Tuesday, May 29, 2012

John Madden: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2012.

Instilling his characters with a dignity and passion which sets this screenplay miles apart from almost anything else in theaters now, director John Madden, working from Ol Parker's excellent adaptation of the novel by Deborah Moggach, creates a feeling, a magic, a connection between audience and characters which is noteworthy.

Essentially a plot done to death, a group of aging, frustrated people come to another country and discover themselves and each other through the beauty and wild freedom of their surroundings. The thing here though is that Madden and Parker, assisted immeasurably by sorcerer cinematographer Ben Davis' saturated palettes, and composer Thomas Newman's lovely themes, collect their characters and images with a focus and intention which stand apart.

Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, and Celia Imrie  all are afforded scenes where their characters' fragility and goodness puncture the screen, touching the uncertain audience. Dench is splendid; her eyes moistly glisten all Kate Hepburn dazzler style as she enjoys a second chance while looking back. Tom Wilkinson, as always, locates the soul of his character. Dev Patel's rambunctious rhythm is just right; why is this guy not in leading roles? Maggie Smith affected me the most; her lonely old woman, full of regret and longing, in her wheelchair, is a great character; Smith's hold over her and us is palpably hypnotic.

The locations, sets, and costumes of India are marvelous to behold; basically, its Eat Pray Love with a better pedigree; but that summarization betrays how much loveliness is within. While not an important movie, Madden has made one of the most enjoyable of recent pseudo-indie flicks.

Barry Sonnenfeld: Men in Black 3

Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Men in Black 3, Columbia Pictures, 2012.

Dragging out the black suits for one more cash-in, the studio actually delivers a mostly fun, at times thin, popcorn picture that is better than Men in Black 2 but definitely not better than the pop culture mythos generated by the quirky Men in Black.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones return, both looking a little tired out since we last saw them in black shades. Yet they have not lost any of the charisma which makes them movie stars and gifted actors. Their banter is unblemished from the first two, and interesting helmer Barry Sonnenfeld opens the action up with an ease that feels right.

A time travel plot device works well; some of the scenes, jokes, and alien characters fall flat. Josh Brolin apes TLJ to perfection, playing his younger self. Smith warped in the 60s has a whole bunch of possibilities unmined here, of course. Emma Thompson as their new boss is a bit off-putting somehow. Bill Pope's richly stylized camera and Danny Elfman's inspired music score carry on seamlessly from the first two pictures. All of this combined makes for a watchable third entry in one of our country's popcorn pop-culture phenomenons.

Peter Berg: Battleship

Battleship, Universal Pictures, 2012.

In adapting the retro board game into a loud, mind-numbing Summer popcorn shitstorm, director Peter Berg betrays the very intentions of studio heads with dollar signs in their eyes. The actor turned under appreciated director has a heart and an eye; a mordant wit to boot. His previous excursions behind the camera displayed a talented director who knows how to handle popular entertainment. His past pictures, Very Bad Things, Friday Night Lights, and The Rundown, all had the touch of a burgeoning auteur, buried in the recesses of second banana roles in mediocre genre films; as a blockbuster director, he blows anyone else in the middle out of the water; Michael Bay has visual wizardry, but wishes he had Berg's savvy.

As for his newest picture, its easily his most flawed - a lot of it is even crappy. The script, by Erich and Jon Hoeber, is utter garbage, riddled with plot holes and guffaw-inducing dialogue. Once we accept that fact (if we do) than we are free to dissolve in the wonder of Hollywood action-sci fi at its basest level; a cineplex orgy of chaos and destruction. Berg knows how to connect spacial dissonance and his mise en scene is rigorously artful. Dp Tobias Schliessler captures the gruff surfaces of water and gleaming steel and metal with a cautious eye bordering on beauty. Steve Jablonsky's score is epically riveting, recalling his work with Bay, which only magnifies how talented Berg truly is.

The cast is besides the point; Taylor Kitsch and Alexander Sarsgard bro out as the testy Naval protags, Rihanna is thrown in for good measure as their cronie, sporting an assault rifle. My camp senors on high, I reveled in the gut-wrenching glory of Berg's greatest tour-de-force sequence in the film; the fleet confronts the alien ship which has landed on our coast. The visual effects are dazzling, even mind-boggling, and look far better than those in The Avengers.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Larry Charles: The Dictator

Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, The Dictator, Paramount Pictures, 2012.

