Saturday, December 31, 2011

Steven Spielberg: Painting the Sky with Celluloid (Warhorse)

Jeremy Irvine, Warhorse, Dreamworks Pictures, 2011.

With the final film of 2011, we have come full circle in a year of cinematic beginnings. Those discoveries are constant and within us all. Spielberg's Warhorse is unquestionably one of the milestones of his career, an intimate epic which gets absolutely everything right. Spielberg rarely achieves this cinematic state of bliss; E.T. the Extra Terrestriel, The Color Purple and Minority Report are examples of Spielberg's supreme gift in perfect accordance with his instruments at hand. All his pictures are phenomenal in some way; he's just one of those directors, one of the greatest we've ever had.

Warhorse is a riveting "period piece" which grasps our hearts, eyes and minds from first frame to last. The story of Joey, a gorgeous thouroughbred in the English farmlands on the verge of World War One. How exactly Joey passes from owner to owner (portrayed exceptionally well by newcomers Jeremy Irvine, David Cross, Celine Buckens, Tom Hiddleston and Robert Emms) ?  It all starts with Emily Watson and Peter Mullan, lending a further Fordian feel with their homestead patriarchal and matriarchal positionings. Unfolding in a narrative unusually crease free and ultimately elegiac, Spielberg tips his hat to his cinematic forefathers; John Ford, David Lean and Victor Fleming are all paid tribute to; the fury of The Searchers, Lawrence of Arabia and Gone With the Wind still courses through his, and his remarkable new film's, veins.

Janusz Kaminski lights up the skies with a wonder which can be blinding.  Warhorse contains some of the most unearthly, beautiful sequences and shots in recent memory.John Williams' score is wondrous, one of the best of his career. All of Spielberg's controversial instincts as a master visual storyteller come to the fore, and they work. A master's homage to the epic, war film and western, Warhorse is an instant classic.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Cameron Crowe: An Authentic American Experience? (We Bought a Zoo)

Matt Damon, We Bought a Zoo, 20th Century Fox, 2011.

The underpinnings of humanity, what makes us human and connects us, has always been a fascination of the charismatic penman and persuasive optimist Cameron Crowe's body of work. Beginning with his novel turned debut screenplay, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he sought the purest form of human emotion and narratively constructed it to affect us more effectively. Some would call it manipulation; in Crowe's hands I call it sublimation. His roots as a rock 'n' roll journalsit turned him on to nuance, structure, and emotion, and how these things can shape how we look at the world. His second script, The Wild Side, was a continuum of his preoccupation with the social constructs of teenagers growing up too fast.

He continued this train of thought with his well done teen love story directorial debut, Say Anything. With Singles, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, Crowe has solidified his reputation as one of America's great comedy writer-directors. Only there is something more complex about Crowe. His passion for Billy Wilder may clue us in; the absurdities of human life laid bare in all their funny, sad mundanity. No other writer-director this side of James L. Brooks can write the kind of funny, sad dialogue Crowe can.

His last two features, Vanilla Sky and elizabethtown, were two of his richest, most misundersttod works. With We Bought a Zoo, his newest film loosely based on a true story, we have a family holiday film in disguise; all of Crowe's littlw moments mark this as a personal work clouded by studio involvement. Firstly, Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna's script is as ungainly as the title. Major structural flaws ground the third act which should soar. But aside from the implausibilities, Crowe's special brand of magic shines through.

A damn good first act sets up a pat plot only shaken off when moments of truth catch us off guard. Matt Damon has rarely been better, he feels so real and raw as a journalist dealing with the aftermath of his wife's death and its affect on his very different kids. His relationship with his teenaged son (Colin Ford) is palpable, his young daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is undeniably adorable. Implausibly relocating to a zoo, they form bonds with the animals and the humans who work there.

What Crowe does right he rarely gets wrong. His use of music is unparalleled. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Isley Brothers, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Pearl Jam are all put tp splendid use. His pairing of the visual with the rock aural creates a feeling few other directors could muster. Scorsese is the only other director to my mind who uses pop music as mesmerizingly. Rodrigo Prieto creates a hushed, relaxed visual tone which lets us into the proceedings even more, and Jonsi's music score is just the right mix of playful and resonant.

Even though this can be counted as a lesser Crowe work, there are still so many moments to cherish. The man sets out to craft an authentic American experience, as Damon's character says in the film, and ended up patching together a fleeting feel-good experience.

Chris Gorak & Guy Ritchie: December Diversions (The Darkest Hour & Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows)

December is a month known as a monster in and of itself for its dirth of award-ready "serious" cinema. When something unapologetically genre as these two new pics, you sort of have to tip your hat. Keep the spirit of schlock alive! When a genre film as well done as Brad Bird's Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, true admiration is merited. Popcorn flicks such as Chris Gorak's The Darkest Hour and Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows are the exception to the rule, movies so simultaneously mediocre yet fleetingly inspired or pleasurable.

Max Minghella, Rachael Taylor, Olivia Thirlby, Emile Hirsch, The Darkest Hour, Summit Entertainment, 2011.

Gorak's directorial debut is a fascinatingly simple yet preposterous B-movie horror-sci-fi yarn which basically follows in the vein of Romero's zombie-movie formula. Emile Hirsch, Max Minghella and Olivia Thirlby all appear to be slumming it as American tourists in Russia during a mysterious attack by an unexplained force coming through the electricity and disintegrating them. The script is a pile of cliches, some of the effects are cheeseball, but the hopefully intentional subtext of a catharsis to all those decades of Soviet-American interplay is extremely stimulating. Several sequences are alarmingly framed, and yet others are clumsily blocked. Hirsch gets some of the worst lines: "I'm freaking out on the inside!" is just one example. Tyler Bates' score is top-notch, homaging John Carpenter in its purity. The horror-buff in me was half-way appeased.

Jude Law, Robert Downey, Jr., Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Warner Bros., 2011.

Guy Ritchie is up to his old tricks(again and again and again) with the sequel to his hyper-stylized blockbuster re-envisioning of Doyle's master detective stories. Robert Downey, Jr. And Jude Law return as Holmes and Watson. Downey especially has a ball with his part, getting all his money's worth. The original Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace, is enticing and different as the gypsy love interest. Jared Harris relishes each and every word as Moriarty. The problem is, we've seen this one before. It feels rote, and only really comes alive in Ritchie's kinetic action set pieces. The shoot-out in the woods is especially memorable. Ritchie is a true artist in danger of calcification. His visual integrity and penchant for satiric crime dramas became a fixation, and has gone on for years. His best film was Swept Away, a deeply imaginative and empathic remake of Lina Wertmuller's 70s arthouse hit. That film was vilified because his wife, Madonna,starred in it. Aside from that, his frenetic masculinity evades me.

Tomas Alfredson: In a Cold Blue War (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Focus Features, 2011.

Sending a good chilling jolt through the conspicuously missing (possibly assumed extinct) spy thriller, the type that incorporate a stylized game of cat and mouse only a writer of John Le Carre's breadth and vision could muster. Recent films such as Tony Scott's Spy Game and John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama infused that old feeling, but audiences seemed mostly indifferent to a film where you had to actually pay attention and think.

Tomas Alfredson's exceptional entry into the genre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is based upon Le Carre's sensational breakthrough novel, a tethering game of cutthroat chess. Having previously helmed the startling vampire film Let the Right One In, Alfredson proves he was no flash in the pan with a follow-up feature which is better than the first. Burning his characters in a cold blue light, and working with his d.p. Hoyte Van Hoytema, the director layers on a visually stunning, narratively hypnotic tale of old school espionage.

Gary Oldman heads the cast as Smiley, Le Carre's ubiquitous protag, an investigator for British Intelligence. As he craftily weeds out a mole within their infrastructure, we come to see a light in his eyes which is disquieting and ensures this as one of the underrated Oldman's most subtly spellbinding turns. His cast of suspects and cohorts include Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and Kathy Burke, all brushing shoulders in Hoytema's cruelly beautiful cold war world.

