Sunday, December 30, 2012

Seven Psychopaths


Given this movie, it seems proper that I start with a cliche and contrived introduction to my thoughts.

You ever wonder about pitching a movie like this? Writer/director Martin McDonaugh (In Bruges) probably has more leeway than I'm giving him credit for (maybe not, who knows), but I always remembered hearing in a producing class or a screenwriting course, that Hollywood executives loved being pitched a movie described as "A meets B." "Die Hard, but on a bus!" would be an example for something like Speed. So if I was to pitch Seven Psychopaths, I'd probably start with "it's like Quentin Tarantino trying to make Adaptation." 

I am cheating a bit here. When I was reading some reviews after this movie came out, many a writer claimed McDonagh's second film was heavily inspired by Tarantino. Certainly there are quirky characters engaging in hyperviolence and heavy dialogued discussions about a variety of matters with an occasional flashback or aside... but Tarantino would probably be the first to say that his own voice is in parts a hodge-podge of what inspired him artistically. Also, Seven Psychopaths is certainly as subversive as something like Adaptation, but there is a substantial twist. Jonze's second film was described as a movie within a movie, while this film here is more like a movie looking for a movie. When you combine that with the blood and eloquent swearing, you have... well you have this. 

To give a starting point, the film follows Marty (Colin Farrell) who is a sucessful screenwriter who just has a title for his next project. He wants to write a movie called "Seven Psychopaths" based on real people, stories about real people, fictional creations, etc. Marty lives with an actor/dog thief named Billy Bickle* (Sam Rockwell) who along with his dog thief partner-in-crime Hans (Christopher Walken), have stolen a Shih Tzu belonging to an unhinged mobster (Woody Harrelson). Things take off from there. How about another cliche line- you often hear that "you have to see something to understand it", well this time I really mean "you have to see something to understand it." 

It's not that Seven Psychopaths is overly complex, but there are so many nuances and layers to the story in such an untraditional and sometimes knowingly traditional manner that it really deserves a viewing and a personal discussion as opposed to me trying to even take a crack at explaining how fantastically intricate and well thought out the screenplay and execution are. The cast is probably going to make whatever year end list I end up compiling and the film is self-aware in a way that few films unapologetically are.

What does really get me at the end is the nicely framed, nicely edited, and nicely scored scene where Marty listens to a recording that Hans left him. Walken absolutely does an incredible job with the dialogue (hell, probably the best "Walken is actually acting" scene in a long time) where he talks about violence, a topic that the film is continuously commenting on. Beginning and endings, literal or otherwise, are certainly a part of this movie and how cyclical violence can be, much like life. It's an interesting companion piece to a film like Looper, but this is surprisingly much more sentimental. The best part is, the film sells the moment. It's a wild, harsh, and no-holds-barred movie and then there is an almost uplifting and affirming sense of closure at the end. It puts as nice of a bow on this kind of movie as one could, which is certainly saying a lot (and yes, a final cliche to close on).

*A character named Marty and another character named Bickle. Yep, that's a Taxi Driver reference. Sorry. I had to point that out.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Argo


The prevailing feeling I have about Argo is that it is first and foremost a very exciting movie. There are elements of a caper throughout the first half intertwined with political intrigue before it becomes a full-blown thriller for its last act. Argo is part dramatized history, but there is a political tension that floats around the events of the film and thus actually makes the film better for it.

Disregarding my personal feelings about the quality of said films, if one looks at the Middle Eastern/American dynamic in American films post-9/11, these stories did have trouble finding an immediate audience with examples being thrillers such as The Kingdom or Rendition. Instead, films would couple that said tension with other storylines such as the mulit-tiered oil conspiracy in Syriana or having a story take place on the homefront like In the Valley of Elah (not the most direct example, but it certainly deals with American identity post-9/11). The most notable film would be the apolitical soldier's story in The Hurt Locker, a film that I felt was also highly noted for how thrilling and suspenseful it was first before how it dealt with miltiary politics second.

In any case, the true-story of Argo begins with the taking of hostages at the American embassy in Iran in 1979 and it follows CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, also the film's director) as he comes up with an unique plan to extract six Americans who escaped the embassy seige and are hiding at the Canadian ambassador's house. The scheme involves heading into Iran as a Hollywood agent intent to film a science-fiction project that needs a desert landscape. Mendez would enter the country by himself and leave with the hostages as part of his film crew. 

This fake movie, entitled "Argo", must seem as real as possible. Mendez joins with make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to create a fully functioning film studio office and have artwork comissioned and auditions taking place as to appear that "Argo" is an actual film that will be in a theater near you. As Mendez's colleagues point out, if this mission fails then the CIA and America will be viewed as a joke at best and at worst lives will be put at risk and prisoners executed. The hostages themselves (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, and Rory Cochrane) are growing worried and nervous and when Mendez arrives, they are unsure if they'll be able to escape the country. 

Chris Terrio's script raises the stakes, blending suspense with stranger-than-fiction aspects for a film that manages to proceed in a relatively realistic fashion. The film knows when to enjoy itself and have the audience laugh, but also when to have you concerned that its heroes might fail. Affleck has assembled a talented cast, but it's his continuing growth as a director that is most notable here. He understands how to control what could've been a difficult movie for others. Examples include the scenes where the turmoil of the hostages is intercut with a table read of the script or how when Joe Stafford has to explain to the Iranaian official at the airport about the elements of the film that Stafford himself had trouble memorizing and remaining convinced.

Affleck's work on the film is thoughtful in how he found the perfect balance for a number of elements. The film is almost deceptively finely tuned, a quality that Mendez and his co-workers would be appreciative of.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Master


The Master may not be my favorite film of the year (that honor is being held by Lincoln at the moment), but it certainly is the film that I would want to talk about the most. I feel this is because that the movie is incredibly challenging. Not in the sense that it is difficult to understand, but it is perhaps more about comprehending what I've watched and being able to have my brain digest the experience. 

I can say without a doubt that the movie is an intensive character study. If I were to compare its auteur writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson to his idol and teacher Robert Altman, I'd be quick to point out that Altman also made many different kind of films. PTA (as Anderson is often called by his fans) started out making large ensemble movies like Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia. The first two do have central characters, but they have a lot more speaking roles and tangents in them than say in Anderson's There Will Be Blood (with Punch-Drunk Love perhaps functioning as a transition piece in that it has the flavor of Boogie Nights or Magnolia, but its focus doesn't waver much from Adam Sandler's character). The Master is much more along the lines of There Will Be Blood and it would be more like Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller rather than his Nashville, A Wedding, or Short Cuts.

Although the central character of The Master is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the character study is twofold in how Freddie is compared to the supporting character of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Where Freddie is the beatnik, Hoffman is the intellectual. They are the complete opposite of the same common ideal of what a proud American should be: the do-it-yourself man who works hard on the floor or the guy who has risen to the office that looks down on that said floor as he enjoys economical success. That analogy being said, the world of The Master is much bigger than a warehouse. It begins on a boat.

When we first meet Freddie, he has come home from serving in World War II and some of the first behaviors we witness of the man include making a cocktail out of fuel, humping the body of a woman made out of sand on a beach, and just flat-out not understanding a series of questions by a psychiatrist that tells the audience that Freddie suffers from PTSD. Freddie has moved from the physical battles of war to return home to what will be a battle of his own mind. Freddie drunkenly wanders onto the yacht belongong to Dodd, who decides to welcome Freddie into his fold instead of casting him out. Who exactly is Dodd? "I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, and a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you," he says to Freddie.

