Friday, December 7, 2012

Ben Affleck, David Ayer, and Rian Johnson: Argo, End of Watch, and Looper

As awards season closes in, the highly touted and mostly undeserving will make their way to the head of the pack. And yet, for all the Oscars' bullshit and politik, they still remain the most glorious of all awards shows. Three films in particular this fall define overrated, underhyped, and overlooked for us.

Goodman, Arkin, Affleck, Argo, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2012.

Ben Affleck has proven himself a strong director with two past good films, both crime dramas; The Town and the better Gone, Baby, Gone. His third film Argo trudges into past political territory. Everything is pretty well-done about it; Affleck is even impressive once more in the lead role. But for all the hyperbole surrounding its premier, a 'good' film has become one of the season's most touted. An international incident involving American hostages in Iran, and the CIA's clever plot to bust out some stashed Embassy workers does make for an entertaining, even thought-provoking movie. Affleck does a good job of culling it all together. For all the buzz, I was underwhelmed. The biggest impression I got was the rollicking fun and rapport between John Goodman and Alan Arkin, who all but steal the show.

Pena, Gyllenhaal, End of Watch, Open Road Films, 2012.

David Ayer's career fixation on cops has made for a distinct voice among thriller directors; his scripts for Ron Shelton's Dark Blue and Antoine Fuqua's Training Day were nothing short of genre specific, complex and brilliant. His career as a helmer has been pretty much swept under the rug by indifferent audiences and critics. His first two films were excellent: Harsh Times and Street Kings both stung with an authentic darkness and richness of character which reveal Ayer's gift as a writer. His third feature, End of Watch, may well be his weakest film, and yet betrays his talent as an artist. Using a cinema verite style, we delve into the rugged shifts of two young LAPD officers, in two strong turns from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. Numerous tour de force sequences do not wash away the picture's structural difficulties, many terse moments are grafted inspiring. There is no denying in the end, that Ayer is one of our most idiosyncratic filmmakers.

Willis, Gordon Levitt, Looper, FilmDistrict, 2012.

Rian Johnson rises as one of his generation's most talented directors: after the intrinsic specialties of his quirky frosh-soph features, Brick and The Brothers Bloom, Johnson comes of age with one of the best genre films of the year, and definitely the strongest film overall of the three discussed here. Looper, however uneven, makes up for that in sheer cinematic bravado. Homaging Ridley Scott, Robert Zemeckis, Spielberg, et al, Johnson crafts an exhausting and imaginative compendium of a time-travel flick.

Joseph Gordon Levitt, in bizarre make up, and Bruce Willis, play the same man, who encounters his younger/older self amidst a dense plot filled with passion. Futuristic hit men forge a scheme which bends space and time to near perfection. Many moments Johnson crafted will remain in my mind's eye for some time. This side of Andrew Niccol, I don't believe any other director is authoring science-fiction this magical and cinematic.

The Wachowskis & Tom Tykwer: Cloud Atlas

Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Cloud Atlas, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2012.

An obvious continuum of the Wachowskis' fascination with space, time, love, and destiny, the over-ambitious (and thankfully so) Cloud Atlas is one of this year's most singular filmic experiences. Interconnecting stories so dense and off-putting that the directors' employed fellow visionary Tom (Run Lola Run) Tykwer to handle the other half, this adaptation of David Mitchell's popular novel reels around the fountain with a force that only these three helmers could truly conjure.

At first, the diverging tales which make up this cosmic cornucopia are jarring as they jump. But as the exhausting, ecstatic picture comes to a close, they have all lined up fantastically. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, in particular, have a ball playing multiple characters so far removed from anything they've evr done you may chuckle at first. Many will not care for how bizarre this movie truly is. And yet I cant imagine how anybody in love with the art and craft of cinema cannot recognize the Wachowskis as two of popular cinema's greatest talents. Bound, The Matrix, and Speed Racer are all diversely original yet enigmatic works which magnify in the mind upon successive viewings.

They smash borders of race and sexuality within, and a lot of it is borderline campy. Historical tales collide with science-fiction as they never have before. Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, and Susan Sarandon all don wigs, prosthetic noses, and heavy make-up, all having the time of their careers.

Frank Griebe and John Toll do gorgeous work with their cameras, reminding us that they are two of the most gifted cinematographers in the world. Sets and costumes by a multitude of talent shine as some of this year's most distinctive. What leaves the biggest impression aside from the obviously eye-boggling visuals, is the emotional impact of almost every story, reminding us that the Wachowskis are not mere masters of the eye, but of the heart and mind.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

John Hillcoat: Lawless

Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Lawless, TWC, 2012.


Hemming the strayed and frayed edges of the Great Depression Gangster picture, Australian auteur John Hillcoat, who heretofore helmed the Western masterpiece The Proposition, followed by an underrated adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, resuscitates that sub-genre with a ferocious, if imperfect vision that is definitely uncompromising.

Tom Hardy, Shia LaBouef, and  Jason Clarke all leave strong impressions as the unbending Bondurant brothers, back hills bootleggers battling the crooked local law, trying to shake them down, and a psychotic gun for hire in a deliciously over the top turn by the simply incomparable Guy Pearce.

Benoit Delhomme's camera work is a patchwork of faded days and nights, while Nick Cave not only adapted an obscure novel into a well structured narrative, he also loaned his musical gifts to the minimalist folk score.

Yet the heart of this bloody, old fashioned tale of vengeance, in which Hillcoat homages 70's movies and Sam Peckinpah in particular, is the intoxicating Jessica Chastain. Riding a high from last year's much deserved Oscar nom for the otherwise worthless The Help, and starring roles in two of said year's best films, Malick's The Tree of Life and Nichols' Take Shelter, Chastain lends the picture a feminine grace. Her wounded strumpet is an angel in disguise, and this swept under the rug movie could not have excelled without her. Here's looking forward to her starring role in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson: The Master

Joaquin Phoenix, The Master, TWC, 2012.

Dropping into indifferent multiplexes with the force of a 70 mm spell, P.T. Anderson's much-anticipated new picture, The Master, offers up a head-spinning mixture of history, mythos, pathos, and meandering narrative ties.

The binding element of the picture is the casting of Joaquin Phoenix in the leading role.  As Freddy Quell, a wandering product of the Great Depression-cum-Second World War, Phoenix gives a shattering turn which is the stuff legends are made of. His method-induced performance feels truly authentic; it recalls the greatest turns of Brando, Clift, and Dean. His gut feeling becomes ours as he wanders from job to job, the causal "lost man" of the 20th century. This section is the film's richest.

As he encounters an L. Ron Hubbard surrogate, portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in a hypnotic character turn, and becomes caught up in the gestating "religion" cash cow he has devised, Anderson loses traction. Specific sequences are brilliant; altogether it is uneven. And yet, even Anderson's flaws can be more stimulating than the average Joe's triumphs. Amy Adams offers unflinching support as Hoffman's stand by her man wife, although a couple of her scenes felt uncomfortably gratuitous.

