Sunday, March 27, 2011

Zack Snyder: Only Theatre of Pain

Sucker Punch is that rare feat of big time, studio financed pop culture creation, wherein a visionary American auteur utilizes all of the resources at his disposal to go balls out and bring his dreams and fantasies to cinematic life. In that respect, it joins the likes of From Hell, Sin City and Shutter Island as an unsheathing of our collective unconscious.

Snyder fuses Golden age Hollywood, film noir, pin up poster art, video games, Hong Kong action extravaganzas and throws in the kitchen sink to come up with as brilliantly blinding a melange as this. His fascinating combination of female objectification and empowerment feels deranged and exhilerating, his mind bending narrative stimulating, his set pieces compulsively watchable.

A cast of burgeoning Hollywood actresses are led by the incendiary Jena Malone, who steals every scene she is in as fragile, headstrong Rocket, among the girls in a mental hospital who escape the terrors of their daily lives by retreating into a B-movie film noir world where they are prostitutes in a mobster run nightclub. Within that world, they flee from their minds into their minds, creating an apocalyptic world where they are all powerful warrior women, fighting zombies, robots and dragons.

The plot is complex and wondrous in its originalty, rivaled by the fevered mix of crisp and sepia, blur and technicolor to the palette of these worlds. Carla Gugino and Oscar Isaac both deliver the goods in pulpy character roles which display their talents as character actors.

Snyder's cenralization of incident into small units of space and time clarifies his status as one of Hollywood's most daring auteurs. His driving influence here is Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz, a film derided in it's day as amess of vision and theme, with it's twisting dimensions, alternate visual worlds and empowered heroine. The fluidity of thematic conception and fantastic motives penetrate our consciousness as few films can, marking this as, aside from the equally brilliant Legend of the Guardians, Snyder's time to shine as wonder man. The final binding force of his vision leaves us aware of the transcendental power of both life and cinema.

Abbas Kiarostami: Invitation to Self Reflection

The modicum of filmic expression never seems more mysteriously alive than in the hands of master Abbas Kiarostami, who has been stimulating our eyes and minds for the past forty years. His newest foray, Certified Copy, does not disappoint in that respect.

A multi-layered narrative posing as talky art film unveils to us once more Kiarostami's status as a director who utilizes his rare knowledge of the camera and the human heart to show us ourselves, our hopes and dreams and frailties. From a bravura opening sequence at a press conference, where a British writer (William Shimell) discusses his latest work, a text on the thin line between authenticity and reproduction in the art world, we are comfortably in the hands of a great creator. A local antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) with a young son sets up a meeting with the author, which leads to a day of wandering sweetly sunkissed country roads and villages, where truths are revealed and kept hidden, where words go in circles and double back on themselves, where the roles of man amd woman, lover and beloved are called into question.

Here is a premise so simple, recalling Linklater's playful Before Sunrise/Sunset films, yet so dense, phantasmagoric and rich in it's subtleties and cadences that it feels thrillingly alive and wholly original. Shimmell and Binoche are simply brilliant as the man and woman, THE man and woman of all time, battling it out with words cast forth from yearning bodies, past, present and future a delicious muddle.

Kiarostami has a sure hand here, though he never fully reveals it, and all the better for that. In revisiting his cherished themes of masculinity, forward motion, communication, unquenched desire and the irrepressible wisdom of children, in his glorious Tuscany he has crafted one of his very best motion pictures.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Xavier Dolan: Obscure Objects of Desire

The tremulous terrain of the teenaged libido has always offered rich mines to ore in the segregated subgenres of movies. Fascinating actor-director Xavier Dolan is well aware of this and exploits it to the nth degree with a crafty combination of bravado and vapidness in his second feature film, the incendiary navel gazer Heartbeats.

Taking pages from Godard, in his first phase, and Araki in his entirety, we are slapped around with a vibrantly colorful, masterfully controlled and unmistakably affecting tale of young desire, maybe love and everything in between. Dolan is smoldering as the anti-hero, a dubious gay young man drifting in a haze of music and fashion in modern Quebec. Monia Chokri adds dimension to his bitter, lonely fag hag, and Niels Schneider is perfect as the daft twink of their wildest dreams.

Dolan uses music and editing to procure a rhythm which is quite mystifying in its spell over the audience, as we follow these proto-pathetic youngsters and begin to feel an ache like their ache, for an aimless life punctuated by alcohol, cigarettes and sex.What could have been tepid and stereotypical bounds outwards thanks to the director's imagination and intuitive hand with the camera. Set piece after set piece wows with joy, while cutting to the heart of the matter, forcing us to face the questions we avoid within our own lives. . . . am I truly happy? Have I found love or am I merely surviving desire?

