Saturday, December 31, 2011

Movies Watched in December

No re-watches this month.

Beginners (2011, Mike Mills)
The Change-Up (2011, David Dobkin)
Coming Home (1978, Hal Ashby)
Conan the Barbarian (2011, Marcus Nispel)
The Devil's Double (2011, Lee Tamahori)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011, David Fincher)
Midnight in Paris (2011, Woody Allen)
The Parallax View (1974, Alan J. Pakula)
Shame (2011, Steve McQueen)
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011, Guy Ritchie)
Smile (1975, Michael Ritchie)
Straw Dogs (1971, Sam Peckinpah)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011, Tomas Alfredson)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Midnight in Paris

The conflict at the core of Midnight in Paris is one of nostalgia versus modernism. Should we hold on to the past and all the things that made it great that are no longer around? Or should we look for what we want in the present and appreciate what is available to us at this moment? Of course, this also being a Woody Allen film (and one of his good ones at that!), means that romance is of course a key component. Romance is present between its characters, but in this case, romance is also visibly between a character and his or her environment. The film opens with a montage of beautiful shots of Paris throughout the day. This is reminiscent of Manhattan, Allen's 1979 film that many considered his New York "love letter."

Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is the "Woody Allen character" of the film. A lot of what he says sounds like what Allen would say when he was in his own movies or when he has a surrogate in his shoes. Gil loves Paris. In the beginning, he can't stop talking about all of its advantages and positive qualities as if he is writing that "love letter." As a city with such a rich history of being host to numerous writers, painters, filmmakers, etc., Gil thinks he might be inspired enough to finally move from screenwriting to crafting a novel that he can pleased with. He is also there with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents for a pre-wedding vacation, but Gil gets bored with all the shopping. Then he gets frustrated with her falling for an old crush that happens to be a fake intellectual (Michael Sheen)... so Gil starts walking around Paris at midnight. That is where things get really interesting.

In a scenario reminiscent of Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, Gil is suddenly transported back into 1920s Paris. There is no explanation needed; something magical just happens. Gil is suddenly among F. Scott and Linda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody). He meets a girl named Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who is dating Pablo Picasso and Gil falls for her. Sorry if this is feeling plot-heavy, but that is ultimately the strength of Allen's work as a whole in my opinion- the ingenuity of his scripts or however he directs actors if the scenes are improvized.

I really enjoyed the ensemble. Owen is perfect as Allen's "replacement." It's a creepishly good pairing and probably one of the more natural fits I've seen Allen choose. I was very worried that I might find the performances for the 1920s characters as too gimmicky and one-note, but I actually felt they complimented the tone that Allen was going for very nicely. Special consideration should be mentioned for Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway. I've been a fan of Stoll's theater work and to see him harness a character obsessed with formality and masculinity is a lot of fun and leads to some of the film's better jokes. Perhaps the week point might be McAdams and Sheen. They really only exist to push Gil away, but ultimately they are necessary and we get to see Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy as Inez's parents when her character is around, so that is a plus.

Woody Allen has made some very light-hearted comedies and some very darkly-depressing dramas that both revolve around romantic entanglements. This is one of his more optimistic stories. To have romance examined in the context of "past vs. present" creates a narrative that not only ruminates about true love, but also illuminates its importance.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

There was little doubt in my mind that I was not going to like this film. Having seen Niels Arden Oplev's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's critically acclaimed novel, when I heard that David Fincher would be directing his own adaptation of the book, I felt (assuming the Swedish film at least retained most of the book's plot) that this sort of story would really benefit Fincher's style. If other directors had worked on the films he has made, they would not have that intensely dark auroras of despair, decay, and cynicism. His last seven films and certain elements of his first, have a stylized aesthetic to the stories that unmistakingly belongs to him. Especially with four of his films having been released in the last five years, I've seen more Internet reviews say "Fincher-esque," "Fincher-ish," and other categorizations of his style.

So my apparently unconditional admiration for his body of work aside, this film felt like an epic. Normally that world is associated with films like Lawrence of Arabia or Reds, but this was like the mystery-genre equivalent of an epic (past examples might include Chinatown and LA Confidential). Adapted by the very talented screenwriter Steve Zaillian, the story follows a disgraced, liberal, Swedish journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) who has been asked to investigate a murder that has been haunting the patriarch (Christopher Plummer) of an industrial family for several decades. This former baron, Henrik Vanger, believes that someone in his own family murdered his niece, Harriet. Mikael ends up teaming with a young hacker and possible sociopath named Lisbeth Salandar (Rooney Mara) to solve the crime.

Mara brilliantly handles the character that the title refers to. Within minutes of meeting Lisbeth and noticing her quite subtle ticks when she is around others, we start understanding her quicker than most films would allow us when the story has two leads. Her fashion sense is the first thing one will notice about her, but "fashion" really doesn't seem like the right word. When I hear "fashion" I think of someone who wants to display their style. Lisbeth is dressing like that so she can be noticed, but be noticed so she can be avoided. Craig is at his usual best and the chemistry between the two characters (Mikael and Lisbeth) becomes entrancing. Plummer is excellent as is Stellan Skarsgard as his oft-put nephew.