Dissolving more comfortably into the infrastructure of studio comedies, great satirist Sacha Baron Cohen's newest character, Aladeen, is an imperialist Middle Eastern dictator who essentially gets lost in America and must find himself in more ways than one. It feels less risky somehow than the previous two collaborations with the talented Larry Charles, the near brilliant Borat and Bruno. Those two pictures defied pop culture standards and still became phenomenons. Comedies like those are a rare breed.

Here, fusing Chaplin's The Great Dictator with John Landis' Coming to America, Baron Cohen, Charles, and co-scripters Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer, make acidic, dead-on parodies of America, essentially, and our collective xenophobia against, especially, Arabs. Baron Cohen skews everyone though; Middle-Easterners, men, women, hippies, hipsters; nobody is safe.

As the buffoonish but ultimately loveable (as with all of Cohen's bizarrely original characters, aliens in every sense of the word) Aladeen carouses through the East Coast landscape, he encounters a feminist grocer (a wacky turn by Anna Faris) and one of his deported former nuclear scientists (a funny Jason Mantzoukas) and they inadvertently aide him in trying to win back his dictatorship from a dastardly plot hatched by his uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley in a fun change of pace).

In the third act, the satire begins to run thin, and ultimately we know where this is going. A lot more scenes fall flat than in previous Cohen films. And yet the crazy perseverance of Aladeen, and all of Cohen's unmissable characters, makes this worthy of our collective attention spans.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Tim Burton: Dark Shadows

Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dark Shadows, Warner Bros., 2012.

Putting most of himself into this stylistic powerhouse, Tim Burton helms one of his most enjoyable movies of the last decade. This side of his masterful Corpse Bride and Sweeney Todd, the two thousands have shown the maestro in a slump, somewhere halfway between popcorn trash and his dark personal urges. In adapting the creepy, campy 60s supernatural soaper, Burton has found the perfect match for his Gothic pop culture sensibilities.

The perfect tone is set as the film opens with a prologue recalling Sleepy Hollow; Lovecraft and Hawthorne are referenced, and Hammer Films is the major visual influence. Johnny Depp's Barnabas Collins is a bizarrely endearing, cursed vampire. Burton's opening reminds us of his powers as a storyteller. As the film unravels in the 70s, where Barnabas is reawakened to his surly, modern ancestors (a breathtaking Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Helena Bonham Carter, Chloe Grace Moretz and Gulliver McGrath) and the witch (an intoxicating Eva Green) who is in love with and cursed him centuries before.

Bruno Delbonnel creates a threateningly sumptuous visual feast; the reds and blues bleed black, and the textures are foggy in appropriate Burton fashion. Chris Lebenzon's cutting is a thing of great craft; he is a magician ordering Burton and Delbonnel's killer images. Danny Elfman's score is darkly romantic, a departure for the man who is a movie music institution.

The screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith is mostly colorful; clever dialogue ensconces a delicate balance between comedy and horror, which Burton gets. The third act pretty much dissolves in a grand guignol climax which doesn't quite work, but is nonetheless hypnotic. This powerhouse horror melodrama pulls you in. Burton locates his cinematic heart, and uses most of his cinematic brains to make a particularly pleasureful piece of popcorn fluff.

Joss Whedon: The Avengers

Johansson, Hemsworth, Evans, Renner, The Avengers, Walt Disney Pictures, 2012.

Starting off with an intriguing bang, skidding to a middling halt at the half-way point, before devolving into mush at its much anticipated climax, Joss Whedon's much anticipated film version of the Marvel comic is a disappointment.

The promise of combining four recent superhero franchises into one quickly wears off, as the awesome special effects take center stage. Whatever character development there is gets lost amid one liners and epithets as our protags meet cute. Whedon and Zak Penn's script is promising but pointless.The last Iron Man and Hulk were both dismissible; last year, Captain America was sheer Summer delight while Thor was a stultifying dud. Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth all rehash their superhero faces; play off one another monotonously; and ultimately follow the precepts of a plot we've seen a million times, done a million times a million times better. Alan Silvestri's nostalgic adventure score is one of the film's purest pleasures.