The pure delight in being washed in Alfredson's visual brilliance can only be matched by the ambitious, smartly versed adaptation by screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan. Alberto Iglesias' score simmers along with the images, well used by Alfredson. The immensity and dark pleasure of following this gorgeous mystery of espionage are unrivaled in recent world cinema.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

David Fincher: Remaking Darkness (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Columbia Pictures, 2011.

With the simultaneous force and control which has made his reputation as a filmmaker, David Fincher mounts an ambitious, well intentioned remake of the blockbuster Swedish film, itself based upon Stieg Larsson's sensational international best-seller. For the most part, Fincher succeeds at creating a fascinating mood piece which is very uneven, despite Rooney Mara's revelatory performance as ubiquitous anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander, which is every bit legendary as Noomi Rapace in the original films.

Fincher keeps the plot and setting intact, having his actors playing Swedes speaking English. The snowy opression of Scandinavia is a glove for Fincher's stylistic fixations to slip into. Jordan Cronenweth's camera is every bit hypnotic with its distinctly lit visions of a world of betrayal akin to The Social Network. Steven Zaillian's script tries to keep the novel's spirit intact, and for the most part Fincher & company resist Hollywoodization. But the plot remains unwieldy and inpenetrable, and Daniel Craig's earnest prescence and drive for the truth don't match up to the intensity of the original film. And yet, we have Mara, burning inside, expressionless. Her performance should be an abject lesson in methody restraint. The supporting cast headed by Christopher Plummer and Stellan Skarsgard, are superb.

The main pull of the picture is Fincher's obsession with the visual limits and obscurities of this snow-filled nightmare world. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide a chillingly precise ambience with their excellent score. The cohesion of the images somehow do not match the portentousness of Larsson's bulky plot. And however we and Fincher dance with understanding Lisbeth, the farther away she seems, which may have been Fincher's intention. This universe he has sculpted harks back to the forbidden world of his underrated directorial debut, Alien 3.

Reassembling his creative team from the similarly uneven The Social Network, Fincher achieves a stylistic ecstasy with his last two pictures which clouds their places as minor Fincher. Visually the best works of his career, Social and Dragon cannot match the burning vision of Fight Club and Zodiac. Here we find a master practicing , sketching, shading, as he is remaking darkness.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Steven Spielberg: Living a Boy's Adventure Tale (The Adventures of Tintin)

The Adventures of Tintin, Paramount Pictures, 2011.

The great wonder that is Spielberg has been paving his way with the child inside of us all, cultivating it and allowing the nostalgia to blossom. His undivided devotion to action serials he adored as a boy as well as the mystery tales he ingested in his own youth, give many of his films a gilded edge. The child within us all reaches out towards that wionderful light, the screen, our hidden selves, our subconsciousness.

The Indiana Jones films illustrate this principle adroitly; nobody has crafted an old-fashioned adventure yarn as Spielberg has. His enchanting new film, The Adventures of Tintin, is the first in a proposed trilogy based on Herge's legendary comic strip. The boy sleuth reporter and his faithful dog would seem to be an inspiration on the director's spirit of fun, and so his pioneering animated feature film version was always meant to be. Its reason for being firstly its director's intense cinephilia which demands he repay the cinema which has invigorated him all his life. Spielberg is one of the world's consummate craftsmen; any film by him is injected with an emotional magic afforded so few masters.

The much talked about animation technique, wherein computers capture actual actors and then animate over them, placing them in a vast CGI field of vision, works here more than it ever has for Robert Zemeckis. We feel transported to an alternate world, albeit one filtered through the wonder of youth. As we dizzyingly follow Tintin, Snowy and all of the endearingly odd characters they meet along the way, we are completely bowed over by the director's unbelievable command over the cinematic narrative process.

John Williams' score is inseperable from the soul of Spielberg's film. it soars and sears with that old school, all knowing Williams genius. The visuals of the film narcoticize our senses as Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Robin Hood and the Hardy Boys remind us of the pure essence of all our youths. Spielberg knows how to bottle that mystique; he invites us all to live a boy's adventure tale alongside him.

David Cronenberg: Triangle of Bodies and Minds (A Dangerous Method)

Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender, A Dangerous Method, Sony Pictures Classics, 2011.

The influences of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung are still being felt today, interlocked with our society's art, commerce and reason. Art and especially literature, and by proxy, the cinema, have shown the ripples of psychoanalysis most prominently. John Huston's psychedelic Freud (1962) starring Montgomery Clift has heretofore been the only cinematic respite for Freud to be featured within. Somehow fitting that a director obsessed with visualizing the psychological should choose to make a melodrama out of the crossed paths of two of psychology's most prominent thinkers.

David Cronenberg emerged from the lo-fi Canadian horror movement of the 1970s, crafting some of the most memorable horror films of that era: They Came from Within, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, and his masterpiece Videodrome. Moving more into the mainstream with The Fly (1986), Cronenberg spent the next 25 years of his career creating some of the most singular, stimulating works of an obsessive auteur. Fixated with Bunuel, Hitchcock, and Antonioni, Cronenberg grafted his own bizarre universe onto the cultural conscience, swathing body fear in rapturous visuals and creeping stories of psychosis and unseen terror. In his more recent phase, Cronenberg has made more austere (for him) psychological dramas, the masterpieces Spider, A History of Violence, and Eastern Promises.

How fitting, as I observed, that his newest film is a (melo)dramatization and subsequent investigation into the private lives of two of the most famous men in all psychology.

Cronenberg sweeps us into an intimate, claustrophobic world where Dr. Jung (a once again pitch-perfect Michael Fassbender) slowly becomes awed by his unhinged patient (Keira Knightley, intense) at the expense of his faithful wife (Sarah Gadon). Dr. Freud (Viggo Mortensen, brilliant) begins to spar thoughts with Jung, which culminates in the great rift in psychological circles. What is intersting is how Cronenberg and writer Harold Pinter, adapting his own play, allow this crucial aspect to take a backseat to a transformative love story.

The period is captured alarmingly well, down to the smallest detail. Cronenberg's pacing and framing have never been better, but its his grasp on the binding essence of the picture which is awe-inspiring. Peter Suschitzky lights the proceedings with a grave palette of splendor, while Howard Shore composes one of his most layered, moving scores in some time. All of these ingredients dissolve as do the desires of his triangle of bodies and minds.

Jason Reitman: Femininity, Narrative and Satire (Young Adult)

Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Young Adult, Paramount Pictures, 2011.

The gradual decline over the past decade of so-called "chick flicks" can be attributed to heavy studio reliance on cliches. Bad scripts are standard business with all of their trite machinations. Female central characters and their foils and foibles are almost always presented in an idealized artificiality, which could work in the right director's hands. Insufferable martyrs march through cardboard plot holes as the audience devours it all. A film like Jason Reitman's bravely beguiling Young Adult and its fascinatingly fractured heroine Mavis Gary (a complex turn from Charlize Theron) comes along once in a blue moon, revitalizing the discerning filmgoer's thirst for a tartly affecting protagonist.

With one of the best screenplays of the year, Diablo Cody displays real growth as a writer, moving on from the coyness of Juno and Jennifer's Body to an evolved style with a lot more scope. Her characters feel and sound real, with her distinct dialogue toned down and smarter. Her characters are fucked up and sad and funny, her structure alarming.

The plot is incidental to the depth and style of the creative team behind it all. An ex-popular girl in high school is now a bitter, hard partying young adult novelist divorcee living in Minneapolis. Distressed by an e-mail announcing her highschool sweetheart and wife's newborn baby, she packs up her laptop and lapdog and heads home to win him back. The level of her psychosis lends the film a gravity which hangs over each sequence. Her utter failure and budding bar-friendship with a former highschool geek classmate (an invigorating Patton Oswalt) straddle the thin line between pathetic and uncomfortable.

Reitman hits a career high note here. Always an ace at building narrative, with the indefatigable Young Adult, he masters it . Thank You for Smoking was a brilliant debut, followed by two solid successes, Juno and Up in the Air, which displayed his destiny as a great American satirist with heart. In Young Adult, he has complete control of all elements in the world he is simulating. His devices are so well done that they become invisible.