Of course Fincher, Zaillian, and the cast don't deserve all the credit. The film re-teams Fincher with many of his collaborators from The Social Network including cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, and special attention should be given to composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Their score for this film only adds to the dangerous atmosphere that Fincher has created. Aside from their own music, the film features Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" performed by Karen O., Bryan Ferry's "Is Your Love Strong Enough?" by How to Destroy Angels, and although this is not included on the soundtrack, Enya's "Orinoco Flow" notably plays during a torture scene as the killer's choice of music. It may give "Stuck in the Middle with You" from Reservoir Dogs a run for its money.

Like I said, all of these parts power Fincher's machine that leads to some of the most immersive atmosepheres in storytelling. Whether it was disturbing nature of Se7en, the surrealist moments of Fight Club, or capturing the zeitgeist of the time with The Social Network, Fincher has delivered another film with a story you might not want to enjoy, but is sure to leave an impression with you. I still can't shake off the feeling certain scenes gave me.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Best in TV/Updated Oscar Predictions/Performers of the Year


Anyone who has seen Hunger or Inglourious Basterds, knew that Michael Fassbender was going to be an actor to watch. This year, he gave four performances that have each left an impression on me. His Edward Rochester was brooding even for a gothic period-piece. He proved to be a bankable star in larger budget productions as Magneto in X-Men: First Class. Now he has managed to make two men interested in sexual taboos potentially be contenders for this awards season with Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method and Brandon Sullivan in Shame.


Chastain recently said in an interview that her family didn't believe that she was starring in all of these big movies. Perhaps this is because two of them were delayed while the other two were lower-profile independent releases. Now that the year has come to an end, with many performances, Chastain has emerged this year as without a doubt of there being any contest as the most talented performer to keep an eye on. In two films she plays a wife who is trying to be supportive of husbands who are slowly losing their control on reality, referring to Samantha LaForche in Take Shelter and Virgilia in Coriolanus. She was brilliantly insecure as Celia Foote in The Help and paranoid as Rachel Singer in The Debt. Yet, in what was the most graceful feat of acting this past year, she embodied nurture as Mrs. O'Brien in The Tree of Life.


10. Modern Family (season 2 episodes 11-24, season 3 episodes 1-10)
Created by Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd
As the show continues on into its third year, the writers and actors have managed to feature comedy on a weekly basis that ranges from subtle wordplay to laugh-out-loud slapstick. With such loveable ensemble, this shouldn't come as a surprise. The family aspect is argueably the most interesting, and frankly, I don't even think the "Modern" part of this show has anything to do with how diverse and unorthodox this family can be, but how these characters are facing 21st century problems that could only have arisen in a family structure in the last decade or so (or are a play on the typical "family" issues). An interesting and unique show that is quickly filling the void that the equally-wacky Arrested Development left.

9. The Killing (season 1)- AMC
Created by Veena Sud
Any episode of any show I watch has to make me want to return for the next episode. The Killing is like a really good, but never-ending Law & Order episode. Similar to say The Shield or The Wire, The Killing takes what is normally an episodic genre, the police procedural, and reinvigorates it with intensely cold allure with an enthralling atmosphere. The show is not so much about the death of a little girl, but about the reaction to death. This leads to some memorable performances, but Mireille Enos stands tall about her cast members as Sarah. Never does the show ask you to sympathize with any of these people. Instead, it plays with empathy and walks a tricky line between revealing too much and holding back too far.

8. Parks and Recreation (season 3, season 4 episodes 1-8)- NBC
Created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur
This year on a show that was first written off (in season 1) and then returned to become one of the most acclaimed comedies (in season 2), the characters manage to continue to grow and overcome any expectations or predictions. The cast, led by Amy Poehler, is full-proof without a weak actor or actress in its ensemble. Nick Offerman's Ron Swanson has achieved a cult status with the other characters on their way there as well, with the casting of Rob Lowe having paid off in his hilariously eccentric portrayal of Chris Traeger. There was not a single bad episode of this year as the series remainded consistenly fun, sweet, loveable, and surprisingly optimistic in an age of cynicism.

7. Fringe (season 3 episodes 10-22, season 4 episodes 1-7)- FOX
Created by J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci
For a show that is perhaps the most serialized of a procedural on television (I mean that each episode contains a case to solve, but you can't miss out on the season-long arcs), it continued to propel itself forward by changing the formula of how the show had been set up for the past two years. Now, episodes take place in alternate universes, the past, the present... all while the characters continue to bond as relationships evolve, the action never stops moving, and the mysteries and mythology of the series becomes denser and more fascinating with each episode. This has required the cast to often play their characters under different circumstances. Very little can compare to John Noble's Walter Bishop, a former asylum patient in one reality and a dictator in the next. The show also manged to take the third season's cliffhanger and even still play with our expectations during the first quarter of season four.

