Movie Review 360 (or don’t plan drunk)

mr360

Like many of you, I hang with a group of friends who watch movies and then argue in a bar afterwards. And like many of you, all of my friends are “visionaries”.

Over beers, one of my friends said “We should record this”…but whereas the rest of us sobered up, he kept pushing this idea, adding a 360-degree camera to the alcoholic mix.

This past week, Movie Review 360 was born.

Watch two goofballs and a guest (balled, bald or otherwise) talk about the latest releases from Hollywood and Netflix while drinking to excess on a limited budget (we are nothing, if not Canadian).

This week–ably assisted by documentarian Liza Vespi–our thoughts on:

  • Ron Howard’s Inferno
  • Man vs Snake (on Netflix)

Our thanks to Ginger & Russ for hosting us at The Edmund Burke in Toronto.

See also:

Inferno(t) – a review

Man vs Snake – a review

Slaughter Nick for President (trailer for Liza Vespi doc)

“Fury” and futility – a review

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Rarely am I stumped by a movie. Usually, I like the film, it is okay or it is bad.

But every now and again, a movie makes me work at an opinion. David Ayer’s Fury is one of those films, the 2014 film being released this week on Netflix.

Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf and Michael Peña, Fury tells the story of an American tank crew in the last year of World War II, pushing deep into Germany but heavily outgunned by German Tiger tanks.

And there is my challenge with this film. I have now explained the entire movie to you, because there is no real point to the plot.

It is seriously as though a camera crew showed up on a battle site one day and followed a tank crew for a few days as it wound its way through various other battles into the belly of the Nazi beast.

Thus, I cannot really tell if this movie is an amazingly stunning metaphor for the futility of war—there is no glory here—or if it was just a badly penned film.

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Ideals clash with reality

To be fair to Ayer, who not only wrote, but also directed and produced this film, there is a human interest side to this story as the war-weary, battle-hardened tank crew is joined by doe-eyed recruit Norman  Ellison (Logan Lerman) who just days earlier was a typist for the military bureaucracy.

Thus, as the tank—the titular Fury—lurches from battle to battle, we witness the corruption of a pure heart by atrocities committed not only by the enemy, but by his fellow soldiers. And we see the toll this corruption takes on the boy’s tank commander Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) who personally starts that downhill process.

But again, to what purpose?

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War taints even the most peaceful moments

Almost all war films seem to be based on men fighting toward a higher purpose, whether it is a battle that turns the tide of the war—e.g., Sands of Iwo Jima; Tora, Tora, Tora—or a moment of humanity amidst chaos—e.g., Saving Private Ryan—or men fighting for sanity within that chaos—e.g., Good Morning, Vietnam; Catch 22; Apocalypse, Now.

For me, Fury had no such pretense.

Yes, the Americans are the “good” guys and the Germans were the “bad” guys, but neither side in this film was any nobler than its counterpart. Within the confines of this movie, this was carnage and hatred purely for the sake of same.

As to the film itself; all of the actors did an admirable job, wearing the carnage of war on their faces and in their souls. Brad Pitt at his harshest expressed an internal dignity if not nobility. Shia LaBeouf was restrained. And Michael Peña really didn’t have much to do.

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Truthfully, this film might have been stronger as a silent movie, as it was the facial expressions and battle scenes that told this story. The dialogue offered little to the visceral impact of this film (emotions are drained pretty early).

Beautifully shot, this is a grisly film and not for the faint of heart or stomach. Bullets and bombs don’t just pierce a body; they rip it wide open. The fallen remain fallen, to be ground into the mud by jeep tires and tank treads.

For all of these reasons—and it was a slow burn for me—I am coming down on the side of Fury being the embodiment of the ultimate futility and barbarism of war.

In this movie, even if you saved the person of Private Ryan or Ellison, the soul is long gone.

Remember

A good choice for Remembrance Day, highlighting purposeless sacrifice

Shaped, not defined

We are all, in many ways, shaped by our life experiences.