Anderson began his career as arguably the brightest young American cinematic talent on the rise in the 90's. His passion for the kinesis of celluloid, as witnessed in his visceral homages to Altman and Scorsese (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia) as well as Blake Edwards (Punch Drunk Love) remain some of the best American movies of the past twenty five years. Now, with the excellent but flawed There Will Be Blood, and now The Master, he has moved on to homaging the less rugged and lived in, and more classically stylized, cinematic worlds of Kubrick and Malick, two of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. Not to mention the literature of Hemingway and Steinbeck.

The Master affords us a glimpse at a great director's inspired yet uneven universe, and even more so a great actor's greatest incantation; Quell and the pain inside of him, are most vivid in the opening and closing sequences. Stationed in the Pacific, his fear and desire shape the loneliness to come; Anderson pays tribute to Terrence Malick's war master stroke The Thin Red Line, and the art form becomes transparent, crystal clear.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

David Koepp & Pete Travis: Premium Rush & Dredd

Slapping unexpecting young audiences awake from a narcotized bad movie stupor,  genre auteurs David Koepp and Pete Travis revel in two of their headiest works.

JGL, Michael Shannon, Premium Rush, Columbia Pictures, 2012.

Koepp made a name for himself scribing Spielberg's key popcorn films; adapting Jurassic Park and Minority Report, he displayed his articulate grasp of the action-sci-fi genre, while holding onto a human element that is indispensable to his cinematic world view. Aside from scripting for 70s masters Spielberg and De Palma, Koepp helmed a few interesting pictures of his own. The Trigger Effect, Stir of Echoes, and Secret Window are all dark, corrosive movies which revealed Koepp as a serious film artist, one hand firmly on his heart, the other digging in an overpriced bucket of corn. For all of their cohesion, all three films suffer from an open-endedness that denotes near sublimity. While his newest work, the action-thriller Premium Rush, may appear to be less noteworthy than his first three films, its reliance on CGI-fueled action set pieces, and its novel plot, allow it room to breathe and for us to experience American genre in a fresh new way.

Joseph Gordon Levitt, riding on high in his breakthrough year, fills the lead role effortlessly. His sardonic young East coast bike messenger, feels like a hero Cagney would have filled yesteryear. The plot is hackneyed and beaten to death, but apparently that is the point. Koepp utilizes cliche to realize something original for this kind of clap trap; transcendence. Michael Shannon makes for one of the most bizarre villains of the year; he is truly inspiring. James Newton Howard has fun with his jaunty music score, accentuated by dark undertones. Its undeniable popcorn trash at its finest.

Karl Urban, Dredd, Lionsgate Films , 2012.

Director Pete Travis is not quite as known as Koepp. Starting out at the BBC, he displayed an early gift for melding introspective characterization with a keen sense of filmic rhythm and cinematic space. His early films Vantage Point and Endgame, were both intelligent political thrillers displaying a filmmaker with a strong sense of mise en scene. His new picture, Dredd, is based upon Carlos Ezquerra's culty 80s comic about a partly robotic cop. This premises allows Travis to explore all  of the geo-political themes he underlined; corporate greed, martial law, violence as an extension of money and power.

Karl Urban makes for a commanding male protagonist, all glowers and mumbles as Dredd. Master Director of Photography, Dane Anthony Dod Mantle, captures the otherworldly slow burn of a city at apocalypse.Novelist cum script writer Alex Garland, has fun within the confines of the genre.

Although many would consider this puerile surface level shit, that would only be gleaning the surface. Travis' subtext and visual style are refined and kinetic. Dredd shines then bleeds Hawks, Fuller, Verhoeven. Pete Travis pays homage to his forefathers, unofficially joining their ranks as one of the most underrated of up-and-coming genre auteurs.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Sunday, October 21, 2012

David Cronenberg: Cosmopolis

Paul Giamatti, Robert Pattinson, Cosmopolis, Entertainment One, 2012.

One of our main modern masters, Cronenberg returns to indifferent cineplexes triumphant once again. Fresh from his meticulous period passion play A Dangerous Method, the great maestro steers back into more familiar territory with an allegorical adaptation of a darkly comedic Don DeLillo novella.

Cosmopolis may well be the helmer's most personal film, akin to the films which earlier made his name. Lacking the body horror of those singular gems, his newest work is almost entirely set in a car; the ominously stylized tone recalls one of his very best, the existential visual dread of Crash (1996). Robert Pattinson gives a brilliantly modulated performance which erases bad memories of shitty Twilight movies; his co-stars make up one of the most dynamic casts of the year; Paul Giamatti, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, Jay Baruchel, spellbinding ingenue Sarah Gadon. Their interplay as directed by Cronenberg builds a wall of austere despair that is one of the most incisive and expressive portrayals of the capitalist malaise our country is mired in.

Cronenberg works with his usual crew to spin his most shattering web in some time. DP Peter Suschitzky goes a long way to give the maestro's films their distinct appearance and feeling of disconnect via symmetry and lighting; Howard Shore's music score is teeming with angst. These elements bind together Cronenberg's unreal foretelling of East Coast ennui and moral bankruptcy. The trajectory of an upper crust young Wall Street upstart making his way across a pseudo-apocalyptic NYC, and the "odd" characters he encounters offers the maestro a simple plot to enrich his cinematic field of vision by.

The uber-stylized dialogue has been found impenetrable by many; it is transferred almost identically from the text; the movie almost becomes Cronenberg's commentary on the ouevre of novelist DeLillo, and the very nature of the beast of novel to film adaptations.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Chris Butler and Sam Fell: ParaNorman

ParaNorman, Focus Features, 2012.

Under the tutelage of American animation maestro Henry Selick, Chris Butler, an immensely talented young storyboard artist on Burton's Corpse Bride and Selick's Coraline, realizes his own dreams with the best animated movie of the year thus far, the transporting ParaNorman.

Butler and co-director Sam Fell both cast a middle American town in the fractured clay fortitudes of Selick's style, and yet its markedly different, rougher if you will. Butler and fell construct a giant homage to the 1980s films they loved, especially The Goonies and The Monster Squad, with a touch of Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense thrown in for good measure. Yet it works fiercely on its own. So many little touches demand multiple viewings; the inexplicable beauty and emotion of it all are bewildering. We are not used to animated movies this heavy!

Norman is an outsider, a little boy mocked at school in his small New England town, because he can talk to ghosts. He builds a ragtag group of friends to battle a witch's curse on their village. This simple plot gives no hint at the pure pleasures of the world these talented directors have crafted; touching on themes of disaffected youth, technology as a death knell to human interaction, media blitz, childhood, death. ParaNorman is not your average kids flick, this one is an instant classic.

David Frankel, Tony Gilroy, Jay Roach, and Peter Hedges: August Crowd Pleasers

David Frankel . . . . . .  a talented workman, Frankel showed visual pizzazz and smarts with his directorial debut, the adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada. Marley and Me was a sentimental film done right, and The Big Year was a sleeper comedy nobody saw last year starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson.

Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Hope Springs, MGM, 2012.

Hope Springs, a marvelously mature studio film, takes its characters and subject seriously enough to have us laugh with them. Vanessa Taylor's original screenplay is very well written and Frankel handles the proceedings with verve, while Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones deconstruct an aging troubled marriage brilliantly. Steve Carrell is at his best as their marriage counselor at a paid getaway, but its Jones who stuck in my mind the most. He's never given a performance like this before. The way he communicates anger, loneliness, frustration, all wrapped up in an American any man makes for some of his best work in years.