Lancaster engages with Freddie in a question and answer session before Freddie finds himself joining Lancaster's group, only known as "The Cause". The session delves into life traumas belonging to Freddie including a past relationship and little-by-little his masculinity is laid bare. What is so interesting is despite how Lancaster's love-hate relationship with Freddie progresses, his own front of a personality is ripped into as well. The possibility that Dodd is a fraud who may or may not truly believe in half of what he is spouting begins to dawn on the audience and then along comes the third part of the film's triangle of characters- Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams). She is very much the brains behind Lancaster or at least the heart. She appears sweet for most of the film, but then when she is in private with her husband at a bathroom sink, we see how her innocent demeanor is a charade for actually being the most acute and observant character in the piece.

The performances behind the characters are on par with their on-page characterizations. Phoenix is refreshing to see again as he brings Freddie's anxiety and inner-most feelings to the forefront of the screen as he did as Commodus in Gladiator or Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Adams is able to convey a sweetness that can be turned devilish at a moment's notice. Hoffman continues the tradition of energetic and manipulative PTA prophets alongside Tom Cruise from Magnolia and Paul Dano from There Will Be Blood. Then of course there is the film on a purely technical level. Johnny Greenwood's (of Radiohead fame) monotone score sets up a rhythmic pattern that keeps the film moving along. Anderson and Greenwood know when to use the film's themes and when to let silence settle in. Then there is Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s (Youth Without Youth) cinematography. It's absolutely gorgeous and works perfectly with how PTA has evolved from the hectic but entrancing camera movement of Boogie Nights and Magnolia to the more composition-focused imagery from There Will Be Blood. Just look at the shopping mall fight and motorcycle scenes; the film looks like a fever dream.

A dream is perhaps the best way to explain how The Master just washes over you. The standalone moments will be remembered the most such as the questioning and experiments or Hoffman's speeches and musical numbers. Then the thoughts about the experience and what the film is saying to you personally will begin to settle in. Is the film about a father and a son? A student and a teacher? Is it really focused on societal truths about America that are still relevant today? All of the above? Whatever you find in the movie is up to you and with Magnolia being the shining example, I feel that PTA is the master (no pun intended) of ambiguity. He'll show you a lot, but leave any further communication up to the individual of which The Master is so inquisitively focused on.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Looper



Most of "Looper" takes place in 2044. It's a recognizable future. Some vehicles can float a little off the ground, but there are cities with slummy nightclubs and rural farmhouses located the next exit after a diner. Even when the film moves to 2074, this is not the foreign worlds of Star Wars or Avatar, it's just typical ol' Earth. That is part of the ingenuity of the film- having this familiar environment for a science-fiction film "about" time travel. I say "about" because time travel is nothing more than an item that is discussed for some of the film. "Looper" is like many a mainstream film in that it has a three-act structure with an introduction, confrontations leading to a climax, and a conclusion. The nature of time-travel is actually just a backdrop to a character-driven story about second chances, sense of purpose, and even the cycle of violence.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a killer who works for the mob in Kansas, led by Abe (Jeff Daniels). Abe came from the future and uses these killers, called loopers, to eliminate enemies of the organization as a way to be sure to dispose of the bodies. The mob sends someone back in time like they did with Abe, only there is usually a looper with a gun waiting to kill the target. Like with his previous two films, writer/director Rian Johnson comes up with an already unique concept and then throws the proverbial wrench into the mix. "Brick" was a high-school noir that became complicated and "The Brothers Bloom" was a con-man movie that developed into a puzzle. "Looper" asks the fun sci-fi'ey question of "what if you met yourself from the future, what you do and say to each other?" Although, for Johnson's unique creation of a future Earth, his question becomes "what if you suddenly found yourself having to kill your future self who was just sent back in time and what would you then do and say to each other?"

Future Joe is played by Bruce Willis in a stroke of casting that was made-to-be. Willis is certainly the action-icon, but more so than his costars from say The Expendables, Willis ventures into a variety of other genres and film-types. He managed to find a great collaborator in Wes Anderson on Moonrise Kingdom, but next year he has sequels to franchises G.I. Joe, Die Hard, and Red. The man is massively talented whether he is carrying a blockbuster like Die Hard or an intimate drama like The Sixth Sense. Here, for a movie where he plays the "older" main character, Willis brings his experience as a seasoned veteran of such high-concept films (Twelve Monkeys and Unbreakable come to mind among others). There is a scene where future Joe finds himself having to hurt a child in order to complete his mission that he went into the past to fufill. The range that Willis brings to that scene involves some of the most powerful and emotive performing that he's done in a long time. It wouldn't be a stretch to rank this as one of if not his best performance.

The cast is also joined by Emily Blunt as young Joe's love interest and like Gordon-Levitt, Blunt has been enjoying a wave of successful roles. Blunt plays a mother of a boy who is central to the film universe's mythos. Pierce Gagnon, age 7, plays the young kid and it's incredible how he holds his own and delivers a truly creepy and heartfelt performance. The kind of 'Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun' type of performance where you wonder where this kid will be many years from now in his acting career. It's a testament to Johnson's mind-game riddled screenplay that having a child character and a romantic subplot thrown into a sci-fi thriller manages to somehow add and not annoy audiences or detract from the film's impact.

The film becomes a brain teaser right at the end, but it doesn't matter if you don't get it. You as the audience member will probably be caught up in what the film is saying about the truths of humanity even if you don't realize or verbalize your response. "Looper" says a lot about the decisions one can make and like a movie that I'll talk about several days from now ("Seven Psychopaths"), it provides a fantastic commentary on violent behavior. Not a criticism (especially with the events in Connecticut and Colorado being in many minds), but almost a reminder about the responsibility we all hold to others and ourselves... even if we can't meet 'us' from the future.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Coriolanus


My reaction after sitting through the end credits to Coriolanus had me remember how my high-school-Macbeth-reading-self felt challenged by Shakespeare's dialogue. The opposite had happened with this experience as it certainly helps to have an incredible cast spouting the words with every emotion appearing livid on their face and in how they presented the dialogue's syntax. The language almost compliments the material and makes this fictitious world, in which the play is adapted into, feel accessible. Its director and lead actor, Ralph Fiennes, was able to work with John Logan's highly imaginative script and find a way for the language to make sense. There are modern allegories to certainly be made about government and class, but there is also a fantastic character study at the heart of it all. I'm reminded of why I've liked cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare whether it be literal (Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet") or otherwise ("The Lion King" or "10 Things I Hate About You").

Logan has come up with having Rome and Volsci as two warring countries set in what could easily be the doomsday scenario of having a society exist if the Cold War had turned hot in Europe. The media, the government, and the royal family are all recognizeable to our modern sensibilities, but Fiennes intertwines that with a careful eye into Shakespeare's tale of Coriolanus along with astonishingly gritty and hyper-realistic cinematography from Barry Aykroyd (The Hurt Locker). It's an inspired film about a man's ambitions and the ambitions of those around him in the name of many things, but the casting also finds a way to further flesh out the world. It's so great to see so many great actors (Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain, Brian Cox) diving fearlessly into such strong and inspired material. The way in which they bounce off each other even if one of them is just giving a monologue as the other listens creates such a lively and empowered scene. 

