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.