Tony Gilroy . . . . . ace screenwriter behind the fun Bourne movies starring Matt Damon and directed by underrated Doug Liman initially, and then British visionary Paul Greengrass, Gilroy had the directorial debut every screenwriter dreams of. Michael Clayton was like a well calibrated machine, slick, steely, hypnotizing. The legal thriller reminded of 70s ballsiness in its refusal to kowtow to audience expectation. He was nominated for an Oscar as best director, as was his film as best picture. His actors, George Clooney and Tom Wilkinson, were nominated, while their costar Tilda Swinton deservedly won for her villainess.

Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, The Bourne Legacy, Universal Pictures, 2012.

His second feature, Duplicity, was a fun, more mainstream, smart romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. His third feature is the much debated fourth entry in the Bourne series, not based on a Robert Ludlum novel, but from a dense, convoluted, intelligent original screenplay by the director, who really pulls a feat here by making the picture work minus its tentpole star, Matt Damon. While Jeremy Renner is more of a character actor, he straddles that fine line as almost a lead. Here, he commands the screen as another agent who becomes drawn into a labrynthine plot to track the "real" Jason Bourne. Exotic locales, bristling dialogue, scenery chewing abound. Gilroy is a stylistically muscular director; he is equally capable of directing a good action sequence as writing a great dialogue. Edward Norton, Rachel Weisz, Scott Glenn, and Stacey Keach are all in top form. Gilroy's third feature is a fun action film with guts.

Jay Roach . . . . . . an underrated comedic director, he is noteworthy as the man behind the 60s spy spoof series Austin Powers, he also helmed the sleeper Mystery, Alaska, he's also the man behind the initially funny, gradually terrible Meet the Parents series. Most recently he helmed the interesting misfire Dinner for Schmucks, before doing some of his very best work earlier this year with the HBO movie Game Change. Detailing the McCain-Palin presidential bid with tongue planted firmly in cheek, it afforded Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, and Woody Harrelson some of ther best roles of their careers.

Zach Galifanakis, Will Ferrell, The Campaign, Warner Bros., 2012.

How fitting that Roach's almost simultaneous excursion into the multiplexes be the frequently hilarious and over all well made political comedy The Campaign. Will Ferrell and Zach Galifanakis both are at their most surreally funny as equally moronic adversaries in a race for a seat in the state senate. Its all ridiculous and not all of it works, but the parts that do make up for the others. Its another triumph for Ferrell, after the brilliant Casa de mi Padre earlier this year. Roach knows how to bring things just to the right pitch of bizarre hysteria, how to frame for maximum physical comic effect, and how to wring laughs out of the most randomly peripheral things.

Peter Hedges . . . . is another screenwriter cum director, who initially wrote Lasse Hallstrom's best film, What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993), before embarking on his own directorial journey. Pieces of April (2003) was his warm, funny, humane debut, a year after he co-wrote with the Weitz Bros their masterful drama About a Boy. Both films were Oscar nominated. His sophomore feature, Dan in Real Life (2007) starring Steve Carrell, was sweet and funny and sad. His third feature, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, has alot of heart, and for a sentimental Disney family film, is one of the most sincere I've seen in some time.

C.J. Adams, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Walt Disney Pictures, 2012.

Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton are the couple who cannot conceive; through a strange miracle, precocious Timothy (C.J. Adams) comes into their lives. Based on a story by Ahmet Zappa, Hedges brings his human touch, ear for real dialogue, and eye for visual space to the magical project and makes it succeed sweetly as his own.

These four films represent studio film making, if not at its best, than at its most harmlessly well done.

William Friedkin: Killer Joe

Matthew McConaughey, Killer Joe, LD Entertainment, 2012.

Brilliant and abrasive, 70s American master William Friedkin's new film Killer Joe is a blast of narrative ingenuity that feels like it could be the first film of a hot young director, it flows that madly. Adapted by Pulitzer-prize winner Tracy Letts from his own controversial stage play, visionary Friedkin transforms Letts' blueprint into a trailer trash neo-noir as energetic as his masterful film debut, the incredibly surreal Good Times (1967) starring Sonny and Cher.

Friedkin's mise en scene is deliciously precise, claustrophobic, stagey yet free in its visual dynamics and character movement. Its one of Friedkin's most important works, comparable in its own curious way, to The Boys in the Band, The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer, Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A., and most recently, his other adaptation/collaboration with Letts', on the mind-blowing Bug.

Matthew McConaughey, just as Michael Shannon in the aforementioned Bug, gives the performance of his career. Letts' preoccupation with men straddling the line of reality and insanity meets Friedkin's career long exploration of American masculinity in all of its great mystery; masculine violence is usually the transcendent climax. McConaughey's southern braggadocio is crystallized by his inception into this dark union. Psychopathic hitman cop Joe is one of this year's great characters, and the actor's interpretation of him is the stuff of legend.

All the other characters are perfectly deplorable in that sublime Cain-Thompson fashion. Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon, and Thomas Haden Church are all at their blistering best. Multiple sequences spellbind with the power of Friedkin-Letts' cinematic marriage. But Juno Temple is the film's other acting revelation. Her naive, sweet Dottie is a femme fatale in reverse; her performance is amazing.

Master cinematographer Caleb Deschanel regally lights up the trailers and dive bars of Friedkin's vision. Tyler Bates' music score is textural and simple, perfect accompaniment for these savage rubes. The dark side of humanity hasn't been done this well in some time; Friedkin nails it with another one of his masterworks.

Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris: Ruby Sparks

Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Ruby Sparks, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2012.

Flying high on the indie-fumes of a meta-film meltdown, pseudo-indie helmers Dayton and Faris, of Little Miss Sunshine fame, concoct a fun and diverting little Summer indie with the indefatigable Ruby Sparks.

Adapted from an original screenplay by talented young actress-writer Zoe Kazan, the movie mostly works in starts and fits, its a sporadic pleaser much like its predecessor. Sparks, our fiery red haired heroine, is actually a fictional character who springs magically from the mind of a young writer played well by Paul Dano. The odd rom-com whirlwind she takes him on makes up for most of the picture. Some of it works, some of it doesn't. Dayton and Faris are good at pulling quirky performances from their diverse casts; their progressive narrative flow and framing aren't their strong suits.

Kazan is a zany revelation, balancing just the right amount of sweet and looney, as she realizes she does not really exist. Dano is strong as the masculine center of the movie.  Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Steve Coogan, and Elliot Gould all have fun with their supporting roles. A mild seasonal Sundance selection, Ruby Sparks is a worthy diversion to get out of the heat and into the a/c.

Todd Solondz: Dark Horse

Selma Blair, Jordan Gelber, Dark Horse, Vitagraph Films, 2012.

One of the most narratively original films of the year, Todd Solondz's daring comedy-drama Dark Horse, is worthy of all your attentions and cinematic devotions. The dark comedy master from New Jersey serves us one of the most subtly powerful films of his career. Taking inspiration from Paddy Chayefsky's 1950s stage classic Marty, and Delbert Mann's subsequent Oscar-sweeping film version, by way of Woody Allen's wonderfully surreal fantasy streak, as his starting point for a work of art that is truly transformative.