This brave, singular film sidesteps the trenches so many films fall victim to, as Dolan rises as one of the most promising young filmmakers in the world, having shaped a film which defines in every way what it means to be free.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Brad Furman: The Moral Defense

Michael Connelly has taken the remnants of a pulp lit past and made a niche for himself as a hardboiled detective novelist with a conscience. The Concrete Blonde and others have gradually gained a massive, loyal cult hungry for more. Clint Eastwood adapted his Bloodwork into a satisfying popcorn confection stamped with his personal signature. Up and coming director Brad Furman sticks closer to Connelly's style, resulting in a tight, workman like legal thriller that pays off in spades.

The Lincoln Lawyer gifts audiences with Matthew McConaghey in one of his strongest performances in some time, as a sleazy defense attorney who is all about the bucks until he grows a conscience. The way this plays out is old hat but refreshing. One key element is Furman's deliberate reliance on Connelly's semi-convoluted but enjoyable plot. The main factor, though, is a terrific cast that brings these archetypes to life.

Spearheaded by a brilliant McConaghey turn, the rest of the actors, including Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe, William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, Frances Fisher and Michael Pena are superlative. The shadowy turns of the narrative from a legal procedural into a moral drama ups the stakes, both for the characters and the audience, leaving us breathless with satisfaction.

Neil Burger: The Inner Limits

Paranoiac thriller/satire Limitless meets the requirements of Hollywood male wish fulfillment fantasies while showing its own limitations as a film of any inner substance. A promising hackneyed script is boldly envisioned by the talented Neil Burger, channeling early Fincher, touching on the funny bones of modern American life and moviemaking. Burger showed promise with Interview with the Assassins, The Illusionist and The Lucky Ones, intriguing pictures that took cues from the best of the seventies. He doesn't deliver on that promise here with his least successful work yet, but reminds us nonetheless of his idiosyncratic point of view.

Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish and Robert De Niro merely fill the requirements of their roles, not quite standing out, as the real star here is the director's control over us realizing the debilitating limits of the premise, which gradually come to the fore.

Greg Mottola: Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind

The science-fiction satire is a precarious juggling act of the fantastic and the formulaic, not easily achieved, but pulled off with aplomb by the gifted Greg Mottola in his hilariously affecting Paul.

British funnymen Simon Pegg and Nick Frost renew their winning banter from Edgar Wright's smart alecky spoofs Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz as two U.K. nerds who travel to the states for Comicon and to visit Area 51 and the like. They end up crossing paths with foul mouthed, chain smoking alien Paul, voiced by the ubiquitous Seth Rogen, who is on the run from poker faced government agent Jason Bateman and his wicked boss Sigourney Weaver.The way Mottola spins his yarn out of guffaws and heartstrings is consistently impressive, considering the pattern of soulless sludge churned out and labeled action/sci-fi/comedy by the studios.

Our cross country trip with these likable buffoons raises controversial questions about evolution and religion, and in that respect this subversively unconventional road movie is noteworthy. Though it loses steam towards the third act, its superb cast (including Kristen Wiig and Blythe Danner) and ballsy demeanor guarantee its place as a memorable studio gamble.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Simon Wells: Familial Frontiers

The state of the popular animated film is in limbo. While they are more popular than ever, the demand for talking animals and fantasy/sci-fi narratives, warmed over and recycled are high in demand, almost anyone is down for an original, powerful creation. When a movie like Coraline, Legend of the Guardians, Rango or any Miyazaki opens, it really is cause for rejoice.

Simon Wells has crafted an interesting, if not completely successful sci-fi family film. The man is a veteran of the imaginative and pleasing, having brought to life An American Tail:Feivel Goes West, We're Back, Balto and The Time Machine. Mars Needs Moms is replete with wondrous imagery, creepy rotoscoping human faces(ala the recent Zemeckis misfires), superb voice work(Joan Cusack,Seth Green and Dan Fogler), creepier aliens and another remarkable score by John Powell.

While far from stimulating and moving, Wells brings more to the table than most contemporary animated filmmakers.