Like the written word, language, and style on which this film is based and along with such stimulating choices by the filmmakers, it isn't an understatement to say that Coriolanus feels like a master-class in how to draw someone into a world of just pure drama and continue to do with each passing scene. For such a dialogue-heavy feature, I'm at a loss for where I should begin to describe the intensive and inquisitive mood that the film left me in as a completely surprised viewer.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

We Bought a Zoo


Released almost a year ago around the holidays, Cameron Crowe's first narrative film in six years wasn't a great character study like Jerry Maguire or a coming-of-age film like Almost Famous, but instead it's an all-ages family film. There are a few moments towards the beginning where you might find yourself rolling your eyes. Recently widowed Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) has to struggle with finding his own balance of a mid-life crisis while raising two kids, one of whom is a rebellious boy (Colin Ford) who is getting into trouble at school. His job at the newspaper isn't doing it for him, so he goes and buys a zoo in a funny little "a-ha!" moment (I'm skipping through some other details, there is a  rationality behind the inciting acts).

The film is pretty formulaic as there is a villain, romance, and a cast of eccentric one-note supporting characters (from a Scotsman to guy-with-a-monkey-on-his-back). The film softballs certain moments in favor of just being a family film as it follows your typically structured script to a T. The film does turn into something slightly more complex as it goes on due to Benjamin's character and Damon's sentimental and thoughtful portrayal. For example, there is a particularly great arguement between Benjamin and his son that puts a majority of the film in perspective. Like a lot of animated films, I feel that We Bought a Zoo will pander down some of its material to appeal to all ages, but Damon and Johansson are able to at least charm.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Lawless


Lawless is an extremely well-crafted movie. Every element to its production showcases the time and effort put into the decisions by director John Hillcoat and his crew. The obvious examples being the sets and costumes, the beautiful cinematography by Benoit Delhomme, the editing and pace, and especially the soundtrack by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave that includes modern bluegrass and country music by Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson. The acting is also very on-point with the film boasting an impressive cast (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Dane DeHaan, and Guy Pearce). The film is very well done, but it unfortunately isn't anything all that different from any other gangster or western experience.

I suppose I imparted too much of my own overly high expectations. Hillcoat's first film The Proposition was a western based in Australia with a script and soundtrack by Cave. The film had an ethereal quality to it that made the movie feel like something completely different from what anyone might've come to expect. I certainly hold the film in high regard and I considered it to almost "further the discussion." What I suppose I mean is that if film can be regarded as discourse, then such a seemingly unique film is a high artistic achievement in being able to break what felt like new ground in a 100+ year artform, thus allowing for more discussion by movie-goers and filmmakers to consider when presented with watching or telling a story. Hillcoat's second film The Road, isn't as good as Lawless, but it also just about falls short of achieving its true potential. Part of this may be the difficulty in adapting Cormac McCarthy's original material. There is so much to be found in the novel, what else could the film bring forth?

When I heard that Hillcoat's third film would be a combination of the gangster and western movie genre as bootleggers find themselves contending with the law and the mob in the woods of Virginia, I was hoping this would be something as inspiring as The Proposition. It's certainly a good movie, but I suppose I just didn't get as much out of the film as I had hoped. The craft to the depicted violence is noticeable, but the idea of that violence only begetting more violence was handled much better in recent films such as Looper or Seven Psychopaths. The characters are compelling, but they are typical such as the over-the-top villain (Pearce), the emotionally distant lone-wolf who finds companionship (Hardy), and the boy who just wants to become his own man and impress those around him by living up to their expectations (Labeouf).

Certain storylines fall flat, but what a well-handled tapestry that Hillcoat creates around the content to make it not all feel totally ineffectual.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Expendables 2


I thought the first Expendables film was a disaster. Stallone very heavy-handedly threw a bunch of stars together and created the B-movie version of a B-movie (Z-movie?). It was interesting because I talked to a friend who saw the film in a different theater than mine and he said his theater loved it. People were  clapping and laughing etc. etc. etc. My theater hated it. People walked out uttering "piece of crap" and were saying "what the hell" as the movie went on...

The idea behind these movies wasn't bad. There is a certain nostalgic factor for older audiences as well as the youth who grew up on the films of its stars. There is a new audience to be found as well of course, especially with the addition performers like Jason Statham or Randy Couture.

I mention all of this because I was concerned about seeing The Expendables 2. The trailers weren't revealing much other than a variety of action scenes, so thus the film looked an awful lot like its predecessor. It turns out that with Stallone having stepped away from the director's chair, this sequel plays more like one of today's blockbusters mixed with the sensibilities of the "old guard" as opposed to the grimey feeling of the first installment. Director Simon West streamlines the film and makes it feel more sleak than Stallone was capable of doing. It's actually a lot closer to the film I wanted to see in 2010.

Don't get me wrong, it's a stupid film, but it's a fun stupid film. The kind that I go to with friends and we laugh and enjoy ourselves. It was "an excellent piece of crap" as I heard one moviegoer call it on the way out the door. It certainly helps that I don't feel like the film was falsely advertised to me as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis do actually appear in larger sequences (unfortunately Chuck Norris is regulated to cameo-patrol) and the cast gels a lot better because of how fast and more refined the look and story of the movie are (which I know isn't saying much). Yu Nan, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Liam Hemsworth are all welcome additions as well.

I'll stop my quick blurbs and sputtering by just saying that even without the subtext that films like The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, and Prometheus all had- The Expendables 2's isolationist approach to action being the story was a nice change of pace for someone who looks for what they deem to be complex material in even what mainstream cinema has to offer.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Campaign



The Campaign has a lot of satire to it. The film essentially makes fun of the political process of being elected to office. It more-or-less comes across like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as if written by the staff of Cracked.com. The film tries to mix the satire that its director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents, Recount, Game Change) is more familiar with alongside the absurdity that its producer Adam McKay and co-writer Chris Henchy are more known for whether it be in their film, television, or Internet productions.

There is a slight imbalance in the *wink*wink* nature of the film alongside ludicrous moments such as when Congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) posts a porno of him and his competitor Marty Huggins' (Zach Galifianakis) wife engaging in sex acts as a campaign promo. Funny for a moment, but I'm ultimately more interested by how the satire of politics being a dog-and-pony show is the film's main focus. The problem is that there is no shortage of political humor that hasn't already poked fun at what this film treats as source material (just about every week of Saturday Night Live features this sort of stuff). Ferrell and Galifianakis make it all watchable because of their sheer committment and believability in playing a slogan spouting manly-man and a emasculated church-goer respectively. A deceptively smart film, just not as funny or memorable as one would hope.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Darkest Hour


The Darkest Hour probably got green-lit because it's a somewhat unique idea (sidenote: also just about every alien-invasion movie these past couple of years were made after executives probably saw the numbers that District 9 pulled in). The film is about four tourists who are caught up in an alien invasion while in Russia, but the aliens are invisible and can only be identified by short, orange electrical beams of energy. Different design element in a foreign environment... could be something different. Turns out, the movie doesn't go anywhere beyond its setting and genre. Movies have been to Russia, movies have been made about alien invasions, and we have seen electrical currents captured on film before.

Throw in five basic character types consisting of two American tourists, two girls, and one foreign jerk and you have a movie that jumps from survival horror to science-fiction themed resistance fighting where the characters speak in cliches (almost as if they know what to say and do in a movie like this). Shame that a talented cast (Emile Hirsch, Max Minghella, Olivia Thirlby, Rachael Taylor, and Joel Kinnaman) are wasted as well as the talents of director Chris Gorak who was the main reason I know a few film buffs bit the bullet and saw this movie. This basically could've been his big-budget debut, but fans of his acclaimed (reasonably speaking) first film "Right at Your Door", will be disappointed.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Take This Waltz


There are several scenes towards the beginning of Take This Waltz where the (temporarily) happily married Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen) are talking to each other like infants. They are rolling around in bed with each other or Margot might just walk up behind Lou while he is cooking chicken and they start talking like "'widdl'e babies". The scene repeats several times and that usually leads to them rubbing each others' noses, hugging, kissing, etc. or they have this routine where they romantically talk about how they are going to kill each other.