Jordan Gelber is shattering as our pathetic protagonist, a middle aged schlub still living with his aging parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow, both superb). He works with his Dad at the family business, where Dad's secretary Marie (an amazing Donna Murphy) looks longingly at him from her desk. His world begins crashing around him, after he becomes smitten with a strange, medicated woman (Selma Blair) who also lives with her parents. Their awkward courtship bookends the interconnecting fantasies and dreams of all of the characters, until Solondz has obliterated our perceptions of filmic "reality".

The pure inspiration flowing through Solondz's little world, the dignity he affords his fractured characters, grants us a glimpse inside one of our country's great directors; he has had yet another triumph in a long string of masterpieces: from Happiness to Life During Wartime, and now this, one of his strongest creations. Along with Wes Anderson, we are witnessing the maturation of the 1990s indie auteurs into integral American masters.

August Atrocities

Ahhhhh, August - end of the Summer movie season, and one of the studios' designated "dumping ground" months, along with January, to unleash all the crap they don't really know what to do with, or that they know stinks to high heavens. So lets go over some of these "stinkers" if you will, some of the absolute worst movies of the year. This August has also been incredibly rewarding and rich, which we shall see later.

The Watch, apparently tone deaf helmer Akiva Schaefer's stupendously bad sci-fi comedy starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade at their most grating and unbearable.

Ice Age: Continental Drift, 20th Century Fox, 2012.

20th Century Fox's formerly cute but dismissible animated franchise, Ice Age, comes to grisly end with the obnoxious, last straw retread that is Ice Age: Continental Drift.

Sparkle, a tepid remake of a 1970s movie that wasn't so hot to begin with. But I'll take a Seventies misfire any day over a shitty millennial remake filled with decent music while all else is indecent, save Whitney Houston's final role, strong and interesting, as the matriarch.

Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Sparkle, Tri-Star Pictures, 2012.

Step Up Revolution, one of the most moronic movies of the year. Bad everything, crazy dance moves make for a God awful time at the cineplex.

The Apparition, another faux  reality horror excretion, filled with good looking bad young actors, terrible dialogue, limp direction and an overall shrug worthy denouement.

Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Expendables 2, Lionsgate Films, 2012.

Finally, this August wouldn't have been complete without The Expendables 2,  Simon West's turkey of a sequel to Sylvester Stallone's campy action extravaganza from a couple years back. The inclusion of a feverish number of male action icons within one ridiculous film makes for a kitschy, so bad its fascinatingly bad time at a theater near you.

Jose Padilha: Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

Wagner Moura, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, Variance Films, 2011.

Continuing his riveting tale of a special Rio police task force straddling the moral line between law and crime, one of South America's masters, Jose Padilha, delivers a sequel rare in that its worthy of its brilliant predecessor.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is raw, lived in, ultimately transcendent. The writer-director's excursion into the psyche of Latin-American masculinity by way of a police procedural crime drama feels original and intense. Wagner Moura and Andre Ramiro play two sides of the coin; friends, brothers, colleagues, they are both specimens of repressed masculinity bordering on rage and violence.

While the first film was one of the most important Latin-American films of the past decade, its searing sequel feels very necessary, brilliantly so.

Watch it now on Netflix Instant Watch

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Manoel De Oliveira: The Strange Case of Angelica

Pilar Lopez de Ayala, The Strange Case of Angelica, The Cinema Guild, 2011.

Continuing his fascinating fore into the inner-trappings of narrative cinema, octogenarian Portuguese master Manoel De Oliveira delivers his annual tale of love, obsession, and death with The Strange Case of Angelica. A mysteriously beautiful film, Angelica channels Bunuel as usual as well as the Brothers Grimm, Hitchcock, and Renoir. The simple narrative is a deceptive guise for De Oliveira's musings on the aforementioned facets of life.

Ricardo Trepa, the director's grandson, serves as his surrogate once more, this time playing Isaac, a young man who becomes drawn into a strange mystery involving a wealthy family in a Portuguese village and their recently deceased daughter, the title character. Through a strange series of events, he is taken for the village photographer and hired to photgraph Angelica in her death bed. When he looks through the camera lens, she is alive and smiling.

The shifting sensibility of his fascination with the dead girl tinges every scene with a melancholy light somewhere between the end of life and beyond. De Oliveira's trademarks are on display; an extremely brief running time, distance, austerity, coolly beauteous images, curious peripheral characters, internalized protagonists we can never quite grasp, emotions hidden away. The framework perfectly suits his narrative style. Dp Sabine Lancelin burnishes his artful images onto the celluloid; together they craft some of the most intoxicating imagery this side of Raoul Ruiz.

At 103 years old, one of the last masters of world cinema shows why he is still relevant, and reminds us how mediocre motion pictures are getting, with this small gem of wonder.

Watch it now on Netflix Instant Watch

Raoul Ruiz: Mysteries of Lisbon

Joao Arrais, Mysteries of Lisbon, Music Box Films, 2011.

Wrapping our troubles in dreams his own passionately peculiar way, Chilean master Raoul Ruiz has devised not only one of the best pictures of his career, but also one of the most important films of the new century.

Ironically, in adapting Portuguese literary powerhouse Camilo Castelo Branco's dense, Victorian inspired novel, Ruiz was forced by the sheer length of the thing, to make it as a mini-series for Portuguese television. Yet he had always intended for it to be seen on the big screen. Running four and a half hours, this intoxicating, mind bending period piece is one of the great movie going experiences of my life.

Detailing in minutest positioning, the memories within memories of a boy as he becomes a man, Ruiz crystallizes his distinct style as a visual storyteller. The dark intensity of 19th century Portugal whisks us away on Ruiz's visionary passions. Pedro Da Silva is a Dickensian orphan who is compelled to unravel the mystery of his origins. Memories become wrapped in dreams, multiple characters reflect on their own lives and decisions via masterful use f voice over, and it all washes over us a testament to the power of cinema.

Joao Arrais and Jose Afonso Pimetel both hold our hearts splendidly as Pedro, the boy and the man. The rest of the cast all match that driven focus; how Ruiz culls it all together is part of the magic in its mystery, and reminds us that he is one of the most important directors in the world. Three Crowns of the Sailor and Time Regained are his two previous films this reminded me of most; mythical dream world meets dense character drama; both entwine until indistinguishable. Yet this film is better than both; in fact it is the crowning achievement of the master's career.

Having passed away earlier this year, we have lost one of the most distinct and enchanting voices in world cinema. And yet he lives on through his movies. Mysteries of Lisbon was one of the great movie going experiences of my life. It was televised in Portugal in 2010; played art houses in L.A. and New York City in mid-2011, and now is available on dvd in 2012. Not surprisingly, its better than anything that has been released stateside so far this year; Malick's Tree of Life is the only recent film that can rival it in depth and scope.

Ultimately we are under Ruiz's spell as he spins another surreal internal narrative of love and death. Recalling the Bronte's and Dickens among others, Mysteries of Lisbon is pure unadulterated cinematic craft.

Watch it now on Netflix Instant Watch

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Benh Zeitlin: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Dwight Henry, Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2012.