Charlize Theron has always dazzled us. Transcending the shallow pretty girl roles her momentous beauty landed her, with Monster, North Country, The Burning Plain and now this, she solidifies her reputation as one of the best actresses working in America. The subtle nuances and surmounting psychosis she inhabits and owns with intensity is infectious. Her rapport with earnest shmo Patton Oswalt is a joy to partake of.

For more than anything, Cody and Reitman have crystallized a deeply woven satire. Satirizing "chick-flicks", middle-America, Gen-X disillusion, expectations of femininity, the very core of storytelling. Mavis' deadpan voice-overs from her newest teen novel provide a freshly provocative narrative-mirroring device which enfolds the picture in rich delight. Recalling Alexander Payne at his sharpest, Young Adult is the best "chick-flick" of the year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Brad Bird: Motion in Millions (Mission Impossible:Ghost Protocol)

Tom Cruise, Mission Impossible:Ghost Protocol, Paramount Pictures, 2011.

What fresher, exciting choice as director of a major action picture has there been this year? Brad Bird, the visionary animation auteur behind The Iron Giant, The Impossibles and Ratatouille takes on Tom Cruise's high octane franchise with an ease and fluidity which obscure the fact that this is his first live action film. Following in the inspired footsteps of DePalma, Woo and Abrams, Bird engineers a doozy.

Cruise returns as the unstoppable Ethan Hunt, who, teamed with a well cast Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg, must stop a dastardly Soviet plot. . . . Are we still fighting the Soviets? Anyway, the plot is happenstance to Bird's beguilingly agile action set pieces. One after another roll out and wow us with their spellbinding visual dexterity. The popcorn spy thriller receives a much needed surge of energy from his expert mise en scene.

Cruise carries the flick like old hat, but his star strength is in his ability to make us feel as if its his first time out, right there with us. We never feel a strain, only an unmarked pleasure at being swept away on an escapist masterclass, caught up in the motion which nets millions.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Roman Polanski: The Animal Within (Carnage)

Foster, Reilly, Waltz, Winslet, Carnage, Sony Pictures Classics, 2011.

The inexplicable behavior of human beings has motivated the psychological bent on theater and ultimately the cinema in our time. Yasmina Reza's bourgeoisie character breakdown, God of Carnage became the toast of stages coast to international coast. Roman Polanski would seem an odd choice for the film version of her WASPy bitch-fest. On second thought, at this stage in his uncompromising career, Polanski can do whatever he wants and make it work seamlessly.

Two differing sets of parents meet up at the apartment of one to settle the playground fistfight of their young sons. In essence a claustrophobic chamber piece wherein differing approaches to parenting and life in general are skewed through heated dialogue, Polanski transports the action from Paris to Brooklyn, where he and Reza  dissolve in their intentions and we are offered an aptly vicious portrayal of American hypocrisy. At 80 minutes, it is the director's most brisk picture, while the heated monologues and ranting arguments feel no less important than the pleas of his unforgettable protagonists in The Pianist and Oliver Twist.

In collaboration with master cameraman Pawel Edelman and master composer Alexandre Desplat, and his uncannily gifted cast, Polanski has crafted a singular dark comedy experience which functions both as a conundrum of performance vs. experience and a ballsy little film experiment, a stylistic watershed. Class conflict, wage disparity, the shallow elite, stateside living room subterfuge all combine into a richly savage attack that could have been made by an uncommonly astute 25 year-old.

Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz all do some of their most vital work here. Foster and Reilly especially stand out, her uptight Liberal neuroses bristling brilliantly with his fed up, shouting schlub. Foster flies off the handle into a hysteria heretofore unseen, and Reilly's snapping comebacks straddle the line between hilarity and awkwardness sublimely. Winslet and Waltz are both excellent as well, nailing the stand-offish, milquetoast ennui of east coast inanity. All four locate their characters' hearts, but it's their equal prejudices that we will remember. Polanski's final masterstroke is to make us laugh so heartily while acknowledging the animal within us all.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Steve McQueen: Deep Seated American Masculinity (Shame)

Michael Fassbender, Shame, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2011.

The naturally ingrained instinct for survival and all of the unexamined pathologies which come with it are astutely examined in Steve McQueen's triumphant, deeply affecting sophomore feature, Shame. A dynamic character study shrouded in the common thread of self-loathing and fear which permeates the notion of American masculinity, McQueen's brave new work shatters perceptions of what is acceptable in American narrative filmmaking. Moored by the divine performance of Michael Fassbender, only on McQueen's visual and dream-like flights of fancy does the picture begin to soar away.

Fassbender's Brandon is a creature of ill comforts, a modern metropolitan man who is running from his past (aren't we all?) and attempting to fill the void with compulsive sex, to the degree that he almost shuts off when he is "performing". He is filled with rage and longing. He is a fantastic character, and as brought to life by the immensely gifted Fassbender, he is one of our new decade's most iconic movie characters. His troubled kid sister(Carey Mulligan at her best) shows up, bringing along all of her baggage. Their lives begin to unravel.

McQueen, a British performance artist, made his feature directing debut a few years ago with the extraordinary Hunger, also featuring Fassbender in an amazing performance. That film, with all its IRA and socio-political context, as well as its somnambulent silences and slow/still camera, announced the emergence of a major filmmaking talent. Shame proves he was no fluke. McQueen is here to stay, and we wouldn't have it any other way.

From Bobby Sands to Brandon, McQueen has demonstrated his inclination towards the lost, but also the resilient. His visual rhythms are intoxicating, clipping at our eyes as he weaves it all together.  He is a visual artist of the most exquisite order.  Sean Bobbitt's cinematography and Harry Escott's music score work in unison to bewitch us while making us think. Aside from an uneven third act, this powerhouse featuring two of the best performances of the year raises some of the most intriguing questions, without seeking an answer.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Michel Hazanavicius: Tripping the Limelight Fantastic (The Artist)

Jean Dujardin, The Artist, Weinstein Co., 2011.

The nitrate glow of Hollywood's golden age gets a resuscitation by none other than the French. Gifted director Michel Hazanavicius molds an homage to the cinemas past which is both refreshing and moving. The novelty of the creation is definitely eclipsed in the end by the sheer invigoration of the whole affair.

Anchored by the strength of Jean Dujardin's enveloping turn as silent film star George Valentin, his inviting face, kind eyes and strappingly debonair build belying the purity of his intentions, as he succumbs to the wretched onslaught of sound. The fact that nobody has made a feature length silent film portraying similar events is surprising; this rise and fall story utilizes its style to comment on its subject, a visceral effect which only magnifies the magic on-screen.

Although the story is a war horse, Hazanavicius' culling of the visual and thematic trademarks of silent cinema breaks down those standardized walls. We are enchanted as we are swept up.

Berenice Bejo dazzles as Peppy Miller, a young extra who gets a big break which sees her star rising as Valentin's falls. Their unrequited love story and divide is integral to the structure. Hazanavicius has fun with his casting. A film about Hollywood, made by and starring the French in the leads would never be complete without a slew of American character actors filling out the supporting ranks. John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, Ken Davidian and Beth Grant play second ran deliciously.

The camera births a beauty all its own whilst paying homage: Guillame Schiffman grafts a web of nostalgia with his lens, honoring what has to be the helmer's main inspiration: George Cukor's irreplaceable What Price Hollwood? (1933) and the first of its re-makes: William A. Wellman's A Star is Born (1937). All of the glory and sadness of those backstage showbiz classics are evident as well. Ludovic Bource's music score is pitch-perfect, its imitation of silent film music breaking the mold and soaring into charmingly new heights for film music and its importance as a pivotal function of the completed flick.

For all of its charms, its allegiance, its depth of expression, the dance numbers and especially the dog, Hazanivicius' new picture is inseperable from all of our pasts, as he offers us his hand as we go tripping the limelight fantastic.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Simon Curtis: True Star Turn (My Week with Marilyn)

Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, My Week with Marilyn, Weinstein Co., 2011.

Tis the season for overstuffed, well-intended Brit-Oscar bait, in the form of many a biopic and literary adaptation. This year's The King's Speech in its Academy pedigree, biopic showing a brief period in the subject's life, and a mesmerizing lead performance which is bound to capture awards.

