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veHCHhRx3Vk

Help Me, I’ve Been Hyp-no-tized!

By George Wolf

 

The head-trippy space so eloquently invaded by Christopher Nolan in films such as Memento and Inception seems to have caught the fancy of Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire).  In Trance, Boyle gleefully plays with perception and reality as he unveils a mostly effective noir tale of the hunt for a stolen art masterpiece.

James McAvoy stars as Simon, an employee of an exclusive London auction house who opens the film by explaining his game plan for safeguarding art masterpieces during any heist attempts.  While Simon is narrating, we see a heist being organized, leading up to the moment when ringleader Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his thugs steal a prized work.

Simon owes Franck an old debt, but attempts to pay it off with the location of a lost painting are stalled by Simon’s claim of amnesia.  And so, the group understandably turns to…hypnosis.

Stay with me, because this is when things get freaky. Once Simon begins visiting hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), all lines begin to blur.

What is real, and what is a hypnotic suggestion? Who is plotting with whom, and is all that nudity and sex merely subconscious desire?

Boyle, in films such as Slumdog, 127 Hours, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Shallow Grave, has shown that his choices regarding pacing and visual style are often masterful.  With Trance, Boyle seems energized by his new genre playground – so much so that the questionable leaps taken by the script are swept aside with little regard.

The core story was first hatched by current “Dr. Who” writer Joe Ahearne in a TV movie from 2001. Frequent Boyle collaborator John Hodge has expanded the screenplay to keep your head swimming with possibilities, as heroes turn into villains, past becomes present, and then back again.

The solid cast is anchored by Dawson, who reaches beyond anything we’ve seen from her so far with a layered, emotional performance in a role that makes frequent demands. She answers them all, and becomes the film’s center of gravity when too many elements threaten to spin out of control.

Trance is engaging and entertaining, but I’m guessing Boyle was after a bit more. Instead of leaving with a feeling of wonder as you spend days trying to get your head around it, you’re more likely to view Trance as clever, forgettable fun.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

Beyond the Pines Live Handsome Fathers and Sons

By Hope Madden

Sure, The Place Beyond the Pines is a bank robber movie starring three weirdly attractive A-listers (Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper). But this layered, complex film about men and the sins they pass on hopes to be a lot more than that.

What co-writer/director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) has crafted is a generational drama about fathers, sons and consequences.

The Place Beyond the Pines tells its story in three parts. Each part introduces us to a new, young male lead as he makes a life-altering decision. Their individual tales are aided immeasurably by great supporting turns from Mendes and Ben Mendelsohn (making a name for himself playing the guy our hero would be better off not knowing), but Cianfrance’s interest is in the young men – their choices, how they were affected by their fathers, and how they will affect their sons.

Act 1 follows Gosling’s stunt motorcyclist Luke as he tries to claim the family he didn’t know he had. We move to Cooper’s rookie cop in the second act, who walks the compromised line between justice and ambition. Act 3 brings us full circle.

Cianfrance’s lens casts a bittersweet small town spell, and his actors – an exceptional Gosling in particular – develop fully formed, flawed, compelling characters. The filmmaker’s smart script and patient camera give the talent the time and content they need to mine the depths of each character. Unfortunately, this borderline Greek tragedy just loses steam.

Whether Parts 2 and 3 feel like middling efforts because Gosling’s smolder is missing or because Cianfrance’s interest lies elsewhere is hard to tell. Taken on their own, the second and third acts amount to a solid family drama; compared with the livewire of Act 1, though, they let you down just a bit.

It feels like Cianfrance just bit off more than he could chew, but it’s hard to knock him for ambition. Pines veers as wildly as Handsome Luke’s motorcycle, and it doesn’t always find its way back. Cianfrance tries too hard, covers too much, but he does it with such passion and such cinematic skill that he can be forgiven.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 

 

Kubrick Obsessed Invite You to Come Play with Them

by Hope Madden

As evidenced by the phenomenal attention to detail shown in The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror V, Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent film The Shining inspires close examination. Director Rodney Ascher assembled some of the most inspired – obsessed, even – for his documentary on the Kubrick ghost story, Room 237.

If you’re going to make a movie about Kubrick, it better look good, and this one does. Ascher never puts the commentators on screen, preferring instead to replay fascinating scenes from The Shining, or pad with genius cut-ins from other films – some Kubrick, some not. His endlessly fascinating clip choices keep his doc engaging, while appealing to the movie nerd in us all.

Off screen, we hear the thoughts of ABC News’s Bill Blakemore, Albion College historian Geoffrey Cocks, playwright/artist/author Juli Kearns, recording artist John Fell Ryan, and “authority on the hermetic and alchemical traditions” Jay Weidner. Each has his or her own theory to spin. For instance, 2+3+7=moon. And while these theories are all a bit wild, most carry just enough evidence to keep you intrigued.

It would be too simplistic to take Room 237 as a deconstruction of The Shining, and those hoping to uncover Kubrick’s deeper meaning may be disappointed.

But what the film does, it does well. It explores one of cinema’s most exquisite films, using it to encourage the spectator’s active participation in viewing. In doing so, it positions film as an art equal to literature or painting in terms of thematic dissection.

It also opens our eyes to the abject nuttiness of Kubrickian “scholars” – and a documentary always gets extra points if it introduces an audience to an entirely new concept, like that of the Kubrickian scholar.

More than anything, though, Room 237 is a documentation of obsession, and a fascinating one at that. It bares more insight into the act of obsessing than it does on Kubrick’s work itself, but it helps that these people spend all their time analyzing such a great movie. If they were this excited about tessellations or ringworm, well, the movie would have lacked that certain panache.

To be fair, Kubrick invites obsession. It’s hard to watch any of his films, The Shining in particular, without feeling submerged in images and symbolism just out of your reach. It’s the kind of richly textured experience ideal for a ghost story.

Or a film that confesses the creation of another film in which the moon landing was faked.

Unless it’s a film about the slaughter of the American Indians. And Jews.

Or a minotaur.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

Hope Madden and George Wolf … get it?