Corrugating recent national disaster into a Malickian homage narrative, up and coming writer-director Benh Zeitlin delivers a strong debut feature. Beasts of the Southern Wild, a woolly, shaggy dog of a "crowd pleaser" follows Hush-Puppy (a remarkable Quvenzhane Wallis), the handful of a heroine, a child filled with wonder and imagination at the world around her. Having survived Hurricane Katrina with her damaged father (Dwight Henry), Hush-Puppy traipses along side Zeitlin through a narrative of wish, dream, and happenstance.

While it doesn't all work, cast and crew obtain maximum effect from what little production resources they have, which makes it a real indie wunderkind. The cinematography by Ben Richardson is dreamy, assuaging the images to the plot. The voice-over narration is done splendidly; in the key of Malick, it is some of the best children's voice-over narration since David Gordon Green's George Washington, over a decade ago. The acting is naturalistic, while the tone is uneven. At times, the action becomes grating and chaotic, and the director too easily portrays Hush-Puppy in a sentimental light that I didn't care for.

The enchanting drift of a half-realized Southern narrative is refreshing in its signal of a new talent on the rise.

Jonathan Demme: Neil Young Journeys

Neil Young, Neil Young Journeys, Sony Pictures Classics, 2012.

Wrapping his halcyon legend in a heavenly glow, American master Jonathan Demme chronicles blissfully icon Neil Young's performance in his hometown, Toronto, on his 2011 tour for the exceptional album Le Noise. Languidly following the man as he revisits old haunts, tells old tales, and runs into random people from his past, the nostalgic sheen to the picture, courtesy master cinematographer Declan Quinn, instills the movie with a heart and a strength that goes beyond the usual rock documentary film.

This side of Scorsese, nobody understands the logistics and nature of a rock-n-roll documentary better than Demme, who is just plain magic when it comes to his touch in his distinct films. Of the rocks docs, this is, but of course, the man who brought us Stop Making Sense as well as Storefront Hitchcock. He relaxes the proceedings and captures a glow to the process of creating art. Its a fascinating double standard Demme knows too well. Creating art about creating art, Neil Young Journeys is another entry in Young's concert film oeuvre; intrinsically a cinematic performer, Young is one of the most important men in music. As a singer-songwriter, he is incomparable. His haunted lyrics tinge the frames of Demme's portrayal of him, sad and sweet and moving.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Christopher Nolan: The Dark Knight Rises

Christian Bale, The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2012.

Continuing and supposedly wrapping up his incomparable contemporary comic-book opus, modern master Christopher Nolan delivers a dense, dank, crystallized pop culture summary of the world we live in and the way we portray it through our art. The first two films, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2009), were darkly psychological, character and theme driven movies that combined the popular mythos of the comics with Nolan's specific strengths as a director. They were the best super hero films of the decade; topping them would be a death defying feat.

The Dark Knight Rises is a wondrous thing; filled to the gills with subplots, new characters, and double twists, at times it bites off more than it can chew. The all-encompassing dread of Gotham remains intact, the character development via action and emotion still palpable. And yet I couldn't help but feel that despite all that is wonderful about it, this Knight has many problems.

Nolan and his brother Jonathan's screenplay is excellent, maybe too much exposition in the end, yet undeniably brilliantly written. Two subplots don't feel as smooth as they could be, and in the end I just did not buy them. Joseph Gordon Levitt as Blake, a new cop character whose story line culminates in a flimsy twist, gives a strong performance, as usual, and yet his entire trajectory just doesn't feel as strong as it should. Marion Cotillard as Miranda, Bruce's new love interest with an iffy twist, feels even less natural.

Aside from these and a few other pitfalls, the film picks up and carries on well from the last film. Its just that, coming off of that high, it is apparent that even a master like Nolan cannot deliver near-perfection every time. Bale, Oldman, Caine, and Freeman all return in top form. Tom Hardy makes an impression as Bane, the formidable new villain. His parts of the film are some of the strongest; his take over of Gotham City and the anarchy that ensues make for the strongest sequences of the film.

Anne Hathaway is on target with her Catwoman; more of a peripheral character, more a love interest than a villain, Nolan's handling of her character is inspired. The conscience she develops is fascinating, registering in her wounded brown eyes.

The movie has an air of doom aside from the obvious; thematically enriched by love, death, and loss, the tragic passing of Heath Ledger and the opening night massacre in Aurora pin an aura of legendary despair to the entire affair. Wally Pfister continues to capture a nightmarish Gotham City in line with Nolan's neo-noir vision. Hans Zimmer's score is a pounding, pulsing thing of action film beauty. Nolan's Batman comes to a blisteringly uneven close.

Despite its glaring inconsistencies, The Dark Knight Rises is the best comic-book adaptation of the Summer, and despite its low place in Nolan's oeuvre, this cultural phenomenon is better than almost anything at the multiplexes this season.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Oliver Stone: Savages

Blake Lively, Benicio Del Toro, Savages, Universal Pictures, 2012.

Reasons to dislike the new Oliver Stone film, a minor work in his canon and my least favorite of all his 19 narrative features:

- a terrible script rife with structural flaws and unintentionally funny dialogue

- boring, unbelievable protagonists

- several offensively disgusting sequences which are sadistic, seeming to relish realistic violence for the sake of entertainment

- alarming shifts in tone that are a result of a poor script and a cast and director attempting to assemble some sort of story from it

- a truly bad ending

Reasons to like the new Oliver Stone film, a flawed action-thriller so stuffed full of intentions that Stone's grasp of the messy proceedings still produces a fascinating, campy piece of pulp which works more as symbolic social satire than anything resembling reality or even a movie portraying reality. Although, as a Stone film, it is his most problematic, lacking the kitsch historical epic of Alexander, the acute moral conscience and heart of World Trade Center, the brilliantly corrosive purposeful satire of W., or even the cohesion, however wispy, of his heretofore weakest work, the sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps:

- raw, deep, gorgeous camera work by Daniel Mindel

- fascinating, over the top creepy antagonists

- numerous brilliantly executed set pieces

- an interesting score by new composer Adam Peters

-  hypnotic performance by Benicio Del Toro, movie villain of the year?

Even Oliver Stone's worst movie is far better than the animated, comedy, horror, and super hero "movies" littering a theater near P.U.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Woody Allen: To Rome with Love

Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg, To Rome with Love, Sony Pictures Classics, 2012.

Stepping into the golden Roman sunlight for his annual stroll, Woody Allen, one of the greatest film artists in the world, revisits many of the themes that have fixated him for all of his fifty year career.

Love, sex, and the human condition in all of its ridiculousness take one form or another in the distinctly magical universe of Mr. Allen. Anything can happen, anyone can be anything they want, and all of it with a deadpan smile, the vaudeville one liners keep coming.

Darius Khondji is a magic man with a camera; his sun drenched Rome drips like honey; being one of the best cinematographers in the world, his work with Neil Jordan standing out, he does a magnificent job here.

The intersecting tales of love, fame, and family are balanced effortlessly by Allen; his script is light as a feather yet rife with his trademarks. The entire cast shines; Allen, Judy Davis, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, and Penelope Cruz are all at their best. Even more center stage are the younger cast members, who nail it. Greta Gerwig and Alison Pill were both born to act for Allen. Likewise, though not quite as obviously, are Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page. They slip into their roles with an enticing ease, and truly own them. Their chemistry together and with other cast members is strong. I don't believe that Eisenberg or Page have ever been better in a film before.