Words really can't do the moments any justice. Sure, the common reaction is "what the fuck?", but something that the movie makes clear (and why I'm bringing up those scenes at the beginning of my response) is that Take This Waltz is an extremely intimate and personal movie. It captures moments that  a large-scale romance might miss out on. We are in the home of these two people's lives and they're certainly unique people, but the moments that might sound odd or silly are just two moments that are meant to be lovingly private between two people who deeply care for each other. That is what makes the film a romantic fantasy. A Sarah Polley version of a Wes Anderson movie for the sake of a comparison (don't ask why, but I could swear the sitting-in-a-wheelchair-in-the-airport bit would work great with Anderson or perhaps Jason Reitman).

Like with her first film, "Away From Her", Polley is concerned with capturing a realism that still has a sense of the unexpected to it. She lets the film move slowly and have the fantastical and romantic elements of the story be representative in the locations and characters. The walls of Margot and Lou's home are yellow with a ton of pots, pans, and pictures hanging around. The other major character of the film, Daniel (Luke Kirby), has a white art-studio with wooden rickshaws lying about. There is a sense of romance in these elements, but there is also a sense of characterization and conscience decisions that add to one of the most unique films of the year and I haven't even gotten to the plot yet...

Take This Waltz could very well have been a movie about infidelity that took the route of say "Little Children", "Unfaithful", or for the sake of the ultimate exageration, "Fatal Attraction". Those movies are about characters who are in situations they find so displeasing that they look for an alternative to fill their hunger for something different. Margot has it perfect. In fact, she is a woman who is choosing to cheat on her perfect husband. Sure he has a few things that can annoy the average person, but she is choosing to go see what it's like to be with another man at first as a friend and then perhaps as something more. The thing is, Daniel is also very perfect.

Rogen is at his best and Kirby provides what I found to be the acting revelation/discovery of the year in how they both managed to balance charm with trustworthiness of both Margot and the audience. Williams once again demonstrates her general prowess in capturing the viewer with a natural talent for disappearing into her role completely. Wendy and Lucy, Blue Valentine, My Week with Marilyn, and now this... Williams is somehow able to keep an audience on her side while her character might not always be making the best of decisions

Afterall, Margot is somewhat vague in her motivations. Then again, so are many people in real life. Sure there are all of these quirks and idiosyncrasies to the folks and locales of Polley's suburban Toronto, but the film moves along at such a leisurely pace dicated by its characters, that after a while the viewer begins to feel like a fly on the wall. You stop wondering and questioning "who, what, where, when, and why" and instead you are watching people that anyone who has "lived a little" would recognize.

As for the ending... Williams is up there with Javier Bardem, Naomi Watts, Tony Leung, and so many other performers alive and long-gone, that can tell an entire story with just her face. When Margot's world begins to spin a bit faster at the end of the film (literally and figuratively), she smiles and then frowns. She looks upset and then overjoyed. Take This Waltz is about relationships and in one single shot and in one single scene, Margot's face explains what being in one can mean to many people at a given moment.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Total Recall


This remake of Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall by Len Wiseman (Underworld, Live Free or Die Hard) looks like it cost a lot of money to produce ($125 million exactly). That shows because the one word I walk away from this movie with would be "flashy." It looks "flashy" or even "big" because of how expansive the art direction is, how futuristic the visual effects can feel, and how fast the camera moves. But for all the Blade Runner-styled sets and the Bourne-styled escapades, this remake has nothing interesting happening at just about any moment in the story. The action feels like a video game as there is a certain level of an impersonal connection between the audience and the characters of Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) and Melina (Jessica Biel). Before they can even connect or have the audience connect with them, they are swept away by the action with one big-budget set-piece spectacle after another. I'm not the biggest fan of Verhoeven's film, but at least Verhoeven understands that there was something to say behind the fantasical sex, violence, and escapism that have made up his films (RoboCop behind perhaps the best example due to Peter Weller's performance as opposed to allowing Arnold Schwarzenegger to take on a character like Quaid). In short, very little energy was put into handling the complexities of Total Recall with most of it being wasted on visuals that had little life to them.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Immortals



A highly stylized film of the swords-and-sandals genre that features slow-motion, muscled men, and exotic women... just about everyone whom I've talked to in person said the exact same thing, "Immortals looks like 300." They are in fact produced by the same people, but I had a bit more hope for Immortals.

I was a fan of Frank Miller's miniseries, but Snyder's film was ultimately underwhelming for me. Perhaps because the buzz I heard from friends and family made the movie out to be a lot more of an experience than what I ended up feeling after leaving that theater. Yet, I still look forward to Snyder's movies having liked two (Dawn of the Dead and Legend of the Guardians), but one of Tarsem Singh's movies definitely ranks above what Snyder has offered in his filmography so far. I'm talking about his masterful visual-extravaganza (no other word does the film justice) called The Fall. His previous film The Cell was a simple thriller with nice visuals and unfortunately Immortals is a simple epic with nice visuals.

Singh has an interesting and very unique eye, but based on Immortals, The Cell, and even just the trailer for Mirror Mirror, he seems to not be very concerned with plot. The Fall is well constructed enough that the plot is able to take a seat alongside the visuals and not feel placed elsewhere for the sake of spectacle. Immortals is practically 90% spectacle. I heard several reviewers comment that they expected just as much, and that's fine if one is content with that. I'd prefer some extra dimensions to the end product. Singh plays with mythology with beautiful art direction/cinematography/costume design/makeup/visual effects, but the narrative disappears into itself due to a script that throws neverending twists and fight sequences onto the screen again and again and again. The acting therefore feels cardboard amongst such fantastic design elements. Mickey Rourke can't seem to strike gold since The Wrestler, but Henry Cavill at least emerges as a potential leading man (the operative phrase just being "emerges").

Singh is up there with Baz Luhrmann and Julie Taymor in terms of imagining these new worlds and landscapes to place well-known stories into. Shame he can't always seem to have a script worthy of where his imagination can ultimately take him.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Watch


Some comedies have such outrageous premises, that a viewer can be turned off only to discover that if the material is handled with care, the result is hilarious. That seems to be why Ted was the "it" comedy movie of the summer. Teddy bear comes to live... that might be a movie I avoid. MacFarlane managed to really approach the film with such enthusiasm that he created something genuinely unique. Not so much the case for The Watch. The unique concept is that a neighborhood watch committee that often deals with petty crime, find themselves face-to-face with an alien invasion in small-town America. Great idea, but poor execution.

The script by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, and Jared Stern, takes the safe and typical route of having generic set-ups that seem to only be "enhanced" by the occasional dick or sex joke. This movie is the glaringly cliche scenario of "bunch of mismatched characters have to work together to get along and solve a problem and they each learn a lesson". Each character turns out to be a blatantly obvious buddy-comedy archetype that is suited to each of the individual actors' careers. Vince Vaughn's character is loud. Ben Stiller is the voice of reason. There is a twist involving Richard Ayoade that doesn't matter whether you see it coming or not, because has little to no effect on the film other then setting up the battle royale finale (fans of BBC programming will recognize the actor from Chris O'Dowd's show "The IT Crowd" but he is also an up-and-coming writer/director of comedy-dramas). Jonah Hill is tasked with playing a sociopath and nothing about his scenes or dialogue ever really clicks with the film. In fact, his brand of dirty-humored fish-out-of-water roles from films such as Superbad or Get Him to the Greek would've actually been a welcome addition to this group (see him in 21 Jump Street for a recent fantastic comedic performance).

