“Rescue Dawn” is a real-life survivalist tale told with Herzog’s usual aloof detachment. Aside from a surprisingly gentle classical score tinkling in the background, nothing in its filming belies the life-and-death struggle taking place on screen. Yet for all the odd little Herzogian touches (the camera lingering on an odd object, strange conversation which don’t seem to tie directly into the narrative) contained in the film, this is one of the most uplifting and most overtly humanist films that Herzog has ever directed. Filled with hope and a belief in the power of the human spirit, Herzog even tacks on a celebratory and shockingly (for him) conventional happy ending.
Protagonist Dieter Dengler was an actual German American pilot in the U.S. Navy who flew secret bombing missions in Laos and Vietnam in the years preceding the Vietnam War. Played by Christian Bale with a sort of dopey jingoism that masks a gritty intelligence, Dieter’s plane is shot down in the midst of a strafing run. Full of stubborn American pride, he refuses to eject, electing instead to go down with his plane. Despite utilizing some skills he acquired from a handy training video witnessed earlier in the film, Dieter only manages to evade capture for a short while, ending up a prisoner of the Pathet Lao.
After some torture and a half-hearted attempt to get a signed confession from him, Dieter is thrown into a shoddy prison that has been hastily constructed in the middle of the jungle. It is there he meets his fellow prisoners, some of whom have been held captives for years. Gene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies) and Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) have been at their camp long enough that their meager diet has transformed their bodies into gaunt skeletons and hair has sprouted like weeds on their faces, giving them huge unruly beards. The unfortunate victims of the United State’s covert operations, these POWs cannot be acknowledged because officially, no such POWs exist.
Dieter, either because he sees what will become of him should he remain in the camp or he is simply so filled with love of America that he is blinded to the risks involved, immediately begins to formulate a plan for escape. Some of the other prisoners are dubious, particularly Gene. However, when they overhear talk amongst their guards about a plan to kill them due to a food shortage, everyone agrees to participate. The plan is well-constructed, but things go awry due to half-madness and near starvation. Dieter and Duane make it out, but without shoes and without any of the other prisoners.
Christian Bale gives his typically solid performance as Dieter, but the surprise here is Steve Zahn. Wandering amidst a jungle that doesn’t so much try to kill them as drain them of their will to live, Zahn evokes a quiet vulnerability and fearful courage underneath that impressive beard. Duane is totally reliant on Dieter, both physically and emotionally. When they find a shoe near a river, a real treasure when you have none, it is Duane that wears it.
The film is ever aware of the divide between the air and the ground. The characters constantly look up to the skies in the hopes of being rescued, with a steady parade of helicopters and planes fly overhead. The aircrafts seem blissfully unaware of the horrors below. While the oppressive forces of nature attempt to beat them down, hope lingers and persists.
Perhaps the most daring rescue in “Rescue Dawn,” isn’t even the first. Given that this is a true story that Dieter lived to tell about, it should not be much of a spoiler that Dieter survives. However, as soon as he is placed in a military hospital, the CIA wants to take him to Guam, for “questioning.” Dieter’s friends, using a nifty trick involving a birthday cake, manage to smuggle him from under their noses. If they hadn’t, would we have ever heard of Dieter Dengler? Truly it does not matter, as Herzog gives us something he rarely does: an optimistic tale about the durability of the human will to live and believing in oneself despite terrible odds.
Iron Man 3 is a chaotic, uneven mess. It desperately wants to dip its toes into the dour world of existential superheroism that Batman occupies, but for all its dramatic bombasticity, the film doesn’t have the guts to stick its head underwater. Instead it retreats into the safe confines of the traditional summer blockbuster, where it must be said at least some laughs and amusement are to be found en route to a rather listless ending smattered with CGI-generated explosions.
In need of a character flaw, “Iron Man 3″ gives us a Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) suffering from PTSD. Prone to anxiety attack since flying through an alien wormhole in “The Avengers,” Stark has taken to withdrawing from society, preferring to tinker with new models and modifications for his massive collection of Iron Man suits. He still has that shaky relationship with the perpetually patient and perturbed Pepper Potts (Gweneth Paltrow). Stark is still friends with Colonel James Rhodes, played ever more lifelessly by Don Cheadle.
