Monday, June 1, 2015

One Film Critic on Four Big Movies

We continue with our new regular Blog Feature –
An Excerpt from Film Critic Doug Pratt -- his thoughts on a film taken from his Monthly Newsletter of reviews on three dozen titles available on DVD/Blu-Ray/and Streaming. 

Mr. Pratt leads his June Newsletter with the Clint Eastwood directed movie, American Sniper.” Pratt believes the film “is superbly crafted entertainment,” and that the storytelling* allows Eastwood to stage the movie “with such clarity and straightforward simplicity that everything is there for the viewer to apprehend.”

* RSF: The screenplay for the film has a "Written by" credit for Jason Hall, which is unusual because the other three writers with writing credits are authors of books -- Chris Kyle (of course), Scott McEwen, and Jim DeFelice. Usually the WGA grants a “written by” credit only when the screenplay of the movie is an original script, not an adaptation. But the credit can be used under rare circumstances. To quote from the WGA manual --"biographical, newspaper and other factual sources may not necessarily deprive the writer of such credit." Which means that there was enough "original stuff" written by Jason Hall to get the "Written by" Credit. 

Pratt’s take on “The Imitation Game,” the period drama about the WWII code breaker and the inventor of the modern computer, Alan Turing, (played by Benedict Cumberpatch) is against the grain of many critics who were happy to see the film’s storyline include the fact the lead character was gay. Pratt was actually critical of the way the filmmakers handled the integration of the issue. He believed the creative opportunity for something more profound was squandered when the main character’s sexual orientation (and the necessity of keeping this hidden throughout his life) was introduced, featured at times, but ultimately never really integrated in a satisfying way within the main storyline. “Like so many aspects of Turing’s legacy, it fails to give its subject the complete level of respect that he deserves.”
Pratt was not the only critic to have problems with the film on this issue. In the New York Review of Books, writer Christian Caryl was very critical of the way the filmmakers handled the main character being gay and how this issue functioned in the storytelling. His take on the film can be read here.  

For those who love classic movies, Pratt’s review of the Blu-Ray release of “Touch of Evil,” (directed by Orson Welles) will give a true film connoisseur all the info he needs to decide whether to update their film collection. Pratt’s rundown on the home video release includes the disc’s specs; why this movie still matters; and Pratt’s verdict on the quality of the Blu-Ray – “Spellbinding.”

The Featured Excerpt from Pratt’s newsletter is on the film “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” I was looking forward to reading Mr. Pratt’s thoughts on this film, a reworking of the Classic Biblical story made famous by Cecil B. Demille’s “The Ten Commandments,” a perennial holiday favorite for Network TV (where I believe in an alternate universe it has been airing even before it was first theatrically released in 1956). 

But I was mostly excited about reading Pratt’s take because the director of "Exodus" is Ridley Scott, coming up on an anniversary -- almost forty years directing movies since his theatrical film debut in 1977 (which Pratt mentions below in his review).  
With over thirty credited films to his credit (including the classics, “Alien,” and “Blade Runner,”), Scott would be one of the few examples of a god-head director who still walks amongst the entertainment industry with his status as a bankable filmmaker largely intact. Scott’s choice to direct a period piece (or SF production) is often times the only way a big budgeted, non-Marvel/DC production gets made today. All of his directing efforts have included traditional theatrical artistry and spectacle sprawl, even his most recent productions which were in the midst of the Neo-Golden age of Television, where the look of many TV productions now showcase theatrical artistry and spectacle sprawl. 
Despite the changing times of the movie landscape, Ridley Scott (to paraphrase a line from "Sunset Blvd.) is still big, its only the pictures that almost everyone else is directing that have become smaller.  