The surrealism is brilliant; in typical Allen fashion, a middle-aged man (Baldwin) is able to sit in on his past, communicating with his younger self (Eisenberg) as he becomes ensnared in a bitterseet Allen triangle with Page and Gerwig. A common Italian man (a delightful Benigni) finds himself cast into fame for no reason at all.

Allen's light touch, unlike any other, casts a spell over his audience; for under two hours we are transported, moved, and depart the multiplex pondering our own lives. Thus is the power of cinema, the power of Allen, and the power of one of the best films of the Summer.

Alex Kurtzman: People Like Us

Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Hall D'Addario, People Like Us, Touchstone Pictures, 2012.

Utilizing cliche and past artifice ingeniously, Transformers screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are the surprising generators of one of this Summer's most affecting films. People Like Us is the perfect example of a picture with a plot that's been done to death; the strength of a film lies in its energy, its vision behind it. While the script is an important half, the actualization of said script into a bad or good film is something one can never quite bottle.

Having scribed the lambasted blockbuster franchise of the Transformers, it is quite delightful to view this spry, emotional, energetic little film. Their script is well written; Kurtzman's work with his cast is exceptional.

A long-lost sibling story set in the L.A. music scene, People Like Us lives up to its title in locating the heart in the midst of all the prefigured plot moves. That is its most fascinating facet, a conflux of style and theme. Visualizing these arcs is the brilliant Salvatore Totino; his gift with light is illuminating day light with a weightless awe. A.R. Rahman's score is integral, moving and playful, alternately.

Chris Pine fits well into his role as Sam, a salesman with a wall built around him, who must come home to L.A. for his record producer father's funeral. I haven't particularly cared for Pine in past films; Star Trek and This Means War were both pretty forgettable. Here, he finds the right mode to make us believe in his frustrating character.

Olivia Wilde, as his suspicious fiance, and Michael Hall D'Addario, as his precocious nephew, are both very good. But Kurtzman gives the film to Elizabeth Banks and Michelle Pfeiffer. Banks, one of the most refreshing actresses in Hollywood, finally gets the role she's so deserved as Frankie,  Sam's no-nonsense bartender sister. Her conviction in the role, and how this reads as conflicting on her beautiful face, is one of the great joys of the film. Michelle Pfeiffer gets one of her best roles in years as Lillian, Sam's rock waif mother, her own wall of grief built up around her.

Kurtzman's own wall of melodrama is palpable. We see the golden traditions cascading down, Sirk and Cassavetes meeting somewhere in the middle. The inspired realization of standard exposition hasn't felt this freeing in some time.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Marc Webb: The Amazing Spider Man

Andrew Garfield, The Amazing Spider Man, Columbia Pictures, 2012.

Apparently in need of some quick big bucks, Sony Pictures decides to reboot American comic book icon, Spider Man. After all is said and done, the overall feeling I was left with was: why???

Master filmmaker Sam Raimi's Spider Man trilogy was admittedly his most minor effort from his canon; the films were fast, fun, almost cartoony, which was very much in line with the director's penchant for surrealism. Spider Man 2 was also undeniably the best in the series (and arguably one of Raimi's strongest pieces of exposition). So why, a few years later, redo the same epic tale?

Sony, I believe, wanted an edgier, more serious Spidey, ala Nolan's ingenious re-envisioning of Batman. The script is well written, but almost constructed like a generic workshop screenplay. A lot goes into character development via dialogue. Legendary scripter Alvin (Ordinary People) Sargent brings his trademark style in this vein to the table; James (Zodiac) Vanderbilt and Steve (Harry Potter) Kloves also contribute to a dense script which ends up too choked by structural influx; there are simply put too many writers.

Indie darling Marc Webb follows up his cute, promising debut, 500 Days of Summer, by capably bringing said tome to the screen. He has an affinity for spatial structure that is apparent. Through all this, the overall feeling is bland. Nothing is done especially wrong here, its just that nothing's done especially good, either. Andrew Garfield is a good actor who gives an interesting slant to Peter Parker. Emma Stone, as Gwen Stacy, shines with what little she's given; much of her banter with Peter was aggravating. Rhys Ifans has fun with the villain role, and Denis Leary, Sally Field, and Martin Sheen round out the cast.

I just couldn't help but think to myself: why?! Also, how much more I enjoyed Raimi's first Spider Man a decade ago. Overlong, overdone, blah, and packed with slam-bang dazzling f/x, the best thing about this wasted effort is James Horner's gorgeous music score!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Seth MacFarlane: Ted

Mark Wahlberg, Ted, Universal Pictures, 2012.

Perpetuating the man-boy mythos of our country, by way of "bromance"y bullshit and over the top gross-out humor, satirist Seth MacFarlane makes a truly forgettable directorial debut with the pointless Ted.

Forced and dull, with snatches of true humor, Ted is a novel idea which could have worked as a ten minute sketch; at this length, it resembles a bloated corpse more than a motion picture. A little boy's magical teddy bear grows up with him, turning into a surly pervert as the boy grows into a man. The sight gags, tiered sequences, and stifling shenanigans wear thin fast. MacFarlane, the genius behind the provocative, hilarious cultural phenomenon Family Guy, voices the boisterous bear. Ted goes from cuddly to unbearably obnoxious at the snap of a studio boss' finger.

Mark Wahlberg is the mess' only saving grace; his turn as John is excellent; his portrayal of an average Joe rings true. His performance almost doesn't belong in this heap. The luminous Mila Kunis is utterly wasted as the love interest. The problem is that MacFarlane's reach has exceeded his grasp. Live action films are a far cry from animated sitcoms. The writer-director has the best intentions, but what should be effortless feels laborious.

Lorene Scafaria: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Steve Carrell, Keira Knightley, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Focus Features, 2012,

Guiding the comical tidings of yet another Armageddon tale, writer-director Lorene Scafaria displays enough charm and talent to barely keep her afloat. The romantic misadventures of a sadsack and a kook are injected by cast and creator with a spunky inanity which works most of the time.

Scafaria, tangentially talented at telling modern love stories, juggles surreal comic sequences with cliches, sight gags, zingers, and emotion. Not all of it comes across clear; what does is delightful in an escapist sort of way.

Casting us into a last days scenario which oddly works, Scafaria balances it all out. She previously scripted the guilty pleasure Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist; here, she works a similar magic; a modern love story which is simultaneously zany and moving.

Her real strength here is her leads: Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley seem an oddly matched pair, but their burgeoning chemistry is definitely something to behold. Carrell's filmic personality fits snugly into Scafaria's loveable loser who decides to take his life into his own hands. This is a strength as well as a weakness. Knightley slips smoothly into her fractured character with a fun that belies her gifts as a serious actress.

The rest of the cast is strong; Tim Orr's camerawork is gorgeously etched; its the script which devolves and putters out; while it holds together it certainly is something a little askew.

Steven Soderbergh: Magic Mike

Channing Tatum, Magic Mike, Warner Bros., 2012.

Slicing a seamy splice through modern American sexual mores and good ole Capitalism, great American director Steven Soderbergh eclipses himself.