By way of villainy, “Iron Man 3″ has two. The first is Osama Bin Laden knockoff, The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Starring in home movies in which he spouts off his ominous anti-Western diatribes, The Mandarin takes credit for a series of bombings that are gripping the U.S. in fear. The other is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pierce). Shunned by Stark over a decade ago, Killian is a scientist that has invented a technique called Extremis which enables limbs to be regrown, while also turning its users into superhuman fighters capable of healing any wound instantly and lighting fires. Whether and to what degree these two villains are working together, I leave up to you to discover.
The film’s most engaging moments come from Robert Downey Jr. bantering with a child. Far from home and without his fancy toys, Tony Stark is forced to make an uneasy alliance with a snarky ten-year-old named Harley (Ty Simpkins). Downey does not hold anything back on account of Harley’s age, but Harley gives as good as he gets. This is all part of a lengthy series of sequences in which Tony, without access to his suits, is forced to rely on his wits and witticisms to move the plot along. While the film doesn’t quite know what do with his character, Stark is charismatic and compelling without the armor. With it on, both he and the film are mostly on autopilot.
Save a rather gripping sky rescue scene, the film’s action is lacking for thrills. Aside from the rather dull dilemma caused by Stark’s inability and need to frequently jump into and out of various suits, the film struggles to find ways to make any of the big setpieces engaging, or even aesthetically interesting. The story does not help, despite a dramatic twist which is revealed in the midst of the second act. Generating a minor payoff that never lives up to the potential of the set up, the film regresses from there into the formulaic predictability of a lessor film that never quite fits together. In trying to marry the serious superhero with the silly, “Iron Man 3″ does itself no favors. Not that such a marriage is doomed to fail, but this is not the film to get it right.
The central question I asked myself after watching “The Help” was whether it was an expression of the plight of Black maids in the early 60s, or merely exploitation for the sake of a middle brow drama. While the truth likely lies somewhere between those two extremes, the film is shockingly cavalier in the manner it uses the lives of these fictional black women for cheap laughs, shallow drama, and a vague sense of moral superiority. The film does not document the lives of actual black maids, nor does it suggest anything interesting or new about racism. “The Help” purges America’s racist past by mocking white housewives living in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, while raising up a couple of fictional black maids (and a white lady) as heroes.
By way of narrative, the film emphasizes six women: two black, four white. The two black women are maids, having spent their entire adult lives raising white people’s children. Protagonist Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) is stoic and stout-faced, taking pride in her work yet carrying a secret sadness. Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) is more sassy and full of spunk, doing the heavy lifting in the comedy department. Both characters are cut from the cloth of every cinematic stereotype you have seen about black servants: Transcendent in their abilities, sublime in their suffering, brave in the way they thrive in a life filled with injustice.
The white women might are even more one dimensional. “Skeeter” (Emma Stone) is the progressive one, who secretly collects stories from Aibileen, Minny, and other black maids for a book she will helm called “The Help.” Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the tyrannical mother hen of a peck of housewives in Jackson, Mississippi, obsessively concerned with passing a bill requiring all homes to have a separate bathroom for blacks, and generally considering black people to be genetically inferior. Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly) desperately wants to be like Hilly, but only because she wants to seem cool for her friends. Coming from more humble backgrounds, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) is an outsider in the Jackson housewife circuit, but with Minny on her side, she gets her own measure of revenge.
Whatever criticisms I have of the film, it should be noted I place none of the blame on any of the actresses. They all do a fine job in the film. My issues are with the structure of the narrative itself. All of the events in this film are fabricated, especially its triumphs, so we are not dealing with cinematic myth-making, however embellished. In a way, it exposes racism in Jackson, Mississippi circa 1963, but that is like exposing murder during the Crusades. The film could be an attempt to merely document the lives of black women living during that time, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the actual lives of black women at the time were much harsher than this PG-13 fare. So what the hell is going on in this film?