Director Simon Curtis assembles a grandly handsome affair, replete with period-perfect sets and costumes, and follows all the Weinstein's rules of gold by focusing on Marliyn's sojourn in Great Britain to shoot one of her most dismissible films, Laurence Olivier's The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), in order to surround her by as many distinguished Brit-thespians as possible. Branagh, Dench, Jacobi and more fill the proceedings with a high falutin' air, yet somehow, Michelle Williams soars above them all with an astounding performance which defines the true star turn.

Williams, an unassuming, talented young American actress, becomes Marilyn Monroe in a spellbinding turn more akin to a possession than an acting job. For all its quaint production and entertainment value, the picture feels so light beneath Williams' fearless invocation; the picture itself almost cannot contain her!

Touching on themes of artistic conflict, especially the rift between old-fashioned acting and the Method, as well as generally displaying the journey of making a movie in however slack tones, Curtis achieves a moving picture which somehow manages to be smile-inducing and melancholy at the same time. Williams' display of Marilyn's struggle with addiction and depression is some of the best acting I've seen this side of Streep in a long while. Eddie Redmayne manages to make his lovestruck innocent feel authentic and new, and Judi Dench steals her scenes as veteran stage actress Dame Sybil Thorndike, who offers Marilyn a friendly hand.

What we take away with us is that Michelle Williams is one of the greatest actresses of her generation. Her Marilyn matches the depth of range she displayed in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005). Barely scratching the surface in Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine (2010), in the incomparable Marilyn she has found the role she was born to play.

Werner Herzog: Cycles of Justice (Into the Abyss)

Into the Abyss, IFC Films, 2011.

From a disarmingly ambling opening to its calm beholding of loss and torment, German New Wave master Werner Herzog's new documentary, Into the Abyss, stoically regards many facets of our culture and social constructs. As in all his works, the abyss is both the emptiness within ourselves and its manifestation in nature and the unseen. A sad cast of characters live before the lens through their piercing words, no matter what side of the story we find them on.

The American death penalty remains a hot-button issue, dividing citizens as much, if not more, than other volatile subjects. Our punishment is a bureaucracy so built up, a machine so well oiled and working, that it eats up many without the education or money to defend themselves. Despite this, Herzog films his story objectively, almost passively. He plays police videos, films the haunted murder sites, interviews fringe characters of the law. But as we spend time with the two convicted killers, their loved ones, and the victim's families, that passiveness gains an unremitting power which puts everything into an emotional as well as intellectual perspective for us.

The failings of an unfair system, the society itself which breeds poverty and crime, the inconsolable emptiness left by death, are communicated with a strength of vision which is staggering. This last decade has seen a fascinating if unassuming body of work by the great Herzog. His documentaries Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss all penetrate the strange power within and without us all. Invincible, Rescue Dawn, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? all showed him at his most astute as a narrative artist.

His fascination with the mysteries of our world keeps his works alive with an air of sweet abandon. In his gaze, life shapes the tragedy of man. In this cycle of justice in our country, Herzog easily finds the abyss he knows too well. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Alexander Payne: Death and the Family Man (The Descendants)

George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, The Descendants, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2011.

The Capra everyman, the Renoir pacifist, the average Joe is manifest in George Clooney, in a mesmerizingly nuanced performance in American master Alexander Payne's exceptional new picture, The Descendants.

Following two modern comic masterpieces, Election and About Schmidt, as well as two excellent films, Citizen Ruth and Sideways, Payne has created an immensely warm tribute to the man and the family through thick and thin. In casting Clooney, Payne has solidified his stance to make a movie as mercurial as life itself. The Descendants feels much more lived in, less stylized than Sideways, which isn't a detraction from either film; to the contrary, these things attest to their strengths. Payne transmits a human touch which is unmistakable. Here he continues his examination of American masculinity; his male protagonists are legendary, and Clooney does not disappoint. His perforation of his star persona and ability to honestly inhabit his character are astonishing.

Elsewhere, Phedon Papamichael's continued working relationship with Payne flowers as he lithely captures the beauty and sadness of the tropical landscapes, the soft touches of his great lens aiding our understanding of the characters' hearts and minds. The setting of Hawaii is inspired and mined well by the company. The ensemble cast including Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Michael Ontkean and Matthew Lillard are all typically fascinating casting by Payne, who still favors mixing professional with natural actors. Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller both give breakout performances as Matt's two daughters, shattered by their mother's coma. Elements of fear and loss come to the fore, as this middle aged Hawaiian businessman must deal with his two daughters and an upcoming family decision to sell ancestral land.

Payne allows scenes to roll their course, Clooney in sweet control of the proceedings. Occasionally, Woodley or Forster steal a scene. The enveloping feeling of the island, ancestry, family, materialism, masculinity and sexuality grasps us and only comes loose as several scenes in the third act falter or just plain don't work. Overall, Payne succeeds in summing up the fears and strengths of the modern American family man.

Martin Scorsese: Mechanism of Marvel (Hugo)

Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Hugo, Paramount Pictures, 2011.

For sheer unadulterated love of cinema, no modern film director can hold a candle to Scorsese, not even the fervent Tarantino. Scorsese's boyhood wonder at the mechanisms behind the motions transfigured into a ferocious body of work, mostly known for his incomparable crime dramas. In the past decade, he went from helming one of his best films ever (Bringing Out the Dead) to an unofficial quadrilogy of excellent pictures starring the brilliant Leonardo Dicaprio, culminating in one of his other best films ever (Shutter Island). With Hugo, he steps back and away from melodramatics to steep himself in a "kids" flick set in a Paris train station in the 1920s, which we all really know is just an excuse for the maestro to compose yet another valentine to the cinema.

From its very first frame, Hugo is a gorgeously pulsing hermetic world leaking heart fluid. Scorsese's Paris is a jewel of shimmering delights, effervescently shot by the irreplaceable Robert Richardson, whose mastery of vision has loaned Scorsese some of his best visuals (Casino, Shutter Island). We feel apart of bustling little Hugo's(the magnetic Asa Butterfield) fantastic world, a Paris on the verge of semi-modernity. Plunging us in an ultimately stumbling block plot about uncovering a family secret, little Hugo and his bestie (Chloe Grace Moretz) scour the station and Paris at large for the missing pieces of a puzzle beginning with Hugo's inventor father (Jude Law) and leading to French cinema master Georges Melies ( a regal Ben Kingsley).

As you can imagine, Scorsese runs with all of the intricate imagery of gears and springs, winding clocks and cranking early cameras/projectors. The wonder of the pioneering days of cinema unfurls in a heart rending fashion, our eyes already spellbound by the rapturous imagery. Paying homage to D.W. Griffith, Fritz Lang, G.W. Pabst, Charlie Chaplin, F.W. Murnau, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, the maestro is reveling in his righteous roots. John Logan's script is unusually tight and buoyant, save for a collapsing third act which needed more work. The cast is exceptional; Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, and Christopher Lee round out the hearty list. Howard Shore's score is alternately playful and solemn, incorporating all of the joys and terrors of childhood.

Scorsese culls together a potent world which pulls you under. You will behold his craftsmanship with marvel. For, even though in the end it is not one his supreme works, Hugo's mechanism is made up of such deep adoration and passion that it is hard not to be deeply affected by it all.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Lars Von Trier: Only on Earth (Melancholia)

Kirsten Dust, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia, Magnolia Pictures, 2011.

With his last two pictures, one of the most important directors in the world, Lars Von Trier, has been moving into a new phase of his creative life, pushing out from the epic naturalism/surrealism of his Golden Heart and USA trilogies to challenge himself as a narrative provocateur, a storytelling shaman. The way he shapes images and sounds into miraculous exaltation is alarming to say the least.

In his last feature, Antichrist, he pushed the limits of comfort and decency for himself and the audience in a film that blurred the line between arthouse and horror. At the time it seemed one of his lesser efforts, but as the days bear down, it feels more and more prescient. And so with hoots and hollers comes his metaphysical-psychological genre smasher Melancholia, fresh from the festival rounds. A typically idiosyncratic cast enacts Von Trier's insulated world of depression and entrapment, at an isolated Polanski-esque castle.

