Friday, November 20, 2015

Mr. Holmes

MR. HOLMES (Bill Condon, 2015)

93-year-old Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) has been long retired to a house in the country where he tends to his bees and tries to bolster his failing memory in MR. HOLMES. It has been thirty-five years since his last case. Dr. Watson’s recounting of the matter of a man who wished for the renowned detective to follow his grief-stricken wife strikes Sherlock as a fiction lacking motive for the identified culprit, yet he struggles to recall the details of the case. He draws encouragement to keep working on the mystery from Roger (Milo Parker), the sharp and inquisitive son of his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney).

Sherlock is also using this time to reflect on a recent visit to postwar Japan at the request of Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada). Having written on the benefits of royal jelly, he has been summoned to help find the prickly ash, which, like the bees’ secretion, is thought to assist one’s memory. This encounter may have a connection with Sherlock’s past as well, although he dismisses ever knowing the man he is said to have consulted.

With Sherlock Holmes as the main character, the expectation is that MR. HOLMES will yield a good mystery. In this instance it is not so much within the case he is trying to solve but the enlightenment that he discovers regarding his nature. It is a film first and foremost about loneliness. Sherlock has devoted his life to the practice of logic, but in his current state he learns that it too has limitations. Nevertheless, screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher includes plenty of marvelous details indicative of a larger design that can crack the drama’s secrets through Holmesian deductive reasoning.

McKellen is splendid as a brusque logician who can seem heartless with offhand remarks yet takes such apparent delight in a boy who wishes to hone his mind in a similar manner. McKellen’s eyes dance with the spark of a keen intellect underneath the elderly make-up. His Sherlock enjoys being the smartest person in the room, yet he also shows a patient teacher who becomes aware of how his cold, calculating manner requires the warmth and understanding of social courtesies.

Grade: A-

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story


In EXPERIMENTER: THE STANLEY MILGRAM STORY social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) studies obedience at Yale beginning in 1961. Volunteers in the experiment are given the role of teacher to a man they’ve met but who is not visible in the adjoining room during the test. This person is referred to as the learner, and he is asked to remember word pairings. If the learner supplies an incorrect answer, the teacher is instructed to give an electric shock of 45 volts. The voltage increases with wrong replies up to 450 volts. The learner is not actually being shocked but makes exclamations of pain and requests to stop, which can be heard through the wall. Although an observer in the room with the teacher will tell the participant to continue with the experiment, the teacher could quit. Milgram found that most do not. The experiment makes him famous but draws criticism that follows him through life.

EXPERIMENTER is staged as if it takes place within an artificial environment. Obvious chromakey backgrounds are used for period settings. The confines of the research space, the classroom, and other private spaces suggest the feeling that every action and utterance is presented for observation behind a one-way mirror. The muted visual strategy points to the clinical nature of this biographical portrait, although it’s not an outsider looking into who the experimental psychologist is. Sarsgaard as Milgram frequently addresses the camera directly, as if the film is the experimenter’s investigation into himself.

With this unconventional approach writer-director Michael Almereyda avoids the trappings of biopic cliches. While EXPERIMENTER touches upon Milgram’s most famous work, it isn’t a checklist of big life moments but a psychological probing of how his background and obsessions informed him to study the banality of evil. Sarsgaard conveys the seriousness of Milgram’s pursuit but retains awareness of the humor and absurdity that can emerge in such labor.

Grade: A-

The Peanuts Movie

THE PEANUTS MOVIE (Steve Martino, 2015)

THE PEANUTS MOVIE takes Charlie Brown and friends from the comics pages and traditional 2D animation to the 3D computer-animated realm, albeit with a look that is not drastically different with what is familiar from Charles Schulz’s work in strip, TV, and film form. The animation has sort of a plush toy quality about it rather than the sleek, hyperrealist plasticity that is often associated with textures in the medium. Those warmer surfaces allow THE PEANUTS MOVIE to be approached as a security blanket rather than some flashy novelty.

The film revisits many of the touchstones found in other PEANUTS properties. Charlie Brown remains a regular, angst-ridden boy who nevertheless sustains eternal hope that his day to be in the spotlight may yet arrive. His loyal dog Snoopy imagines pursuing the Red Baron in his biplane. The other kids view him as unexceptional but good-hearted. He wishes desperately to impress the little red-haired girl who moves in across the street.

