Sunday, January 29, 2012

January Junk

Each January brings the unmistakeable reek of studio discharge, cleansing their ranks of the most distasteful, low brow popular entertainment, which easily could have been good but instead is utter garbage.

Dolly Parton, Queen Latifah, Joyful Noise, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2012.

Todd Graff's execrable Christian musical mish-mash Joyful Noise is public enemy number one. A terrible script, lazy direction, and sheer abandon, it would seem, wastes the talents of Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton.

Katherine Heigl, Daniel Sunjata, One for the Money, Lionsgate Films, 2012.

Julie Ann Robinson's One for the Money delivers our seasonal dosage of Katherine Heigl. This time around, she seems to be having a little more fun with a bad East coast accent as Stephanie Plum. Janet Evanovich's cute series is transformed into a pile of wretchedly tattered cliches. Daniel Sunjata shows promise in more ways than one, heading a game cast that is squandered horribly.

Ed Harris, Sam Worthington, Man on a Ledge, Summit Entertainment, 2012.
Asger Leth's Man on a Ledge displays the most tired, abused and stultifying tropes in the book. A bland Sam Worthington and a miscast Elizabeth Banks headline. Pablo F Fenjves' screenplay is wrong on so many levels. Salvaging the dreck is Ed Harris, chewing scenery in the antagonist role, and Henry Jackman's score, which is more sly and subtle than this dreck could ever hope to be.

Joe Carnahan: The Grey

The Grey, Open Road Films, 2012.

Rebounding from the career nadir which was the odious The A-Team, low-key American auteur Joe Carnahan delivers arguably his best film yet. It is also indisputably the best of Liam Neeson's recent spate of early year actioners, usually courtesy Luc Besson, this year round courtesy of the inimitable Scott Brothers (who also produced the loathsome A-Team). Carnahan's penchant for brutal masculinity rendered in an almost poetic clip, is served well here.

Having begun his career with an impressive DIY action-thriller, Blood Guts Bullets and Octane (in which he starred, as well as doijng everything else), Carnahan forged on with the impressive genre film Narc. His rugged cinematic schematics were revealed in all their stunted, inborn glory. He fiendishly feeds on the past masters, for Carnahan that would be Friedkin, Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma, Eastwood and Mann. Their patriarchal artistic views of shreds of marginalized American life as filtered through cinematic genre and device ( especially the action film) inform Carnahan's distinctive style. Smikin' Aces became a cult phenomenon, followed by the sell-out A-Team.

The Grey is a tour-de-force in every sense of the word. Its beauteous opening and voice-over narration recall Conrad, Dostoevsky and Melville, their tortured travelers. Neeson has never been more magnetic in a film. He holds the audience in a vice grip, as his survivalist-hunter must make it through an airplane crash and attacking wolves in the Alaskan wilderness. Nothing about the production sounds original, and yet, Carnahan's fresh voice and vision as a filmmaker command our attention. He recalls Hawks or Siegel at times in his complete command of the narrative AND visuals of his picture.

Masanobu Takayanagi's camerawork is brilliant in its control and conflux of shading, texture and environment. Marc Streitenfeld's score is awe-inspiring in the impact of its cumulative subtleties. Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffer's script is a lean thing of fury and drive. Carnahan grasps the immensity of his undertaking and relishes every visceral second.

Lynne Ramsay: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Oscilloscope Pictures, 2012.

Its been nearly a decade we've been waiting to hear from the irrascibly talented Lynne Ramsay. Her Ratcatcher amd Morvern Callar are two of the more fascinating films on the international film scene in the late-90s to the early '00s. Her gift as an exquisite visual stylist paired with her no-frills depictions of grit and poverty made her a valuable asset on bi-coastal screens.

And so her American debut, the quietly powerful, mouthful titled Kevin opens amid fanfare for arthouse ice-queen Tilda Swinton's turn as a disaffected suburban mother dealing with her son's mass-murder at his high school. Its affects on her and the community are played out in typically elliptical fashion. Thank God for Ramsay's gift for visual rhythms and narrative cadences.

Yet the film feels underwhelming, which really is a compliment when the overall work is as complex as Ramsay's. The fragmentary narrative ends up feeling short shrifted, and the miscasting of Ezra Miller in the tilte role is a near-death blow to the film. He feels too pretty and unbelievable as a teen spree killer. Aside from this, Swinton and John C. Reilly, as her jovial, oblivious husband, are both revelatory.