What one must understand from the outset is that Von Trier's only concern is getting to the heart, the emotional truth of the matter, by the least traveled way necessary. He only dreams to break the molds. He yearns to tell a story in a way we've never seen before, and in that respect, he is one of the few visionaries populating the international film scene as I write.

With Melancholia, the master has crafted one of his most jarring, fantastic and ultimately beauteous works. An awe-inspiring opening consisting of slo-mo tableaux of scenes to be played out in the film, is unlike anything you've seen before. Classically divided into two chapters, each named for a sister; Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the uptight, middle-aged married sister, on the edge, afraid, trembling to love; Justine (an amazing Kirsten Dunst), the free-spirited, bi-polar younger sister, desperate, alone.

As Von Trier's trademark slice of life home movie camera captures many private moments in them and their families lives over two nights one month apart, first at Justine's disastrous wedding, then on the last night on Earth, we come to know these women as well as we can. And that is partially the point. Von Trier paints such an intensely drawn out portrait of depression as to have given the film its title alone. Dunst and Gainsbourg both surpass the limits of emotional control in their flawlessly fractured performances as the two unbalanced sisters at the eye of the storm. 

Von Trier utilizes the Sci-fi element as he did with horror in Antichrist. As a vessel to communicate the wonder that is within and without ourselves. The planet Melancholia's collision course with Earth is illustrated in a subtly dread inducing style which borders on the marvelous, ultimately the sublime. Von Trier's vision is grand and dark, as his brilliant use of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde reflects, building all of the naturalistically eerie melodrama to an apocalyptic vision of a climax. The complexity of humanity and the wonders of the universe are only on earth, where a mortal can shape the way we think about art.

Bill Condon: Further Flatulence of the Vampires (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1)

Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1, Summit Entertainment, 2011.

Is it really so strange that an adolescent girl's fear projected fantasies should mass market and mass media into a frenzy of our times? Not really, its been happening since time immemorial. Angst and lust have combined to create all encroaching pop culture phenomenons at least since the Bible.

Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series is nothing new to the block, in all of its Victorian tragic melodramatic anti-glory. Her simplistic horror-romance series has transformed into heavy cash flow. Luckily for all of us, talented filmmaker Catherine Hardwicke fit Twilight into her troubled teen ouevre, in the footsteps of Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown and The Nativity Story. She nicely gleaned the pain of growing up different and being in love, with an admittedly cheezy horror slant.

The series has only gone downhill from their. Chris Weitz's New Moon was a thudding bore, as the ignoble intricacies of Meyer's hackneyed plot began to insinuate themselves. David Slade fared better with the guilty pleasure rush of Eclipse. But now what? After all that?

Bill Condon seems a bit overqualified for all this vampy tween fluff. Having helmed two excellent biopics, Gods and Monsters (1998) and Kinsey (2004), as well as scripting Rob Marshall's Oscar-winner Chicago (2002), all this , if you'll permit me, hogwash, seems beneath him. And yet, under the circumstances he holds up the continuity of the series rather well. It's not his fault his writer and a lot of his actors are truly wretched.

Overall, the stodgy, drawn out proceedings are well made by Condon and his cinematographer, Guillermo Navarro, who steep the hysterics in Autumnal, Pacific-Northwest visual pastiches. Carter Burwell's score is arguably the best thing about the entire affair, its sweep and deeply felt emotion something these tales could never comprehend. Stewart, Pattinson and Lautner are all actually very good throughout.

In the end, all the brouhaha seems like much ado about nothing, which is fitting with most modern cultural phenomenons. Their flashes in the pan smell like fetid flatulence in hindsight.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Clint Eastwood: Brief History of Man (J. Edgar)

Leonardo Dicaprio, J. Edgar, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2011.

With his plaintive, washed miracle movies, Clint Eastwood has proven himself one of our great American masters. In the last twenty years, he has gifted us two of the best American films ever made, Unforgiven and Mystic River. He has also afforded us a handful of exceptional nuggets of pop culture and history, especially A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling and Hereafter. What other contemporary filmmaker has offered us such a streaming, aching body of (recent) work which has infected the way we watch and make movies? His touch is of a Ford or a Hawks in these fading days.

His fascination with mankind and bureaucracy is carried on into his perplexing, unmissable new film, J. Edgar. In essence a fractured biopic of infamous FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, Eastwood works hard with his intuitive scripter, Dustin Lance Black (Big Love, Milk), to dig into the heart and mind of one of the most feared and influential American men of the 20th century. On the fringes are the usual earmarks of a filmed biography, the other celebrated characters, the big events, the shading in at the corners. But what is truly remarkable about Eastwood's new picture is that it never loses sight of the man, the weak, frightened boy quaking in Hoover's shoes.

Seamlessly slipping from his young adulthood and rise to his golden years and fall, the classical structure and reliable Eastwood style are punctuated by a sadness which cannot be sewed in. Yet tragedy is somber and only seeps out at intervals in Eastwood's capable hands. His old-fashioned yet personal biography does feel scrappy and disjointed, but that is all apart of its endearment.

Leonardo Dicaprio is the undeniable soul of the film; he brings a gravity to Hoover which is dignified but sorrowful. His turn is physical, restrained and shattering. It is easily one of the best performances of his  career. Although at times critical of aging make-up, it grew on me here and became an integral part of the plotline. Armie Hammer gives a breakthrough performance as Edgar's lifetime companion, Clyde Tolson. Naomi Watts also gives one of her career best turns, as Edgar's lifetime secretary. Her eyes belie fear and love. Judi Dench is likewise exceptional as Hoover's smothering mother.

The homosexuality is ingeniously done by Black and Eastwood. We feel entirely steeped in the time periods allocated, which are brought to life perfectly by Eastwood's stock team. Tom Stern's cinematography is a thing of faded, nostalgic beauty. Eastwood's score is mournful and evocative. This all comes together mysteriously, with a master's fine touch which declares that this man's work, this man himself, represents all masculinity in the 20th century, hiding and expectant.

Tarsem Singh: Gods and Demi-Gods (Immortals)

Henry Cavill, Immortals, Relativity Media, 2011.

The sword and sandal genre which officiated itself in early-60s drive-in America, swung the spectrum from the Harryhausen classics, Jason of the Argonauts, et al, to Euro-trash imports the likes of the Steve Reeves Hercules flicks. Trickling down through the decades into films as varied as Clash of the Titans and 300, the standard features brawny men and busty women in ancient Greece/Rome, torn between earthly passion and the fruits of the Gods, on some convoluted adventure involving mythical creatures.

Visionary director Tarsem Singh makes a welcome entry into the sub-genre, with his intoxicating Immortals. Essentially a rehash of myth and malfeasance, with all of the usual players in place; Theseus, King Hyperion, Zeus; what Tarsem sets out to do is not tell the story in any groundbreaking way, but to redefine the way we see it. This has landed him many detractors. His earlier works were genre-bending, not easily defined. The Cell remains one of the best American thrillers of the last decade, and his underrated The Fall threw out plot to redefine reality and cinema as we see them.

While Immortals may be his least affecting film, loaded with standardized bad lines and non-acting, it stands up to his first two as visually shattering. His use of color, tableaux. staging, pacing are all immaculate. His ancient-Greece as fantasia pulls you in, and you become lost in a magical, dangerous world. And is that not what movies are supposed to do? Transport us so that we are not alone, we are stimulated in our minds and eyes?

Tarsem may be one of the purest of all contemporary auteurs.  His vision is uncompromising in the fury of its purity, and Immortals is no exception. Henry Cavill is God-like in his physical splendor, Mickey Rourke chews at the heart of the film, Frida Pinto is alluring and mysterious as the Virgin Oracle, and both James McAvoy and John Hurt get interesting mileage out of their unique characters. Towards the end, the frenzied rhythm becomes almost unbearable as head shattering splatter takes precedence. Yet, this brave director keeps hold of his world of Gods and demi-Gods, and never lets it go.