Throwing in Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson, is interesting but to no avail; Whedon does not quite know what to do with it all; he assembles it well enough, only he's no Raimi or Nolan; he's not even a Joe Johnston. In the end, its ultimately all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Richard Linklater: Bernie

Shirley MacLaine, Jack Black, Bernie, Millennium Films, 2012.

Fantastically blurring the line between narrative and documentary film, American master Richard Linklater steeps us in the ardent mythos of a small Texas town; it proves to be one of the most original American films so far this year.

Adapting a true crime into a melange of talking head first person narrative (which turns out to be documentary) and darkly comedic human drama, Linklater blends it all together brilliantly. Dick Pope, his cinematographer, captures the idyllic dead end town with a soft visual grace.

Jack Black gives his finest performance in the title role. As the fastidious, always smiling Bernie, an is he or isn't he undertaker who takes a shine to all of the old widows in his town, Black has never before inhabited a character with quite this stunning conviction. His questionable relationship with the meanest, richest widow in town, Marjorie ( an acidic Shirley MacLaine) is told in teasingly elliptical fashion in accordance with the talking heads. Drawing engines of age, lust, greed, and definitions of good and evil, Linklater controls the proceedings with the grasp of a cinematic messiah.

As the tale unravels, it does lose traction as it sums up in police investigation (headed by a tongue firmly in cheek Matthew McConaughey) and courtroom dramatics. And yet, we never lose the feeling of total realization, even transformation, in Black's relentlessly upbeat turn; it is a thing of great wonder. Linklater's passion to tell a story visually with maximum impact, is a rare gift which is contagious to those with the inclination.

Lawrence Kasdan: Darling Companion

Diane Keaton, Darling Companion, Sony Pictures Classics, 2012.

American master Lawrence Kasdan returns to screens triumphant with his wistful, charming new picture, Darling Companion. In essence a modern American re-envisioning of Beckett's play Waiting for Godot, Kasdan cleverly pairs off his lamenting lovers, as they search for one couple's lost dog named Freeway. Hopes, fears, and dreams are projected onto the missing pooch by our mercurial protagonists. Kasdan and his co-writer, Meg Kasdan, are deft at dissecting traditional, even typical rom-com situations, and imbuing their characters with a complexity and humor which are rich and enveloping.

Kasdan's strength has always been primarily as a writer. His fascination with fusing old-school genre with new-school characterization has resulted in some of the best films of the 80s and 90s . . . . Body Heat, The Big Chill, Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, and Grand Canyon all soared and shattered audience expectation. Darling Companion does a little more of the same.

Instilling what appears to be a conventional golden years rom-com with a curious spirit and nuance, Kasdan & co. perform a rare feat; the philosophical comedy. Kevin Kline and especially Diane Keaton are afforded rare (as of late) chances to shine as an aging upper class couple; the vagaries of their daily lives are repeatedly illuminated by the machinations of their desires. Richard Jenkins and Diane Wiest are both utterly delightful as Kline's daffy sister and her sleazy but heartened new beau. Mark Duplass, as Wiest's nebbishy son, and Ayelet Zurer, as Keaton and Kline's psychic housekeeper, also afford much pleasure.

Dp Michael McDonough captures all of the magic of the changing seasons in the Colorado mountains; composer James Newton Howard delivers a standardly uniform, playful score. The plot device of the housekeeper (Zurer)'s visions leading them on a wild goose chase after the dog, works wonderfully; it recalls Woody Allen at his most mirthful (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion). The ending is ambivalent and bizarre; one sequence in particular, a soulful exchange between husband and wife, gives Keaton the chance to shine like she has not in some time,

Monday, May 21, 2012

James McTeigue: The Raven

John Cusack, The Raven, Relativity Media, 2012.

Deliciously, audience permitted, forgivably twisting eerie fact with gruesome fiction, screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare craft an uneven yet undeniably interesting concoction which melds various genre elements, and in the end is truly an old fashioned biographical thriller.