Swinton's inner turmoils are communicated mesmerically. Her share in the blame for her sociopath son is related in shameful flashback, handled charismatically by Ramsay. Seamus McGarvey's camera is a weapon of retinal destruction, while Johnny Greenwood's score is ambient and building. Ramsay and her co-writer Rory Kinnear divinely construct a puzzle-box screenplay from Lionel Shriver's under-the-radar novel. A couple of scenes stand out as entirely original;

Swinton seeking relief from a screaming infant Kevin beside a construction site, finding solace in the sounds of a jackhammer; and Swinton cowering in her eyes, barraged by ferocious trick-or-treaters attacking her house.

An unsettling vsion of our country from an outsider's perspective, Kevin's loose threads make up a near-miracle.

Ralph Fiennes: Coriolanus

Ralph Fiennes, Coriolanus, The Weinstein Co., 2012.

Forging the cultural influences of Shakespearean theatre and military bravado, thespian-turned director Ralph Fiennes has conjured a pulpy mass of sheerly gorgeous imagery and stimulating ideas in his masterful directorial debut, Coriolanus.

Ace screenwriter John Logan fuses the natural eloquence of Shakespeare's language with the terse, ultimate masculinity of an Iraq war film, allowing Fiennes' peculiarly moving creation to feel furiously alive and original. Barry Ackroyd's camera is an edge-dwelling warrior in and of itself, giving forth the bitter light of Bigelow's The Hurt Locker kissed by a frame blurring glow. Fiennes directs like he acts; no-nonsense yet gracious; raw yet structured. His mastery as an actor has now been matched by his firm hand behind the camera.

An astonishing cast is assembled, including Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox and it-girl Jessica Chastain, all burrowing deep within themselves to cast forth the depth to be found in the spirit and the words. Yet it is Fiennes, as the Roman general of the title, and Gerard Butler as his adversary and, ultimately, other half, which haunt the film. Steeped in a fantasy netherworld where Rome is a modern state torn by Civil war, Shakespeare's antique play about battle and brotherhood is transformed into a prescient critique of the times we live in now.

For any film to achieve the wonder of ungraspable fantasy, while skewing the way we relate to one another amidst masculinity and miltarism, is something of a legend. For Fiennes to have accomplished that with his first film is golden.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Steven Soderbergh: Haywire

Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Haywire, Relativity Media, 2012.

Audience fascination with an ass-kicking woman goes way back to the days of the old French serials, where women of daring and mystery outsmarted, outfought and outsexed their male adversaries. Luc Besson has tapped into this cross-cultural fixation with the likes of La Femme Nikita and his recent production Colombiana. Nikita itself spun off a Hollywood remake, a tv series and videogame.

Renaissance man Steven Soderbergh flexes his versatile muscles, crafting the half-substantial, half-garbage Haywire out of cliche and panache. His gimmick of casting a celebrity non-actor is interesting. It works better here as we buy into MMA fighter Gina Carano's character, her disorientation and quest for the truth. Porn star Sasha Grey headlined his similarly fascinating, underwhelming The Girlfriend Experience.

Beginning with ace scribe Lem (The Limey) Dobbs' tersely simple script, Soderbergh crafts a fortress of film and ferocity around Carano's poker-faced, inviting demeanor. Her deadly female is every bit as mysterious as Saorsie Ronan's Hanna last year. Gyrating, kicking, pummeling her way through a cast of game name stars (Douglas, Banderas, McGregor, Paxton, Fassbender, Tatum), she hitches a ride from a nobody kid (Michael Angarano) whom she relates her tale to in flashback, after a smashing diner opening scene.

These fight sequences are the hypnotizing glue to Soderbergh's project. Carano making short work of these big men speaks volumes about female strength in a world of masculine detritus.

Zhang Yimou: The Flowers of War

Christian Bale, Ni Ni, The Flowers of War, Row 1 Releasing, 2012.

With all the shades of a forgotten technicolor tinderbox, The Flowers of War glides across the canvas in a diaphanous smear. Retelling the rape of Nanking, Zhang goes for the melodramatic jugular; his homage to Mizoguchi is resplendent, if discordant. At once a commentary on Hollywood films about "foreign" lands starring caucasian leads, and a treatise on his country's artistic and feudal past, the film is mostly stunning.

Christian Bale fills in for the Hestons and Lancasters of yesteryear, and delivers a stunning turn which slowly sinks in in its many intricacies. His drunken mortician, who shows up at a Catholic church amid the rubble of the Japanese invasion, finds retribution in protecting a ragtag group of schoolgirls and prostitutes. This slow building of motif, until the deliverance of the climax, works in favor of the themes which have fixated Zhang throughout his career; femininity and its recourse to masculine power, all-encompassing government (however shrouded), and ultimately, freedom through survival or death.