There are a bunch of subplots in the movie, but like I was saying about the twist involving Ayoade's member of the watch, it all just strings the movie together to get the viewer from start to finish, but there is only that energy without any inspiring choices being made past that. Akiva Schaffer seems to struggle a bit with some wild cinematographic choices, but he and the cast do their best to at least get a few laughs here and there. There are enough small one-liners and situations to make this somewhat passable, but the movie is ultimately a lost opportunity as it amounts to a bunch of randomly connected scenes with the f-word being shouted on occasion.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises


The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, serves as a fantastic bookend to the series. When I think of some of my favorite literary trilogies, the middle chapter usually remains my favorite. The idea of pulling from the first installment, leading into the final installment, and still telling a complex and fascinating story seems to pique my interest more than the beginning or end. This third film picks up on many of the ideas from Batman Begins and is sure to use a more epic canvas presented in The Dark Knight to express them. The ideas of morality and terrorism from the second film are still here, but they've been partially supplanted by ideas of class warfare and the personal salvation that Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) began to face the moment he fell down the hole in the back of Wayne Manor.

Batman has remained such a fascinating character because of how he has faced much darkness and continues to perservere. Therefore, writers David Goyer, Christopher Nolan, and Jonathan Nolan realize how to play with pushing Bruce to his limit and pay homage to Bat-writers from Frank Miller Scott Snyder. The rest of Nolan's crew are once again at their best. Tension-building cross-cutting and juxtaposition in the editing, a resounding and layered score, and some of the best cinematography for a noir-ish and stylized blockbuster... I can't say enough kind things and I realize that anything I say hasn't been said before. I do recognize some of the criticisms about the need for a constant level of action at certain parts, but the quieter scenes still stand out and are handled beautifully that their impact is not lessened by say a car chase or a fist fight. Nolan's filmmaking can be described as relentless. There is enough purpose to the chaos he presents to warrant study leading to a result that can feel weighty. I loved digging into Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, and Inception- but as a comics fan, I just sort of let these films pass by me and not think or pick them apart too much of it.

The cast is also great. Hathaway and Bale have fantastic chemistry and Hardy presents a new menace much different from those played by Neeson and Ledger. Over the course of three films, Batman has been given a very unique world to inhabit. I look forward to seeing if someone else will pick up the mantle soon. Sorry, nothing that unique to add to the conversation, but in this case I kind of like it that way

Thursday, October 4, 2012

To Rome with Love


Having directed about a movie per year since the late sixties/early seventies, the quality of Woody Allen's films waver. Sometimes he'll have a string of successes or perhaps a few flops and a hit. Such is that of a career in film lasting over forty years with about just as many films. I've mentioned this before and perhaps it's just my tastes, but Allen seems to be on a "every three films is another triumph". I say that more so critically speaking as audience members and cinephiles do respond to some of his more less notable works. That being said, I liked Match Point (2005) and disliked to varying degrees Scoop (2006) and Cassandra's Dream (2007). I liked Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and disliked to varying degrees Whatever Works (2009) and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010). I liked Midnight in Paris (2011)... so already I was superstitiously worried that To Rome with Love wouldn't hold up. It's a mixed bag.

The film, inspired by the 14th century Italian literature The Decameron, includes several tales of love set in the city of Rome. A lovely European city with comedy and romance and therefore, a classic Woody Allen set up. As hinted at above, not every story is the best. Of the four- I disliked one, thought two were so-so, and liked one.

The one that I liked followed Jerry and Phyllis (Woody and Judy Davis- both whom I haven't seen in a film since 2006), a couple who go to Rome to visit their newly engaged daughter Hayley (Alison Pill). Upon meeting the Italian inlaws, Jerry reliezes that the patriarch of the family has an amazing voice, but only when he sings in the shower. Jerry plans to showcase the tenor, but his in-laws don't wish for fame and fortune. These segements called back to the some of the absurdity that Allen's earlier humor had (Bananas and Sleeper come to mind) and would later be sprinkled sporadically over the rest of his slate. Sometimes I used to have trouble with Allen's acting as I found that his surrogates such as Owen Wilson or Larry David (recent examples) had a much more nuanced balance to reigning in the neurosis. With age, Allen seems to have a better handle on that aspect of his primary characters with his own acting chops, making his performance in this film a welcome (re-)surprise.

The two tales that left a mediocre impression included a case of mistaken identity starring Penelope Cruz as a hooker and another more fantasy-based story about a man (Roberto Benigni) who is suddenly an overnight celebrity and his mundane life is documented with an outrageous amount of press. The jokes in these cases get tired pretty fast, but the performances by Benigni, Alessandro Tiberian, and Alessandra Mastronardi are inspired and humorous to say the least.

The fourth vignette is about Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sally (Greta Gerwig), two Americans living in Rome who are visited by Sally's friend Monica (Ellen Page). Jack falls for Monica and my issue with this comes down to Page's portrayal. I don't buy her as a seductress perhaps because of the nature of Allen's script in comparison to her acting style. Alec Baldwin plays a real-life apparition that guides Jack (see the movie to make more sense of that) and that also falls flat quickly.

The film, like many of Allen's work set in exotic locales, feels like a plesant stroll more than anything else (no pun intended). Perhaps after his next film, I'll see an Allen production that I'd go on to rank alongside his best.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

In the Land of Blood and Honey


Written and directed by actress Angelina Jolie, In the Land of Blood and Honey is a love story set against the backdrop of war. Nothing too unique there as that story model has been featured in everything from Gone with the Wind to A Farewell to Arms. This has a bit more of a Romeo and Juliet sensibility to it as the lovers at the center of this story are separated by opposing sides of this conflict- the real-life Bosnian war that drew lines and separated those of gender (men raped women on both sides), religion (Christians against Muslims), and race (Serbians against Croatians). I should add that I'm not really familiar with the conflict and that any information I've retained has been from the movie so I do not mean any disrespect if I'm unintentionally simplifying or undermining any of the real issues that were at stake.

Therin, however, seems to lie a chief issue I had with the film. Global conflicts are incredibly difficult to understand. You have such vastly different cultures and beliefs that I sometimes feel one can't ever break down the emotions that ran high in World War II just as one can't decipher chaos in the Middle East in a two hour movie, speech, or newscast. Hell, there are social issues here in America that have so many facets to them that I often can't properly form an opinion because of there being more than two sides to a story or issue. Jolie certainly has a political point to her film, but she is smart enough to underly it with presenting at least another side. There are horrible atrocities that the camera doesn't shy away from by Serbian Christians against the Muslims. Then again, there is a scene where Bebojsa (Rade Serbedzija) delivers a powerful monologue about atrocities that were committed against Serbian Christians by others. I don't use the world "powerful" or "horrible" lightly. This film has a lot of raw emotional in how moving and involving it can be, but the story never does anything too significant with that energy for my liking.

The war is mostly seen through the eyes of the at-odds lovers Danijel (Goran Kostic) and Alja (Zana Marjanovic). To make a comparision to a favorite movie mine, Schindler's List often cut away from the main characters to give other points of view to the genocide at hand. Jolie's film seems to just stay with the two characters and the scenes where they are together are certainly well acted and handled, but then the story seems to become just about them. This isn't so much a case of a film that feels splintered, but there is a great concentration on explaining, justifying, condemning, etc. the conflict that is sometimes placed aside for the development of two characters. I find the development to be fascinating and one of the best cases of subtle melodrama in recent memory, but when the script changes to depicting atrocities, I'm wondering if that was the best way to tell the story.