6. Justified (season 2)- FX
Created by Graham Yost
Based on the short story, "Fire in the Hole" by Elmore Leonard, Justified has a lot going for it. The show has mastered having a slow boil that explodes towards the final episodes of the season. The back-water town of Harlan, Kentucky has proven to be the perfect setting for this modern western-noir featuring Timothy Olyphant as the badass U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. This season also featured Walton Goggins leading Boyd on a path of both corruption and redemption all while a new villain named Mags Bennett, played by the amazing Margo Martindale, attempted to wrestle control of Harlan away from corporations. Even when an episode would be self-contained, the characters and their interactions are what proudly keeps me wanting to return week-after-week.

5. Homeland (season 1)- Showtime
Created by Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon
What could've been 24-lite has instead turned into one of the most enthralling guessing games on television. Often times, this show would flip itself on its own head by revealing plots or secrets at unexpected moments that would have you asking, "where could they go from here?" Like any good puzzle, there is somehow even more depth and exploration after each reveal that leads to a more interesting experience. Ultimately, the show is anchored by two phenomenal performances that depict chacters that might not be in complete control of what they are doing. Damian Lewis and Claire Danes deliver career-defining turns as the POW returning from war and the CIA agent who suspects him of treason.

4. Game of Thrones (season 1)- HBO
Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
In the era of television where the quality of just about everything is at the highest, here is a series with art direction so intricate, that the images of the sets alone are enough to warrant one to keep watching. For the first season of the adaptation of George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series, the crew has created a fully realized world that the cast has filled with compelling characters from old men and women to young boys and girls. Most interesting is how the show feels more like one about political intrigue than something from the 'swords-and-sandals' genre. Sean Bean, master of characters in medieval times, leads a fantastic cast. The standout of course being Peter Dinklage's cleverly rude Tyrion.

3. Boardwalk Empire (season 2)- HBO
Created by Terence Winter
HBO has delivered another series with such a panoramic view of its chosen sub-culture of society. This time it is 1930s prohibition in Atlantic City and with each episode, the layers of society and crime are pulled away to expose some of the most humanistic depictions of characters to ever be put on television. The always fascinating Steve Buscemi leads an all-star cast of noted and character actors who deliver anywhere from the most endearing to the most frightening of performances. With the second season, the show dealt with some very depressing storylines that only served to make the characters feel richer and the stories feel like a major event was going to happen each and every week.

2. Breaking Bad (season 4)- AMC
Created by Vince Gilligan
I'm amazed at how each and every week, this show somehow puts its players in such an unescapeable situation and it only gets worse for the characters from there. Cranston's ferocious Walter White and Paul's inexperienced Jesse Pinkman have the best chemistry (no pun intended) on television. Due to the manner in which each episode somehow places its characters in a corner only to explode the next week in some form of physical or emotional carnage, the writers have managed deliver the most masterful and riveting auroa of suspense. This season felt even more dangerous than usual as Walter and Gus (manipulatively played by Giancarlo Esposito) went through an exchange of power that led to what was quite possibly one of the most explosive (pun intended) conclusions to a season that I've seen in recent memory.

1. Sons of Anarchy (season 4)- FX
Created by Kurt Sutter
There really is not enough praise I can lend to this show that hasn't already been noted by its fans and critics. Kurt Sutter has created an epic that can only be described as Shakespearean in scope. Quite possibly the best paced show on the air, every episode leads into the next one like you are turning the pages of a novel. The cast was also superb with Katey Sagal's devasting presence as Gemma, Charlie Hunnam continuing to be one of the great revelations of talent, and in a year where shows mercilessly toyed with their characters, the journey that Ron Perlman takes Clay on can only be described as one of the most breattaking character arcs on any show ever. The show is a tragedy of great proportions. I can't even fathom where Sutter and company will take the town of Charming next, but I eagerly await the poor decisions these characters are bound to make. Loyalty and family. It doesn't get more Shakespearean than that.


-The Artist
-The Descendants
-Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
-The Help
-Midnight in Paris
-The Tree of Life
-War Horse
-The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

-Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
-Alexander Payne (The Descendants)
-Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive)
-Martin Scorsese (Hugo)
-Steven Spielberg (War Horse)
-Stephen Daldry (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)

-George Clooney (The Descendants)
-Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar)
-Jean Dujardin (The Artist)
-Michael Fassbender (Shame)
-Brad Pitt (Moneyball)
-Demian Bichir (A Better Life)

-Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs)
-Viola Davis (The Help)
-Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady)
-Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin)
-Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn)
-Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

Supporting Actor
-Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn)
-Albert Brooks (Drive)
-Jonah Hill (Moneyball)
-Nick Nolte (Warrior)
-Christopher Plummer (Beginners)
-Armie Hammer (J. Edgar)

Supporting Actress
-Berenice Bejo (The Artist)
-Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids)
-Carey Mulligan (Shame)
-Octavia Spencer (The Help)
-Shailene Woodley (The Descendants)
-Jessica Chastain (The Help)

Original Screenplay
-Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)
-Diablo Cody (Young Adult)
-Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
-Thomas McCarthy and Joe Tiboni (Win Win)
-Will Reiser (50/50)
-Annie Mumulo and Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids)

Adapted Screenplay
-Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, and Jim Rash (The Descendants)
-John Logan (Hugo)
-Eric Roth (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)
-Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian (Moneyball)
-Tate Taylor (The Help)
-George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon (The Ides of March)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Before Sherlock Holmes was going to be released in 2009, I had some concerns. How the hell was Guy Ritchie going to approach a series of Victorian era mystery books? Ultimately, Ritchie modernized Holmes as a bit of a blockbuster action hero, but the film still had the one thing that most associate with the character- brains that could match anyone else's brawn. The sequel, A Game of Shadows, does not stray far from the first film's style and characterizations and I'm very thankful for that.

Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) is about to face two of the biggest challenges of his life. Having to cope with his partner John Watson (Jude Law) getting married and also having to stop the nefarious plans of James Moriarty (Jared Harris). Holmes has been on the tail of Moriarty since the events of the last film and he is now close to uncovering what the professor's ultimate scheme might be. Moriarty is attempting to start a war in Europe so he can profit off the sale of weapons to various armies. There is more to his plot that I won't ruin here, but it felt refreshing to see an antagonist not have the most basic of motivations. In Harris' portrayal, the character's villainy seems matched by his plans while most films usually have a villain who is acting out for the sake of acting out. Moriarty has nothing to prove, he is quite possibly the greatest criminal mastermind.

Then it is a good thing that Holmes is quite possibly the greatest crime-solving mastermind. Downey Jr. is back with his believable British accent and half-charming half-moody portrayal of the private detective. Once again, Downey Jr. and Law capture a chemistry that is more than the obvious quips, banter, and back-and-forth. The two characters genuinely feel like they've already been through the cases from Arthur Conan Doyle's books and this is just another adventure with some raised stakes at hand. Also returning from the previous film are Kelly Reilly, Eddie Marsan, and Rachel McAdams with new cast members Noomi Rapace and Stephen Fry, and of course, I'm happy that Guy Ritchie has returned.

Some can't stand his rapid and sudden changes in the speed of a shot. Now with a huge budget and special effects, Ritchie's auteuristic tendencies are only enhanced. Some might think he is over-doing it while others can't get enough. I'm somewhere in the middle. I feel like he imposed those famous "Ritchie-esque" scenes/shots at just the right moment and they also remained on the screen for the right amount of time . I just find it refreshing to see the Ritchie of "Snatch", "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels", and "RocknRolla" still present while delivering what is perhaps the best action-blockbuster of the year alongsides X-Men: First Class and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (also directed by Brits, coincidence?). Most importantly of all, this film was just as intelligent and thoughtful in its story and characters as it was exciting. I hope they make another one.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Change-Up

Just as a concept, I actually think The Change-Up could be something that is very funny. An R-rated body switching comedy with Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman? That might, just might, actually be really really really good. This movie is instead an immature immitation of the kind of modern comedies that I enjoy. Which is odd because director David Dobkin made Wedding Crashers and writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore made The Hangover. How could this movie go wrong? Apparently, the obvious answer is- easily.

The films is about two friends. Mitch (Reynolds) is irresponsible, but wants success. Dave (Bateman) is too driven, but wants some freedom. One day they pee in a magical fountain and suddenly they wake up in each other's bodies. Now like most body switching comedies, they must learn the true meaning and the value of living the best lives they can live... or some shit like that. This movie actually seems like it forgot its own message somewhere in the middle and then again towards the end where scenes are just drawn out and jokes aren't even being told that often. Adam McKay, who makes some of the most brilliantly absurdist comedies, even he has a message or theme to his work. I should've been clued into how bad this movie was going to be when right from the start, Dave's infant children are replaced with CGI for scenes where they either poo or throw knives.

This kind of film only tends to work when the characters are not complete polar opposities of each other to the point where they actually become stereotypes or charactertures. Which is a shame because in this case that extends to the supporting characters (played by Olivia Wilde, Leslie Mann, and Alan Arkin). The plot is also ridiculous enough that as it starts to get even more and more outrageous, you sort of have to give up on understanding one's motivation and reasoning. For example, asking "why is Dave's wife and co-workers not calling a psych ward when a perfectly reasonable man is now acting like a sex-crazed maniac?" is something that went right out the window the second fountain peeing and CGI poop came into the story.

The gimmick of Reynolds playing the straight guy and Bateman playing the wild guy is fun to watch for a brief while. Both actors have played a variety of collected or opinionated characters in their careers, but even then it becomes weary having to watch them play "each other" during a film where with every joke you find yourself saying, "well that could've been funny." I was hoping for the Judd Apatow version of Big or Peggy Sue Got Married. Instead I have a movie where I'm scared to look up how much money it cost to make something that amounted to... this.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

John Le Carre's books have been made into some great movies. They include Martin Ritt's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama, and Fernando Meirelles' The Constant Gardener. Le Carre's most beloved and ambitious of novels, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" had been made into a BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness in the role of George Smiley, a character that appeared in many of Le Carre's books, almost like the Jack Ryan character in Tom Clancy's espionage universe. I've yet to see that version, but director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) and husband-and-wife screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan have created a film that is as captivating as it is thrilling as it is puzzling and as it is clever (O'Connor passed away last year from cancer and the film is dedicated to her).