Director James McTeigue, who displayed his prowess as a visual storyteller specifically interested in creating hermetic worlds within which his stories could unfold, brings the Gothic New England of Poe to the screen gorgeously, despite the script inconsistencies. V for Vendetta and Ninja Assassin were both stringent stylistic exercises. The Raven is more of the same; an exquisite film which only blunders in its blueprinting.

John Cusack gives a thrillingly immersive performance as Edgar Allan Poe, making him a hard to like eccentric; through the audience's connection with Cusack as a movie star, and his imminent gifts as a serious actor, we become endeared to his stubborn, alcoholic, irresponsible Poe. Its a thrilling performance to watch , and pretty much matched by the stunning Alice Eve as Poe's love, Emily. Her eyes communicate terror chillingly. Luke Evans as Detective Fields, also makes a strong impression. His relationship and banter with Cusack as Poe are enjoyable.

Though the notion of a psychopath copycat killing an author's stories is not original, it feels freshly presented here. The camera work by Danny Ruhlmann is evocatively shaded, Frank Walsh and Kerrie Brown's sets are brilliantly constructed, and the costumes by Carlo Poggioli perfectly accentuate the aforementioned art direction.

Although some of the violence goes to over the top, into dreaded Saw territory, McTeigue's The Raven is an intelligent, stylish thriller featuring an excellent lead performance.

Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt: The Pirates: Band of Misfits!

The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Columbia Pictures, 2012.

Cultivated from the same old-fashioned, endearing school of sloppy claymation which is almost, almost lost, The Pirates: Band of Misfits is a fun, dog-eared exercise in simple imagination which stands head and shoulders above other Spring theater family fare.

Aardman Animations has made a name for themselves as an artistic, pure-hearted animation house which aims to create genuine entertainment for children all shapes and sizes, to move them and to make them think. Nick Park's Wallace and Gromit felt like such an old-fashioned breath of fresh air next to everything else in the 90s. That Park "sold" his studio to a larger American studio was an obvious result of his success and recognition. Chicken Run and Curse of the Were-Rabbit are the enjoyable fruits of this labor.

With The Pirates!, Aardman (and Columbia) spoof the Pirates of the Caribbean's recent blockbuster success, and pretty well, at that. The script is tart and witty, the direction and visual design very focused. The voice cast is crucial: Hugh Grant and Salma Hayek are both wonderful.

When it comes to family films which are intelligent and creatively constructed, this one is worth taking a look at.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield: Chimpanzee

Chimpanzee, Walt Disney Pictures, 2012.

Reveling in the glory of nature as usual, Disney's new wildlife doc, Chimpanzee, doesn't do very much that's original, but what it does it does right.

Essentially culling the main plot points from Disney's own animated masterpiece, Bambi, we are thrust by avid directors Fothergill and Linfield, into a lush, breathtaking world of life and death, earth and water, and the curious creatures of the title, especially Oscar, our little hero, who loses his mother in a hair raising scene near the beginning, and is then adopted by an older male, in a number of emotional, simple sequences.

Narrated by the irascible Tim Allen, whose familiar, fatherly voice perfectly suits the narrative style, Chimpanzee does just what it sets out to. We are propelled into another world, another life. Melding nature documentary with narrative manipulation, Fothergill and Linfield bring a half-cast honesty to the big screen.

Boaz Yakin: Safe

Jason Statham, Safe, Lionsgate Films, 2012,

In tune with a multidimensional muscularity, writer-director Boaz Yakin finds just about the right combination of fury and humanity in his entertaining actioner, Safe.

Whats most surprising about the visceral thriller is that it affords Jason Statham, that chiseled man who fills men and women with envy and desire, a deeper understanding of his character, or more of a precise stage to enact his inner turmoils. As the tortured yet loving hero, in charge of protecting a young girl while fighting Chinese Triad and Russian mobsters, we are getting doses of both Cassavetes' Gloria and Statham's own Transporter series. Which is exactly what it seems Yakin intended for us to be reminded of.