Either way, it's an impressive directorial debut and it's beautifully photographed by director of photography Dean Semler. Jolie definitely understands how important it is to know where the camera should be as it is to have a great understanding of story and character. It certainly helps the film's attempted meshing of love and war.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Amazing Spider-Man


Five years since the last film in the series, here comes another Spider-Man film, but this time- it's a reboot/remake/whatever you want to call it. I'm not really against the idea. I look at films such as this as the equivalent of a revival of a play. New talent is going to put a spin on a story or concept we are familiar with and sometimes something artful can come of it. I also read a lot of comic books, both mainstream and independent. When it comes to characters owned by a company, I'm used to different writers and artists interpreting the character(s) differently and taking them in an unique direction.

I should probably start by saying that I'm not the biggest fan of the some of the superhero films from the early-mid 2000s that everyone loves. When I was younger I enjoyed Singer's X-Men and Raimi's Spider-Man for the pure value of "look, they made a movie based on characters I love that isn't crap." Those films didn't really hold up in re-watch value for me. When it came to Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, sometimes I just felt that the action wasn't well mixed with the human relationships that were such an integral part of the characters' lives (a problem for many an action blockbuster). I still can't stress that Raimi, Singer, and others did the best job they could. They laid the groundwork for others like Matthew Vaughn, but I suppose I just preferred the heroes that were featured in Avengers such as Downey Jr.'s mature and cocky Iron Man or Hemsworth's fish-out-of-water Thor.

Something I did enjoy was how Spider-Man actor Tobey Maguire handled the adult Peter Parker. The character was believable for the high school scenes of the first Spider-Man, but Maguire (and Kirsten Dunst) wasn't. Sidenote: This is probably because it's a movie rule that most highschoolers in films must be played by 20-somethings. Once Maguire played Peter Parker living in an apartment, trying to juggle jobs, and get married- that was the Spider-Man I knew. I grew up reading Ultimate Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis so aside from that and reprints of the older Marvel work by Lee/Ditko/et. al. that was the only taste I had of young Peter Parker. I actually enjoyed the tone of J. Michael Straczynski's Spider-Man and that was the Spider-Man that interacted with the shared Marvel Universe and therefore the one I came to know, enjoy, and expect. There is an argument of whether Spider-Man works better as young/old or married/unmarried. Honestly, it all depends on the creative team tackling the world.

Soooooo (apologies from the long rant)... I'm very surprised at the positive reaction that Marc Webb's Amazing Spider-Man has received, but as I just took way too many words to explain, I'm probably biased. With Spider-Man, Stan Lee created the everyman superhero. He came up with the right amount of obvious but ingenious qualities that would make a character more relatable and create an icon in a manner that, in my opinion, was unprecedented as far as comics or superheroes or pop-culture was concerned as of the early 1960's. This Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is like the MTV-itized version of that. Peter is not bullied. Peter loves skateboarding. He's hip and he's cool and I don't really recognize him. Aside from the fact that once again Garfield looks like he's 20-something in high school (again with that...), Peter doesn't feel romantically awkward or enough of an outcast for the iconic tropes of Spider-Man to take shape.

There are hints of those qualities, but just that, hints. When Peter is Spider-Man though, I do appreciate that. He's younger, leaner, more agile, and just a lot more fun that Maguire's more reserved and mature representation of the heroic persona. Yet when Spider-Man encounters the CGI-created Lizard (Rhys Ifans), I start to take issue with how frantic the action becomes. It feels like a video game. It's comprehensible to understand, but Spidey was more interesting when he was fighting or saving actual people. When Ifans' face is actually seen as Curt Connors, I would rather watch him than a cardboard-cutout equivalent of a villain.

As for the origin story of this film, not too much is changed. I don't mind that because the one thing this Spidey film does have is likeable actors going through the motions. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have such great chemistry and the supporting cast of Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Sally Field, and Martin Sheen are all very enjoyable to watch despite the less-than-fantastic quality of the script. I guess my response to this film has a lot to do with the surprising response by others to the film. The performances really help to elevate everything, but I feel like Webb only gets half of Spidey's world correct.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Dangerous Method


The work of one of my many favorite filmmakers, writer-director David Cronenberg, is no stranger to kink (or as I like how Merriam-Webster puts it- non-normative sexual behavior). Many of his films, even "body-horror" like The Fly (1986), have been written to have obscure sexual undertones to them. Dead Ringers (1988) and Crash (1996) are the most notable ones, but with his latest film A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg actually addresses the source from where much thought and theory on sexuality as well as behaviors came from- the real-life studies by Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).

I suppose at a glance, one might be surprised by this choice of subject for Cronenberg given how he has only made one previous film that could possibly be considered a costume drama (M. Butterfly). Yet if you look at his filmography, he was always been elusive and versatile and where two of his films might appear similar, they would only share his style before they diverged into completely different territories. I do feel this is more dialogue-heavy than most of his past work. Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liasons, Atonement) handled the screenplay which is based on his play "The Talking Cure" which in turn is based on the book "A Most Dangerous Method" by John Kerr. The film is certainly a much more intellectually stimulating experience than expected and serves as an interesting companion (for either comparison or contrast) to another recent sexually-driven drama starring Michael Fassbender, Steve McQueen's Shame (2011).

Cronenberg assembles a great crew around him to put much care into the aesthetics that even I sometimes take for granted- cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, editor Ronald Sanders, composer Howard Shore, and most impressive is the art direction by James McAteer and Gernot Thondel as well as costumes by Cronenberg's sister Denise. The film looks absolutely stunning, but there is a certain dryness to it at times that is unbalanced by emotive moments. These prim-and-proper looking environments suddenly becoming the battleground for progressive sexual thought. Perhaps that is because the material is so dense that I am having a hard time admitting whether I like this film or not.

It handles a mature territory with an in depth point of view with highly analytical characters who themselves are analyzed. The problem is that the more I think about it, perhaps the film is just too complex for my liking. Not in a way that I misunderstand it, but perhaps after a certain point I want to see something unique happen and instead I'm just left with the intricacies of performance and image and not the bigger picture.

At least A Dangerous Method is both ferocious and passionate in how it handles sexuality both as a script in and its performances. The film explores compulsion with characters who are part of a certain bourgeois lifestyle so they hide their feelings from each other. Keira Knightley's Sabina Spielren goes against this. She makes her feelings very apparent whether it is through her hysterics or her calmer conversations with Sigmund or Carl. Knightley delivers a disturbing portrayal that is convincingly shocking. It contrasts nicely with Mortensen's Freud (this is Mortensen's third film with Cronenberg) as he balances how reserved and intense he can be; he is shown to be unpredictable and contained. Fassbender's Jung is somewhere in the middle, pulled in many directions in a performance that is up there with the recent caliber of Fassbender's work (Fish Tank, Jane Eyre, X-Men, Shame, Prometheus... the list seems to continue on and on).

The theories and lives of these people interact into a unique three-way relationship, but at a certain point I want more out of these characters and they seem to falter in my interest and care by the end of the well-intended final frame.

Movies Watched in August

*- Means I've seen it before.

Ace in the Hole (1951, Billy Wilder)*
The Campaign (2012, Jay Roach)
The Darkest Hour (2011, Chris Gorak)
The Expendables 2 (2012, Simon West)
Lawless (2012, John Hillcoat)
RoboCop (1987, Paul Verhoeven)*
Take This Waltz (2011, Sarah Polley)
Total Recall (2012, Len Wiseman)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ted


Some people find Seth MacFarlane's humor very off-putting. His mix of puns involving popular-culture, politically incorrect depictions of race/gender/age, uncomfortably raunchy moments, and all-around vulgar humor has defined not one, but three half-hour animated network primetime comedies. Due to the success of those programs as well as the fact that the longest running show (Family Guy) is entering its eleventh season, MacFarlane has become pretty self-indulgent at times. Something that is only natural with a lot of authored visual media. I've found a middle ground with a lot of what he puts on television as a good episode of Family Guy has me laughing uncontrollably, while a bad one has me opening another window on my computer to see what is new on Facebook.