The narrative cascades in old-fashioned strokes reminiscent of John Ford; in fact, the master's penultimate picture, 7 Women, definitely came to mind. The epic feeling is counterbalanced by the intimacy of the acting; the entire ensemble is top-flight, headed by Bale and the luminous Ni Ni as the head of the courtesans. Xiaoding Zhao's camerawork is magic as always; his utilization of stained glass as the portal of their world is astonishingly original. Quigang Chen's music score is lush and romantic, definitely inspired by James Horner at his most tragically eloquent.

Even though it recalls memories of a superior film on the same subject (City of Life and Death), Zhang's picture suceeds at what the Chinese master does best: spin a cinematic web woven of yesterday and tomorrow.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Phyllida Lloyd: The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady, Weinstein Co., 2012.

It must take a truly visionary director, or a hell of a lot of luck, to make a film based on someone's life which does justice to them and to cinema as art. Bob Fosse (Lenny), Clint Eastwood (Bird) and Taylor Hackford (Ray) come immediately to mind.

Phyllida Lloyd's The Iron Lady is a promising, perplexing film which never truly lets us into its subject, nor does it take a stance on its protagonist, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's controversial position in 1980s pop culture. Instead we get a visually dazzling, narratively interesting period piece which is only survived by its luminous lead turn by the great Meryl Streep.

The way in which Streep inhabits this character is uncanny. Her body language, mannerisms and movements all catalogued to hypnotic perfection. Such a shame the same year Michelle Williams became Marilyn Monroe. Both are otherworldly invocations.

As for the rest of the picture, its all well done enough, but window dressing to Streep's immersive turn. Jim Broadbent is top notch, as always, as Thatcher's devoted husband, Thomas Newman's score is sumptuous and sad, while master dp Elliot Davis lights Streep/Thatcher's pasts and presents to perfection. Director Lloyd, fresh off the painful turkey Mamma Mia! (also with Streep, sadly), ascertains the rhythm without the blues.

Baltasar Kormakur: Contraband

Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Contraband, Universal Pictures, 2012.

January could never be complete without the action potboiler to cut the taste of Oscar pretension. Icelandic helmer Baltasar Kormakur's Contraband, an endearingly steamy pile, is a remake of another Scandinavian actioner.

 Mark Wahlberg's delightfully formidable prescence fulfills our everyman action protagonist, while Ben Foster and Giovanni Ribisi get to chew scenery mercilessly. Kate Beckinsale comes off well as Wahlberg's wife. All this is the meat to a guileless script that takes a nosedive. Lukas Haas and Diego Luna are nice to see having fun.

Hurt Locker dp Barry Ackroyd lends a pulpy, guttural sheen to the standard proceedings. Overall, Kormakur holds it all together well enough, showing promise as an expatriated action auteur.

Asghar Farhadi: A Seperation

Peyman Moadi, Sareh Bayat, A Seperation, Sony Pictures Classics, 2012.

With the enigma of its simple complexities, its rich social milieu and naked emotionalism, a small Iranian film once more sweeps across to our semi-barren shores to teach the Hollywood bigwigs why it is we even make and watch movies in the first place. The Iranian New Wave brought forth the apparently minor facets in all our lives and made them shine in a singularly poetic way. Where would the cinema be without the mystic mastery of Kiarostami, Mehrjui, Makmahlbaf, Panahi, Majidi and many more?

Asghar Farhadi has been quietly building a contemplative body of work which discreetly breaks down barriers. Barriers of language, culture, sex, class, etc. This societal seperation has colored all of his output. Recent pictures Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly touched on these themes with the contemplative force of a Cassavetes or an Ozu.

A Seperation, then, is Farhadi's cornerstone, and by the looks of it, his breakthrough and a pivotal moment in modern cinema. A moment when the purity of truth  and human drama trumps all the stylistic grandstanding and empty evocations across the world film scene. An intimate family drama, a nail-biting suspenser, Farhadi blurs the line of what exactly his film is, which lends it an air of mystery that envelopes the viewer as we experience the brilliantly fraught drama days of a seperated couple. Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami (sublime in Mehrjui's Leila) delineate the fragile states of their characters fruitfully, both nailed into their characters as their very characters are nailed to the roles their culture has assigned to them.

