Sunday, May 29, 2011

Dan Rush: Firesale of Fortune (Everything Must Go)

The character indie drama has become the watermark for human comedy: though worn thin in recent years, all that it requires for success is, like any film, really, good acting, writing and direction. Raymond Carver has provided rich fields for directors to shape in this vein (Short Cuts).

First time scribe/helmer Dan Rush shows a strong aptitude for interpretation and sublimation with this deft, unavoidably affecting new film, Everything Must Go. Employing over the top Hollywood funnyman Will Ferrell to enact the aches and pangs of a suburbanite husband whose life comes apart at the seams, Rush shows a rich inclination for the unexpected. Ferrell is a deeply gifted dramatic actor, whose humorous frills tinge this turn with a poignancy that catches us off guard.

Adapting an obscurely slim Carver story, and populating it on the edges with superb character actors the likes of Laura Dern, Michael Pena and Rebecca Hall, Rush achieves that rare fiat; the little pseudo-indie dramedy that feels fresh and alive.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Rob Marshall: High Tides, Low Camp (Pirates of the Carribean:On Stranger Tides)

What started out as an intoxicating theme park ride begat a fun adventure frolic via underrated studio maven Gore Verbinski's blockbuster trilogy. Thus it was inevitable that its generation of beaucoups bucks would spawn a fourth film. How they could continue from the climax of At World's End is beyond me, and apparently beyond the team behind On Stranger Tides.Verbinski wisely backed away, instead investing in the brilliant animated film Rango.

Beginning with a wallop, then trundling along to a beaten to death tone, this new film never feels fully alive to the magic of Summer popcorn that the first three radiated. Johnny Depp has fun with his iconic character, Jack Sparrow, while Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane and Penelope Cruz all ham it up on the sidelines. The technical aspects are top notch, but nothing new.

Rob Marshall comes on as helmer with a considerable weight to carry; the zest and monetary gluttony of the earlier films, all directed with a tongue in cheek panache by the deceptively mainstream Verbinski. Marshall is more of a creator of visual bombast, which would lead one to think him an ideal choice to carry on this series. But the decadent pirate designs have all been done before, so there is not much for him to work with here, save for what Verbinski left behind. Marshall himself is an underrated top dog, having made a good, if overrated debut with Chicago, then soaring from there with a golden adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha and his best work, the underrated Fellini homage Nine. With his fourth film, we find him an unfortunately slumming angel of dust.

On Stranger Tides offers exactly what theatergoers expect, all the rehashed trimmings of the first three films, minus the treasure. The high tides writhe, the adventure wanes, and we are left with the rubble of low camp.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Jodie Foster: Man's Search for Meaning(The Beaver)

The family drama has only so many pathways it can take to unravel its story; its power lies in the hands of the writer and director to move us and bring these characters to life in a fresh, unforced way.

And so Jodie Foster's new film as director and actress, The Beaver, opens to a mixed reception. How exactly are audiences and critics supposed to receive a movie as bizarre and brave as this? Not at all, or snidely, as word of mouth would have you believe. Yet they are the ones missing out on an adventurous, challenging experience.

Foster has always maintained a refreshing perspective as a helmer; Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays both straddled the line between mainstream and personal expression. The Beaver is no exception. The way she wields the unlikely elements of this story is pretty incredible, fitting her famed filmic personality to her own imaginative urges as an artist.

Mel Gibson's performance as Walter Black, a toy company CEO going through a heavy mid-life crisis, is nothing short of revelatory. As he becomes fixated on communicating through a beaver handpuppet with a Scot accent, the film teeters into uneasy territory. But Foster ingeniously blends satire, melodrama and pathos into an eye opening commentary on the type of film this film would appear to belong to. Yet The Beaver is a stand alone work.

The utilization of Gibson's controversial public persona informs his wounded turn, which reminds us what a great actor he is. Kyle Killen's screenplay is courageous and moving. Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence are excellent support, and Marcelo Zarvos' score is playful yet reflective.

The loose ends are bound tightly by film's end, and though imperfect, The Beaver is a dark and funny exploration of insanity and all of our quests for the meaning of our lives.

Scott Stewart: Mastering the Future(Priest)

The power and the glory of the genre picture rests upon its peculiar epitomization of style and circumstance, refining a type until it becomes singular yet remains apart of the entire schema. To master the genre film is to unquestionably conquer the divergent elements of the cinematic craft, eternally binding imagination with introspection.

Priest, then, must be annexed in the annals pure genre magic. It is a picture which functions not only to entertain its audience, but to stimulate their consciousness and their exhausted senses. Director Scott Stewart is an F/X wizard who has obviously learned a lot under the tutelage of some of Hollywood's premier auteurs. With his overlooked directorial debut, Legion, and now this graphic novel filmization, the man is well on his way to becoming a master in his own right.

Themes of faith, hope and vengeance drive the fascinating religiosity of his work, never cramming it down our throats, only laying it bare like scars and war wounds. His penchant for genre melange is a strength as well, testifying to his utter delight in the filmic form, his obsession for the past and quest for tomorrow.

Priest takes place in a bleak apocalyptic future world, where the church is the ultimate political authority and priests have been trained as warriors and soldiers to battle a horrible race of vampire beasts. Out of this set up, Stewart awes us not only with a gorgeously morose outer world, but with a story and subtext which sublimates elements of cinema and religion. Don Burgess' visual spaces are fevered and action specific, emitting a gothic sheen that cuts to the heart of the story. Christopher Young's score is breathtaking as usual, centralized in a Goldsmithian theme of moving ambivalence.

Paul Bettany, the star of Stewart's previous film, abstracts his pale opaqueness and guarded masculinity, perfecting the priest anti-hero, on a quest to rescue his niece from a vampire super-being. Stewart surpasses the action stand-by with pulsingly planned and executed action scenes, only furthering the obvious fact of his gift for rendering the usually mundane heavenly.

Twisting the action, horror, sci-fi, and western genres around his devestating lens, homaging Ford, Miller, Del Toro and Proyas, a new talent is championed on screen, letting his images tell us he has mastered the future.

Friday, May 13, 2011

May Fools (Something Borrowed and Bridesmaids)

Summer is rearing her ambivelant little head early this year, crapping out the June brides a month in advance with two condescendingly pedestrian "chick flicks". Something Borrowed and Bridesmaids serve up the same stale cliches and hoary characters audiences have grown accustomed to having crammed down their throats.

Luke Greenfield is a paycheck director, having contributed two missable comedies, The Animal and The Girl Next Door. Naturally he was the perfect choice to bring to "life" bad t.v. writer Jennie Snyder's rote adaptation of a stinker "chick lit" bestseller. Something Borrowed is alternately boring, insulting and infuriating, never comical or romantic. Ginnifer Goodwin mugs and whimpers to no avail, and the excellent John Krasinski is utterly wasted. Kate Hudson is another case entirely-though playing a forced, deplorable and unbelievable character, she is easily the best thing about the affair. Yet another crushingly crushless miss.

Paul Feig displayed a daring penchant for unsentimental nostalgia and pathos with his cult comedy series, Freaks and Geeks. His career on the big screen has been a slow, sad decline. Bridesmaids, though displaying the Apatow touch and a rowdier spirit than the other romcom this month, falls into just as deadly traps of cliche and contrivance which hold the picture hostage. How exactly does one make the lovable Kristen Wiig unlikable? By writing her character as a one dimensional, punishing naif.

The screenplay is the first in a series of mishaps which kills what could have been good. A great supporting cast, including Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Jon Hamm, Melissa McCarthy and Jill Clayburgh add delightful distraction with some hilarious bits, from the unruly mess at hand. It's just never workably believable.

So from one bore to another mess, these May fools arouse our nostrils with a stench of bullshit, letting us know that the big bad Summer has officially arrived.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Lee Changdong: The Word and the Flesh (Poetry)

The ache of loss and the yearning for self-expression run through the veins of South Korean master Lee Changdong's enlivening new film, Poetry. Earnestly paced, plaintively sketched and wrenchingly wrought, Lee's work tells the tale of Mija(Jeong-hie Kim), a hard working grandmother who lives in a mid-level apartment with her distanced teenaged grandson. She is self-sacrificing but is portrayed more as flesh and blood than as martyr. Clad in bright colors, high spirited, she works as a maid, bathing a geriatric man to make ends meet. When she begins taking a poetry class at the community center, her journey to find her creative voice is delineated exquisitely.

The picture begins with the corpse of a young girl drifting down the river, and the water motif recurs throughout. A horrible deed is uncovered, and the way this punctures Mija's perception of reality guides the film through encounters hopeful, complex and realistic. Lee has a poet's eye and ear. His screenplay is brilliantly penned in an almost novelistic attention to detail. The cinematography is painterly, with some of the visuals appearing to have been daubed on in thick, impressionist oils.

Lee's gift is infectious, his portrait of the world incendiary and powerful, moving at a lived in clip until the final moments penetrate the stasis. Jeong-hie is the maternal force radiating the dawn of a neo-star turn which lilts everything in its wake. The word and the flesh have never felt so immediate as when Lee is manning the camera and Jeong-hie is bringing his conspicuous creation to tremblingly fragile awakening.

Kelly Reichardt: Pioneering New Devotions (Meek's Cutoff)

To define the western is to articulate our history, to specify the essence of cinema, to understand what it is to be an American. The western is who we are, who we have been and who we always will be. The fact that the genre has fallen to the wayside in the last 20 years is a travesty that desecrates the traditions and transformative power it is capable of. In recent years, Eastwood and Costner have kept it alive, while Raimi, Howard and Mangold have demonstrated bravery and brilliance with their respective forays.

Kelly Reichardt may not be anyone's first choice to carry the crucial torch, but take another gander. Her penchant for austerity and transcendence makes her not too far off the mark as an idiosyncratic auteur of the American west. Her works Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy marked her as a deeply gifted artist with the peculiar gaze of a master.

Reichardt's new film, Meek's Cutoff, is a marvel of control and craftsmanship. Washing across the screen in a series of stagnant, picturesque images, as we follow a group of pioneers(Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Paul Dano) led by the wirey, irrascible Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who have become lost on the frontier. But Reichardt's style is the opposite of guttural excitement, instead assembling all of the scenes which would have been chopped out of any other western. Her aesthetic is cutting room floor.

Starting with a slow pull which places the viewer in a trance, then builds to a powerpoint so much more than any other film could manage, it's safe to say that Reichardt is pioneering new devotions among the cinema starved, the history junkie, and anybody open to stylistic and thematic stripping down and building back up.

Werner Herzog: Pathways to the Past (Cave of Forgotten Dreams)

The documentary is such an open ended genre with innumerable possibilities for expansion and enrichment. A lot of docs that make it into theatres are your safe, standard talking head investigative procedurals. As in any form of visual storytelling, the basic and prosaic can both offer profundities, depending on the mastery of their expressors.

Recent documentaries, like animated films, have almost all gelled into one shapeless niche of audience friendly standard fare. A Toy Story 3 and an Inside Job are mid-level good movies, don't get me wrong. They're just similar to so many other films. Where's the passion and originality? In regard to docs, it takes an Errol Morris, a Restrepo, or, yes, a Werner Herzog to resuscitate the format. A lot of the most challenging and inventive documentaries never even make it to the cineplex.

Herzog has remained one of the most phantastically vital voices in cinema since his unbounded debut, Signs of Life, in 1968. Since then, he has crafted an indispensable body of work, wunderkind of the German New Wave, he is one of the masters of world cinema. In both his mysterious narratives and his spectral documentaries, he has tried to materialize the matters at hand, see the unseen, stare God in the face. His subject is nothing short of what makes us human, our place in the grand majesty of nature. Aguirre the Wrath of God, Fata Morgana, Fitzcarraldo, Where the Green Ants Dream and his last couple of pieces(Grizzly Man,Encounters at the End of the World) contain some of the most haunting passages of any film you will ever see.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a milestone. A milestone in that one of our most inspired and inspiring creative forces is more potent than ever. A milestone in that it is the first justifiable and perfectly crafted 3-D motion picture. A milestone in that a film tracing our historical roots as a species can connect back to the human element with a deep root emotionality by combining sound and vision. Herzog's exploration in wonder of the first known cave paintings in France is in essence the journey to the birth of storytelling and cinema.

The Chauvet Caves and their mystical artifacts provide Herzog with one of his richest and most important films. Stalagmites jutting out of the screen, animal sketches and handprints billowing over stonewall surfaces allow us to brush up against the origins of our souls, making tangible the spirit of man.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Kenneth Branagh: Conventional Crossing of the Comic Book and Celluloid (Thor)

The comic book/super hero adaptation has become a cross to bear in our culture. What was once masculine hero worship and fanboy devotion has become a ridiculous fixation on pop culture exploitation. Burton and Nolan's Batmans, Donner and Singer's Supermans, Raimi's Spider Mans and Singer's X-Mens wowed us visually while touching something resonant in our minds and hearts. The recent exhumation of every caped curmudgeon is growing old. Like any picture, visuals aren't enough to hold up a movie-a strong script and inspired direction are mandatory for any project to work.

So comes the thud of Marvel's Thor, a great comic transposed to the screen like skidmarked knickers aired out to dry. The over the top use of CGI is not suroprising, and while some of the commotion is diverting, none of it is breathtaking. The screenplay is limp and lazy, Chris Hemsworth uninteresting in the title role, and Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard and Renee Russo all wasted in paper thin roles. The transition from sombre, FX heavy world of the Gods to plainsville USA where the pratfalls are played up is jarring and annoying. There is no emotion, no great stake, about why we should care. Neither is there joy de vivre in the dudsy workmanlike production.

So from what began as a generic screenplay dominoed into an uneasy fit as director for the wonderfully gifted Kenneth Branagh. The greatest Shakespearean actor of our time, also an underrated cinematic powerhouse, Branagh is an ill fit for this type of film. You can see how he would be attracted to the Shakespearean elements of Thor's origin story, but the parts don't make a whole. The uneven result of the proceedings is unabetted tedium.

So here's hoping that this ineffectual bore of bombast does get eaten up by the explosion hungry masses in order to fund the real Branagh film.

Bertrand Tavernier: The Thinking Man's Swashbuckler (The Princess of Montpensier)

Bertrand Tavernier remains one of the last of the great French auteurs who understand that the past is not really past, but pervasive as an enigmatic force fueling our understanding of storytelling, vision and life. The inescapable romantic writers and golden age media masters brought forth all we know of character, structure and most importantly, emotion. His earlier films Coup de Torchon and 'Round Midnight continue to speak volumes about cinema and experience, more so than almost any contemporary pictures.

Tavernier's predeliction for the ouevre of forgotten American master Delmer Daves has enfolded his own mastery of the filmic device. Dark Passage, The Red House and Jubal have infused his understanding of moving images in fascinating ways. His breathtaking new work, The Princess of Montpensier, is no exception.

In essence a character driven period piece, Montpensier incorporates factions of the Walter Scott adventure-romance, the Errol Flynn swashbucklers and the bygone European art film to manifest a robust, gutsy picture unlike any other. Tavernier utilizes his classic Hollywood inspirations to guide us along the psychological and sociological workings of a time and its inhabitants. Melanie Thierry is ideally cast, her fresh open face and searching gaze well suited for the doomed titular heroine, a maiden searching for the truth of love, yet bound by her time and sex to bend at the wills of men. Her domineering father, warrior first love (Gaspard Ulliel), naïve betrothed (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) and his conflicted mentor (Lambert Wilson) make up the circle of men who suffocate her with their selfish desires they project onto her. The plot becomes a thick melange of power plays and verbal spars, punctuated by visceral swordfights of virile defense.

The rugged Ulliel, boyish Leprince-Ringuet and wounded Wilson are all spectacular, as they surround the Princess with their intoxicating masculinity. Bruno de Keyzer works wonders with the lens, achieving an aged storybook look under Tavernier's eye, which gives the film a lost 70s preciosness. Master composer Philippe Sarde sonically lifts the enterprise with his movingly romantic score.

What Tavernier has accomplished here may take many generations to reach the surface, but for those in tune with the history of the craft, Montpensier is a treasure.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Takashi Miike: Reconstructing Samurai (13 Assassins)

The glorious union of style and substance that was crucial to the samurai film seems to have drifted into eternity with the passing of one of the masters of world cinema, Akira Kurosawa. The hefty pathos and intrinsic urgency of his craft remain a wonder to behold, but can any filmmaker since hold a candle to him?

Kurosawa was inspired by the elegiac westerns of fellow master John Ford, and in homaging Ford via samurai-cowboy fantasia, Kurosawa in turn fueled the fiery passions of future auteurs of gunslinger/swordplay cinema, namely John Sturges, Seijun Suzuki, Sergio Leone, Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee and countless more. So goes this undying, incomparable artform, a celluloid organism taking flight for life before our very eyes.

Takashi Miike pays tribute to Ford, Kurosawa and the countless martial arts and spaghetti western spectaculars of the last century with his unbridled and singularly rousing mini-epic, 13 Assassins. In form a throwback, a deceptively simple tale of bloody revenge and divine retribution, in function a laudatory celebration of what it is to create, to feel passion, to be cinema.

To go into the basics of the familiar plot would belie Takashi's gift as a supreme artist, much maligned and misunderstood, at the top of his game. I myself have misunderstood his motives and message in the past. Ichi the Killer I dismissed as sadist drivel, Sukiyaki Western Django as a beautiful bore. But take a second, even third glimpse at Gozu, Dead or Alive, the hauntingly disturbing Audition, and you may, like me, find the heart and soul of a powerful storyteller, exorcising the demons of this world through the examination of violence as an extension of power.

Kevin Munroe: Most Dead Undead(Dylan Dog:Dead of Night)

The misbegotten horror-comedy gets a jolt of otherworldly life with a bizarre, uneven new film from burgeoning 80's child Kevin Munroe. His Dylan Dog: Dead of Night casts a half assed spell of disquieting delight.

Adapted from a culty graphic novel series, Munroe wants to capture the bygone glory of master Sam Raimi, pitching terror giggle tent somewhere between The Evil Dead and Crimewave. Utilizing the most recent Superman, Brandon Routh, for his average joe/he-man charm, Munroe steeps us in New Orleans film noir territory, embroiled in a lighthearted horror vein. Dylan(Routh) is a detective of the undead, adrift in an atmospheric night world of friendly zombies(Sam Huntington), menacing werewolves(Peter Stormare) and power mad vampires(Taye Diggs).

The film feels familiar enough, meshing the world of Raymond Chandler and golden era crime drama with 80's horror, a smirk on it's face throughout. They don't make movies like this really anymore, and despite the feeling that it doesn't all quite come together, its still a step up from the director's mediocre CGI take on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles awhile back.

Routh's golden boy charm, Huntington's gifted physical comedy and likability as a character actor contribute to the feeling of affability permeating this oddity. Klaus Badelt's brilliant themes are smoky and irreplacable. While not for all, this strange little gem has all the makings of a modern cult movie.

Justin Lin: One Last Job?(Fast Five)

20 Reasons I Love Justin Lin's Fast Five:

1) The series is culturally significant as a measure of our country's fixation on violence, fast cars and masculinity.
2) Justin Lin is an underrated auteur, from his auspicious debut Better Luck Tomorrow on up to his action extravaganzas.
3) Vin Diesel is an old fashioned action star, reveling in his rugged rambunctiousness.
4) Dwayne Johnson has a magnetic screen prescence - you can't stop watching him.
5) Paul Walker's varnished good boy gone bad is pitch perfect.
6) Jordana Brewster is the Demi Moore of her generation.
7) Chris Morgan's simplistically sublime screenwriting is an action connosieur's delight.
8) Brian Tyler crafts yet another rousingly great music score.
9) A cast of stereotypes comes to big screen life before our eyes, commenting on the cliche.
10) The supporting cast unifies all of the secondary characters from the first four flicks.
11) Crisply typical cinematography perpetuating complex visual spaces.
12) Irresistable character actor Joaquim de Almeida is incendiary as the villain.
13) Shimmering, beautiful Rio locations.
14) Some of the most joltingly staged action set pieces to come along in some time.
15) An epic sweep almost unrivaled in mainstream movies.
16) Plot inanities blur the exposition into the realms of the surreal.
17) A heist scene that looks and feels unlike any other.
18) Fistfight of the silver screen Gods between Diesel and Johnson.
19) Pure guilty cinema pleasure has never been more potent.
20) The power of pop trash reminds us why we go to the multiplexes in the first place.