The visual style goes hand in hand with the earnest, humane tone the film strikes. THE PEANUTS MOVIE is funny in a gentle way, but it’s also attuned to the fears and insecurities that children and, for that matter, adults carry. Charlie Brown fails and gets embarrassed. He worries about how things might go for him. Through it all, he displays a fundamental decency that others notice, even if they criticize and laugh at him sometimes. THE PEANUTS MOVIE recognizes these crucial aspects of Schulz’s work and renders them in a format considered more accessible to kids today.

3D animation is really the only thing that differentiates this from other PEANUTS ventures. Story-wise it feels like a greatest hits compilation rather than something new, but it’s a modest charmer that benefits from sticking to what we’re used to rather than being modernized.

Grade: B

Friday, November 06, 2015

About Elly (Darbareye Elly)

ABOUT ELLY (DARBAREYE ELLY) (Asghar Farhadi, 2009)

A weekend at a seaside villa turns tense when one member of a group disappears in ABOUT ELLY. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) arranges for three couples, their kids, an unmarried friend, and her daughter’s teacher to get away from Tehran for some relaxation. Her ulterior motivation for the trip is to introduce Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), who lives in Germany and divorced his wife, to shy teacher Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti). Although Elly appears to be having a good time, she insists that she can only stay one night. She may want to get back to her mother, who is recovering from a recent heart attack, or she may be uncomfortable with the jokes and subtle pressure to pair off with Ahmad.

When everyone realizes that Elly has vanished, the question is whether she walked to town to catch a bus or drowned trying to save one of the kids who had been playing by the shore and was pulled away by the turbulent sea. They have reason to believe that either outcome is possible, but with no body found and no way of contacting her, the answer remains elusive. As the friends scramble to determine how they should proceed in the situation, they act rashly and assign blame to one another.

The final shot of ABOUT ELLY features a car spinning its wheels as the friends try to push it out of a rut in the beach. The image rhymes with their actions throughout the film. The more effort they put into expedient resolutions of the problems they confront, the deeper they get stuck in them. Writer-director Asghar Farhadi creates the quagmire out of small lies and deceptions. This excursion is rooted in deceit. The individual untruths and misleadings may not seem problematic at the time they are uttered, but the accumulation of them forms a quicksand that tugs them further into the morass.

Farhadi’s intricate yet efficient screenplay showcases his watchmaker-like ability for setting a story in motion and having the moving pieces operate in accordance beautifully. ABOUT ELLY monitors eight adults plus kids and the dynamics among them. As it would be for Elly, a stranger among intimates, there’s a lot for the viewer to process in the introduction to these characters. Farhadi’s observational style doesn’t waste a shot in providing all of the information needed to understand the complex interactions.

The remarkable screenplay makes ABOUT ELLY seem like it could translate well to the stage, yet it boasts strengths particular to filmmaking. The roar of the sea reminds of the trouble that awaits but blends into the background until it must be dealt with. Editor Hayedeh Safiyari’s cuts from scene to scene aren’t confusing but raise some uncertainty of how the action advances from one point to the next. The technique reflects the disorientation the group feels upon realizing the mess they’ve ended up in. In a subtle but dazzling transition, the opening shot inside a charity box as money is dropped through the slot becomes light in a tunnel. Both images suggest the danger of not understanding what one thinks is seen with a limited perspective.

ABOUT ELLY debuted in 2009 but remained unreleased in the United States because of rights issues. Like Farhadi’s great subsequent film, A SEPARATION, this thriller thrives on how scenarios unravel as individuals take measures to protect their self-interests.

Grade: A

Thursday, November 05, 2015


BURNT (John Wells, 2015)

After a few years in the proverbial wilderness doing penance for his substance-abusing and womanizing past, chef Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) turns up in London determined to earn a prestigious third Michelin star. He burned a lot of bridges in the Parisian culinary world, but by drying out and swearing off booze, drugs, and women, Adam hopes to be able to redeem himself. His composure and ability to escape a troublesome history are in question in BURNT, but his talent never is. It’s why he can appear years after making a mess of things for himself and colleagues and still be granted the opportunity to do something great.