In 1973, when a mission in Hungary goes awry, British Intelligence ousts several of its members from their positions to save face, including agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Years later, when an MI6 agent (Tom Hardy) surfaces with information that a KGB mole has infiltrated the organization, Smiley is called out of retirement. His mission is to take over the case of figuring out who the traitor is, a case that his former boss (John Hurt) believed was connected to the incident in Hungary.

What is so fascinating about this plot is that although Smiley's quest proceeds in a linear manner, whenever he interviews someone or remembers something himself, the narrative suddenly loses any chronology. The first person Smiley interviews might relay a story that took place before the one that the second person tells, but the third person will tell one that takes place between the two... and so on and so forth. That is perhaps the great ingenuity of this screenplay (and Le Carre's story), the use of flashbacks to continuously give us a different perspective on a great number of events. As a viewer, I'm constantly trying to keep up so I can comprehend what I've seen and yet I'm still not sure what could happen next.

The tone of this suspense is only increased by the constant use of coded language in the dialogue (i.e. the "Circus" refers to MI6) and just in general how the film treats the time period. This isn't exactly a new interpretation of the Cold War, but for a time that where battles were fought behind-the-scenes, Alfredson gives everything a sort of weary feeling as if he has removed any exoticism and instead replaced it with the same attention to detail that he displayed in Let the Right One In alongside some brilliant camerawork and pacing.

What helps to sell this film (as if it needs anything else at this point) is the pitch-perfect performances. The stacked cast also includes Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Dencik, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Toby Jones, Kathy Burke, and Christian McKay. Everyone really feels like an important piece to the story no matter how limited their screentime might be. Oldman in particular is perhaps the most enjoyable to watch in the lead role. His speech and deadpan style lends itself to a man who is questioning if what he has done and is going to do will ever really matter.

In fact, that is perhaps the great irony of this film. As the story enters its final masterful montage set to a French version of Beyond the Sea, we start to realize that for all of the manipulation and loyalty that these men and women have brought upon each other, what does it ammount to? I think the final moments of the film answers that pretty well by leaving it up to the viewer to decide. This movie could only be described as immersive. You begin to feel like you are a part of this warped world where no one, not even yourself, can be trusted to do what is right.

Monday, December 19, 2011


When 30-something year-old Oliver's (Ewan McGregor) mother passes away, he is told by his 70-something year-old father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), that Hal is gay. The story then tells of the events that happened shortly thereafter as Hal was diagnosed with terminal cancer just as he was falling in love with a much younger man named Andy (Goran Visnjic). Several months later, Oliver is greiving after the death of his father as he also begins to fall in love with a French woman named Anna (Melanie Laurent). The film moves between the two periods up until its final moments.

Even after watching the trailer that was used to advertise this movie, I immediately worried that here might be an overly quirky or sentimental independent film that I've seen one too many of. Instead, after finally sitting down to watch it, I found it to be one of the most unique films of the year. This sophomore effort from writer-director Mike Mills is partially autobiographical (in regards to the relationship between Oliver and Hall) and his passion for this story shows in the immediate blending of the editing with the script and the dialogue. I would really like to go see Mills' first film, Thumbsucker, if he also demonstrates this interesting of a style and pace to his work.

The stories of Oliver and Hall move parallel to one another while still never being predictable. Hal is remodeling his life now that he has announced that he is gay and is truly in love with someone. Oliver realizes that he isn't used to love when he meets Anna and must now also remodel. One quickly realizes how both men are in proverbial closets. The storylines then begin to mix and flow freely as the film goes from past scenes to present scenes almost like some sort of a dream or a dance sequence.

Plummer, at the age of 82, is as endearingly joyous as he has ever been. As masterful as he is in this role, McGregor and Laurent are also good enough to match his experience. McGregor is as engaging as ever and Laurent also displaying the same sense of sincerity for her part. I also enjoyed the most honest of characters in the film, a terrier named Arthur that Oliver inherits from Hal after his passing (seriously, I never thought dogs could "act" this good). It was just nice to see a movie that is hopeful about love and relationships while not feeling unnatural. If anything, as particular of an experience this might be for Mills to draw on, it feels almost universal thanks to its entrancing pace and the absorbing quality of the performances.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Note: This is a very difficult film to discuss without revealing some plot points that aren't readily apparent in the advertising of the film. Although I don't reveal any huge surprises, I do discuss certain instances from the film in a broad sense.

A man wakes up in his bed in the morning. He is just looking up at the ceiling. He appears empty as to not be thinking of anything. You can tell it from just one look at his face. After a while, he gets up and opens the curtains as light fills the room. He then goes into the shower so he can jerk off and bring himself to orgasm.

