Purple Rain (Classic Film)

Directed by Albert Magnoli, US, 1984

Yesterday, I attended an outdoor showing of Purple Rain (1984)  in downtown Minneapolis with about ten thousand other people.  Towards of end of the title track, during one of Prince’s guitar solos, I heard the familiar “woah-oh-oh-oh” refrain, but it was out of sync with the movie.  I quickly realized that it was coming from the crowd, which made it all the more powerful when the refrain from the soundtrack joined in.

In his introduction to “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929), the great Dziga Vertov asks us to imagine film as an art-form with a language entirely separate from the languages of theater and literature.  This is a critical concept to understanding why Purple Rain is so popular.  When judged against the standards set forth in theatrical or literary criticism – yikes.  However, when the conventions of page and stage are disregarded, what remains is a masterpiece of post-modern art.

The rather thin, melodramatic plot only exists to call the audience’s attention to concepts that are embodied within Prince’s music.  When he wrote the songs on the classic album that shares the movie’s title, he was certainly thinking about domestic violence, sexism, and despair.  But he was also thinking about the feeling of the wind flowing through your hair during a motorcycle ride and the pure catharsis of hearing a great musical performance.  Purple Rain shows us these ideas through images, but the images exist only to emphasize how the ideas are embodied in the music.

Film is a story told through images and, with due respect to Vertov, usually contains many of the same elements that exist in theatrical and literary storytelling.  Even the very best movie music tends to play a secondary, supporting role in that, storytelling.  Purple Rain flips that paradigm – the music is central and everything else exists to support the music.  The result is a powerful work of art, which, last night, moved a grieving crowd to joy and tears and back again.

You might like Purple Rain if: You love music, and would like to see a film where music is the primary narrative force rather than playing the usual supporting role.

You might not like Purple Rain if: You view it through the lens of a traditional understanding of what makes a good narrative film.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

Eye in the Sky (Review)

Directed by Gavin Hood, UK, 2016

Eye in the Sky is opening to a wide release this weekend, but I was fortunate enough to see a preview a couple of weekends ago.  The conflict in Eye in the Sky can be summarized as, “What the F do we do now?”

The British Army, with assists from the United States and Kenya, has a drone targeting a wanted terrorist.  Except it’s three wanted terrorists.  Oh and two other guys are trying on suicide bomb vests.  Fire and forget, right?  Wrong.  The problem is that there’s a little girl  selling bread outside the compound.

What follows is an intense, well-acted film about the consequences of waging a certain kind of war in the modern era.  The drone pilots are safe in Las Vegas (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox), and the officers calling the shots are safe in England (in separate locations, Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren).  The guy who’s in the most danger is a Somali-Kenyan operative (Barkhad Abdi).  Well the guy on the team anyway, the little girl is the most danger obviously.

The question the movie asks is a tough one to answer.  Do you let one innocent person die in order to potentially save dozens?  During previous eras of warfare, the answer seemed obvious.  When you’re flying a B-17 miles above the war, this isn’t something you think about.  In this instance, however, everyone involved can see the face of the girl in the crossfire.

Paul, Fox, Abdi, and Mirren are all great, as is the rest of the cast.  Of special note, this film is Alan Rickman’s last, as he passed away a couple of months back.  It’s good to see him go out on top.

You might like Eye in the Sky if: You are in the mood for an intense, morally ambiguous thriller.

You might not like Eye in the Sky if: You’re in the mood for something a bit lighter.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

 

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Review)

Directed by Zack Snyder, US, 2016

Part of me can’t believe I’m writing this, but I didn’t hate this movie.  Given the number of characters introduced, the hot mess that was Man of Steel (2013), and the amount of negative press the film has gotten thus far, I expected it to be horrible.  Legendarily horrible.  Sean Connery in Zardoz (1974) horrible.  Instead it wasn’t awful.

Ben Affleck makes a fine Batman, and Gal Gadot makes a fine Wonder Woman.  Gadot is underused, but she makes the most of her limited screen-time.  Affleck nails the “older Batman” role with a fine balance of weariness and general Batman-ness.  Even the final battle sequence avoids the indulgences of Snyder’s previous action movies.

That being said, it’s not a great movie.  Henry Cavill is still soulless and dull as Superman.  Jesse Eisenberg is a bit off-putting as “all of a sudden Lex Luthor is Marc Zuckerberg.”  I liked the “Lex Luthor is more of a Nelson Rockefeller type” that the comic books had in the 1990’s.

Overall, the Superman characters are fine.  Not perfect but fine.  This is, after all, mostly a Batman movie.  The real issue with the film, why it’s merely okay but not great, is that there are long stretches of boredom.  Case in point, I actually left the theater for about ten minutes during the first act and missed absolutely nothing.  It was almost like Snyder was overcorrecting for the non-stop “boomfest” that was Man of Steel.

Overall, Batman v Superman isn’t a bad comic book movie.  It’s better than probably a third of the comic book movies out there.  If you just need a decent diversion this weekend and an excuse to go to the movies, you can do much worse.