We, the modern audience, pity Aibileen and Minny for the hardships they endure before admiring them for their bravery in sharing their stories at the risk of their own lives, and celebrating with their ultimate moral triumphs. We get to despise Hilly for her antiquated attitudes about race, and laugh when Minny plays a pretty righteous prank on her in the middle of the film. We get to acknowledge that racism was legal a mere 50 years ago, but get to feel pretty good about it. Yet as far as I know, nothing like the events in “The Help” ever took place, and with so many actual heroes of the Civil Rights movement, this seems irresponsible at best and shameless at worst. It was somewhat amusing watching Hilly get her comeuppance, but as far as racists go, it is hard to imagine a much easier target, save Strom Thurmond or something. While I don’t doubt that maids in the early 1960s had stories to tell, “The Help” doesn’t really tell their story. It is a fabrication written more than forty years after the fact, with fictional characters doing fictional things for the sake of a drama which desperately wants to be an authentic representation, but feels resoundingly false.
In relying on modern audiences distaste for the racism of our predecessors, “The Help” registers on much the same wavelength as “Django Unchained.” Yet while “Django Unchained” relies on our hatred of slavery to fuel its action revenge narrative, it is clearly a fantasy, divorced from historical authenticity. It is wishful thinking by writer/director Quentin Tarantino. “The Help” uses our modern views of race to fuel its lightweight housewife drama, but as it waters down a much more raw and ugly history of racism, (The N-word was not uttered once. No, I’m not suggesting the film use it to same degree as Tarantino did in his film, but what are the odds that not a single character would ever say it?) it desperately wants to exude an air of historical authenticity, as though it were exposing the secretly racist lives of white housewives in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Make no mistake, “The Help” is every bit the absurdest fantasy film of “Django Unchained” only without the direction of Tarantino, and playing out like a well-acted soap opera.
Even whilst watching it, “Vampyr” was a difficult film to follow. While it has a semi-narrative that probably makes linear sense if you stop and think about it, the dreamy march of surreal images makes the film’s logic go all fuzzy. Looking back on it, the film felt almost like a fever dream generated by drinking too much cough syrup and watching a vampire movie marathon.
In its first intertitle, “Vampyr” warns that its protagonist Allan Gray (Nicolas Gunzburg) is fixated with the occult and struggles distinguishing the world as it is from the fantastical nightmares he obsessively reads about. Hitting the ground running with this ambivalence between reality and perception, the film leads Gray into a hellacious world of dancing shadows, creepy hotel patrons, and demonic old ladies. Gray stumbles into the midst of a festering Vampyr problem in an unnamed village, staying at an ancient inn.
There is nothing savory about this inn, from its decaying wood to zombie-like staff wandering the halls late at night. In the middle of the night, an old man enters Gray’s room, whispering a cryptic message and handing him a small package marked “To be opened in the event of my death.” Later, seeing disembodied shadows prancing through a forest, Gray follows them to a large manor. Inside is the old man from the previous night, with a daughter named Leone (Sybille Schmitz), whose life appears to be slowly ebbing away from a mysterious bite on her neck.
The shadows, aside from merely evoking terror (which they do, particularly the shadow carrying the scythe), are capable of interacting with the material world. Gray witness them killing the old man. Opening the package he was given, which turns out to be a book, on Vampyrs no less. The book is filled with all kinds of useful information, the most crucial of which indicates that the Leone is slowly turning into a vampire and will soon seek out loved ones to infect. Also, no big deal, many of the locals are themselves thralls of the vampire that infected Leone, especially the bushy-eyebrowed town doctor (Jan Hieronimko), who frequently gives out bad medical advice in favor of making more vampires.
If that plot synopsis seems fairly straightforward to you, it really isn’t. The film exist almost entirely as asatmosphere. The tropes drift together in a jet-stream of eeriness. A deathly old looking woman lying in a coffin. Inscrutable exchanges between the local citizenry. A surreal dream sequence in which Gray sees himself lying dead in a coffin. A horrific sequence in which a man is buried alive by flour. There is indeed a stake going through a heart at some point, but all of it bleeds together, making it hard to determine who is doing what, and why.