Family problems involving a grandfather with Alzheimer's, a slippery, unmakeable nurse (Sareh Bayat) and her watchful young daughter, as well as her sociopathic husband (Shahab Hosseini) all intertwine ingeniously. Sarina Farhadi as the protagonists' torn adolescent daughter is excellent, as is the entire ensemble.

Makmahlbaf's old dp Mahmoud Kalari, lights the proceedings with a regularity which draws us into the puzzle. Editor Hayedeh Safiyari, charged from his kinetic work with Bahman Ghobadi, cuts the picture with an intensity bordering on the intrinsic.

Farhadi's picture is layered and ultimately mortal, in that anybody can identify with the feelings coursing through the celluloid, which is where its strength really lies. Drawing on his love for Italian Neo-realism (as all Iranian directors do, they identify with its purity) and the artistry of John Cassavetes' wild cinema verite, Asghar Farhadi has announced himself as a major auteur.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Best Films of 2011 . . . .

As we look back, two thousand and eleven was one of them mighty years in cinema which comes around ever so often. Almost every major film artist came forth with new work in the last year, work which will be slowly trickling out in 2012. Every year is a good year at the movies, we just happened to have an especially grand one.

My favorite movies of 2011 . . . . .

Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2011.

1. Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is a true wonder in every sense; a visual, aural assault on the senses juxtaposing the evolution of humankind with one average man's life. A divisive film, it is unlike anything I've ever seen.

Jeremy Irvine, Warhorse, Dreamworks Pictures, 2011.
2. Steven Spielberg's Warhorse is one of his very best . . . a sweeping epic which is intimate, emotional and deeply moving. . . .at once a brilliant war film and a classic family film .

Kirsten Dunst, Cameron Spuur, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia, Magnolia Pictures, 2011
 3. Lars Von Trier's Melancholia is a courageous, mind-altering epic of feminine fears and desires as well as cosmic happenstance. The power and mystery of his form are breathtaking.

Ryan Gosling, Drive, FilmDistrict, 2011.
4. Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive slapped me awake from the Summer/Fall doldrums, Refn's virile mise en scene was a perfect fit for Gosling's subtle scowl and a game cast. A stylistic powerhouse, Drive harks back to Hollywood's 70s/80s heart and howls at the moon.

Martina Gusman, Ricardo Darin, Carancho, Strand Releasing, 2011.
5. Pablo Trapero's Carancho was the best foreign-language film of the year, an Argentinian film which burned to live on the screen. Trapero dabbles in the neo-noir and finds dark love instead.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Strand Releasing, 2011.
6. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives wove a spell that is hard to shake off. Capturing the halfway state between hallucination, dream, and death, Apichatpong has styled one of his most haunting films.

Michael Shannon, Take Shelter, Sony Pictures Classics, 2011.
7. Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter solidified the reputation of a young American master. An uneasy, creeping portrait of the gray area between psychological breakdown and apocalypse, Nichols' eye and Michael Shannon's brilliant performance steep us in the mayhem.

Michelle Williams, Meek's Cutoff, Oscilloscope Pictures, 2011.
8. Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff was a revisionist Western which really does rank with some of the greats. Her austere approach to the genre is sublime, revealing her strongest work yet as a director.

Hamish Linklater, Miranda July, The Future, Roadside Attractions, 2011.
9. Miranda July's The Future is a whimsical, sad and transcendent trek into the inner lives of two young people afraid to live.

Marion Cotillard, Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris, Sony Pictures Classics, 2011.
10. Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris was his best film among great ones in over a decade. The sheer magic and delight of his Paris-set love story are a joy to behold.

Six More Films I Loved Almost As Much: Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, Jason Reitman's Young Adult, Roman Polanski's Carnage, David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, Zack Snyder's Suckerpunch and Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats.

Honorable Mention: Alamar, The Eagle, Kaboom, Around a Small Mountain, Rango, Of Gods and Men, The Adjustment Bureau, The Conspirator, Miral, Hanna, Insidious, The Beaver, Priest, Poetry, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Princess of Montpensier, 13 Assassins, City of Life and Death, Beginners, I Saw the Devil, Larry Crowne, A Better Life, Tabloid, Cowboys and Aliens, Terri, The Myth of the American Sleepover, Attack the Block, Contagion, A Screaming Man, Restless, Blackthorn, The Skin I Live In, Martha Marcy May Marlene, J. Edgar, The Descendants, Hugo, Into the Abyss, The Artist, Shame, The Adventures of Tintin, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

What a phenomenal first year we have spent together.