Roland Emmerich: Historical Pastoral (Anonymous)

Vanessa Redgrave, Rhys Ifans, Anonymous, Columbia Pictures, 2011.
With a confidence and cadence which can be extraordinary to witness, studio director Roland Emmerich belies his f/x apocalypse roots to craft an engagingly tweaked filmization of the Shakespeare authorship furor. Although I never once bought his patchwork plot, Emmerich alarmingly recreates Elizabethan England in all of its muck and rigor. The Globe, the squares, the palace, and wide angle sky view CGI shots of the great city are all breathtaking.

All particulars of the production are in order. A suspenseful, well written script, impeccable historical detail and an excellent cast round out what is arguably the best film Emmerich has ever made, which is not saying much. A German emigre obsessed with Spielberg, he came to America and made two of the best studio sci-fiers of the 90s, Universal Soldier and Stargate. But then he made a pile of muck including Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 B.C. and 2012. His inclination towards mass destruction is only rivaled by his leaden pacing.

In Anonymous, the helmer has apparently found something to get all sharpened up about. The theory questioning the authorship of the Bard's plays is ridiculous and offensive. The mish-mash of historical persons, places and things is head spinning. Yet somehow, Emmerich pulls it all off. He is unequivocally aided by his top flight cast. especially Brit-character actor Rhys Ifans, who is delightful in the lead, obviously relishing a rare chance to shine. And the grand Vanessa Redgrave, herself, hasn't had a role this juicy in some time. Her Queen Elizabeth comes off as cagey and sly, with her portrayor luxuriating in the limelight.

Shakespeare's England has never before been celebrated in ambiance as it is being trampled upon in history. Emmerich takes the historical and twists it into a frothy pastoral.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Drake Doremus: Ordinary Love Story (Like Crazy)

Felicity Jones, Anton Yelchin, Like Crazy, Paramount Vantage, 2011.

A meet-cute cum pseudo-indie youthquake, Drake Doremus' third feature film is a cute, heartfelt if marginally average romantic-drama. Infused with a joie de vivre intrinsic to self-conscious coming-of-age love stories, Doremus interjects heart wherever he can, to his war horse, transcontinental lovers parted only to wind up together. . . .

The young cast is adroit. The likable Anton Yelchin (Terminator:Salvation and The Beaver) is especially poignant in his remonstrances of  young American masculinity and its restrictions. Felicity Jones is delightful as his betrothed. Jennifer Lawrence nails a secondary role, her heartbreak palpable. The script is well written. The visual style is typical for this sort of indie love story.

In the long run, I forgot about this sweet simplicity fifteen minutes after it was over. Though there are many good things about it, Like Crazy is too similar to too many other movies. It needed to lose its sense of the ordinary to truly transport our hearts.

Sean Durkin: She's Just a Picture ( Martha Marcy May Marlene)

John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen, Louisa Krause, Christopher Abbott, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2011

Word of mouth spreads only so far, until sheer talent and vision can only complete the circle of shit. Sean Durkin's directorial debut is one of the year's very best, a shadowplay of melodrama and nightmare, which unveils a fragile, mesmerizing young actress named Elizabeth Olsen, inhabiting a perplexing young woman torn between cult and family. It's one of the best performances of the year.

Durkin's low-gloss, rural indie-private hell ingests elements of Antonioni, Polanski, Loden, and Wiseman, shooting them back out as a Bergmanesque backwoods shocker. Durkin's gift is insurmountable in his exhilerating grasp on narrative as a whole. Unifying theme with vision, he bravely tackles insanity and phenomenon of the cult, in a fragmented, shivery mindmelt.

Olsen is putty in his hands, but allows herself enough of a core to stand on her own. Who is this woman? Is she an innocent girl? Is she insane? Is she real? The very notion of the cinema is called to the fore by the daring Durkin. His secondary cast is wonderful, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbett are all memorable, but special mention is due John Hawkes (Deadwood, Winter's Bone), who, although it would appear that he has cornered the market on sleazy rural indie flick creeps, is truly chilling as the Catskill cult leader.

The film's best scene occurs when, the sun setting, the cult has gathered around in the barnyard. Hawkes, as Patrick, begins strumming his guitar and dedicates an eerie ballad to "Marcy Mae". Durkin focuses on Olsen's dusky face as her eyes tremble, the music questioning her identity. Her face wastes away in the wan light, and the identification of a woman ia accurately sung by Patrick (Hawkes): she is just a picture.

Bruce Robinson: Gonzo Shenanigans (The Rum Diary)

Giovanni Ribisi, Johnny Depp, and Michael Rispoli, The Rum Diary, Film District, 2011.

The spirited insanity of Hunter S. Thompson ideally met its match in director Terry Gilliam's 90s masterpiece Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. So why, many faithful might ask, would they risk a pseudo-sequel, prequel of sorts, based on another novel by the great American journalist cum novelist. The Rum Diary is one of the late Thompson's most revered works, so at least Johnny Depp is reprising his role as alter-ego.

What we must comprehend is that this is no direct sequel, and so audiences must not come expecting the Gilliam fever hallucination. Talented if scarce writer-director Bruce Robinson divests little of himself, yet holds together the entire affair, with more than a little help from Depp's inspired performance, always a little sad at the corners, homaging his real life buddy Thompson. Robinson, another eccentric Brit auteur, albeit almost forgotten, after breaking through with two brilliant pictures in the late 80s, Withnail & I (1987) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1989), adroitly recreates an era in time, with dreamy images thanks to Darius Wolski and an upbeat score by Christopher Young complementing the proceedings.

Although it does portray severe alcoholism, Robinson keeps the spirit of the thing afloat. It literally glides along, effervescent, with little pieces of pleasure. The superb cast, headed by Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi, Richard Jenkins and Amber Heard, all commingle with ease, and are allowed to shine in their own peculiar ways.

I went in expecting something different from the zany surrealism of Terry Gilliam. What I discovered was a harmless, good entertainment, highlighted by style and great acting. How this well done picture ended up being dismissed and flopping, we'll never know.

Kevin Smith: Pushing that Button (Red State)

Melissa Leo, Red State, Lionsgate Films, 2011.

Kevin Smith has built up an idiosyncratic place among American filmmakers. He is one of the rare comedic helmers who also happens to be a brilliantly cohesive artist, who utilizes humor to illuminate facets of our society and ourselves. His visually ordinary films are a wealth of pun and circumstance, his scripts are delicate works of wastrel beauty. Even his most easily dismissed films, such as Mallrats, Jersey Girl and Cop Out offer shrewd youth culture, unwarranted emotionalism and astute, impassioned homaging to 80s cop buddy movies.

His strengths as a cinematic jester notwithstanding, Smith also triumphs as a cultural thermometer, haphazardly but ingeniously spewing back the marginalized climate. In this respect, his brave, odd new film, Red State, recalls his best film yet, Dogma, in that they both reflect the status quo with a wickedly young at heart glint. Their writer-director walks the fine line of dark comedy expertly.

Smith utilizes a barebones digital look, and in his atmosphere and characterizations/dialogues, he cleverly spoofs both generic empires of the teen comedy and the teen horror films of recent. This escalates into something much more fundamentally wrong , not in our cinemas, but on our streets. The Manson Family meets Waco as teen horror suddenly segues into a stand-off between a demented religious cult and the disorganized FBI.

Michael Parks, John Goodman and Melisso Leo all head the game cast with ferocious performances, some of the best work for all three in some time. Smith teetoes the highwire between satire and terror, pushing that red button, bulldozing religion and government frailties in an exploitational devotional.

Friday, November 4, 2011

J.C. Chandor: Big Business (Margin Call)

Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Margin Call, Roadside Attractions, 2011.

What with the cumulative financial debacle our country has become embroiled in, a teeth gnashing depiction of the symbolic night before the bail out seems eerily on target. Writer-Director J.C. Chandor displays depth and acute visuals in his alternately big, cold, corporate and small, claustrophobic, melodramatic drama Margin Call.

Essentially a showcase for his seasoned cast to chew up scenery and pair off with one another, Chandor holds his end of the bargain with a semi-complex, razor sharp script and calculatedly artistic framing. Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci and Simon Baker all lock horns, and we, the audience, relish their particular movements and words, as a sort of rampart to the harsh times we live in. Their masquerade gives face to one of the most outrageous capitalist scandals of all time.

Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley are both very good as the younger guys at the corp getting baptized by fire. The tight setting of one night of fateful decisions, confined to a high rise, sets the film apart. Recalling the skullduggery of Oliver Stone's classic Wall Street, Chandor delivers a strong first feature worth salvaging from the pseudo-indie slop.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Andrew Niccol: Of Time and the City (In Time)

Amanda Seyfried, Justin Timberlake, In Time, 20th Century Fox, 2011.

The Science-fiction film genre has taken a nosedive, of late, along with almost all other Hollywood genres. The status quo is barely hanging on, and the seams of the style are barely in place, thanks to films such as Danny Boyle's Sunshine and Duncan Jones' Moon. Writer-Director Andrew Niccol has always held a unique monopoly on Science-fiction American films. His philosophical leanings and hyper-stylized visuals led to Gattaca and Simone, two fantastically original sci-fiers (or in the case of the under-appreciated Simone, pseudo-sci-fier.).

Much of the same can be witnessed in his adventurous, fascinating new film, In Time. As with his iridescent Gattaca, Niccol sets his political parable in an Orwellian super-city structure, stratified by an obsession with time. The idea is ingenious, and for the most part, its originator holds his own, crafting an intoxicating, hyper stylized futureworld, shot through with a neo-noir retro vibe recalling Rudolph's Trouble in Mind. This is fitting, as In Time contains elements of both the Western and the Film Noir. Roger Deakins' camera is a miracle, mining the lights of another time, unifying the visual elements with the symbolic storyline. 

The cast is stellar, with Justin Timberlake carrying his first picture, proving once and for all that he is a gifted actor. Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Vincent Kartheiser, Johnny Galecki, Olivia Wilde and Alex Pettyfer are all in top form. Although Niccol loses focus in the Bonnie and Clyde stretches, his runaway love story works. Craig Armstrong's music score soars over the well executed chase scenes.

Niccol has always displayed an endearing potential for mastering his own corner of the Sci-fi genre. His fixation on the constructs of our world were demonstrated brilliantly in his screenplay for Peter Weir's The Truman Show. With his most recent film, he displays yet again his staggering singularity as an architect of cinematic cities and time.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Pedro Almodovar: Sex Without a Face (The Skin I Live In)

Antonio Banderas, Blanca Suarez, The Skin I Live In, Sony Pictures Classics, 2011.

Pedro Almodovar remains one of the few and finest directors currently working that is comparable to the past masters. His finite grip on style ansd substance sets his films apart as truly visionary and unique. In the last decade, his career has reached a pinnacle, with his camp and quirk slowly transmuting into melodrama, then human drama. Talk to Her is one of the greatest films he has ever crafted.

With his chilly, meticulous new picture, The Skin I Live In, Almodovar pays homage to the classic film noir melodrama Gods while materializing a shocking, fascinating and deeply disturbing parable of desire, gender and modern medicine. His palette is spot-on, his screenplay glues you to your seat as usual, with its twisting sheen and morose jauntiness.

Antonio Banderas mines depths of his screen persona he has left untouched for decades, while Elena Anaya and Marisa Paredes match him step by step. Alberto Iglesias' score is a windswept homage to Racksin and Hermann. The pleasures and discomforts of this precise work will haunt you days afterwards.

While many of the sexual escapades hark back to his over the top 90s, Almodovar's main influences here would seem to obviously be Georges Franju's arthouse horror film Eyes Without a Face as well as David Cronenberg's cold, creepy erotic medical thriller Dead Ringers. As with any great artist, Almodovar has ingested the past and redefined the future.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lucky McKee: Family Matters (The Woman)

Pollyanna McIntosh, The Woman, Bloody Disgusting, 2011.

Cult Horror auteur Lucky McKee (May, The Woods) cultivates feminist horror films which are alternately dubious, cheezy, disturbing, campy and invigorating. He is one of the few younger Horror directors who is truly gifted with vision. His new film, The Woman, adapted from the notorious Jack Ketchum novel, is a myriad of things. It pulses with life, resounds with artifice, titillates, horrifies and leaves us panting, out of breath.

A low budget look and feel only impacts his mise-en-scene favorably, as the rough hues only make the unspeakable that much closer to us. Character actor Sean Bridgers gets a rare chance to shine in the role of a lifetime - he treads the tightrope of caricature and madness brilliantly. Angela Bettis, the fragile and fascinating star of Mckee's earlier triumph, the creepy cool May, is magnificent as his put upon wife. Pollyanna McIntosh, Lauren Ashley Carter and Zach Rand all lend excellent support, almost spellbound in their respective roles.

A twisted and twisty family drama, which seems cliched but flails to life under McKee's certain hand, descends into madness and terror as a small town family captures a feral woman. The ingenious way in which McKee shapes the narrative to flavor his themes of male patriarchy, female victimization and masculine violence and its transfer from father to son is all apart of the sick pleasure of the picture. Imperfect, yet so integral in its refusal to curtail to the current mediocrity of the genre which attempts to confine it.

David Frankel: Of Birds and Men (The Big Year)

Owen Wilson, Steve Martin, Jack Black, The Big Year, 20th Century Fox, 2011.

Hollywood studio workman David Frankel delves once again into the usually generic star driven comedy and comes up holding aces. For a director with no discernible style or motif, it could be said that the good star driven comedy is his motif. He locates just enough heart in his characters to make them human, while leaving them adrift in a patented movie world not quite real. Previously, he delivered the good comedies The Devil Wears Prada and Marley and Me.

With The Big Year, he ably guides three endearingly great comedic actors, Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, from a script by Howard Franklin from Mark Obmascik's book, through pratfalls and shenanigans as three "birders" or bird watchers, as they loathe to be called. Martin's snark and circumstance lend an uncanny edge to his businessman birder. Black's zany physicality wins us over to the side of his schlubby slacker birder. And Wilson's barbed niceties mask his egomaniacal antagonist.

What binds the picture and its typicalities together is the utter obsession of these three fellows and their demented pursuit of a "big year". Throughout the film, they are moored to their homes by the women in their lives, played well by JoBeth Williams, Dianne Wiest and Rosamund Pike. As par for the course, Frankel engages us with character and narrative insightfully enough to make the whole affair click.

Craig Brewer & Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. : Better in the Eighties (Footloose and The Thing)

Miles Teller, Kenny Wormald, Footloose, Paramount Pictures, 2011.

Remake fever has reached its apex when they will remake anything and everything. This week's new movies display talented craftsmen going through the motions, redoing two pivotal eighties films that didn't need redoing. Instead of meeting the status quo, they would have been far better off creating original works.

Craig Brewer came on the scene as one of the most interesting narrative artists of the last decade with his gritty, uncompromising films Hustle and Flow & Black Snake Moan. With his third feature, he jumps on the Glee fever bandwagon and goes for the paycheck. Its not that his Footloose is all that bad, its just not very good. The original Herbert Ross flick wasn't particularly good, either, its just steeped in an 80s nostalgia which some find irresistible, a cheezy comfort, excellent cast and great tunes of the times.

This new Footloose lacks all of these things. Even though Brewer injects a lot of his attention to Southern detail, and some of the dancing is cool to watch, the young cast is uninteresting and disposable, maybe all except the aw shucks likable Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole) in the Chris Penn role. None of these youngsters can hold a candle to the charismas of Bacon, Singer, Parker and Penn in the original. Dennis Quaid fills a thankless role commandingly, replacing John Lithgow from the original. There's just not much here to keep your spirit truly jiving.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, The Thing, Universal Pictures, 2011.

John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) gets a stylish but pointless retread in Norwegian helmer Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr.'s new retelling. Yes, Carpenter's creepy eighties masterwork was itself a remake, of Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World (1951). Yet all those films shared was a plotline and a creatively menacing dread. Stylistically, they are worlds apart - 50s drive-in sci-fi vs. 80s sci-fi/horror.

Heijningen, Jr.'s remake is atmospheric and well crafted, its just that it adheres so closely to Carpenter's film that you might as well watch the better version. Some of the effects are gruesomely over the top and Mary Elizabeth Winstead has a fascinating screen presence.  Yet despite all that is stylish about the picture, it just draws attention to the superiority of the Carpenter classic.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Mateo Gil: The South American West (Blackthorn)

Sam Shepard, Blackthorn, Magnolia Pictures, 2011.