Scott Epic

After years of making commercials, which require cutting information down to the absolutely essential bits only, Ridley Scott made his first movie, The Duellists, and one of its finer attributes was its narrative momentum. As soon as it had established enough information about the characters that the viewer understood what was happening, it would leap forward in time to the next point where the characters were impacted by their decisions.  There were no tedious redundancies in getting the characters from one point to the next.  Once you knew that they couldn’t stop dueling when they met, the next cut is smack dab into the middle of the next duel. 
Scott’s newest movie is his 2015 production of Exodus Gods and Kings released by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (UPC#02454393-7432, $30), essentially an updated rendition of the story best known to moviegoers as The Ten Commandments, about the life of Moses as it is told in the Old Testament.  Pretty much.  If there is a God, then John Turturro will survive the short memories of the Motion Picture Academy members and earn a Supporting Actor nomination for his outstanding, Hollywood-to-perfection rendition of the elder Egyptian leader, who is the biological father of the film’s villain, played by Joel Edgerton, and the adoptive father of the hero, played by Christian Bale, whose leadership skills he favors. 
Everybody knows the basic story and Scott knows that they know.  He and co-screenwriter Jeffrey Caine toy with the knowledge, offering up vaguely realistic alternative explanations to most of the famous ‘miracles,’ and even suggesting, at least as a tease, that the hero’s conversations with God’s messenger are a mental disturbance and nothing more.  Furthermore, no miracle at all occurs in the film until after the hero has a serious accident on the side of a mountain, so that everything after that could just as easily be a death dream.  But giving the filmmakers and the characters the benefit of the doubt, the film can also be taken literally as it tells the centerpiece of one of the world’s first great narratives.  Bale is fine as the hero and carries the film on his shoulders well enough, although the process by which his character begins to understand his true heritage is not well played.  His interactions with the Hebrew slaves never grip the viewer, perhaps because Caine and Scott chose not utilize the device of having his immediate relations be among those slaves. 
The greatest disappointment in the movie, however, is Edgerton, who does what is required of him, but is so bland that neither his villainy nor the human reflexes beneath the villainy are as distinctive as the movie requires them to be.  And then at the end, Scott starts overdoing his assumptions.  The film already runs 150 minutes, but after the bit about parting the Red Sea is over, Scott faces the sense that the movie is too, so he rushes through the remaining plot, showing Moses writing the Commandments, for example, but never actually identifying them and certainly never reading them off.  Scott’s command of momentum fails him, and the movie, which is generally a mixed bag, seems to fail as well.  On the whole, the film is not the disaster that the disappointing Noah turned out to be, but it is not the inherent success that the material has proved to be in the past.  Many of the special effects are terrific, and enough homework was done to give the viewer a decent sense of what life in Ancient Egypt was like, with or without plagues and burning bushes, but except for Turturro, the characters are often overwhelmed by the effects, unable to seize command of the screen and lead the viewers to the promised entertainment.

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1.  The color schemes are fairly dark, even in the desert sun, but the effects are smooth and well crafted.  The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is reasonably strong, but distinctive separation effects are modest.  There is an audio track that describes the action (“Nighttime.  Viewed from beneath the river, frogs swim to the fish-laden surface.  On the banks, a palace servant reaches his hand out to one of the frogs.  It strikes him with its tongue.  The servant holds a torch over the steps, scanning the horde of frogs.  In the city, frogs fill the streets.”), French and Spanish audio tracks in standard stereo, optional English and Spanish subtitles, and 9 minutes of deleted scenes, all of which would have been welcome within the movie and would have explained the story a little more clearly, although it seems that Scott simply could not separate himself enough from what Cecil B. DeMille had staged for the final act, and so he chose to trim it to the bone instead.  Speaking separately, Scott and Caine also provide an informative commentary track.  Although once in a while Scott delves a little too much into giving a story byplay, he is his usual encyclopedic self, explaining why various shots were chosen, how the actors approached their scenes, what motivates the different characters, how the special effects were blended with the live footage, and the specific challenges he confronted along the way.  “Getting the hats, and the cloth hats, right, this was quite tricky, because when you see them as sculpture, it’s one thing, but when you put a tablecloth on somebody’s head, it doesn’t look right.  So I tried to work it out. I think the cloth was clearly a neck, keep the sun off because the sun would be very hot, and maybe underneath the cloth itself, may have been a helmet? They keep the helmet cool, and also protect you.  So you tend to make things up when you look at things historically and say, ‘Why is that?’ Usually, what spells out is something practical.”