Carl Theodor Dreyer is most well known for his silent masterpiece, “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” but he applies all of his cinematic skill into making one hell of a horror film. While it is probably not fair to compare this film to the enduring classic “Nosferatu,” such a comparison is inevitable. “Vampyr” is not “Nosferatu,” but in terms of sheer horror, I found “Vampyr” more consistently frightening. Dreyer’s fixation on how the film looks and feels at the expense of any narrative cohesion pays dividends. The visual effects are as good as anything I’ve seen from the early sound era and better than many modern CGI-infested bores. The disturbing imagery mixes danger, decay, and eroticism, while bypassing the frontal lobes of the brain and going straight to the Amygdala, leaving that lingering sense of doom and misery.
Thank goodness for Brian De Palma’s stylish direction. He injects life into what otherwise might be a dreary tale of the inescapable nature of organized crime. Manufacturing tension out of screenplay that is filled with bland cliches and a dull sense of doom, De Palma gets the most from an uninvolved Al Pacino and a cast that is either trying way too hard or way too little.
Al Pacino is too skilled of an actor to completely mail in a performance, but you could maybe say he hand delivers this one. As retiring gangster Carlito Brigante, Pacino is supposed to be weary of all the backstabbing, every man for himself antics of the criminal underground, but instead he just looks bored by all of it. It is hard to blame him. After three “Godfather” films, “Scarface”, and even “Dick Tracy” playing a mobster must have surely lost some of its appeal. Admittedly Pacino’s filmography provides some solid, built-in character development, but the way Pacino casually slips into and out of his Puerto Rican accent suggests an actor totally invested.
The film begins in 1975 with Carlito’s release from prison after serving five years of a thirty year sentence. Everybody seems to want him to pick up right where he left off, especially his hyperactive attorney Dave Kleinfeld. Played by Sean Penn in a full-on, cocaine-induced paranoid tilt that borders on the surreal, Kleinfeld has made the switch from lawyer to gangster, complete with theft and murder. While all Carlito wants to do is get $75,000 together to head to the Caribbean to start a car rental business, he finds himself doing favors for people, favors which continually blow up in his face. He helps a kid buying $30,000 worth of drugs, and everybody but Carlito ends up dead. A simple boat rescue turns fatal.
Carlito’s hope in getting the money comes in running a moderately successful nightclub. He struggles with a brazen up-and-comer in the criminal underworld Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo), who continually tries to make deals with him, while Carlito’s lover Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) frets that he might slip into his old ways. All this with Kleinfeld growing increasingly erratic and self-destructive, Carlito struggles to keep his head above water and his dream alive.
While I confess that I enjoyed much about Sean Penn’s full throttle performance as Kleinfeld, in particular his proclivity towards colorful barrages of insults, it had the unfortunate side effect of making all the other characters appear catatonic. The action/crime drama is not known for its subtlety, and such vanilla characters might be the death knell for a script filled with unoriginal ideas, uninspired dialogue, and far too much voiceover. Luckily for the film, De Palma manages to (somewhat) save the day.
Sometimes, it is nothing more than a simple camera tilt, but De Palma’s direction makes all the difference in this film. I never quite cared for the characters, but I was curious to see how it would all play out. Ostentatiously 1970s in its aesthetic and cinematic sensibilities, De Palma gets everything out of his setpieces, in particular the periodic tense confrontations between several hotblooded and intoxicated characters, and a thrilling foot chase at the end which isn’t quite “The French Connection,” but nods heavily in its direction. It is when the film stops moving for some scenes of quiet drama and self-reflection that it starts to wither and die. Thankfully De Palma is there to bring the film right back to life, but wouldn’t it have been easier to find a project that had some life of its own?
It would be really easy for an actor portraying a character with a diagnosed mental illness to play it really big. You know, flamboyant rants, a nervous tick, breakneck dialogue, that sort of thing. However, the success of “Silver Linings Playbook” stems from how measured the performances of the two leads are. Playing a man with bipolar and a woman addicted to sex, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence dial their performances down, letting the laughs and drama come to them. I couldn’t tell you what, if anything, this film says about mental illness (save, we’re all a little crazy, aren’t we?), but I can tell this film was a lot of fun.
Just released from in-patient psychiatric care, Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is convinced he can win back his wife, despite the restraining order she placed on him after he caught her cheating on him with her co-worker and beat that guy to a pulp. Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence) lost her job when, after her husband died, she slept with virtually everyone in her office. The two meet at a dinner with some friends, and they have immediate chemistry as a couple of outsiders. They both have a jarring gift for frankness, completely bypassing the normal pleasantries and smalltalk in favor of going directly to the point. In one of the film’s most compelling scenes, the two abruptly discuss their mental health issues and the unpleasant side effects of various medications they have been subjected to.