This is our introduction to the central character of Shame, Brandon, as played by Michael Fassbender. Fassbender has had an amazing year as he appeared in three other critically acclaimed films- Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, and A Dangerous Method. Now he is reteaming with the director Steve McQueen, who really helped to boost Fassbender's profile as an actor with McQueen's 2008 debut film, Hunger. Fassbender is constantly a riveting presence in this film as the sex addicted protagonist. This is man who is so disturbing and yet so empathetic and note that I don't say sympathetic. We are forced to follow him for this movie even if we really don't like him. I'm reminded of Scorsese's Taxi Driver where we follow a psychopathic racist and at certain points we might even be siding with or rooting for him.

Brandon is constantly engaging in sex acts that include hookers, one night stands, Internet porn, masturbation... and the list keeps going from there. It is interesting how sex is simply just his life. This is evident in one of the earlier scenes of the movie where Brandon and his boss, David (the energetic James Badge Dale), go to a bar to pick up women and David is constantly using every trick in the book to get these women as Brandon just sits there. The night ends with David having to take a cab home because he is too drunk while Brandon has sex under the highway with the woman who David spent his time talking to.

Another fascinating part from McQueen and Abi Morgan's (The Hour) screenplay is that the one time that Brandon actually trys to fall for and start a relationship with a woman... well let me stop there. What do you think is going to happen? Hopefully this movie sounds like it isn't going to be full of happy experiences. In fact, the relationship with the other woman in Brandon's life is even more devastating. As a sex-addict, Brandon requires privacy, but his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up and needs a place to crash for a while and then a while longer and then an even longer while. Brandon doesn't get along too well with Sissy and yet he is actually quite similar to his sibling. It comes from a shared history they have that McQueen and Morgan continuously hold off on revealing until the opportune time. Even then there are still questions to be answered about the pair.

Like with Hunger, McQueen's stylized aesthetics add a whole other layer to our understandings of these people. From the perfectly lit New York City streets to the grimy subway cars to the club where Sissy sings "New York, New York" in a single continuous shot- the film is full of some of the most beautiful imagery that I found to be on par with the work I saw earlier this year in The Tree of Life and Melancholia.

The visuals, the pace, the script, and the portrayals all come together to reach an emotional depth that mixes the graphic and passionate nature of not only the sex scenes, but of the story that McQueen has chosen for us to inhabit for two hours. On the topic of the sex, it was assuring to see this movie treat intercourse as most movies should. Sex is a normal part of our lives. Why shy away from something that most of society partakes in even if it is in private?

There is a courageous (both in its execution and content) montage depicted at the end of this film. A descent in madness. The last fifteen to twenty minutes of this movie are some of the most painful that I've seen in a long time. It will probably prevent me from ever sitting through this movie again, but that is a good thing in this case. It means the intensity of my first experience will just sit with me. In short, I found this to be the most phenomenal film of the year. Breathtaking in a both good and bad sense.

Conan the Barbarian

Created by pulp-master Robert E. Howard, Conan was elevated even further into popular culture when Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared to inform us that "Crom laughs at your four winds" in John Milius' 1980s blockbuster. In 2004, I discovered Conan through the Dark Horse comic book series by Kurt Busiek, Tim Truman, Roy Thomas, and now Brian Wood, that is still going on today on a month-by-month basis. If you are a Conan fan and you haven't read the books, you are really missing out. As an incentive it features a lot of "lamentation of the women."

Now, Jason Momoa (Stargate Atlantis, Game of Thrones) has undertaken the role for a film that I'm sure if it was a success it would already have a sequel planned, but the film was a huge box office bomb (prompting one of its screenwriters to write a truly interesting piece on what the whole process is like, check that out). Momoa certainly has charisma, but here he is without the guidance of the writers and directors of Game of Thrones. Instead, this film is helmed by Marcus Nispel whose three previous theatrical films (remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th as well as Pathfinder) contained numbing violence, a lot of loud noises, and excitement that would only last a second no matter how inventive an action scene might appear. Those elements are also present in his adaptation of Conan the Barbarian. I mean, even the art direction was bad. You are making a movie about crazy tribes that fight each other in medievel settings. Can I at least have a cool looking castle or cave to look at?

Conan also has no motivation beyond revenge (hence why he is called "the Barbarian"). Even the most revenge-centric movies have characters with some other distinguishable trait that makes them multi-faceted. As for the other actors in the cast, like Momoa, they are mildly interesting to watch despite the bad material. Stephen Lang, Rachel Nichols, and Ron Perlman have some cheesy fun. Although I often find Rose McGowan unbearable unless she is in something that is more of a parody like Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror. Here she is hamming up an already hammy role in a very hammy movie to the point of no return for my tastes.