Soderbergh tints every frame; his camera-work and palette are instantly recognizable; the washed out color scheme, the ellipses of movement and time. Not quite as cerebral as some of his work, due in large part to the well-written script by actor Reid Carolin. The characters and dialogue feel real, while serving the larger scheme of symbolism. Soderbergh balances ideas and exposition smoothly to the delight of the discerning viewer; Channing Tatum, that dreamy beefcake of the masses, has never felt so tangible in a movie; this is definitely his best work this side of Dito Montiel's A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.

Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, and Olivia Munn are all strong in their roles; Cody Horn makes an impression as Tatum's female foil. Soderbergh places them all oh so carefully like pieces on a chess board. Not all the pieces fit. The cliches in the script are rounded off by Carolin's strengths as a scribe and Soderbergh's genius as a film artist.

Though weakening in the third act, Magic Mike outshines its companion piece, Soderbergh's earlier political parable The Girlfriend Experience; Mike offers more emotion to Girlfriend's cold flatness. While lacking the precision and impact of the director's masterful Contagion, Magic Mike is undeniably one of the better pictures at the multiplexes this Summer.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Pixar: Brave

Brave, Walt Disney Pictures, 2012.

Colorful, shiny, and hollow, Pixar's ruinous hold on popular animated films is a sad thing which can periodically produce good. When the studio has got the right filmmakers and scribes in line, then something curiously emotional can result; it takes heart to infuse their vacant plasticity with any meaning.

The Toy Story films, the Cars films, Wall E and Up! were all well done, some even approached excellence, yet still none of them could touch the feeling a hand drawn animated picture gives; it gives off humanity.

Brave is not one of their best efforts. Diverting enough, its traditional Disney princess tale crossed with a half-assed attempt at feminism is incidental; its voice cast, headed by Kelly MacDonald and Billy Connolly, is top flight. The best moments come when Merida breaks away from the inane castle politics and cavorts in an enchanted forest with the animals; the beauty of these scenes are some of the Pixar animators best recent efforts. The script, overall, feels half baked, like a bunch of animation cliches were tossed together in hopes they would stick. Sappiness reigns supreme in this kingdom.

The choice of Patrick Doyle to write the original music for the picture is interesting; his score is Celtic, roving, and passionate, the opposite of the over-achieving film which contains it.

Timur Bekmambetov: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

Benjamin Walker, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, 20th Century Fox, 2012.

Reconfiguring history to fit into a neat little genre package which became the darling of the masses, author Seth Grahame-Smith's one joke, clever novel (as well as Pride & Prejudice and Zombies) satirizes our heritage, skewing it with gore and blood. Unfortunately, in adapting his own novel for the Summer big screen, Smith has lost, in translation, the humor and suspense which made his style stand apart. The script fails on so many levels; exposition is cluttered, dialogue stiff, characters cloudy.

A mediocre, almost bad, script, takes a lot to transform it. Director Bekmambetov is a visionary, and he tries, but fails. Having previously helmed the art-house vampire flicks Nightwatch and Daywatch, only to come stateside to craft the deliriously fun actioner Wanted, he would seem ideal for this material, and is, if only the script were in line. As it stands, we dont quite know what is going on, nor quite care.

The cast is good enough;Benjamin Walker is well cast as Lincoln; Anthony Mackie, Rufus Sewell, Dominic Cooper, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are all in their elements. Bekmambetov directs with a visual style that is both dreamy and feverish; his slo-mo isnt as tired as it should be, because he ingrains it into his kinetic genre style.

The real stars here are the cinematographer and the composer; Caleb Deschanel's images are atmospherically gorgeous. The smoky creeping terror of 19th century America has never looked more tempting; Henry Jackman's score is rife with doom and passion; it goes to show that he is one of the most important of up and coming film composers.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Sean Anders and Daryl Wein: That's My Boy and Lola Versus

Adam Sandler, That's My Boy, Columbia Pictures, 2012.

You know the Summer's here when another shitty Adam Sandler comedy is unleashed on the populace. And you really know the Summer's here when there's an equally unbearable indie comedy to go with it. Stinking up the cinemas and taking up room where more important films could be playing, flaccid directors Sean Anders and Daryl Wein confuse humor with boredom.

Anders, director of the idiotic Sex Drive, delves into Sandler's shit storm head first, but without any sign of a pulse. The script sucks to begin with, but the director has no sense of comic timing or rhythm in the actual structure of the film. So its all left to Sandler, shamelessly mugging, and Samberg, looking embarrassed half the time, to carry the film. Last year's Jack and Jill was a guilty pleasure, rare for Sandler's mainstream fare. Aside from a few admittedly hilarious scenes involving Sandler and Samberg (whose chemistry really isn't half bad), this year's Sandler is a major dud.

Greta Gerwig, Lola Versus, Fox Searchlight, 2012.

Wein, director of the good AIDS documentary Sex Positive, delves into a nauseatingly "cute" indie "chick" flick starring the estimable Greta Gerwig. As the whiny Lola, surrounded by bland characters played by bland actors complaining about their love lives, she's less fetching. A crappy script and mediocre everything else strands the flick on Gerwig's poor shoulders, and, bless her, she just can't carry it. Her brilliant turn in Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress earlier this year comes to mind, which only reiters the fact that this one is so unmemorably written and directed.

Adam Shankman: Rock of Ages

Malin Akerman, Tom Cruise, Rock of Ages, Warner Bros., 2012.

Erupting in an overlong, noxious pop culture mash-up burp, the new filmization of an overrated Broadway musical, Rock of Ages, is a mixed bag, to say the very least. So, okay, the studios are taking the Glee route with saccharine, dumbed down versions of hair band songs considered by most to be cheezy from the get-go. So, okay, we have two boooooring leads, nice looking, nice enough sounding but zero chemistry, zero savoir faire, zero.

Adam Shankman, a middling director who brought us The Pacifier, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Hairspray, and, oh yeah, numerous episodes of Glee, doesn't quite know what to do with the camera. A better director, like Taylor Hackford or Curtis Hanson, could have done something great with this truly remarkable (for the most part) cast; it would have had to have been harder edged, darker, more true to the era. Not a semi-snoozefest with a few noteworthy sequences.

The songs are all great; their butchery here is cringe-worthy. Some of the script by Justin Theroux (!), Chris D'Arienzo, and Allan Loeb has some good stuff; some witty dialogue and well-rounded side characters. Only it falls victim to the command of structure; its rather a mess.

Tom Cruise shines, stealing every scene he's in with his sharp, attuned turn as superstar Stacee Jaxx. Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Giamatti, Malin Akerman, and Bryan Cranston, are all excellent in key supporting roles, which only magnify the chasm between shoddy script, weak direction, and bland leads. Bojan Bazelli's cinematography recalls his work with Rob Marshal on Chicago. The claustrophobic setting of the club is stagey but interesting. Not adding up to the sum of its parts, on cable it can be truly enjoyed guiltily as bad camp.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Elia Suleiman: The Time That Remains

Zuhair Abu Hanna, Samar Tanus, Saleh Bakri, The Time That Remains, IFC Films, 2011.

Under seen in our country, having played in only one theater in Los Angeles late last year, Palestinian film maker Elia Suleiman's fourth feature film, The Time That Remains, deserves to be seen and discussed by as many people as possible.