While Pat’s fixation on his wife forms a serious impediment to any potential relationship the two might have, they end up bonding over a dance competition, with Pat participating in exchange for Tiffany delivering a letter to his wife for him. The film also throws in a subplot involving his dad, Pat Sr., who is played by a twitchy half bored Robet De Niro, as an OCD, superstitious gambler, who solves his problems by gambling. Jackie Weaver plays Pat Jr.’s mom Doleres, and Chris Tucker is thrown into the film, though I couldn’t tell you exactly what they are doing in it.
This film works almost exclusively because of Cooper and Lawrence. While Russell’s direction is sharp and so is the script, without two leads performing at the correct pitch, the material could easily have landed with a big thud. Cooper and Lawrence hold back, not only giving their performances dynamics, but also conveying characters that are struggling to fight self-destructive impulses. I couldn’t tell you whether or not their portrayals of mental illness was accurate, but I did appreciate that mental illness was a part of who Pat and Tiffany were as characters, but only a part.
While the film seems mildly interested in the manner in which blunt-force honesty and other deviations from cultural norms are necessarily defined as mental illness, it shies away from this in favor of more traditional romantic comedy tropes. Yet the film utilizes those tropes admirably well, and makes feel fresh and fun. Rarely are romantic comedies this well-crafted, and this entertaining, which makes this film, well, a bit abnormal.
For a good half hour of its running time, my brain was desperately fighting “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” There is much in it which I wanted to hate – a prevalence of proto-hipsters, a navel-gazing writer protagonist, and that self-aggrandizing indie aesthetic which I usually loathe. Yet minute by minute, the film wore down my reservations with its excellent script, great acting, and brilliant soundtrack. This is a rare thing. A really well-made film about being a teenager.
Logan Lerman plays Charlie, an incoming freshman at a high school in Pittsburgh circa 1991. As the title would suggest, Charlie is socially awkward, introspective, and without friends. Despite looking a good deal better than the average high school freshman, Charlie doesn’t fits in.
Enter Patrick (Ezra Miller). A senior in Charlie’s freshman shop class, Patrick befriends Charlie and introduces him into his circle of friends. The group consists of an assortment of free spirits and oddballs, the most notable of which is Sam (Emma Watson), who embodies much of Charlie’s ideas about females. These are the kinds of older friends you wish you had in high school. They validate and expand his taste in music, get him intoxicated in a variety of ways, and most importantly accept Charlie for who his without judgment.
Comparing themselves to the island of misfit toys, everyone in this counter-culture clique has their own problems. Patrick is secretly dating the quarterback of the football team. Sam, who was exploited by older students when she was a freshman, has a boyfriend in college who treats her terribly. There is drama and heartache to be had for all of them, but in each other they find solace and comfort, and at times, more drama.
All of this is cooked up in a big vat of nostalgia, of course, but its execution is so solid that the obvious manipulation works. (The quality of the soundtrack also helps immensely.) Despite the fact that my own high school experience was absolutely nothing like Charlie’s, the film manages to evoke that bizarre and fleeting mixture of horror and excitement one experiences in high school, with a lifetime of memories waiting to be formed. It is like a John Hughes film that doesn’t go for laughs, only with a much better soundtrack and without Molly Ringwald.
While it resonated for me on an emotional level, the film is not beyond reproach. The manner in which the film glamorizes the trauma of the characters is unsettling. Charlie, for instance, is not formally admitted into the group until he confesses to Sam that his best friend shot himself, after which his best friend’s suicide is never mentioned again. While those that experience hardships should certainly be able to take pride in who they are, it perhaps shouldn’t be looked at as a prerequisite to being creative and interesting.
Truth be told though, I can’t stay mad at this film. It is really difficult to make a film which captures the essence of being a teenager, but “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” does just. It does it with rich characters injected with depth by vibrant performances and a script that neither mocks nor resents their youth, and it does it with one of the best film soundtracks in recent memory. And did I mention the awesome soundtrack?