It is important to remember, however, that those experiences don’t have to define who you are or what you become. That is up to you.

wade

Inferno(t) – a review

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In a follow-up to The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, Tom Hanks returns as famed symbologist Robert Langdon, the only man capable of solving the great riddles of today with clues left by our medieval artists and thinkers. In this case, it is the location of bioengineered microbes designed by mad billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster)—think Elon Musk with microscopes instead of rocket ships—to eradicate 95% of the world’s population.

And as the adventure starts, it appears that Langdon may be involved more directly in this mystery than even he thought possible. Along the way, he battles officials from the World Health Organization (WHO), zealous followers of the billionaire and the crafty dealings of a security firm.

As a fan of the previous two movies and puzzle-focused stories in general, I was looking forward to this latest installment. Hanks was back. Ron Howard was back as director. And Dan Brown, the novelist on whose books the movies are based, never tells a boring story.

Unfortunately, this latest venture simply does not live up to the mysteries developed in its predecessors. Simply put, the puzzle is missing and the action is merely serviceable.

To watch the trailer for this movie is to assume that the riddle of this story is wrapped up in Dante’s Divine Comedy, source of our Western vision of Hell. And, for about two minutes, it is.

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Dante couldn’t have predicted this new level of Hell

But unlike the earlier movies where clue was found buried in clue, each one linking together in an almost mystical way and tapping into the deep-seated paranoia of conspiracy freaks like me, here it was merely a token gesture. Dante’s masterpiece and the elements that followed it felt completely contrived, mere window decoration for the modern mystery that wasn’t much of a mystery.

And even the characters surrounding Langdon were largely throw-away, none showing the intricate twists and turns that kept you guessing throughout the earlier movies. In almost all cases, the functions of the characters were obvious from the outset (to explain more would be to serve spoilers).

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Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones spend a lot of time sight-seeing

And I think screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission:Impossible, War of the Worlds, Angels & Demons) suspected as much as he littered the screen with small red herrings that suggested insights to the characters but never amounted to anything afterward.

One character, in fact, who appears vital from the story perspective effectively disappears from the story completely, factoring in no way into the ending of the story despite being involved in the precipitating events.

In the absence of medieval puzzles and ambiguously motivated characters, we are left with a barely passable action film that trots its merry way across the Mediterranean to the pretty unspectacular climax. Even the summary denouement is uninteresting and a bit saccharine.

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Entire screenplay written on back of Dante’s head

This is not a terrible movie, but I’m not sure I would even recommend it as an entry point to the Dan Brown pantheon, instead recommending you stick solely to the other two.

For me, Inferno never really got beyond a cold ember.

See also:

Tom Hanks returns as Robert Langdon in Inferno (Associated Press)

Say hello to the 10th circle of Hell (The Guardian)

A devil of a time making sense (Wall Street Journal)

The Man Who Knew Infinity – a review

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In another life, I might have been a mathematician; in part, because I prefer to contemplate my universe in solitude, but perhaps more importantly, because there is a simplicity and elegance in math that simply cannot be matched by any other discipline.

It is the voice of God. It is the description of all existence and all possibility.

Thus, I greatly look forward to films like The Man Who Knew Infinity, which opened at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and this past week on Netflix.

Based on true events, it is much like A Beautiful Mind, in that it tells the story of a man who could see things intuitively that others could not even with the greatest of effort, but in this case, without the mental health issues.

Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a poor mathematician living in Madras, India, burdened with an overwhelming fountain of knowledge and understanding of the maths. As one movie character so aptly put it, every positive integer is Ramanujan’s friend.

Frustrated by an oppressive society in India that sees him as an over-reaching Wog, Ramanujan reaches out with the aid of an understanding British diplomat to mathematicians in the United Kingdom. And he eventually catches the notice Cambridge University professor G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), who brings Ramanujan to England.

As exciting as this is for the younger man, Ramanujan quickly becomes frustrated with his mentor. Rather than explore the mathematical cosmos, Hardy reins Ramanujan in, forcing him to develop mathematical proofs for his grand visions. Why, the younger man asks, do you need to prove the truth, the very word of the gods?