Adam persuades his former maitre d’ Tony (Daniel Brühl) to let him take over the kitchen at his father’s hotel restaurant, even if it means submitting to a weekly blood screening to prove he’s living cleanly. He assembles a dream team of former associates willing to let bygones be bygones, including sous chef Michel (Omar Sy), and newly discovered top talent like Helene (Sienna Miller). Adam senses a kindred spirit in Helene, which is why he has no qualms about being merciless in criticizing her work when she initially fails to live up to his high standards.

BURNT plays like a dramatized version of one of the many reality cooking shows, particularly those involving volatile chef Gordon Ramsay. He’s a chef consultant on BURNT, which presumably means Ramsay suggested the fine dining dishes that are lovingly filmed rather than gave Cooper lessons on how to yell and throw food in the trash. Adam demands perfection and barks at those in the kitchen like a dog with its nose pressed against the glass as its explosive cries try to intimidate passing cars. That the staff tends to treat Adam as some bulletproof genius they’ll go to the mat for seems somewhat absurd based on temperament and history.

Cooper brandishes the chef’s swagger with gusto. Whether he’s getting in a jab at a competitor’s interior design or smashing plates bearing unsatisfactory food, he’s entertaining in his cockiness. Casting Adam as a tragic figure by his own hand doesn’t work as well. Adam’s backstory is often hinted at but never fully elucidated, which makes him an empty vessel for a redemption tale. The character’s trials and tribulations seem rote, if present at all, leaving Adam to rely entirely on Cooper’s charisma to feel for him.

Adam speaks of wishing to cook food so satisfying that it makes the consumer want to stop eating. BURNT is more like potato chips, something that is appealing enough to eat mindlessly but is otherwise insubstantial. Director John Wells and screenwriter Steven Knight keep events moving along briskly. They are most successful in detailing and depicting the workings of a kitchen and the trends that run through the business. There’s more drama in the contemplation between using the frying pan or sous vide than in Adam’s pursuit of his profession’s highest honor.

Grade: C+

Steve Jobs

STEVE JOBS (Danny Boyle, 2015)

As the title character in STEVE JOBS, Michael Fassbender is a prickly and ruthless assessor of those surrounding him, especially when others’ visions don’t match his in the computer business. Director Danny Boyle’s film is broken into three parts as Jobs prepares for product launches. The first, set in 1984, shows Jobs in the final minutes before revealing the Apple Macintosh. The machine’s voice demonstration isn’t working, which is thoroughly unacceptable to Jobs. Meanwhile, he has to deal with other Apple employees who want to talk and ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), who has brought along Lisa, the daughter that Jobs has vociferously denied is his. The film jumps to 1988 with Jobs, now on his own after Apple’s business struggles, preparing to introduce the NeXT computer. The final section takes place in 1998 as Jobs readies the debut of the iMac.

In adapting Walter Isaacson’s Jobs biography, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin treats the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple as an incomparable genius, jerk, and tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions. He’s brilliant and stubborn to a fault. These traits serve him well as he strives for excellence with the computer but cause friction with co-workers and friends. At Apple Jobs insists upon a closed system. Sorkin makes the leap that Jobs gained control in the devices his company manufactured perhaps as a substitute for that which he couldn’t exert in life.

STEVE JOBS mostly takes place backstage and in the auditorium, giving the protagonist big areas to move about, yet Boyle creates a visual sense of being self-contained similar to how like the plastic shells housing the computer hardware. The fly rigging in the background of one scene hints at being beside a massive circuit board. The papers Jobs lays out in a grid resemble a tile interface.

Fassbender portrays Jobs as believing he’s the biggest brain in a room with plenty of stiff competition. He speaks like a logician and bristles when what computes perfectly in Jobs’ mind doesn’t with yield the same calculation by others. The film’s verbal dexterity is one of its chief pleasures, with comedic insults and oneupmanship in great supply. STEVE JOBS touches upon the personal side of the business icon, but ultimately it gets to know him how he would have preferred: through his work.

Grade: B