You might like Batman v Superman if: You just feel like seeing a comic book movie and you’re fine if it’s mediocre.

You might not like Batman v Superman if: You are expecting it to be great in any way, shape, or form.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

Oscar Preview Week – Best Picture Reviews

It’s that time of year again – Oscar Preview Week!  I realize it’s already Thursday, but to make up for it I’m putting three posts in one today.

I’ve already reviewed five of the Best Picture Nominees, but I’ve seen all eight.  Here are the links to my previous reviews:

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Spotlight

All set?  Good.  Here are the other three in alphabetical order:

The Big Short

Directed by Adam McKay, US, 2015

Up in the Air (2009) may be a more visceral “this is how it feels right now” reaction to the 2008 Global Financial Meltdown, but The Big Short is far more cerebral.  It is less of a narrative film and more of a docudrama.  It is complete with humorous asides to help the audience grasp some of the meatier financial concepts required to understand what is in essence a disaster movie.

The crisis is established as an unstoppable force, foreseen by only a handful of investors.  Its worst excesses are made clear to the viewer, from the smug mortgage bros (one of which is New Girl’s Max Greenfield at his most bro-ish), to regulators asleep at the switch, to greedy bankers laughing behind a wall of money and lies.  And like the forces of nature in films like the Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Earthquake (1974), the perpetrators of the disaster are left unpunished.

Who does Director Adam McKay get to help him tell this story?  A parade of Hollywood’s finest actors giving fantastic performances.  Brad Pitt, Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Melissa Leo, and Marisa Tomei lead a fine cast.  McKay remains the real creative star here, however, using the same tools that he used to make comedy classics like Anchorman (2004) to tell one of the most important stories of our time.

You might like The Big Short if: You have an interest in what the hell happened in 2008.

You might not like The Big Short if: You are one of the perpetrators of what the hell happened in 2008.

The Martian

Directed by Ridley Scott, US, 2015

Two of this year’s Best Picture nominees are man versus nature tales.  With all due respect to getting partially eaten by a bear, The Martian is the more impressive victory over the elements.  Say what you want about a frozen forest in North America, the Earth is teeming with life, water, and air.  Mars is hostile to all three.

Mars is named after the Roman god of war.  The ancients named her that due to her red hue, but for astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon at his most Matt Damon-y), it is a fitting name for more personal reasons.  Left for dead by his crew members, every day is a fight for survival against a world that has no use for organisms of any kind, much less human beings.

Fortunately for Watney, he is blessed with some resources, the gift of a brilliant mind, and a great sense of humor.  While he could despair, he instead takes the opposite attitude and finds the whole situation a bit of a joke.  Those who are trying to rescue him, from mission control to his shipmates (led by Jessica Chastain’s Captain Lewis), are less amused, but no less competent.

Overall, The Martian is probably the most uplifting of the eight movies nominated for Best Picture (Brooklyn is a close second).  It’s a triumph of scientific competence and good humor.

You might like The Martian if: You want to see a movie that will restore your faith in science and humanity.

You might not like The Martian if: You saw Gravity (2013) and you never want to see another “marooned in space” movie ever again.

Room

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, Canada/Ireland, 2015

Room presents to us a situation of monstrous horror, humanity at its very worst.  A young girl is kidnapped, raped, and locked in a shed for seven years.  Her tormentor leaves her with a child to care for, and neither is allowed to leave the shed.  The horror and evil isn’t the focal point of our story, however, instead it is the perspective of the little boy, Jack (Jacob Tremblay).

Jack isn’t traumatized by “Room.”  He was born there, and that’s all he’s ever known.  His mother, Joy (Brie Larson) creates a fiction for him that allows him to process his situation in a manner that keeps him not only sane, but happy.  His mother is tormented night and day, but she makes sure that her son is not.

The trailers and promotional materials make it clear that they get away from their tormentor, so I’m not spoiling anything by saying that, I hope.  Indeed, they are only in “Room” for the first twenty minutes or so of the movie.  Once they escape, we continue the story through Jack’s perspective.  We see a well-adjusted, happy child, but we also see that seven years of captivity and torture have driven his mother into insanity.

Brie Larson deserves the awards she’s been getting for her role here.  The perspective of the film is from her happy and creative child, and she does her best to keep him well-adjusted by hiding her growing anxiety, anger, and depression.  We only see glimpses of it through most of the film, so Larson has to be subtle.  It’s a difficult task, but one that’s well executed.

If Room were told from Joy’s perspective, it would be a horror movie.  From Jack’s perspective it’s a coming of age film, albeit a traumatic and difficult one for the audience to process.  As strong as Larson and Tremblay’s performances are, this is the most interesting aspect of the film.

You might like Room if: You are interested in how shifting perspectives can change the nature of a story.

You might not like Room if: You are expecting a more conventional horror movie.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

 

 

Spotlight (Review)

Directed by Tom McCarthy, US, 2015

There are two types of great movies.  There are movies that push the envelope of the artform by introducing new techniques, effects, or story elements.  Then there are films that take existing elements and employ them with precision to tell an important story exceedingly well.  Spotlight belongs in the latter category.

