Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Kathryn Bigelow: Zero Dark Thirty

 With the much-anticipated release of action-auteur cum Oscar-winning powerhouse Kathryn Bigelow's new war-drama Zero Dark Thirty, 2012 ends on a somber, protracted note of artful despair. Following her masterpiece 2009 war film The Hurt Locker, which became one of the only recent films deserving of its Best Picture Oscar-win, the strategic, expressive mise en scene of this singular artist flexes tersely once again, in conjunction with her prior film. For Zero Dark Thirty is, if nothing more, a brilliant companion piece to Hurt Locker, his and hers, masculine/feminine. Mark Boal's muscular, intimate script for the first film was a marvel of gesture and intimation; extolling the latent impulses of the masculine war ethic, he and the attuned Bigelow gleaned inner truths about our country's instilled verbiage of violence let loose on a global plane.

The circular autonomy of Locker is repeated, yet differently, in their stunning new collaboration. Zero is much more than the sum of its parts, however flawed many aspects, including its length, may be. Moored by a breathtaking grasp entailing some of the strongest recent technichal facets of any mainstream American film, including, but not limited to, film editing, sound design, and visual effects, Bigelow goes Locker one more with a bigger budget and larger thematic grasp, which she unfortunately cannot always exceed. Luckily for her, as well as us, this trenchant, mercurial film is moored by Jessica Chastain's complex, shattering performance as Maya, a one-woman forcefield, who extolls years of her life to tracking down and destroying Osama Bin Laden.

Much has been made of the film's uneven politics, misrepresentations of the truth, com[parisons to torture porn. Suffice it to say that Bigelow's mastery of theme and style transcends most of these qualms, as her narrative grips us in a vice-like trance. Ultimately, despite being one of her most jagged films in some time (her least perfect since thwe still fascinating Weight of Water a decade ago), Zero Dark Thirty is ultimately one of her most hypnotic and powerful. Chastain stands beside Jeremy Renner's protagonist as one of her richest, most consuming characters. The problematic, uneven aspects of the venture are in the end subsumed by the scope and fury of her vision; humanity and violence in all their stunning mystery.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Quentin Tarantino: Django Unchained

Its always nice to hear from Tarantino, no matter how grandiose and self-aggrancizing he's become. The fact that one of our country's most iconic, cinephilic voices has become engorged in regurgitating revisionist history isn't quite the reason his film's have lost some of their edge. While his pictures remain thrilling and rambunctious, they lack the raw bombast in conjunction with urban wisdom which made his first three feature films some of the best American cinema of the 90s.

Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2, marked a brilliant departure, in that homaging the martial arts flicks he so loved as a child, the artist commanded a common ground betwixt his rough early mastery and the worldly reach of substance outside his origins. Death Proof, as always, delighted with genre and character, but lacked the sharpness of his early works. Inglorious Basterds contained countless masterful; set pieces, but in tackling WW2 and Nazis, the auteur had exceeded his genius grasp. For Tarantino does contain genius; his passion for all cinema, but especially everything exploitation, B-movie, grindhouse, drive-in, is sublime and singular; no other American director can lay claim to his heart for trashy heritage. The way he has imbued his passion into his art, via a gift for unbridled, bristling dialogue and uncommon framing and juxtaposition, marked him early on as a maverick in every sense of the word

The first act of his splendid new slavery epic Django Unchained, are some of his strongest work. Exposition, character, form, and style, are all dynamically displayed. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz do some of their best work as Tarantino's Reconstruction revisionist mouthpieces. Waltz, not surprisingly, in particular, steals the show. Things begin to lose traction somewhere in the second half. Leonardo Dicaprio's brilliantly bodied turn as villain Calvin Candy notwithstanding, Tarantino loses focus, devolving into a typically violent climax which would have been more impacting had Sally Menke still been around to trim the film down considerably. The extra 30 minutes dulls down what could have been Tarantino's best film since Kill Bill.

A lot has been said about the racial and violent content, but this is Tarantino, and racism and violence, their intrinsic qualities in American society, are his bread and butter. The fascinating dynamic of commentary and exploitation are what make the maestro so relevant and controversial. Despite Django's weaknesses, it remains better than most filmmaker's best works. Paying beauteous homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci and his ilk, Tarantino carves a distinctly American slice of bloody pie.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Juan Antonio Bayona: The Impossible

The blunt force and emotional trauma inflicted upon the audience by up and coming auteur Juan Antonio Bayona is not just formidable, but unforgettable, in his indelible, ultimately transcendent The Impossible.

Bolstered by career-high performances by Ewan McGregor and especially the incandescent Naomi Watts, the true story of the effect on a British family vacationing in the tropics by a tragic hurricane is rendered otherworldly yet familiar by this talented helmer. From the tour-de-force opening, reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's masterful Hereafter, to its immersive, painful body, up to an emotionally shattering climax rivaled this fall by only two other films, yet in different ways: Bigelow's masterful Zero Dark Thirty and especially Haneke's masterpiece Amour, Bayona's is a work of pure humanism, disaster by way of Renoir.

Oscar Faura's camerawork is a thing of trembling beauty, remarkable in its fragility and texture; Fernando Velazquez delivers an original score that serenades the narrative perfectly, balance, nuance, and heart all woven into the wondersome notes.

Upon leaving the theater, what stuck with me most about this remarkable film aside from its integrity and honesty, devoid of all exploitation, was Watts' fearless performance, a piece of acting so in tune with its containing body, that synergy was inescapable. Aside from the brave turns by Jessica Chastain and Emmanuelle Riva in the aforementioned films of the same season, Naomi Watts grants us her pure gifts in one of the best performances of the year.

Also, the fact that Bayona is a truly gifted narrative artist with the best intentions to match his best results. Near perfect, his picture shows all that even Hollywood can make a true film still; it's roundly possible.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Tom Hooper: Les Miserables

Translating the overrated bombast of the 80s Broadway cult fave Les Miserables, talented Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper stays true to the sappy spirit of the source while making it his own stylistically. That's pretty much the most that can be said for this rote, stale musical.

Hooper, who previously crafted the good entertainments The Damned United and The King"s Speech, once more displays a strength in cinematizing what was originally theatrical. Working in conjunction with cinematographer Danny Cohen, production designer Eve Stewart, art director Grant Armstrong, and set decorator Anna Lynch-Robinson, creates a convincingly squalid 18th century France for his ragamuffins and revolutionaries to prance about in. Costume designer Paco Delgado stitches together painstaking frocks for the game cast, but these aesthetic components are one of the overlong picture's sole strengths. Despite master Victor Hugo's brilliant narrative, the music is mostly unmemorable, and makes for a slog of a movie with few saving graces, which are, for the most part, visual.

Hooper's visualization has Cohen's camera swooning, but mostly to no avail. The film ultimately can't hold a candle to prior filmizations of Hugo's classic, especially Swedish auteur Bille August's underrated 90's version, sans the middling music, mercifully. Hugh Jackman saves the movie with his instinctive, guttural turn as convict cum gentleman Jean Valjean. His is a Valjean for the ages, almost surpassing Liam Neeson's in the aforementioned forgotten 90s flick; its unfortunate that Jackman's career high performance is contained in this artistically unsuccessful picture. Anne Hathaway is also memorable as the doomed Fantine, bringing a mousy fragility which differs from Uma Thurman's in the earlier, far better film.

The strong parts don't equal the sum, which is Hooper's weakest work thus far. Entertaing at best, frustratingly uneven at worst, at least some will love it, those in the know soley as a huge guilty pleasure.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Christopher McQuarrie: Jack Reacher

Homaging genre master Don Siegel, talented screenwriter-cum-director Christopher McQuarrie sculpts a visceral, winding fusion of narrative and viscera with Jack Reacher, the much-anticipated filmization of the popular series of detective novels. Despite fans' initial misgivings with the casting of charismatic and divisive Hollywood uber-star Tom Cruise in the titular role, most have caved in to the gifted actor's conviction, ala the Vampire Lestat.

Opening with an immersive bang via a tour de force sniper sequence, the director does not take long in revealing his gift not only as a clever script skill master, but also as a visual stylist adept at getting the job done. Despite the usual cliches both aurally and literally, McQuarrie does a more than creditable job of delivering the goods, which only goes to complement Cruise's tact and drive with one of his best star turns in years, especially after the mess that was his last debacle, the turgid Rock of Ages (despite his scene stealing turns which was that flick's one saving grace, thank God).

Several action sequences are tour de forces of sound and editing. Technically, the picture is a master stroke, a studio powerhouse the type of which we wait all year for. McQuarrie glided into Studio City with the underrated director Bryan Singer. Their first three forays into narrative fimmaking in the 90s were all excellent, with each work getting more and more "studio slick", and consequently, better. The low-budget Public Access, a sly psychological media thriller, the mid-budgeted but enormously profitable and now neo-classic labrynthine action-thriller The Usual Suspects (which brought McQuarrie his much deserved Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay of the year in 1995), and the creepy brilliance of their Stephen King adaptation Apt Pupil, confirmed the commercial and, for a few, artistic, status of the duo.

Whilst Singer went his way to helm the first two ( and best) entertaining, subtextual X-Men flicks, followed by his excellent, misunderstood Superman Returns, found McQuarrie's artistic brother delving into pop culture comic book mythology. McQuarrie, meanwhile, helmed his excellent film debut, the kinetic action potboiler The Way of the Gun, which was initially a flop, though it has become a cult film in the intervening fifteen years since its release. In the meantime, the fiery scribe found work where he could, triumphantly reuniting with Singer on the very well made and financially bountiful Nazi pulp Valkyrie starring Cruise.

Working once more with Cruise, on only his second feature as a director, McQuarrie has proven himself as adept at crafting genre pictures as an auteur, as much as being a screenwriter. Fun, smashing, disturbing, and entrenchant, Jack Reacher is the sort of popcorn flick we need more of. Here's hoping that its not another decade before Christopher McQuarrie picks up the camera again.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Jacques Audiard: Rust and Bone

Piercing character study is one of excellent French filmmaker Jacques Audiard's strengths as a storyteller. In addition, he is immense in the way he cuts through social milieu to the visceral heart of his wounded, mostly realistic characters. Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet, and now Rust and Bone, have all offered up palpable characterizations in addition to beautifully burnished surfaces that belie the depths of his undertakings. Almost no other French filmmaker can afford the culpability and clarity with which this artist brings forth his touchable protagonists.

In addition, his grasp of masculinity and French manhood can be startling as well as fresh and complex. With his early film, the Hitchcockian Read My Lips, he offered a female counterpart in the spunky Emmanuelle Devos character to almost balance the pathos of Vincent Cassel's brutal/brutalized con with a conscience. In his new film, the touching and typically tough Rust and Bone, he gifts the astounding Marianne Cotillard one of the strongest roles thus far in her career, as a killer whale trainer named Stephanie, who must live with the repercussions of a near-death experience.

Her chance meeting and eventual love affair with a troubled single father, Alain ( the sublime Matthias Schoenaerts, wonderful earlier this year in Michael Roskam's masterpiece, Bullhead) sets off sparks, and more importantly, opens up both characters to the audience, offering us a glimpse into ourselves in the process. Several plot twists feel a bit generic and/or forced, and yet, Audiard's intrinsic knack as a director makes up for these in the scheme of things. Two truly brilliant performances, a mostly excellent script, and overall the director's mise en scene, wash wawy the minor incosistencies which depend on your individual pov's.

Stephane Fontaine once again wields the camera with a force unforeseen, his palette washed out as the character's exhausted lives. Alexandre Desplat once more waxes a classically lovely score that is both romantic and subtle. While not as collectively powerful as Audiard's transcendent prison crime drama A Prophet, Rust and Bone remains potent proof of its creator's importance as a contemporary voice in world cinema.

Gus Van Sant: Promised Land

Continuing on an upward trajectory that has revealed, layer by layer, one of the most fascinating ouevres in American cinema, Gus Van Sant crafts the entertaining if uneven, Promised Land. Working from an original script concocted by stars Matt Damon (his first since winning the Oscar for scribing, with Ben Affleck, Van Sant's standard Good Will Hunting) and John Krasinski, the helmer paints a quotidian portrait of movie small-town America in the face of the evil corporation manipulating it. The subject of "fracking" seems original, if filtered into a been there, done that plot about one man's awakening to the negativity and exploitation of the company he works for, and the purity of the simple life through the love of a good local woman.

Van Sant is a master filmmaker with an individual sensibility.His gift for delineating masculinity, family literal and symbolic, and the essences of reality and dreams, are pretty well suited to this simplistic tale. In the end, it all comes off as one of his "in between" movies, the more general fare he makes such as the aforementioned Hunting and Findind Forrester and the like, while dreaming of the textures and syntaxes of his more personal works, such as Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, and Paranoid Park. His cinematographer Linus Sandgren paints a soothing pallette of Americana in base colors, while Van Sant's regular composer Danny Elfman illustrates the action with a basic, lovely theme.

The cast is quite strong and lends a lot to the backbone of this good, if minor work in a great director's career. Damon, Frances McDormand, Krasinski, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, et al, are all ideally cast. When its all over, we feel gratified yet pretty much forget it all on the drive home.