Surprisingly, with his feature-film debut, Ted, MacFarlane's voice feels fresh. He is present as the writer with a hilarious screenplay with well-written if slightly predictable character and story development. He is present as the voice-actor as he gives Ted this perfectly Bostonian potty mouth to match lead actor Mark Wahlberg's own voice. Finally, he is present as the first time director as he lets his actors commit to the role, gives the camera a lot of space and breathing room, and still comes to each scene with fresh ideas about what he could do with the story on the screen in every aspect.

Maybe this praise will sound ridiculously high to some, but this is clearly the better of the comedy films I've seen this summer. The jokes build in a ridiculous manner and they are only more believable because of the casting. Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, and co. really dive into the nature of the film and treat the story as serious and believable as they should. MacFarlane only enhances the film with appropriately wide cinematography, which helps to capture the CGI visual effects that never treats Ted the bear as a prop, but as a character. Ted appears agile while still having the qualities of Winnie the Pooh, but it's the bear's dialogue that really comes as a great enjoyment.

The occasional joke will miss or not hit as strong as the others with the story entering some relatively standard territory of the "idiot man-child" character arc, but MacFarlane includes enough genuine moments as well as over-the-top laughs to make the film be one of the better surprises of the summer.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

2012 Submissions for FS's Top 50 Animated Films of All Time

1. Wall-E (2008)- Andrew Stanton


2. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)- Isao Takahata


3. Spirited Away (2001)- Hayao Miyazaki


4. The Lion King (1994)- Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff


5. Beauty and the Beast (1991)- Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise


6. The Incredibles (2004)- Brad Bird


7. A Sanner Darkly (2006)- Richard Linklater


8. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)- Wes Anderson



9. Persepolis (2007)- Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi



10. Peter Pan (1953)- Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Carange


With a running time of about 80 minutes, Roman Polanski's Carnage is essentially a filmed version of the play by Yasmina Reza. Perhaps it is for that reason, that the film lacks a certain energy at times. The conversation flows well, but having seen the play performed on stage, this is something that can be difficult to justify cinematically. Tommy Lee Jones' The Sunset Limited had pulled it off and James Foley's Glengarry Glen Ross (even just looking at the scenes that are set in the office) is a near masterwork in how to translate a stageplay to the screen. Still, Polanski somehow falters with his presence almost feeling low-key, but his hand as the director isn't necessarily needed or pertinent as this film is a really a performance piece for four massively talented actors.

The acting and Reza's words (co-adapted by Polanski into a screenplay) really help the conversation flow. Each of the characters make their own points and the four of them are each at one time or another in their own corner against the other three. Sometimes it's two against two or one against one against one against one. The way in which the dialogue and content move forward is fascinating in a sort of modern day version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in which civility quickly goes out the window. As opposed to two couples people coming back from a party, Carnage is about the parents of two kids who got into a playground fight. Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) are the parents of the son who was hit with a stick and lost his teeth. They've invited in Allan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), the parents of the boy who wielded the stick, over to their nicely accomadated Brooklyn apartment to discuss what happened between their kids. If the title is any indication, kindness quickly disappears in the place of resentment.

Each of the four players have distinct characteristics and the casting of four distinct actors propels this into an instantly watchable experience. In the same way that having Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson trade wits or Al Pacino exploding at Kevin Spacey as Jack Lemmon looks on, the casting is key to creating such memorable moments for a story that is set in a limited space. Polanski does allow us to leave the apartment building at two separate occasions at the beginning and end of the film, which I won't spoil, but progressive parents versus type A parents in a lavish room can only go so far even with four immensely talented performers working together.

Polanski is stuck with the choice of where to put his camera. He does a pretty good job, but he struggles with how much his choices are going to accomadate the performances. Sometimes there is a unique angle that is forcing everyone in the room into one shot with a longer lens. This continues throughout and there is almost a certain space created between us and the character. It's as if Polanski can't decide whether he wants the camera to be an active observer or not (see Taxi Driver or The Conversation for what I mean by a self-aware camera).

Still, the acting and the directing of the actors outweighs any issues I might have with Polanski's efforts behind the camera. The themes may at times be worn on the sleeve (adults becoming children, the need to assign blame, picking sides, lack of forgiveness, kids just being kids), but the four stars, working with Reza's words, find and understand their characters to make it appear seamless enough. Life is life and we complicate it because of our personal individuality to point where the drama created by a God of Carnage is constantly at work, even in such simple scenarios as eighty minutes in an apartment building.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom


I always question when talking about a movie with others who are less ardent moviegoers than I, if I should recommend they see an auteur's previous films before diving right in. Then again, how else are they supposed to experience a new style unless they do in fact just give it a go. I remember having these discussions when Quentin Tarantino made Inglourious Basterds, when Terrence Malick made The Tree of Life, or when Nicolas Winding Refn made Drive. If David Lynch was more active I'd probably be using him as a prime example as well. This is not to say that filmmakers like Woody Allen, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg have cornered the market on noted stylistic directors who've passed through the mainstream, but their flourishes are disguised or blended with more recognizeable genre conventions that the average public is familiar with.

I only mention all of this because when I talk about Moonrise Kingdom with someone who has yet to see the film, I'm immediately debating whether I should talk about Wes Anderson. An article from They Shoot Pictures Don't They? or Sight & Sound could do a better job of pinpointing every exact aspect of the man's directorial vision (and his influences- Orson Welles, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, etc.), but I'll just say that despite the similar themes and tropes, I still walk away from each of his films with a different feeling. His style and voice haven't changed all that much as many who have discussed Moonrise Kingdom are quick to point out, but perhaps that is because Anderson is so distinct and noticeable that you are immediately curious as to how Wes Anderson'ey a new Wes Anderson film is going to be. The fact that I walked away from Moonrise Kingdom feeling like I've just experienced something special and unique I think is testament enough that Anderson doesn't necessarily have to change his perceived voice. The style is his, but the experience is our own.

At a glance, Moonrise Kingdom is a tale of innocence lost. A classic theme for many stories involving child protagonists and yet... Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzie (Kara Hayward) have a sense of maturity to them, but they are still children. One has to credit Wes Anderson and his co-writer Roman Coppola for the colorful characters in their script (and as fellow Anderson fans know, the word "colorful" doesn't do them justice). So much detail is given to Sam and Suzie as characters that we as the audience can appreciate their romance, but thanks to Anderson's style we can also recognize the fantastical nature of it all. An example of that would be that they are entering the hurricane of adolesence as adults race to find them before a literal storm destroys the coast of their 1960s New England isle. Ad one cooky and crazy sequence after another (all being enhanced by Robert Yeoman's most "showman" cinematography to date) and Anderson blends the emotional and character-driven story that he has concocted into his stylistic blend of homages and originality.

The great thing about all of this is that I'm still drawn to the characters first and foremost. For all of the talk about Anderson's diaroma-esque shots, his films also resemble a diorama in an emotional sense. We are able to follow these detailed characters through these situations and have a sense of the space they take to evolvet or de-evolve through their respective arcs and changes. Having two new performers play the title roles completely works to the film's advantage as no matter how good an actor the others such as Edward Norton and Bruce Willis can be as Hayward and Gilman bring a complete fresh-faced auroa to the movie. The characters and their love-struggle is full of sullen tragedy and ironic humor that feels real and true no matter how fantastical the surroundings become.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Movies Watched in July

*- Means I've seen it before.

Amazing Spider-Man (2012, Marc Webb)
A Dangerous Method (2011, David Cronenberg)
The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Christopher Nolan)
Dick Tracy (1990, Warren Beatty)*
The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich)
Immortals (2011, Tarsem Singh)
In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011, Angelina Jolie)
The Mortal Storm (1940, Frank Borzage)
Ted (2012, Seth MacFarlane)
Throne of Blood (1957, Akira Kurosawa)
To Rome with Love (2012, Woody Allen)
The Watch (2012, Akiva Schaffer)

Prometheus


Prometheus, Ridley Scott's first science-fiction film in twenty years, is a big movie. No other word with the exception of synoyms like colossal, gigantic, etc. etc. can do the film justice. Like many of Scott's successful epics, this is not just big in scale, but it is also "big" in ideas. Whether it is Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, or Kingdom of Heaven, Scott is capable of bringing an aesthetic vision that is quintessentially his while still including and expanding on all of the fascinating themes and tropes that the screenwriters plant in the script. This is even noticeable in his more intimate and "quiet" films like Thelma and Louise or Matchstick Men. They all demonstrate a distinct presence of an auteur in every sense of the word as Scott knows how to use every tool in his directorial arsenal to tell a story. When he makes a film on the scale of Prometheus he seems to go big and constantly just give the audience more. More character moments, more beautiful imagery, and most importantly- a more interesting movie.

Of course, with a career as long and diverse as his, Scott does falter on occasion, but even then he always creates such a distinct visual world (his last film, Robin Hood, comes to mind). For example, Prometheus (both the movie and the spaceship of the same name where much of the film takes place) is at a glance just full of gritty titanium walls with moisture flowing everywhere. Then one just has to notice the way that Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, move the camera along these vast sets of metallic walls and rock pyramids. The film instantly becomes this dynamic exercise on just a purely visual level. On that superficial level, it's interesting of how I'm immediately reminded me of Danny Boyle's Sunshine (which I just re-watched recently) and that movie certainly takes a lot from Scott's own film Alien. I suppose it could be said that Prometheus is set in the same universe as both those films literally (in the case of Alien) and spiritually (in the case of both). This is a story about us as human beings attempting to satisfy our own existence whether it be for knowledge or safety. Although, where Alien was the lingering-shadows-on-the-wall survival thriller, Prometheus is on a much larger canvas.

The script, by Jon Spaihts and most importantly Damon Lindelof (ABC's Lost) takes advantage of using this large scale to tell a story that is the most atypical of the current slate of Hollywood films (The Avengers, Men in Black III, etc.). The story is incredibly ambigous and one question's answer leads to another three questions. Take the opening sequence for example. A grey being gives a piece of his body to the ground and water as a ship flies away. Immediately we are asking- where are we? Who is he? Why is he here? I personally thought this showed the creation of life. Well is it on Earth? Wherever it is, why was this being left here? What was his intent in doing this? The film then jumps to the year 2089 where two archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have found a series of star maps in various ruins that they believe ancient beings placed on the planet Earth. Along with a crew of scientists and soldiers, they board the spaceship Prometheus to head to another ruin located on a desolate planet. The characters soon find themselves confronting everything from life to death, all of which harkens back to the grey being that began the cycle that these humans soon find themselves facing.

Most importantly, no matter how beautiful this film can be made to look, Scott is sure to use Lindelof and Spaihts' script as starting point to brilliantly cast this movie full of diverse actors for these distinct characters. Many of these people are opposites in more ways than one and whether they are clashing or agreeing with each other, the conversation is always interesting and furthers their own arcs. Shaw is very faith-oriented and the most heavy-handed conflict she comes into is with Holloway who is more of a believer in science. They are accompanied by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) who is part of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation (Alien reference!) that wishes to use the findings by the archeologists for some sort of mysterious gain. She obviously comes into conflict with Captain Janek (Idris Elba) who is representative of the military and is able to glean the truth off of those who might wish to hide it. There are others as well, but perhaps the most perplexing character that we can learn the most from is David (Michael Fassbender). He is an android that learns human behavior from watching movies and can sometimes be the most intuitive of the group even though he still only does what he is told. Fassbender handles the character like a cross between Roy Batty from Blade Runner and Hal 9000 from 2001. He steals just about every scene he is in, while Rapace showcases a strength reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, and Marshall-Green gives a noticable and perhaps still somewhat understated performance as a man who is thrust into a complex situation of his own creation that is both physically dangerous and theologically based as well.

The film can feel incredibly long-winded when all is said and done, but it at least makes you think about its characters and story. Nothing feels mindless here as almost every moment and person has a purpose. The mythology can feel heavy and overbearing (just look at how I'm trying to make sense of the characters- am I overthinking them or just not thinking enough?), but Lindelof, Scott, and co. have created a movie where one doesn't need to understand much because the film leaves us as the audience to comprehend quite a bit about what the story is ultimately about. The truth behind the puzzles these characters are involved in becomes ours to solve at our own discretion and that is a highly rewarding experience no matter how long, flawed, or heavy-handed the film can ultimately be.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Muppets


The latest film in the recently-dormant Muppets franchise is simply titled "The Muppets". It's a suitable title. The film is re-introducing audiences and perhaps a whole generation to the once extremely popular characters. If writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller had wanted, they could've followed the other films, making the title longer by calling the film "The Muppets Reunion" as that is pretty much the gist of what this latest installment is about.

Walter is of the muppet species and he is also the biggest fan of the Muppets from their popular television show- Kermit the Frog, Ms. Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie Bear, Animal, etc. Walter goes to tour the Muppets Studios and discovers that an oil baron named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is going to destroy the landmark for the oil underneath the theater. Not being able to see such an important part of his youth be destroyed, Walter enlists the help of his human friends, Gary (Segel) and his wants-him-to-committ-to-her girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), to reunite the Muppets so they can put on one last performance and show the world that they are still as revelant and frankly, as awesome, as ever.

The movie has the singing and the music (thanks to "Flight of the Conchords" musician Bret McKenzie), but there is a certain aspect of it all that is modernized. The setting is modern and the style chosen by director James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords- the TV series) certainly feels like any other movie made today, but the humor could almost be called retro at least in comparison to most comedies that I see nowadays (which are admittedly for an older crowd when compared to who the target audience for The Muppets might be). Kermit and co. are witty without snark, never rudely insulting, and still manage humor that is enjoyable for all. You could almost hypocritically call it a modernized-ode to films of yesteryear and that might be what's bothered me a little about this movie. Though by a bothersome feeling, I don't necessarily mean that as a negative experience, but more as there being 'something' that just hung over my head as I sat back and thought about it.

When I had first heard about a new Muppets movie, I started to worry about its success. Every mainstream movie that holds up a franchise with the exception of a few (those Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies I suppose?) are mostly PG-13 action-thrillers that feature either disillusioned teenagers (the Twilight stars) or disillusioned men in their 30s and 40s (Robert Downey Jr., Tom Cruise...). That 'feeling' I was mentioning was that this Muppets movie is extremely self-aware of the kind of climate it is in. The Muppets love having celebrities and pop-references, but this movie is about how they haven't been around and how a fan just wants the comeback of his favorite characters as if he needs to preserve his youth. Walter might be notably distracting for the story at times, but he and his non-Muppet co-stars do step away (though not enough for me) to give Kermit, Piggy, and the rest some breathing room and yet, Walter seems integral to what Segel, Stoller, and Bobin were trying to accomplish with the movie. This was a fun and classy family film that dared to be something I don't experience a lot with mainstream movies- endearing.