Essentially an elliptical history of the modern state of Palestine, as seen through Suleiman's boyhood recollections of his family, especially his father, and the strange out of sequence events which transpire and shape their futures, his grasp on imagination and memory are incomparable. Utilizing as playfully deceptive a style as always, the director here is taking on one of his most challenging films; a brief history of Palestine. The way it informs the exposition of a middle class family in the 1960s, their neighborhood now without a country, is fascinating and stimulating.

Suleiman casts many non-actors, even some of his own family members, in crucial roles. His style is complex but oddly, enchantingly comedic, inspired by Keaton and Tati. The precision of his sets and visuals, the force of his strange little scenes, are hypnotizing. A rich tableaux of middle-Eastern identity, history, politics, and life, The Time That Remains is undeniably powerful.

Watch it now on Netflix!

Ridley Scott: Prometheus

Michael Fassbender, Prometheus, 20th Century Fox Films, 2012.

Arriving on a tide of cineaste suspense as well as great expectaton, Ridley Scott's return to the science-fiction genre is most definitely worthy of exaltation. The visionary artist cum studio maven crafted two of the greatest sci-fi films of all time; Alien and Blade Runner. That he has not truly ever matched those films is not surprising; that many of his recent films are safer entertainments, free of adventuresome thinking, is a disappointment to his fans. Matchstick Men and Body of Lies stand out the most as Scott's most crucial contributions to world cinema as of late.

Prometheus, a visually grandiose, frequently creepy space opera, has many Scott strengths going for it. Dariusz Wolski's cinematography, first and foremost. Wolski's crisply stylized glimpse into our world (Scotland, lush and tangible, in the awe-inspiring credit sequence) and others (the dark mystery of an alien civilization now extinct) is some of the best camera work of the year, no doubt. Scott and Wolski work together to recreate the visual rhythms of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey by way of Scott's own Alien. The self referencing is both fascinating and confusing. Recalling Hitchcock and Ford remaking their own films, Scott's fixation is cinephilia to the nth degree. For my taste, he went a bit too far with that at times.

The casting of Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, and Idris Elba in the four central roles is inspired; they all excel with what little they're given. Pretty much all the other casting is mediocre, down to Guy Pearce in ridiculous old-age make-up in a bizarre key role. Marc Streitenfeld's score is epically sweeping and suspenseful.

The real problem is a pretty bad script by Damon Lindelof (who wrote last year's splendid Cowboys and Aliens) and Jon Spaihts (who wrote last year's crappy guilty pleasure The Darkest Hour). Filled to the brim with plot holes, inane dialogue, ridiculous sequences, and over the top gore, its a mess that needed a couple rewrites. Scott and co. do what they can to make good of bad, and succeed in a visually ravishing experience with not much else beneath.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Wes Anderson: Moonrise Kingdom

Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, Moonrise Kingdom, Focus Features, 2012.

Illuminating the screen with his own curiously encapsulating style, Wes Anderson delivers the best American film so far this year. The twinging feelings of young love, childhood, Summer, nostalgia ignite storybook imaginariums so free in their creation that they eviscerate everything they touch. Anderson has realized his full potential before; his sophomore feature, Rushmore, was an empowering feat of imagination. Here, he delivers a mature masterpiece.

The way he grips us in the vice of his visual storytelling is startling. He has never felt so forceful before. It feels as if he is allowing his intentions to match his realizations for the very first time. Along with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, this is some of his best recent work. The worlds he fantasizes in both films are hypnotic in their collision of style and heart, something that some of his earlier films lacked.

Crafting a mythical 60s island infused with the spirit of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Anderson's ornate style is perfectly suited for this stratosphere. Robert Yeoman's cinematography is lustrous, ripe with intent. Alexandre Desplat's score is plucky, folksy, adventuresome. Anderson relies on their gifts to forge his own way as a storyteller. Austere yet clever, Anderson and Roman Coppola's script is a magical land in its own right; its riches only magnify and multiply on-screen.

The affectations of Anderson's characters work devilishly; their dialogue can be alternately realistic and ostentatious. The flatness of delivery recalls Bresson. Yet aside from that, Anderson has, to my mind, completely realized his own original style, with nary a trace of influence. Tati and Leone come to mind in certain shots. What he is doing is mapping out the very heart and soul of cinema. Character, dialogue, image are all vital to Anderson, and all wrapped in his vision, become a fiercely living thing. Hard for many to grasp, especially the fans of his lesser films, is the importance of what he has accomplished  here. It is nothing short of the confirmation of a pulse, a heart, an eye in contemporary  cinema, which is capable of realizing its full potential. Moonrise Kingdom is a triumph in every sense.

Tanya Wexler: Hysteria

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Hysteria, Sony Pictures Classics, 2012.

Touching effervescently on tried themes of feminism, misogyny, and sexuality, director Tanya Wexler displays considerable dexterity at her work; after the wreck that was Snow White, watching her easy rhythms was a pleasure to behold.

Working from an excellent script filled with sparkling dialogue, written by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, Wexler maximizes the screwball inanity of her stiff upper lipped characters. Set in Victorian England at the (semi-fantasized) birth of Women's Rights, we are still bound to a plot, though, where a male protagonist experiences the sexual revolution via several secondary female characters.

In Hugh Dancy, Wexler utilizes an old-fashioned movie star, likeable and identifiable to the audience. His blustery, self-effacing  presence goes a long way to making the film as enjoyable as it is. As a young doctor who finds himself in a new practice with an old doctor ( a great Jonathan Pryce) who specializes in releasing the "hysteria" or sexual tension, of society women, Dancy's boyish Brit demeanor coalesces with Wexler's intentions wonderfully. Many hilarious set pieces ensue.

As the central female character, the fiercely progressive daughter of the doctor, Maggie Gyllenhaal is kinetic in her possession of the role. As her seemingly docile sister, Felicity Jones is delightful. Ashley Jensen, Sheridan Smith, and Gemma Jones all shine.

Sophie Becher's sets and Nic Ede's costumes both go hand in hand in helping us to believe in Wexler's little world. Sean Bobbit's camera work is crisp and illustrious, capturing the sheen of Victorian London. Though the whole affair does not feel entirely fresh, the birth of the vibrator subplot does, hilariously so..

Rupert Sanders: Snow White and the Huntsman

Charlize Theron, Snow White and the Huntsman, Universal Pictures, 2012.

Grossly manipulating the Brothers Grimm into a vapid mess which looks stunningly beautiful, first-time helmer Rupert Sanders, crossing over from commercials, makes an unfortunate fore into motion pictures.

For Snow White, one of this Summer's most anticipated films, is a big wash-out. Starting with a mediocre script by John Lee Hancock and Evan Daugherty and Hossein Amini (!) rife with stale narration, wretch dialogue, and inane action, Sanders finishes it off poorly with his misfired debut.

Aside from the shitty script and unfocused direction, which kill the film, there are a few delights to be had among the doldrums.

Charlize Theron makes the movie the little that it is; her Ravenna is a shoddily written character brought to furious life in a spellbinding turn by the incomparable Theron. Greig Fraser's camera captures the vivid nature and lens flares of a storybook kingdom with a breathtaking grace; and lastly, James Newton Howard's lush, dark score is arguably the greatest contribution to art that this folly can figure. Everything else is pretty much bad camp.