Statham's conviction in the lead reminds us why he is the greatest action film star in the world now, even if most of his pictures are mediocre. Here, his heart is on his sleeve more than ever before, and we feel the burn in his eyes going straight to his pounding heart. Stefan Czapsky's camera obstructs our known world with teased colors and textures. Robert John Burke and Chris Sarandon lend strong character actor support,

Though the familiarity of the plot breaks through our diversion at times, Yakin does a wonderful job of controlling the proceedings. This side of Crank, these are some of Stathams best scenes, some of his best acting.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Scott Hicks: The Lucky One

Zac Efron, Taylor Schilling, The Lucky One, Warner Bros., 2012.

The latest harmless yet mundane Nicholas Sparks' adaptation has hit the multiplexes with a stultifying thud. The Lucky One gets just about everything perfectly bland. Will Fetters' script only magnifies the crappiness of Sparks' universe. Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling dutifully fulfill their one-dimensional characters with a burgeoning desire bordering on the bucolic. A war-vet and his destined true love unravels in shit streaks so dried up they're not even worth noting.

On the brighter side, dp Alar Kivilo does some stunning things with some sunsets, Mark Isham's score is lovely and warm unlike the film, and Blythe Danner has fun with her kooky older wise lady role.

Director Scott Hicks is an immensely gifted helmer whose unilateral envisioning of  our lives has produced some of the most heart-felt human dramas in recent world cinema. Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars, Hearts in Atlantis, and No Reservations all displayed a genuine commitment to objectively portray emotional desire in a transgressive environment. I've always looked forward to his new movies; I feel that he is a vastly underrated auteur. With the dismal The Lucky One, he has made his least film.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Nicholas Stoller: The Five-Year Engagement

Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, The Five Year Engagement, Universal Pictures, 2012.

With a singular forcefulness, director Nicholas Stoller evolves from the funny diversions of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, and crafts an almost entirely transporting rom-com, albeit one with the complexities of everyday life. Stoller finding the balance between scene and seen gifts this little charmer with a heart of gold.

Jason Segel returns in loveable schlub mode, co-writing with Stoller once again. They create a character who displays all of Segel's star persona's neuroses, yet the way they bring the character to life before us gives him a fresh slant, a deeper element, which recalls his recent triumphant performance in Jeff who lives at home. His likeability and immutabilty cross paths for something almost Alvy.

Emily Blunt brings a fresh fierceness to our heroine which feels so alive. The chemistry between she and Segel is palpable, it works. Their banter is delicious. The plot, a soup of rom-com cliches regarding the obstacles in the way of a modern couple, as their engagement drags on for years (five to be exact), works because of the joy brought forth by all involved. We genuinely care about these characters.

Javier Aguirresarobe lights the proceedings with a gossamer power reminiscent of the light of love. The narrative structure, voice over and flashback, is playful and welcomed. The supporting cast is noteworthy, especially Chris Pratt as Segel's immature buddy. A little could have been trimmed here and there; the narrative feels stretched in spots.

What Stoller has pulled off here is a near miraculous thing; a romantic-comedy so far and above most others as to make you swoon. The simple act of creating a film to tell a story and connect to other people on a human level is rediscovered here; I am excited for his next film.

Drew Goddard: The Cabin in the Woods

Anna Hutchison, The Cabin in the Woods, Lionsgate Films, 2012.

Wallowing in trend for the insatiable kids who lapped up Chronicle, the well-intentioned but insipid The Cabin in the Woods is a dud. Coming from co-scripter Joss Whedon and his longtime writing partner Drew Goddard, making his unfortunate directorial debut here, this is a letdown. He usually gets all of the genre elements correct.  Here spoofing the teen horror genre, fused with the sci-fi procedural Whedon adores, the wink-wink style is off-putting, even offensive for the more in tune.

Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford make wasted appearances as chuckling scientists conducting an experiment on four typical, boring horny twenty somethings at a cabin for the weekend. I know Whedon and Goddard's whole point is to skew the staples of the genres; Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson achieved this with flying colors in Scream.  But coming from the guys who brought us the admittedly cheezy Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel tv series, this seems a stretch. The bad dialogue and acting isn't such a stretch from the universes they already made a killing on.