What a shame that in a year where some phenomenal visual effects, CGI, motion capture, etc. were pushed to such an artistic level in the confines of a variety of stories, that the special effects in this big budget blockbuster feel so shallow.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Devil's Double

The film follows the story Latif Yahia who was an Iraqi soldier who was asked by Uday Hussein, son of the country's leader Saddam Hussein, to be his body double. Latif was often teased for looking just like Uday back when the two were in school together, something that Uday remembered and has now decided to exploit so he can have double, just like his father had many, that might get assassinated instead of him. The film is based on the book written by the actual Yahia. Although the film takes dramatic license, even the accuracy of Yahia's book was questioned, which seems inevitable. That being said, one shouldn't be concerned with whether this is fact of fiction, or at least I'm not. I watch movies for a story whether it be true or not.

The film is full of horrific violence, which is something that director Lee Tamahori has demonstrated a great speciality in. With the exception of his last three films, his others don't exactly contain the most family-friendly imagery. It says a lot about myself and the depictions of violence in our popular culture that I really don't need to understand the motive behind any of it. I look at Uday and after one character says "he must be psychotic" and then Uday does something psychotic... I just take that at face value.

The script unfortunately gets too repetitive in the actions of Uday and Latif that the violence moves from being shocking to expected. The script also fails to ever shed light on any of the other interesting characters. I still don't completely understand where Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier) is coming from and it was odd to see Saddam (Philip Quast) depicted as a sane man while still being a despot.

The best thing this movie has got going for it, is the performance of its star, Dominic Cooper. Cooper plays both Uday and Latif, so since he is acting oppositite of himself through special effects, I have to highly applaud his work at how seamless he made it seem and even how well rounded and different he made these characters appear. Uday is shown as being so sadistic and a complete sociopath. Think De Palma's Scarface character, Tony Montana, with many more screws loose in his head. Yahia is simply the complete opposite, but as the title suggests, he is struggling to hold on to his own identity when he is being asked to vanquish himself so both his family (that Uday is threatening) and Uday can live. As Yahia, Cooper demonstrates a man attempting to survive the destruction that Cooper demonstrates as Uday.

Cooper proves that he is more than just a great supporting actor (The Escapist, An Education, Captain America, My Week with Marilyn to name a few that will probably be joined by a great many more) in that he can carry a film with his strengths. Despite feeling like just about everything in this movie's story was being done in excess (just to beat the point into our heads that Uday was perverted man), I still kept watching. So that has to count for something.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

My Week with Marilyn

In the summer of 1956, the young Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) became a third assistant director to Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) who was acting in and directing The Prince and the Showgirl. However, Olivier was not the main attraction. The film was to star Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) who along with her playwright husband (Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller) and acting instructor (Zoe Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg), she arrives on the set like a fish out of water.

As the films put it, she is a star who wants to be an actor while Olivier is an actor who wants to be a star. The feuding between Olivier and Strasberg often leads to Monroe retiring to her dressing room where Colin is often sent to fetch her. Colin and Marilyn soon began an "affair." I use quotations because aside from some kisses, it is only explicitly shown that the two have a deep trust for each other.

Like parts of the last film I saw (Scorsese's Hugo), certain moments feel too outrageous. The movie starts with a montage that is basically, "I'm Colin Clark and for one summer my life changed...". In a wierd way, the approach that director Simon Curtis takes to tell the story, did start to wash over me after a while. I ignored the wishy-washy nature of Colin because this is a movie about fantasy and reality (another theme I felt was prevalent in Hugo).

Williams is fantastic and I rarely have anything bad to say about her in most of her work. She captures a woman (Marilyn) who is playing a character ("Marilyn") who is playing a character (the showgirl). She shows Monroe's never-ending travel along the emotional spectrum from sad and insecure to vulnerable and sweet. Branagh is also great. I mean, he has a lot of experience being an actor, director, and a lover of all things Shakespeare so seeing him as Olivier was a great treat. The rest of the cast also includes Dominic Cooper, Judi Dench, Emma Watson, Julia Ormond, and Derek Jacobi.

The only other issue I have with the movie is the point of view. It is called MY Week with Marilyn. So although she is a main character, the audience sees the world through Colin's eyes. Redmayne does a good job, but the script as well as Williams' performance certainly makes the Monroe character far more interesting. We truly don't care what happens to Colin, we want to see what will happen to Marilyn.

Despite these misgivings about the tone of the story, the performances are so enjoyable and are far from mimicry. They might start out that way, but by the end of the story, like Colin, they enter a world of intense understanding about putting on a show that will ultimately pretend to be real in a world of artificiality.

Friday, December 9, 2011


Although the film is based on the novel by Brian Selznick (titled The Invention of Hugo Cabret), this movie is perhaps director Martin Scorsese's most personal film as it is a love letter to the early days of cinema.

In fact, one might be able to draw parallels between the lives of Scorsese and Hugo (Asa Butterfield). According to his interviews with Richard Schickel, as well as other sources, Scorsese grew up sitting at his window in his apartment only dreaming of the outside world because of his severe asthma. He had a fascination for the machinery and inner-workings of old-fashioned cameras. He grew up watching everything from Italian neorealism to musicals. Once he immersed himself in the film industry, he helped to preserve the past and even ressurect some of its most beloved auteurs. In his case it was Michael Powell, who co-directed with Emeric Pressburger, one of Scorsese's most favorite films, The Red Shoes (Powell was also married to Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's editor, until his death).