In early 2002, the Boston Globe began publishing a series of stories that demonstrated how the Catholic Church covered up a shocking number of incidents of child molestation among its clergy. Spotlight is the story behind the story.   It is the story of how a group of reporters uncovered a horrifying conspiracy taking place within the confines of a respected institution of American life.

Comparisons to All the President’s Men (1976) are hard to avoid, and there is one key similarity that I’d like to point out.  We know the end of both stories, but that doesn’t eliminate the suspense.  There is danger around every corner, and it feels like someone is lurking to silence our heroes in every shadow.  After all, if the Catholic Church is so powerful that it can hide monsters within its own midst for decades, what chance do a bunch of newspaper reporters have against it?

There are two other keys to Spotlight’s success as a film.  The first is that no shots are wasted.  Even establishment shots tell part of the story (churches everywhere towering over poor neighborhoods).  Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is understated when it needs to be as well, letting the performances of the actors of the quality of the script tell the story without any contrived emotion.  The story is emotionally charged enough without needing to make it more so after all.

That brings me to my second point, I can’t say enough good things about the acting in this film.  Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, and Brian d’Arcy James are fantastic.   There is one monologue in particular from Ruffalo that I can’t do justice to by describing it in text.

Are there any negatives about Spotlight?  It is pretty conventional in its techniques, but it uses them so effectively that it doesn’t matter.  If it wins Best Picture next month I won’t be disappointed.

You might like Spotlight if: You appreciate movies that tell important stories exceedingly well.

You might not like Spotlight if: You’re looking for a movie with more technical achievements.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

Mad Max: Fury Road (Review)

Directed by George Miller, US, 2015

The first of our Oscar nominee catch up reviews is clothed in glory on the fury road – shiny and chrome.  Okay okay, it’s good, but is it THAT good?  I mean, it is a Mad Max movie after all.  We know the story, crazy chases through the Australian Outback for no apparent reason.

This time, however, instead of Tina Turner presiding over Thunder Dome, we have Furiosa (Charlize Theron).  Furiosa, you see, has fled Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), despot of a rare oasis.  This by itself wouldn’t be an issue, except that she’s freed his slave-wives and taken them with her.  This angers Immortan Joe.

What happens next is an endless chase, with the forces of Immortan Joe hunting Furiosa and her friends.  One of those friends is, you guessed it, Mad Max (Tom Hardy) whom she meets fairly early on in the chase sequence.  After briefly trying to kill each other, they team up and try to reach their destination before the insane people behind them catch up to our heroes and murder them.

That’s your basic plot summary, and it certainly makes for an entertaining film.  A good amount of ink has been spilled describing Fury Road as feminist, and in many ways it is, since Furiosa and her A-Team of freed women are actually better at this run-kill-run thing than Max is.  Max helps out for sure, but he’s kind of a third wheel most of the time, and to be honest, a bit unnecessary.

Is Fury Road a great action movie?  Certainly, but it’s not the greatest of all-time (it’s been called that in a few places).  It has an outside shot of getting Best Picture though, since the audiences for some of the other favorites might cancel each other out.  I suppose we’ll see next month.

You might like Mad Max: Fury Road if: You enjoy well designed mayhem.

You might not like Mad Max if: You’ve ever been lost in the desert, since it might give you nightmares.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

The Revenant (Review)

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, US, 2015

The first of our Oscar nominee reviews this month is the early favorite, Iñárritu’s “The Revenant.”  And yes, Leonardo DiCaprio deserves an Oscar for his performance based on degree of difficulty alone.  But let’s get away from this year’s troubling award season to consider the Revenant as a film.

The Revenant is no masterpiece, but it comes awfully close.  Thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, we are treated to breathtaking visuals of the American West.  DiCaprio delivers a compelling, physically demanding performance.  I can’t recall a single role he’s had which has called for such a physical and emotional transformation.

DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, based upon the legendary mountain man of the same name, has a rough time.  By rough time, I mean he’s ripped apart by a bear, buried alive, stabbed, strangled, starved, frozen, and wet.  His goal is simple – survive so that he can have his revenge against the man who betrayed him and murdered his son, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).

The Revenant is gripping, entertaining, intense, and gruesome.  At the same time, it can’t quite figure out what it’s about.  Is it about the callousness of vengeance?  Survival in the wilderness?  The injustices enacted upon Native Americans?  It touches upon all of these themes, but doesn’t stay long enough with any of them to get beneath the surface.

The Revenant is top notch entertainment, propelled by excellent acting, cinematography, and direction.  However, it is also a thematic jack of all trades/master of none.  Also, there’s a bear attack, in case you haven’t heard.

You might like the Revenant if: You enjoy thrillers and you want to see what all the fuss is about.

You might not like the Revenant if: You expect your Oscar favorites to have thematic focus, or you don’t particularly want to see a man ripped apart by a bear.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe