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.