Now, I unfortunately did not see the film in 3-D, so I can't speak for that component (although there were some shots that I can only imagine how interesting they must've looked), but even without the extra dimension, the film's mood and tone were the prevailing sentiments that I walked away with. Set in the 1930s, Hugo's father (Jude Law), worked at a museum and one day he brought home an automaton. Before Hugo and his father could figure out what the machine was created for, a tragic event leads Hugo to live with his uncle (Ray Winstone) whose job is to keep the clocks running on-time in a Parisian train station. The uncle abandons Hugo, who is left to observe and often steal the belongings from the station's venders so he can survive on his own and avoid being sent to an orphanage.

One of the vendors is a man named Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley), who ends up being important to the overall scheme of the adventure Hugo is about to go on. Some of the history that the film presents about Melies is based in truth. He was one of the earliest filmmakers to use special effects and followed the inventive Lumiere Brothers in cranking out countless films (his most famous being A Trip to the Moon). There is a montage where a film historian (Michael Stuhlbarg) takes Hugo and his companion, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), deeper into the film studies section at the library. This scene is quite possibly one of the most joyous moments of the year alongside the finale of the film. Yet as happy as it is, Hugo is still not without its haunting melodrama.

The arc of Melies, wherein Kingsley absolutely steals the entire film away from any actor in just about every scene he is in, is one of sorrow and regret. It deals with the thoughts behind what happens when we become useless? What happens when we no longer have an effect on what is around us? John Logan's screenplay places Hugo's own journey of discovery alongside Melies' journey of re-discovery. We witness a loss of innocence as fantasy is partly lost to reality and yet without ruining the ending, this film still ends on a positive note that pretty much explains why entertainment is an important and artful part of our current societal structure.

My only problem with the film actually lies with Butterfield and Moretz. They have some fantastic scenes, but perhaps because of their youthfulness, certain scenes with them just feel too fantastical, theatrical, and for lack of a better world- over-acted. The film also has a large cast of supporting characters, but it gets to the point where certain additional scenes that flesh them out really aren't that necessary (maybe it is because after a certain point, I keep wishing for more Kingsley and silent film montages). The cast also includes Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Frances De La Tour, and Richard Griffiths. Despite such a talented ensemble, I feel that especially towards the end when Hugo is often entering and exiting the station at a more frequent rate, scenes with the supporting cast will be included and almost intrude on the progression of the main narrative (although the scene where Hugo asks for Gustav's forgiveness was a nice, if distracting, touch).

Despite those minor bits, Scorsese has once again delivered a good film. As far as his narrative features go, I've seen from Mean Streets to this (not counting any shorts or documentaries he might've made) and the only film of his that I flat-out dislike is New York, New York. He is without a doubt, one of the great American directors with an impressive and ambitious filmography that Hugo can now join the ranks of.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Descendants

Like Alexander Payne's previous films (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways), The Descendants is a perfect blend of drama and humor. Writer-director Payne, who co-wrote this film with Nat Faxon (The Cleveland Show) and Jim Rash (Community) and based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, manages to understand humanity and all of its problems while still taking a witty approach that supports his sensibilities as a storyteller.

The movie is full of rich characters and with such a strong screenplay having created them, Payne exemplifies a great understanding of the right kind of mood for this story to have the strongest effect. Looking at his filmography as a whole, he has demonstrated a singular vision that can bend to the needs of the story, but will always be executed in an unique fashion. I look at him as a master of comedic-dramas or dramatic-comedies or whatever you want to call it.

The Descendants follows Matt King (George Clooney) and his daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara King). Matt's wife was injured in a boating accident and is now in a coma. Matt plans on taking his daughters around to talk to his wife's family and friends to prepare them for the worst case scenario. This is all while Matt's own side of the family is attempting to sell some land they've inherited from their ancestors.

All of Payne's films have dealt with people dealing with the acceptance of their true feelings and even then the movie never manages to villify any of these characters (with Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause, Judy Greer, and Beau Bridges rounding out the cast) because they are all as flawed as anyone else would be in these given circumstances.

In another great performance, Clooney is able to show us a fearful and weary man who is trying to rediscover what his family means to him. He keeps his business and emotions separate, but the two then begin to enter each other's circles. Woodley is fantastic in how sharp of a daughter she can play (rare for teenage characters in films). There are moments in this film that will place you on the edge of tearing up while others that will have you smirk in appreciation.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Movies Watched in November


The Conversation (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)*
The Deer Hunter (1968, Michael Cimino)*
The Descendants (2011, Alexander Payne)
Hugo (2011, Martin Scorsese)
J. Edgar (2011, Clint Eastwood)
Melancholia (2011, Lars Von Trier)
Naked (1993, Mike Leigh)*
Requiem for a Dream (2000, Darren Aronofsky)*
Rosemary's Baby (1968, Roman Polanski)*
Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese)*
Tower Heist (2011, Brett Ratner)
The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)
Wanda (1970, Barbara Loden)

Reviews for The Descendants and Hugo coming soon.