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.