The neglected American art form of the Western gets a considerable lift in Spanish writer-director Mateo Gil's incandescent new film, Blackthorn. A follow-up, of sorts, to whatever became of legendary outlaw Butch Cassidy, after the end of George Roy Hill's iconic film, Gil and his excellent team pull us into a sweeping, yet austere and intimate, counterpart to the Wild West we've always known through tall-tales, television and movies. The South American West is just as dangerous, and possibly even more dangerously breathtaking.

Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia penetrates the heart of the distant vistas, leaving just enough room for our imaginations to take shape. Gil rarely steps wrong in materializing scripter Miguel Barros' languid, sparse world. It's a tricky thing for what is in essence an adventure film, to pull off, but Gil triumphs, tipping his hat to Altman, Ford, Eastwood, Hawks, Leone, and Malick in the fascinating process.

Sam Shepard, the ruggedly laconic actor-playwright, finds the correct scaling of introversion and aggression as Cassidy. He carries the picture in a turn so good it reminds us how many underused actors of yesteryear are out there. As he makes his way through the escalating violence of this new West, this episodic, moody mini-epic takes flight. Eduardo Noriega and Steven Rea bristle and combust as his cohorts along the way.

Gil previously directed two genre-films little seen outside of Spain, the thriller Nobody Knows Anybody (1999) and the horror film Spectre (2006), both well done. He is better known as the other half of one of the most interesting writing teams currently working. With writer-director Alejandro Amenabar, he created the indispensable films Thesis (1996),Open Your Eyes (1998), The Others (2001), The Sea Inside (2004) and Agora (2009). This exceptional work is conclusive; with the great Western Blackthorn, Gil has arrived as a masterful filmmaker in his own right.

Shawn Levy: Schmaltz and Robotics (Real Steel)

Hugh Jackman, Real Steel, Touchstone Pictures, 2011.

One last gasp of Summer heat comes ambling our way courtesy of executive producers Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg in the entertaining, uneven Real Steel. Basically an extension of Spielberg's technically steamrolling Transformers flicks, heavy on the Spielbergian sentimentality, which minus Spielberg equals schmaltz.

Essentially a rock 'em sock 'em remake of Menahem Golan's campy 80s classic Over the Top, director Shawn Levy gives us Michael Bay light set pieces of small town carnivals and underground robot boxing matches in all their nine ball, grimy biker glory. An excellent cast including Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, newcomer Dakota Goyo, Hope Davis and James Rebhorn are lost amid the sweepingly senseless mise en scene, drenched in a long-lost father-son relationship which would have felt flat in the first draft.

Aside from all of this, there is something to be said for getting lost in the sheer star magnetism that is Hugh Jackman. An old-school movie star and a damned good actor, Jackman all but carries the picture on his rippling shoulders. The boxing bots are an impressive mix of animatronix and CGI, and Danny Elfman concocts an oddly dreamy, guitar heavy score.

As almost always, the problem lies in the writing and direction. The screenplay written by John Gatins, is a drearily pedestrian affair. And Shawn Levy, a middling helmer best known for the mediocre Night at the Museum flicks, never really gets his foothold. He seems to be drifting from film to soulless film, a potential author in search of a style.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: To Be Displaced (A Screaming Man)

Youssouf Djaoro, A Screaming Man, Film Movement, 2011.

In the tradition of the great politicized film artists of the 1960s, Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun chronicles the social and spiritual downfall of a fringe dweller, dissecting his country's colonial past and tumultuous present in the brave new film, A Screaming Man.

Taking pages from Glauber Rocha's demystifying revolutions, Tomas Gutierrez Alea's darkly comedic everymen and Yilmaz Guney's socio-political exposes, Haroun constructs a fascinating tower of glass which he finally shatters and invites us, as pro-active audience, to pick up the pieces of. Youssouf Djaoro turns in a magnetic performance as Adam, a former athletic star turned swimming pool attendant for one of the biggest hotels in Chad. His pride at his work infects everybody around him, his co-workers, admiring women and his worshipful son included. When he loses his job, his displacement and subsequent look around him, at his own life and country, proffers cataclysmic results.

Haroun weaves his picture with the lightest touch, avoiding the overdone tone of another African film earlier this year, Life, Above All. We become completely immersed in Haroun's natural born gift as a storyteller and in Djaoro's magnificently sensitive portrayal of a diluted individual who believably becomes conscious of the stratification within his country. The threads of melodrama all intertwine over this solitary figure, purely fabricated and made flesh by the steady hand of a greatly gifted director.

Jacques Rivette: Perplexed Under the Big Top (Around a Small Mountain)

Jane Birkin, Sergio Castellitto, Around a Small Mountain, Cinema Guild, 2010.

Fifty golden years later, the influence of the French New Wave is still apparent in everything from Woody Allen to David Fincher. The liberation of the constraints on the film form was heralded by a convergent group of exciting film critics turned fascinating auteurs in their own right. We lost Truffaut far too soon, and only recently kissed Rohmer and Chabrol goodbye, leaving us with perennial provocateur Godard and the most overlooked of the group, Jacques Rivette.

Rivette was the late bloomer, taking his sweet time to compile his film debut, Paris Belongs to Us (1962), which proved to be one of the most challenging pictures in the collective canon. Over the next 45 years, Rivette helmed twenty feature films and a handful of shorts. All of his works share common themes of time, dreams, love, and death. But above all, his works are self-reflective communications on the intimacy and implosive effects of cinema itself. 

From his riveting mid-50s essays on Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray to his eyebrow raising yet dead-on insistence that Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995) is one of the greatest films ever made, Rivette lives, breathes and dreams the cinema. More than any other common thread, The Nun (1966), L'Amour Fou (1968), Out 1 (1971), Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), Merry-Go-Round (1981), La Belle Noiseuse (1991), Joan the Maid (1994), Va Savoir (2001), and The Story of Marie and Julien (2003), aside from being some of the most fabulously kinetic films ever made, are about the sanctity of storytelling through the camera's eye.

In the ranks of the world's great octogenarian auteurs (along with Godard, Resnais, Varda, Oliveira, Bertolucci and Nagisa), Rivette continues rolling full speed ahead, as fresh as when he debuted, only wiser. Around a Small Mountain, his 20th feature as director, is a complex thing of strange, transfixing power. A wandering gentleman becomes caught up in the intrigues of a ragtag traveling circus, becoming smitten with one of the performers, a mysterious woman with a past.

The plotline is almost arbitrary as it takes a backseat to Rivette's transgressions of hypnotic mood, rhythm and tone, as the act and art of performance blurs the lines of reality. A strangely affecting piece, Mountain perplexes us as its performers are perplexed and perplexing. Rivette's vision remains a phantom of the cinemas, a magic trick under the big top.

Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio: A Father, his Son, and the Sea (Alamar)

Jorge Machado, Natan Machado Palombini, Alamar, Film Movement, 2010.

The free form documentary receives a jubilant jolt of vision in experimental documentarian Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio's achingly sumptuous new picture, Alamar. Chronicling an exotic fishing excursion between father and young son (Jorge Machado and Natan Machado Palombini), Gonzalez-Rubio forces us to examine the fine line betwixt truth and fiction, cinema and life.

Filmed unobtrusively, the images wash over us like the cool, clean waters which surround the nurturing, eccentric father and his preciously innocent young son. Nature photography comes alive at our fingertips, enveloped in a personal tale which unfolds in a captivating, naturalistic key. Jorge and Natan's mother, Roberta Palombini, are seen at the outset in old photographs displaying a spring fever love affair which culminated in pregnancy and drifting apart. We enter this world as Jorge comes to take his adorable young son on what will be a cathartic fishing trip, where father and son forge the bonds which will never break, as the terrible beauty of wild Mexico.

The waning calm and tenderness catches us adrift, and the smooth narrative style feels like a triumphant fiction film, even though all we see is real. Gonzalez-Rubio, a gifted documentarian, brings to mind Robert Flaherty and Ernest Hemingway with his radically original yet deceptively simple ode to fathers and sons and the tides of life.