Catherine Hardwicke and Jonathan Liebesman: March Monstrosities

The early year blues have not ended yet, as new "films" Red Riding Hood and Battle Los Angeles oh so dismally prove.
Catherine Hardwicke is a criminally underrated auteur, who took her inspiration from the lusty teen angst of Larry Clark and ran with it, shaping her own strong vision about the moral dilemmas of growing up. Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown, The Nativity Story and Twilight were all fascinating mash-ups of private obsession and pop culture. Red Riding Hood, her newest, was a promising idea which proves to be her worst film, if not the most wretched film of the year(so far). She lazily envisions a legendary fairy tale into a pathetically messy bid for mainstream glory, ala Twilight. Yet Twilight was smart in its style and substance, manifesting its director's preoccupations into a pop culture phenomenon. Red Riding Hood, on the other hand, is a wreck from the get go, wasting a talented cast and stranding them in a wasteland of terrible costumes, inane dialogue, mediocre music, tepid pacing and cheesy CGI. Here's hoping her next outing is truer to who she is as an artist.
Jonathan Liebesman, on the other hand, has proven himself to be a supremely uninspired director, with the mediocre Darkness Falls and abysmal Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. Now, with a little more studio backing, he has created the entirely mediocre Battle Los Angeles, which in the hands of a Spielberg or Bay or even Abrams could have been great or at least fun , and leaves us with a typical aliens invade the Earth action programmer, channeling Independence Day and War of the Worlds with none of their suspense or insight. It's pretty much what you'd expect, not even so bad it's good, but the masses eating it up with a grin anyway. Aaron Eckhart, Ramon Rodriguez and Michael Pena are deserving of a much better movie, and aside from them, the best thing about this monstrosity is Brian Tyler's riveting score and the state of the art visual effects.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Gore Verbinski: The Animated West

The Western, the most American of all motion picture genres, is not as dead as they say. We see it transmuted in shades permeating countless action, science fiction and thriller films littering the multiplexes across the nation. An actual western, though, is rare, so when an Open Range or The Proposition, a 3:10 to Yuma or True Grit crosses our paths, we must cherish it.

Gore Verbinski, to my mind an underrated big studio helmer, has shown himself to be a versatile craftsman of consistently entertaining and interesting mainstream films, including The Ring, The Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy and The Weather Man. Here he only adds to this with the excellent new animated film, Rango.

Johnny Depp delightfully voices the eponymous lizard hero, a jovial reptile who finds himself caught up in a Wild West land battle right outta the Lone Ranger, in a time proliferated by rodents and the like. Verbinski starts the film off brilliantly, with family pet Rango breaking the fourth wall and calling our attention to the very artifice of storytelling, and therefore movies in general. The sheer dynamism and pleasure Verbinski and his team of co-creators had in bringing this world to life is sheer and infectious, bolstered by an outstanding voice cast, including Isla Fisher, Ian McShane and Harry Dean Stanton.

The visuals pop along with the plot's stimulating originality, and it brings to mind even more the nauseating assembly line of anthropomorphous and alien CGI that's been done to death. Here, Verbinski is telling us, you can have those elements while retaining a spark of magic, lighting minds ablaze.

Hans Zimmer has fun with a saloony, mariachi tinged score, and Verbinski is tenderly referencing Sergio Leone, Hunter S. Thompson, John Ford, Clint Eastwood, Don Bluth and even Roman Polanski.

What he leaves us with is one of the best animated films to come along in quite some time.

Xavier Beauvois: To Leave is to Die

The tenuous line between faith and devotion is tread oh so discretely in gifted filmmaker Xavier Beauvois' austere, spellbinding film Of Gods and Men. Winner of the Grand Prize at last year's Tim Burton presided Cannes Film Festival, this work sneaks up on you and haunts you long after the credits roll.

Based on real events, the minimalist style complements the intricate plot in heavenly fashion. A group of Monks living in an Algerian monastery find themselves caught up in the political strife of their rural area, where terrorists lurk, butchered bodies are discovered daily, and the low key villagers rely on them for medical attention, friendship and fatherly advice. Their (non) reaction to the atrocities and danger around them, and their mysteriously poignant decision to remain where the Lord has called them to be provide the heavy heart of Beauvois' story.

The cast is perfection, with Lambert Wilson stoic yet torn in his heart as their leader, and French film legend Michel Lonsdale exceptional as the kind hearted old doctor (looking after the villagers as if they were his own children) wonderfully affecting. A later scene where the men share a humble meal to Tchaikovsky is a triumph of style and substance in glorious union.

The true gift herein is this light handed director's ability to place us inside a world, to allow us to identify with these men of God, and to end the film in a transcendent, phantasmal yet simple way. Beauvois pays homage to the supreme masters of cinema, Robert Bresson ( his sublime Diary of a Country Priest comes to mind) and Jean Renoir (the moral solemnity of the men and snowbound climax evoke Grand Illusion) with his pondering of the moral and religious states and fates of these pious men of God, while making his voice and visions heard and seen by taking us to a place few artists dare to go.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

George Nolfi:The Appearance of Free Will

The mind bending faction of sci-fi dramas have their own corner in the cinematic arena, and enclosed there are the varied, yet deceptively close film adaptations of master craftsman Philip K. Dick's twisting works of futuristic paranoia. Paul Verhoeven, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Richard Linklater are among the singular auteurs who have made Dick fiercely their own, and now novice scribe turned director George Nolfi comes to the fore with his teasing, enthralling The Adjustment Bureau.

The film begins as a quaint character study about a would be, down to earth politician(Matt Damon) and his rocky campaign for a senate seat, until he crosses paths with the gorgeous, unconventional Emily Blunt. From here, Nolfi gets a little tangled in his sci-fi plot concerning a secret establishment in charge of making the world go according to "the boss'" plan, which may well be God. "They", including a conscience stricken Anthony Mackie, are bent on keeping Damon and Blunt apart.

Although this long bit is a tad convoluted, it remains fascinating, seguing into the best part of the film, a chase through doorways and dimensions, and ultimately, a powerful love story. Damon and Blunt are palpable, John Toll's cinematography is saturated and invigorating, and Thomas Newman's score perfectly sweeping.

Nolfi, a screenwriter on the last Bourne film, has an endearing penchant for old fashioned exposition and emotion, and coming amid the recent onslaught of numbing cash cows, his uneven but  moving debut is a marvel of free will in and of itself.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Michael Dowse: Yesterday Once More

The recapturing of the quintessential eighties film is a fleeting and joyous subgenre, when done right(The Informers) elicits a rare nostalgic utopia, when done wrong(too many to name) an elongated cringe.
Michael Dowse's Take Me Home Tonight is simple, formulaic and stretched thin, but also hits every note right that we recall from our favorite popcorn me decade teen comedies.
The all in one night party, the lovable shmoe protag, his blundering, clownish chubby buddy, the brainy sister, the jerk jock boyfriend, the (seemingly) unobtainable it girl are all here, adeptly laid bare by Dowse and his writers, who exploit and comment on the cliches, fleshing thwm out, reviving them and reveling in the cult that is the 80's, the sounds and the sights.
Topher Grace is perfect as our hero, his honest emotion and boyish face mark his place as our most amiable young comedy lead. His ensemble of co-stars are near perfect at inhabiting these tried and (un)true characters.
Although the plot mechanisms and rote cliches are painfully obvious, they are a tribute to the subgenre in its entirety, enforcing the limits of joy bringing back yesterday once more.

Miguel Arteta: We're All Selling Something

Christian middle America, red state greed, loneliness, kinky sex, true friendship, rural drug abuse and insurance all meet at the crossroads of semi-independent comedic cinema in underrated filmmaker Arteta's genuine and perceptive new film, Cedar Rapids.

Comedian and Hangover alumnus Ed Helms is achingly good as a sheltered, good hearted insurance agent who, as a result of a hushed up scandal, is dispatched by his  creepy boss to a midwest convention to scoop up a coveted industry award. Along the way of a conventional plot, Arteta captures countless spontaneous moments which make his film feel fresh and original. It takes a truly talented director to meld a well written run of the mill script and unleash, if not gold, then silver.

Arteta has proven himself a craftsman with an affected touch, bringing deftness and humanity to his comedic gems; Star Maps, Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl and Youth in Revolt all bared teeth and heart,  tough acts to accomplish.

In Cedar Rapids he is abetted impassably by an ultra-cast fronted by the kooky, endearing Helms, the brilliant John C. Reilly, not to mention the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Kurtwood Smith and Anne Heche.

What's left behind is honest and hilarious within the plot frame of a typical comedy, typified by one of the best lines in the film, when the hooker tells Helms' character that we're all selling something, be it sex, drugs or insurance.

How Mr. Arteta has presented that here is what every Hollywood comedy should aspire to.

Bobby and Peter Farrelly: Child is the Future of Man

The Farrelly Brothers have carved a distinctive niche for themselves in American comedic film. Their envelope pushing gross out methods mask a deeper humanistic and cultural tendency to lay bare our foibles, secrets and inconsistencies.

Almost all of their films have been successful at this task, while also being misunderstood, mislabeled or aggrandized as Hollywood pomp, when anyone with the heart and mind could see them for who they truly are-arguably the finest directors of comedy in our country.

Now don't get me wrong. They have faltered before, in tone, pace and overall judgment for a film, but rarely. Their newest, Hall Pass, is unfortunately one of these. The amiable Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis are the perpetual boy men of American comedic movie lore, married but ogling the next best thing, mired in their immaturity and loving every second of it. Their wives (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate), sick of their antics, give them a "hall pass" for a week off of marriage, to do what they will and ergo strengthen the ties that bind.

What ensues is a series of sexual hi-jinks, many of them hilarious, all outrageously offensive. Yet the film cannot escape the tiresome plot mechanisms entrapping it and almost all mainstream comedy.  Still, there is the inescapable fact that beneath it all is the Farrelly heart, which is more than a hundred Hangovers could say to us.