It is in answering this question that the movie becomes a love story between two driven men. These men change the face of mathematics, their work echoing to this day.

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Jeremy Irons is achingly poignant as mathematician G. H. Hardy

Despite the title of the film, this movie is more about Hardy than it is Ramanujan, who interestingly remains something of a mystery even into the story’s epilogue.

Intellectually brilliant in his own right, Hardy yet has to work to understand the universe, whereas Ramanujan is “given” the answers to great mathematical concepts. And despite any overt signs of jealousy, you have to wonder if this isn’t part of the reason Hardy fights so hard to rein in his mentee.

That said, as their relationship slowly blooms, Hardy risks his own expulsion from the college to push for Ramanujan’s acceptance at Cambridge as a fellow. So again, it is about Hardy’s relationships with his colleagues and the university establishment with Ramanujan as his raison d’etre.

The movie is visually beautiful and the story amazingly told.

Irons continues to be an actor of outstanding elegance no matter how curmudgeonly the character. His portrayal of a man who achingly wants to reach out to touch the face of God and yet cannot, is emotionally wrenching. This is a man who is afraid to believe in anything, but is presented with a glory that comes but once in a lifetime.

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Dev Patel portrays the anguish of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a man who speaks the voice of the gods only to find ignorance

Patel, likewise, offers a stirring performance. His confusion at the insanity of the world around him is palpable. He knows that he stands upon a great mountain, spouting the wisdoms of heaven, and yet finds himself spat upon and held back. He is very much a Christ figure to Irons’ Saul of Tarsus.

But as beautiful as this film is, I found it lacking in one very big way.

I never felt like I got to understand the titular character Ramanujan.

I have not read the similarly titled book on which the movie is based to know if there is more about Ramanujan there (its subtitle would suggest yes), but the film starts with fully formed Ramanujan scraping mathematical formulas on the stone floor of a temple. In looking for work to support his mother and new bride, he presents his efforts to bureaucrat after bureaucrat, only to be rejected.

infinity-book

What is never explored or explained, however, is how this supposedly lowly man learned how to write in the language of mathematics, and because of this, I feel like I watched only part two of a much larger story.

There is a beautiful moment late in the film between Ramanujan and Hardy that touches on the divine spark of mathematics, and we see the two men finally express their common love and fears. But for me, this wasn’t enough. It fulfilled an emotional requirement, but not the intellectual. I want to better understand Ramanujan and his gift.

Despite this rather large gap, however, this is a movie that I could watch again and again for its sheer beauty. And I can only hope that it just one of many such films—math-centric or otherwise—to be made in the coming years.

Man vs Snake – a review

man-vs-snake-the-long-and-twisted-tale-of-nibbler

I like pinball. I played Pong when it first came out. And I can count on one hand the number of video games I have played in my life…including Pong (others involve Star Wars or strip poker).

Thus, when I was asked by a friend to review the documentary Man vs. Snake: A Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler—recently released on Netflix—I seriously questioned our friendship.

nibbler

If Centipede and Pac-Man had a child

For the uninitiated, like me, Nibbler looks like the bastard love-child of Centipede and Pac-Man, and essentially involves an ever-lengthening snake that courses around obstacles gobbling energy packets while trying not to bite its own tail. In short, a joy-sticker’s wet dream and yet a game from the heyday of arcades that few knew existed.

What set this game apart from the others, however, was that its scoreboard included nine digits, so a score of one billion was possible. Yeah, this set my spine tingling as well.

The man in question is actually four men.

Back in the early 80s, teenage Tim McVey—not the terrorist, the documentary points out—played two days on one quarter and broke the billion-point barrier, under the watchful eye of local oddball and arcade owner Walter Day. Woohoo!! And for years, that was the end of the story; McVey’s singular claim to fame.

Until an Italian man claimed to have broken McVey’s record as a boy, holding the unofficial record for 25 years. Day refused to acknowledge the record. McVey refused to acknowledge the record. But to clear the slate, McVey determined to break the Italian’s score and make the whole argument moot.

And this is where the meat of the documentary takes place…McVey’s desperate attempt to reclaim his title, and quickly coming to grips with the fact (and joy-stick) that his body is not what it was as a teenager.

Oh, and the fourth man is Canadian gamer Dwayne Richard, who kind of joins McVey’s journey as sparring partner.

As documentaries go, this one is pretty well constructed. It has a strong narrative stream in the redemption story and the sparring that becomes a bit more personal. It has strong personalities in the four men and their support networks.

Unfortunately, it was too reminiscent of my own late teens/early 20s watching friends play Mario Brothers, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, etc. Boring.

It was like the movie 127 Hours, but with your hand stuck on a joy-stick rather than under a boulder.

Intellectually, I get the various stories here…the archetypes. But I cared not a single whit as to whether these guys broke the records, and therefore never invested in the players emotionally. They were simply too abstract and surreal for me to care, and the stakes were meaningless.

Note: The documentarians did a very good job of highlighting these eccentricities while being respectful of the people.

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Game competitions have changed in 20 years

I understand that the video game world has completely changed in the last decade to become very much an international spectator sport. Nibbler is very much NOT of that era.

But if you want to watch a handful of middle-aged men obsess over an arcade console for 90 minutes or so, this might just be a documentary for you.

Mascots more a misscots

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After opening at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, Christopher Guest’s latest mockumentary Mascots was released to Netflix this past week. As a fan of his many earlier efforts—from This Is Spinal Tap to A Mighty Wind—I greatly looked forward to his take on the surreal world of sports mascots.

Unfortunately, this might have been a mistake, as the bar set by those movies was pretty high.

Mascots revolves around the struggles of five teams competing for the Gold Fluffy, the highest achievement of the Professional Mascots Association. One team is a feuding couple, trying to maintain a brave face while on-camera, but killing each other behind the scenes. A second subplot involves a son trying to live up to his father’s and grandfather’s legacies in a hedgehog costume.

Then there is an aging dancer who sees this as her last chance to go all the way, as well as a solo act simply trying to up his game, and an Irish bad boy whose story never really fleshes out.

judges

Pretty much sums up some of the stories in this film

As these five subplots buzz around, we also get to see behind the curtain as competition organizers try to hold everything together while vying for a broadcast contract with a fourth-tier cable company, and two former champs feud while trying to judge the contest.

Still with me?

Now, throw in a few more secondary characters and cameos, and you have an ensemble of about 25 characters pushing for air time.

Now as confusing and thin as this might seem, Guest has been able to make it work before in pieces like A Mighty Wind and Best in Show, using many of the same amazing actors: Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr., Bob Balaban, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, etc.

Unfortunately, things don’t seem to gel as nicely in Mascots, and the whole film seems to lack the heart of the earlier efforts. I mean, how do you compete with the simple love-story of Mitch & Mickey?

pathos-challenge

Not really a fair comparison (Mascots, top; A Mighty Wind, bottom)

This isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t poignant moments in many of the subplots or that the actual mascot performances during the competition weren’t spectacular. But rather than being more than the sum of its parts, this film was surprisingly less.

This is where I think my expectations are part of the problem.

Viewed through a virgin lens, Mascots is somewhat entertaining and not a bad way to spend 89 minutes. It would make a great appetiser to tease the palate for a main course of the other meatier films. But as a dessert, it is significantly lacking.

Of individual note, Parker Posey’s interpretive dance student is painfully poignant and outrageously funny. Chris O’Dowd’s bad-ass sex fiend is completely wasted, however, and largely amounts to nothing. And I found the bickering couple—Zach Woods and Sarah Baker—completely distasteful, and the longer I saw them, the worse it got.

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Perfectly pathetic (Parker Posey)

Jane Lynch and Ed Begley Jr. were great but underused. Fred Willard was the only character Fred Willard has ever played. And the rest of the core ensemble barely managed more than cameos.

Mascots isn’t bad, but sadly could have been so much better.

 

See also:

Christopher Guest’s ‘Mascots’ fails to really cheer (Associated Press)

Latest from Spinal Tap’s Christopher Guest does not go up to 11 (The Guardian)